Archive for short short

The Secret Agent

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , , , , , on 12/16/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word–SOCK

When Mom’s at work, Scott does what he wants.  It’s just him and me, and he’s three years older.  One of the things he likes to do is sock me in the shoulder.  He socks me in the shoulder in the same place, day after day. He doesn’t have to really hit me hard anymore, it always hurts from being hit all the time. I tell Mom, I call her at work and tell her Scott’s beating me up, but all  she says is, “Oh, he wouldn’t do a thing like that.”

I hate her and I hate Scott, I even hate my dad who can be in the same room when Scott’s socking me, and Mom screams at me for yelling.  He just sits there in his ugly lounge chair watching The Game on TV.  I hate sports.  I hate Dad and Mom and Scott and sports and TV.  I hate anyone who can just sit there when someone’s getting beat up and watch TV like nothing’s happening.  I especially hate anyone who leaves a kid alone with her maniac brother and can actually, really say, when you call her crying,  “Oh, he wouldn’t do that.”

Like I’m crazy, like I’m making the whole thing up.

I hate my teachers, like Miss Dickson the math teacher, who makes me cry in class every day. I’m always freaked out at school. I just cannot remember how many feet in a fathom. How many sheets in a ream of paper? How many feet in a furlong?  How many pecks in a bushel?  She asks so fast, picking people at random so you can’t be prepared and WHAT THE FUCK DO I CARE? Life is hell and I hate Miss Dickson. She makes me cry, and then the other kids laugh and imitate me, sobbing.

I hate the other kids, Marlene and Jennifer and Cassie, who make fun of me,  they do mean stuff like bashing the bottom of my bag of popcorn so it flies up into my face. I even hate Gigi, who is my best friend but likes Marlene better, so if Marlene’s around, Gigi is mean to me too.

Sometimes I just cry for no reason at all.

I’m only in the seventh grade. I have five more years before this is over. I don’t think I’m going to make it.

Sometimes I imagine I’m a secret agent, a spy on a mission from an alien planet, and I have a spy camera in my head, and I’m sending all this information back to my alien leader.  This is what life on earth is really like.   Then I don’t mind it all as much.  I think, okay, bring it on, because someone is watching this.  Like the cops on Cops.  They aliens are stunned. They cannot believe what a jerk Miss Dickson is. Their hearts hurt when they see me run out of class crying.  They wince when Scott hits me in the shoulder one more time.  They’re outraged when Mom gets mad at me for calling her at work, for making up shit about my brother.  They can’t believe what a shitty deal life here is like.

I’m not really me.  I’m just here on assignment. Recording all this.  It’s not really me.

Except when Scott socks me in the shoulder again.  Then it’s really, really hard to remember.

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: BAND

Mister Twister

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , on 12/08/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word–COP

We were flying through the mountains, Durango to Denver, we were soaring. enough blow to cover these damn mountains, snow it back to winter again. Yeehaw! Davis shouted out into the wind. Still damn cold, piney mountain air rinsing us through the open window of the 442. We’d made it up here just over three hours, we’d make Denver in four, just like he told me he could do it. It was a seven hour trip with Dad at the wheel, but they always stopped to take pictures, the Sangre de Christos, South Park, pictures of nothing, cows.

But nothing Davis did surprised me.  Or maybe it was that everything did, so you were sort of ready for it. I felt awake with him, really awake, like I’d been sleeping all my life until I met him.  Sleeping Beauty, that was me.  My parents didn’t like him, of course–the man smelled of sex, just reeked of it, the way he’d stand there with his thumbs tucked in his belt.  “I don’t like you seeing so much of that boy,” Daddy said. He thought I should go out with someone from Fort Lewis Community College. “Somebody nice,” my mother said, meaning without a cock. Yeah, I knew what she meant.

I looked at Davis in the driver seat with that spring wind blowing, dancing the feathers on the roach clip hanging from the rearview mirror.  I was laughing, like I was champagne that got shook up and popped, all of me was just flowing out in a great jet of sparkling foam. We were going to meet some friends of his in Denver, have a real party. He kept saying, “Wait till we get us to Denver, baby, then we’re gonna have some fun.”

