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I know I’m late to the party so I’m trying to make up for lost and ill-spent time. Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds gave a flash fiction challenge to write, 1000 words or less, a short story about death however we see fit. So here it is.
I was sitting on my bedroom floor with the door open and half-eavesdropping on my grandmother and mother’s conversation. I was also surreptitiously thumbing through the June 1998 Playboy I had “borrowed” from under my father’s bed. I really had meant to put it back, but once it had passed through my friends and my sticky fingers I thought it best to keep.
My mother had ordered me to my room because she and Nana had to talk. My mother had hardly asked, “What do you want?” than my grandmother responded with the blunt end of a five pound mallet.
Who is, I wondered. My mother seemed to know, because she didn’t say anything.
“They found him – the police were called, no one had seen him or heard from him so Mrs. Lacava asked Joe DiMici – you know, Carol’s husband at the department – if someone could do a, what do you call it, a welfare check.”
“I don’t care.” My mother’s words were poison. My ears perked up. Donna D’Errico, Pam Anderson, and the other “Babes of Baywatch” pictorial figures were much less interesting.
“She probably was getting nervous that she wouldn’t get the rent check – Mrs. Lacava if you follow what I’m saying. So they went in and found him on the floor…”
My mother cut in. “I don’t care,” she repeated, and again as my grandmother kept telling her the story. Their voices gathered into a crescendo that would have thundered through my bedroom door, if I’d closed it.
“Goddamnit, Jane. The bastard’s dead. He was bloated and lying on the floor for days. They’ll never get the smell out. I want you to finally move on with your life!”
“I don’t want to hear another word, ma. I don’t want you to open your mouth. If you think I’m happy he’s dead – well I am – but if you think that changes the past thirty years, washes away what he did to me – what he did to our family – you are wrong. Naïve and wrong.”
* * *
After my grandmother had left, after my mother cooked my sister and me dinner, after the dishes were put into the dishwasher, I heard my mother’s voice in the kitchen. She mentioned “Jane,” and I knew she was on the phone with my aunt – her sister-in-law.
“She said it so matter-of-factly, ‘He’s dead’. I knew immediately she was talking about him. The phone call that she wanted to talk, her face, that tone she gets; I knew right away who she meant.” The dishwasher drowned out as much of her conversation as it cleaned the place settings, but pieces of information came through. “She said it and acted as though it absolved her somehow… he’s burning in hell if there’s any justice…I can’t imagine anyone would go to a service…”
She talked and I listened from the hallway, inching closer to the kitchen, ducking into the bathroom in the event of discovery. I listened as the anger built in her voice and overshadowed even the rinse cycle. Until my eyes stung and my lips tasted salt.
I listened, and I learned that my oldest cousin had the misfortune of sharing the same name as my mother’s father’s younger brother. He shared the name of child molester, and a dead one at that; who was found bloated on the floor of his shitty apartment that he lived in alone, and where he would have stayed undiscovered if not for a tiny Italian lady looking for her rent check, or until someone complained about the smell. And I squeezed my fists as I tiptoed to my room before I dared to breathe, and every breath carried a prayer that the dead man was in fact burning in hell.
Yup, after a mere two entries I fell off the face of WordPress. Ugh.
I’m pleased to say I have been working on a draft (more so notes for a draft) of my novel. I’m trying to compartmentalize the big picture into smaller scale, more manageable “projects”. I am also using (and loving!) pads of paper – much less cumbersome than a notebook and helps me avoid the distractions of Twitter, Reddit and a host of other brain cell-killing shit.
The past few days I dug out my folders with this work in progress I started a few years ago. It has become a conglomeration of three short stories I wrote for my university’s fiction workshops – I see elements (characters, plots, events) that fit into one novel.
In trying a new approach of building visual outlines on pads of papers (which has worked well and broken my usual round of typing a few pages then hitting a wall, unable to see how one section fits into the larger picture) I arrived at a place where I could go into the saved documents and start laying the foundation. Except, I cannot find the (digital) folders of my past work.
I check my flash drives, but they are not there. I check my external hard drives – to no avail. Panic starts to set in. I dig out my old hard drive to my old computer, but sure enough the documents folder is empty, having been at some point transferred.
(As a side note, I am a hardware geek. I build my own PCs, and I rotate new hardware in on a regular basis, but I always take the opportunity to organize files and folders before backing up).
I have scanned every drive I own and all of my work from 2003-2010 is just gone. Vapor. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it, probably in a self-denying sense because to admit what appears obvious is heart-wrenching. All of my university papers, from first draft to final, gone. The brick and mortar of this novel that has grown and troubled me for years: somewhere in the ether.
This situation pains me for a few reasons. In one way, I have just lost my body of work, my ‘portfolio’, if you will. I feel I’ve been cut off at the knees for future endeavors or if I apply for a position or grant and I have nothing to point to as a mark of my skill.
That is to say nothing of the sadness I feel because, on some level, I am a hoarder, and having lost seven years of files is what I imagine it must be like when the city issues an ultimatum to a real life hoarder to empty out his house, except for the fact rather than having acquired the documents from other sources they are all pieces of me: my thought processes and analysis; my time.
