Archive for the The Word: Stories Category

Bubbles and Me

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 10/06/2015 by Janet Fitch

The Word: GLOVE

Anna sat at the bar of the Hyatt Atlanta, the site this year of AWP, with Scott Fender and Aly Cole. Talking about Old Times, when the three of them shared a house in Iowa—that dump–writing, critiquing each other’s work, partying it up. Her old pals joked and laughed, but she could see,behind their eyes, they were searching her for the old Anna, the fat girl, life of the party. The last one off the dance floor, the one who brought the pot, the Jack Daniels. They’d been hand in glove in those days, Anna’s door always open, her big bed always ready for a sprawl and a pow-wow, a double feature on her old TV. That was who they missed. The fat funny self-deprecating Anna, who was fun for everyone but herself.

All the fallen faces, they were trying so hard to look happy for her.  Here came one more, Laurel Chapman, standing in the entryway, squinting–she had always been slightly nearsighted–not sure if it was Anna at all. Anna turned on her barstool, all legs in her wrap dress, and caught Laurel’s eye. Yes, it’s me, her nod said. “Hello, Gorgeous!” Laurel said, rushing over.

Anna stiffened as Laurel hugged her, and she could see Laurel’s confusion. She wasn’t that big soft girl anymore, the big breasts, the big stomach, the big arms. Her arms had grown strong and lean now, her stomach non-existent. She taught at Boulder, where she had begun to climb, and mountain bike. She had gone from 185 to 124 and she could see Laurel’s disappointment, that her hug was no longer like a golden retriever slobbering all over you. She was not ‘doing’ that Anna anymore and they were all disoriented. What happened to the sidekick, the best friend, the life of the party?

Anna got the bartender’s attention right away– the boy disregarded the sea of writing profs and authors and came right to her. “My friend will have a margarita–salt, rocks. Right?”

Laurel grinned, appreciating that at least Anna remembered that much. Then her old roommate noticed that Anna herself was drinking a martini up with a twist. All that cold snowy clearness.

“So what have you been up to?” Laurel asked. But Anna knew what she was asking–What happened to you?

“She moved to Boulder,” Aly said.

“Climbing, kayaking,” sighed Scott.

“Holy shit,” Laurel said. “You look like that actress, do people ever tell you that, the one that married to Warren Beatty—“

“Anita Benning,” Aly said.

“Annette,” said Scott.

“Have you always been like, this closet athlete?” Laurel asked.

“The Anna I knew would have shit bricks if she’d had to carry a box upstairs,” Scott said.

All of them drinking margaritas, the drink Anna had introduced them to in grad school, because she was from California. Margaritas and guacamole. They were disappointed that she hadn’t stayed there with them.

“Do you still have that bong? That looked like Bubbles in 1000 Clowns?” Laurel asked, really asking Are you still smoking pot? Do you still party? Do you still get drunk and lurch around with your blouse undone? Are you still the laughing stock of Ames Iowa? Oh, we had such good times when you were such a mess. Aly loved her then, because she’d looked so good by comparison. Laurel too. So great to have someone who was never going to get picked, except sloppy seconds, or thirds.

Now she didn’t care if people liked her. She didn’t have to work at being this loveable fun gal anymore.

“I heard you have Dorna Palermo at Boulder this semester,” Scott said.

“Did you read her last book?” Anna said, squeezing the lemon peel of her martini around the rim of the glass. “What a piece of sentimental crap,”

He looked crushed, his stubbly beard, his watery blue-green eyes. “You always liked Dorna Palermo.”

“A burned out piece of shit with a bad perm,” she said.

The way they looked at her. Hadn’t she always said what she thought of people?

“They’re paying sixty grand for the residency. Hey, pay me sixty for a term of doing nothing, I’d at least sleep with the students.”

Scott laughed but the two other women didn’t. They just stared at her—what were they objecting to, her mentioning money? God forbid! Or offering to sleep with the students. Who were way cuter than they had been at Iowa.

“She won a National Book Award,” Aly argued.

“All that aged goldbricker does is drink, and she doesn’t even shtup the students. They’re very disappointed.”

But it was her friends who were disappointed. They missed parking her at the bar and going off with some adjunct faculty from Bennington. She had dropped sixty pounds, stopped performing. The Anna who wanted you to like her had died. And this was the one who was left. The one who didn’t have to sing for her supper.

And this was who she’d been all the while.

The bartender was flirting with her.

“Are you liking Colorado?” Laurel asked.

“Saved my life,” Anna said. She noticed that Laurel was putting on a few pounds. Maybe she would send her Bubble.   Like passing on the torch.

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: TORCH



Human Resources

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 06/22/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: GROUND

Jet  set down her battered briefcase on the chair next to Nora, slipped off her jacket. Her girlfriend was hunched unhappily over an unfinished Sudoku on the dining room table, still in her work clothes. “Susan again?”

Nora appraised her with red rimmed eyes. “I am going to kill her. I’m going to hide behind the door of her office and when she comes in I’m going to staple one of her fucking memos to her forehead.” She clapped her hands smartly, the retort the sound of the staple through Susan Balt’s cranium.

Jet could smell the electrical storm rising from her girlfriend, the ozone under the slighty stale scent of her hair. A few months ago, Gelco had hired a new Human Resources Director– a position which everyone assumed would go to Nora. But they’d brought someone from HQ in Delaware, a petite woman who wore neat ladylike skirt-suits and flat shoes and pearls. Corporate drama. Academics was bad enough, but from what she heard from Nora, it was nothing compared to this kind of Machiavellian byplay.

She’d met Nora’s new boss a couple of times. Jet instantly pegged her for class fink — pursed lips, a smile she’d had to practice, the perennially anxious look in her eyes. A straight A girl—but not one of the naturally gifted ones, the ones who had to be heard in class no matter what, who came into her office and plopped themselves down anytime they liked, and began arguing about points in history from some weird but interesting point of view. No, your Susans of the world respected office hours, took perfect notes, they were the ones buttoned down so tight you worried about a breakdown, they crossed their legs at the ankle. The ones whose mothers made them take piano lessons all the way through high school, who had never had an original idea or a puff of marijuana or a really satisfying screw in their whole lives. The Susans lived to rise to a position of power, where they could force others to walk a mile in their little tight shoes—‘others’ who were, for the moment, her girlfriend Nora.