We were going fast enough through the turns that I had to hold onto the seat. Like Mister Twister at Elitch Gardens. Being with Davis was like being on a ride like that, you screamed your head off and then wet your pants laughing when you finally got off. We went squealing along, corners at eighty, patches of snow still on the ground among the pines.

“Oh shit,” Davis said.  And there was  Officer Law, lurking just off the highway, half hidden in the trees like some black-and-white tiger, just waiting for us, a few miles short of  Bailey. I felt Davis trying to slow without cramming on the brakes and putting us in a spin.  “Shit shit shit.” The cherry lights started to turn, then the siren.  Davis thrust the little folded paper of blow. “Tuck that in your bra, darlin’.”

I didn’t know what to do.  I felt this zing of panic.  Why was he giving it to me?  It wasn’t my blow.  And the cop was flashing his lights, he was getting pissed, wanting Davis to pull over.   “But what if we get arrested? What if they search me?”

“It’s just a traffic stop. And even if they did, what the fuck, you’re not 21, first offense. Trust me, it’ll be ok.”

The cop was right behind us, flashing his lights!  What was I supposed to do?  Even if they did?! I rolled down the window.

“What are you doing, don’t–  Don’t–”

I threw it out the window.

“The fuck! You stupid bitch!” The car swerved as he screamed. He was so mad! I was glad he had to hang onto the wheel, in fact I was kind of glad they were pulling us over.  He mighta hit me or something.

My heart was in my throat as we  stopped on a narrow piece of shoulder off the winding highway, cars whizzing past. Davis sat looking front with his hands on the wheel, his jaw working, his face sheet white. “shit, shit shit.”  Nobody was coming over. The cop just sat watching us.  Finally, he got out and came up to the car on my side, tapped on the window.  A clean shaven blonde about thirty poked his head in.   He looked us both over.  “ID and registration, folks.”

My parents would kill me if I got arrested up here, and my dad had to take off work to come get me.   I tried not to start crying. I never got arrested before.  I was stoned and high and scared, and Davis was really mad.

“Registration,” the cop said again.

Davis kept his hands on the wheel, but opened them  to show he wasn’t holding anything, I guess, spreading the fingers.  “It’s in the glove compartment. But I have to tell you, there’s a gun in there, okay?”

Davis had a gun in the glove compartment.  We’re doing eighty, coked out of our minds, and he has a gun in his glove compartment.  And he called me a bitch!   Suddenly I didn’t feel so good about this whole Denver idea.  What else didn’t I know about Davis? He wanted me to hold onto three hundred dollars worth of coke during a bust and then called me a bitch, and he had a gun?  I didn’t know who these people in Denver were. Anything could happen–and nobody knew where I was, they all thought I was in class.

“Will you open the glove compartment, Miss?”

Davis was trying to signal me something with his light green eyes, I usually liked them but they looked kind of lizardy to me now.  He looked like he would kill me once the cop left. I didn’t know what to do.  Was there something else in the glove compartment?

“I was just getting a ride,” I said, opening it. And there was the gun, a greasy handgun.  There was never a gun in there before.  “I was just getting a ride to Denver.”  I found the registration and gave it to the cop.

The cop went back for the longest time.

“Why’d you say that?” Davis asked.  “What kind of shit is that? We gotta stick together.”

I didn’t answer him.

We got our IDs back, and he had us get out of the car. The cop started to look around the car, shining a light under the seats, looking in my purse.  “I saw you throw something out of the car,” he said. “That gives me probable cause.”

He found some pot under the seat.  Davis looked mad. But it wasn’t my pot either.

“Can I go now?” I said to the cop.

He looked at me all squinty-eyed.  “Sure,” he said.  “But not him.”

“Clara.” How shocked he looked. “Baby.”

I hitched my bag with all my stuff over my shoulder and started walking towards Bailey.  Fuck Davis, man. Fuck Davis.

