Short Prose After an Infamous Day

These Guys
(Short Prose)

A little over a year ago I became friends with a group of men in my local Dunkin Donuts. It’s a funny turn of events because I am a woman who doesn’t make friends easily, have always counted on one hand my closest friends, and get antsy outside the workplace when I’m expected to show up somewhere every day at a precise time. These are character flaws, make no mistake. Fifteen years ago I took a “test” online that purported to be predictive of depression, and the online results were very concerned about me, so concerned that they suggested I make more friends. For a while I made a desultory attempt to make more friends, started shaking hands with people for no reason, that kind of thing. This netted no one.

But these guys.

When I first met them I was going to work very early—6:30 AM—and wanted a hot coffee to take with me. At the time they were just a group of men in their late sixties who always sat near the door, same time, same guys. One named Tommy began to wish me a good morning every day. He called me “Smiley” and, later on, I asked him why he called me that. He said it was because I’d come in smiling. But the truth is, I came in smiling because I was so happy he was wishing me good morning. It was friendly. It was affectionate. I happened to be in an emotional place where both were very welcome, even from complete strangers.

One day I just sat down with them. I have been sitting or standing with them ever since, from 6:15 to 7:15 every morning like clockwork at the Dunkin Donuts, and then eventually out in the world at various times. Next week, for example, I’m helping them put siding on the back of Bob’s horse barn. This week Tommy helped me thread line and tie a clench knot for the lure on my new fishing rod (bought at Bass Pro where I got a deal because somebody knew somebody). Several months ago I helped Dominic and Bob and Dick bottle homemade raspberry wine in Bob’s cellar. All the guys coached me last month on how to bid at a local auction and I did bid and I got the item: a handmade prototype from around 1931 of a version of Monopoly that is so cool I have to resist playing it and ruining it.

So too are my guys cool. It’s impossible to explain this. They are right wing conservative Republicans and I am a lefty lesbian. They are from a variety of careers—truck driver, pipefitter at a nuke plant, fundraiser for nonprofits—and I am a college professor in creative writing. They know all about tools and other things men seem to know about, and I don’t. They are all retired and I am not.

They are also all married and I am newly single. When Tommy figured this out, he began to point out women at the Dunkin Donuts whom he believed to be also single and whom he thought I might like. Sometimes he pretends to call them over—“Hey, c’mere, girly”—and I have to say, “Goddamnit, Tommy, quit it.” This kind of thing entertains all of us very much. No “girly” has ever come anywhere near us, since clearly we’re assholes. I’ve never enjoyed being an asshole more.

The wives of these guys began to look askance at me: who’s this woman you keep mentioning? Things looked iffy for a while. Two weeks ago, however, we all met—my guys and their wives—at the Cottage Inn, a dive 20 miles away that has a trained chef. All seven of us got along like houses on fire. In fact, we talked a lot about houses on fire. Bob lost his entire collection of baseball cards and Syracuse University memorabilia in a fire, things worth a small fortune. Tommy presented all of us with little baggies of cashews at the end of the meal, as though to seal our good time together. At any rate, the wives don’t have a problem with me any more.

My guys are full of surprises. Dominic, the pipefitter, has had training at the Culinary Institute. His dad owned a restaurant and he grew up hefting huge, heavy loads of dishes or beer kegs which now bother his back. He’s a woodworker, whose accomplishments include a clever wooden device one puts on one’s thumb which can hold a paperback open—he’d noticed everyone had to use two hands and thought it a waste of a hand. Bob, the fundraiser, has golfed with everyone from Tom Selleck to Jim Boeheim, and he has written books, one about the animals he and his wife have shared, and one, a recent one, about his journey from being a Democrat to being a Republican. He looks back on his Democratic self with a kind of bemused wonder. Sometimes this is how he looks at me. Tommy is a master fisherman from Maine whose truck driving took him all over the country east of the Mississippi, but whose fishing brought him here to Oswego, where he met his second wife and settled down. He is the informal mayor, the greeter, the PR person of the Dunkin Donuts, and the unofficial president of our group. If we can’t make it the next morning for coffee, we’re supposed to tell Tommy so nobody worries.

