Mixed Feelings

Mixed Feelings

An Essay.

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.

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.

Unromancing the stone

by Leigh Allison /wilson

(From flashquake)

Every story is true and a lie. My mother tells a story about the love of her life. It’s a simple one, but she always cries when she tells it and looks right through me, as though I hadn’t been born. Something about the detail makes me feel there’s a sadness in the world that will last until the rushing crack of doom.

It goes like this: In the forties, when she was a teenaged girl in Tennessee, my mother fell in love with the boy next door. That same year the government decided to build dams all over the state. As if some crazy rainstorm had come and gone, pristine new lakes puddled the landscape from Knoxville to Memphis. One lake formed right over my mother’s hometown—people lost their homes, lost their businesses, their graveyards, their farmland and, in some cases, their hearts. On the night before the government moved everybody out of her hometown my mother and the love of her life, this boy next door, made love in my mother’s bedroom. Her parents were at a prayer meeting, praying for dry land, I guess, like Noah. This boy was sweet, was kind, was smart and generous and lovely to look at; this boy was the love of her life. He moved with his family to Texas the next day and she never saw him again.

Except: Once a year she rents a rowboat and goes out on the lake that has drowned her old hometown. She drops a penny over the side, right over the place where her old house must be. Fifty years, fifty pennies. She imagines them drifting downward, all those pennies, drifting through the murky lake water, startling the catfish and bullhead, each penny listing into the open window of her bedroom and falling at last onto the pillow where she once lay with her head against the love of her life, the boy next door. She imagines their ghost love showered by pennies; she imagines this love beyond all loves glittering with gold. Then she rows back to shore and back to my father and me and the life that can’t compete with memory.

Every story is true and a lie. The true part of this one is, Love and the memory of love can’t be drowned. The lie part is that this is a good thing.

A Fall Tale

A Flash Fiction

Apparently someone was poisoning Jenkins. It was a national election year, one side promising the earth, the other side giving them hell. But all through that campaign we were concerned about Jenkins, the poor bastard, who seemed to be dying in inches.

In the middle of the March primaries, his wife gave us a call, told us to come on down and be quick about it—Jenkins had had it, would be dead by Easter. We loaded into a car that night, driving south, and the next morning we were in our raggedy hometown at Jenkins’s place, a two-bedroom shotgun that needed a coat of paint. The guy had come down in the world.

At the door his wife whispered, “He’s feeling a little better now.”

“Jenkins,” we told him, crowding against his gurney-sized bed, “you look great. Man, you haven’t looked better. Fire your doctor, buddy, get a golf coach.”

Jenkins himself mouthed something, but who could hear him in all the excitement? Truth was, he looked yellow, yellow as a summer squash, and just as feeble. In the car back north we all agreed something was undoubtedly wrong with Jenkins, maybe even some kind of poison, though there was no getting around the fact that he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the marquee. When the shoe factory bit the dust and the union folded, Jenkins had lacked the gumption to bounce back. Maybe the guy was dying of terminal dimness.

In July, during the conventions, we got another frantic message from his wife: Jenkins had one foot in the grave; this was the end. Some of us had the idea that maybe Jenkins’s wife was a hysteric, and how could that be good for a man in his condition? Still, you couldn’t just ignore a plea like that forever, so down we drove again. This go round we took our time, saw some Civil War battlefields, caught a Redskins game, and pulled into the burnt outskirts of our hometown on a perfect summer day. Jenkins had moved into a trailer on cinderblocks, something about his unemployment running out. There was a dead chicken in his driveway.

“How you been, pal?” we asked him.

“Been better,” Jenkins murmured.

“Jesus, buddy, you sound like an old woman. What you need is some fresh air.”

So we hauled Jenkins out of his bed and put him in a lawn chair on the patch of grass out front, angling his chair away from the view of that dead chicken in the driveway. His wife took a picture, all of us standing around behind Jenkins, Jenkins himself grinning a death’s-head grin from his chair, looking like an experiment with teeth. Why couldn’t the guy act normal for once? Who wants a picture like that? When we headed north we were unanimous on one score: Jenkins was a bit of a putz and, though we were sorry to say it, a whiner to boot.

