fiction, politics, short stories

A Thanksgiving Guest

Paul sat on the kerb, staring out at nothing, shuddering despite the blanket wrapped around him.The African medallion hung from his neck. There was a single drop of blood splattered across it. Detective Harris stood across from him as she kept an eye on the CSUs processing the scene. He glanced up, brown eyes watering and bulging in their sockets before he ran his tongue over his lips.

 

‘You got a cigarette?’he said.

 

She handed him a soft pack of Marlboro Lights. He took one but his hands shook too much to light it. Harris lit it for him and he inhaled with a junkie enthusiasm. When he thanked her, his voice was soft and mannered.

 

He told her what happened.

 

He put it as a joke tweet. A list of priced services to provoke reactions. Running up on your creepy uncle cost twenty dollars. Mentioning Black Lives Matter and giving hard stares at anyone who challenged him was ten dollars. He said he would bring a plate and microwave it. He referenced Ving Rhames in ‘Baby Boy’ over Sidney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’.

 

Erin Mayhew sent him a direct message and a few messages later, dropped a chunk of change in his bank account. A photo of her made the prospect appealing. Paul thought she was pretty with curled blonde hair and a full, soft build running to fat although her social media feeds were a little confrontational, even for him.

 

Harris noted how he paused afterwards before she asked him to continue.

 

He picked her up from her dorm, driving an SUV and she kept touching his knee on the drive down. Paul looked away and Harris asked him what happened.

They had fucked in the back seat, and Paul felt a little objectified even as she came three times. It was, he admitted, the only time she stopped talking about how awful her family were.

He took the sealed plate of ribs, chitlins, collared greens and cornbread in and adopted a rolling, beligierent swagger as Erin giggled and whispered how he should go all in on Trump. The money was good and it would be a good story to share online later, he told himself.

 

The table was heaving with food and a centrepiece which was a clamshell draped with twigs and dried flowers sprayed silver and gold. Erin’s parents, David and Maria were soft, polite people who struggled to make eye contact and when Paul passed his plate, his stomach soured with distaste as he stared out David without speaking.

Erin grinned with an awful mania as they sat down. Paul told the detective how her uncle wore a MAGA hat at the table, and spoke to Paul about the last Kendrick Lamar album. They were polite to him and every cent he earned came up to haunt him. It was awkward and his nerves made his performance halting and inconstant but he believed things would pan out for the best.

 

Which was when the jar of vicodin came out. Erin’s aunt Laura had a back injury and good insurance, dished out the pills from her purse and Paul shook his head when she offered. Erin took two and frowned at Paul before she said something to her uncle Eddie about Roy Moore.

 

Paul cringed at Erin’s zeal before he noted how much it was reflected in her uncle and father’s arguments. They repeated talking points gleaned from the internet, their voices rising and falling as they scored points off one another. Paul saw sympathetic glances thrown his way from Laura and mother but he kept moving his stale cornbread around the plate and kept silent.

 

The hairs went up on the nape of his neck when he heard three words which haunted him.

 

Black lives matter.

 

All lives matter.

 

He studied his plate like a midterm and wished he had been anywhere else than at the Mayhew Thanksgiving dinner.

He asked Harris for another cigarette before he carried on. His hands shook harder and tears ran down his cheeks as he continued.

What broke the moment was Erin mentioning the Trump admission recorded by Billy Bush, which was cue for Laura to defend Kevin Spacey and her sister turned, indignant and spraying flecks of turkey and sweet potato as she stated how her sister always resented her theatrical talent.

Paul said he was relieved when the argument became personal rather than political but the observation lasted as long as it took for Laura to reach into her purse and take out something other than pain medicine.

Just pain, he said.

The Walther had a lady grip and it looked small in her hands as she lowered the barrel at her sister’s chest and pulled the trigger.

Mrs Mayhew’s mouth formed into a perfect oh as she fell backwards, clutching her chest. Paul flew back from the table as Laura turned and fired at her husband, his red MAGA hat popped off his head with the force of the bullet.