She tried to massage Nora’s shoulders, smooth in her sleeveless black dress, but Nora shrugged her off. Nora had more than a scoop of the good-girl thing too, which was why her new boss goaded her to such rage. Nora already tried hard. She was already careful and punctual and helpful. She never took sick days, never got into it with anybody. But Susan treated her as if she were a detention student, pointing out sloppiness, carelessness, handing out demerits in a mock-helpful tone.

Her darling girl lay her dark head on her arm on the cluttered tabletop.

“Glass of wine?” Jet asked helpfully. “Doobie?”

Her lover glanced up from her outstretched arm, skeptical, hurting, like an dog with a thorn in its paw, her lower lip turned out and nodded.

Over a glass of Beaujolais and a fatty in the living room, Nora poured out the details, the latest drama, each X-Acto-bladed insult, the whispering cabals. Jet nodded, murmuring sympathetic noises, though honestly, keeping a certain distance, a little remove. She had to keep it hidden, she had to be careful or Nora would accuse her of indifference, turn her fury on Jet. You don’t care at all, she’d said to her more than once. This, my life, it’s all a joke to you, isn’t it.

Jet sucked at the reefer, passed it to Nora. Was she soulless? she wondered. Her ex-girlfriend Hollye used to throw things at her and call her soulless, because she couldn’t get herself all worked up when some neighbor looked at her  funny, some woman at the store. “Fight back!” Hollye used to shriek, clawing at her. “Goddamn you! What makes you so superior?” But Hollye was a hot and cold raving lunatic, drama queen extraordinaire. Jet could still picture her, a small, wiry blonde, taking Volume 2 of Churchill’s World In Crisis from her shelf, a precious first edition, and tearing the cover, flinging it across the room. “How’ja like that, you passive aggressive freak! Mad yet? Hit me why don’t you? ” She had not punched Hollye. But she had begun packing that very night.

Jet smiled understandingly at Nora. This was was no Hollye. Nora was a Human Resources manager, smooth shouldered, patrician. She didn’t break things, she wasn’t insane. Jet did what she could to make Nora feel loved. She refilled her wine, passed the joint to her. Her girl looked better now, more animated, the color coming back into her face as she ranted about on about Susan and her ‘henchmen’ and the Quasimodos of headquarters. But Jet had to admit, it was all junior high to her. Just so much sturm und drang. She’d learned as a kid to let her parents’ fights wash over her. It would be done eventually, there was no point in getting struck by lightning. She used to think of it as ‘grounding out.’

But she tried to interject sympathetic phrases when she could: . “That was way out of line,” “What a bitch.” Just to show she was listening.

“I was talking about Victor,” Nora finally said, squinting at her. “Are you even listening to me? This is real, this is happening.”

What could Jet say? Nora worked for a bunch of dickheads and they were being dickheads. News at eleven. Maybe there was something wrong with her, maybe these girls were right all along. That something was missing in her, that she just couldn’t feel what other people were all up in arms about. Even Nora. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, it was that she just didn’t see the point of getting all worked up about something that would soon settle itself out one way or another. No crisis lasted for ever.

“You think this is nothing. I can see that superior look on your face. Just a tempest in a teapot,” Nora said, sliding her feet off the coffee table, planting them on the oriental rug. Leaning forward. Ready for a fight. Why did women always want to fight with her? Why couldn’t they let her do what she did well and cut her some slack.

“It’s not me you’re mad at, remember? I’m on your side.”

“You should be outraged!” Nora said, her lips stained from the Beaujolais. “This is my life. These people are fucking your woman around. And you just sit there like it has nothing to do with you. It’s ghoulish how you can be so calm at a time like this.”

“Maybe I should be in Human Resources, eh?” Jet tried to give Nora a hug, but her girlfriend shoved her away. “Come on, N. It was just a joke.”

But Nora was staring to cry. “It’s not a joke! This is real, Jet, you just don’t get it. You never get it. You’re behind this windshield, looking at me like I was a bug in Bugland. You’re like encased in this rubber suit, walking through the world.”

Jet did care. She cared deeply about Nora, her happiness. But she couldn’t walk into the electrical storm wearing a metal suit. That would be idiocy. There was too much drama in the world as it was, both ephemeral and dangerous, enormous lightning storms, and she didn’t see the point in letting herself be electrocuted if she could allow a strike to pass safely into the ground. She loved Nora, but she didn’t feel what she felt, the humiliation, the torture by a thousand paper-cuts.

“I am listening.” She put her hand on Nora’s sleek bare knee. “Vic’s siding with Susan. Susan wants you to take on reordering the records, and it’s not your job.” And what if Jet did get upset about all this stuff? What if she was like Nora, or Hollye, and screamed and wept and slammed doors and threw first editions? What woman really wanted a partner like that?

“I’ve decided, I’m going to quit.” Nora gazed into her wineglass, turning the dregs this way and that, rubbing at her tears with the back of the other hand.

Jet gazed at Nora’s determined profile, the firm clean jaw, the smell of her light perfume. Would she really do it? No, her Nora was a tenacious creature, she wouldn’t let Susan run her off. Not in a million years.

Nora brought in the bulk of their income, this was her West Hollywood duplex. Restaurant meals and vacations on beautiful islands… In a month they’d be in Java.  Jet knew she wouldn’t really go through with it. She was just talking. If she wanted to be broke, she could have gone on for a PhD in industrial psychology. But she’d weighed the intellectual stimulation of academia against the cold cash of the corporate world, and went the way that would support her aesthetic, her sweet way of life, the designer clothes she was wearing. Not to mention allowing Jet to be the semi-fuckup she was, a college prof but non-tenure track–she’d screwed up her tenure situation years ago, there was no going back.

