Flash Fiction: The Pond

“You don’t forget a bug called a darning needle.”

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Inspired by a recent dry spell and the image of a little boy with a lot of questions. I think there’s more here, but for now, there’s this.

—–

I’ve been meaning to tell you. The old pond dried up. I took Billy out that way to do some fishing, since I remembered how you and I used to go over there when we were kids and come home with all those sunnies for Mom to fry. Yeah, I know she hated it, complained about the smell and the mess, but she loved it, too, in a way. So I was standing at, well, what I guess was the place we used to set up shop, the open end of the cattail horseshoe, by that nice big flat rock, and Billy looked up at me like I was crazy. His crazy auntie had taken him fishing where there wasn’t any pond! I’m standing there holding the bucket and the rods, and he’s asking all these questions: “Where did the water go?” “Where did the fish go?” “Where did the turtles and the frogs and the ducks go?” “Did they all die?”

I have never taken as big a breath as I did then. In and out and wondering what to say. That was definitely a sit-down sort of conversation, so I sat. And he sat next to me, on the lip of what used to be our cute little fishing hole.

“Let’s just take these one at a time,” I told him, and he was so quiet, his eyes so round and blue, his cheeks splotchy-red with upset, his mouth kind of crooked, like yours used to get when you were worrying over something.

So I said, “You know how it hasn’t rained in, like, a really long time?”

I knew he’d get that one. We’d just been talking about it that morning. How we couldn’t run through the sprinkler the way he liked, because of the restrictions.

He nodded.

“Well, just the way the leaves are drying up and falling off the trees way too early”—I pointed out a few trees that had started turning brown already. Can you believe it, autumn in July?—“if there’s not enough water, the ponds and such dry up, too.”

“But the ducks…?”

“Yeah, they’d be the first to fly off. I’m fairly certain they found themselves a bigger pond. They’re smart that way.” Were there ducks on our pond? The darning needles skimming across the water, I recalled. You don’t forget a bug called a darning needle. The minnow armies slithering underneath, I remembered, the gulp of the bullfrogs. There could have been a duck. I added a duck for him. It would have made a pretty picture. I have tried to paint that scene so many times, you and me fishing at the pond, but something stops me every time.

His voice hopeful, he asked about the frogs.

“Hopped away,” I said. “They can survive a bit out of water, so maybe they followed the ducks.”

“Not the fish,” he said.

“No, honey. Not the fish.”

His cheeks were all red now, and I worried he was going to have another one of his spells. I’m getting better with those. You just gotta keep your voice soft and hold him tight until he feels safe. He calmed down soon enough, and instead of fishing we went to get ice cream.

Don’t need much water for that.

It took a couple hours to get him to go to sleep that night. But I kept thinking about the ducks. You know, I’m gonna give that painting another try. One day I hope you get to see it.

Noise Hurts

“The doctor stopped asking questions. When he visited, and the mothers lined their children up for inspection, he took Rima’s temperature and measured her height and shone a light in her eyes and made her stick her tongue out. But he didn’t ask about the pain.”

“Noise hurts,” Rima said. But the doctor who came to the refugee camp didn’t believe her. His eyebrows went up and his mouth curled down; then he glanced at her mother as if to say, “Kids. What imaginations they have!”

But she knew it to be true. When the soldiers shot their guns, when the planes dropped their bombs too close, her whole body hurt, and she wanted to curl up into a ball and weep. The doctor asked again, “You mean that the noise was so loud it hurt your ears, or it gave you a headache?”

Rima shook her head. Her head hurt, that was true, but it often hurt. A pounding at the base of her skull, a tightness in the tiny muscles connecting her collarbones to her shoulders, and then the pain would shoot up the muscles of her throat into her jaw, all the way up the left side of her face into her temple. It was the only reason she could come up with to explain the toothaches, because her mother also took her to the dentist who visited the camp, and he said her teeth looked fine to him.

From the dentist’s eyes, soft and pathetic, Rima knew that he believed it was all in her mind. That she’d made up this fantasy like she would have pleaded a stomachache to get out of a test at school.

She missed school.

She and her family had been in the camp since her last birthday, and whenever she asked if there would be school again someday, her mother said they were lucky just to have food and water and a place to sleep, and to stop talking about foolish things. They were lucky to be alive.

Nobody believed Rima about the pain so eventually she stopped talking about it, but she still hurt and it was hard to get out of bed in the morning. “You are a lazy, ungrateful girl,” her mother said, her angry face glaring down from above Rima’s cot, her finger scolding. “You are an embarrassment to all of us.” Then, even though it hurt and getting up too fast made her dizzy, even though her feet shuffled across the dirt floor, not falling right as she put one in front of the other, even though she often dropped pans and glasses and sometimes even food—that earned a very harsh scolding—she got up and she helped.

