Brittle leaves scuttle
like sand crabs over pavement,
enlivened by wind.
I tried to starve her
that creature within
born so many years ago
in blood and fear.
Yet she survived
weak but alive,
and when she woke
she fought for her life,
determined to end mine.
Perhaps her genesis
can be traced in the past
to my ancestor declared
a lunatic by his peers.
Maybe I was born
with a seam inside
black as the coal
my grandfathers mined.
Meditations and mantras
did nothing to appease her.
So I blotted out her presence
with booze and new age religion.
This is no goddess I harbor—
she is a splintered fragment
I wish to cast far into the ether.
But now I’m forced to see her,
to accept that we’re shackled
for the remainder of this life.
I am too weak to fight,
and I realize she is war-weary
trudging along beside me.
We call an uneasy truce—
one with rough edges
that will smooth over time.
And I adopt a new mantra
to comfort her, and me as well:
“Let her live, let her be…”
I’m very excited to see my short story “Hunger” published in the latest issue of Pithead Chapel. It can be read online. I hope you enjoy it!
You feed on chaos, craving it like a fix.
It’s your drug of choice to self-medicate
your fear. You move from one woman
to the next, trying to ignore the suspicion
that life will go on after you’re gone.
When your day begins growing mundane,
you cook up some personal disaster,
carelessly dropping a cruel remark
to start an argument, or better yet—
ending another fling with theatrical tears
and your vow to become a decent man.
You seek me out for a sympathetic ear,
aiming to shock with the gory details
of your latest conflict. You regard me
with pity, for I’m another boring woman
sliding toward middle age with no scars
on display. But you didn’t know me
when I was wide-eyed and shaking,
the madness seeping from every pore.
If you’re forced to walk through that fire
and emerge with your skin shiny and raw,
vulnerable to the pinpricks of mere existence,
you too will take comfort in an uneventful day,
in a quiet evening alone.
I’m very excited to announce that my flash fiction story “The Understudy” has been published in the anthology Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, released by Spider Road Press. “The Understudy” is just shy of 1,000 words and portrays the dysfunctional relationship between sixteen-year-old Sylvia, her eighteen-year-old sister Kayla, and their alcoholic mother.
When I first shared the news about my story being published, a friend of mine congratulated me and then asked, “What exactly is flash fiction?” That’s a good question, since a rigid definition for this style of writing doesn’t exist. My personal definition of a flash fiction story is one that contains 1,000 words or fewer. But in reading over submission guidelines for various publishers that accept flash fiction, I’ve found that some presses have more stringent word count requirements, such as a limit of 300 words, while other editors are a bit more flexible, allowing 1,200 words to be classified as flash fiction. And to muddy the waters further, flash fiction is sometimes referred to as sudden fiction, micro fiction, or a short short story. (Don’t even get me started on drabbles and dribbles.)
I first discovered flash fiction while studying creative writing in college. At that time, my prose was often too wordy, and I was fascinated by the way flash fiction writers pare a story down to its absolute essentials, honing each sentence to a fine point. Writing flash fiction is a challenge; it forces one to consider the necessity of each sentence, and sometimes each word. Concise language is crucial, and the writer must ensure that the story’s action is immediate. The aspect of flash fiction I find most appealing is its subtlety; the writer often leaves much unsaid for the reader to infer in his or her own way.
In “The Understudy,” Sylvia panics when she learns her older sister Kayla is moving out of the house as a result of their mother’s uncontrolled drinking. Sylvia begs to go with Kayla, fearing she’ll end up just like Mama if she’s left behind. When Kayla tells Sylvia she has to stay with Mama until she’s eighteen, Sylvia resorts to drastic measures.
Note: This story contains more mature themes and language than what I generally post directly on the blog. (Probably NSFD—Not Safe for David.)
Gretchen curled on her side in Tom’s bed, her eyelids heavy as she listened to his even breaths. The room was dark, but fresh snow coating the ground outside illuminated the stark white walls with an otherworldly glow. Tom hadn’t bothered to close the blinds when they entered the bedroom earlier. The smell of sex still lingered on their skin. She knew he would change the sheets when she left; he would search the entire house for any tell-tale trace of her.
The alarm clock radio on the nightstand played music from the seventies. A Fleetwood Mac song ended, and the DJ announced the time—a little after two in the morning—and gave the updated weather forecast. More snow on the way, significant accumulation possible.
“I hate the snow,” Gretchen whispered.
“Why?” Tom’s voice was a deep rumble emerging from his chest.
Gretchen started. She hadn’t realized he was awake. Tom opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling as he lay on his back.
“It reminds me of my mother.”
