Panhandling Uncle Perry

Flash
Travis Keys


Photo Credit: John Fraissinet/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

My Uncle Perry is a whistler. He’s also a hitchhiker. Oftentimes, he’s a panhandler. If you’re lucky, you can catch him being all three simultaneously I discovered one afternoon when I stopped and picked him up.

It was pouring outside, and he was walking on the side of the road, hands in his pockets like the sky wasn’t trying its best to drown him.

He turned his head when he heard the car, then stuck out his thumb. I could tell by his puckered lips, rain be damned, he was whistling.

When he got in, he wiped his face with his arm, and continued to whistle. He didn’t even acknowledge me. It was as if he had been expecting his only nephew to come driving by and offer him a ride.

“You going home, Unc?” I asked him. He lived on the outskirts of town about eight miles from where I picked him up.

He paused his whistling. “Yup,” he said before picking up the tune again.

We drove in silence for a couple of miles.

“Why you always whistling?” I asked him.

He didn’t say anything at first. I thought he was wasn’t going to answer, but after a spell he said, “Whistling is joy leaving the body.” Then he went back to it.

Joy?” I asked. “You happy, Unc?”

“Yup.”

“What you got to be so happy about?”

“I’m out the rain.”

I guess that was as good a reason as any.

“Why you always hitchhiking?”

“I ain’t got a car,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I guess it sort of was when I think about it.

Everyone in town says Uncle Perry is crazy from serving in Vietnam. I never believed them. He just likes to keep to himself is what I always figured. But as I glanced at him sitting there with droplets of water beaded up on the graying naps of his hair with a strange faraway look in his eyes that was matched by the melancholy hissing coming from his face in spitting spurts, I knew they were right.

We were only two miles from his house when Uncle Perry said, “Let me out here.”

“But you’re almost home,” I said, pressing the gas a little harder.

He repeated his request.

I slowly pulled the car over to the shoulder. Uncle Perry opened the door, then sat there looking out at the rain.

“You got a couple of dollars I can hold?”

I put the car in park and reached into my back pocket. I handed him a five-dollar bill. As he took it, I noticed his hand trembling.

“God bless you, sir,” he said. He got out of the car and shut the door.

I drove away watching my uncle in the rear view mirror. He put a hand in his pocket and used the other to stick out his thumb. I shook my head and began to whistle.

pencilTravis Keys lives in drought-stricken San Diego, California where he works as systems administrator. He loves to write. Email: t.b.keys[at]gmail.com

Tex-Mex Special

Flash
Lori Cramer


Photo Credit: makzhou/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I’m scribbling down an order from a rowdy family of five when my best tippers stroll into the main dining area and seat themselves at the corner table. Mr. Stevenson’s got on his faded Astros hat, as usual, and Mrs. Stevenson’s clutching her metallic purse as if it’s a shield. They show up here every Thursday for the Tex-Mex special: endless tacos for $9.99. He’s crazy for the hard shell; she prefers soft. Greeting me like a cherished friend, they ask how I’ve been and whether my son’s sleeping through the night yet. After a minute or two of chitchat, I take their drink orders—same as always—and promise to return right away. When they think I’m out of earshot, they start sniping at each other, and on my way back to deliver their Drafts of the Day, I overhear phrases like “never listen” and “don’t even care anymore.” Once they spot me heading toward them, the angry conversation halts and they paste on pretend smiles. Setting down their icy beverages, I consider telling them how marriage counseling saved my friend Trudy’s marriage, but then decide I’d better keep quiet. Can’t afford to lose that 25% tip.

pencilLori Cramer’s short fiction has appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, FewerThan500.com, Ink In Thirds, Postcard Shorts, Pudding Magazine, A Quiet Courage, Rum Punch Press, Seven by Twenty, Unbroken Journal, and the 11th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection. Email: bulldog29[at]msn.com

Punctuation and Puncture Wounds

Flash
Isaac Buckley


Photo Credit: Iain Farrell (CC-by-nd)

I don’t have any tattoos. I don’t have anything against them. It’s just that no single image has ever stood out to me enough to ink into my skin. Besides, scars have always been life’s way of marking me with reminders of the periods and events in my life. My latest acquisition is two circular scars on my left side, one about an inch above the other.

