Fiction

“Achilles’ Last Stand”

An excerpt from Wild Violet, 21 October 2013:

achilles_last_stand

LOS ANGELES – William “Sledge” Mitchell, the lead singer and face of ‘80s rock band Dodge City, died Thursday of complications from pneumonia. He was 49 years old. Mitchell was admitted Wednesday morning to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center with a chest infection stemming from complications relating to a 1992 gunshot wound that had left him paralyzed, his agent, Thomas Randall, said in a statement.

That’s the obit they let me run in the L.A. Times today. Originally, they asked me for a feature, but that got cut at the eleventh hour in favor of something more “uplifting.” Something to do with American Idol, I was told. And that’s probably for the best, dear readers. No reason to bring people down at the weekend. But I wrote the story anyway, and now that it’s done, I know they made the right choice. It’s not the kind of story the Times prints today, or Rolling Stone, for that matter. Hell, RS probably wouldn’t have wanted it even when they ran features on Van Halen and The Crüe, or that godawful cover photo of Jon Bon Jovi and the white horse. I’m not even sure dreck like metalsludge.com would care about this story, because the music doesn’t matter anymore. Oh, some of the players pop up on VH-1 occasionally, but mostly just to prove their irrelevance. The fans that once adored them — who filled goddamned stadiums to scream their names — won’t admit it now out of embarrassment, but these men were part of our lives once. Some of them were important. Others were assholes from the beginning. But these aren’t mutually exclusive terms for describing the great. They were our Olympians, with all their rages and petty jealousies, incandescent for generations, then smoldering away to nothing when people ceased to believe the myths.

(To read the rest of the story, visit Wild Violet.)

 

“Miller’s Field”

An excerpt from Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley 9.1, Fall 2009:

The thick, salty smell of frying bacon filled the house as my dad came tromping down the stairs. He was a tall man, thin in that Great Depression sort of way, with deep-set blue eyes. His face was leather from long days at the mine, and he always smelled like Old Spice. With the week’s Winslow Dispatch tucked under his arm, he pulled a wicker-seated chair from the head of the table and sat with his left leg jutting out. A broken support beam in ‘39 had busted his knee and kept him from the war, but he looked over the paper every week to see if Hitler or Hirohito had gotten the drop on any Pike County boys. He mostly stayed above ground now, driving the dinky back and forth to the tipple in Winslow.

My little brother Joe, seven years old, sat across the table in a pair of overalls, his face pink from having washed up. He was trying noisily to balance his fork on the salt shaker. I was fourteen – old enough to be annoyed by it but young enough to wish I had thought of it first. Dad glanced over the edge of his paper, but said nothing as Mom brought a steaming bowl of pepper-flecked gravy to the table. She sat it next to a mound of biscuits and the bacon, then seated herself across from Dad.

“Who’d like to ask the blessing?” she said, looking around the table. “Michael?”

I hated praying. Dad was better at it.

“Okay,” I said as we folded our hands. I waited for Dad’s go-ahead nod, then squeezed my eyes shut and began my usual thanks for the food. I wrapped it up and looked around the table, but Dad picked up where I left off.

“And Lord, please keep us all safely in thy hands as we go out to do thy work today. In thy son’s name we pray, amen,” he said.

“Amen,” Joe said.

I was glad that he had saved the prayer. Dad prayed in the King James style, something that I always held in awe but never had the guts to imitate.

(To read more of this story, pick up the journal here.)

 

“Chromosome Four”

An excerpt from Bellevue Literary Review 8.2, Fall 2008:

The doctor said the baby would have Huntington’s disease. Amy didn’t understand what this meant, but she knew from his stone face that it was bad. She tried to speak, but her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, so Scott asked the questions. The doctor’s words fell on the desk between them. No symptoms until the mid-thirties. That made her feel better, until he explained what those symptoms would be. Involuntary muscle spasms, loss of language skills, eventual breakdown of the nervous system resulting in death. About ten years from start to finish. All for someone who didn’t even have a gender yet.

They’d been trying for months to get pregnant. Ovulation calendars, vitamins, green tea, uterus tilting. When they found out it had worked, they’d rushed out and bought every book on the “Expectant Mothers” shelf at Barnes & Noble. They waited to tell everyone until after the first five weeks, just like the books recommended, and lingered secretly in the newborns aisle at Wal-Mart. Scott worked all the overtime hours he could grab at the power plant, telling Amy they would spare no expense. It had been the best five weeks of their marriage.

Now Scott sighed as the doctor spoke. She had quit listening, focusing instead on the dead hum of the room’s fluorescent lighting, the assortment of knick-knacks on the doctor’s desk. A mahogany-and-gold nameplate, an aloe plant, a miniature Evansville Aces basketball. After a moment, she noticed that no one was talking and she looked at Scott. He was ashen.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” she asked the doctor, a balding man with liver spots on his forehead. Behind him was a poster of a fetus taking a drag off a cigarette. What brand does your baby smoke? it read.

(To read more of this story, pick up the journal here.)

 

“The Challenged”

An excerpt from The Evansville Review 9, 1999:

The choir sings “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow,” and the woman cries. Tom watches with an adequate amount of pity. The minister makes a general remark about grandmothers being gifts from God (it is, after all, Grandparents Day) and moves on. Tom doesn’t fault him for this, because decorum should be kept in a church service, and besides, the choir director—a frail, caring woman named Cecilia—is leaning over and comforting the woman, patting her on the knee. The woman finishes picking the suckers off the floor and wipes fiercely at her eyes, as if to pull the tears out before they leak onto her aged face, betraying her. Tom feels sorry for her, and almost leans forward to help her put the Dum-Dums back in the black tin, but he is talking to his friend and can’t find a way to neatly tie off the conversation.

The woman brought her granddaughter to the choir box, and her granddaughter is retarded. Not in the usual drooling and biting way that we are all so accustomed to, but in a more likeable, ‘poor little girl’ manner. This makes it easier for the people around her to express sorrow at her condition without being too uncomfortable. The little girl tried to reach into the tin full of suckers (she wants a grape one) offered to each of the children in turn by the minister, and sent it crashing to the ground with an odd ping, spilling lemon and butterscotch goodies across the choir box. She giggled in delight—perhaps believing she could keep them all now—and her grandmother, who knows the drill, pulled her back to her seat and began picking up the candy. From the seat behind her, Tom has watched this as a casual observer and does feel sorry, but it is a distant sorrow because he is also thinking about Sunday dinner and fried chicken so crispy it makes his head rumble, about steaming hot rolls and baked beans rolling in brown sugar and spices. He thinks of mashed potatoes, buttery and thick. The good potatoes, hand-mashed, not powder thrown into boiling water and served up gritty and bland by foodservice. The little retarded girl is crunching her grape sucker like mad, and her grandmother is trying to control sobs as the choir dutifully points out that tomorrow may bring them poverty.

(To ready more of this story, pick up the journal here.)

 

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