Small Fiction: Cold War

Black and white historical photograph of a woman standing at the Berlin Wall circa 1962 for Flash Fiction: Cold War by Malin James

Berlin Wall, c. 1962

She was prone to overthinking – thinking formed a wall guarded by a process she pretended to control. She deployed distractions and analysis with Soviet subtlety, creating, over time, a Byzantine web of protections. In the end, one department didn’t know what the other one was doing – left hand fooling the right.

She did this cloak and dagger for years – years and years and a lifetime – until the years ran short and programs were cut and a colder, less stable government dismantled the agency tasked with her sanity.

Facades began to crumble and buildings fell and the wreck of a woman lay piled in the corner of a room. Wrapped in wars that were not hers, she was blinded by things hadn’t known to see, invisible threats she’d felt in her splintered bones. She rocked herself apart in that room, in the end, a mouse in a concrete wall. The wall filled her blood and her back and her soft, soft parts as she fell around herself.

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Fiction: Nighthawks

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper view into night time diner for Nighthawks post by Malin James

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper. 1942

I wrote this story awhile ago. I’ve always loved the painting that inspired it. In fact, I love most of Hopper’s work. As a very good friend of mine once said that his subjects appear to be lost in their own world. Their faces and postures have an interiority that invites interpretation. I couldn’t help but write this. It’s a very short story, with a serial point of view. In other words, the narrator spends a brief amount of time in each of the  characters’ heads. This drives some readers crazy, (my apologies if you’re one), but I think the convention works for this image. There was no other way to do it, in my book.

Nighthawks

Rose looked at her reflection in the polished mahogany counter. She didn’t look good. The day had caught up to her, stripped her of color and sharpened her face. She dabbed at her lipstick with a napkin. Too red. It looked funny. Rose put the napkin down. She used to like that red. So had Eddie. Eddie had liked that color.

Red, red lips for my red, red, Rose….

Rose’s hand plucked at her earring, her coffee, her locket, before inching over to rest on Rob’s sleeve. She liked the feel of his woolen jacket under her quick, nervous fingers. Nice and warm. Solid. Rob. She shivered. It had been a long day. It was time to go home. She wanted to say that. It’s been a long day. It’s time to go home. But his downcast eyes trapped the words in her mouth. He wasn’t ready yet. She could wait.

Widow at thirty. What a laugh. She smiled at her reflection. She looked bitter and old—not pretty anymore. Her eyes slid to the floor. She didn’t really care. Everyone was dead. Eddie was dead. The baby was dead. Her father—hers and Rob’s—was dead, but that was nothing to cry about. Their father had always been lucky. He was a lucky son-of-a-bitch.

Rose glanced at her brother and cut off the thought, as if Rob could read her mind. He couldn’t. She knew it. Just like she couldn’t read his, but sometimes they got close…sometimes.

It’s been a long day. It’s time to go home.

She looked at his profile, his hawkish face, and quietly looked away.

Rose knew the dead were lucky, but Rob didn’t need to hear it. He’d done enough already. More than she wanted him to. He’d visited her in the hospital and tied pink ribbons around her wrists. He came by or called every day. He worried, she knew. She made him worry.

You worry, honey. You worry too much.

She was tired. It was time to go home.

Rose sighed, a small, shallow breath. Everything was done. This time he’d have nothing to find. Rob…. She was glad they’d spent the whole day. Rose fingered her locket. The gold was warm. It felt soft when she pressed it. There was a picture of Eddie and the baby inside.

She glanced at her brother through her sweep of red hair. Red, red hair. Red, red Rose. Poor Rob. His face looked dark, like a shuttered house. No lights. Locked doors. She could wait. They would sit together in this anonymous place, coffee cold in their cups. When he was ready, he would take her home. She loved him. She could wait.

###

Robert knew Rose was going to try it again. He could read it like newsprint in the lines around her mouth. He missed her smile, her real smile, her cracking, half-cocked grin. He hadn’t seen it in months. Instead he got what she gave him now…pale lips under too much red. Her hand was cold on his arm.

