Fiction in a minute: Gardner’s chill pills

Doc Wimple loved to diagnose the curious fair goers who came to his traveling medicine show, and this show in Jamestown was no different, despite the heat and threat of rain. After quickly sizing up a teenage girl with eczema and a baby with colic, he focused on the tiny, wasp-waisted lady who with a swish of skirts and a snap of her fan pushed her way to the front. Her dark eyes bored through him like thread through the eye of a needle. Woman’s troubles were the obvious choice for a high strung filly like her, Doc thought, but that was too simple. He ruled out headache or back [...]

Fiction in a minute: Voodoo Hoodoo

The tidy parlor smelled of decay and burning. Hand over her nose, Eustace scanned the floors, furniture and walls for the smell’s source. But the only disorder in her orderly room was the jumble of toys the twins left on the sofa. The boys were gone, but somehow she still felt their presence with an animal sense. They often hid at bath time. Her nephews inherited their father’s violet eyes, blond hair, and his tendency to flee any responsibility. “Rene, I want you to leave now,” Eustace said to the old man sitting on her grandmother’s favorite chair. “You filled the twins’ heads with enough voodoo nonsense.” “There’s the matter [...]

Fiction in a minute: Straw hat

She waved at me today. The girl in the straw hat and red skirt stood on the roof of the abandoned Tolliver lace factory. She looked like Audrey Hepburn going a garden party instead of the usual street kid looking for a place to squat. She saw me staring at her from my apartment window for the third day in a row, and she smiled and waved. That mute invitation was all I needed. So I went, through a hole in a wire fence, down a dark path and through a door wrenched from its hinges, into the factory’s crumbling shell. Maybe the girl was a writer like me, trying [...]

Drunken lit in real life

Ever read that melancholy writing that romanticizes alcoholic, desolate characters as broken geniuses hiding their light under dirty hair and scruffy clothes? I’ve heard it called drunken literature. Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs owned the genre. I just finished reading a short story along those lines, so I was intrigued to stumble upon a real life example. A stoned, disheveled man and woman sat outside a sandwich shop in North Hollywood where I was having lunch. They had been nursing one salad between them for so long that the lettuce was turning brown along the edges. I couldn’t decide if they were mother and son or drinking buddies. The woman [...]

Fiction in a Minute: Pizza Day

Jacob led the line of second-graders into the east entrance after the first recess bell rang. Even on pizza day, the hallway smelled musty and sweet just as he remembered from his own school days — a nostalgic combination of floor cleaner, old books and pots of paste. He pretended not to notice Emily, the assistant principal, leaning against the lockers. Her face was red and blotchy, her forehead slick with sweat. She’d eaten up his lunch hour blathering about “child-centered data-driven emergent literacy learning quotient” after hearing this was his first substitute teaching job.  Jacob tuned her out. He wasn’t here to babysit seven-year-olds. He’d been hired to kill an unloved, inconvenient but well-insured wife of a man [...]

Fiction in a minute: Train

The cameraman said “rolling” and the red light over the lens glowed. The blond antiques appraiser slid his mirrored compact into his pocket and looked at Howard expectantly. “What did you bring to the show today?” “Train set. My father’s. He said it was the only thing he would save if the house was on fire,” Howard said. “He wouldn’t let us play with it.” “Sentimental value,” the appraiser said, as an explanation. Howard swallowed nervous laughter. His father was not sentimental. “It’s a cast iron train, early 20th century. Made by Ives, the precursor to Lionel Trains. You’ve heard of Lionel?” Howard nodded, bored. They’d already told him this. [...]

Fiction in a minute: Dancer

The heavy bass pulsed through my skin, alchemizing my old bones to stretchy, strong muscle. I danced and whirled and spun and slid, my body melting like liquid into the music. Then, silence. Laughter and the sound of high heels on wood floors echoed off of the dance studio’s mirrors. I opened my eyes to see three young women dressed in tight-fitting shorts, crop tops and sandals with five-inch heels stood at the door. The prettiest one gazed at me, blue eyes framed by long blond waves. She was accustomed to getting attention, and even I felt the magnetism of her smile. “It’s time for pole-dancing class, grandma,” she said. [...]

Fiction in a minute: Mushroom

I fell into the dirt and dead leaves on the forest floor, banging my right knee on a rock and splintering my palms on rotten wood. I must have bit my lip too, because I tasted blood when I caught my breath. “Are we having fun yet?” Frieda said with a smirk. It was the third time I’d thought about killing her today. Now I knew how to do it. Frieda crossed her arms. “Come on already, klutz. It’s another mile to camp and it’s almost dark.” “Coming,” I said. Electric currents ran through me. I cupped my hand over the death cap mushroom and pulled. The soil gave up [...]

Value confusion

I’m more accustomed to hearing about values being talked about in a set – I’m thinking mainly of politicians touting “family values” and “American values” – as though there is some established list everyone who is important has agreed to. It also makes me think about times I’ve heard the word used as window dressing for intolerance and discrimination — where “our values” means “not yours.” But what are values exactly? I wasn’t 100% sure I understood the concept outside of those examples. Do values in fact come in some pre-existing set, such as a religious doctrine or mission statement? Can values be right or wrong? Are they unique or [...]

When women were astronomical computers

Being a computer used to be one of the few women’s jobs in astronomy. Today, the word computer evokes plastic cases, microchips and power cords, but the term “computer” was actually first used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to describe people who solved mathematical equations using their brains and a pencil and paper. Rooms of these human computers, or clerks, sat at desks, crunching through large amounts of data for weeks that today can be done in a millisecond. This was not glamorous work. But it was one of the few jobs available to women in the fields of math and science at the time. So if [...]