Flash Special – (March 2014 / 14.6)
Artist, JoAnn Tomaselli, says of the above work, “Shadow Puppetry is an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment. It’s also a significant reminder of the importance of play. As a photographer, I find that every moment behind the lens offers an opportunity to see the world from a different point of view. To re-envision the everyday landscapes of life it’s imperative to observe without bias and let go of expectations ~ when we do, that’s when the magic happens!”
The Cherry Pit
Mildred had just enough time with the cherries before Felix would jingle the bells. She drove her hand into the baskets and took out a cherry, slick and red. But she was too fast and it slid down her throat; she swallowed it, pit and all. Mildred sensed the seed plunging down her insides, implanting itself in a spot soft as a baby’s armpit.
When Felix arrived, the door clanged like breaking glass and Mildred barricaded herself behind the dessert counter. She shuffled the pies, but they were old and too sour to sell. Mildred felt like a pendulum, wondering how Felix didn’t see her swaying as he corrected her displays.
“Never put butterscotch next to corn,” he said. “Corn looks like teeth. Teeth makes them think.”
Mildred’s teeth should have been faster.
The door jangled and in came Bess with her son. The boy, about half Mildred’s age, plucked a cherry from the basket but Felix smacked his hand. “You know what happens if you swallow one.”
Mildred’s stomach gurgled as Bess scowled and left.
After work, Mildred stopped to see Eloise. Mildred hadn’t been there since she was small and her mother sent her there for soup. Mildred’s mom loved vegetable soup when she felt sick; she said it made her feel warm and springy, but she still died anyway.
Eloise was a friend of her mom’s but she never came to the shop because she grew everything herself. Eloise was picking apples.
Mildred crouched by her ear and said, “I think I might be growing a tree.”
You’re not sure?” Eloise said. “Where did you plant it?”
Mildred pointed at her belly.
Eloise put down her fruit and brought her inside.
Mildred explained over tea.
“Your mother loved cherries,” Eloise said.
“But it’s not the season, and there could be frost.” Eloise tapped her cup. “You’ll have to stay with me.”
So Mildred did. Eloise fed her sugar and kept her hydrated, and Mildred helped in the garden on weekends. At work, Mildred ignored Felix’s jokes about her triple-layer sweaters. She was just glad he wouldn’t see the stalk behind her lips.
But as her tree grew, Mildred walked taller. The roots surged down her legs and the branches reached through her arms. For the first time since she was a child, she found herself taking up space; and when she knocked over a display here or there, she didn’t mind.
By spring there were so many cherries filling Mildred’s mouth that she couldn’t speak. Eloise had a plan. That day she rolled out dough and that night she harvested Mildred’s cherries in bowls.
Together they made pies and sold them from the front yard. They did so well that Mildred left her job.
One day Felix came by. He said he missed her at the shop, and that their desserts had turned to mold.
He picked up a sample and took a bite.
“Look out,” Mildred smiled. “You’ll grow a cherry tree.”
Julienne Grey was recently awarded the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference Scholarship and has done feature interviews for Slice Magazine. Her work has appeared in Joyland, SmokeLong Quarterly, theNewerYork, Squawk Back, The Ink and Code, and Quail Bell Magazine. She has stories forthcoming in Eunoia Review and Slice issue 16. Check out her website at juliennegrey.com and follow her @JulienneGrey.
A New Life
Suddenly, he finds himself in this shack, together with his five-year-old son. Is this a tree house? A beach hut? He does not take the time to look out through the gaps between the boards but instead is already thinking about how to settle down here. Beside him cowers the woman from Stuttgart. Instead of looking forward to the adventure with his father – who has never played “life in the cave” with him before but now carefully piles autumn leaves into pillows and says they will live here from now on – the boy just watches him in silence. His seriousness and intelligence take the father by surprise. His gaze renders him helpless.