She’d gotten dressed up for their day together, special occasion dressed up—Hayworth hair, her favorite pink dress, she’d even worn perfume. But her bones were sharp beneath her collar. Her wrists were thin and hard. He wished she’d worn a sweater. It was turning cold, too cold for a thin, silk dress.

Why don’t you bring a sweater, Rosy?

No, I’ll be okay.

The second she’d said that, he’d known. That dress, her hair, her too bright face…he’d known exactly what was coming. He didn’t want to know.

He lit a cigarette and let it burn. Tiny column of ash. Then he lit another. Beside him Rose shifted, patient, silent. She wanted to go home.

See you tomorrow, Rose

I love you, Rob.

Robert sipped his coffee. He should say something. He should stop her. But, Jesus, she looked spent…. Rob glanced at his sister, though the sweep of her strawberry hair, but he couldn’t see her face. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. Robert signaled for the check. It was time to take her home.

“More coffee?”

Robert paused.

The waiter poured.

One more cup. He wasn’t ready yet.

###

Wish that kid would quit staring and do his job. Goddamn coffee’s cold.

Across the diner, Charlie hunched over the counter, like a bulldog over a bone. He eyed the yellow-haired waiter, who was eyeing the redheaded girl. Like staring was going help. A gal like that never left her man, not if he beat her into the ground. After thirty years he knew.

Charlie rubbed his bum knee. He wished he could sleep. He hadn’t slept since he’d retired. Not a full eight hours. Not in a month. Way to go Charlie. Retirement—you lucky son-of-a-bitch….

Yeah. Real lucky.

Charlie leaned back into the diner chair, and thought about what he’d retired to. He hated fishing, hated crosswords. His buddies were still on the force. Doris was remarried and Katie was busy, making a life of her own. She’d even gotten a job—secretary at some firm. Smart girl. Katie had always been smart. Maybe not pretty, but smart. He could hear Doris telling her to dress up nice for work. Christ, he wished Doris would shut-up.

Charlie shot the waiter a look and softly clacked his cup. The kid strolled over, refilled it from the urn and handed it back to him. Up close, Charlie realized, the kid wasn’t much of a kid. Mid-twenties maybe. Charlie grunted. At twenty-six, he’d been on the force for five years. Guy should get a real job.

Charlie looked out the diner’s plate-glass window at the dark, disinterested street. Good pension. Big thanks. What did you do when you got cut loose? What the hell did you do? Kid’s got his whole life and he wastes it, like it’s something to toss away. Charlie shifted on the narrow seat. He was starting to hate that kid….

He should probably head home. It was a long walk back to his place. Maybe that would wear him out. He reached for his wallet, straining the seams of his suit. Cheap suit. Work suit. He took out his Luckies instead. One cigarette. One more cup. Then he’d toss a buck on the counter and take the long walk home. Back to his apartment. He hated that apartment. He hated the way it looked—half empty, full of nothing, like old newsprint. He hadn’t seen it that way before. He hadn’t had time—he’d barely ever been home. Now he saw every night. Charlie sipped his coffee, sucking it slowly between his teeth.

Christ, he wished he could sleep.

###

That lady looks sick. Joe glanced up from a tray of half-empty saltshakers. What’s she doing out so late with that guy, anyway? She looks like she should be in a hospital or something….

Joe shook his head and refilled the shakers without taking his eyes off the lady in the dark pink dress. He was good at working and watching. He never spilled.

Look at how she’s holding his arm, he thought. Like she’s gonna drown and he’s the only thing keeping her afloat.

Joe stopped pouring and wiped off his hands. That was good. He had to write that down.

He loved working the late shift. Nothing like it for writer’s block. Nothing like it for inspiration. The lady and her fella were great. He had to use them somewhere…maybe he’d put her in a sanitarium and make the guy her lover. And the guy… a private eye with a shady past? Maybe he broke her out and now they’re on the run. However Joe wrote it, it was gonna be tragic. That lady was tragic all over.