A few months ago Bob’s wife had a heart attack after a long trip. They’d been to a funeral in Illinois and it was winter and all of us were worried about Bob driving that far. Turned out it was his wife, Joyce, we should have been worrying about. After the heart attack Bob was sick—actually ill—with worry. This is a fact: these men couldn’t love their wives any more. Period. There is no more love they could possibly muster within themselves for these women. They adore them. Their hearts are full of them. I admire this so much that I think sometimes it almost makes me sad. I do not pray but I prayed for Bob’s wife. All of us did. When she got to feeling better she came one day and sat with us at the Dunkin Donuts. I don’t believe Bob, or we, could have been any happier, or felt more.

These men have full lives, lives of activity and love, and yet they made room for me at their table. On the surface we have nothing much in common. But the surface of things is exactly where one doesn’t look for friendship or love. I think the heart needs to be big enough for these things. And then again I think all of our hearts are big enough for these things. Perhaps such matters are bigger and more mysterious than all the dark waters into which I now throw lures from the new fishing rod that Tommy threaded for me. This much, however, is certain: I love them fiercely, these guys.

Death and Dislike

Death and Dislike
(Short Prose)

Let’s begin with grown mice, as opposed to baby mice. I dislike them. In winter, particularly, these adults can make the house feel crowded. My home’s hardwoods become broad, inviting avenues for adult mice on a stroll, and the walls of the house overflow with hidden apartments crammed with feckless, fucking mice. I believe two mouse generations can be born during a winter, thus tripling the available mice. None of my “city” friends have this problem, so I’m thinking it is a country issue, a country winter issue, like the squirrels that seek out the warmth in the attic, or the mosquitoes that hatch from eggs brought in on firewood warmed up in the kitchen. I dislike the mosquitoes, too, and the strange dashing sounds of the squirrels overhead. If you have seen a squirrel dart back and forth in front of your car, a madcap, almost suicidal caricature of indecision, then you know of what these dashing sounds must consist. Impossible to like. One thinks fiercely: You fool, make up your mind and lie down.

At one time a cat named Fargo lived in my house and she also disliked the grown mice. Also, unlike me, the baby mice. She’d bring me and my partner dead mice of all ages, little presents that even when not brought right to our feet were left in obvious places for us to find. The baby mice often were missing a head. I enjoyed this in a way, how Fargo simultaneously rid the house of mice and made a generous little game out of it. She never brought in, say, a fat beetle, its inky legs wiggling —just dead mice. She embraced the cat cliché, and so did I. Often before bedtime the two of us played long, intense games of slapsies. I’d hold my hand out palm up, she’d hold her paw palm down, and then one of us would try to slap the other first. I earnestly disliked losing to her, but usually did. I rationalized these as necessary losses that gave Fargo an edge in the mouse hunts taking place while I slept.

All things considered, I am unmoved by the death of baby mice, but I have already said that it is difficult to dislike them. They don’t frequent the hardwoods like their parents do. They prefer to make the gas stove their playground, jumping like fleas in and out of the iron grates, as though swinging on monkey bars. This is most amusing. Every once in a while one of them apparently swings too far and flips into the kitchen sink. They are too small to flip back out of it. They are all eyes and tail and stare up at one with exactly the expression of a child caught in a scrape. However, this expression goes away as soon as the bowl appears that will take them outside. I have no compunction whatsoever about taking them outside, though they are babies and have no good odds in their favor. On the other hand, I don’t bite off their heads.