“If you want to quit, quit,” Jet said with what she hoped was a bit of passion. She’d learned long ago that trying to stop an angry woman from doing something was to insure she’d do it, just to prove that she could.

“You think I won’t?” Nora asked. And then she growled, like a tiger, a grizzly, like she wanted to tear Jet’s face off with her strong straight teeth.

Jet had to say something. “I don’t know, babe. I don’t have a lot of say in this, do I?” And if Nora did quit? Now Jet smelled ozone, the tickling hair, the fizz of electrical storm, she was losing her grounding.  Oh, surely they had enough dough to tide them over. It was Jet’s recurring nightmare–having to move back to a shitbox apartment in North Hollywood around a pool-less courtyard with kids screaming and people’s TVs blaring on all sides, the place she lived when she first moved to LA… No, Nora would never do that… Or worse–move out of LA entirely. They both knew people forced to do just that, fleeing to Ukiah, or Davis. Charles had moved back to Missouri, he was teaching high school. Erasers hitting him in the head when his back was turned.

“Maybe when we get back from Java…” Jet said. “Things’ll look different.”

Nora wrenched her mouth into a schwa. “Oh, didn’t I tell you?” Swallowing the rest of her wine.  “Susan said it wasn’t convenient. She’s set a big Gelco HR conference that week. We’ll have to cancel.”

Susan had put the kibosh on their trip?  Lightning broke around Jet’s head like a crown of thorns, the crackle of fire in dry leaves.  “That bitch!  What a fucking cunt!”

Now Nora smiled, and poured the rest of the Beaujolais into her glass. “Yeah, that Susan.”

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: GLOVE


A Pain In the Neck

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , on 06/08/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: THROAT

Deborah’s sore throat starts after work. She’s gone to dinner with her boss, Avery, and four other lawyers, to a fusion sushi place near SciArc downtown. She can feel the tickle beginning, on the left side, and drinks a good measure of sake to try to sterilize it. She hates eating out with the Lapels, as she calls them privately. All of them in their jackets, the Kevlar of the business world. By the time she gets home, she can feel it coming on, a bad one, she heads for the bathroom and stares down her throat with a flashlight, examining it as she’d once examined her own intimate zones, Our Bodies Ourselves. This looks much the same.

Hammy lounges in the doorway, still in his pajama bottoms. At 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night. “So how’d it go with Aviary and the gang?”

“My throat hurts.” She takes a swig of Listerine and gargles vigorously, watching the clock. A full minute, and spit, eyeing the green globs in the sink. Hoping she’s got it all out.

“Of course it hurts. From the effort of not telling them to go piss up a rope,” he says. “Disease as metaphor.”

He hasn’t shaven. His shaggy blonde curls woolly and unwashed. His t-shirt has stains on the front. He smells of cigarettes. She knows it’s a good sign, he’s been writing all day. If he’d smelled of pot, that’s the bad sign. Whiskey, even worse—that he hadn’t been writing and he felt bad about it.

She doesn’t state the obvious—if she’d told them to piss up a rope, she would be fired, and then neither one of them would have a source of income. But of course, doesn’t say that. It would hurt his feelings, and it’s hard enough to be a writer without one’s girlfriend pointing out that one is being supported by her unpleasant but lucrative job as a corporate attorney.

“You get these sore throats because you don’t say what’s on your mind.” Rubbing her neck, looking in the mirror over her shoulder. His unshaven cheeks. Little specks of gray were starting to appear.  Their lives aren’t as fluid as they’d once been. They’ve chosen their paths, and now they have to put up with their choices, she as a corporate shitshoveler, he as a brilliant but unappreciated writer of quirky literary fiction.

She feels her nodes with her fingertips, swollen.

What if she did tell Avery she hates him? Hates everything about him, from his big gold Rolex to his blue shirts, his blue eyes, his tan, his handball, his alma mater. What if she tells Robert and Yvonne they don’t have a chance at making partner? Takes Geoff by his Lapels and shouts  stop being so mean. Just because you can’t face being gay is no reason to take it out on the rest of the world. What if she tells her client the Upland Group their exurban gated communities are a crime against humanity.

Why stop there? She could tell her mother to stop shopping and find something she could do that would be of some use to another human being. And tell her father to look up the definition of codependent. The things she would say if she started speaking her mind. Then what would happen, Hammy my love?

She watches her boyfriend in the mirror, Birmingham Walker III, about whom many things are true, and not all of them lovely. The truth is everybody always wants you to speak up, to speak your truth–about other people. But never about them.

She cannot, will not say, what would you do if I told them all off, Hammy? How far would you go for me? Would you get dressed and go out tomorrow looking for work, would you take whatever you found? Would you wait tables for me, wipe up people’s hamburger slop? Would you be a crew member at Trader Joe’s?

She already knows he would not. He would become paralyzed by self-loathing, fall into a depression, drink excessively and move back in with his mother.

 She gargles again, spits out another wad of emerald green Listerine-stained mucous into the sink. She will have this throat kicked by morning, she can already feel herself besting it.

The truth is, if it’s left up to her, she could always wipe up hamburger slop. The difference between them–she could work at a Trader Joe’s without even blinking. Does that make her codependent,  like her father with her mother? That she lets everybody else follow their horrible hearts, while she only allows herself to do the sensible thing? Does that make her strong or weak? Is there an AlAnon for people like her, with the will to go on, who take it and  go to work with their sore throats and Lapels?

She imagines it, their basement meeting rooms–All the reliable people in their workclothes, sitting on folding chairs drinking burned coffee, practicing telling people off, practicing quitting.

“What’s so funny?” Hammy asks, wrapping his arms around her, resting his chin on her shoulder in the mirror, his dark eyes next to hers, his ..vulnerable unshaven face.

