Archive for the The Word: Stories Category

Italian Movie

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , , , on 12/10/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: SLIP

A youngish man with graying hair stands on the sidewalk of the elegant Via Ariosto, looking up. Across the street, an older woman follows his gaze, up the building’s third story to where a young woman stands on a balcony in her slip. A young brunette woman in a white slip, tall shutters half-open behind her.

Milan, summer, twilight.

Leaning over the art nouveau railing, lush dark hair full over her shoulders, the young woman drops a white handkerchief–no, something wrapped in a handkerchief–to the man looking up. He misses the toss. Leans over and picks the package up.

It is an Italian movie. A key. Dropped from the third story balcony to the lover below.

What she remembers are those slender arms, the flutter and flash of a white handkerchief, the white slip, the glossy brown hair, the smile, and how the youngish man unwraps the handkerchief, climbs the steps, lets himself in with the tossed key.

Now the older woman stands alone on the Via Ariosto. The youngish man with the graying hair is gone. The slender-armed, graceful, barefoot woman on the balcony, the woman in the slip, has disappeared inside the half-shuttered room.

The other woman feels it, a deep ache. That she would never drop a key in a handkerchief from an elegant balcony before shuttered doors, wearing a white slip, for a handsome graying youngish man, in a midsummer twilight on an elegant Milanese road.

She’d just come back from the leafy corner café, where she drank a vino bianco alone under the trees–elms? Her divorce already cold. She is 56 years old, and she would never stand on a balcony in a white slip… god, they’d call out the Carabinieri! Her ashbrown hair streaked with gray would make no appealing picture, her plump bare arms tossing a key–to no one.

And yet, the beauty of this movie is unmistakable, heartpiercing in the twilight. She is slightly drunk. The fierce heat has ebbed to sensuous luminous blue. A man stands on the curb reading a newspaper lying in the street. His hands remain in his pockets, he has no intention of picking it up. An older man, older than her.

It is too early to return to the hotel. She strolls along the leafy street, remembering the loveliness of the woman on the balcony. Wondering, did loveliness need to be one’s own to give one happiness?

And what if she were the woman on the balcony? That Giulietta or Giovanna. Would she even know how beautiful she was? No. Truly, she would not.  She would be thinking of her lover, of their evening ahead, the salad she would make, a light salad on a night like this. But not the beauty of this moment.

It’s all merged into one single thing–the woman, the man, the twilight, the street. How evanescent–life, beauty. But this, this is hers alone, this moment–she, with the eyes of a traveler, she is the one who caught the key more surely than the graying youngish man.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: PAN

 

The Magic Flute

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 10/19/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Flute

It was the thing about love, thought Allie, as she nested food into a lettuce leaf and rolled it like a cigar.  We called love love, but she had been in love many times, and every love was as different as… what could be so different, so varied?  Dogs maybe. Some were big and some were small, some were diggers under fences, others shed all over you, some jumped up and knocked you over.  There were lazy, lie-about loves, and nervous ones and ones that slobbered or made ‘mistakes’ indoors.  Some dogs were companionable and alert, and others were clowns, and some were just plain vicious and had to be put down.

She gazed at this man across the table in the Vietnamese restaurant, rolling a spring roll into a transparent sheet of wonton.

“What?” he asked.

And what was their love? what kind of a dog was this, this unlikely creature they were together?  A pound dog, maybe.  After all, he hadn’t dated in years, had kept himself busy reading, learning languages, collecting vintage microscopes and magic lanterns and Victrolas. He painted pictures for dollhouses.  He’d used the word ‘repudiate’ in a sentence on their first date, and ‘legerdemain.’ He knew how to pick a lock, and opened her door once to show her.  “Don’t tell anyone, it’s illegal.”  He needed a haircut.  He wore a shirt he bought at a gas station.  He could recite Shakespeare’s sonnets and half of the Tempest, but didn’t know where downtown was.

And she was a woman who knew the difference between Baskerville and Goudy Old Style, could find Surinam on a map, an enthusiast in all things.  She could solve codes and ciphers, she loved traveling and wearing wigs, she liked songs in languages she didn’t understand. She made linoleum prints and assemblage art and got a 1400 on her SATs.  She read poetry, but could never learn anything by heart.  She was sentimental and gregarious.