In early November we got word that Jenkins was about to kick the bucket, fall off the twig, buy the farm. Nobody else wanted to go down. We all had jobs to show up to. Jenkins was unreliable. We’d done enough, been there, done that, all that jazz. But I went. The election had reached a fever pitch, too close for anybody to call.

I took a last cruise around the stomping grounds. Where the old grade school had been was a line-up of fast food joints, the trees beside them blackened with the soot of fried meat. I found myself cooling my heals in a little parking lot off Main Street, behind one of two gas stations that still plugged away. On the radio the latest exit polls had everything neck and neck and the winner anybody’s guess.

By the time I got to Jenkins’s trailer that night it was completely dark, so dark it’s possible I wasn’t even at the right place. I made a half-hearted attempt to remember the Jenkins I’d known as a kid, but the fact of the matter was, I couldn’t remember that Jenkins. It made me wonder if there had ever been another Jenkins, since the only version I could conjure was the poisoned one, the dying one, the whiner, the loser. My old friend. They were already announcing some hard numbers in the early results and I hunched forward, all ears in the dark, to find out what would happen next.

A summer flash fiction


One August night my sister, Julie, saved my life by mistake. It was a summer of troubles—our mother was about to run off with a still-life painter and our father, who never got over it, was about to play right field for a sanitarium softball team. But we didn’t know any of that yet. My sister and I weren’t speaking, hadn’t said a word to each other since the second week of June. Granted, I’d scorched the hem of her junior prom dress after setting a small fire in the closet we shared, but the stain almost came out with bleach and anyway, she’d borrowed the dress from somebody else.

I set twenty-two fires that summer, mostly in the woods back of the house, a couple in the new housing development they were building down the street, though I only got caught for the closet one. The day Julie saved my life I set a beauty of a blaze in the front seat of an abandoned car on Mr. Gaultney’s farm. “Got damn it,” I yelled, jigging like a savage in the next field, “Got damn it!” At home in bed I wondered whether the furnace in our basement would explode like that in contact with a lit match, whether a timer would work so that you could be playing basketball at the park when it all happened. I sucked on a big marble, daring myself to swallow it, wondering about the furnace.

Julie and I shared a bedroom and hated it. Four years and seven months separated our birthdays. She thought I was a dirty tomboy, a loser, a little shit. I thought she was a girly girl halfwit, trying all the time to be like everybody else, only cooler. All of her sentences started with, “One of these days…”and ended with “leave this place forever” or “be somebody famous” or “kill you.” Still, for weeks she hadn’t said a word to me, even when our parents went at it in hammer-and-tong fights across the hall. In bed that night I sucked on my marble and pondered high explosives. I could hear Julie breathe, the sound like twigs clicking together. Things needed to be shaken up.

I eased out of bed, crouched on the floor of the bedroom with my nightgown hiked up around my waist. I wasn’t sure what my game plan was, but I kept so motionless even the marble didn’t move against my tongue. After a while I moved a few inches forward on all fours. Grit from the floorboards pricked my palms. Something, maybe my own heart at work, made the air pulse and flicker around me. I moved another few inches. Straight ahead I could see Julie’s profile against the white of her pillow, her nose and chin exactly like mine, which was weird. I tongued the marble onto the back of my throat, crawled a little closer to Julie’s bed. Maybe it was all that business about her prom dress. Maybe it was the thought of the furnace exploding right under her bed. That nose and chin like mine disintegrating into little pricking pieces. Whatever: six inches from her pillow I decided to swallow the marble.

It was a fat marble, a cat’s eye, and it caught halfway down my throat. I couldn’t breathe, I scrabbled at the air around my face with one hand, I tried to speak but couldn’t. Suddenly she sat up in her bed, her eyes wild with rage, and gave me a sharp thwack on the back. It dislodged the marble, which I spit on the floor.

“One of these days,” she sputtered, “one of these days somebody’s gonna kill you, you little shit.”

She stared at me with those raging eyes and I stared back, frozen in astonishment. After what seemed a lifetime, she lay down on the bed and I crawled backwards to my own bed. Soon after that our parents started it up across the hall, smacking each other in the middle of the night, a drawn-out shameful brawl. I knew Julie was awake. She knew I was awake. We didn’t say anything. But everything was going to be different between us, that much was certain. I knew I’d not set another fire or swallow another marble or say another dangerous, mean-spirited word to my sister.

When the building is burning, people have to take their lives into their own hands.