All three of the following pieces of flash fiction can be heard in audio format, read by the author, by going to the Audio tab on this web site.
“Salvation” was the winner of the 2012 New Millennium Writings Short-Short Fiction Contest, and was published in that magazine. It can be found on the web at: http://www.newmillenniumwritings.com/showdb.8.php?w=89
“In Need of Saints” was a finalist in the 2012 Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Contest run by the Southeast Missouri State University Press.
Other Flash Fiction:
“The Miami Café” Honorable Mention, 2012 Newport Review Short Fiction Contest:
“The Tempest” Winner, 2012 Writer Advice Flash Prose Contest: http://writeradvice.com/contest_winners_archives.html#tempest
I sit on a bench and drink from a pint and stare through my cigarette smoke thick as car exhaust in the cold December air. Tattered twenty-year-old Christmas decorations hang from the lamp posts above me; a group of city kids play in clothes too sparse for the weather. A lone Salvation Army woman plays a trumpet. The tone of the city—stranded by its own lack of interest, looking too far beyond the shortest day of the year for an exit from the season—spills into the street. It’s time to leave. But the end isn’t ending.
It starts to snow.
The kids have stopped playing. Their shoulders are thinly dusted with white. They’re staring at the woman, who is thin and dry as old spit on the sidewalk. Her sutured lips disappear into the horn’s mouthpiece like two pieces of string sucked into a vacuum. She isn’t old enough or ugly enough or tempting enough for the little hoodlums—there is no red kettle filled with money anywhere nearby. She’s timing the slow beat of her song with one of her thick, black shoes, playing, of all things, the Blues.
Loosely, the kids drift away from her, not toward home or more play, but toward me. They’re ten and eleven, I guess, ragged and tough but still children. Their faces, tattooed with the water-soluble meanness of the thugs they idolize, seem to have a burning question for me under their bravado. The leader, a Latin boy with spit-backed hair and pants that aren’t long enough, puts one foot up on my bench and leans in on his knee. The old woman’s trumpet is loud and clean along the tight, turn-of-the-century canyon street of four- and five-story brick buildings that never pulled the business they were supposed to.
“Hey mister,” the boy says. “What kind of music is that?”
Age curves the old woman’s spine forward, tilting her instrument toward the center of the earth. The notes drop out of the tarnished bell, arc downward like heavy birds beginning flight, then lift gracefully into the air. If she knows we’re here, she doesn’t show it. She’s gone off the clock. She’s playing as if her purpose is to save all the souls, not just those with money, wailing some incongruous knots of 4/4 angst for lovers of irony. On her shoulders, the airy-throated angels of the world have come to sit and be healed for a few moments by an old woman’s blasphemy.
The children are in collective awe of what’s being played. It’s not Christmasy. It’s not sparkling or glittery. It’s not the mistletoe-greens or Santa-suit-reds they know. It’s the Blues. I can tell the children that I have an inkling about what the Blues mean, but not a clue as to where they come from. Their grim tattoos are melting off their faces; they’re as tender as fruit trying to hide from the descending frost of adulthood they intuitively know is near. To say, “It’s nothing, don’t listen to it,” would bring the response, “You’re lying,” from their primitively wise faces.
Better to give it all to them, show them the terror and the despair so they might run from it as fast as their little feet can carry them. I want to let these children know about the pain and the sweetness, the fall and the redemption, the sin and the grace. In the absence of grace, in the absence of sweetness, in the absence of redemption, I want to give them, at least, the pain, so they can go into the inevitable promise of that common day that will begin like all the others they’ve known but will end like none they’ve ever seen. I will, with pleasure, tape their innocent eyes open and lift their ripped-out hearts in front of their faces, show them the trembling, steaming apathy of their futures on a cold, winter afternoon. I will gladly kill them rather than say it’s not going to happen, which it most certainly will to these children of the street. Because they’ve seen the old woman with her black dress and thick black shoes and little black cap with the red headband playing the Blues. They’ve heard the battered notes tumble through the wrinkled trumpet, hammered by the ancient lips into a relentless, smooth-as-tears shower of gold falling down the walls of their chests. They’ve unwittingly stepped into a concert sprinkled with the spice they’re not ready to taste; they’ve bathed in it, breathed it in, been exposed, and now they need an explanation. And I want more than anything to give it to them.
But all I can manage is, “That, children—” I say it quietly, lifting my arm out into the snow, pointing to the old woman, “—is the Blues.”
The leader looks at me, then at his friends. I catch a snicker pass across his mouth. Then, in an instant, so fast I don’t see him move, he pulls a knife and holds it to my throat.