I have an aunt, Aunt Barbara, who babysat me when I was little. She and her husband worked hard on their farm, my aunt often feeding a dozen men in her kitchen, and she had a son, Jonathan, whom I adored. One spring afternoon I stood in the garage with my aunt who was getting ready to plant a dogwood tree. A large rat—the size of a grown cat—suddenly dashed from a carpentry bench across the concrete toward the open garage door. My aunt took the shovel in her hand and, almost nonchalantly, flattened the rat in a single, graceful motion. Then she shoveled it up and flung it behind the garage. At the time I wondered if this was something Jonathan had seen before; he played little league football and I had watched him knock down a littler boy with just this kind of grace and indifference. “That,” my aunt said, “is that.” And then she walked out of the garage with the shovel to plant the dogwood.

It seems we must harbor our pity and our sympathy, hoard these building blocks of grief, parse them out a morsel at a time as though they’re stick candy. Maybe we only have so much—this, and no more—which obliges us to tend carefully. I feel no real grief for the grown mice, the mosquitoes, the rat, these creatures I dislike.

But what I would give to play just one more slapsies game with Fargo again. Feel her paw slap my hand one more time. Admittedly, I cannot. And that, as my aunt would say, is that.

Mixed Feelings

Mixed Feelings
(Short Prose)

I have mixed feelings about the avocado.

Because I teach fiction writing to beginners, I have a professorial dislike of the phrase “mixed feelings”—it’s hazy and rather flippant, often used in undergraduate writing to mean anything from being in love to contempt, and is aligned in popularity with other unlikeable words and phrases such as “relatable,” “smirked” to mean smile, “defiantly” to mean definitely, and “little did she know.”

Yet I have mixed feelings about avocados. Avocados come from an evergreen tree—the family Lauracea—and the fruit itself can be three to ten inches long, oblong, round or pear-shaped, and the skin may vary in texture from smooth to pebbled and in color from black to green. By any standards this is a mixed bag of traits which is already well on its way to producing mixed feelings.

The buttery, smooth taste of the avocado is exquisite. When I hear someone describe a food as “rich” I think of the avocado. On a salad or a sandwich, the avocado moves the eating experience from mediocre to interesting, from perfunctory to attentive. I would love, some summer day, to take an avocado mud bath, all avocado, no mud. And fresh guacamole is as delightful as a sudden tight embrace from a friend. The piquancy. The recollection of a history of good times. The sheer exuberance of it.

Over time I have become a master at hefting an avocado to determine its ripeness. One always stands four-square in front of a stack of avocados in a store. They dislike stacking and will leap to the floor easily, so it might be necessary to lunge to their rescue. They are a physical fruit in more ways than one. There’s an obvious connection to love-making here—the way one squeezes but doesn’t grasp at the fruit in loutish haste, the way one proceeds apace from fruit to fruit, squeezing here and there, the mind disengaged, the body all alertness. There’s a distinct pleasure in the physicality of this selection process, copping feels in search of the perfect avocado. I, for one, let out a sigh when I finally find it.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a six second period of time that moves the avocado from superb fruit to brown-speckled, slightly soft, slightly watery, and definitely (defiantly) nauseating refuse. The trouble is one never knows when the six seconds might occur. Sometimes my salad with avocado is perfect twenty minutes after its creation; sometimes I can hardly finish making the salad before the avocado has all the consistency and much of the appearance of bird droppings. Once I froze a slice of avocado to see if this was perhaps a work-around. I don’t recommend it. After the six second transformation, the thing is a new thing, a much worse thing—in some ways the fruit equivalent of an evil thing.

In the end I think we must put the avocado in a special category. I believe that category is: Romance. There’s a come-hither quality to finding the perfect ripeness. There is a titillation of the appetite when eating that seems to go beyond taste and texture, the parts greater than the whole. There is a sense of triumph when your avocado is discovered among so many others. It is, for a while at least, richly rewarding to the successful suitor.

But there is the darker side of things. In my own romantic experience one can be seduced by a pretty face and firm flesh only to find there is more seed and rind than fruit; promise and potential can unfold eventually into studied carefulness, or worse, secret bitterness; and there can be wrenching change between first touch and last.