“Never mind,” she says. “Come, read me something.” She begins to undress for bed, hanging her jacket neatly on a hanger, to air out for the night, till 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: GROUND


The Beginner

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , on 05/30/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: TABLE

She pulled her chair up to the table and sat. She piled her chips by her elbow. She played Noir. She played Rouge. She put a stack on 9 and lost. The table was hot. The table went cold. She anted. She passed. She called. She held pairs. She lay down with a flourish a grand royal flush. She played games she didn’t know the rules for, where things shook and jingled and smacked down hard.  Men with snap-fronted shirts coached her. Men in tinted glasses sneered. Fingers moved across the table and took her chips, or brought more.This was what it was to be 23. 24. 25.  You pulled up to the table. You didn’t know what you were doing, but you began to play.  You learned as you lost. You lost, sometimes you won, but there was no saying, really, why, or when.

Some of her friends preferred not to take their places at the table. Too risky they said. They moved back home, where they would stay through their thirties, into their forties. They dated a little but not much. They ate wisely. They went to the movies for the six o’clock show. They had a single glass of wine. Olive oil. Yoga,  sunscreen. They felt themselves canny, to have avoided the whole thing.

For her, it wasn’t  enough. She had to pull up to the table and play. She had to try. She had to fail, fail outright, to know what that felt like, it was important, to taste it, to play the game they were playing, if it was Texas Hold ‘Em or Pai Gow or blackjack. It was her time at the table. She pulled up a chair. Her cards set before her. She picked them up, sorted them as best she could, anted up, began.

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: THROAT


Portrait in Black and White

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , on 05/17/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: FRAME

Julia turned onto her side, where her head didn’t hurt so much. Before her, family photos in white frames hung in a cluster. Photos from different eras, scanned and resized, in harmonious black and white, all in white frames on the dove gray wall. So very elegant. All that black and white. She and the designer both agreed.  But now, there was nowhere she wanted to rest her eyes. oh, for a patch of blue.

That photo. Of her with her grandfather in the early Seventies. Reduced just to its pictorial elements–couch, the moire of the family room paneling, the collie’s darks and lights. Her grandfather’s face brightened so his features were clear. What had been in real life a small square snapshot in the rusts and golds of the early Seventies, his dark face, copper brown, the caramel and white of the collie, the golden swirls of the woodwork.

In black and white it reminded her of a news photo. Have you seen these people? The warmth had disappeared. Those rich browns, those golds. When she was that girl in the picture, she’d taken all her photographs in black and white. Wound her own film onto the spools, developed them in the bathroom, printed in the highschool darkroom.. It was how she saw the world, high contrast, black and white. Taking no pleasure in the golden browns and coffees and yolk gold. She’d liked white subtitles against stony Swedish beaches too, and rainslicked Noir boulevards, and the preternaturally pale movie stars. Dietrich and Garbo.

She’d made a mistake to let these prints be made. A crime.  That party dress with the cut lace collar her mother had made for her seventh birthday was burgundy, not black. Her first formal gown turquoise with gold thread on white silk. And there, at her first house after college, lying in the backyard under an apricot tree—the grass long and green and stitched with flowers, her long hair was newly red, the flowing hippie skirt the saffron of the fruit. Or there–the chalked nursery school pavement, Kayla in her favorite dress, flying as she hopscotched, barefoot—but the dress, just dots and movement, no rainbow. Her chocolate curls now licorice.

What had she been thinking, when she’d allowed the decorator to create this room, its gray walls and white furniture, white duvet, and black and white photographs.

She certainly hadn’t realized she’d be dying here.

Towards the center of the cluster of photos, a toddler in Fifties garb held a clutch of plastic keys. She could still remember how enticing they felt, smooth and a bit soft, pastel as Jordan almonds, eminently biteable. The little rounded Peter Pan collar, the smocking across the bodice—all of her clothes had smocking then. What color? Sky blue–even as a tiny child. Her hair like buckwheat honey.

She really had been born in another time, hadn’t she? All that smocking. Eisenhower was president. His bald head replacing Liberty’s on the silver dime. Their TV resided in a wooden box, with vents into which she’d secretly smuggled love notes to Mighty Mouse. The young decorator had marveled at that picture, the way Julia herself had once marveled at photos of her mother in Forties lipstick and padded shoulders, or her father in Depression overalls and bare feet.

She hated all these black and whites. How could she have allowed it? To take the color away, so that they would all go together. The mishmash of all that life, turned into her teenage aesthetic ideal. All drama but where was the life? Life was not an art object, it didn’t hang together—ha. Her head hurt, but she couldn’t help it, she could never resist a pun. But life didn’t have to create a unified whole. Some moments were overexposed and others, badly composed. It was just like her to let a decorator redesign her life so it looked good in white frames on a gray wall. Like death in life. Like a newspaper morgue.

Well, she wanted her grandfather’s coppery arms back. Her daughter’s rainbows, the gold and turquoise of that Indian brocade, the flowerdappled grass. She didn’t care if it looked like a mess. It was a life, in all its colors. Just for a little while more, until all the colors were gone.  And give that girl her sky blue dress, and keys like Jordan almonds.

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: TABLE




The Artificial Heart

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 05/02/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: BILL

What led him to open the mail that day? He normally didn’t do mail, that was Carolyn’s province. The bills, the house, the painters and plumbers, taxes and whatnot. She was presiding angel. He made the money, she spent it. That was their joke. But he’d come home from work early, he’d had a breakthrough towards the silicone armature for the artificial heart. He deserved the afternoon off.

On the hall table among the other mail was a card, clearly a birthday card for him, from his old college friend Kathy Setzer, now heading her own lab at MIT. Kathy always remembered birthdays. Funny old Kathy. Carolyn had met her once at a John Hopkins reunion–his beautiful new wife had looked like a peacock in a barnyard. He never realized how plain the scientists were before. Carolyn had taken one look at Kathy and whispered, “She’s a full professor, for god’s sake, does she really have to shop at Penney’s?” Well, Kathy was a scientist, and Carolyn was a designer– recommended by the realtor when he’d bought the La Jolla house after he’d made his first five million.  She’d just swept him up. Beautiful, organized, decisive. Saved his life, really.