He turned his head, studying her as though she were a map of a foreign city. “You’ve never mentioned her before.” He slipped an arm under Gretchen and pulled her to him. She pressed her ear against his chest, reassured by the sounds his body made, the steady thump of his heart and the gurgle of his stomach. Tom strummed his fingertips over her bare skin, a silent invitation for her to speak, but she didn’t answer. What could she say to this man who was inside her only an hour ago, who slowed his own desperate grasp for pleasure so he could watch her come first? How could she reveal to him that he had never reached the core of her, and if he did, he would find it rotten?
It was her mother who told Gretchen this about herself. Gretchen was seven, maybe eight, and stranded with her mother in their one-bedroom house without power. The Kentucky hills surrounding them were under a snowstorm’s siege. With each passing hour, Gretchen huddled under more blankets, and her mother grew restless, pacing back and forth in the front room. The bourbon had loosened her tongue and made it thick in her mouth, slurring her words.
“We got bad blood in us, Gretchen,” she said. “Generation after generation—it’s the same story. My daddy died in a bar fight, and Mama got locked up in the state hospital for trying to kill a man.”
Gretchen had heard this part of her mother’s history before, and she rubbed her nose in an effort to hide a yawn. Her mother pointed a finger at her. “Your daddy’s people are even worse than mine. Ain’t a chance in hell of you turning out decent.” She slumped into a threadbare recliner, picking at a hole in the fabric made by a cigarette burn. Behind her, the window revealed a world outside rendered unrecognizable in blinding white. “You’ll see.” Her mother nodded to herself, wiping at her sweaty cheeks. “Ten, twenty years from now, you’ll look back and realize your mama was right.”
Tom’s cell phone let out a shrill ring, and he reached for it on the nightstand. Gretchen knew it was his wife, calling from the hospital where she worked the night shift as a nurse. Tom spoke to his wife with a hushed voice while Gretchen eased out of the bed, reaching for her clothes. By the time he hung up the phone, she was dressed, tapping her foot on the hardwood floor.
He pulled on a pair of jeans and walked her to the door. They stepped out onto the covered porch, shivering in the wind. The snow was falling again. Tom glanced around, though his closest neighbors lived miles down the road, and then he leaned to kiss her. She expected a chaste peck, but his mouth lingered on hers even as the warmth fled his skin.
“You’ll call and let me know you got home safe?” he asked, grazing the line of her jaw with his thumb. His teeth chattered.
“Sure,” she said. “Now get on back inside before you catch your death.”
Tom nodded but stayed where he was, illuminated by the porch light overhead. Gretchen shuffled her boots through the snow, knowing her tracks would be covered long before his wife came home. “Be careful,” he called.
Gretchen waved and climbed into the car. She let the wipers knock the thin layer of snow from the windshield before she pulled out of the drive. Once on the road, she found the radio station Tom had been playing in his room.
The snow came down harder, a veil of white swallowing up her high beams. The radio played an old Gordon Lightfoot song, one of her mother’s favorites. She picked up speed, maneuvering the car around curves faster than she would have dared on a fine spring day. Her back tires fishtailed on the country road.
Gretchen spotted the lights of an approaching vehicle, its progress slow across the pavement. As it drew closer, she saw it was a pickup, a behemoth dwarfing her sedan. When it was less than five hundred feet from her, she drifted into its lane, her foot on the gas. She imagined the collision, the pickup tearing through the front of her car, littering the road with pieces of metal and bone, plastic and teeth.
The pickup’s horn blared at her. She gripped the steering wheel and muttered, “Come on, you fucker.”
The truck swerved into the other lane, almost clipping the front side of her car. The horn continued to sound long after the vehicle disappeared from view.
Gretchen crossed double lines to reenter the right lane. She eased up on the gas, allowing the car’s speed to drop. By the time she reached the city limits, the snow had stopped. Pulling into the parking lot outside her apartment building, she cut the engine and slumped in the seat. The warmth from the heater did nothing to alleviate the tremors coursing through her.
She imagined Tom’s wife, a woman she knew only from pictures hanging on the walls of their house, with her wholesome smile and trusting disposition. Gretchen pictured her leaving the hospital in a couple of hours, driving well below the speed limit, careful not to follow any cars too closely. Only luck and caution would usher her home safe; her goodhearted nature offered no protection.
In her bedroom, Gretchen stripped out of her clothes and climbed beneath the covers. She shivered under sheets worn from many washes, but the thought of Tom waiting for her call warmed her insides and carried her into sleep.
He says I am drawn to him
mainly because he is safe.
An insurmountable distance
between us prevents him
from asking more of me
than I am able to give.
Yet he admits to waiting
for my call. He questions me
like a shrink, probing deeper,
unearthing the dormant
fissures within me.
But I realize he understands
far too well, and knowledge
is often used as ammunition.
So I sever ties before he can,
just as he knew I would.
The last time we spoke, he told me
with his customary shrewdness,
“I’ll find myself in one of your poems.”
Already aware of how this would end—
with him tucked neatly into lines
on a page—safe.