Their kisses had resonance, like a good drum.  That surprised her. Mostly, he surprised her.  Because he could take her all in. Not just a part.  All of it. She didn’t have to leave anything out, she didn’t have to pretend to be more conventional, or moderate, so she could be understood. He could meet her everywhere.  When had that happened in the history of the world?

A matched pair. Not dogs. More  like the parrots people let loose in the cities of America, who found each other in parks and backyards.

Yes, like birds.  Like in the Magic Flute.  Not the romantic stars of the piece, Prince Tamino and his ladylove Pamina.  But rather, the comic foils–the lonely bird man, Papageno, who finds his bird girl, Papagena, at the end of the final act.  Allie knew that for Mozart, this had just been a mopping-up of a loose plot thread. She’d never even liked Mozart operas, or comic operas at all for that part, having always preferred operas where at the end everybody was dead and the stage was awash in blood. But there was no question that this was the Magic Flute, and there was magic even for someone so ridiculous, so full of enthusiasms, as her. There was another one out there, perfectly suited for her.

She had always thought her life was a tragedy.  It never occurred to her it would turn out to be a comedy.  That she was a comic character, Papagena in her feathers, made in heaven for some Papageno in a t-shirt from a gas station.

He was looking at her.  Sometimes he looked at her like this.  She reached out and he took her hand. “What,” he said.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: SLIP

 

Peppertree Summer

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 09/02/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: PEPPER

It was the last peppertree summer.  The fronds on the shaggy old peppers hung down like a mermaid’s long hair, their green laden boughs studded with pink berries, flowing over her as Page rode underneath.  She’d set her fine, pale hair and sprayed on half a can of AquaNet, but it never stayed put. It just wasn’t hair made for setting.  She rode over to the new development going up on Vanowen, dawdling along the unpaved streets, the horse’s hooves beating out their lazy cadence. She tried to imagine all the families living in these new houses. Hard to picture what Van Nuys would be like without this big mustard field, only houses.

Her last summer in California.  Riding Daisy bareback with only a hackamore tied across her black nose, her pedal-pusher clad legs hanging long on either side  of the mare’s round ribs. Eighteen years old.  She felt the force of time, ejecting her from everything she’d known, squeezing her out of her life like a winged sycamore seed.  She was restless, she didn’t want to be around her friends, googly-eyed over Dion and Eddie Fisher.  She only wanted to sling a blanket over Daisy’s straw-gold back and wander the sleepy dirt backroads of Van Nuys, their passage noted only by the audience of ponies hanging their heads over the fences hard by shacks and orchards, surrounded by all the green and golden smells of late summer, corn growing high at Leary’s, apples fattening at Gommer McQuade’s.  She lay down onto Daisy’s neck  and pressed her face into that sleek summer coat, drinking in the smell, drawing her fingers through the black mane, arranging its pattern against the creamy gold. The last summer.

In a few weeks, she would be going east to college. Her mother had already bought the camel’s hair coat and wool plaid skirts and Shetland sweater sets. She would see her first red autumn, her first snowfall. Her roommate had already written to her, a girl named Hillary, from New York. Page had never been out of California except for a trip to the Grand Canyon when she was nine.  She should be looking forward to it, she told herself, but she was scared, and more than that. She was sad.  It was stupid,  nobody she knew was going to college back east. It was ridiculous to be sad.

The cicadas buzzed in the dusty afternoon, and she rode Daisy in and out through the stout pepper trees, letting their leaves brush her face like they were hands, caressing her, memorizing her.  Would she like it in Boston?  Would she understand it?  People were so different there.  So sophisticated and all.  Hillary had paper with her name engraved on it.  Did they have pepper trees in Boston?  Hot dirt road summer days and horse sweat and barn smells, western saddles, hawks that circled lazily over the canyons?    And what would happen to Daisy?  She would be so fat by Christmas…

The mare grew bored and inattentive, she stopped and leaned down to bury her black nose in the dry grass growing at the base of one of the shaggy peppers, and Page let her, why not.  What did she care about Daisy’s bad habits now. By the time she got back at Christmas, Daisy wouldn’t even remember her.

These pepper trees. So ancient. Peppers came up from Mexico with Father Serra and the missions. Page was sure they didn’t have pepper trees in Boston, or buckskin horses.  She would wear nylons, and heels, and set her hair and go sledding, throw snowballs… She should have gone to Stanford. At least it was in California. Why had she been so quick to leave everything she knew and loved?

