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Short-Order Fiction

Quick lines from Vermont writers

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Shorts are what you think of wearing in hot weather, and frankly, we like reading shorts, too. So we assigned small stories -- no more than 400 words! -- to seven local writers, and insisted they include the following phrases: "the slap of her flip-flops"; "slick sunscreen" and "dry dog food." Seven utterly different stories is what we got . . .

My Big Fish Tail

BY NANCY STEARNS BERCAW

The last time I made any money was the summer of 1926 -- the same year Harry Houdini died after a fan supposedly punched him in the gut. Since then, I have only eaten dry dog food because it's all I can afford.

Anyway, I used to be the star attraction in "Mr. Fidget's Odd Assortment of Misfits" on Coney Island. I was billed as "The Loveless Mermaid" because an extra layer of scaly skin fused my entire lower torso into a fin that shimmered like slick sunscreen. "And due to my situation," Mr. Fidget delicately explained to every ticket buyer, "I was unable to have relations."

Just before opening the curtain, Mr. Fidget liked to tease the crowd. "Why does the Mermaid wear sea shells?" he'd shout. "Because B shells would be too small!" As the drapes were drawn, the crowd would gasp at the sight of my conchs -- two huge, pink shells that Mrs. Fidget had affixed to my large breasts -- and gulp at the first glimpse of my big fish tail. Everything ran like clockwork for years, until the hottest day in history. With the mercury reaching 101 degrees, the sweaty audience that day inadvertently got a peep show as well as a freak show. The extreme temperature had caused my left conch to become unglued and the shell was dangling from my nipple on a gooey string of melted adhesive.

Before I could hop away, an enraged lady leapt over the velvet rope and slapped furiously at my conchs with the big heavy shoes favored in that era. My breasts swelled to sideshow proportions and I was hospitalized for massive edema. (Had the incident happened in the '70s, of course, the slap of her flip-flops probably wouldn't have affected me as much.) The doctors offered to defuse my legs for free. I knew it would cost me a living as a mermaid, but it might afford me the opportunity not to be loveless.

What none of us realized until after the surgery was that my extra skin had been protecting a pair of extra sensitive feet. Once exposed, my toes burned like hot coals with each step. I never worked again and love never found its way to the hovel I called home for the next 50 years. But now that I'm on my last legs, I wanted you to know the real truth. Houdini actually died of complications from appendicitis. There was nothing fishy about it.

Nancy Stearns Bercaw is a mermaid who turned into a mother when push came to shove.

Mary Ann and Tom, Bar Harbor, 1974

BY EMILY RINKEMA

Look at them, standing on the dock. The way her fingers catch the hem of her shorts, nerves maybe, that anticipatory feeling she gets in her stomach early in the morning when the air is just too cold for summer and the fog comes off the water like breath. She's not smiling, just a glint of something in her eyes, like dew. Her hair is pulled back, a blue bandanna tied loosely over it, and she looks straight into the camera, so that her eyes follow me even when I move the picture. He stands next to her, his hand on her back. He has John Lennon glasses and curly hair and is looking at her like he just thought of something, like it just occurred to him.

If I concentrate hard on the picture -- look through the grainy finish and ignore the crack that crosses beneath their feet like a fissure, stop my eyes from focusing, and block out the noise of the last thirty years -- I can almost hear the slap of her flip-flops as she crosses the beach, and smell the slick sunscreen she spreads so carefully on my small back as I stand in anticipation of the same summer day, wanting only to be let go, to be released from the grip that now I would trade the next decade to feel again. And if I close my eyes, I can hear her say, "Don't go far," and feel the warmth of her hand as she sends me off, the pebbles crunching beneath my feet like dry dog food, believing erroneously that she will always be there when I turn around.

Emily Rinkema teaches English at Champlain Valley Union High School and spends her summers reading and writing.

What Weather

BY DAVID CAVANAGH

Rain. Sheets of it sheering diagonally along the street like soldiers marching double time. Bouncing off the pavement like grease off a griddle, or little kids hopping barefoot on a hot beach. No idea why the Chief insisted she go buy dry dog food. Iams.

The Damned Dog. Lived like a sheik. She swore the Dog wore sunglasses on days like this. Thought he was Leonard Cohen, cutting cool against the grain. Front paws up on the window sill. The Damned Dog loved a parade, even if it was just rain.

The Oval. She marched into it. Desktop bare and slick as a speech. Nobody home. Platoons of rain slashed past the window.

"Home," she said aloud.

"What?"

"You are here! Sir?"

"Here, behind the desk. Damn reading glasses. Threw them down somewhere -- that brief about poverty causing terrorism."

"I think we should bring them all home."