Rupprecht Mayer was born 1946 near Salzburg. After some 20 years living and working in Taiwan, Beijing, and Shanghai, he recently resettled in SE Bavaria. He translates Chinese literature and writes short prose and poetry in German and English. English versions of his work have appeared in Atticus, Bicycle Review, Frostwriting, Hobart, Mikrokosmos/Mojo, NAP, Nano Fiction, Ninth Letter, Orange Quarterly, Postcard Shorts, Prick of the Spindle, Washington Square Review, and elsewhere. For more of his work, see www.chinablaetter.info/rupprechtmayer/.
Icarus Shows His Tattoos
This tattoo is a boat traveling to a faraway country. This is a sailor singing on the boat. He’s singing a song about holding a shell up to his ear and hearing the slosh of the waves. This is a bird flying up to the sun. Over here is a labyrinth. I have a great imagination, my father says. Life is filled with many things, he says. The trick is to get what you like, but that means recognizing what you like, he says. He teaches me in the labyrinth: keep going left, into the dark, and after we reach the heart, we reverse ourselves and soon we see the soft light carving out the edge of the cave. And we’re out of it and into the blinding world with its trinkets and cymbals and honey and fragrant laurel.
An old religious man from the East made these tattoos. Would you like one? Of a raven perhaps? Let me lengthen your chain. The world is better than the cave. I wish I could release you, little Minotaur-monster, but I’m not allowed. Your father doesn’t love you. But you have a mother. That’s something. Nobody can see you here. That’s something. You have me as a friend. That’s something. You have life. That’s something. Maybe you’ll get better. I can tell you about the outside world. I’ll bring you treats. I’ll bring you pets. I brought you a cricket. No, don’t crush it. All right, I’ll bring you another. Come, sit next to the fire. It will burn out the mustiness. See the shadow on the wall: my hand is a quacking duck, yours too. A pair of silly ducks. I can give you a tattoo on your arm. I can shave the fur. We can be brothers. Let’s fly high.
Cezarija Abartis’ Nice Girls and Other Stories was published by New Rivers Press. Her stories have appeared in Per Contra, Pure Slush, Waccamaw, and New York Tyrant, among others. Her flash “The Writer” was selected by Dan Chaon for Wigleaf’s Top 50 online Fictions of 2012. Recently she completed a novel, a thriller. She teaches at St. Cloud State University. Her website is http://magicmasterminds.com/cezarija/
The day our stepmother Ruthie served us meatloaf sandwiches for lunch, you took a bite and pretended to gag.
“Tastes like monkey shit on drywall,” you said, crumbs flying from your lips.
Ruthie stepped back toward us, slid the plate from the table and dumped it on your head. Then she walked to her bedroom and went to sleep. She had stopped trying to pretend we belonged to her.
We rinsed gravy from your hair, splashing each other at the kitchen sink, then drifted outside, squinting in the sun, hearts yearning for the soothing boredom of routine. Somewhere deep inside we wondered: What if it doesn’t get better than this? We were so busy yearning we couldn’t hear the music of the birds.
I wanted a sister. To appease me you sat still, letting me roll your long soft hair in pink sponge curlers while you taught me how to tell time.
“The big hand will always kick the little hand’s ass in the contest of movement.” You reached over your shoulder to give me another curler, then pointed at the clock on the kitchen wall. “Minutes jump by first, then the hours. Don’t forget that.”
I promised I wouldn’t.
Time passed that day just like you said it would and we fell asleep, only to be startled awake.
“You little queer!” Ruthie’s voice was a screech when she saw you. Only the sponge of my rollers saved your head from her slaps.
In a neighborhood where police helicopters buzz low overhead I find you drooping in one of the bars you haunt. When I tell you Ruthie has died you don’t flinch or even blink, so I raise the topic of meatloaf and curlers. You say my memory is flawed. This is what you say after going off the meds.
“You make up stories,” you slur. “They’re whispered by an insomniac wind. In the history of time, your heart is too loud.” Eyes smoldering, you swat at a black fly hovering over the bar.