But the Valley would always be here, she told herself.  Just like this. These dirt back roads, the produce stands, the little farms and orchards, clutches of quail breaking from the brush and running across the road, roadrunners chasing lizards, standing with them proudly dangling from their yellow beaks.  Whenever she came home, it would all still be here. Just like this.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”


Next week’s word is: FLUTE

 

The Sleeper Hold

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , on 08/27/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Tears

Georgia brought her mother dinner on a tray, El Pollo Loco, rice and slaw. Her mother lay propped in her bed, in a less-than-clean pink tracksuit and thin, draggled hair–which she insisted could only be washed once a week by Tami at the beauty parlor, set and sprayed to last the following week. Pro Wrestling blared on TV, her mother’s new hobby. Friday Night Smackdown.

“Sleeper hold,” the old woman called out, pointing to the TV. “Look, Georgie.  Aw, that Viper’s a monster.”

By the time she looked up, a nearly naked man in a mohawk and hip boots was smashing another man over the back with a folding chair.

She could barely recognize her mother these days, her face and legs all puffy. T The doctors had run test after test, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They’d been trying to control the swelling with diuretics, but so far nothing worked. Worse, she’d been forgetting medication, or else pulling stunts like applying half a month’s worth of analgesic pads all at once, so they’d had to arm-twist the pharmacy to refill the prescription ahead of time.

On TV, two large oiled men grappled and grunted. One got hold of the other and attempted to pound his head into the floor. Her mother lifted the rice to her mouth, not taking her eyes from the screen, getting half of it on her bosom.  “Piledriver.”

Georgia wished she’d been firmer about getting her mother out of the house,  back when her father died. But she hadn’t, so here she was coming over after work to feed her mother before going home and throwing something together for herself and Arthur. A good stiff drink was what she needed.  She was tired. She was fifty-six years old and bone weary. Sometimes she would like to just take her mother and apply the sleeper hold.

She went back downstairs to see if there was anything that needed throwing out. She’d asked Charlene, the caregiver, to keep the refrigerator updated, but the woman wasn’t getting paid enough to care about milk souring in the refrigerator. Her mother was sure the woman was stealing toilet paper, canned goods. “Why does she need to bring shopping bags to work?”   Georgia checked the trash, the refrigerator, sniffed the milk.  Everything was fine. She went around the kitchen like a hound, sniffing.

The floor proved wet around the old Westinghouse washer.  She was tired and hungry, and now there was this leak. She saw it all.  The repairman, late. The expense. It was an old machine, should she bother repairing it? But to replace it, for what? She took a mop and some bleach and mopped up the wet floor. If only Charlene could put the damned machine in her shopping bag, and the rest of the house too, and good riddance.

She knew she should just go home.  It was almost eight, a long day.  But the smell was stronger in the hall.  Noticeably so.  With a great deal of trepidation, she opened the door to the closet. Yes, there it was–musty, stale, like old ladies.  Age, decrepitude, feebleness.

It sapped all her strength. She’d always been the youthful looking one, of all her friends, everybody said so, but now nobody said it.  Her jaw, softening, her neck had its own flesh turtleneck. She wasn’t sleeping well, and she’d noticed just this morning how much she was coming to resemble Somerset Maugham.

Steeling herself, she pushed the coats aside, freeing up the area that led to the basement.  The smell flooded up. Dank, cold.

She didn’t like basements.  Her own house didn’t have one. Who had basements in Los Angeles?  Even as a child she was afraid of it.  It was dark, earthy smelling.  You could hear the creaking old house settling overhead. She’d gone down there just a half-dozen times in the fifty years her parents lived in this house, and only with her father, holding his flashlight.  The rotting ship’s ladder of a stairway.

Of course, the flashlight was dead. She went back out into the kitchen and found a 12 pack of D batteries. Outdated, useless.  She found two more flashlights, three, but none of them worked. Finally, armed with her cell phone, she returned to the dark opening of the basement and shone the feeble light down.

Water lapped halfway up the water heater. Water covered the lower vents of the furnace. Dirty, stinking, stagnant water  Water hid the bottom two rungs of the flimsy ladder.

Georgia sat on the top step and gazed into the murky water.  She felt the weight of the house on her shoulders, the house and her mother in it.  She had no ideas. Not a single one.   Tears slid down her cheeks, and she didn’t even bother to wipe them with the back of her freckled hand.  She could feel her mother upstairs, watching men in Mohawks and skull masks grapple and pin one another, roaring with outrage and murder.  But this, this water, this is what was happening to them. It wasn’t a wrestling match.  It was the slow filling of basements, the thing that eroded the foundations.  Silently, only announcing itself by the smell of decay.

