Off and on for the past 20 years I have entered the Reno News & Review Short Fiction contest. The only rule is that the piece be exactly 95 words. Due to my sustained success with this contest, editor Brad Bynum named me the “Tom Brady of 95 words…the least glamorous literary form this side of the limerick.” Many of these vignettes went on to inspire and became part of longer stories, but first they were stand-alone, naked little bits. Most included here were printed in the News & Review. Some were rejects. But I still like them.
1st Place, 2008
In the first long summer after their divorce, Jim and Grace don’t know how to end the marriage. They go for walks in the birch trees. Lovers carved their declarations into the various trunks so long ago the carvings look like old tattoos, impossible to read. A bleeding heart, a date, maybe 1917, maybe not. “Jim,” Grace says, “If neither of us remarries, let’s be buried side by side.”
Jim knows she’s serious; she likes graveyards. “That seems a long time to lie down next to you,” Jim softly replies in the birdsong grove.
Note: This is a true story used in Parallel to Paradise, and then re-used in Swisher Sweets, both stories wrestled from my feelings for my ex-husband.
Summer in the City
In the summer, the bar has sidewalk tables and the friends sit outside, feeling like they are in The Village. On a busy night Clara sits alone, but not alone because there’s Rachel talking to that Republican, and Mary’s dancing on the bar. A man whom Clara has not met but knows to be both a musician and a junkie comes and says two fascinating words: “How much?” Clara is not insulted because, really how much simpler would life be if you could answer that question up front? She does, however, rethink her outfit.
State of the State
I remember the ’67 State Fair when Uncle Johnny was still getting used to the fake leg he had to make up for the real leg he left in Vietnam. He was riding the Swinger and his fake leg just flew off. It landed on some striped awning and ricocheted into the Chickens of the World exhibit. Chickens went nuts. One banty attacked the leg, rat-tat-tat, dented up the ankle. Made Johnny laugh – best time he had since he got home. Bought himself one of those fried cubes of butter on a stick and tried to eat it.
2nd Place 1999
In the last days of July, I sit outside watching my plums slowly shade from green to purple like a reverse bruise, watching the coneflowers complain of the heat. I let an ice cube slide down my skin. I think my drink is starting to boil. The roses just go poof, and sigh into perfume. The bees fly but don’t have the energy to buzz, which is kind of scary, because they can sneak up on you. An airplane drones overhead. It’s going to melt and fall on the city in big globs of mercury.
When Ma’s Pa died, the aunties said Ma dried up like a tobacco leaf and the aunties didn’t understand it. Ma was the pretty one, white like Paperwhites. The aunties slept in one room so they heard when their Pa came in when the the night owls were out and climbed in bed with Alice. He made sounds like the owls and Alice made no sounds at all. At first the aunties were jealous because they loved Pa and loved to climb in his lap when they were girls. It made them hate Alice a little bit.
Iowa Summer in the Great Depression
If there was a dust bowl in Kansas and a stock market in New York that caused people to jump out of windows, and an exodus of immigrants destined to starve in the very cornucopia of California, well, Iowa was having none of that. The corn was growing and fireflies haloed the inky sky. They tangled in Maureen’s hair, and she was the faerie, and I fell in love with her simply because she tucked silver-gold bugs behind her ears. The lightning bugs blinked on and off and buzzed like neon all summer long.
The dream John got, or inherited or sought out was the Absolut dream. It’s such a pretty dream in a martini glass. The drink so elegant in your hand. He could hide in there. I don’t know when it was John lost all his confidence. I don’t know if the sweet, bitter vodka, tequila, gin, run, absinthe, beer, wine, somebody give me a drink, gave him all the confidence he ever had, or took it all away. But now, these years, he prefers the drink in his hand, the reassuring sweat of the glass, to the less assuring glisten of a human touch.
Have you ever driven across Nevada? The best thing is that you never do. But if you do, there are a few good things to look for: wild horses, purple shadows on the curve of a mountain, the relief of sunset, the defiance of a lone bristlecone pine, the secret knowledge of a desert infused with gold, silver, copper, opal. Taste the minerals in the dust. If you’re traveling the Reno-Vegas route, keep your eyes peeled for Butt Rock, good for a laugh about four hours into the desert, when you’re near hysterical from boredom.
1st Place, 2007
When my father is through tussling with his girls, he takes himself swimming. He swims like a movie star. His chin is chiseled. He chisels the waves. He is as strong as the ocean, as long as there is no storm. My Italian mother sits on the beach, dark curls, smoky eyes, and while she might be considered a bit hairy for American standards, I love to sit and stroke her pelty arms. She sighs a soft aria that drifts in and out of the waves. I never dream she is dreaming of leaving us.