The doctor stopped asking questions. When he visited, and the mothers lined their children up for inspection, he took Rima’s temperature and measured her height and shone a light in her eyes and made her stick her tongue out. But he didn’t ask about the pain.

More than having to leave her home, more than not being able to go to school, more than even the pain sometimes, Rima hated that nobody believed her. She didn’t have a name for the tightening noose in her stomach, the frozen tears stinging the backs of her eyes, the way her hands often balled into fists, so hard sometimes her fingernails cut her palms. Maybe it was anger. Maybe worse.

One morning her brother Armin came to fetch her. “Mama says get up, lazy bones.”

“Go away.” She turned toward the wall.

“She said now. She said ‘go get your crazy sister out of bed.’”

He grabbed her shoulder, but the knot of the noose slammed home. “I’m not crazy!”

“Lazy bones, crazy bones,” he sang. “Crazy bones, lazy bones, crazy bones, lazy bones…”

“I’m not crazy! Shut up. Shut up!” She turned so fast, pushed him so hard he stumbled backward and fell against the table with such a loud screech and clatter that Rima clutched her head and howled.

When the sharp pain grew quiet, she opened her eyes, and saw the pool of blood soaking into the dirt. “I’m not crazy,” she told his still, silent body. “Shut up.”

First Show

They came for the wine and cheese; they came because she’d begged them. Since the first day Caitlin had picked up a paintbrush, she’d anticipated this day: her first solo show, the opening reception a splash of bright, elegant people gesturing grandly with their plastic wine glasses and claiming the pieces they simply could not live without. Claiming them with red adhesive dots: sold. But as the last of her so-called friends trickled out, the only red she saw was the state of her finances. How much she’d laid out for this show—the framing, the refreshments, even the damn red dots—most of it borrowed, and how much she’d never get back. She might as well have some wine, since she’d already paid for it; nothing worked as well to drown out the voices in her head and the pity in his eyes, if he were still around to have seen this. As she filled a glass to the brim, she thought about Daniel, and wondered if this was why he’d been so adamant about never exhibiting his own work. It was one thing to be paid to paint something, and quite another to bleed your soul onto a canvas, stand by and watch as people pass with barely a nod. You are entertainment. An amusement to fill the awkward space before the dinner reservations, before curtain time. Like window-shopping for shoes.

The gallery manager drifted over, manicured fingers tapping slowly on the white tablecloth, and gave her a condescending little smile. It was an I-told-you-so smile. If her mother had not raised her to be polite and grateful, she might have thrown her wine in his face, but she only tightened her fingers around the plastic stem.

He could have just said nothing. Saying nothing would have gone down better than the excuses he did offer—that maybe she’d priced herself too high for a new artist, and we’re going through a soft market, and it’s a Friday night when so many other, more well-attended events were already scheduled.

Politely she cut him off, mumbling “Thank you for the chance.” She really should be grateful. He didn’t have to make room for her. There were a lot of artists in the city. He’d only done it on the strength of Daniel’s reputation. A student of his must be worthy of a solo show.

Or not.

She returned to the apartment in upper Manhattan she shared with four other women. Still a little woozy from the wine and the shame, she plopped down on the edge of her bed and stared at her most prized possession: the painting he’d left her. It might have been the wine talking, or the humiliation, or the bone-deep fatigue, but idly she wondered what it might be worth.

The voice in her head felt as real as a slap to the face: No. You can’t. You can’t ever. Aside from the memories, it was all she had of him, the only physical, tangible proof that he’d ever existed. She believed in things like life after death, like ghosts, like guardian angels. That he still lived in the brushstrokes, in the nerve endings of her face where he’d almost, almost touched her.

There had to be another way. She called the gallery owner and told his voice mail that it was okay to lower her prices, to whatever he thought they were worth. She could almost see Daniel smiling at her, saying that’s what he’d do. “Besides,” he’d say, “You can always paint more.”

Three Wishes

I have no idea what inspired this short bit. Sometimes a character appears and has something on her mind and you just can’t stop her.