"Poverty! We've got poverty. They oughta look at how we handle poverty!"

"Soon as possible. Too much dying."

"Can't do it. We need them over there so . . . just like the poverty . . . we need . . .

"Phases. We can do it in phases."

"If everybody was home safe, thinking . . . well, no telling. Heck of a thing, the dying an' all, but that's the price. I cry every night for those boys. And girls. Women. Whatever. Every night. I pray and I cry. Don't believe me, ask the Dog. Did you get the Iams?"

"The Damned Dog."

"What? Now look. You can't mouth off like that, especially here. Especially when somebody's in here. Like now."

"Gotta run. Sir."

"Wait. Don't you want to come behind the desk and help me find my glasses?"

Suitcase. The one she kept in her office. Lime-green flip-flops. Felt great between the toes. Tube of SPF 30. All over her face and arms. Gobs of it. And lime-green shades. In the long mirror, she grinned at her new uniform. Bizarro beach marine.

Then the rain. The luscious, dancing rain. The slap of her flip-flops as she ran -- like kids' firecrackers on the Fourth, like clapping. Her face turned up to the wet, the slick sunscreen running into her eyes, the sting and tears of it. Fine, she thought, fine. Then laughing, Iam!

One look back. The Damned Dog -- gone from the window.

David Cavanagh is a Burlington poet living in a short fiction that's under heavy construction.

In the Soup

BY ELIZABETH INNESS-BROWN

Oh, how his heart ached with love and loss. It was all he could do to keep going, keep moving through the soup of life. The warm soup like the soup she used to make for him, littered with vegetables cut up into little cubes. "You need to eat something wholesome," she said. "It's no wonder you can't sleep at night."

And now she was gone, and he was in the soup, wandering through the blur of broth and bumping into the things that floated there. He had never believed his heart would break so, could break so -- after all, for so many years he had thought he hated her, all those years she was the thorn in his side, the conscience that would not let him be; all those years he could tell without looking at her that she was disappointed in him, passing judgment on him, the slap of her flip-flops on the kitchen floor, her wordless judgment much more punishing than anything he had ever heard from either of his parents; all those years he had hated her, or so he believed, and so had withheld from her any sign of affection, punishing her for the way she made him feel.

But had she after all been judging him, or had she simply been a mirror to his own self-flagellation, reflecting for his viewing pleasure his own sense of guilt and insufficiency? For now she was gone, and he found that she was the one he loved, and himself the one he hated.

He turned a corner and ran into a piece of diced carrot disguised as a man. "Excuse me," he said, and the carrot said, "Excuse you?" as if there could be no excusing. "I didn't mean . . ." he said, and the carrot, with a mouth like that of a fish on a hook, said something like Bah!, and paddled on, leaving behind an oily spot like slick sunscreen. Was this, then, the beach? No, it was the grocery store -- he recognized the long, lonely canals, the navigation of carts, the synchronized swim of consumption. Soda pop, diapers, dry dog food, cheese. What had he come in for? Had he even come in? Or had he always been here, just floating down the aisle, alone and uncertain? Now that she was gone. The love in his heart. Nothing else left. In the soup.

Elizabeth Inness-Brown, author of the novel Burning Marguerite and two books of stories, lives in South Hero with her husband and son and teaches writing at St. Michael's College.

Or Something

BY TYRONE SHAW

I wanted to kill the prick. It was the last tune at this prim-ass wedding, I had a big-time rendezvous with destiny and our sax player was trying to be Coltrane, stretching out the goddamn "Hokey Pokey." The "Hokey Pokey," for crissakes.

About that rendezvous: I had heard her before I even laid eyes on her -- the slap of her flip-flops distracting me as I was tuning up. Floating past me, she flashed a dazzling smile. The rich are not like us: They have perfect teeth.

Halfway through the first set, I saw her across the deck slathering slick sunscreen on herself. Her arms were covered with that downy fluff many blondes have, and it always drives me nuts. Besides, she stared straight at me, with a dreamy little half-smile.

"Come over when you're finished," she said during a break. "I'm at the end of the point, the green house. Maybe we'll go for a swim. Or something."

Or something. I couldn't pack up fast enough, but still it was almost ten before I got there. She still wore that skimpy cotton dress, and I caught a whiff of Coppertone and something else I couldn't place.

When I stepped through the door, she kissed me. It was wet and quick, but long enough for me to notice her breath, which was bad, real bad. Kind of like rotting meat. "Don't go 'way," she said as she walked to the bathroom. "Help yourself to a beer. I'm going to freshen up."