She went up to the room and kissed her mother’s forehead.  “There’ll be a plumber coming tomorrow.”

Her mother tried to see around her as a man in a Batman mask threw himself at a man in black leather pants with flames coming up the sides,  wrapping his legs around the other man’s neck. “We need more toilet paper, that woman’s been taking it by the sixpack.”

Something was being stolen here, but it wasn’t the toilet paper.  “Sure Mom, I’ll bring some tomorrow.”

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is:  pepper

 

Blue Hawaii

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises on 05/27/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: CANE

Janie sang under her breath as she colored in the pages of her new coloring book, “C & H, pure cane sugar, from Hawaii, growin’ in the sun…” It made her feel good, thinking of Daddy in Hawaii, building a new hotel.  Hawaii.  Something so exciting, even about the name.  Beaches and tiki torches and hula.  He gave some  perfume to Mommy from there, it smelled like a sweet jungle plus ocean, and somehow mixed in her mind with Gidget Goes Hawaiian, her new favorite movie.

“Will we ever get to go?” she asked Mommy.  Mommy was in the kitchen with Mrs. Trubett.  She would be afraid to go out on the ocean on a surfboard like Gidget, who was a different Gidget than in the one in California, a prettier, more grown up one.  Though Moondoggie was the same.  She drew in her coloring book.  “Are we going to ever go to Hawaii, Mommy? I mean me, me and Joey.” Her little brother. Daddy sent them matching Hawaiian shirts, turquoise blue with white flowers, and hers closed with Chinese knots instead of buttons.

“Janie, your mother’s busy,” said Mrs. Trubett, jingling her charm bracelet. She had twenty six charms, she’d let Janie count them once.

C & H, pure cane sugar, from Hawaii, growin’ in the sun… blessed by sun, kissed by rain… it’s the only pure cane sugar from Hawaii…  The lady’s beautiful hands, the sun, the rain.  Mommy went to Hawaii to see Daddy and Janie and Joey went to stay with Grandma for a week. Grandma had cats. Then she came back.  But these days she was always talking to Mrs. Trubett and she even smoked cigarettes sometimes, though she never smoked cigarettes before.

She thought of those tiki faces, they were scary, that was the scary part of Hawaii, the part that made it not like California, because it was wilder than that, like volcanoes, melted actual rock… it made the beautiful part–the oceans and the jungles and the leis even more beautiful, because they were not like home, not like going to Santa Monica and buying sno-cones.  It was scarily beautiful, that’s what it was.  And Daddy was there, still, it had been a long time.

She had a picture of him and Mommy there, Daddy was all tan and wearing a lei of white flowers–they gave you these flower necklaces called leis when you got off the plane, Mommy said.  Pretty Hawaiian girls put it on for you and kissed you and said Aloha, which means welcome in Hawaiian. Mommy wore a blue bathing suit and her lei and her hair was all curled, her hand up to shade her eyes.   Janie loved that picture, loved seeing her parents together, the most beautiful woman and the handsomest man on Waikiki Beach.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word: TEAR

The New Song

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 04/24/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Ear

Mel watched her daughter down in the living room, playing her old black Telecaster. Kat weighed what, a hundred pounds?  She certainly hadn’t gained any weight during her stay in rehab–how was it possible for a girl to be alive and yet so thin?  So alive and talented and painfully close to the edge–one small crumble of that narrow dirt ledge upon which she so precariously balanced would send her tumbling all the way down to the rocks a thousand feet below.  For some reason, she thought Kat would come back looking healthy, snatched back from the abyss. True, she looked a hundred percent better than she had in the days before Gerald, her ex, checked her into rehab–Gerald, who’d fought her every step on the raising of this thin, sensitive girl who was now supposedly clean and sober.

“What’s that you’re playing?” Mel called down to where Kat sat on the raggedy old couch, the survivor of the divorce, the couch that had seen how many hours of old movies and Kat’s favorite ’60s spy shows?

“It’s a new song,” Kat said. She was 22 but she looked like thirteen.  Yet there was nothing childish in the music coming from those long thin fingers on the black Tele, her thirteenth birthday present.

