Tag Archives: short story

Helen’s Scene

Helen came bouncing through the glass doors, overcoated by brilliant frosty air. She was big, gray and nested comfortably in life like an old cat on an overstuffed chair.

In a second of bad news, Helen’s buoyant face with all its oak-bark creases could drop to a taut mask of fear and vulnerability that made her look young and heartbroken.  Most of the time, though, her cheeks and wide mouth and bubble chin lifted high and hugged together in a great warm smile.  Standing before that smile was like standing before a great oven moments before fresh bread came out to cool.

Flighty and breathless, Helen never settled on a table or chair.  In her daily hours spent at the shop she would rise half a dozen times from one perch to flap quickly to a new decided-on roost.  An hour might be spent humming long, tuneless notes watching carefully out of a picture window onto the empty street.  Sudden as the wind, she would change to a conspicuous seat at the large central table, bowed in fierce concentration over old puzzles in old newspapers.  When a friend pushed quietly into the shop, Helen would bowl aside young laptoppers in their private worlds to make room.

As the sun descended over the town on its way to new westward purchases, Helen left as quickly and decisively as she did anything.  In the middle of a puzzle, conversation or observation, she glanced up as if called, excused herself with a hearty throat-clearing, and floated out the door to drift like a dandelion down the windy street.

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Untitled (draft)

Once, in a land of cold, clear, sunny days where the snowy ground glittered in patches and fields like powdered diamonds, a little family lived huddled together, cluttered but cozy, on the very highest floors of an odd old brick building.

The building was odd in that it stood skinny and fragile and tall, tall above its neighbors, like a funny flower whose petals were not as numerous or as beautiful as the lush bed around it, but whose pale stem curled heads and shoulders above the rest, reaching up to kiss the clouds, to drink the sun, and to whisper to the moon in the sky.

Bent chimneys and steam pipes jutted out of the from the brick from the bottom of the old building all the way to its topmost tower.  They appeared at strange and irregular twists and angles, warding away the neat apartment blocks on either side, who muttered in their dull societies when they thought the odd, old building could not hear.  The pipes and chimneys were the building’s own protective thorns, where like a rose bush it gathered birds and mice and other small creatures to perch them, nest them, and hide them from the cold.  Around the highest apartment where the family lived, the building wreathed itself in copper, steel and iron like a rusty, tattered crown.

In some places there were windows, but there seemed to be no rule as to how many there should be, or how often they should appear.  In some places there were no windows at all for many floors, as if entire stories had been forgotten about or walled up in a world of secrets.

The first floor had hosted many curious shops and businesses over many, many years.  In the beginning there was a rarely-visited emporium that specialized in odd-sized wooden shoes.  In decades since, the old emporium had been partitioned, cut up, redecorated, knocked apart, plastered together and painted over.  It had seen more light bulbs, carpeting, cash registers, door frames, door knobs, saw dust and big iron nails than you or I could count.

The building disliked the big nails the most.  It was not the driving-in that was bothersome so much as the prying-out.  When the nails were pounded into the chipped pink stone, the building felt a small bit stronger, with good forged iron helping it to hold itself together. But each nail jerked crudely from the proud old brick left a bit of red and white crumble and an odd square hole, like the empty nest of a strange insect.  Then the building felt the age of its bones, and the brittleness of its materials, and wondered how many more years it could hold itself aloft.

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An Anecdote

Okay. So.

The party was, I think, that May. The time had blurred into early hours–two, three, four in the morning. I think. Time to sleep, and wait out our hangovers. The bedrooms were taken. They always were. Well, maybe they weren’t, but the doors were closed and we’d heard whispered stories of the times when people opened them to check for vacancy. The last two parties, I’d gotten lucky enough to stretch out on a couch with other early sleepers, not giving so much as an inch for any drunken bodies wandering, searching.

None of those times were worth writing about, though. This time I was with the people who stayed up late, skittering from room to room chatting, searching for a social sanctuary, holding fingers to our lips for fear of waking prone victims of vodka and gin. We ended up in the den. Or parlor. Or whatever you call it. Whatever they, I mean the people that lived there, called it, we were in there, and that’s where we eventually slept.

I’d guess it was an hour later that we snapped out of warm alchohol slumber to a battle cry from the next room, something triumphant and defiant, like the belting of Rossini’s barber. A moment later it was a song, ringing loud throughout the first floor. The next moment it became definite: two voices passionately joined in the first verse of “I, Don Quixote”. The voice of the knight errant sallied quickly in our direction.

Through the bathroom, the TV room, and around through the kitchen and dining room came Patrick and Patrick, our Men of La Mancha, nude and grinning. They finished the first chorus in the den and moved on.

That morning we had breakfast at the Mini-Gourmet. I had a cigarette-smelling five dollar bill; it bought me a plate of hash browns and eight cups of coffee, each with the same definite, unfortunate bottom. They told me it was one bottomless cup, but I had my doubts. The Metro found its way to the table. We took turns reading ‘Something Wild’: eccentric personal ads, hidden in the paper’s back section after pages of rent-a-girls. A man headlined his ad “SLIPPERY RECTAL EXAM”. I don’t remember it all, but I’ll summarize: “SWM seeks anything with an asshole. Cargo room preferred.” The real ad was juicier. Maybe that’s a bad word to use in the context.