Joe glanced across the counter at the old guy with the coffee habit, sitting on his own. He wasn’t as compelling but he’d find his way in too. Maybe a crime boss or a has-been reporter. Joe studied the man nursing his twelve-hundredth cup. Thickset. Stubborn face. Angry mug. No. He was the woman’s father. Iron fist with heart of gold.

The old guy shot Joe a belligerent look.

Skip the heart of gold.

Joe shrugged. Even after he’d sold the novel, he’d still work the graveyard shift. He loved the diner at night. Nothing like it for writer’s block. Nothing like it for inspiration.

Joe pulled out a pen. Down the counter, the man paid the tab and helped the lady up. She stumbled. He caught her. Joe bent over his notes. He barely looked up as they left.

THE END

Portrait: Jean the Ambiguous

I love androgyny. I always have – from Marlene Dietrich in a tux to David Bowie in anything – androgyny is beautiful to me. It’s been a while since I posted a bit of fiction, so I dug into the archives, (i.e.: the ancient, dusty files on my hard drive), and unearthed this character study. After a bit of dusting off, I remembered by I’d written it – I rather love Jean. In fact, Jean will very likely end up in a story of Jean’s own. In the meantime, however, here’s a sketch of the fabulous Jean, who defies the constraint of labels and gender. 

Jean the Ambiguous

androgenous jeanOne can only begin to description of Jean by saying that Jean is French. Though Jean’s nationality has little practical bearing on Jean’s personal behavior (aside from a certain pronounced flair), the fact the Jean is French factors into a separate, pivotal, matter—the interpretation of Jean’s name. Or, to put it more succinctly, the choice of pronoun one uses reference to Jean.

You see, the French spelling of “Jean” is not “gender specific,” and neither, really, is Jean. If Jean were only English, (or American in a pinch), the ease of gendered spelling would see one through—“Jean” or “Gene”, “he” or “she.” The question of pronoun would cease to exist.

Ironically, the ambiguity of Jean’s name is a perfect reflection of Jean, which, though prickly to admit, is the root of the difficulty. One must also admit that a contributing factor is Jean’s stubborn (though admittedly suave) insistence on not offering any definitive evidence as to gender in either dress or manner. Allow me to clarify.

Jean is tall and slender – tall for a woman (though not unthinkably so) and quite average for a man. Jean’s hands are fine-boned, with long, rather sensitive looking fingers – Jean has the hands of a fine woman or an accomplished musician. Unfortunately, Jean’s income and fame are entirely due to the virtuosity with which Jean plays the violin, so there is little help there.

That’s all fine and good, you must be thinking, but one can surely tell a person’s gender from his or her manner of dress! In answer to this, I’ll admit that it’s true in most cases. But Jean’s manner of dress is unconventional for either sex—tailored suit with a flared coat; French cuffs and lovely jeweled links; a snowy white shirt with a ruffled front; dramatically high collar; crisply knotted tie. The lacquered longish hair adds to the confusion. Is Jean a woman with short hair, or a man with long? It’s impossible to tell.  The only thing one can say for sure is that Jean’s cologne, (or perfume), smells quite good.

So clothing is no help, and neither is bearing. There is always seduction in the large, smudged eyes; a feline smile on the pale, oval face. One moment, one is sure one has solved the riddle of Jean, only to see the picture change….

And so what is one to do? Ask leading questions? Jean smiles mysteriously, (or negligently or indulgently or flirtatiously), and one is dazzled but no closer to knowing which pronoun to use. And so the mystery continues, adding flame to the fire, and fueling the allure of the obsession that is Jean.

Note 3/16/14: Just this morning, I received the lovely news that this post was given the Gender-Bender Award by the lovely mind behind Tiffany’s Non-Blog. Needless to say, I’m quite honored that a character I’m so fond of turned someone’s head in such a wonderful way. Thank you so much!

gender-bender-award1

Agnes, The Maid

This is a short portrait / character sketch. Sometimes it happens that I get a character without a story. Usually it’s a character I quite like and will come back to later, either in their own piece, or as a tertiary character somewhere else. Agnes is one of these characters…

Agnes, The Maid

No one used a feather duster like Agnes. The command with which she wielded a batch of feathers shoved into a stick was truly terrifying. Even the mistress stayed

out of her way, not daring to test the sideboard after Agnes had been through.