The song was surprisingly cheerful, a sprightly pop melody in E.  Absolutely unexpected from a girl who has been in anything but a pop mood for the last six months.  But she was still so thin, it was remarkable that a girl could be so alive and so barely there, thin and pliable as a shoot of bamboo.

And yet, bamboo had a tremendous vitality, didn’t it?  Didn’t it?  She  stirred the spaghetti sauce that Kat always liked, her ‘welcome back’ dinner.  Thinking of a show they’d once seen, a program Kat loved, that specialized in debunking legends. This one tested a legendary wartime torture, to see if a bamboo cane would actually work its way through a man’s body.  Indeed, they proved that a shoot would work its way through a side of pork in under three days.

Kat was alive.

And she had made up this song in the place Mel could only think of as That Place.

Did she even know this girl, this child which had come out of her, her talent seemed otherworldly now, her life a dangerous mystery. Mel gave the sauce a last stir, splashed in some wine and turned down the heat.  She went down into the living room, picking up her old Guild guitar from the rack, and joined her daughter on the old grimy couch.

“Play it again, I couldn’t hear from up there,” Mel said.

And Kat smiled at her.  A smile! That was unexpected. And began to play.  So confident, so authoritative.  When did she get so good?  And Mel listened, trying to work her way into the tune, she was improvising around her daughter’s line, picking it up.

They didn’t talk about That Place, the overdose, the why and the how.  For now, they were just playing.  Kat leading, Mel close behind.  She couldn’t ask for assurances, she couldn’t ask what came next.  There was no sheet music for this one, she would have to play it by ear.

Part  of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: CANE

 

This Hand, on this Wrist Affixed

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 03/06/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Hand

This hand, on this wrist affixed, will remain until the end.

This hand, that held the first pen, rudely fisted, crabbed with the unnatural gesture of those early A’s and B’s, over the sample characters with arrows illustrating the proper direction, Aa, Bb, blue-lined sheets in landscape-format, triple-ruled for the edification of the beginner, paper so cheap the splinters lay embedded like flags. This very hand once struggling to ape those shapes.

This hand, that marveled at the lines of early corduroy, that touched a rosepetal for the first time, astonished at the velvet plush. These fingertips that traced Grandma’s face, that sneakily examined the satin cummerbund of Mommy’s cocktail gown. That cut Mary Jane’s hair with scissors as long as my forearm. Mischievous hands, sensitive, sensual, they stroked the silk edges of all my blankets into shreds. This thumb, that I sucked well beyond the age of cuteness. How many stuffed animals has it fondled to threadbare cloth, gloried in the the doily edges of cut-lace collars topping how many velvet party dresses? Ripe with the beloved scent of horse sweat and sweaty saddle-leather, intelligent with the mysterious grip of double Pelham reins looped between the fingers just so.

This hand. Its lines of fate have changed over the years, like rivers rerouting through flat countryside, although the fingertip whorls of identity remain forever fixed. Still small, child-small, but now boasting weathered backs dotted with freckles. The nails far cleaner than they ever were, but still short, unpolished, the facets of time marking them like ’80s disco glass.

A fortune teller reading my palm at a party once identified me as a writer. Did she actually read the lines, I wonder, or spot the bend in the index finger, the unmistakable cant, the way a pen will alter the hand that holds it after years of hard service, that bend, with the corresponding slight callous on the opposing second finger, where all those pens have rested. My profession written there.

The hand that laid out a thousand hands of tarot, hungry for future. That wrapped around monkey bars and men alike. Backpack straps and suitcase handles, letters of acceptance and rejection, mailboxes full and empty, receivers of telephones bearing great and bad news. That touched the beloved hands of lovers, friends, parents, children.

Ah, her little hand in mine. Clung often to just one finger.

The hand also slammed a thousand doors, gave people the finger, flashed the peace sign, hitchhiked, indicated the door with a thumb. Held innumerable glasses while conversations glowed in long evenings, burnished and bright, gesturing extravagantly. Shook hands with the great and the forgettable, a few treasured beyond all–hands that also held pens, that also spilled ink.

The oceans of ink these hands have poured. The pages they have turned in a half-century’s Alexandria of books.

Hands shoved in pockets so they wouldn’t betray me. Pointed and clung, twirled two ropes in cadence, double-dutch, and played those intricate schoolgirl clapping games, “A sailor went to sea sea sea…” The hand that fed this body, all these years. How many spoons, and forks and knives? One spoon in particular, a silver baby spoon incised with birds, which I still use for sugar, the pleasure of wrapping my hand around it one more time. The windows it opened and closed, their mechanical variety of cranks and latches and levers. The zippers and buttons it has worked. The ten thousand meals it cooked. Peeled and sliced and chopped and stirred. Lit a city of birthday candles.