September Negotiations in a Small Town
2nd Place, 2012
Amanda walked the aisle of the school bus, scanning. A girl with an unfortunate nose, but generally acceptable appearance, smiled at her.
“I’m Jennifer. You’re the new girl….”
“It’s scary being new,” Amanda lied. She wasn’t scared. Pretty girls aren’t scared of new schools.
“Where you from?”
“God, you must hate it here.”
She did, but Amanda knew better than to say so, but then couldn’t help herself. “What do you guys do on weekends?”
“Drive trucks into the mountains, drink beer, then shoot the cans.
“What kind of beer?”
Both girls laughed.
(Abandoned, graffitied cyanide plant by Virginia City, Nevada)
Imagine a young woman. She’s got tats, both sleeves in Vargas girls and vortex color swirls. A Chinese cherry blossom twining her spine, twisting round her exposed belly, jeans down low. Beautiful in structure, but she’s at that point in her addictions where you can tell it’s too late for her; she won’t make it back. She makes you feel so poignant that you want a piece of her, you want to tattoo the inside of her wrist, do a fashion shoot, buy her a drink, hasten the destruction.
That’s the feeling of American Flats.
My mom was on her fourth husband. Matthew, Mark, Luke and Juan. She was working her way through the apostles. Juan was from Puerto Vallarta, land of jungle and orchids. He fished a pale ocean and hunted in forests that knew no sense of time. He was used to the music of parrots. Juan found our Northwest forest sparse, but he could see the prey. I hunted with him. I carried the clear alcohol he made out of potatoes from a process learned from an expatriate Nazi who hated Jews so hard his veins turned to rock, which caused a heart attack.
Scenes from Burning Man
We sit at the Black Rock Café, swigging tequila straight from the bottle, biting into limes that were born in Costa Rica. A girl with a dusting of gold on her breasts joins us. We ask her where she’s from. She says her daddy was a cowhand and she’s from Caliente, Ely, Elko, Winnemucca. But she feels it’s time to head to the Redwoods. I ask her what’s she’s got to burn. “I’m going to burn off Nevada, she says. “I brought maps. And Tupperware. After tonight, I think I’ll be able to cross the border.”
Right before boot camp, Stella let me unbutton her sweater. She unhooked her bra, and I kissed her. She smelled like flour. She had freckles there, and when I am afraid of the mission, I think of those freckles.
My buddy Jerry and his girl are engaged. He gave her a diamond; she gave him you-know-what. He likes to talk about it. I don’t want to listen – she’s almost his wife – but I can’t help myself. I don’t want to be rough on my memory of Stella, but sometimes at night I need more than freckles. I borrow Jerry’s fiancée.
2nd Place, 1998
I like the taste of Communion. It does not taste like the body of Christ, which I imagine to be salted by His sweat and the spray of Galilee. It tastes like His clothes, a little circle of linen. I don’t think it’s baked. I think nuns in white wimples weave it on a loom while singing, “Dominique, nique, nique.” I like to hold it in the top of my mouth for as long as possible and feel it melt like the rice paper around Chinese candy.
Note: This story was picked up by the Catholic League and resulted in the League calling for a boycott of the News & Reviews for printing this “blasphemous” piece. For the record, I thought it was a sweet image of a little girl trying to understand her religion.
Pyramid Lake, Nevada
Pyramid is a dream-lake, a mirage. I look at it and just can’t understand how a lake that’s as blue and soulful as a jazz note could just appear. But there it is. Pyramid Lake is directly across the world from the Dead Sea, and they both have cui-ui fish, an ancient breed that no longer exist anywhere else. I walk along the shore and breathe in the dust of seashells, memories of another time. I am looking for scrolls washed up from Israel; I am looking for signs of Jesus. But I don’t find them today.
Ten miles inland you wouldn’t guess the ocean could be so consistently harsh, but at Cape Blanco, the conditions are almost always wild. So the lighthouse exits. The road out to the cape is traveled mostly by deer, rabbit, skunk and hippies, the hippies in search of cow-patty pastures that grow psilocybin mushrooms in the silty, poopy meadows. I’ve harvested them myself. It’s like an Easter egg hunt – I found one! I found one! Jump up and down and put it in the basket. A-tisket a-tasket, psilocybin in my basket.