He wouldn’t listen. That’s been his problem from the beginning. If he’d only listened when I said, “Ernie, don’t take that bottle down off the shelf,” we would have avoided a whole mess of trouble. Trouble like you wouldn’t believe. Like you don’t even read about in books, cause nobody would even believe that you made it up. But no, I saw it with my own eyes. Well, there not as good as they used to be, whose are, right? But I saw. And he took down that bottle and I said, “Ernie, you oughtn’t go messing with stuff you don’t know,” and him being a man and all, he just had to. You know how they say “watch out, that plate’s hot” and they gotta go touching it anyway? Yeah. Just like that. Wasn’t even a real pretty bottle, neither, not like the ones in the museum or in the catalogs, even. You know. That pretty blown glass all shot through with colors. No, he musta thought he was that Aladdin boy or something, the way his eyes lit up, the way he’s giving me the elbow and whimpering and all. Like, “Oh, Sylvie, look at that. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.” Uh huh. Right. You see them all the time. In the horror movies! The one you pick up and say “Oh, it’s so fragile, I can’t even believe…” and then some axe murder comes through the door and you drop it and it shatters into a million pieces. Well, okay, we didn’t have no axe murderer. Just that bottle. And then he has to shine it all up, since he can’t read the label. Thinks he might have hit the lottery with some expensive bottle of wine that got bought up in one of those auctions, rich guy died and they had to auction off all his stuff and it ends up in some shady secondhand store. Then what do you know, this smoke starts pouring out. Oh, he went and done it now. Then this big ass guy in fancy pajamas is hovering over him, and I damn near fainted. He looks like that big blue dude Robin Williams played in the movie. I damn near peed myself. And Ernie, he’s looking like the fox in the henhouse. Already he’s planning his three wishes. He didn’t even get one out yet when the big blue dude cuts him off cold, says, “Let me tell you how this is gonna work. I’m sick and tired of you guys coming around here asking for stuff and me always doing all the work. This time it’s gonna be different. This time I get the three wishes.” Well, that sounds fair to me, ‘cause he’s got a point and who asked Ernie not to go touching that bottle? And Ernie just stands there like a dodo. Like how’s he gonna grant a genie three wishes. The guy says, “One. You’re gonna do me a favor. You’re gonna get me a pack of cigarettes. Cause I’ve been stuck in this gol darn bottle for a hundred years having one serious nicotine fit. Two. I want a burger. Like the biggest burger you can find.” Ernie’s just about as white as a sheet at that point, cause the guy’s huge and leaning over him. He looks like he’s gonna faint and can barely talk, but he says, “What’s the third wish?” And the guy just leans back and crosses those damn big arms over his chest—who’da thought a genie would have that kind of muscle? Then he says, “You get me the other things, then we’ll talk.” Well, Ernie looks at me and I look at Ernie and I say, “You heard the man.” I’m starting to kinda like this genie and maybe while Ernie’s gone I can take a lesson or two in getting my way once in a while. So Ernie takes off down the street and we’re just chatting away, trading tips about how to clean bottles and stuff and you know, we don’t even notice when Ernie comes back in. “I got your smokes and your burger, now you gonna let me have one wish at least?” Yeah. Mr. Genie didn’t care much for that. He sits up a little taller and says, “For my third wish. You’re getting into that bottle, cause I kinda like it out here.” Ernie should have known better. Before he could even say a word, there’s this big puff of smoke and a whoosh and Ernie’s gone. We keep him on our shelf, Mr. Genie and I do, where he won’t get himself into any more trouble.

The Interview

You sit in the waiting room, sweating in your best suit, your tiny espresso with a twist of orange growing cold. The receptionist’s long legs cross beneath the desk made of glass and wire. A soft ping sounds from her sleek phone. “He’ll speak with you now.” She unwinds herself from the chair and shows you to what you never thought was a door. When you first walked in, it merely looked like part of the expensive woodworking, but with a touch, it swings inward.

The room is empty except for an impossible chair, like the one the receptionist had been sitting in, and another near-invisible table. Atop which is a tablet.

You look at her, confused. Her smile is smooth, practiced. “Push the green button,” she says, and retreats.

You push. The red camera light flashes on. A voice oozes from the tiny speaker: “Hi, Johnny.” It doesn’t sound fully human; perhaps it’s being filtered. You wonder if this is a joke. A reality TV stunt.

“Uh…hello?” Your voice cracks and you clear your throat. You wish you had the miniscule cold espresso you’d left on the glass coffee table.

Robo-pad speaks up. “Why do you want this job?”

For a moment your brain locks. You were in a bar, wondering how many shots of tequila would kill a human about your size, when you saw the email on your phone. It intrigued you. No subject line. All the body contained was “You don’t even know how bad you want to work for me” and a time, date, and location. When you sobered up it was still there. You took it as a sign.