“In these lies you make up, everyone lives but no one survives.” You swat again at the fly, though it has already disappeared. “You are my paper mache sister. I made you what you are.”
The hands on the clock move so fast they make me dizzy.
Karen Stefano’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The South Carolina Review, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Tampa Review, Storyglossia, Metazen, Gloom Cupboard, and elsewhere. To learn more about her writing, please visit www.stefanokaren.com.
A man was caught with loads of cash, trying to cross the border to avoid our invasion. His brown, wrinkled skin resembled bark. Fear flashed in his searching eyes. He hunched his shoulders, anticipating violence. His skin indicated he belonged in the hot place we had conquered. His irises resembled freaked mahogany in their deeply-tanned surrounds. He might have been the head of a clan or just an ordinary guy who wanted to escape. But he had money and things weren’t clear.
Sipping soup in the kitchen, I heard: “Narahhhhh…..”
The spoon stopped before my mouth.
That high shrieking, sharpened by horrified disbelief, held the amazement of shocked innocence.
My head shot around to look down the corridor.
Standing on a chair, I looked through a window into the room where the seated, suspected clan leader’s ankles and wrists were tied. His head fell forward. Blood dripped onto his lap. His puffed-up eyes looked closed. His face resembled putty.
Big, blonde Aaron released a flurry of fists, cracking the man’s head. The man howled like a wounded dog when a burning cigarette got stubbed out on his nose by Ariel whose smile resembled a malevolent spotlight in the room’s gloom. The man’s money was scattered across a table. I winced. Horror waves smacked my skull.
I bashed on the door, hearing: “Arhhhhhhhh…”
“Go away,” Ariel screamed.
“What did he do?” I yelled.
Aaron opened the door and said: “You’ve got work to do on the trucks.”
The tortured man’s wincing was high-pitched with disbelief.
I lingered in the doorway. Aaron was my commanding officer. His penetrating, blue eyes, like cut glass shimmering with anger, focussed on mine; jolting his head he hissed: “Well?”
The blood on his green shirt contrasted vividly with his snowy hair. The tortured man wheezed like a punctured lung. Aaron and I stared at each other in a slow moment of realising we could never be friends. A savage brilliance filled Aaron’s electric-blue eyes. Every second seemed to find a place in history.
“Is this going to help us?” I asked.
“Go,” Aaron said, pointing down the grey corridor.
His attitude towards the man he was torturing seemed unnaturally personal.
“You don’t know what animals they are,” he said, slamming the door in my face.
What we call terrorism started soon after this.
The man’s body got dumped onto one of the trucks I had been working on and taken to a mass grave for people massacred in the villages we had destroyed.
Kim Farleigh has worked for aid agencies in three conflicts: Kosovo, Iraq and Palestine. He takes risks to get the experience required for writing. He likes fine wine, art, photography and bullfighting, which probably explains why this Australian lives in Madrid. 97 of his stories have been accepted by 69 different magazines.
A Review by Len Kuntz
Gary Percesepe, itch and falling
Pure Slush Books, 2013
Gary Percesepe’s latest feat—simultaneously launching a story collection as well as a book of poetry—is impressive not simply for the sheer heft of output, but more so for the intricate, individualized way each piece has been fashioned.
In his story collection, itch, Percesepe gives us an array of interesting protagonists: porn stars and rape victims, men with foot fetishes, the ghost of a long-dead sculptor… But mostly we spend time seething or simmering in loss, feeling these imprints through the author’s keen eyes and broken heart.
Many pieces deal with divorce, from early stages to aftermath. Often the situations are viscerally painful, while other times the narrator has constructed an emotional carapace around himself and we have the luxury of being a voyeur, witnessing the damage without being a part of it ourselves.
A great number of lines feel like textured layers of insight, advice and cautionary direction:
You just look up one day and everything is gone. Cells of your skin die every minute, second by second, from the time you are born, brain cells decay, you lose what you most wanted to save, and the ghosts carry the rest away. Trust me on this.