That finger, there, third finger left, for two decades wore a wedding ring–oak leaves and acorns. Its trace still visible. Like a freed slave’s cofflemark. And in an additional adornment to the slight rightward bend in the right forefinger, a flag of skin, where I sliced it open cutting a galley of type in a newspaper’s production room, when I was trying to be a writer.

This hand that caressed a lifetime of lovers, that held my only child, that made her laugh, tapping the tip of her nose. So many diapers. Now it caresses a late-life love, smooths his hair, unkinks a shoulder.

I love to think of just the warm sand that it has sifted through its fingers, like silk, like time, flowing.

As I grow old, so will these hands. They were there for everything. They drove the first car, a monstrous insect-green Fury III owned by Fairfax High’s Driver Ed, which stalled between two blind curves on Laurel Canyon. They’ll drive the last car too, whatever and whenever that will be.

To think alone of the alarms they’ve set, and silenced.

This hand, this very one, will see me through my last illness. This hand. When this life drains out of me, it will still be there, even then, this hand at the end of my arm. At the edge of the blanket, folded across my breast like a stilled wing. Someone will cover this hand with tears–my lover, my child? It will be buried with me, it will lie under the earth with me, just there. It gives me comfort, somehow, to know I won’t be alone.

Part of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: EAR

The Disappearing Act

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , on 01/30/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: MIRROR

Finally, the guests left. The old men, the cousins, the rabbi. The aunts and uncles. “Come stay with us, Amy,” said her cousin Sylvie. “You shouldn’t be by yourself now.” Would they never leave? One after another. Her mother and her new husband, Bennie. Her sister Tensi. Out out out! she wanted to scream, like Macbeth’s wife. But she didn’t, she sat during the endless shiva, she listened to the prayers, finally watched them pack up the cole slaw and the cold cuts, and stack them in the refrigerator. Enough!

“Please, I just need to be alone. Believe me, if I need help, I’ll be over,” she reassured her mother, and Tensi, and Mark’s buddies’ wives. “I’ll call. Yes, I promise.”

Then, at last, they were gone.

A houseful of well wishers, all that food. The last thing she wanted, a tongue sandwich.

The little house was so strange. In the bedroom, she almost stepped on a bowl of water, tucked by the foot of the bed. Something grainy on the floor of the bathroom, salt? She sat on the bed and looked at the sheet covering the mirror over their dresser. The bedroom set they’d bought when they moved into this little house, their own little house. The sweet gum in the front yard was bigger than the house itself. Her mother wanted them to cut it down, in case it fell in a strong wind or an earthquake. Her mother, always worried about the wrong thing.

She sat on the edge of the neatly made bed, with its quilted satin cover, where the coats had recently been piled. She was sure she looked a holy mess, but the cousins had covered the mirrors. It was such a ridiculous superstition. Sylvie said it was so the soul of the dead wouldn’t get caught behind the mirror. But the rabbi said it was so she could better concentrate on her loss, to underline that it was a time for sorrow and inward reflection. Like she needed some sort of reminder.

She kicked off her low heeled pumps and curled up on the bed that they were still making payments on. This house, this bed. They had been married eighteen months. They were going to wait to have children. Would it have been better to have had one who would now be an orphan? Or better this way, that she had no trace of him at all?

She turned onto her other side, trying to find a more comfortable spot. She couldn’t breathe, lying on either side. She took off her dress, unhooked her bra, wrapped herself in the satin. Her hands smelled of pickle, and mustard, though she had not eaten anything. She would wash them, but she didn’t want to get up.

The sheet spread across the mirror. How many times that mirror had seen them making love? It was good it was covered. She didn’t want to see herself lying here alone, she wanted to imagine he was lying next to her, on the dead pillow he liked, all squishy and rumpled. She put the pillow over her face. His smell. Stale. He’d been up in San Francisco, a sales meeting. He’d been driving a rented car. they said he had a stroke. How could he have had a stroke? He was only twenty five.