The card from Kathy was so sweet. A Sierra club photo of people kayaking on Chesapeake Bay. Kathy had always been game for the outdoors, hiking, backpacking… That made him laugh—Carolyn’s idea of the outdoors was white wine on the patio looking out at the sunset. These days he went kayaking alone. He propped the card on the table, knowing his wife would have something tart to say about Kathy. His friends bored her. She preferred the money crowd of La Jolla, people she met through the museum.

Oh, what did he  care who they had dinner with, at fundraisers and so on. He had her, he had his work. She took care of him in a way Kathy or a woman like her would never be able to.

Which was how he came to open the envelope.

It was just a bill. An Amex bill or something. He glanced over it, still thinking of kayaking Chesepeake. The old Hopkins days with Kathy Setzer.

The name on the bill stopped him. It wasn’t his, or even theirs. It was Carolyn’s brother Frankie’s. This address, but Frank Norman. For $12,586.35. Thank you for your last payment of $7,452. He stood looking at the bill, blinking. Why was he getting Frankie’s bill? And who in the world would have given Frankie Norman an Amex card? Let alone let him rack up a tab like that? Frankie Norman was a nice enough guy, but basically a surf bum—this was almost $20 grand worth of what? Carlsbad Mercedes, lease payment, $523. Frankie didn’t even drive a Mercedes… or did he? Some kind of sports car, yes… though honestly, he couldn’t remember the last time he saw Frankie.

David could feel a shocked redness creeping up from the collar of his polo shirt, up his neck and into his face. Thank you for your last payment… Car payment, restaurants… Bessell Custom Surfboards. Airline tickets for two, LAN airlines, to  SCL. LAN?  SCL? He was about to Google it on his cellphone when the mystery of the acronym resolved itself a moment later–Hotel Grand Hyatt, Santiago, Chile. Grand Hotel Gervasoni, Valparaiso, Chile. Two weeks at the Gervasoni, Valparaiso, Chile. A suite.

Frankie couldn’t have gotten an Amex card. He began to search through the fat wad of mail. Bloomingdales, Neiman Marcus, Another Amex, this one for Carolyn’s mother, living in a retirement community in Vero Beach. He gutted it.  $3,267. About the same the month before.  Well, at least the old lady wasn’t so greedy.

His head was bursting. His heart… he couldn’t afford a heart attack—RepliCorp’s artificial heart was years away. He couldn’t afford this.

 Citi Card. Carolyn N. Stein. He ripped it open with such fumbling hands that he tore the bill as well. $88,273.67. Even as his senses reeled, the computational wheels spun in his head. He’d always been good at numbers. Words he distrusted, but numbers… Thank you for your last payment, $47,928. He couldn’t help adding it up. So far he’d seen a two month outlay of $160 grand and change. A year– that was almost $700,000. He hesitated to multiply by 24 days in a month that mail arrived. It was close to the end of the month, maybe this was the bulk of it. God knew what was on the other cards.

He thought of all those afternoons he’d come home and see her leafing through the mail. Anything for me?

He thought he might vomit.

His love, his beautiful wife. Carolyn, what have you done? But his eye kept scanning the bill. DeMolay Jeweler’s–$71,495.   He pulled out his phone, frantically punched in the phone number that was conveniently listed with the entry on his bill, misdialed, had to start again.  “Yes, DeMolay? This is Dr. David Stein. I wanted to ask you about a bill—yes, I’ll wait.”

The billing office came on. “Yes Dr. Stein?” A smooth woman’s voice.

“My wife was in there last month, she bought something from you, I just got the bill. What was that item, please?”

He could hear clicking. Of course DeMolay Jewelers was completely computerized, they could certainly afford it. “Yes, Mr. Stein? I see it, but I’m not sure, it might be a gift…”

He felt a twinge. What if she had bought a gift for him? But, she had not bought two weeks at the Grand Hotel Gervasoni for him. Or six Hermes scarves. “What was it?”

“A watch, sir. A Patek.”

“A man’s watch?”

“Yes, sir.”

He hung up and slipped the phone back in his pocket. He couldn’t breathe. He opened the sliding doors to the patio, went outside into the clean, cool afternoon, sat heavily in a patio chair, always scrubbed and ready for use. He sucked great lungfuls of ocean air. Out in the water, down at the edge of the Pacific glinting in the lowering sun, surfers rode the bluegreen waves. Frankie, on his custom Bessell surfboard.

But maybe it was a birthday gift for him… Maybe—

He saw her, in her white tennis dress, racket over her shoulder…

Did he have any money left at all? Was this all just a dream? His daughter, his wife… Should he wait for his birthday, to see if maybe–?

But he was no fool.

Then he stopped himself in mid-thought. Ha–of course he had been. A fool was exactly what he was, what he’d always been. A perfect fool. Was that how she’d seen him? As she discussed carpet and couches and lamps? A fool who owned a biotech company and ten major patents.

He looked down his list of contacts on his phone, and rang the lab at MIT. “Hi, Kathy?”

Her voice, so familiar, a bit nasal. “Dave! So cool, you called. How’s life in the big leagues

“Kind of crazy. Look, just wanted to thank you for the card,” he said. Someone caught a wave, riding it towards shore. “I mean really. It means a lot.”

“Hey, no problem. Hey, Dave–you okay?”

He was crying. Took off his glasses and wiped his eyes on the back of his hand. The trendy glasses Carolyn had insisted he buy. Sprucing him up. “No. Yeah. Probably. You know.” What was the chance that Kathy, running her lab at MIT, would understand any of this, have any idea. $70K for a fucking watch. What did Carolyn do with all the stuff? Sell it on Ebay? She was an Ebay nut—he knew that, but he never….

He had to get his shit together. He couldn’t fall apart now. He had to be very clear now.  “I have to go now.  Just wanted to say… thanks.”

