The first one’s free. That’s the ticket. Then you’re hooked like a trout on JD Mader’s line. He’s a catch-and-release kinda guy, so you come back again for the tasty bait. And again. And again. Each two-minute (more or less) flash fiction freewrite you share on his Friday Unemployed Imagination blog feeds your hunger to try another. Maybe next week you’ll come by, test the waters, and settle in to see what swims by. Check out the alchemy a ton of awesome writers created this week on 2 Minutes. Go! Here are a few of my entries, lightly edited for your ingestion.
The cigar smoke stings your eyes and makes you want to puke, so you lie and tell your grandfather that you need to go to the bathroom. Of course he does not protest or go with you, and with his steel-sharp focus trained on the field of horses, he waves you off with a wrinkled hand. You remember your polite-young-lady lessons, smooth your dress, and excuse yourself into the aisle, counting the rows so you can find your way back through the women with hats and mothball-reeking men in plaid shirts, puffing away and yelling to each other in Yiddish. You pick out a few words, and they are not nice ones. As you’re looking for the little drawing of the stick figure in a skirt, a froggish-looking man with a piece of paper clamped in one hand cocks his head and gives you a smirk. “Hey, little girl,” he says. “What’s your favorite horsie?” You blink at him. The horses are pretty, and you liked the sound of their names, like music, as the announcer called them off. You remember Bluebird, because you once saw a bluebird on your window, and it reminded you of Disney movies and happiness. Because that’s what people say about bluebirds, and you want to be happy and not have to smell cigar smoke and mothballs anymore. You tell him. His smile crooks at one corner, and he scribbles something on his sheet of paper and hands you a piece of hard candy wrapped in cellophane. Polite-young-lady lessons demand a thank-you, and you do not disappoint him. But the candy wrapper is slick with sweat and also stinks of cigar. In the bathroom you flush it down the toilet, watching it swirl and wishing you could also disappear that easily.
Bad enough that the wind, roaring for three days straight, fuzzled up her thinking. But now she had to make the list. She dreaded it, put it off until the last minute, until the supermarket crowds were so thick and intimidating she contemplated calling the whole thing done and ordering takeout for Thanksgiving. Yet onward she trudged, feeling the weight of guilt from generations of women before her, from her late husband’s family, from miscellaneous siblings, cousins, great aunts and such who depended on coming to her house for dinner. She hadn’t yet found the strength to tell them no more, that someone else would have to take the mantle next year. She sighed, made more coffee, and sat down to scratch through the items she would need. Butter, because there was never enough. Canned cranberries, for that one cousin’s boyfriend who refused to eat sauce he couldn’t slice. Brussels sprouts. She stared at the two words, feeling her eyes burn and a catch in her throat. He was the only one who ate them, yet she couldn’t bear not making them or even writing them on the list. With a long, deep sigh, she called the task complete and grabbed her purse and coat.
Halfway to her car, the wind kicked up harder, and before she realized it, the list slipped from her fingers and skated off on the breeze. No, she thought, starting after it. “No!” As if her voice alone could stop nature. But up it floated, lodging between the branches of a tree. And she stared, feeling helpless, feeling the bite of the cold air against the open collar of her coat. She would never remember everything. She’d forget the flour, the butter, the canned cranberry sauce…the Brussels sprouts.
“Can I help with something?” a man’s voice said. A small yip confirmed that this was the man who’d moved in down the block a few months ago and often passed by her house with his handsome spaniel, the two carrying on a private conversation.
She gestured with a gloved hand as if that could explain it all, from the effort it had taken to write everything out to the phone calls coordinating who was bringing what to the emptiness of the house she’d shared with one man for seventeen years.
“Brussels sprouts,” she said on a sigh, unable to tear her gaze from the bare branches that held fast to her slip of pink notepaper.
“Oh, you’re out?” he said. “You should come by our house. My sister makes enough of those for an army. I’m sure she could spare a few dozen.”
She turned then, and smiled at him. “I might just do that.” She thought of the throng of people who would be ringing her doorbell in a few days. And realized that no, definitely no, she did not want them there. She’d have to suck down some pride, but that would be better than putting up with the memories.
“Hey,” he said, as the spaniel brushed against her leg. “Are you all right?”
She shook her head at the same time she attempted to force a smile, and his eyes were so kind. “Apparently not.”
He seemed to take her in for a long moment before he said, “Tell you what? Grab hold of Daisy’s leash for a sec, and I’ll see about getting that thing out of those branches.”
“Thanks, but no. The tree can keep it.”
Even from across the field she can see that the dog is happier now, with land to roam and children to herd. There’s a jaunt to his step, joy radiating from ear to tail, and she smiles, but she can still feel the ache in the pit of her stomach for the reason she had to let him go. She couldn’t give him the life he deserved, and she was too selfish and broken to realize that at the time. To think she expected him to save her from loneliness and a man who did not love her. That’s simply too much pressure to heap on an Australian shepherd, even a hardy one. The woman who owns the farm whistles and calls him by his new name, one that suits him better, and he comes running. He pulls up short in front of her. Sniffing at the legs of her jeans, her battered sneakers. He looks up. A sweet whimper escapes his throat, eyes so big and brown as he presses his body against her calf. Like he remembers her. Like he remembers that it was not her fault and feels badly that despite the chunk he attempted to take out of the man’s leg, he was not enough to run him off. “Can I visit for a while?” she asks the woman as she kneels to scratch behind his left ear. And the woman pats his head and tells her to take all the time she wants.