Agnes was a narrow sort of woman, rather like an obelisk, with an air of authority that made her seem far taller than she actually was. Even as a child in the first blushes of youth, there had been little of the girl and even less of the blush about her. She was made of serious stuff. Lest you forget, the line of her mouth would remind you, before her shoulders squared off like a coat rack, and she took up arms against the dust.

Serious as she’d been as a girl, Agnes had had hopes – hopes that had been dashed quite early on in her career as a person. As a girl she had wanted to join the cavalry and go to war like her father, who’d been a sergeant in the Boer Wars. When her father had informed her that daughters did not join the cavalry, that this honor was only for sons, and that even if they did join the cavalry, his daughter would certainly not, Agnes had cried for hours. It was the last time in her life she would cry.

Finally, touched by his daughter’s rare show of emotion, Agnes’s father relented upon one nonnegotiable condition. If she were determined to go join the army, it would be the infantry for her. No “prancing about on ponies” – not for his girl. She would charge into war like a man. Though she was by no means un-heroic, the “ponies” had rather been the point. But her father would not be moved. She joined domestic service instead. Agnes never forgot her dream though. It was her one great disappointment. It would affect her, subtly, for years.

Despite her lowly role as maid, she wore her uniform with military precision. The sheer force of her personality endowed her ruffled cap with an air of authority, as if the cap knew itself to be overly frilly, and had tried to sharpen up. She took orders and conveyed orders with the bearing of a much older person. And, of course, the house had never been so utterly free of dust.

Agnes rose efficiently through the ranks to head housemaid after only two years, and it was assumed that when the housekeeper retired, Agnes would take up the helm. With the confidence of authority, Agnes felt this to be true. She was, after all, a nearly perfect servant. Her only flaw was the aggression with which she dusted the house. It called to mind a general, spitting on enemy armies before crushing them in his, (or her), wake.

Tank, or Gentleman Scholar

Image courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org

If there were ever a man like a mountain, Tank was not that man. Physically, he was more of a molehill, though his intellect towered over men three times his size.

Upon his birth, Tank had very nearly been named Theodore for his mother’s favorite brother. But Tank’s father, in a rare burst of filial interest had insisted that he should name his son, and that his son’s name should be Tank, not for any particular reason, except, perhaps, that he’d been drunk.

Despite the name’s dubious implications, it had gone on the birth certificate, and so Tank had been “Tank” for the entirety of his life, save, in quiet moments, when his mother had coo’d “Theo” in his ear. It was the distant memory of his mother’s voice that sallied him through years of quizzical looks and disappointment, (on his father’s part, at least), for the fact that his physical prowess failed to match either his name or his mental acumen.

How he would have loved to be Theodore – perhaps then he wouldn’t have been quite such a disappointment. Theodore’s did not lay bricks for a living, nor did they brawl or curse or spit. Theodore’s sipped brandy in book lined rooms and thought important thoughts, pausing, only briefly, to write the most important ones down. Theodore’s became scholars and architects, and left the brick laying to men named Tank… though not this particular Tank.

In awesome defiance of his father (and to his mother’s quiet pride), Tank excelled academically. His first very good school led to a second very good school, which in turn led to an impressive university career. It was at university that Tank discovered, and pursed, his love of etymology.

Tank’s calling found him one afternoon, as he was researching his own name. It was indeed true that the verb form of “tank” meant “drunk,” and had since 1893, but the noun form held a special light of hope. In the original Portuguese (brought west by way of India in 1616, from the Gujarati “tankh”), the word referred to an underground reservoir of water, and it was to this idea of hidden depths that Tank held firm.

His desire for Theodore slowly waned beneath the weight of his etymological studies and academic success. By the time he published his magnum opus, a thirteen volume tract called simply, Names, Tank was at ease with himself and his once dubious moniker, signing notes of thanks for various scholarly offers and congratulations, With Most Cordial Regards, Dr. Tank McGuinness.