Since I left them, I’ve picked up the Metro once or twice and flipped to the back. “Something Wild” is gone, but the girls are still around. One of them’s been in there for a year or more now. Patrick had a collection of “Vixen Fyre”’s ads on his fridge, last time I saw him. Every month, Vixen got a new face, a different neck, smaller or larger eyes, a change in ethnicity, but always kept her hair colored and ironed. She sometimes wore glasses to hide bloodshot or blackened eyes.

Someone suggested when we were out once that Vixen was a metaphor for something. I said she was really just a whore, that’s all.


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Fifteen or Less

A sign hangs like a man convicted by two weak chains over a butcherblock counter.  Its intent is to inform the ignorant, and its design is cleanly processed to attract the eyes of those unaware: bright red friendly letters across a gently curved white fiberglass frame, partnered with medium-gray drop-shadows and gradient speed-lines that lend the clean art-deco motif of late-nineties service.  The Safeway is a museum to that decade of mediocrity, a surgically clean factory of consumer ecstasy, and I’m waiting for my turn to crank the gears of the All-American Everyday.  My gaze wanders briefly over the last-minute snack stand.  Visual and salivary impulses all question whether an airtight package of five minutes’ indulgence is a fair reward for joining the shuffling ranks of patriotically obese, for whom the nearby automatic doors are more revolving than sliding.  The overhead sign is a symbol of their coming epitaphs, a summary of the lives of shoppers in the express lane.  It mocks the accomplishments of the ceaseless and faceless passers-under: “FIFTEEN ITEMS”, it commands.  The “nevermore” of a plastic raven.  In subtitle, a smaller sign hangs by smaller chains beneath, adding in machine-perfect cursive script, “…or less!”  The sign’s squandered fast-food aesthetic doesn’t bring much comfort, but it’s all I have right now, and I need it.

Because in front of me is a dick.

I don’t mean my dick.  I mean, that’s always there, and I try not to pay attention to it when I’m at the Safeway.  The dick in front of me is a man, and this man embodies all of the negative implications of the word “dick”.  This man wears a too-small button-down Hawaiian shirt, and is thin enough that at a certain angle you can make out the recess between his sternum and his gut from four wasted years in an ancient time serving body-shots to girls whose affection ran out just before the parking meter.  He’s bald, except where jagged black sideburns shaved into lightning bolts cling for dear life, desperately trying not to run down into the frat goatee he never shaved.

The problem, though, is this: in front of me, directly below the damning sign, is this asshole’s shopping cart.  In his shopping cart are twenty-seven Butterball and four Foster Farms frozen chickens.  The drooling checker sees nothing at all unusual about this, seizing one shrink-wrapped corpse after another, slamming them down on the barcode scanner with a dead thud, and shuffling each in succession with the sad wet gurgle of settling preservative juices toward the bagger.  The checker’s fiberglass smile faded after the first hour of wage-slavery.  She’s on hour four. Now she’s a part of the machine: conveyor, scanner, register and girl in one convenient unit.  And she keeps slamming chickens, one and another and another and another and another.

I wait until fifteen chickens pass to tighten my fists.  The conveyor moves in jerks and false starts, spastically closing the gaps between each pair of dead birds.  Behind them all, and behind a filthy plastic separator bar advertising a dead dental firm, is my purchase: caffeine in five forms, liquid and solid.  It keeps me from the nerves.  At first I falter when I notice the potential dragon’s hoard of birdmeat in the cart ahead, wondering if the world has gone mad enough to accept this affront to grocery etiquette.  But it’s been at least eight minutes, and four shoppers have come and gone in line before this monstrosity of chicken wheeled up.  I’ve come far in this line, and the only block to the killing satisfaction of my caffeine is this test.  It’s a test of myself, my spirit, my patience, my inner strength and a thousand identical bullshit concepts that boil down to how patient I can be before I seize a chicken and club anyone in arm’s reach into bloody unconsciousness.

It’s probably better for my criminal record if I pass this test.

So I stare at the sign. “FIFTEEN ITEMS…or less”, the irony hangs in the air over the frozen meatstash like a guillotine.  It’s remarkable how your imagination runs when your mind needs the preoccupation.  The blade of a guillotine is hanging over the balding motherfucker in front of me, its informational decree a conviction of his crime.  I imagine the chains cut, and the blade neatly tracing its grooves straight into the folded neck of the express lane convict.  A satisfying rushing sound; air and metal.  He splits right down the middle, like a cartoon.  I step over the halves and sweep away the remaining chickens to present my addictives.

What’s even more remarkable than the imagination is the way reality seems to look to it for the occasional cue.  I’m pulled back to attention as a rusted link in the real chain gives up its struggle.  It happens.  The smaller sign, that addendum, snaps from its links and falls.  It turns on its end in the air just before the delinquent shopper’s skull breaks its descent.  My heart jumps, a little in delight at the coincidence, a little in disappointment: he doesn’t split in two.  But there is a neat knocking sound, like an axe into wood, as plastic wedges into bone and the man crumples like an abandoned marionette.

With a sweep of my arm, I bury the fallen in what remains of his bounty.  A pile of meat falls onto a pile of meat.  With a patronizing smile, I push my items to the checker.  She takes them, and, machine of her motions moving ever forward, slides them on to the bagger.  She never flinches at the fall of an overeager consumer.  Why would she?  The girl has seen death before–frozen food section, aisle twelve.  She punches the keys in a steady rhythm to ring me up.  I hold up a finger to stop her: the process pauses while I find my discount card.

(c) 2009

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