The most recent trend in body art is the semi-colon—an outward sign of an inward struggle with depression or mental illness. Looking in the mirror now, I find meaning in my own markings. My left ribs bear a colon.

A colon, the internet tells me, is a punctuation mark “used mostly to call attention to what follows (as a list, explanation, or quotation).” Though I didn’t choose my newest decoration, I can’t help but ascribe meaning to it. A colon divides a sentence. It announces that a writer is introducing something different, that a new clause is coming. Everything up to the colon has been a prelude, an introduction. The meat of the matter—the colon declares—is here.

I may be a hole short of a three-hole punch, but I’m fond of my new punctuation mark. Like an unwary breakfaster discovering the image of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, I choose to find meaning in a world that seems mad. Everything up to here has been leading up to what comes next, my ribs proclaim.

And what is that? To tell the truth, I’m not sure yet. But I do know one thing: the day I get out of this hospital I’m gonna find the rat bastard that shot me in the side.

pencilIsaac Buckley lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he spends his time fishing, listening to blues music, and failing to provide his parents with grandchildren. Email: isaackbuckley[at]gmail.com

The Last Time I Had Brunch

Baker’s Pick
Jeff Bakkensen


Photo Credit: Lindsay Ensing (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Lindsay Ensing (CC-by-sa)

“The last time I had brunch,” says the one, and stops to think. “I literally can’t remember the last time I had brunch.”

“The last time I had brunch was with Robert at Yvan,” says her friend, sitting. “Remember? After Beck’s birthday party?”

“Wait.” A third. “Where was I?”

“Weren’t you there?”

“Were you there when we had brunch at Trio?”

The third one again: “I don’t remember that.”

The second: “I think you were there.”

“Was I?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

The man next to the one who’s sitting joins in. “I was having brunch when that man was killed at 59th Street a few weeks ago.”

They all pause.

Two beats.

“Oh,” says one standing. Their eyes all meet in the middle and they smirk.

“You didn’t hear about this?” asks the guy. He’s got shoulder-length dreads and a sort of urban militant flair. “It was raining and someone uptown stuck their umbrella in the door to try—”

“Beck’s was December 17th,” says the one sitting. “Maybe you were at home?”

“Yes!”

The third: “Were you with us the morning of the marathon?”

Sitting across from the guy in dreads, black suit, no tie: “Don’t talk about that stuff while we’re on here.”

Dreads: “Don’t talk about what? He was waiting on the platform and the umbrella hit him in the—”

“Did you hear about the guy who got stuck in the revolving door?” This from a white kid looking up from his paperback.

“Because it’s bad luck to say that stuff.”

“—finished eating and I get down there. This massive, unbelievably vibrant puddle—”

“Remember Adrian that time we were at Wondee? When he picked up the fork and stabbed it through his own—”

An olive-skinned woman seated down the car, tight black dress, uncrosses her legs and fixes me with her eyes. Is it a smile?

“—severed three fingers I think when it swung—”

“—like ‘Hey bitch, why don’t you’—”

“I had brunch,” says an older woman, “the morning of September the 11th,” and we all swivel towards her. Sheepishly, “Of course I’ve had a few since then.”

In the middle of the car, two passengers hanging off the center pole who’ve up to now shown not a mite of interest in each other suddenly swing together and find each other’s lips, holding for a few heartbeats.

We decelerate towards a stop. The doors open.

“I’ll see you tonight,” the one says, and turns to find her way off.

The other watches her go, eyes darting between strangers, tracking her window to window.

A man walks in, suit bruised with grime. The doors close behind him.