A Simple, Too-Familiar Gesture
1st Place 2010
Dinner at their best friend’s home was always a fine affair. Tonight, roast rosemary chicken, fig salad. Talk ran to politics, work, the trip to China they all went on together.
After dinner, port, and then time to leave. Dillon brought their coats and helped Joe’s wife into hers. Their eyes did not meet, but after Joe’s wife’s arms slipped one, two into her winter jacket, Dillon tucked her collar tight to her neck like one would a child. Or a lover.
And all the months of hiding were exposed in that simple, too-familiar gesture.
We Live Above the Dublin Bar
This particular night Da is drinking Red Eye, whipped up with beer, vodka, tomato juice and an egg. Auld Aiden O’Connor is courting the bar with salty nuts and salty limericks, back slaps, free beer. You can almost hear the bagpipes in his throat. Mum is giving him The Look, but he just blows her kisses. Da is sneaking Conner and me tumblers of Red Eye and we’re getting giggly. Personally I’d rather eat kindergarten horse paste than drink Red Eye, although I prefer Milk Bones best when it comes to eating beyond the pale.
We had a bunny, and we let her run around the house, hoping she would somehow become potty-trained. You should have seen under our bed – it’s amazing the output of bunny-poo per hour. We fed her pellets and lettuce, but her favorite was marijuana seeds. The house had shag carpet; the toilet had a slow leak in the back. One day I found a sprouted marijuana plant growing out of a rabbit poop, cradled in the shag, behind the toilet, watered by the leak. It was a thing of such serendipitous beauty we threw it a party.
The Last Summer Bar-B-Cue
The lake trout are known to be fat from the cold and hard to catch. Jake chases them with his Boston Whaler and when he places the fish on the summer barbecue, the crackling fat hits the coals, sending up a shower of sparks. “Christina,” Sally says, “that’s what fireflies in Iowa look like.” She puts a pilly sweater on her daughter in the darkening.
Jake moves to Oregon taking the Boston Whaler with him. The good thing about a Boston Whaler is that it can break in three parts and still float.
Everyone knows the farmhouse is haunted. It’s on an old road, just a service road now. Sam slept in the attic, and on the night the ghost came to Sam’s room and sat on his chest, Sam said it felt like a sack of heavy oranges, heavy, crushing. Sam reached for his bedside gun and shot a hole in the roof of the house to startle the ghost; after that Sam would watch for the North Star to line up in the bullet hole space in the ceiling and sleep in the angel-dust light.
They Exchange Phone Numbers at the End of the Evening
John’s from Tahoe (could be rich), a realtor, (not rich), who likes to ski (says she does too, kind of a lie) and teaches handicapped children to ski (red flag – the handicapped are creepy, especially those Down Syndrome ones who keep hugging you). John’s lean (red flag – makes her feel fat), 50 (red flag – too old), never married (double red flag), vegetarian (red flag – vegetables give her gas) except fish (okay). He’s handsome in a Gray Fox way (nice hair), possibly Jewish (smart) and at one time did porn films (drop all red flags…. Intriguing).
Soldiers jumped from the spiraling plane. Their parachutes clouded, then I shot one dead. I can’t say I shot him out of the sky because his parachute still held him up. But he was dead. Blood coursed from his chest. I wondered if his blood would reach the ground first. I wondered if his soul would slide out with the blood or if it would be stuck for awhile inside his muscles, or had I shot a hole right through it, or was his soul already rising, bobbing just within the parachute, passing through silk, no concern left at all.
All in the Family
George’s is a macaroni-and-cheese family. He learned early he was going to have to take care of himself. George has the body of David and it was his older brother who used it first. George hated him, but if the last taboo is the first tattoo on his sexual soul, and the colors are all green and brownie-blue, what could he become? Maybe a little bug wrapped in a drop of amber waiting for someone to find him so precious they make him into a necklace to wear between their breasts until he finally thaws.
Or else hell breaks loose.
Joseph and Jack Grow Up in the Old West
Joseph likes to crack jokes by the cat house on B Street. Stupid stuff like strolling by calling, “Here Pussy, Pussy, Pussy” in front of the tourists. The girls’ names are still painted over the doors Julia Bulette, that haute-whore, that salt-lick those bulls couldn’t get enough of, was murdered in 1863. Strangled, I don’t know why, maybe because men really can’t stand a woman who sleeps around. I wanted to be Julia for Nevada Day. I halved my Nerf football to fill out the chest, but Mom made me go as a sheriff.
Reap What You Sew
When Georgia was a little girl she ate her blanket. Thread by pink, blue, yellow thread until there was just a small plaid square left, which her mother saved, for remembrance.