Or this, from “Grace, Too”:
Things change, don’t they? Some things you give up. If you’re lucky you get more. And the more never replaces what you once had, it just stands tenderly beside it, guarding it maybe – or maybe it just makes it easier, I don’t know. A new sight comes along, new memories, new ways of seeing. New people enter your life to move you on. No, the things you give up you don’t ever get back, but if you’re lucky you get new things, not replacements, exactly, but just new things to keep you moving. To keep you whole. And that’s grace, too.
From “The Dress” our author bemoans the fact that he no longer has anyone to buy a dress for, while later falling asleep “to the poetry of failure”. Mixing pathos with sardonic humor, he arrives at a story ending that works on multiple levels:
I hear again that little girl voice when she finds two small cuts I hadn’t known were there. Maybe I smashed them against the elevator door at the party thinking of her ex, or maybe I bruise more easily these days, but the blood is dull red, and she says, Baby, you’re cut. And then we are at the hotel and I realize it will be her.
Similarly, in “Scripts”, a tale of a porn star, the reader gets a glimpse of the different scripts of our own lives, viewing the world through many character’s eyes, though it is the Director who sees beauty’s hold on us, its fleeting and slippery qualities:
The Director says that we are too afraid of death to love wisely or to discover beauty; forfeiting beauty in exchange for love we begin to die before we have learned to live…
Nothing we do is neutral.
In “Go”, a rich man, replete with a chauffeur and chartered airplanes at his disposal, seduces a young girl by promising momentary wealth. While the story plays out, we see Percesepe’s skill as he juxtaposes the girl’s joy with the billionaire’s melancholic resolution that, though rich beyond means, he leads a life nevertheless mired in a lonely reality.
From “Giacometti”, a fable-like tale about the late Swiss sculptor known for his emaciated sculptures, a young couple sits at Giacometti’s feet, picking mud from his shoes as Giacometti waxes about existence and vitality, in addition to mere art and form:
When I look at a woman the longer I look the thinner they become. I work by paring away what is not essential, work until one touch more and things vanish…
“The artist conserves a splinter of ice in the heart,” he says.
Throughout the book, we traverse cities, from Manhattan to Hollywood to London and back to New York. Yet while the settings are prominent, they’re usually used as tools in kerning truths and the perceptions of Percesepe’s characters:
It was summer. I’d made this time for us, and we were happy. An interlude, she called it – she was giving me this interlude , giving it to us, and it was clear from the way she said it that it was full of grace, this moment. I tried to take it in, the way you look at the mountains when you’re from the flats, not knowing when you’d get out west again, if maybe this was your last sight – how could you know?
In the end, we are left holding a jangle of jewelry, each gem glittering distinctively over strands of silver and gold, every stone demanding we pause and give it our singular attention again and again.
Much of the poetry collection, falling, is printed in lower-case—sentence starts and even most titles. This has the added effect of relaxing the reader’s eye and expectation, so that quite often a piece will land like an arrow through the heart.
Percesepe is clearly a romantic, obsessed with love—someone who treasures women, even when those same women torture or destroy him. Many of these poems are about divorce, tarnished love affairs, chance encounters or pleas for redemption. As with his story collection, a number of these poems artfully combine humor with pathos.
For instance, the intro to “it gets dark early here”:
nothing is happening
and happening fast
the moon is a sharp saw
for cutting dreams back
everyone is scaling down
or so I’ve heard
even my poet friends
are pinching commas…
In “Bananagrams” wry humor is blended with anguish as encompassed by the final, blow-to-the-gut line:
So much can go wrong with a banana in your purse.
With that one smooth sentence, Percesepe comically demonstrates how something once vital—be it love or fruit—can wither if left unattended.
In “writers in love” we are privy to two artists whose shared passion connects them through miles of distance, over cyberspace, their adoration of words ensnaring them in a passionate, forbidden and star-struck affair which will never materialize beyond emails and texts.