“Ladies and gentleman, I don’t beg, I don’t steal.”

The doors close and for thirty seconds more, we’re alone with each other, hurtling through the tunnel into the dark.

pencilJeff Bakkensen once came in second place in a George Washington look-alike contest. Recent fiction can be found in Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, and Straylight Literary Magazine. Email: jeffrey.bakkensen[at]gmail.com

The Day We Stopped Talking

Flash
Stephanie Gail


Photo Credit: Dan Hodgett/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Dan Hodgett/Flickr (CC-by)

The day we stopped talking was a Monday. We sat at the dinner table, you and I, cutting our hamburgers apart like it mattered. We never ate them with bread, always on a bed of spinach. Yours with ketchup and mustard, mine with barbeque sauce and globs of ranch dressing. You commented on the dressing before we stopped talking.

The day we stopped talking was a normal day. For the most part.

The invitation was hidden under a stack of mail. Your mail. I’d hidden it there after you opened it. But as we’ve been not talking, the sounds of a fork and knife slashing through the spinach, I know it’s there. I feel its presence in the absence of our words. The ink seeps through the stack of mail, like blood or tears or something.

I haven’t looked at you since we stopped talking. I grab a fry off the plate in the center of the table—the one with the paper towel seeping up the grease. I peel the thing apart and consume it bite by bite. We’re still not talking, but my eyes focus on the next fry instead of your face.

Your hamburger is half-eaten. Your fork scrapes against your teeth and makes that sound that makes me cringe. Since we’re not talking, I can’t tell you to stop. So you do it again. Fork against teeth and the invitation still hiding.

I almost ask how work was today, before I remember we’re not talking. Before I remember that invitation. Before I remember how I can’t tell you how I’m feeling. What I’m feeling. It’s weird not to tell you. Not to talk. But we’re here. With the spinach and the burger and the fork and your teeth.

You get up and walk outside. Probably to turn off the grill. The funny thing is, when we’re talking you always say “remind me to turn off the grill” when we start eating. And I always say “turn off the grill” right after that. And we smile.

But now you are up without instruction. And I am sitting at the table, not looking at your mail pile and not thinking about the invitation. And we’re still not talking.

I wonder how long this will last. How many days or weeks or months. I wonder if we will continue to stop talking and even though I know you are thinking about asking me to marry you, we stop talking and we end things one day and we marry other people and have children with other people and grow old with other people and when we are about to die with those other people by our sides and they are telling us it’s okay to go, that they love us and it’s okay to leave them, we stop. Just before our last breath. And we think back to our dinner table and us, you and I, and our one last regret is the day we stopped talking.

pencilStephanie Gail is a high school English teacher who finds it ironic that reading and writing time are hard to find during the school year. Since it’s summer, she finally has time to write and read things that don’t involve phrases like “formative assessment” and she is very happy about it. Email: stephanie.gail1618[at]gmail.com

Baby’s Breaths

Beaver’s Pick
Greg Metcalf


Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Photo Credit: Ari Landworth/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

Your baby is pulling down your shirt and exposing your bra strap. Maybe you’re used to his hand there, gripping, maybe the feel of his strength—is it a boy?—satisfies some primal need, proof of life. Do you watch him sleep and not just because you love him? How long do his pauses between breaths last before your eyes come wide open? We all pause between breaths when we’re content, when we’re happy. You haven’t, have you, since you had him? Wrapped tight with angst and loneliness. You’re lonely when another person is as close as could be, close and clutching, tugging at your clothes to get to skin. Lonely with your responsibility. All ease has been flushed from you and sleeps swaddled, oblivious except when he cries and that is on you. Are you jealous? Is that why you woke from that nightmare, rushed to where he slept, eyelids vibrating, scooped him up, woke him, squeezed him, and rocked him while both of you cried? Nothing will ever harm you, you promised, but this is just another thing you’ve committed yourself to for eighteen years and more: making promises, explicit and implied, that you don’t have the power to keep. He pinches the loose skin of your side against your bra strap, but you like the pain. The force in it. In a baby book, you read that infants have the strength, right from birth, to hold their weight with that grip. You attempt to ease your fears with this useless trivia; as if, if it comes to it, you could always dangle him from somewhere while you solve any problems that arise. From the time you were ten, you’d always wanted three: a boy, a girl, and then nature could decide, but now all you want is to have him to hold and feed, to listen to him continue breathing. Your husband is a sudden invader. You duck from the window at the sight of the mailman. The urge to love him is sometimes so powerful you can’t help contemplating the logistics of putting him back in. He’d have your heartbeat again, your oxygen, diffusing into him, and you wouldn’t have to worry about your baby breathing ever again.