She thought of the way old people put their heads in plastic bags and tied a knot. Eighteen months. She knew she would somehow make it through the rest of the day–she didn’t know how, but it was only logical, unless she stopped breathing, night would come, and then she would somehow live through that as well. It was the way she got through her migraines. If you waited, the time passed, a minute, five minutes and so on. You breathed in and out. You lay in the dark and waited for the time to pass.

It was like a magician’s trick. Like someone had put a silk scarf over him and had made him disappear. Perhaps he was behind the mirror She wished someone would put that scarf over her too, and they could be together behind the mirror, in the magician’s dressing room, having a drink out of a pint bottle of rum, with the rabbit and the doves.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: HAND

Pussycat Pussycat, I Love You…

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , on 12/30/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Razor

Hank Seidel lathered up his face. He shaved with a straight razor, a source of pride, his hand still steady enough at 78. It was his zeide’s razor, Moisei Seidel. In Poland, they were all bearded, but when Moisei came to America, he shaved it off. Americans shaved. America saved Moisei’s life. So he learned to shave his face like an American. He might not have been able to rub two English words together, but shave he did.

The cat sat on the sink watching him. Its sable coat, its yellow-green eyes. Sadie and her cats. Sadie Katz, he called her. She used to have a whole genealogy of white cats–oy, the white hair all over his suits every morning. The one with the green eye and the blue eye, who broke all her crystal, getting up in the cabinet. But finally the last of them died out, he thought he’d get a rest. Then she started with the Burmese. Their daughter in law gave it to her. Sweet girl but another cat he could have done without.

“Mrrow,” said the cat.

“Mrow to you too,” said Hank.

He remembered how Sadie used to carry the cat around, and sing to it. “Hank listen, he’s singing.” Pussycat pussycat I love you, yes I do…

And he’d be damned if the little momser didn’t sing along. Mrrrow, mrrow mrrow. The funniest thing he’d ever seen.

Burma Shave, that’s what she called it.

The cat watched him, solemnly, like he was studying for his barber exam.

Hank stropped the razor, tested the edge and began to shave, up under his chin, then the sides of his face, and his moustache. She always liked a good close shave, his Sadie Katz. She was a redhead, had that redhead’s tender skin.

He looked in the mirror, his dark face with the boxer’s chin, the boxer’s broken nose. Broken in a smoker back in Boston. This face. The dimple in the chin made it a hard face to shave. She liked to put her finger right there.

He began to run the blade up under his chin. Sadie, Sadie, where did you go? He could cut his throat in one quick flash of the blade. It was what he liked about shaving with his father’s razor, his grandfather’s. It was the secret that none of them had ever spoken about. Silent men, all of them. That every morning, he held the possibility of death in his hand. Every morning, he decided his own fate. Rick wouldn’t understand that–his son, the professor. He wouldn’t understand how important it was for a man to have a choice. You had a choice, you could decide not to.

The cat walked delicately along the back of the sink, jumped up to the top of the side cabinet, so they were at eye level. He got the strangest sensation that Sadie was watching him through that little cat’s eyes.

“So Burma Shave, what’s new, pussy cat?”

How intently it watched him. It reached out a paw, and tried to touch him.

He grasped the little paw.

“I’m okay, honey.” He picked the cat up, and wrapped it loosely around his neck, It hung there, boneless. And he began to sing, finishing his shave. He had a lousy voice, but managed to get the words out. “Pussycat pussycat I love you…

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: MIRROR

A Lean Cuisine

Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , on 12/20/2010 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Nose

Melody sat curled the on her couch, watching a Hugh Grant movie. She loved this film, but this afternoon, she couldn’t concentrate. She glanced at her cell to see if Geneva had called yet. She couldn’t wait to hear what had happened with her and Mike. Was she going to finally dump his sorry ass? Or would she let herself be sucked in again? And who was Mike, anyway, just some guy, just a dumb guy with a dumb job, she could never even remember what, some job type job with the city.

Still no call. Ever since Geneva and Mike got together, her friend had become nearly a stranger. She used to share every crisis, each triumph. She couldn’t go a half-day without checking in. It didn’t have to be a big thing. A DKNY jacket found for $40 at the Jewish Women thrift store. Or the dozens of near-misses with near-celebrities she met on the magazine she worked for. Her tangled relationships with exlovers and siblings. Every day there was something, Pete the photo editor had stood closer than usual, did she think she something was going on? Her mother had taken to wearing animal prints–should she tell her it was beyond the beyond?