“Love, An Inquiry” gives us a conversation whereby a broken ex is grilled about love, loss and learning while he imparts healthy doses of wisdom that might as well be as much for our benefit as the character’s:
Q: Is there an end to love?
A: Yes, but we cannot know it. We love to our limit but then find that our capacity increases. We always surprise ourselves in love. The capacity to be surprised is an element of goodness.
Q: What is love, then?
A: Torment & misery. A hunger. A violent upheaval. A lifting up and out of the ordinary order of things.
Q: Should we seek it?
A: It seeks us. Though some are never found.
In “question” we toggle between a post-9/ll world, our place in it, and how to handle a quandary of emotions:
If you were an enormous bullet you could lodge here in my open shirt. Downstairs, we scream and wash our hair.
With “She”—essentially a poem of lists and attributions to a woman, or some more symbolic figure—Percesepe makes each sentence come alive as they build upon one another:
She will take you back to your childhood if you let her.
She lives down the hall in a room that is dreamed.
She will walk in her sleep into your life. She will tell you this was your idea. She will make you believe it.
She grew out of this corner when all were asleep. She is the consolation of the merely lonely.
She sees the poor cut down with a sharp grin.
She waltzes on the roof, on the tragic brick
She is never near. What you need
She cancels while looking up from her salad.
She has appeared in Prague, without warning.
She is after us. If you decide
She is necessary it will lead to nowhere.
She has the silent shape of your shadow on the bare wall.
She cries into microphones and applauds despair.
She hungers for more like you.
She is the poetry of failure.
She blinds the stars and beats fire into flakes.
Ultimately, Persecepe’s poetry rings with the same nuanced depth as his prose, most pieces stunning and others singing with such spare simplicity that they call us to read them anew.
Gary Percesepe is Associate Editor at New World Writing (formerly Mississippi Review) and a Contributor at The Nervous Breakdown. Author of seven books, Percesepe has seen his work nominated for the Pushcart Prize and published in a great number of journals and anthologies, including Story Quarterly, N + 1, Salon, Mississippi Review, Antioch Review, The Millions, Brevity, PANK, Structo, The Brooklyner, and other places. He is the author of a short story collection, Itch, and a poetry collection, Falling, both published by Pure Slush Press in 2013. His collection of short stories, Why I Did the Grocery Girl, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books. He lives in Buffalo, New York.
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State and an editor at the online literary magazine Metazen. His story collection, The Dark Sunshine, was released from Connotation Press in February and his second story collection, I’m Not Supposed To Be Here And Neither Are You, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books in January 2015. You can find him at lenkuntz.blogsopt.com.
A Review by Linda Simoni-Wastila
Susan Tepper, The Merrill Diaries
Pure Slush Books, 2013
“Spies have paid us a surprise visit. This couple who lived upstairs from us, when we lived at Fairlevel Gardens, is sitting on our couch, on the other side of the wall from where I’m still in bed. Our bedroom being right off the living room, no hallway, no pause here a moment before entering type of open area. Just the living room and plunk—the bed staring you in the face…”
In polite society, one does not read another’s diary, but with this opening, how could you resist? So begins The Merrill Diaries, the latest novel by Susan Tepper. Known for her smart language and quirky characters, Tepper does not disappoint here. In this opening, we learn much about Merrill: her impatience at unwanted visitors, her frustration with a too-public bedroom, her paranoia—or is it merely distrust?—of her old neighbors, who she believes are spies. What follows is hilarious, as her growing need to pee conflicts with her desire to avoid the visitors.
The rest of the novel follows in similar fashion. We follow Merrill through her twenties as she puddle-jumps from marriage to marriage and country to country. A sort of retro Eat, Pray, Love (sans the saccharine self-indulgence), The Merrill Diaries opens in New Jersey with Merrill making house with Teddy, a Vietnam vet whose flat feet and color-blindness kept him out of helicopter action. She ditches Teddy for Eddy, a sexy guitar player in the band she sings with in Atlantic City bars, and then moves on to Tom, in London. A gig in Greece with Theo, a cruise tour operator, follows, then a return to the States to her sister Nan and another series of mishaps, before she ends up back in London.