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: SOCK



Posted in The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , , on 12/17/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Pan

She wondered how it would be to backpack with Dan. She didn’t know him that well, they’d dated at school. But now they were here, she was glad she came. He was at his best in nature, so happy to show off his backcountry skills and the high meadows of  yarrow and lupine and Indian paintbrush. The Colorado sky was Van Gogh blue, straight out of the tube.  Five days in the Lizard Head Wilderness, just the two of them.

Dan had planned the whole thing, traced their route on the green topo maps. He’d completely repacked her backpack, eliminating extra pants and sweaters and shirts she was sure she’d need.  Scrapping all her toiletries. Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint soap would be her major toilet item. All one, All one.

Now she saw how right he was. She hadn’t needed any of it.  He’d packed perfectly– aluminum camping dishes, fitted knife/fork/spoon sets, all nested together. Dried food, ground and measured coffee. A tiny stove, no bigger than a takeout box. Everything weighed and measured, every ounce pared away. Her pack was only 35 pounds, he took 60, all the heavy items–tent and food and fuel.

She loved Dan in the out-of-doors. Holding her hand when she had to balance on  switchbacks, encouraging her to cross a fallen log straddling a creek. He was never this nice back at school.  Mostly he kept to himself, or drank himself stupid with his roommate Chuck.

She liked nature. She had gone to Y Camp in the San Bernardinos, though it was nothing like this. He laughed at her when she woke the first night and thought there was a streetlight outside the tent. She was 19 years old and had never understood that the moon rose.  She’d stood outside the tent in her long underwear and gaped at the full moon.

They pressed on toward Lizard Head, skirting timberline, rising up into high meadows, dipping down into cool fragrant pines or trembling aspen.  He had  it down. They didn’t even have to carry much water, he’d planned the trip never to be far from a stream. They filtered the water with a little gizmo so they wouldn’t get giardia. Though it looked clean enough.

So self-sufficient. “Well, you have to be, out here,” he said.  “You can’t just run down to the hardware store.  You forget the flashlight, you’re SOL.”

They’d found the perfect camping spot–a clearing in the pines, two downed logs, the stream close-by–but not too close. Put up the tent, set up their ‘kitchen’, made some lemonade, settled in..  She took out her watercolors and painted him reading, lying on his Therm A Rest-padded log. She wandered, identifying woodpeckers and wildflowers. There was nothing they needed, they had everything–tent, sleeping bags, food.  It was perfect.

The light soaked the afternoon mountains in rose-gold when they saw the lone figure struggling up the trail.

They’d made their camp almost astride the path, having no idea anyone  might walk right through it. They hadn’t seen anyone since the trailhead.  “Who the fuck is that?” Dan said. “Look at the size of that pack. What a moron.”

Now they saw, it was a boy, wearing shorts and enormous hiking boots. He humped an orange backpack, bigger than he was.  He climbed slowly, he seemed to be making no progress at all, just this dot, green shirt, an orange pack, laboring up the mountain.

As he got closer, Jen could see he was exhausted, pushing himself, hands on his knees, as if he had to force each leg in turn to press the earth and carry him forward. But finally, he was within hailing distance of where they sat on their Therm A Rest pads. He grinned and called out, “Boy am I glad to see you! Wow.  That’s some trail, huh?”

Dan didn’t even say hello, just stared at the intruder, a boy, smiling, chestnut haired, about sixteen.

“Hi,” Jen said. Trying to distract him from Dan’s glower. “How long you been climbing?”

“All day. Wow,  that’s was some hike.”  He stood looking back to where he’d come from, gasping, cheeks red, fingers hooked around the straps of his enormous orange backpack from which a cast iron frypan hung. A fishing pole peeked out the top.  The frypan alone must have weighed ten pounds.

Jen could tell he wanted to drop the pack and join them, but he was offput by Dan’s unwelcoming vibe.  Well, unexpected things happened, whether Dan liked it or not. “Take off your pack and sit awhile. Want some lemonade? Cold from the stream..”

Dan gave her a withering look.

But she couldn’t exactly send the kid on his way, not like that. That wouldn’t be friendly at all.