Having lost all these files is a setback to my plan of structuring the novel and then writing the rest and (finally) completing a first draft. At the same time, however, it forces me to use the outlines I’ve been working on and start from scratch, with all of the planning in mind. I suppose it’s a bit of a blessing, though at the moment it feels strictly like a curse.
This is my first real post and my first attempt at Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge over at Terrible Minds. From a list of twenty words pick ten and go. Here’s what I’ve got, using sparrow, mattress, fever, dinosaur, dove, scream, finger, insult, moth, and university.
The cream, formal-crisp letter from the Dean’s office sat on the shelf closest to my head, in company with my selection of favorite Nabokov novels. “I am writing to make you aware that the university has placed you on academic probation…” Even though it was folded into thirds, the note’s black font was etched into my sight like a wooden desk carved up with a ballpoint pen. It retained the shine of wet ink.
A more sensitive person might take insult at the letter, informing me of consequences I knew had to be brewing. After all, I hadn’t been to class in nine weeks – more than half the semester. The skeletal string bean of a dean – or did the plump, Irish-looking one write it? – couldn’t have known that I was curled up on my bed in the midst of an opiate overdose trying to erase from memory the very same time frame that I had been absent. A fever held me firm for six hours, too long, and I had long since stripped the mattress of any bedding, save for a thin jersey top-sheet to wrap up in when the chills came on.
My apartment bedroom was unpleasant in sight and smell. I hadn’t the energy to clean up the vomit on the carpet from where I’d missed the trashcan, and the grime of the city’s polluted air coated the walls and flat surfaces with a greasy dust. If I lie still long enough, I wondered, would it cover me too? The thought of a mechanic’s grease slowly growing over my still body, like a snake’s mutant, reverse skin shedding, sent me into a fit of dry heaving, worse than actually puking. The fierce gagging sapped me of oxygen, and when it subsided I closed my eyes and awoke in a dinosaur-wallpapered room.
Maybe it was natural to dream about my childhood bedroom, to want to return to a comfortable time and place, but the air felt off. There was an unseen wrongness about it, much like being alone on a normally busy street. I climbed to the top bunk and felt ten degrees hotter, natural since the ceiling fixture was two feet from my face. A small grey moth danced around the hundred-watt bulb. It settled on the ceiling, and I reached out to touch it. The way it sat under the light’s lip left it in shadow and painted it in a darker coat. It set off as my hand neared and landed on the inside of my outstretched index finger. It tickled as it walked. Then it burned, and the moth flew off while I clenched the wounded appendage in my left palm. Swelling was fast, and I wanted to cry, to scream, as the skin grew so tight I thought it might rupture and leave blood and ligament on the ceiling and bedding.
I woke up. Hour number nine had come and gone. The dreamed burn felt real enough. I reached for and scooped out the last four pills. Not long now. The sheet was soaked and felt icy as the chills set in. I kicked it off and went fetal instead. As I was born, so shall I die. I hope someone famous wrote that.
Another letter sat with the Dean’s. Also folded in thirds, it was considerably less formal, being handwritten on college-ruled notebook paper. I had ripped off the frill from the margins. It was a pet peeve.
“I’m sorry…wrong idea…It was a hard time in my life…Things are much better between me and him…You’re too self-destructive…not what I need…don’t love…always be…best friend.” Her handwriting was always so perfect, but what was unbearable was how her rounded letters exuded so much positive energy. Each word, each line, testified to her regained happiness, and convicted my sorry, wishful thinking.
The sleepy wave came again, and I was back in the wallpapered room, staring out the lone window. There was a breeze, the trees danced happily, and a dove fluttered around, looking like a miniature cloud against the Caribbean water-blue sky. It grew closer and larger, though slowly, as if the air was molasses-thick. I raised my hand as it neared the window, and suddenly it was moving at a faster than normal pace. The bird smashed through the pane of glass and shards large and small erupted in every direction. I opened my eyes to find a crumpled, bloody body surrounded by glass. Odd, though, was that it wasn’t a dove but a small sparrow, and its neck was twisted around and hung at an unnatural angle, even for a bird. I reached out to touch it – it was clearly dead, but I longed to run my fingers along its feathers. Black blood stained my skin, and it ran and dripped and spread until it looked like my hand was the victim. The viscous secretion pooled in my palm, and the room spun and spun and spun.
I woke up. The dreamed blood was real. Copper stung my tongue and its source stained the mattress and my right hand. It dribbled down my chin. My eyes itched, and it felt like a morning’s crust – dried tears – was stuck in the lashes and corners. But there was no discomfort or even annoyance. They simply were heavy. Hour eleven passed. My head, arms and legs; the air and room’s light; everything was heavier and dark. I could see the room wallpapered: a patch of college ruled paper, one of thicker, formal cream, and one of dinosaurs. Around the room it went and I followed its path until I felt I was spiraling a drain. So long. If only I could fold myself into thirds.