Erin smiled as her aunt shot her in the forehead.

Mr Mayhew wrestled with her, his thick hands dwarfed hers before she fired into the rounded bulk of his midsection and he slumped forwards, making choking sounds as he bled over the table.

‘Did you like the centrepiece?’ Laura said.

Her voice was a rasping screech as she pointed the gun at him. He nodded with as much enthusiasm as his terror allowed him. She had borrowed it from a picture Ivanka posted before she turned the gun on herself.

 

He butted the cigarette out and looked up at the detective. The best ideas start as jokes, and so do some of the worst.

Harris sat down on the kerb and asked about his family. He said they argued and loved with the same volume and his father had voted for Trump but he had his reasons.

‘Families are fucking weird.’ he said.

 

Harris smiled and nodded. She’d left her house after her husband had let their daughter pull down a tray of brownies from the kitchen table whilst he was playing with his phone and she had read him the riot act. She gave him the rest of the pack of cigarettes and gestured for the paramedics to come back to him.

‘Happy Thanksgiving.’ she said.

Paul wept as she walked away.

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book reviews, books, craft, fiction, Uncategorized, writing

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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Synopis:

Rosemary’s young, just at college, and she’s decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we’re not going to tell you too much either: you’ll have to find out for yourselves, round about page 77, what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other.
Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone – vanished from her life. There’s something unique about Rosemary’s sister, Fern. And it was this decision, made by her parents, to give Rosemary a sister like no other, that began all of Rosemary’s trouble. So now she’s telling her story: full of hilarious asides and brilliantly spiky lines, it’s a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.

This is a delightful book. It is rich with warm, insightful storytelling and Fowler allows Rosemary to speak poignant truths about families. Rosemary’s voice comes through with a strength of character and energy that makes this book move with vibrancy and yet does not miss out on the opportunities to explore the delicate web of relationships and emotional wounds that families inflict upon one another.  Fowler’s confident grasp of structure gives the book  a sweep of history, and as the book reveals deep truths about the nature of Rosemary’s childhood, I was taken in by how incredibly well realised the book was.

This book quietly broke my heart in all the right places. Families are the first to teach us about how we hurt one another, and here in the strange yet utterly relatable family that Fowler has created, shown to us in small pieces like a puzzle composed of unreliable recollections and unresolved sadnesses, we can all find pieces of ourselves contained within it.

No, I won’t spoil it for you. This is a book, that much like revenge, is best served cold and when you reach that point, I will envy you the thrill of surprise and insight that could have been clumsy and alienating in the hands of a writer with lesser craft but here, Fowler shows us that even the most surreal circumstances of fiction do not compare to the surreal beauty of modern life.

It is a gorgeous, spiky book that talks about families as they are, as we would wish them to be, and all the regrets and joys of them. You’ll be pressed to find a book that capers and cajoles with as much skill and pleasure as this one does.

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flash fiction, grief, love, mental illness, mother, women

Until Spring

Paula stared through the window as her dad drove them across the state. He kept up a constant stream of bland jokes and observations, desperate for a smile or even a sigh of exasperation. Nothing. His baby girl was as impassive as a terracotta warrior. The heat hadn’t helped, the final assault of a summer that they’d all been grateful for it’s ending. Some winters are a blessing, if you can see the way ahead.

Tommy’s mother, Paula’s grandmother, Rebecca lived alone in the house built by her husband. She’d been the cheerful dictator of a society disparate enough to be called a family – born, raised, fed and even buried some of them.

This was part of why Tommy had insisted on taking Paula to see her. Gwen was against the idea but Tommy saw how that was the only way she could define herself against the intersection of two long shadows that fell upon her like a bad day. His mother and his first wife, Deidre, rendered forever saintly by a drunk housewife with a Hummer. Cycling to bring soup for an ailing neighbour. Tommy had quietly gone about the matter and even Gwen had backed down when he had told her that it was all he could think of to do.

To save his little girl.