After the parties Geneva attended for her magazine, Melody could hardly wait to get the call the next day, find out how it had gone, if she’d met anyone, what the guy had said and where they’d gone, what his apartment looked like, the things they did in bed. One had the equipment but didn’t know what to do with it, another was tiny but surprisingly inventive. One pulled her hair, another, a famous actor, wanted her to put makeup on him.

And now Melody couldn’t even get a callback. They’d been so tight, since elementary school. She remembered the time in 11th grade Geneva thought she was pregnant! And time she picked up a TV actor in the vegetable department at Trader Joe’s. And now it was like Melody was shit on her shoes.

The phone rang, but it was just Greenpeace. And then Elissa, the receptionist at the law firm, who had even less going on than Melody did.

It was five, the time on Sundays they’d usually chat, but now Geneva was with Mike, and suddenly, it was like she’d forgotten Melody’s number.

Melody had seen this movie three times already. She adored Hugh Grant. Hughie was her idea of a heavenly hookup–though to be sure, getting caught with an ugly hooker having car sex in Hollywood showed less suavity than you’d imagine. She had promised herself she would not call Geneva again. But she couldn’t resist. She just had to know.

She called the familiar number, Geneva’s picture on the screen, her big dark eyes and longish nose, the bangs she’d worn since forever.

“Hi, Mel.” Melody could hear music playing in the background, rock, a boy singing, something cool and original. Geneva always had something new and interesting playing. Never TV.

“Hi Gen. I was just thinking of you, haven’t heard from you in a while. I left a few messages–” but better not to mention that. “What’s up with you?”

She could hear the band in the background, and then Geneva’s sigh. “Let’s talk about you, Mel. What’s new with you?”

It was a strange thing to say. “Oh, same old same old.”

“Oh, surely you’re doing something,” Geneva said. Something in her voice. “Gone anywhere interesting? Seen a new show? Met anyone?”

Was she mad at her? “You know I would have told you if I had.”

“Would you?” Geneva said.

“Are you mad at me? I haven’t even talked to you for two weeks. You never return my calls.” She could feel her chest tightening, the tears welling up.

“Look, Mel, I’m just a normal person, now. I make dinner. I get the flu. I go out with Mike and have beers with his buddies at Parks and Rec. You’re the single girl. Why don’t you entertain me for a change?”

That band, the cool, nasally sound. Now she wished she hadn’t called. Why was Geneva mad at her? “Are you bored? Why don’t you tell Mike to take you somewhere.”

“So I can tell you about it?” Geneva said. “No. No, Mel. This is the way it’s going to be. From now on, I’ll call you and I’ll say, ‘hey what’s up?’ and you tell me. I think that’s what I’m going to do. So I’ll call you Wednesday, okay? Wednesday. And you tell me what all’s going on. Bye, Melody. Have fun.”

And there was a dial tone on the line.

Melody closed her phone and put it on the coffee table. Have fun. What was Geneva getting at? That Melody had nothing to do but snoop in Geneva’s life?

She turned back to the set, Hugh and Drew Barrymore, the car sex guy and the juvenile drug addict turned producer. Suddenly, she didn’t want to watch them. She would never be like these people, with their glamorous problems. She thought fleetingly of the Lean Cuisine she was going to nuke for dinner. Monday morning at the law firm. Why did Geneva be so mean. It wasn’t fair. Did she think people could just decide to be interesting? That they what? sort of fell out the door into an interesting life?

She stared at the blank TV screen, listening to the guys upstairs bicker about who would take the dog out in the rain. Was that all she had?

Okay, she could go out. She could show Geneva, she could be interesting. She could brush her hair and put on some lipstick and go out to some restaurant by herself, some bar. Maybe meet someone, why not?

But she as she imagined it, it just seemed depressing. Schlepping out, sodden and dripping wet, to some restaurant, some bar, and trying to have an adventure. Meet some pathetic boring guy, and pretend to be interested in his stupid life. She could even take him home with her. and pretend it was fun. “Oh yeah, Bill, I met him at Chin Chin. Yeah, I took home.”

And then what. Maybe he would steal her blind, or give her the clap. Maybe he’d fall in love with her and she wouldn’t be able to get rid of him. What if he was a junkie? Or didn’t like her enough to call her again?

If only Geneva hadn’t gotten so boring. It was so infuriating when women got stuck with men like Mike. They just drained the right life out of them. Who needed friends like that anyway.

Part of a weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word. “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: RAZOR

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