In Aisles

Grocery Store Aisle(flash fiction, 989 words)

My wife points out marriage should be a partnership. “This home is not, in fact, your castle,” she says. She thinks it best I start with an unskilled job. She gives me grocery shopping. There I am one day at the Safeway, studying the list she’d given me. I’m asking the cashier, “TP? She wrote TP. You know what that means?”

The cashier, pretty girl, blinks. Then I hear behind me this big, gravel voice: “That’s toilet paper, you dumb shit!” I look back and there’s old Tom Wilson with a full cart and his wife’s list too.

“Toilet paper. I should have thought of that. Where’s that going to be?” I ask the girl.

“Up your ass if you use it right,” Tom says. He’s laughing. The girl turns bright red – her cheeks, down her slender neck, even the pale skin of her chest peeking from the collar of her shirt. She smiles and points to aisle nine. I get out of the line and old Tom Wilson rolls up and starts emptying his cart. He’s got a handful of coupons.

“Tom,” I say, “You’re one efficient old gal. Your husband must be proud.”

The girl laughs. Tom flips me the bird.

“Let me know if you need any more help,” the girl says.

“I learned to drive a tank in the army. I think I can do this,” I say and I roll out toward aisle nine.

But it is harder than I thought it would be. There’s too much to choose from. I see the brand they put on TV all the time, but it’s pricey. Then there are the less-expensives, but I don’t know about the quality and my wife’s particular. Some of them have flowers printed on them and I’m not sure I want to go that route.

“Are you finding what you need?”

I look and there’s the cashier girl next to me. She has both hands up behind her head, refixing her blond hair into a ponytail, and that lifts her shirt up above the top of her skirt and I see her slim waist. She’s close and I smell a perfume on her skin, but it might be the smell of bread from the bakery. Either way it’s warm and soft.

“My wife didn’t say which one to get.”

“Well, this one’s on sale this week,” she says and she pulls down an eight-roll pack. “It’s usually the most expensive one.”

“Sold,” I say. I take the package and drop it into my cart. “What’s your name?”

“Samantha.”

“Samantha, maybe I need you to shop for me all the time.”

“I’m here every Wednesday through Sunday.” She reaches out and puts her hand on my forearm and smiles when she says that. She is sunshine and birdsong and then she’s walking away down the aisle, her ponytail swaying as she goes.

I volunteer to go to the supermarket after that. Two, three times a week I’m thinking of something we need.

“Hamburger? Let me run down to Safeway. No tinfoil? I don’t mind going. Ammonia? Mop head? Rutabaga? I’m on it.” I say hi to Samantha every time I’m there; she’s sweet to me and she smiles that smile and I always tell her I’m lost without her. We get to talking. She’s nineteen, starting at the college. She wants to be a forensic accountant. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds beautiful when she says it.

I know I should be questioning myself by this point. I’m nearly three times her age. But damn it, she smiles at me, she leaves what she’s doing when I come in, she goes with me around the store. And I am somebody with her. She sees me. Before Samantha, no one had seen me for years. I had been my wife’s husband, there beside her, turning gray, becoming invisible. Before Samantha saw me, I thought I was my wife’s imaginary friend.

I wasn’t looking, but we found each other. That’s how it is with love: it burns out one place, it will spark up somewhere else. You can’t predict; you can’t question. Just be grateful.

Then one day, after weeks of this, my wife wants to make a kielbasa stew. I have the shopping list. Stew ingredients and other things. I think I can make it with just a basket, but there’s so much vegetable my basket is full before I get to anything else. I need a cart. I go to the front of the store. I’m looking for Samantha as I go. She’s usually here, but I don’t see her.

I get to the carts, still looking for Samantha, when there’s a rumbling from the parking lot. I look through the big windows and there’s old Tom Wilson rolling up on his Harley Davidson. There’s a girl on the back and I know before Tom even stops that it’s Samantha. She swings off the back, pulls off her helmet and her blond hair plunges out. They’re talking, she laughs, he kisses her hand and she bounds toward the door while he shuts down his bike.

The door swishes open and in she comes still smiling and says “Hi, Charlie,” like nothing’s wrong.

I’m smacking my gums, standing there with my vegetables in a cart and my shopping list quivering in my hand.

“Are you finding everything you need? You look lost again.”

I look down at my list. I pick an item at random just to have something to say that isn’t about her and Tom Wilson and what might be going on between them.

“TV,” I say just as Tom Wilson struts in the door behind Samantha. “She wrote TV and I don’t know what that is.”

“Tender Vittles,” Tom says. “It’s cat food, asshole.”

“That’s it,” Samantha says. “Aisle 15. Do you want me to show you?”

“No,” I say. “I know where it is.”

Gerry Pajamas

Red SunsetI’m trying something different today. A friend sent me this flash fiction story and asked for feedback. I asked if I could share it with a broader audience — namely all of you — and she said please do. If you’re willing to comment we’d love to get your thoughts on Gerry Pajamas.