“May I ask, what kind of job is this?”

The voice laughs and abruptly stops. “You don’t get to ask the questions, Johnny. It’s not that kind of interview.”

“Well, I”—you wipe your damp palms against your thighs, hopefully out of camera range—“It’s hard to tell you why I want this job when I don’t know what my responsibilities will be. I mean, I didn’t even apply.”

“You were carefully picked from a pool of very, very qualified people. Majorly terrific people. I already knew you’d be perfect. But you gotta just tell me, why’d you show up?”

Since this seems like such a laughably fake situation, you decide to tell the truth. “Because I was in a bar trying to commit suicide by Jose Cuervos? Because teaching history to seventh graders pays shit and my last girlfriend left me for a backup singer in a Justin Bieber cover act? Because it was Tuesday and I hate Tuesdays because it’s too far from the previous weekend and too long until Friday? Because I owned a suit and I hadn’t worn it in a while? Why does anybody do anything?”

“Good point,” the voice says. “You’re hired.”

You blink a couple times. “To do…”

“Whatever I tell you.”

“And why would I do that?”

A dollar figure flashes onto the pad. You nearly fall off the nearly invisible chair. “Believe me, Johnny,” the voice says. “You won’t care what day of the week it is when you’re waving that around.”

“Okay.” You clear your throat, cross your arms over your chest. “Assuming I take this job, give me an example of one thing that you might tell me to do.”

“It depends on the situation. If it’s one I don’t like, your job is to make it better. We can quibble over these tiny details all day long, Johnny. But I’m very selective. If I chose you, you gotta know it’s for a very good reason.”

You start wondering what that reason might be. You thought you’d drowned all of them in tequila by now.

“You’re thinking,” the voice says. “I don’t get why you’re thinking. Because I tell ya, this is the best job you’re ever gonna have. But why don’t we do this? Try it for a day. Less than that. Say you’re on my staff for, oh, an hour. Two, tops. You don’t agree this is one terrific way to make a living, you’re free to go.”

That sounds reasonable to you. “Okay. Where do I start?”

“First thing I need you to do. There’s a situation happening right now. I need it to go away.”

A shiver snakes down your spine. Just what have you agreed to? “I don’t think—”

“One hour, Johnny. That’s all I ask. That’s what you agreed to. You don’t want the world to know that you’re such a loser that you go back on your promises. You don’t want the stink of that following you to your next job, do you? Because I can make that happen. I can make anything happen.”

“If you can make anything happen, then why don’t you take care of your own little situation.”

“Hey. You decided to come here. Frankly, I got lots of better things I could be doing. And people I could be doing them with if you catch my drift.”

“Just…fine. Whatever. Tell me about the situation. Please.”

A document appears on the screen. You squint. It’s the US Constitution. “You want me to read the Constitution?” Okay. There are weirder things you could be doing for a hell of a lot less money.

“No,” the voice says. “I need you to explain it to me.” The receptionist slithers in and presses a stack of hundreds on the table next to you. “And consider this my request not to tell one living soul what we’re doing here.”

“Okay, well, um… The Constitution, originally comprising seven articles, delineates the national frame of government—”

“Johnny, stop. Use smaller words.”

 

 

 

Pen Monkey

“Come on.” The voice was like a bowl of thorns coated with honey. “You can do it. You did it before. Tell ya what. You do this now, I’ll let you write my next book.”

Happy Equinox…just wanted to share a bit I wrote for last week’s Two-Minutes-Go. Inspiration? It’s everywhere.

As a prison guard in a medium-security facility, Chip had seen some real doozies—CEOs who thought they were due time off from their sentences for golf holidays, celebrities demanding big-name designers upgrade their uniforms. He’d kept notes on all of them for his maybe-someday career as a bestselling author. But this new inmate made taking the graveyard shift worthwhile. Since the old guy was a night owl, that was when the fun really started.

He’d just stepped into the corridor to begin his two a.m. sweep when—

“Chipper! Oh, Chippieee… Aw, come on. Where’s my little friend? Where’s my little buddy?”

The voice repelled yet fascinated him. In the space of seconds, Prisoner 84235 could go from sounding like a creepy old dude trying to lure a kid into his van with candy, then sink into a lower register, like he was aiming to get a girl into the vehicle instead. The other guards said he was crazy and probably should have been sent across the river, where they had the good drugs and quiet, padded cells. But Chip guessed his lawyers kept him out of the bin. Why the legal team hadn’t been good enough to keep him out of the system altogether, Chip could only speculate about. Some of the guards thought that was his wife’s idea. That doing time had more cache than doing psych time. That a stretch in Club Fed would make him worth more when he got out.