“You coming out for the reunion?”

“Maybe.  If I can afford it.”

“Funny,” she said. “How’s your glamorous spouse?”

“Ever more glamorous,” he said, and rang off.

He glanced at his watch. His old Timex. His father gave it to him when he graduated from high school.  Carolyn would be home any time now. He had to get ready. He had to clear his mind.  He wouldn’t open any more of the envelopes.  No, he wanted to watch her leafing through that stack of mail with that same calm, bland look on her face. Anything interesting honey? No, not really. He wanted to see that look, one last time.


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: FRAME`



Mr. Man

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 04/06/2014 by Janet Fitch


Edie tried so hard to walk in the light. To look for things to love. The wind tossing in the trees, the shimmering of palm fronds, flowering cherries and plums. Someone being kind to someone in the street, a young person walking with an old person, matching their slow careful steps. A good dog, sitting at a corner, waiting for his owner to give the OK. Orange cars, and green ones, especially screaming orange and green, like cars from the ‘Seventies.

But her mother was in the hospital now, something terrible going on, some cosmic struggle, she was spitting and biting and calling out, talking about “Mr. Man,” who started as her old boss, Mr. Manfred, but had been transmuted through the relentless procession of dementia into a looming, punishing, Godot-like figure. Mr. Man the Boogie Man.

Edie paused at the table before the pile of receipts, her taxes spread out, wondering if she could stand going back to the hospital today and have her tiny, bruised mother bare her teeth at her and tell her, as Mr. Man, to ‘stick it up her ass.’

She needed to finish her expenses before she did anything else. It was actually a relief just do something so mechanical and impersonal. Unreimbursed medical, office supply, parking. It took a full day to recover from these visits with her mother. She’d rather do her taxes every day for a month.

The cat wandered in. Charley. What did he want, food? Edie checked. Food in his bowl. The cat didn’t want his food, he wanted to show her–oh no.There on the floor, a just hatched baby bird. Fuzzy, with a yellow breast, a pointed little beak. Hummingbird? Thrush? Barely moving. Goddamn it, and she was usually so careful not to leave the door open, so the cat had to ask to come in and anything in his mouth would have a chance to get away. But today, this lovely spring day, she’d left the door open.

That damned cat. Her husband Vic was the cat lover. And her kids. She didn’t have anything against the cat per se, Charley was nice enough. But. She’d never wanted a cat. If he was inside he ignored the scratching posts and trained his sights on the furniture. If he was out, he killed things.

Now it was spring, and the birds were nesting, such easy targets for this furry killing machine. Charley didn’t even eat what he caught, just played with his victim—lizard, bird–until exhausted, it died.

Edie disagreed with cat ownership. People owning millions of small tigers, thinking it was nothing. These relentless predators. She hadn’t seen a robin in years, they’d been so plentiful when she was a child. She purposely didn’t spray the yard, even in the flea infestation, not to harm the birds.

She took the bird outside and put it in the bushes, but she knew a baby had little chance without the nest—and now the cat was yowling to go out, walking across her paperwork, clawing at the table legs and then at her leg. She didn’t want to let him out, now he knew where the nest was. She thought of the grief of the mother bird. But the cat dug its claws into her kneecap, into the carved center post of her grandmother’s dining room table. She let him go, gone in the whoosh of an orange tail. She, Edie Holland, was Kali, bringer of death.

“It’s a cat,” Vic said. “It’s what they do.”

Leave it inside! She could already hear her podiatrist friend Marjorie saying, with her four rescued cats and her house full of clawed furniture and cathair. But Edie worked at home, she couldn’t deal with all that sharp-clawed yearning. She was a dog person. A lover of birds.

Even as she wept, she knew that it had something to do with her mother, screaming and spitting and ancient and lost, with only Edie to care for her. The death of the vulnerable. The birds just trying to raise their blameless children, and cats which didn’t need to kill, killing. The harshness of life. The waste.

So how did one walk in the light? How did one find a way to be happy in this kind of world. She didn’t want to go out and get plastered. She hadn’t had a drink in 18 years. She just wanted to know how to live.

The blameless thing to do was keep the cat in. The only one who would suffer would be herself. You could get a second cat to keep the first one company. And then you’d have two cats you didn’t want instead of one.

Or just accept that the world was going to hell, and she was part of it. She was on the roller coaster car about to plunge over the broken rail. She would not be blameless. Her mother was suffering and she wasn’t able to do anything about it but fight with the smarmy doctor, with his patronizing smile and his pink shirts, knowing all the while her hatred of him was just a distraction from the real suffering.

She always felt responsible. Even as a little kid, Edie could never just laugh and have a good time. The cat was just a metaphor. The problem was how to be happy in a terrible world where old ladies suffered horribly and innocent birds were killed in the nest for the amusement of well-fed housecats.

She wanted to be happy, a happy person, not someone always fretting and feeling guilty and surrounded with the horror of everyday life. She would be old soon herself, tiny as a bird and stuck in a bed shrieking at the invisible “Mr. Man” and never would she have even enjoyed her life. Even the birds would forget about their babies in a day or two, while she still remembered that French cabdriver she’d undertipped ten years ago, when she was so ill and only had a huge bill she didn’t want to give him. How could you be happy when you were a person like that? She still remembered a friend making fun of her during a sing-along party when got the lyrics wrong. She thought they were good friends, but it was the end of the friendship. She never got over it.

She couldn’t get over things the way other people did. The way the birds did, or the killer cat. As her mother would if they ever got her meds right. Only Edie wanted to cry, only she remembered things. Was she destined to be a professional mourner, Elektra of Encino? Why are you people happy? Why are you people not rolling in the mud and screaming to the gods? The tragedy of the house of Atreus was that no one forgot a thing.

She left the taxes on the table. They could wait another day. She took a book and an apple and headed to the hospital, after which she would treat herself to a cappuccino and a croissant at an overpriced hipster coffee house, and sit in the filtered sun under bright-leaved trees listening to birds her cat had not yet killed, and see if she could clear out a tiny space for happiness.