The kitchen was bare, the fridge empty save for half a can of Pard dog food and a six-pack of Corona. I absently opened a cupboard above the stove: just six bags of dry dog food. Purina. The other cabinets were empty. The only dishes were on the floor, one empty, the other half filled with water.

I sat on the couch, closed my eyes and must've dozed off, because the next thing I knew she was striding toward me in a terrycloth robe loosely cinched at the waist. Her nose was wet. Again that smile as she plopped herself on my lap. I tried to be nonchalant. "So where's the dog?" I asked.

She leaned forward and I braced myself for another kiss, but instead she licked my forehead and growled softly, "I don't have a dog."

Tyrone Shaw teaches at Johnson State College and lives in East Fairfield.

Breakdown Lane

BY ERIK ESCKILSEN

As Seth waited for a mechanic, he tried to imagine a venue where he was a bigger disappointment than in a garage. He couldn't. Utterly lacking a vehicular vocabulary, he only confused mechanics when explaining automotive symptoms, and he always got in their way. Today he felt especially doltish, standing around in shorts, sandals and a muscle shirt. Only a coat of slick sunscreen could've made him feel more out of place.

And only his wife, Debbie, could've been more peeved -- as the distant but pointed slap of her flip-flops reminded him. She'd insisted he get the car checked out before they embarked on their family vacation. Seth had said he would, but never did. And now this. The sight of his children, Matt and Tessa, playing with their Chihuahua on the lawn separating the repair shop from a McDonald's only reinforced the notion that each vacation moment lost was a cherished family memory of which he'd robbed them.

The restroom door opened across the garage, and a woman wearing mechanic's coveralls emerged. Spotting Seth, she strode to his car, set a boot on the front bumper and, in the same fluid motion, reached into the tangle of hoses, wires and grime-covered metal beneath the open hood. She appeared to be in her mid- to late twenties, with a curtain of long brown hair parted in the middle and tied back. Seth read the name "Renee" stitched across her breast. "Service manager says you just lost power," she said, giving something a yank.

"Yes, that's right," Seth mustered above a faint, despairing whine. Was he so automotively illiterate that a woman -- a mere girl, really -- could do what he could not, get his family back on the road? Some provider he turned out to be!

Renee slid her boot from the bumper. "OK, then," she said and pulled a wrench from her pocket. She turned to Seth, then cast a furtive glance around the garage. "This one's an easy fix," she said. With a flip of the wrench, she beckoned him closer. "I'll show you. Save you a trip next time."

Seth advanced, hesitating at the crunch of dry dog food beneath his sandals. He traced a vague trail of pellets from the car to his kids and their pet.

"Seriously," Renee said.

Seth looked up.

The mechanic winked. "It's a piece of cake."

Erik Esckilsen is the author of two novels for teen readers, The Last Mall Rat and Offsides. A third, The Outside Groove, is forthcoming in spring 2006.

2015 A.D.

BY MICHAEL J. NEDELL

When President Jeb Bush made art illegal (Bill 609-AT), I thought it was a joke. I mean, sure, art could be subversive, but to declare it illegal seemed downright drastic. I don't know. I never considered myself very political, and besides, I always thought my main art form was the way I lived -- everything I did touched with beauty and grace -- and they couldn't take that away from me.

I did notice my friends disappearing, though. It had been weeks since I'd seen anyone I knew.

One sufferingly hot day I applied the necessary layer of 98 SPF lotion and headed to my local bar, the Five Needs (they bumped it up from three to five after 2012). The slick sunscreen on my skin in the baking sun made me feel like a big, walking, self-basting turkey.

I missed my friends and wanted to drown my sorrows, so I sat at the bar and ordered a beer. Shortly, a woman came and sat next to me. She ordered a beer, took one sip, and then turned to me. "All my friends are disappearing," she said.

"Holy shit!" I said. "That's exactly what's happened to me!"

Her name was Sophie and we sat, talked and got good and drunk together. At closing time I offered to walk her home, and we started up College Street to her apartment. The slap of her flip-flops kept time to the music of our drunken conversation.

When we reached her place she invited me in, warning me of her dog at the door. "He jumps," she said. And, sure enough, her poodle jumped all over me as I stepped inside. She went into the bathroom, telling me to make myself at home. I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water, but I couldn't find the light switch and ended up kicking the poodle's bowl of dry dog food all over the floor.

Sophie came in and turned on the light and we both speechlessly observed the mess. The dog food had spilled into wild patterns -- wavy lines and spirals. "That's beautiful," she said.

"It was just an accident," I insisted.

Just then her front door burst open and five men in dark suits rushed in and grabbed me. I tried to fight them off, but one of them must have tasered me, because everything suddenly went black.

Michael J. Nedell is a fiction and poetry writer living in Burlington.

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