You can get as detailed as you want, but we’d be grateful just to know:

1. In general, how does the story hit you?

2. There are two versions of the story — one told in 1st person, the other in 3rd person. Which version works better?

Gerry Pajamas

(1st Person Version)

It was Parents and Teachers Day at school, and I didn’t see why I should be there.

My red-haired mother was asking the teacher, “Are you going to pass him?” and I of course knew

she was asking the teacher to make an exception, instead of complaining to him that he’d hit me,

hit me on the head the first week of school when I read aloud from a library book.

The sentence was “Muslims are lovers of laughter,” and I put an s on the final word,

right at the front- I thought it was funny how one little letter could make such a difference.

The teacher hit me with a Bible and said, “God doesn’t love you, Gerry Pajamas.”

I’d gotten that nickname the previous year wearing footed pajamas to school– They were under

my coat, so my dad didn’t notice– pajamas of teddy bears holding balloons, floating in

clouds and all of them smiling– the teddies, the sun, the clouds, the balloons.

The teacher was nodding though no one had spoken. He makes it difficult, don’t you agree?

And my mother nodded– You can say that again….              Am I going to pass? I asked, walking home.

Not that I cared but it mattered to mother and what mattered to mother always mattered to me.

My mother took a cigarette out of her purse. I tossed those pajamas, she said. She was lying.

You’ve got to start learning how to blend in. But I knew better, and eluded her hands.

Why do I make it difficult, though? By Why, I meant How– I got them mixed up.

I don’t know, she said. You were born that way. You gnawed on my nipples with pink little gums. Somewhere inside you, I think there’s a rat. It gnaws itself out of wherever you put it.

I liked that she’d turned our talking to rats– I saw rats making tunnels in sawdust and cheese.

I saw myself tall and thin and adult, running the lab where my dad used to work.

And the rats were white, and the people were black. The people had whiskers and windup tails

and whenever they stepped where I’d said they shouldn’t, I gave them a shock, and their eyes glared red.

“A rat in the house may eat the ice cream,” I said to my mother.    And the sun going down

made the grass catch fire. It burned like red hair, like a ladybug’s children. So then I felt hungry

for barbecue chips but mother never liked it when I said things like that, so I just smacked my lips

to kind of suggest it and she said, “Oh, Gerry, you should smile more often.”  That was the day

I set the first fire.

Gerry Pajamas

(3rd Person Version)

It’s Parents and Teachers Day at school. Gerry doesn’t see why he should be there.

His red-haired mother is asking the teacher, “Are you going to pass him?” and Gerry knows

she’s asking the teacher to make an exception. This teacher hit Gerry on the head last week

when Gerry read aloud from a library book. The sentence was “Muslims are lovers of laughter.”

Gerry put an s on the final word. The teacher hit Gerry with a Bible and said,

“God doesn’t love you, Gerry Pajamas.” Gerry once wore pajamas to school–

under his coat, so his dad didn’t notice– pajamas of teddy bears holding balloons

floating in clouds and all of them smiling– the sun, the teddies, the clouds, the balloons.

The teacher is talking to Gerry’s mother. He makes it difficult, don’t you agree?

His mother nods, You can say that again….               Am I going to pass? Gerry asks, walking home.

Not that he cares but it matters to his mother and what matters to his mother always matters to him.

His mother takes a cigarette out of her purse. I tossed those pajamas, she says, but she’s lying.

You’ve got to start learning how to blend in. But Gerry knows better, and eludes her hands.

Why do I make it difficult, though? By Why he means How– he gets them mixed up.

I don’t know, she says. You were born that way. You gnawed on my nipples with your little pink gums. Somewhere inside you, I think there’s a rat. It gnaws itself out of wherever you put it.

Gerry smiles to himself, thinking of rats, rats making tunnels in sawdust and cheese.

He sees himself tall and thin and adult, running the lab where his dad used to work.

And the rats are white, and the people are black. The people have whiskers and windup tails.

And whenever they step where he’s said they shouldn’t, he gives them a shock, and their eyes glare red.

“A rat in the house may eat the ice cream,” Gerry says to his mother.        And the sun going down

makes the grass catch fire. It burns like red hair, like a ladybug’s children, and Gerry feels hungry

for barbecue chips so he smacks his lips at his mother who says, It’s so good to see you

finally smile. And that was the day he set his first fire.

Oh Shit, I Succeeded. Now What?

McCauley Culkin is ShockedThank you to everyone who read, liked, commented on and followed my blog last week. You all are part of what I can tell you was one of the best weeks of my life as a writer up to this point.

This blog has existed in an unlit corner of the internet since I started it a year ago. I’ve picked at it. Posted a few things. Taken long periods off while I thought about what I might want to do with the blog. I lamented the fact that no one was reading what I was writing, but I did recognize that obscurity gave me freedom. I could write what I wanted to — I could be edgy or sentimental, I could be stirring or ridiculous — and who would know? Who would care? I could embrace this space as a sketch pad, a place to experiment and maybe over time a few people would find me and be interested.