pencilGreg Metcalf is the author of Flowers on Concrete, a novel, Hibernation, a YA thriller, and the memoir Letters Home: A WWII Pilot’s Letters to His Wife and Baby from the Pacific. He has three other completed novels, unpublished to date. His short fiction has appeared at Boston Literary Magazine and Metazen. He is a contributing author in Indiestructible. He blogs at My Free Sentences. Email: hershelaa[at]aol.com

An Unexpected Truth

Baker’s Pick
Jhilam Chattaraj


Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Daniel Mennerich/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I liked him a lot. Every time I walked into the store, he would greet me with folded hands and politely say, “Namaste, Madam, how have you been?” He would walk me through the latest collection of clothes and make suggestions from time to time. His name, he said, was Nicholas. He had been working as a salesman in the store for about a year. I would tell everyone about his courteous behaviour.

My husband, however, was very dismissive of my admiration for Nicholas. He would try to convince me that Nick, as I would often call him, was simply doing his duty. His chivalry would disappear the day he found a new job. But I rooted for Nick. In fact, I told many of my colleagues that they should visit that store and Nick would help them make an affordable yet sophisticated choice. Nick’s behaviour made me debate with others who, influenced by the present media, concluded that India was no more a country safe for women. As a feminist, I believed in standing up for men too. I argued with them stating that our country still had good and caring men.

I was so determined to prove them wrong that one Monday morning while travelling on a public bus to my office, I began typing on my tablet, a post for a blog. My idea was to raise an alarm against the gender crises in Indian culture as represented by popular mass media. I was citing examples of men like Nick, when I realised that my bus was nearing the stop. I quickly dumped all my stuff into my bag. Before I could step down off the bus, several young men and women came running to get into the bus. I managed to get down. Just when the bus was about to leave, I saw a young man, very familiar, running towards me to catch the bus. He did not recognise me. In a hurry, he dashed against me. I was hurt. I fell down. Everything in my bag rolled out on the road. The young man did not look back.

As I tried to get up and collect my stuff, I realised that the man was none other than Nicholas. He was wearing a blue shirt with an ID card dangling down his neck. Some of the people around helped me get back on my feet. They advised me to sit for a while and drink some water. While I tried to shake off the unexpected jolt in my ordinary day, it struck me that the ID card bore the name, Pawan Kumar. I refused to believe what I experienced. I took my phone and called the store. It was 10 a.m. already; surely they would be in business. I asked them about Nicholas. They said that he had left the store on Friday. And they did not know if his name was Pawan Kumar.

pencilJhilam Chattaraj is currently working as an Assistant Professor at R.B.V.R.R Women’s College, Department of English, Hyderabad. She loves to explore the world through literature, culture, and photography, especially bird photography. Her area of interests in literary research includes Diaspora Studies (MPhil) and Popular Indian Culture (PhD). Her academic and creative writings have been published in journals like Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Muse IndiaIndian Book ChronicleLanglitEast LitIndialogue FoundationWomen’s Web, Birds.com, and Indian Bird Photographers. Email: c.jhilam1984[at]gmail.com

Tango Tuesdays

Flash
Tara Roeder


Photo Credit: Karl Lindsay/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Karl Lindsay/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The couples dancing class was, in retrospect, the worst idea I’ve ever had. Worse than the rooster sanctuary. Tango Tuesdays—my alliterative downfall.