In Merrill we have a protagonist full of complexity and contradictions: a sexual soul with a prudish heart, a woman who chafes under commitment to people or place, a woman who trips over herself as she tries to find her place in the world. Yet she knows her limitations and breezes through them, always hurtling forward and never wallowing in the detritus left in her wake. Sure, Merrill carries baggage, most notably her mother, a woman who stole other people’s histories and thus, in a way, stole their lives. It’s to her mother that Merrill owes her resiliency, as well as her appreciation of the finer things in life. But at the same time, Merrill contradicts herself by fighting off the messages her mother plants in her mind as she tramps through her twenties.
A key to crafting a compelling story is insuring the protagonist wants something she cannot have. But what does Merrill want? The reader struggles with this question as Merrill jumps from one man’s bed to another, and boards ferries and planes to yet another exotic locale. As you read, it’s not clear Merrill knows what she wants, yet even with not knowing, the reader remains engaged. Indeed, this not knowing becomes Merrill’s holy grail: What do I want?
This is a fast-paced read, in large part due to the exquisite yet no-nonsense writing. One of Tepper’s hallmarks is spare, taut prose, and she doesn’t disappoint here. Merrill’s emotional voice runs the gamut from impatient to hilarious to naïve to heart-wrenching sad. Another Tepper hallmark is her expository style of fiction, which lends itself to flash-fiction vignettes strung together like a glistening strand of pearls. Thirty chapters (if you count the prologue, divided into three sections, most chapters three to four pages in length. Yet in each diary entry we gain total access to Merrill, a deep immersion into her life, her loves, her lusts, her disappointments.
Tepper is the author of several books, most recently From the Umberplatzen (Wilderness House Press) and What May Have Been: Love Letters of Jackson Pollack and Dori G (Cervena Barva press), which she co-wrote with Gary Percesepe. Both of these share similarities with The Merrill Diaries in their use of expository methods and in their use of pithy chapters, a characteristic especially of From the Umberplatzen. Most of all, the three books explore love in all of its glory—and its messiness—a topic Tepper handles with deft surety.
When the ending came, I wanted more. I wanted more from the places Merrill landed, a bit more lingering on the exteriors through her eyes. Tepper handles the different stations of Merrill’s quest deftly, using few but telling details. For instance, I will forever think of Athens as the city where drivers tool around after dark using only parking lights. It’s a creepy detail, yet one that sticks and makes that particular way station memorable. As well, at times the time period, the 70s—an iconic time period in the US and the world—feels brushed over. Then again, we are living the times as Merrill lives them, in present tense, and there is little time for retrospection. Indeed, Merrill is a very forward-thinking, impatient-with-the-moment person, so this rush toward her next moment rings true to her character.
Merrill endeared me to her, a feisty woman who perseveres through hard knocks and fortune not with grace as much as humor. And who can’t learn from that? The Merrill Diaries is lighthearted and deep, funny and sad—a reflection of Merrill herself.
Susan Tepper is the author of five published books of poetry and fiction.The Merrill Diaries (Pure Slush Books) is a novel in stories, published in July 2013. She has received nine Pushcart Nominations and one for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel What May Have Been (co-author Gary Percesepe — whose new books are also reviewed above). She is a contributing editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she interviews authors in UNCOV/rd. Find her website here :http://www.susantepper.com/
Linda Simoni-Wastila writes from Baltimore, where she also professes, mothers, and gives a damn. You can find her stuff at Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, The Sun, The Poet’s Market 2013, Hoot, Connotation Press, Camroc Press Review, Right Hand Pointing, Every Day Fiction, Every Day Poetry, and Nanoism, among others. Senior Fiction Editor at JMWW, she slogs one word at a time towards her MA in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins and her current novel-in-progress. In between sentences, she blogs at http://linda-leftbrainwrite.blogspot.