The kid awkwardly lurched from his pack–it tilted and fell like a tree, hard, and clanging, the frypan and other jangly stuff that sounded like cans of soup and metal spoons.

She poured the lemonade they’d made from packets of instant and their filtered water into an aluminum cup. The kid drank it straight down. She poured him some more. What a pretty boy, his freckles, his dauntless smile.  “Where’d you come from?” she asked.

“Durango,” he said.  “My parents are staying down there. I hitched a ride, some cowboy.  It’s amazing up here, isn’t it?”  He sat down on the log next to Jen’.  Sighed. The view was tremendous, the craggy outcrops all around them.  He pulled a pennywhistle from his pack, played a lively tune.

“Wasn’t there anything you left at home?” Dan said from his side. He was rolling a joint. “What else you got in there, golf clubs?  A surfboard?”

Jen smiled awkwardly. What was it to Dan what the boy was carrying? He was always so mean to people who did things differently.  Or was it was the boy’s happiness he envied?

The kid toed his orange monstrosity. “Yeah, I guess it’s a little heavy. But I didn’t know what to take so I just threw a few things in.” He was eying the reefer.

Dan finished licking it, lay back on his Therm A Rest, lit up. Dan was one of those people who brought his own bottle to the party and drank from it.  If you went Chinese, he ordered the one thing he wanted, and didn’t share. He didn’t want to try yours, either.

He was at his best when it was just him and Jen, like on this trip. The other Dan, the one who couldn’t stand in line, the one who thought everyone else was a moron… she tended to put that Dan out of her mind. Excuse it.

The kid’s name was Jesse. He’d come up from Austin with his family, who were staying in Durango.  A friendly kid, open-faced, laughed easily. Jen stuck her hand out for the joint. Reluctantly, Dan passed it to her. She handed it to the kid.  That grin.  Sweet. “Thanks, man.”

She took a good hit on it before passing it back to Dan.

“So where you trying to get to?” Dan asked, begrudgingly entering the conversation.

Jesse shrugged, hitched his aching shoulder under the green t-shirt that said There is no Planet B. “Nowhere in particular. Just checkin’ it out.”

Dan snorted. “Do you have a map?”

Jesse said, “No, just thought I’d follow this trail, find somewhere to sleep, rinse and repeat.”

“No map?” Dan said. “You’re up in the Rocky Mountains and you have no map.”

Jen felt sorry for the kid. She was used to Dan and his mockery of what he felt was the idiocy of others.  It wasn’t so different than other guys at school.  But now, she was embarrassed.   “I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Jen said, patting the kid’s sweaty shoulder.

“It’s how people die up here. They bring the shower curtain and the barbeque but no map.”

“I’m not going to die, dude.  It’s not that big a deal.  I’m going to go up that trail, and I’ll come down the same way.”  He stood up and dusted his hands on his shorts.  “Look, thanks for the bud. You guys have a good one.”

Jen wished he’d stay and play his little pennywhistle.  Have dinner with them.  She liked his attitude, his fresh, open smile. She envied his way of meeting the world, even if it was a bit haphazard. Even if that pack probably weighed 100 pounds. It didn’t bother him, he wasn’t complaining.  Jen helped him on with it.

“Get tired of Mr. Sunshine there, I’ll be right up the trail,” he whispered under his breath.

She laughed, and watched him climb up the trail, the afternoon light catching the red in his hair, the ridiculous frying pan hanging off the back of his pack like a manhole cover. The sound of an Irish pennywhistle filled the cooling air.

“Probably won’t even hang his food tonight,” Dan said.  “The bears’ll get his stuff and he’ll be one hungry puppy.”  He seemed to savor the thought.

But Jen didn’t think the bears would get his food. And even if they did, Jesse probably wouldn’t mind.  He’d be hungry, but he’d get down the mountain somehow. She’d give him half of hers.  In any case, she bet that even bears wouldn’t dent the boy’s good humor.

She lay on her log, listening to the light sound of the pennywhistle echoing off the mountain peaks, getting fainter and further away.

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: FOIL

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


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