“Give me a cigarette or I’ll cut ya.”
He tries to look deadly serious, deadly mean as he holds not me but the fear of his own future at bay. I give him the whole pack. When they leave, half running, half leaping, laughing down one of the dirty sluiceways that lead out of the pedestrian mall, the occasional childish skip plays into their small feet.
The old woman lowers her trumpet, the last notes get pushed to the ground by the snow, and she walks away. Her small feet in the large black shoes shuffle slowly over the cobblestones, rocking her back and forth like a sable-clothed metronome. Eddies of trash swirl up around her as she gets smaller and smaller, carrying the soul of the world under her arm.
She’s been depressed all winter, she says. Bad enough for drugs. Then she joined a gym, and within a week she was better. I’m happier now. She’s wearing a bright yellow frieze of face, stiff and smiley. No one seems to notice in the bar where we’ve agreed to meet, next to the bridge and the river.
She’s talking fast—about the new boyfriend, dumb as dirt. I don’t care, she says, he makes me laugh. He’s the one who screamed Stop the car! late one night on a dark road with just enough crescent moon to see there were fields of tall something all around them. He wanted to go into them.
There’s a bare hint of softness beneath the mask of face, as if strict rouge and blush have been applied to a plant, her hands flat on the table, a pint of Guinness in front of her.
She once told me that as a young girl she never got “on toe” in dance class, and she carries the hurt with her. But I’m still friends with every boyfriend I ever had, she says. The women… She shrugs. During silences we watch the lights on the bridge, dressed green for the season, through the windows of the bar, an emerald concatenation of stars from this side of the river to the other, the water flowing sideways against the concrete piers to places we’ve both imagined. She has a small crotch for a tall woman. Sometimes it flows in the other direction.
Eventually I did stop, she says. The boyfriend was screaming with joy. The field was filled with sunflowers, and before the car could come to a complete stop he leaped out and ran into them. He didn’t come back for a long time, and she sat waiting for him in Baby Blue, her convertible VW Bug. She loved that car. She sat in the silence with the moon above her and saw faces, she swears, faces, coming at her in the headlights of other cars. When he returned he threw the sunflowers, roots and all, dirt flying into her hair, into the back seat. After we left the fields, she says, I thought I was taking my family to the cemetery with the top down.
And then she says, reaching across the table to hold my hand, I jumped out of the front seat. She doesn’t know why. Straight up. Pushed herself off the floorboards with her dancer’s legs and flung herself out of the car while doing sixty, out of the convertible and up into the night. Up into the clutch of wind pushing against us, she says, smiling and nodding and then falling silent.
The bridge green-slung with sparkle across the river carries one car, an empty convertible filled with sunflowers running smoothly to the other side.
IN NEED OF SAINTS
They’re burning tires for St. Francis. It’s a small, poor town, and candles are expensive. The tires are piled like black doughnuts, set alight, and eventually turn the night rancid with the profane smell of burning rubber. Later, a bull will be killed.
The Senora across the street, too poor to buy even a retread, torches the dry grass in front of her house. My children beat at the perimeter with long sticks. They think it’s part of the ceremony. I can see her hanging back, clutched safe in the green growth of banana trees where the dark pushes at her, and her face, immobile, glows like a zoo animal.
I need a saint so bad I lurch forward into the fire. My bottle of trago explodes, and a grin of ecstasy broadens through the flames. My children beat me out with their sticks, such is their love for me.
I need to risk potential in order to risk finding more.
The small, tired clouds mingle into a large black psalm over the town. The Senora opens her eyes, rapturous. “Look! We’ve singed his wings with our fires—” her hands upraised, waiting for him to fall into her arms.
It was not a nightmare.
The Misahaulli has always flowed through this town, joining the Napo in the shade where monkeys grin and chatter. I still don’t know how to tell them about their mother.
In the morning the town is hung over with soot covering the Rebels’ slogans on once-white walls; behind them, the children soften the day with laughter.
The heat from the jungle canopy drips down thick as glue, and I stay behind the screens all day. Anything can become potent. Darkness is political. Insects try to sly through the screen, as oppressive as the florescent sun; they can turn the subconscious incontinent.
There is the retained formality of what they must know. They drift off, their last giggles, their clean lines. The day after the search for saints is so pure, even with gunfire ripping the east, sustained, pinning its victims to the screen, spreading dry beauty. Monkey teeth greet them after the Night of Screens with delirious laughter. Soon I must call them back and tell them the news, that I am the last holy thing they have left.