About all of my personal romances, I also have mixed feelings. On the other hand, I don’t regret a single one. I think we must all be optimists of some kind, for living a life seems grueling without avocado, without romance. Perhaps mixed feelings should be honored for what they are: our hearts looking for what’s next in the stack, though we have been disappointed before and will again; everything in our emotional architecture, good or ill, defiantly wagered on the touch of a moment; everything we desire pulling us forward in spite of the long, long odds against perfection.

The downside of desire…a prose poem


wanted to tell you how i eat the tootsie roll pops. it’s important. i take out a grape one, an orange one, a chocolate one, then a cherry one. that’s the order i like them, from least to best, cherry’s best. then i eat them in that order, till there’s a scattering of empty sticks with wrappers on the end across my bedside table. usually i only eat four. but sometimes i eat my four and i think: more. but when i think ‘more’ i don’t want to eat the grape and the orange ones, fuck the grape and the orange ones, i skip right to the chocolate and the cherry, sometimes fuck the chocolate, just cherry cherry cherry. after a while, though, i run out of cherry, have to eat grapeorangechocolate, then i run out of chocolate, have to eat grapeorange cause that’s all that’s left, and then i feel bereft and wonder about myself.

In our neighborhoods…

The Dog House Association Rules

A Flash Fiction by Leigh Allison Wilson

(New Flash Fiction, March 2015)

The ruckus began when the Beagles moved into the neighborhood. On that very first day the extended Beagle family gathered around the For Sale sign on their new front lawn. Within minutes two pups tore the bright red Sold ribbon from the sign and dashed across the grass, heedless of a mother’s languid remonstrations. Late into the night the many Beagles peed around the stake, defecated on the sidewalk, and barked obscenities to and fro with gusto.

The cats, for the most part indifferent to the activities of commoners like the Beagles, took umbrage. “Who among us,” the cats asked each other, “is without civic responsibilities?” All of us, they hissed angrily, unused to confabulation and confused by the negative. “The dogs are very bad.”

Dealings between cat and dog degenerated. The cats accused the Labs of thievery. This was true: they often roamed the neighborhood, picking up objects off of front lawns and taking them home to hide. Yet the Labs were an amicable clan, as inclined to bring objects as to take them, and the cats had more than once benefited from their friendly confusion. Nevertheless, the multi-ethnic colors of the Lab family—brown and yellow and black—did nothing to quiet the suspicions of the xenophobic cats.

The Association was formed. The cats elected a leader, a former alley-dwelling Tabby with a scar on one ear.  She had the unique ability to sleep through slanderous diatribes and then, as if electrified, to strike out at opponents ruthlessly just when they were feeling safe. Nevertheless the cats were confounded to discover that, although they were many, they were not a majority in the neighborhood. They needed allies.

The Gecko family, initially approached, would have none of the Association. They were recondite and quick thinkers, irritated by the clumsy feline overtures, and mindful of the many tails they had lost over the years to sportive cats of low IQ.

Disinclined, too, were the agoraphobic Goldfishes. Aloof, melancholy, haunted by a racial memory of small rooms and uncertain gods, they could place no hope in the idea of an association. Also, hemmed in as they were by invisible strictures, they were unable to attend any votes.

More promising were the Terriers. They had no allegiance to their own kind. Dogs they might be, but due to a contretemps no living Terrier even remembered, the family stubbornly feuded with all other dogs and had chips on their shoulders that could not be dislodged by supplication or blows to the head. Unfortunately for the cats, however, the Terriers were despised by the Hamsters, the Guinea-Pigs, the Gerbils. For every Terrier pro vote there would be a dozen nay votes from the rodents.

The cats fell to bickering among each other, tempers flared, an eye was lost. In the end they created The Dog House Association Rules without bothering to hold a vote. Many covenants, conditions and restrictions were contemplated, but the Association ultimately had just one rule: No dogs allowed.

Although the cats had not bothered with written rules, the entire neighborhood felt that something seemed to be in effect. The naturally gregarious dog families became subdued and listless, spoke very little, stared down at their feet, developed limps, appeared to enter old age, and finally one by one lumbered away from their homes, lost to all sense of belonging.