If we could save our days, could they be like thread? Spools of silky-fine summer days. Rough days of lumpy hemp macramé, chunky with drift wood and shockingly bright feathers. Days of anger, reeling spirals of red. Lanky nights of sex running in inky-blue skeins. Work days of wool. Bobbins, coils, whorls of floss, loomed together; if each day were a thread.
Kara’s soul turns gray overnight. She buys a white casket and goes down to the mortuary with Cal’s childhood comforter, the bark-cloth one with the cowboy print, faded and frayed, and missing a tiny square that resides in Kara’s pocket. She tucks the quilt over her son’s quiet body until only his face can be seen. Kara spends $1,500 to bring the All Negro Gospel Choir to the funeral, to sing her pain into a slender flake which she puts in her locket with the snippet of quilt and a few strands of fine hair.
College Girl in a Coffee House, 1973
On the last day of innocence, I was reading Camus. Christos Alexander sat down next to me and shredded every stitch of remaining plaid skirt right off the face of my thighs. My hand shook as I put down my coffee cup. Christos had been in Vietnam. He wasn’t good looking; he had scars. He was direct and addicted and had a burned-out soul from accidentally killing a little kid in a green rice paddy because he was stoned on acid. I was looking for the real world, and he was looking at me.
I pawned my graduation diamond earrings and went to the Clinic. The parking lot was lined with ornamental plum trees in full spring petal looking like those old lady swimming caps. In the waiting room the nurse gave me Valium to relax and I sat around reading magazines with the other women. There was a blond girl, Cheerleader type, little side barrette. There was an older woman who looked like maybe she had four kids by three different fathers already. The tall black woman, she looked like she was strong enough to use a hanger.
Gone Baby, Gone
John would go to the Chute and the Club 96 where AIDS was festering and no one yet knew it. He’d break a little vial of amyl nitrate and inhale the fumes and dance the dance of the twelve dancing princesses, the dance of the seven vials. He’d drink until his hepatitis-weakened liver would painfully suggest he stop, and then he would go stir that eggplant stew for awhile. So many stray cat men wandered through his life, slept on this couch, his crotch, shared his drugs, stole his things, titillated him, moved on.
Two Guys, A Gun, and a Discussion on the News & Review Short Fiction Contest
“Are you entering?”
“I don’t know, that chick keeps winning anyway.”
“I know! I don’t even like her stuff…all description.”
“Yeah, like… Conner only knew Elton from the cover of an old Yellow Brick Road album. In person Elton looked like a gnome-slash-hedgehog-slash-William Shatner. Conner couldn’t get over it. Although he did like Elton’s accessory-drummer.”
“Did you just make that up?”
“I guess. What’d I say?”
“You called Elton John a hedgehog and the percussionist an accessory-drummer.”
“Cool. But I think I’ll work up something with a gun.”
As Her Stillborn Son is Set Aflame
Harish and I by the Ganges. Our son atop the sandalwood pyre. Baby-sized marigold necklace looser, kinder, than that garrote of an umbilical cord. Smoke, smell of cream and earth. Flesh. Marigolds explode – petals and sparks, body condemned.
Untouchables sweep. The straw broom scratching over ashes is the devil on my heart. Monkey-God is hopscotching the rooftops. I look up. That forsaken, crazy-monkey smile. Then I know.
Harish is measuring that kohl-eyed breedy bitch in the low-slung sari. The next ashes I see scraped into the Ganges will be Harish’s.
A Small Kindness in a Hard Time — Reno
We owned The Meeting Place way south on Virginia, where Meadowood Mall is now. Then, there was nothin’ clear to the Pine Nut Mountains. Business wasn’t good. Mom worried herself so skinny her ears bled. It’s true – there needs to be some fat in the canals. Dad just got so he drank the bar. Last thing, he would scatter dimes and nickels under the tables, then lock up.
In the mornings, Mom would sweep, and find the coins. Later she put them in the slot machines downtown.
That Didn’t Go as Planned
1st PLACE, 2019
Note: This became the opening for Swisher Sweets.
I poured my ex-husband’s ashes down the front of my one-piece bathing suit. Jumped in the lake – our lake. The idea was as I swam the ashes would dissipate, drift into water. Little pieces of Jordan, floating away.
I climbed an outcropping of rocks, expecting my suit to be empty. But the bulk of the ashes remained and had turned to mud. I opened the leg of my suit and pulled out globs of ash, like wet cement. Shook it loose. Hunks splat onto the rocks. Good God. Jordan was going to end up looking like bird poop.