When Chip reached his cell, the voice crooned to him. “Chippppp-ieeeee… My phone doesn’t work.”

Of course it didn’t work. Prisoners weren’t allowed to have phones. He’d whined like a toddler when they tried to take it, then he’d threatened to sue everyone in the building. One of the female first-shift guards gentled it out of his hands long enough to remove the battery and the SIMM card, and he’d been content. For a while.

“Did you try turning it off and turning it back on again?” Chip asked.

“Yeah. Twice. This is very sad. And totally unfair.” He beckoned with his small fingers. “Come on, Chipster. Let me use yours, okay? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“You know I shouldn’t—”

“Come on.” The voice was like a bowl of thorns coated with honey. “You can do it. You did it before. Tell ya what. You do this now, I’ll let you write my next book.”

Chip cocked his head. It was probably a bullshit offer, but at the very least, hearing this guy out could be entertaining. Maybe something he could use in his own book one day. He slipped the phone out of his pocket. “Okay,” he said. “What are we doing tonight? Email? Blog post?” His eyebrow hooked up. “Angry tweet?”

Prisoner 84235 grinned, his face bunching like one of those wrinkle pooches. “Yeah. That. Tell ’em—” He waved a hand. “The wire-tapping, the plague, that little business with the nukes… the fact that there’s never any pistachio ice cream anymore…not my fault. It was fake. It was all fake.”

“Like the fake news?” Chip wondered if he should pull up a chair.

“No. All of it. The campaign. The election. The presidency. Me, even. What. You don’t believe me? Believe me.” He pointed at Chip’s phone. “Start tapping, pen monkey. I got a story to tell you.”

The Last Bomb Threat

Mariel was backstroking off the wall in the deep end of Lane Five when the sirens began. At first, with her ears under water, she thought it was part of the music from the aqua aerobics class at the other side of the pool. The instructor liked to mix it up, keep her elderly clientele moving. But now they were moving all right—they were a blur of white hair and pale, sagging flesh and multicolored bathing suits heading for all the ramps and ladders.

Damn it, not again. Three times this month, she’d been kicked out of the pool from the bomb threats. Not just out of the pool but out the side door into the parking lot, and it was damn freezing outside. Were those anti-Semitic meshugge bastards aware that most of the people here only came to the Jewish Community Center for the pool? It was like calling a threat in to the YMCA because you were gunning for the Christians. Or the Young Men.

Part of her wanted to say no to the lifeguard coming her way, where she and Ruth shared the lane. Ruth was still swimming, her strokes long and elegant and perfectly synchronized.

The boy who barely looked old enough to grow whiskers was standing at the edge, clapping his hands and saying, “Let’s go, ladies. Everyone has to evacuate, now.”

Ruth turned her head just long enough to call him something nasty in Yiddish and then she was off again.

“Come on, Ruth,” he said, his voice whiny now. “You’re gonna get me in trouble.”

“Okay, okay, quit shouting.” She grunted as she tugged her potato-shaped body up the ladder. Like a penguin, Ruth was amazing under water but not so much on dry land. She sometimes had trouble walking, and Mariel was afraid she’d slip and fall on the wet tile, and the lifeguard looked too busy hustling everyone else clear to notice.

So Mariel followed her out. But where they were supposed to turn right toward the exit door, Ruth turned left, muttering something Mariel didn’t understand.

“Ruth.” The cold hit Mariel’s wet body and she wrapped her arms around her chest. But the woman wouldn’t stop. Again, Mariel followed, fully expecting one of the lifeguards to come chase them down, even revoke their memberships for not following their instructions.

Undaunted, and with no one following them, Ruth kept trundling along, one strong leg planting into the hallway after the other, her body rocking from side to side with each determined step.

Then she turned left, into an abandoned office. “Shut the door, already,” she said, and Mariel complied.

Ruth punched a sequence of numbers into the phone on the desk. “Yeah,” she said, when Mariel guessed someone had answered. “They’re at it again. You know what to do.”

Mariel couldn’t help but ask. Ruth shrugged, showed her a small mark on her forearm that Mariel had always assumed was a birthmark or maybe sun damage.

It was a number. “This,” Ruth said. “After the war, I had to do something. And I guess once Mossad, always Mossad. So I called in a favor. We won’t be hearing from those schmucks anymore. Now, let’s go. I’m cold and I want to finish my laps.”

Then she waddled back to the pool.

And Mariel followed.