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: BILL



Two Bags Full

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , on 03/15/2014 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Home

Wendy picked her luggage off the carousel in San Jose. Two massive bags, all that remained of fifteen years in New York. It was a good ride, she kept telling herself as she dragged her suitcases out to the curb. It was a good run. That’s what people said about very old people when they finally died.  But to be honest, it had only been a fair ride. One good break, a speaking part in a Broadway musical. The rest just a long lingering death.

She’d stayed on, in her upper East Side apartment, living on fumes. The place was so small she could never invite anyone over, she had to meet them for coffee or an early dinner in local cafes.  She had expected things to pick up eventually—seesawing between hope and despair–and a few times, it had. For a month or so. Some voice-over work, a local commercial for waterbeds, only to drizzle off again into the fog.

There were men–one relationship had lasted three years.  But that too melted away, and finally, the news that her rent had been increased yet another $50–she had to admit it, she couldn’t afford New York any longer.  She’d taught English to non-English speakers, had taught night classes at City College, tried her luck as a vocal coach.

How could she give up? It was New York. Broadway, the Philharmonic, Lincoln Center. All those amazing little shops you could get a great handbag for $25, the Tunisian café with its terrific coffee…

But now she couldn’t even afford that. Forget Broadway, even off-off-off Broadway was more than she could manage. Yet she still went to the galleries and the museums on free nights, concerts in the park, auction showings.  Yes, she might as well be one of those little old women with a wheelie-cart and a knitted hat with a pompom.

If only she were ninety, she would at least be eligible for rent control.

Yet how could she give up New York? When she visited her mother in San Jose for holidays, class reunions, weddings and so on, she never envied anyone, no matter how successful they were. Because they still lived in San Jose.

Now, under blue skies, a slight wind, she waited for her sister Jill outside Terminal A baggage claim.  After fifteen years, she was coming home.  Now she would have to envy her classmates who had gone to law school, who had children already in fifth grade, who were tenured professors at San Jose State and complained (with a touch of pride) about their onerous committee work and interstaff politics. There would be no one alive who would envy her.

There, down at the end of the line, she saw her sister’s Lexus. She would put a good face on this. She would go to the store for her mother. She would do her own laundry. She would find work.  She would try every day not to seal herself in with duct tape and turn on the gas. She could have stayed in New York if she was going to do that.  “Welcome home, babe,” Jill said, kissing her, and together, they struggled to lift what was left of her life into the trunk of her sister’s car.

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: PLASTER

Hollywood Sandwich

Posted in The Word: Stories on 11/21/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Shoot

The brunette sat by herself under the craft services tent, drinking coffee from a paper cup. Her nails were painted, Ricky was sure they were red but they just looked dark against her pale skin. Ditto her lips.  It was a long time since he’d seen such a gorgeous broad. Just an extra–but who was he to say ‘just’?  He was just the caterer, craft services, meaning he fed the cast and the crew, but this shoot was strictly from hunger.  Tuna sandwiches, who fed actors tuna sandwiches?  They’d come in for the big kiss and it would be like, hm. Tuna sandwich. And donuts. The crew of course loved the donuts, but the actors just wanted a decent piece of protein with some lettuce or lentil salad. These cheesebags had no idea what they were doing, Ricky thought, rearranging the sandwiches, putting out more bags of chips. The brunette only drank coffee, she took a piece of ham out of a sandwich and ate it plain. That wasn’t much of a lunch, but her lips were mesmerizing.  How old was she? Mid thirties, he guessed, playing 23.

He remembered the old days, when there was a regular feast, you had to keep the old bags from the neighborhood from coming in for a free feed. Not even the old broads wanted a tuna sandwich sitting outside for three hours while this kid, high on coke, rewrote his movie. Ricky used to work the big shoots, when he was starting out, but now they were shooting in places like Alabama and Tennessee. He’d been in those places. Bugs  is what he remembered most. Bugs the size of rye breads flying at your head.  Cockroaches like the invasion of Normandy. He thought about his old place in New York, the east Village. Now that was all gone. Probably not a roach left on the isle of Manahatta. Guiliani probably rounded em all up and dumped ‘em in Queens.

Well, he’d been here twenty…nearly thirty years. Thirty! And it still didn’t seem like home.  Thirty goddamn years.  God, the movie business had certainly gone to shit since those days—though he knew that’s what old-timers always said. You ever met an old guy who said ‘now, these are the good old days!”? Even if it was awful, people still looked back with nostalgia. Like people going back to Vietnam, when they maybe lost five close buddies and half their ass, now they were taking their families, having a nice vacation. Maybe anywhere you were young.  But he’d been young on Spielberg shoots, Altman, Ridley goddamn Scott.  There was no tuna sandwiches on those catering wagons.

The brunette stood up, swiveling both legs around to free them from the picnic table. It was a swell move. She looked good in those heels, better than good, had that special kind of walk, it took practice, balance and confidence, he’d done his share of ice-packing some young girl who’d done a banana-flip in new heels. But this one knew what she was doing– in every sense of the word.  She had a cigarette in her dark-nailed hand. It wasn’t good for them, they got those lines around their lips, and then they weren’t playing 23 anymore, they had to get shots, and the lips blew up like daffy duck.

“Got a match?” she asked, putting the cigarette in her mouth.

Of course he did. There was a nurse around here somewhere, but he  carried everything from bandaids to tampons to a .22 in his tacklebox, you never knew what you might need. He found the matchbook among the other small indispensables, lit her up.  “When’s your scene?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m not an actress,” she said.  “I’m the wife.” She nodded at the kid.  The director.  He was conferring with the AD and the DP, his curly mess of hair bobbing vigorously from the coke he’d been doing. “Ginevra.”

“Ricky,” he said.

This beautiful broad, his wife.  She had curvy lips like a forties actress, she should have some spangly dress made by Adrian or Hadrian or whatever, Edith Head. Married to the kid directing this piece of shit. Ginevra. The woman of his dreams, married to that dipshit.