Then Freshly Pressed found me. “Get ready,” they said, “for a lot more visitors.” They understated what the experience would be. It was like tying a rope to a rocket. It was like being shot from a cannon. It was like the time when I was 6 and we were dog sitting our neighbor’s Siberian Husky and he saw a squirrel while I was holding his leash and he charged off across the yard and I belly-surfed a hundred yards before I realized I could just let go of the damn leash.

Except this time I don’t want to let go of the leash. I want to continue this ride but remain true to my initial goals for this blog: be free, be experimental, be bold, always be growing as a writer. The challenge for me is to do that — to remain true to myself — now that I know an audience is watching. You’ll see things in the days and weeks ahead that may be very different from the piece that brought you here. I hope you’ll stick with me; keep reading, keep giving me your feedback. It is beyond valuable to me and I am deeply grateful.

I’ve been underground so long as a writer I don’t yet know how to live in the light. But your encouragement in the last week has shown me that this is a good place to be.

Thank you for giving me that experience.

I Really Don’t Want to Punch You In the Face

Punch in the faceMy ears stick out from the side of my head. Protrude. I cannot watch Dumbo or see Dopey of Seven Dwarves fame without a cringe and a furtive scan of the room to see who else is suddenly recognizing the resemblance. My ears, when I was in the ninth grade, made me a favorite target on the school bus. The cruel and the powerful passed their time on the bus sitting behind me and snapping my ears with their fingers, their pens, rubber bands, rulers. I was skinny and awkward and, although I was taller than most of them, I was terrified. I could endure the ear snapping, I thought, because I could think ahead to the total destruction that would befall me if I retaliated. I was smart enough to know that’s what they wanted me to do, but not smart enough to think of any other way out of it.

I was not like my brother who was seven the first time he punched a rival in the face: Timmy B. from next door who threw sand in his eyes. It wasn’t the first time Timmy had thrown sand and my father encouraged my brother to act if it happened again. “Stand up for yourself,” he said. “Some people don’t understand anything but a punch in the nose.” So when the sand flew again and peppered my brother’s eyes, he came up fist first and pulped Timmy’s nose. Blood down across Timmy’s mouth, glazing his chin, staining the white of his Happy Days t-shirt. Timmy never threw sand again and, to this day, almost forty years later, you say to anyone in my family that some transgressor needs a “Timmy Nose” and we all know what you mean.

I dreamed of leveling my tormentors. I knew all I had to do at the next stinging snap against my ear was spin in my seat, lunge at them and bury my knuckles in their eye. I could feel it. I practiced the move on the couch when I was home alone. Raging against pillows and air. But in the moment, on the bus, surrounded by cackles and ridicule, I kept my head down. I was frozen and could not act. I waited for time to pass. Because nothing lasts forever. I thought I could wait them out. I thought that eventually they would get bored and move on to something else, or someone else. But it didn’t work that way. Cruelty follows the path of no resistance.

But then one day a seventh grader snapped me. The little brother of one of the high schoolers who ruled the back of the bus. The older boys had decided, I suppose, that it was time for his initiation. Stinging my ear, crushing my pride, was his rite of passage. He sat behind me, stung my flesh and the whoops went up. “Get him again!” And he did again, and approval rained down on him. I sat with red ears and bowed head, as I always did, but that morning something changed. This kid making his reputation off of me, I could not endure. Being made powerless by the powerless, being crushed by the tiny. That was just fundamentally unfair. And that’s what it took to make me snap. I could suffer the slings and arrows of the powerful. Right or wrong, it was the natural order of things. But I would not be a piss-ant’s stepping stone to greatness.

When we got to school and left the bus, I followed him to the seventh grade hallway. I came up behind him as he opened his locker. I said his name and he turned and I balled my fist and I pulled it back and I picked a target on his face below his frightened eyes. Frightened eyes. And I could not swing. He was frozen, defenseless, and I could not swing. He was bracing for pain. He was afraid.

My hand moved forward. Slow like punching through water. My knuckles leaned into his face, flattened his cheek, pushed his lips to the left as I followed through in slow motion. I held my fist against his cheek for a beat screaming inside to try again. Pull back and try again! But the moment had passed. I couldn’t. I didn’t. I dropped my hand, I dropped my eyes and I walked away.

I don’t remember that boy’s name. I couldn’t pick him out of a year book if you gave me a hundred chances. But I do remember that he left me alone after that. The older kids didn’t, not right away, but that kid did and maybe he had something to do with the others finally leaving me alone. I walked away from his locker that morning hating myself for being weak, for being unable to stand up for myself. But with the benefit of thirty years of hindsight maybe I should be proud of that kid I was then. Maybe I wasn’t afraid of him or even of the older kids. Maybe I just knew at some level that I was unwilling to meet pain with pain. I would have been justified, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied.