Story of the Day: The Man Sitting Behind You Is a Serial Rapist by Bess Winter
Intricately constructed and expertly placed. Details distinct and well-chosen, odd yet perfectly fitting: “Their eyes slide around in their sockets like closed-circuit cameras.”
"Everybody should read fiction… I don’t think serious fiction is written for a few people. I think we live in a stupid culture that won’t educate its people to read these things. It would be a much more interesting place if it would. And it’s not just that mechanics and plumbers don’t read literary fiction, it’s that doctors and lawyers don’t read literary fiction. It has nothing to do with class, it has to do with an anti-intellectual culture that doesn’t trust art."
- Percival Everett
Call for Submissions—Larva Lamp, Issue 1: Flesh Fiction
Send me your finest pieces of “fleshy” flash fiction! Flesh Fiction is:
1) Flash fiction (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flash_fiction) consisting only of the “flesh” of the story. Pure climax, no buildup. The paragraph you skim through all those other paragraphs to get to.
2) Flash fiction with horror elements.
Poetry and visual art also welcome.
Send to firstname.lastname@example.org within the next few days for immediate publication!
First line, “Homework” by Peter Cameron
Happy short story month!
"Henry was walking through a field in pollen-thickeded light. Even the wind had a nap, and his breath was furred. It was like a cat’s tail down his throat, switching slowly in his lungs. Cat was how it was all around him: warm, clawed, biding his time." Shelley Jackson, from "Word Problem"
"My characters are conglomerations of past and present states of civilization, bits from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, rags and tatters of fine clothing, patched together as is the human soul" August Strindberg
Creative Writing Workshops (taught by me!)
Attention all Los Angeles writers! I will be leading creative writing workshops and am rounding up all interested individuals. My approach to writing focuses on three basic principles: courage, instinct and enthusiasm. Forget everything you’ve been told about what makes a story good or bad. My goal in this course is to help you overcome your fears—fear of rejection, fear of writing a “bad” story, fear of what your mom/best friend/lover will think—so that you can write with reckless abandon. We will use such tools as role-playing, free-writing and guided meditation to get into “the zone.” Feel free to explore new genres or test out new ideas in a positive, supportive environment. My workshops have two priorities: 1) Fun, and 2) Getting your ass into gear and putting all those stories “in your head” onto paper! Everyone will commit to a submissions schedule and offer detailed, helpful feedback to their fellow writers.
I will also be offering group/private lessons, manuscript edits/consultations and motivational support (cause we all be needing it). If you’re not local to LA, we can arrange something by email. Who says the writing world has to be a lonely abyss? Let’s make it a party! Need proof that I have skillz? Read my story excerpts, they’re all on this blog! If you’re hooked, I will email you the full stories. For more details, please email me at email@example.com.
The following is a “best of” collection gathered from a few of my stories:
J.J. Fowler has grey speckled skin that resembles the bottom of a cafeteria garbage can. He smells slightly sour, like a half-empty beer can left sitting in the heat. In fourth grade, his classmates Susanna and Crystal mentioned him in a scrapbook they created called “Choose Your Own Marriage.” If, when faced with the choice to either A) Work at Carl’s Candy Store, where you can eat Jolly Ranchers all day long! or B) Go to Medical School and dissect nasty pigs, you chose A, then you would end up marrying J.J. Fowler, “sleeping next to his smelly stink until you grow old and die. Ew! Ew! Ew!”
“Bobby, Miss Sanders called!” Mom yells over the coffee maker. “She wants you to help her in the garden!”
“I don’t want to plant flowers with some old lady,” I mutter.
“Excuse me, young man, what did you say?”
“I said I’d love to but today’s registration day for basketball.”
“That’s more like it.”
Do I need new shoes? All we’re doing is signing all those forms saying that we don’t have scoliosis and meningitis and shit. Still, Coach Costler might walk around the gym making sure we have the right shoes, and there I’ll be with my lame-ass True Spirits. Not even New Balance or Sauconi or Asics. True Spirit is on the bottom rung of the cool ladder. Plus Cindy will be there, and she’s pretty cute. I don’t want her thinking I’m gay or anything.
The problem is, I only sorta know how to get to SportsMart. Pretty soon I’m riding down some street I’ve never seen before and sweat is gooping up my hair, and I start to think how stupid I’m being. Who gives a crap what shoes I’m wearing? Mr. Schuester is always saying things like, “All you kids with your trendy clothes and newfangled gadgets and popularity, none of it will matter in ten years,” and I used to think he was being an old geezer, but maybe he’s right.
J.J. Fowler approaches me at my locker, arriving in a Lunchable-meat-scented cloud. He stands there fumbling with his belt. I wonder what he’s doing. Then I remember that his dad fixed my bike a few weeks ago.
“You have class?” he asks. His voice is all weird and jumpy, like this exchange student in Mr. Henry’s class who must have learned English two days before he got on the plane.
“Uh huh,” I say.
“Well. I was wondering. Do you play basketball?”
“Yeah, I do,” I say, and smile a little, trying to be friendly. “How about you?”
“I’m trying,” he says. “You ever play in the park?”
“Hey Bobby,” says Bud, meeting me from the other direction. I feel kind of bad, but I turn away from J.J. In Bud’s mind, a conversation with J.J. would be the gateway drug to loserdom, and pretty soon I’d be joining the Robotics team and signing up for Home Ec.
I tap knuckles with Bud and start walking with him down the hall, letting J.J.’s question float out-of-bounds.
Check Yes or No
Hannah heads to school. She wants to ditch. Wants to. Wants to. Can’t. When Sigwell High, with its paste-white walls and blue shutters, blooms on the horizon, her stomach groans. Classrooms don’t suit her. The fluorescent lights make her jumpy in her skin, like a fly under a heat lamp. She sits with her legs pinched together, goosebumps on thighs, air-conditioner breathing down her neck. She realizes her mouth is hanging open. Vanessa once told her she looked like a cow chewing cud. She will have to work on that.
Mr. Bronson babbles about molecular fields. Hannah realizes that this entire semester she has not heard a sentence come out of his mouth. Words, yes, but not a consecutive string. His eyes and nose are pinched together weird, forming a face tepee. What if she unzipped the flap? One time, her cousin was camping when a black panther peered into her tent late at night. I was just letting in a little breeze, her cousin said. For months after hearing the story Hannah was cautious of little breezes.
The school bus lurches along. Hannah rides it every day, even though she lives less than a mile away. She sees the driver’s eyes flutter in the mirror. Blinkie, they call him. Tommy sits in the seat behind her. He runs his hands through her hair.
“I bet you’ll never wash it again,” he says.
James hands her a note. From Tommy, he says. Hannah’s heart does a backflip. Suddenly study hall seems a hundred times cooler.
Will you go out with me? Check Yes or No.
Library lights glitter like chandeliers. The walls seem to be made of syrup. Hannah cannot stop the giddy smile breaking out across her face, knowing she must look like that crazy guy who hung out in the hallway giving high-fives to everyone until the principal “escorted” him out. Now James smiles too, but this is a different kind of smile, a wicked one with curved edges. He begins to snicker. Vanessa, pointing at Hannah, whispers to Tanya. Amanda’s mouth twitches, amusement in her eyes. Finally, James bursts into laughter. The laughter dominoes down the row of long tables, erupting throughout the library. Even the teachers grin through stifled giggles. Hannah crumples the note. Unable to control her face, she rushes into the bathroom.
“Check it out,” Tommy says. He ushers Hannah and Amanda into his parent’s bedroom. Amanda is her friend and goes out with Tommy on-and-off. Hannah thinks of her as an all-access pass. Every time she goes to Amanda’s house, Amanda says, I have a lot of movies, you know. I know, Hannah says. Then they go to Tommy’s.
Tommy lives in a condo. Hannah always thought that would be cool because you get to go swimming without having to sneak past security guards, but his condo is kind of crappy. The off-white buildings cluster together like hermit crab shells, hollow and brittle. Tiny satellite dishes seem to monitor everyone who comes in and out. Heavy winds flip open the dumpster lid, sending beer cans and fast-food sacks rattling and rustling across the parking lot. Women who look like bartenders at places named Slick Willies and Whiskey Petes, blue eye shadow and ashen-gray skin, pace the perimeters hand-in-hand with stubble-faced men.
Amanda and Tommy sit on the edge of the bathtub. Hannah sits on the toilet, picking at her nails. Amanda runs a woman’s razor up and down Tommy’s lathered leg. He whispers to her. They giggle.
“What’s so funny?” Hannah asks.
“Believe me, you don’t want to know,” Tommy says.
Amanda’s eyes apologize to her.
“Sure I do.”
“You wouldn’t get it anyway.”
“I’m not as innocent as you think.”
Both Tommy and Amanda laugh at this. Hannah feels like a deflated pouch of Capri Sun.
“Don’t you have homework?” Tommy says.
Hannah returns to the parents’ bedroom and sits on the floor, stabbing at the carpet with her nail file. Carpet hairs sad and wilted, like kelp. She wishes she could pour a bottle of shampoo over the carpet, submerging the kelp forest in goop. She grounds her file into the floor, sprinkling specks of the sandpapery substance. The floral pattern on the fan blades gapes at her like googly-eyes.
“Where did that come from?” I asked.
“It’s a tree,” my brother Josh said.
“Yeah, I can see that. It wasn’t here yesterday.”
“So what’s your point?” Josh said, approaching the tree behind the cabin where we were staying. It was a scraggy, dying thing, not much taller than me, with two bare branches that stuck at haphazard angles like a maimed scarecrow. It had a jagged hole in the middle of its trunk that resembled a Jack-o-lantern’s mouth. I could see the roots at the base, which indicated that the tree did not arrive here by human means.
Josh took off his John Deere cap, the one embossed with “Git R Done” over a pair of antlers, and hung it from the tree’s left branch.
“Hey look, it’s a hat rack,” he said.
He placed his can of Budweiser in the tree’s mouth.
“Now it’s a cup holder,” he said, laughing moronically. “This tree might be good for something after all.”
“That looks retarded,” I said.
“You’re retarded. Hey Dad, check out my new cup holder.”
Our father lumbered over, examined the tree, and laughed uneasily, like he couldn’t decide how to react.
“That’s…yeah…okay,” he said. “Why don’t we go inside and I can make some hot cocoa.”
“Cocoa” sounded uncharacteristic coming out of my dad’s mouth. Over the past few months I was having more and more trouble recognizing him. The same man who used to watch police chases on TV and cheer when the criminal’s car veered off the road and burst into flames, who slammed a deer carcass onto the cement slab in our front yard and told a 7-year-old Josh, “It’s about time you learned how to skin a deer, son,” had now seemed to drift into a permanent hibernation. He paused longer between words, and it took him ages to travel from his Lazy Boy to the fridge to retrieve his mint-chocolate chip ice cream. I couldn’t say that he reminded me of my grandpa because the only thing I remembered about my grandpa was that he liked buttermilk, but he definitely reminded me of a grandpa. He shuffled around uneasily in his skin, like old age was a mysterious itch that he couldn’t locate.
Standing before the tree, I heard a noise emerge from the hole in the trunk. I moved closer, peering inside the hole. The inside was cavernous, impossibly so given the scrawny trunk, and a mucousy substance drifted down the sides in a deep, rapid current. The noise grew louder, like a metal beast gnashing its teeth together.
I backed away, crossing my arms against my chest—a pointless defense mechanism I used whenever I encountered a roach or a hostile dog, as if my arms would form an impenetrable barrier.
The noise stopped. I wondered if I had imagined the whole thing.
When I walked through the door, my dad was slumped in the cabin’s overstuffed armchair (a feeble but adequate replacement for the Lazy Boy), watching something with Mae West through half-opened eyes.
“Honey, you know who this is, don’t you?” my dad asked.
“Yeah, it’s Mae West,” I said. I knew because I used to watch old movies with my great aunt, and every so often she would say something like, “That couldn’t be Jimmy Stewart!” or “My, my, Burt Lancaster looks so young!”
“I’m impressed,” my dad said. “They must teach you something in school after all. Care to join me?”
“Actually, I was going to read in bed.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing. I just love these golden oldies.”
I thought my dad loved Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. He was revealing new facets of himself every day.
On the way back to my room, I noticed that Josh’s door was cracked open and decided to peek in. He was sprawled out on the floor, leafing through a photo album. He quickly pushed it aside, but not before I saw that he was looking at a picture of the two of us with both our parents.
“Didn’t anyone ever teach you to knock?” he said, and I immediately felt embarrassed for entering his room. We had never had that type of relationship where we sat around together just to talk and asked each other things like “what classes are you taking this year?” and me trying to form one now was like him suddenly deciding to join Boy Scouts.
“Sorry,” I said, awkwardly trying to lean my arm against the door and scraping my elbow in the process. I asked him if I could borrow the photo album.
“Why the hell would I care?” he said, shoving it towards me across the hardwood floor.
Back in my bed, wrapped up to my chin in my grandma’s patchwork quilt, I flipped through images of my father hoisting up an Alaskan salmon, posing with my mother and a beer in a football stadium, drinking a beer on the front porch, hoisting up more dead animals. In each photo he wore the same “I’m too manly to smile” expression. However, I thought I glimpsed a slight change in the structure of his face from the earlier years to the most recent one. While in the former his face was narrow and shield-like, the latest pictures looked as if his face might have spread out just a little, its features less pointy and more gripable. Then I flipped through the photos again and couldn’t detect the changes I had spotted before. I strained my eyes and my brain, like I was looking at a holographic sticker and a second image would pop up, but no luck.
In the living room Josh was on the couch. I joined him and wordlessly passed the remote. I would let him discover for himself that we didn’t have MTV, VH1, MTV2, Spike TV, ESPN, Cinemax or HBO.
When he turned on the TV, Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest was playing.
“What is this shit?” said Josh, licking Dorito crumbs off his hand. He changed the channel, only to be greeted by the tree fairy Krysta, her sidekick Batty, and nature-hating-hunk-who-would-eventually-turn-around Zac once again.
“I don’t get it, is this thing broken?” Josh said. On the fifth channel change—same movie—he hurled the remote against the wall. This caused the channel to change once again. Predator.
“That’s more like it,” Josh said.
Our dad walked into the living room.
“Gee, I remember this one,” he said. “We rented it for your slumber party on your 10th birthday, didn’t we Josh?”
He laughed pleasantly.
“A little violent,” he said. “But boy, that Arnold can sure get ‘em!”
“Dad, can you like, go do something else?” Josh said. Not that it mattered. My dad was gazing beatifically into nothingness, his mind floating to some place where words couldn’t reach. Within minutes he was snoring.
Still a little disconcerted about the Fern Gully incident, I tried keeping Josh around a bit longer before we retreated to our rooms. I offered him the last Little Debbie cupcake, which I had been hoarding in the cabinet under the bathroom sink.
“Do you think we’re going to return home before school starts?” I asked.
“I hope not,” Josh said, but I know he was secretly ready to go back to school. How else would he get to interact with girls in living, breathing form?
Josh rummaged through the fridge for a sugary companion to the cupcake. I leaned against the kitchen counter, scraping at the chipped paint. I remembered staying in a cabin kind of like this one when I was little while Dad went on hunting trips. He would always cook me something using whatever animal he had shot that day, like venison quesadillas or wild boar fajitas. The kitchen smelled like it did now, a deep musky fragrance of sweat and gunpowder and down jackets that had been sitting in a trunk all year.
“Dad’s been acting kind of strange, hasn’t he?” I said.
“No shit, Sherlock,” Josh said.
“But seriously, it’s more than strange, isn’t it? It’s like he switched personalities.”
“Whatever, he’s probably having a mid-life crisis. Only, instead of riding motorcycles and going to strip clubs, he’s into gardening and nature and shit.”
“So you think this is normal?”
“I don’t know. All I can say is that the day he started bringing home all that hippie food, I knew something was up.”
True. Before that he didn’t count vegetables as a food group.
The Little Man
All this began with a lizard. Perched on a leaf, its skin that healthy, crunchy avocado green, tongue darting, chest pulsating irresistibly. The little man’s chase ended on the front porch of a rather large house. Large, at least, in comparison to his hut in the field behind the 7-Eleven, rooted halfway underground so as not to attract too much attention. He had no business being near such a big beautiful home. This knowledge made his curiosity burn harder. He slipped in through the half-open door.
The house was empty. He marveled at the dizzying heights of the ceilings, at the velvety baby blue carpet, at the rich mahogany legs of the chairs, his chin just reaching the seat level. He opened the refrigerator door, running his hands up and down celery stocks and corn cobs, pressing his cheek against a carrot, burying his nose in the watermelon.
The little man dashes out from under the bed, shoving open the window, hurtling feet-first to the ground.
He jogs across the yard, squeezes through the slats in the fence, races through the woods. Oak trees loom up above. The half-set sun winks behind a hill. He feels closer to the ground, now that his ceiling has been replaced by a sky. Everything, even the blades of glass, look amplified.
As a child, he never felt small. All his classmates were the same size as him. The world felt designed to his scale. But while the other children kept growing, he stayed the same. He remembers the day he discovered this. He was standing in line at the cafeteria, eyeing the lemon meringue pie on the tray of the boy next to him. What do you think you’re looking at, the boy said, the voice cascading down to him. All at once, he realized his chin was even with the boy’s tray. His mother removed him from school shortly after that. Aside from visits to the post office and grocery store, she rarely let him out of the house.
Tree trunks blur together in the dim light. He turns round and round, trying to choose the right direction to get back to his hut. Everything looks the same, trees framed by grass and purple sky.
Tired and confused, the little man climbs a birch tree, resting on a branch. He can stay here for the night.
A musty smell thickens the air. An owl hums. Unease grates at his insides. He closes his eyes and pictures his hut, auburn carpet, checkered couch, windows the size of cubbyholes. A shadowy figure appears in one of the windows. He squints. It’s the woman from the house, a tiny version of her, her knees curled against her chest, blonde hair trailing down her back like a cat’s tail. As sleep moves upon him, he keeps the silhouette fixed in his mind.
He wakes when a movement flashes against his eyelids. Something, a raccoon or possum, perhaps, sits in the nook of the tree next to him. But no, it wears Converse tennis shoes. And a tattered T-shirt. It’s another little man.
The little man tries to blink away his blurred vision. He has never seen a grown-up his size. Small, yes, but not that small.
“Sir, I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you here!” says the little man, too loudly, his voice escaping gleefully from the cage of silence. “I was about to go to sleep, but I reckon I’ll stay up longer.”
The other little man does not reply. In the moonlight his eyes glimmer blankly like the eyes of a china doll. He has a sunken look, his silence submerged in stillness.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” the little man continues, “but I’m lost. Can you help me?”
The other little man begins to lick himself, indifferent to this new presence. He crouches on the branch, running his tongue up and down his arms. His facial muscles move mechanically in tandem with the licking.
A shape emerges in another tree. A little woman. The man’s sister, perhaps. She has the same glassy eyes and wears a patchwork dress that appears to be sewn together with rags. The dress hangs loosely on her body. The right side of her face is smaller than her left, giving her the appearance of a tripod.
The little man grips his branch, wariness running through his veins. Silence so heavy the air seems to sag.
The moon widens its spotlight. Dozens of little people twinkle in the moonlight like fireflies. All glassy-eyed. All with clothes way too big, flabby drooping skin, and disproportional features.
A tilt-a-whirl swirls in pinkish-green orbs. The smell of cotton candy seeps through the air. The girl remembers, as a child, each August when the carnival came to town. She would stand on the dock, watching her father clean his boat, when a neon glow would spread across the bay. Dad, she would say, and he would say, I know honey, just hold your horses, and she would say, Dad, and he would say, just give me one more second, and then she would be there, holding her arm upturned for the orange wristband, covering her ears as darts popped balloons, picking pieces of caramel apple out of her hair, growing slightly giddy and slightly nauseous from the spin of the Gravitron, feeling frightened by the Zipper which reminded her of surgical stitches, listening to the tinny Harpsichord music which was everywhere and yet had no apparent source, as if it trickled down from speakers in the sky…
Submitting to the waves, the redhead rides on his back past the third sandbar. Many years ago his father told him about the Marianna Trench, the deepest body of water in the world. With the shore no longer visible behind him, the waves arching toward the sky, everything a plain of squiggly lines, he might as well be there now. He pictures a sea dragon resting in the sand thousands of feet below him, its tail curled like rings of smoke, its spongy skin sucking in tiny fish. Jellyfish the size of tankers glide by, lighting up the sea in sinuous orbs. The bodies of submarines pass overhead like satellites. Way down below are more submarines, a different breed. These have a special glass meant to withstand great pressure. Hovering just above the ocean floor, they drift slowly, trancelike, as if in a dream. A submariner lies in his bunk, gazing at the sea dragon. The last image he sees before falling asleep is his reflection in its dark glassy eyes as he fades from one kind of darkness into another.
Close to Home
It was Spring Break, that time of year when the landslide of obligations momentarily subsided. In other words, it was time for a vacation.
“San Antonio?” my mom suggested.
“Too crowded,” my dad replied.
“The Grand Canyon?”
“Too crowded and too far.”
So we went to Souvenir Express, a mile and a half from our house.
“We’re a tourist town,” my dad insisted. He made a living off taking tourists fishing, so when he said “tourist” it lacked the tone of disgust that most locals attached to it.
“There’s no reason to take a big long trip and spend a bunch of money when the vacation’s right here. It’ll be nice. We can bring sandwiches in the cooler and have a picnic in the parking lot. Then Kate can go across the street and get a sno-cone. Julie, you can bring your binoculars and bird-watch. And if I get a call for a charter, the boat launch is just around the corner. That way I can spend time with my family but won’t have to worry about all the business I’d be missing out on if I turned down a customer.”
“Dad, that sounds stupid,” I said.
“Why is it stupid?” he asked.
“Do I have to explain why? I mean, isn’t it kind of obvious?”
The truth is, I couldn’t explain why. It was just like the way my dad would put his spoon in his cereal bowl first and then pour in the milk and cereal on top of the spoon so that the milk splashed everywhere. There was something fundamentally wrong with his logic, but I couldn’t write a five-paragraph essay explaining why I felt that way.
We arrived at our destination, the gulf coast humidity slamming me in the face as I stepped out of the car. It was so hot that my eyes felt like they were sweating, making the asphalt look bubbly.
We were hungry but didn’t want to spend another minute without air-conditioning, so we decided to bring the ice chest into Souvenir Express. Or should I say, Dad decided to bring the ice chest into Souvenir Express. I didn’t bother putting up a fight, and neither did Mom. Once Dad was on a roll, trying to reverse his momentum was like mopping up a puddle with a Kleenex.
“Just park it right here,” my dad, pointing to an empty space next to the hermit crab terrarium, told my mom and me as we awkwardly squeezed the ice chest through the front door.
The man at the register gave us an odd look but didn’t say anything; the mile of customers zigzagging between shelves and displays kept him busy. The recent addition of the neon seahorse statues outside had greatly improved business, but the size of the store hadn’t caught up with the population boom. Right now it was a WalMart trapped in the body of a roadside fruit stand.
I tried to make myself invisible, but the 128-quart ice chest made that kind of difficult.
A couple of tourists pointed at us, not in a “holy shit what are they doing?” kind of way but more like we were cavorting dolphins that they spotted on the Aquatic Encounters sunset cruise. Aquatic Encounters was one of many attractions that allowed people to see for themselves the unique local décor described in the brochures at the Visitor Center.
We set the ice chest down, knocking over a couple of boogie boards as we lowered ourselves to the floor.
“Hey, we can go surfing!” my dad said as he maneuvered a boogie board across the floor, already slick from the runoff dripping out from beneath the ice chest.
“Dad, seriously,” I said, shooting him a nasty look. He returned my look with the same look he gave me when I told him that his plan to drag a microwave onto the boat so his customers could enjoy warm meals wasn’t very practical.
My mom suggested that the smell coming from the hermit crabs might ruin our appetite.
“Come on honey, be a sport,” Dad said. “It adds to the ambiance.”
I sliced the tomatoes, my dad unwrapped the cheese, my mom took out the bread and knife and started spreading—mayonnaise for Dad, honey mustard for her, plain old yellow mustard for me.
As for the meat, my mom had turkey, I had vegetarian salami and my dad had turkey and vegetarian salami.
“Don’t you want any tomatoes, honey?” Mom asked Dad.
“This is veggie,” he said, pointing to the salami. “I don’t need two veggies.”
Outside Momo’s Coffee, snow trickles down dreamily. The snowflakes are the size of ashtrays. I watch them fall through the windows, which stretch from the ceiling to the floor. It hasn’t snowed in thirty years. The townspeople stare at the snow from their porches like it’s some sort of alien life form.
Close to finishing my fourth espresso, I stir my spoon round and round in the remaining liquid, mesmerized by the brown swirls. The hands on the clock remain frozen in place. I consider what else I might order. Unfortunately Momo doesn’t serve food, only coffee. Not even muffins.
As usual, no music plays in the cafe. I listen to the drone of the espresso machine, staring at a phone pole outside the window until my vision blurs. The sky is the color of peach melba. I am the only customer here, save for a sleeping old man at the end of the counter, face flat over his Sudoku. Neither of us have anything better to do. It has been nearly six weeks since I got laid off. Today I applied for a position as an “editorial assistant” for the local paper. At the interview I realized that the job amounted to little more than a file clerk. Are you organized? the editor asked me. I nodded. Are you willing to work long hours for little pay? Again, I nodded. The position also requires that you do some light cleaning, including the restroom, would this be a problem for you? Not at all, I say. I must warn you, she adds, the plumbing is old, and sometimes the toilet gets a little backed up. I asked her if she wanted to see my resume, which listed experience as a reporter for my high-school paper. That won’t be necessary, she replied.
Momo’s Coffee smells like a blanket after you’ve slept under it for a week, the odor comforting in its familiarity. A door made of rubber flaps, the sort you see in storage rooms, hangs behind the coffee maker. Momo often darts back there, sometimes vanishing for five minutes on end.
No one knows what to make of Momo. Her heavy black hair hangs over her face, weighing down her bony body. She has the kind of features you forget the instant you turn away. Every time I come here she has on the same grey, formless blouse with a small unicorn insignia on the right pocket. Though the blouse is covered in coffee stains, she never wears an apron. Tense and compact, she seems to be made entirely of knots.
Momo’s Coffee opened four months ago in what used to be a head shop before the townsfolk persuaded the mayor to shut it down. The shag carpeting, waxy with black and orange speckles like candy corn, still remains. The seating consists only of a twelve-stool bar. When you first enter the cafe you are greeted by a vast ocean of shag.
Some customers propose installing foosball. Others insist Nintendo would be a sure hit. One woman told Momo she should tear out the shag, replace it with “something classier—marble, perhaps, or Formica.” Anything would be better than that “morose carpet.” She even went so far as to provide price estimates, offering Momo the number for someone who “does tile real well.” To all suggestions Momo would shake her head vigorously, so vigorously that the offender never brought up the subject again.