I didn’t even know that astronauts were still a thing. Who could compete with her? Lunar boots and a rose in her mouth? That tiny, diaphanous dress? It just wasn’t fair.

I knew where you were the night you never came home. I didn’t believe the story about the hospital, or the fake scar. I could picture the two of you floating together, bodies entwined, triumphantly defying gravity.

When I emerged from the flooded basement that morning, I saw it in your eyes. A calculated, assessing look. The stars, or this waterlogged woman triumphantly gripping a monkey wrench?

No one could blame you. But if you answered my calls, you wouldn’t regret it. When I said I was going to poison you, I didn’t actually mean it and you know it. It was the gin talking.

pencilTara Roeder teaches writing in New York City. Her work has recently appeared in venues including Hobart, The Bombay Gin, Two Serious Ladies, Cheap Pop, and DOGZPLOT. Her chapbook, (all the things you’re not), is available from dancing girl press. Email: roedert[at]stjohns.edu

Years ago, in Firenze

Flash
Andrew Bertaina


Photo Credit: Amélien Bayle/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Amélien Bayle/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Years later, long after we’ve left one another, I visit again, the serpentine streets of Florence. I search down those cobblestone streets, past Saint Mark’s and the street vendors, for the sandwich shop where we had prosciutto Parmesan sandwiches and two glasses of red wine a decade before. Back then, the shop was run by two brothers, jovial men, who wore all white, including large chef hats, as they sliced the cheese and meat in precise portions. Then they pulled the wine glasses, catching light and turning iridescent, from the small rack above the counter. For hours, I walk the streets in vain, peering in variety shops and shoe stores. After an hour or two, it becomes clear that the shop and the brothers and the wine glasses are gone, and I’m here in Florence, searching for all the things that I’ve lost.

pencilAndrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in more than twenty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Literary Orphans,Sierra Nevada Review, Eclectica, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, and Catamaran Literary Reader. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast. Email: abertain[at]hotmail.com

Aspire Dinnerware, New from Villeroy & Boch

Flash
Sherry Welch


Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: ume-y/Flickr (CC-by)

I thought this is the kind of cup someone should want. Not white, but ivory instead, speckled and delicate like an egg, lavender stamped elegantly around the handle. Unwrapped, bubble-wrap tossed next to, not in, the trash, I set it alone on the counter. I lifted it, pleased at the delicate C my fingers shaped, and used my other hand to wipe away forgotten cereal Os.

I tried to be the person who loved this mug: I drank European coffee, and tried Earl Grey tea, too. I told myself to drink from this mug instead of a bottle of dark amber beer or two-buck chuck. When I filled it with powdered cocoa, it almost felt like home. I thought of pine trees and snow storms, missed my mother. In the bright sun of the west coast, I guiltily scrubbed it elegant again.

Sometimes, for weeks, it sat in my cabinet, upside down, and out of mind. Still, it reminded me to read the paper each morning, stay late at work, visit my friends’ terrace parties full of ties and heels. It would be proud of me, sometimes, and sometimes not. My promises were intermittently kept. The cup would probably have forgiven me if I could have just avoided drive-through windows, read that bestseller, turned off prime-time. When I was sick of doing three people’s jobs for the pay of half of one, and I thought I was finally done with it—I remembered the person who owns that mug is not a quitter.

I thought that mug was stronger than it was, as I slid it into the gentle cycle in my dishwasher. I was almost relieved: through Cascade-steam, that mug was ended in powder and pieces.

pencilSherry Welch has an MA in Writing and Publishing from Depaul University and currently resides in her home-town of Chicago. Email: sherrene.welch[at]gmail.com