Winning

Flash
Cezarija Abartis


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Photo Credit: markconsidine33

Her muscles ached, shoulders and back from leaning over the bike, quadriceps and calves from pumping the pedals. She had cycled the course a couple days earlier, past the grade school, church, cemetery, past the abandoned paper mill where her father worked fifteen years ago. He had said life was complex, memory was complex. He wanted to forgive his own father and his grandfather too. She had not rested enough. Her muscles had lactic acid to dispel, but mostly she wanted to outrun the past. She surged ahead of the pack.

When she cycled, she was in The Zone, unthinking, a machine of gears, pedal strokes dissipating confusion and fear, leaving behind the bruises of her memories.

Her lungs burned. One more turn and, farther ahead, the glare and cheers of the finish line. Her heart bumped like a rock rolling down a hill, like a staggering drunk, like her father thumping on the closed door of his own bedroom, Mother and Father screaming and soon weeping and, after that, laughing. They shrieked at each other: about money, the future, the child. She used to put her hands over her ears then.

But when she cycled, she was not that frightened child. She was a pair of pistons; she could as easily have been a blade of grass or a dandelion. Light flashed in her eyes. She brushed by a weed on the roadside. Nobody in front of her.

“My little flower,” her father used to call her. Her father had taught her how to ride a bicycle, balance a checkbook, peel a potato, trim a forsythia bush, dance the Charleston. She did not want to outrun those memories.

Sunlight streaked through leaves. Her tired legs slowed. She took a cutting breath, and two cyclists passed her. The finish line gleamed ahead. Let them win. It was all right.

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Cezarija Abartis’s Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Pure Slush, Toasted Cheese, and New York Tyrant, among others. She loves to participate on ShowMeYourLits.com and Zoetrope.com. Her flash “The Writer” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012. “The Argument” was chosen by Beate Sigriddaughter as a runner-up for the Fourteenth Glass Woman Prize. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Website. Email: c.abartis[at]stcloudstate.edu

The Quilt

Billiard’s Pick
Cezarija Abartis


chenille pram quilt
Photo Credit: Leslie Keating

Paula wanted the world to be perfect, as her mother, Rose, had wanted the world to be perfect, and Paula must have inherited that flaw. Larry once said that about Paula. Larry, who loved birds and flew away like a bird.

Outside the window, the sun slanted across the yard for an instant; the television meteorologist predicted rain later on this April day, but the showers would bring May flowers, right? The gray hung low on the horizon like a billowing quilt, but overhead blue shone through brilliant white clouds. The brightness dazzled the eyes. She had to look away.

The semester was ending. The students would take their final exams and leave school, and she would never see most of them again. She had wanted to teach a perfect course; she wanted the students to be perfect; she wanted to hold on to them until they learned the material perfectly. They squirmed and wanted to be finished and out. She reluctantly understood that.

Paula put down the red pen. The gray evened out overhead now, but from time to time, a streak of sunlight pierced through the clouds.

Candide too looked for perfection, she told her students, and finally he learned to stay home and tend his own garden.

Larry had loved her and not loved her, and she in turn had loved him and not loved him back. Larry married someone else. And Paula was an old maid, well, a career woman. Funny, that sounded as if her career was being a woman, instead of her being a woman with a career. A fulfilling career, she semi-mocked herself—filling the heads of the young with diminishing knowledge about the old.

Patches of perfection did exist—she admitted that. Shakespeare was perfect and Jane Austen and Chekhov, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost. One could climb into their laps and be warm like a cat. Her mother had told her a story about fairies and princes, about Cinderella separating herself from her peasant roots to take on her royal identity. Paula’s grandparents had left Poland to travel to America and work in the factories. Her grandmother, Stanislava, named her daughter, Paula’s mother, Rose, though there were not many flowers in either of their lives.

Paula’s mother wore black to her parents’ funerals, did not accept death gracefully, writhed against the memory of her miscarriage from decades ago, was saddened by her father’s stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side, railed against corruption in the U.S.S.R.

Her mother had once not cared about imperfection: there was proof in an old photograph of her mother as a young child wearing a nightgown and sitting up in a bed covered with a patchwork quilt with no design, just leftover rectangles and squares of cloth sewn onto each other. Her mother gave Paula the quilt, ragged now but with one perfect sky-blue square in the center.

In the black-and-white photograph, Paula’s grandmother Stanislava sits on the bed, with her six- or seven-year-old daughter, Rose, who is wearing braids, the way she still wears her hair sometimes. The child smiles into the camera, full of anticipation and knowledge, unlike her mother. Stanislava, with her dark-bead eyes, is slumping. Young and distracted, she looks as though she wants to smile but is tired from working in the factory and does not remember how to curve her lips. It must have been Paula’s grandfather who took the photo of his wife and daughter. Perhaps he borrowed the camera from a friend and wanted an impromptu record of their young domestic life. The windowless walls show spots and cracks, but the little girl, Rose, Paula’s mother, smiles all the same. She owns this universe. It is perfect.

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Cezarija Abartis’s Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Prime Number, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. One of her flashes was included in Wigleaf‘s 2012 Top 50 list of flash fiction. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Website. Email: c.abartis[at]stcloudstate.edu