It is only natural that Momo’s looks nothing like a coffee shop, since her coffee tastes nothing like coffee. She serves only the basics—no cappuccinos, mochas, or lattes—but her coffee is divinely rich, like flaming cinnamon sticks thrown into a pot of fondue and left to simmer. Each time I drink it it sends shock waves galloping through my chest, leaving a tingly residue that lasts for hours.
Confident and mechanical while preparing the coffee, she immediately freezes up whenever she approaches the bar, the overhead fluorescent lights grilling into her pores, her eyes darting to and fro, her mouth pinched up like a piece of guava fruit. Often her hands tremble as she places our mugs in front of us, coffee sloshing onto the counter. I can sense the customers getting jumpy in return. They rarely initiate conversation, choosing instead to whisper about her among themselves, as if she can’t hear them when she is standing just a few feet away.
It’s 2 AM and I’ve narrowed down the items in my cabinet to two candidates, the Lorna Doone shortbread cookies, or Chocolate Marshmallow Cosmos.
While the former would offer a full-bodied mouth experience, the latter, as eaten my preferred way, one-charm-at-a-time, would offer a long-lasting crunchiness combined with the titillating lack of taste-bud stimulation in those spaces in my mouth untouched by the charm.
As I weigh out my options, I realize I am too tired to make such a momentous decision. Suddenly the thought of sugar, and the crunching and chewing that would be involved, makes me exhausted. I spread out my arms and dive into my bed, not bothering to take off my jeans.
Sleep approaches swiftly, with great vigor. My room collapses into a cloud of fuzziness. Dim spots coagulate in corners. My walls look restless, confused.
I drift over my yard, patches of sun-seared grass grinning like sea urchins. I pass Martin and Imelda, the old folks next door, sitting on the rickety porch swing, Martin’s cracked lips hanging open in mid-sentence suspension, Imelda’s hairpiece sloping off to the side like a beret. I sail over the Smith’s house, where each day a different-colored car appears in the driveway beside the white Volkswagen. I nearly crash into Miss Karen’s house. Miss Karen with the gun, who screamed at me out the window that she would blow me to “smithereens” for playing in her yard. Just thinking about the house gave me nightmares, even the street name, Warner, it was, Warner…I watch cautiously over my shoulder as the house turns into a tiny dot.
I land in Sheila’s swimming pool, recently drained after the algae invasion. I feel kind of silly sitting in a dry pool, so I curl up in a ball, hoping Sheila won’t notice me. She sits spread out in her lounge chair, a Cosmo in one hand, Cosmo magazine in the other. After indulging in a generous sip, she sets down both Cosmos, picks up the hose, and waters every flower within a stretchable distance.
She looks at me through her shades. It is a strange sensation, like walking down a street, feeling eyes watching you through the blinds. Her mouth tightens, bee-sting lips puffing up, brows arching above the lens. Her eyes must be getting angry back there.
“I can explain,” I say. Moving my mouth feels like wading through glue.
“Fire away,” she says. I am silent. After all, what is there to explain?
“You’re being extremely disrespectful,” she says, and launches into a speech about how I am disrespectful.
Suddenly I notice I am holding a case of Tic Tacs, only instead of Tic Tacs, it contains Lorna Doone shortbread cookies. Six of them. I don’t know how this is possible. Yet here it is. Though the cookies are huddled quite closely together, resembling fingers in their tan cylindricality, they are not broken in any way. Only Two Calories Per Serving! the case proclaims. A two-calorie cookie? Impossible!
“Are you seeing this?” I ask Sheila, holding up the case.
She resumes her expression of lazy indifference, heightened this time. Indifference to the third power. Her skin takes on a smooth chalkiness. She appears, suddenly, to be made entirely of Smarties.
My insides bob around in a squishy, gelatinous mass. Lugubrious desire overcomes me. As Sheila drones on about this and that, all I want to do is devour her face.