They pulled up outside just before noon. Tommy opened the door for her, swallowed his sadness when she recoiled from his attempt to touch her. Her hair was two broken ravens wings worn like the headdress of the saddest Shaman, but her eyes still held a luminosity and her skin was clear as spring water, white as milk. The sweater hung off her and her fingers curled inside the bell sized sleeves.

‘I’ve made lunch.’

Tommy smiled. Rebecca’s voice was a precise instruction, confident in never needing to be raised above a polite question. She wore her white hair long and she still had that rangy strength to her, corded muscles in her arms in a white man’s shirt rolled to the elbows with black slacks and bare feet.

They walked up, Tommy kissed her dutifully on the left cheek. She smelled of talc and oranges, still. Rebecca did not try to embrace Paula but instead asked her if she’d like to help. Paula shrugged mechanically and Tommy said he’d look at the light in the bathroom, relieved that he had something to do. A way to feel useful to someone.

In the large, well lit kitchen, Paula retreated to the corner like a timid spider, arms crossed over her budding chest.

‘Knife on the side. Slice the tomatoes, would you?’

‘You sure you want me to do that?’

Her voice was thin and dusty with lack of use, but Rebecca smiled.

‘You didn’t throw yourself from the car, did you?’

If anyone had been there to see the small smile that Paula gave, they’d have been aghast, but Rebecca kept rinsing the head of rocket under the faucet.

Paula picked up the knife. A good chefs knife, worn and scarred with use but still true. She balanced the thick, firm beefsteak tomato in her palm and set it on to the chopping board.

Her hands trembled but she cut it into even slices and before she’d finished, Rebecca had passed a cucumber to her.

‘These look weird.’

‘Grew them.’

Paula looked across at her. Rebecca had a warm slightly wearied grin on her face and Paula swallowed before she spoke again.

‘You’re not going to give me a lecture?’

Rebecca shrugged and pointed to the cucumber.

‘Less talking, more chopping.’

Rebecca had her working until she had diced, chopped and sliced a pile of vegetables into a coarse, mountain of foliage in a wooden bowl. Rebecca poured out a glass of something golden and sparkling and passed it to her.

Paula spluttered and looked over her shoulder.

‘I’m not supposed to drink, grandma. ‘

Rebecca waved her off and pressed the glass into Paula’s hand.

‘If you are old enough to decide whether you want to live then you’re old enough to drink with me. Enough.’

Paula looked at the bubbles rising with fascination before she took a sip. Dry and clean with a pungency that made her mouth sting. She relished the play of the bubbles and the liquid on her tongue.

Rebecca leaned over and looked towards the stairs.

‘I took a fuse out. Let’s you and I sit for a spell whilst he figures that out.’

Paula cringed but Rebecca patted her on the shoulder as they walked out.

‘Best thing to give a man is a job to make him feel useful. A full stomach or an orgasm works too, but we’re not that kind of close.’

The garden was a study of production. Flowers were deployed to ward and encourage, herbs for cooking and chipped saucers of dark beer for slugs. Rebecca knelt and rubbed soil between her fingertips.

She looked out at the sky, then up at her granddaughter.

‘I had planned on doing it when I was twelve.’

Paula shivered despite the heat. She didn’t disrespect her by asking and she was too shocked to do more than nod.

‘My mother was a cunt. Awful word and I’d beat your father black and blue if he’d used it, but it fits some people. My father was a ghost that no one had told to move on and die. I had nothing and no one.’

An elder brother who took liberties with her. Nightmare movie of the week stuff. All the worse for the clear recollection of it.

Paula hadn’t been allowed to go see All Time Low at the Civic Centre.

‘What stopped you?’

Rebecca stopped and smiled to herself.

‘I decided to wait for spring. Ed was going into the army and I figured if that stopped, then -‘

Paula was disturbed by the feeling of relief that someone was dead before you had ever met them.

‘Then it was okay?’

Paula had resisted therapy entirely, but here, amongst plants and earth, something unlocked in her chest. The way a cough changes when you start to shift the mucus after a heavy infection.

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