Afterwards there was a period in which the cats reveled in their success. They no longer awoke to the sight of an immense nose pressed against their windowpanes, or heard the late night howls of lovemaking, or glimpsed the gluttonous barbeques and the white canine smiles. All this was gone.

After a while the cats noticed that newcomers were swarming into the vacuum the dogs had left in the neighborhood. These interlopers had strange names. The Carpenter-Ants. The Termites. The numerous family members did not smile at all. They were small and did not shake hands. They were rarely seen, but when seen marched in perfect order. It was suspected that they were involved in underground construction, imbued with hungry purpose, kith and kin to no one and nothing.

The Way Mirrors Work

The Ledger

A Flash Fiction by Leigh Allison Wilson
(from wigleaf, January 2015)

I took to burying my allowance in our back yard. This was the summer of 1974, when there wasn’t enough money in the state of Tennessee to go around. Just to show you, my dad started taking a bag lunch to work instead of dropping by the Pig and Chick. My bank was a metal chocolate box stashed behind a stump in the back yard, three inches down and covered with leaves.

A nickel here, a nickel there—it didn’t add up to much. I kept a red pencil nub and some paper in there. I’d dig up the box, add a nickel, count the money, and then record the number on paper, worrying the bit of pencil between my teeth. I had no idea what I was saving for, didn’t want anything, but it seemed imperative that the money accumulate.

So I moved into stealing. My dad, okay, he looked like a ghost those days, took on a second job, and I put his wallet off limits. My mother was easy pickings, endless loose change at the bottom of her purse. Dad adored her, even gave her a J C Penney easy chair though he was eating pbj’s morning, noon and night. I let her keep the pennies except later I thought fuck it, and took those, too.

In church it turned out nobody guarded the collection after the deacons dumped it in the choir room. So I’d visit the bathroom, then grab a fistful on the way back to the pew where my family sat. That money was so sticky I’d wash it before it went into the bank box.

At the public pool mothers put their purses in a perfect line on a ledge of concrete, as if orderliness could protect them. Bang-bang down the row I could net three dollars in change just slouching by out of sight. One day, trolling for coins at the bottom of the wading pool, I yanked up a drowning toddler like a turnip. The mother, glad and guilty, wanted to give me some money, but I’d already taken all the change from her purse. She borrowed a dollar from the lifeguard.

My bank box filled up. I had to dig a deeper hole and put another candy box in there. And another. By the end of the summer I had two hundred dollars.

The day before school started my dad said, “Buddy, I’d like to speak to you man to man.” I said okay, since what else could I say? He looked terrible. I mean bad. Even his hair had no color any more.

I’ll save you the suspense. He started telling me about the house payment, and the car payment, and the cost of groceries going up week after week, and what it would take to get my oldest sister the band uniform, which was what she had her heart set on. He gave me the list in a drone as toneless as a cash register. It was killing him, this list of money going out. He got out a notebook to lay it all out for me.

Soon he had a whole page filled with figures, fingers scrabbling to get it all down. And then I saw the red pencil. It was nothing but a nub and had tooth marks on it, just like mine. It was blunt from tracing all those numbers, just like mine. I put my head in close to see better: it was mine. That’s what this was about. He’d found my bank.

“I’m sorry about this, Buddy,” he said, “but there’s no other way to make this work.” He took the pencil nub and wrote, I owe Buddy Bodell 200 dollars that I stole on September 4, 1974. His face was a white fist of ignominy, and it was a mirror of my own—except I had barely begun my entry into the terrible balance sheet of duty and dereliction that this world can be.

That was that. I stopped stealing. I took a job at the Pig and Chick and brought home leftover BBQ on Wednesday nights. I quit taking an allowance, burned the IOU. Every once in a while I had a swig of beer from my dad’s bottle.

From then on I used pens and not pencils, and I never buried another thing until the day he died.