“They shouldn’t have tuna sandwiches, but he likes them. He could eat one every day.”

“The mercury’s a bitch,” he said.

She dug her heel into the dirt, dragging on her smoke.  She smiled. He could feel her smile hit him like a bus. “You do a lot of thinking over here, don’t you Rick?  I’ve been watching you.”

“Lots of time to think,” he said. “We can get very philosophical. The extras especially. Socrates could have been an extra on a shoot.  Cave wall and all.”

“What do you think of my husband, Rick?” She gazed at him drolly from under a swoosh of dark mascara. Drolly, it means like ironic, but more old fashioned.  He learned it from one of the writers. He liked words.  Droll, it rhymed with troll.  Ding ding a ling went the drolly… He should have been a writer.  Not a screenwriter but a real writer.  He always read a lot, had a paperback book with him wherever. Plenty of time to improve his mind.

Now he wondered  just how to get around the question. Not that he had no opinion about that idiot, just, well, you didn’t tell some woman her husband was a cokehead and a danger to all about him, that he was pissing this movie away, going off getting loaded with his so-called star or banging the little extras from Fairfax High.  It wasn’t his job. “I don’t know,” he said.  “They don’t pay me to have ideas.”

“But you have them, don’t you.  I’ve been watching you, Rick. You’re a smart guy.” Hip out,  steadying her against the table top. She wrapped those lips around her cigarette, then let a slow stream of smoke curl from them, pursing them just enough for the shape. “My husband is losing people a lot of money on this picture. Some say there might not even be a picture, that the studio might pull out. Do you think the studio might pull out?”

He’d heard that rumor, that sonnyboy was way over budget, rewriting scenes on set, letting the star rewrite too, the whole thing was a hot steaming mess, he wouldn’t be surprised..  It wasn’t the seventies and he wasn’t Altman.  This kind of shit didn’t fly anymore. “I get paid no matter what,” he said.

“I don’t,” she said.  “I only get paid if he gets paid. And we’re about to lose our shirts here.”

She opened up another ham sandwich and plucked out the meat, ate it and tossed away the bread.

That’s when he should have stopped listening.

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: HOME

The Age of Elegance

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , on 10/20/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Cape

I was cleaning out my closet. Piles of clothes that didn’t fit anymore, piles that didn’t fit into my quote unquote lifestyle anymore. My old friend Trina sat on the bed, giving clothes thumbs up or thumbs down. I’d been divorced for a year, and my latest so-called boyfriend, a professor in the economics department, had just dumped me after a six week affaire. Now Trina had put her foot down. “You’re not going to get an interesting man looking like Marian the Librarian.”  Anything that a librarian could wear, I was to eject.   Anything my ex-mother-in-law would wear, my mother, or that looked like I was going to a PTA meeting.  “And all that tired vintage. It’s not interesting anymore, it just looks old.”

Out went the sweater sets, so convenient for teaching, faculty meetings and long hours in the library—it was always so cold in the stacks. The wool pants.  The khaki trousers. Even  the old jeans and sweats I used for chores.  “How many pairs of ugly pants do you need?” Trina said.  “When was the last time you painted anything?  One pair, that’s it.”

We’d been friends since junior high, but now Trina was in the movie business. Her jeans were tight and expensive and fit into her $800 boots just so. She wore a chunky gold chain with a clever ring for her glasses.  “Think chic.  Small shoulders, fitted jackets.  Little black dress. No suits. No matchy matchy.”

Out went every one of my button down shirts Trina  said didn’t fit. But how could you fit both the shoulders and the bust if you were small shouldered and busty?  You’d think at 53, I would have solved that mystery. I can compose sestinas, villanelles, ghazals, but I still hadn’t mastered the fit of a cotton shirt.

“You are not a Large, Emmy. Get that out of your head. Shoulders first, then if the bust fits, you buy,” Trina said.

Were they really so terrible?  I gazed into the mirror on the closet door, looking at the blue oxford shirt, the sleeves rolled up.  Too big, and my gray-threaded hair unfashionably long, in a braid over my shoulder, my pale face.

“Fifty is the age of elegance,” Trina said, running a manicured hand through her glossy, well-cut hair. “You used to wear makeup, and cool jewelry. What happened to that?”

Fifty. What a horrible year that had been, divorced and fifty. Yes, I used to try harder.  Now I just tried to be serviceable.

The pile was growing, and empty hangers dangled from the clothing rod.  The savage pruning was heading to the back of my closet, treasured articles I had saved for some thirty years. The black velvet coat that had been my grandmother’s, and oh, the green cape.

“My god, you still have that?”  said Trina. “Out with it.  Out!”

The soft green, with its big hood. I’d worn it all through college, my early years in San Francisco.  It had made me feel  like Anais Nin, Georgia O’Keefe. Louise Nevelson. Soft boots, and a skirt to my calves, and the cape. It made me feel like a poet.  My hair in a twisted chignon. A romantic figure. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Catherine Earnshaw. Anna Akhmatova.

I wrapped it around my shoulders. Its cashmere, soft as eiderdown. And what I saw in the mirror was a woman I’d forgotten. A poet. A romantic. Not a professor, not a librarian, not someone who dated economics professors who played tennis.  Now I saw where I had gone wrong.   The cape didn’t go with those sweater sets now piled on the bed, and the  button down shirts, the khaki pants from L.L.Bean.  Nor would it have gone with TRina’s little black dresses and leather miniskirts.  This was who I had always been.  Not really a serviceable person at all. What had I been doing with ill-fitting, button-down shirts, trying to make that work? Button-down. The essence of wrongness.

I had forgotten who I was. But the cape remembered.

“No,” Trina said.  “Do you hear me Emma?”

I turned to the left and the right, admiring myself, my silvery hair now beautiful against the soft wool,  my pale face with its gray, slightly crinkly eyes, the softness of my contours.  And the shoulders fit just right.

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: BURN