The Joys of the Smallest Gesture

The Five Different Ways They Died

A Flash Fiction by Leigh Allison Wilson
(From Smokelong Quarterly, Issue 42, Volume 3, 2013)

There were very few in the family who could now remember the legendary Belkin boys, but Ida Belkin Franklin was one who could. At eighty-nine she’d forgotten plenty, but the ghostly and half-remembered antics of the Belkin boys figured often in her midnight reveries. The boys hadn’t really been boys—they’d been Ida’s great-uncles, men in their fifties when she was a child, famous for gambling and whoring and moonshining, reputed to carry diseases, known to carry concealed weapons, taken at intervals into custody for their busy criminalities. They were large, dark men, handsome when clean.

Billy Belkin, the youngest, was the first to go. Fate, as capricious as the boys, decided to bowl the brothers in reverse order. At a roadhouse one early evening a stranger bet Billy he couldn’t beat the old Southern from Atlanta when it crossed the county road at midnight. “Across and back,” the stranger had said. Drunk, Billy made it across, but not back. Ida, five years old, wondered how you lost a bet like that: a man could step across the rails and back a thousand times between dinner and midnight and never know danger. Billy once gave Ida a fresh tangerine, back when citrus from Florida didn’t often make it to Tennessee. She treasured it so long it spoiled and she didn’t actually taste a tangerine until she was thirty-two. Ida supposed that Billy would not have allowed himself the patience of watching a tangerine spoil.

Jimbo Belkin, who made the best moonshine, died the next year. A man of some means, but too prone to sample his own business assets, Jimbo crashed almost a dozen cars, including several Ford Model Ts, a big Hupmobile, as well as a sleek Packard that he bragged about long after it was gone and did not recollect convolving with a tree. The powers that be took away his license. At last he traded twenty jugs of his finest for a tractor named Alamedie, which he modified by adding a cabin made of two-by-fours and some oilcloth in case of bad weather. He seemed to fall in love with Alamedie. On Ida’s sixth birthday Jimbo took her out for a drive along the county roadways, letting her hold Alamedie’s wheel on the straights while he puffed on cigars and waved at women on their porches. By her seventh birthday Jimbo had drowned, locked in an embrace with Alamedie who overturned on him in a drainage ditch during a storm. It took three men and a mule to pull the tractor off him, and Jimbo’s funeral was well attended, particularly by unaccompanied women who did not seem to grieve much.

Right after that Pappy and Pinkus Belkin died in a strange sort of tandem. Pappy smothered under the butt of a monkey he won in a card game—passed out one night and the creature sat on his face, perhaps misunderstanding how to ask for food. Within a month Pinkus, who lived in Pappy’s basement, vowed to renovate the house in honor of his brother, although this was against the wishes of Pappy’s wife. He climbed the ridgepole of the roof, stood to adjust his trousers, and then pitched over the side of the house before, according to Pappy’s wife, you could say “Boo.” Neither man had ever had much to say to Ida in particular, or children in general, or in truth anyone anywhere except each other. It was felt that since one had died, it was honorable of fate to grab the other one, too, for eternity could last a long time without conversation.

The last of the brothers was the oldest, Howt Belkin. Howt was unremarkable, a kind and dreamy man whom no one missed if he wasn’t there and no one noticed if he was. He lived to be a very old man and died peacefully in bed, reading a book.

Once, when she was five, Ida had strolled out onto Pappy’s porch after a big family dinner and found Howt nodding on the swing there. She tucked herself up beside him, he put an arm around her, and the two fell asleep like that. It was summer and time that afternoon elongated somehow, like taffy being pulled.

Eighty-four years later Howt was the only legendary Belkin boy Ida remembered with absolute clarity. Not the loud and storied brothers. Just Howt. Dreamy Howt. The way his heart had beaten. The swing moving in a graceful adagio. The shush of insects. The little yelps from dogs dreaming in the dirt. The smell of sweet honeysuckle. The way her Uncle Howt had been able to keep so still.