Marci and I run through the streets of Montmartre, drunk. Rain falls, turning the streetlights of Paris blurry against the dusk-time sky. Marci is barefoot, shoes in her hands, the streets too slick for high heels.
She seems particularly exuberant, and I like it. She’s been moody of late. Lecturing. But between then and now there’d been wine, which frees her soul like a bacchanal celebrant. It’s enough to make me forgive her incessant texting at each pub we’ve visited today.
We had started our day at a lunchtime writers’ social that took place at a restaurant atop Montmartre. The party was full of boring fellow writers who’d brought their big dreams with them to Paris, Hemingways every one of them. Marci had made me go. Good for you to network. Some publishers will be there too, Noel. Ha! At least there’d been plenty of booze. Wine. Beer. Spirits aplenty. Such tipple helps to fend off all the obligatory ‘how’s your writing going?’ and ‘have you published?’ remarks.
Such things bother me when I’m sober, but hours of steady drinking have alleviated that, and as I run with Marci, I feel good. Everything seems pre-ordained and possible when you’re drunk.
“Oh look, Darling, a little cat,” says Marci. I don’t bother to look. We’ve been playing this game all day.
“Let’s just go into the pub.”
“Oh, you,” she says. “Play the game.”
“Fine.” I look around. “What cat? I don’t see any — ”
“She must have gone into that bar. Come on, let’s go in.”
Marci loves cats, and when she read Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain, she made up a game where she sees them around the streets of Paris. Today they always appear outside the doors of brasseries or pubs. I don’t really mind, I’m always rewarded with a drink inside.
We go in and I hear someone call Marci’s name. Marci’s eyes brighten and she pulls me along.
“Who the hell?” I whisper.
“Come on, it’s someone I want you to meet.”
“Is this who you’ve been texting all day?”
“Yes, now move.”
The man stands when we approach his table and holds out his hand to Marci. “Nice to finally meet you,” he says. “He then turns to me, hand held out like a hatchet. “Blake Vaughn,” he says, “Scrimshaw Publishing.”
We shake. We sit. We order drinks. My merciful bourbon arrives and helps to quell the queasy feeling that is growing inside me.
“Sorry I couldn’t make the social,” Blake tells us. “Crappy day. But hey, this worked out fine. So, Marci, shall we tell him the good news.”
“Sure,” says Blake. “On behalf of Scrimshaw, I’m pleased to say that we’d like to buy Streets of Paris.”
“Of course. I’ll forward you all the details via email, but Marci thought it would be nice for you to hear it in person, and well, since I was in town.”
“But, I didn’t submit it.”
“Oh, Noel,” says Marci. “I sent it. You’ve been worrying over that thing for a year since you finished it. Time to get it out there.”
“But it’s not done.”
“Well, I’d say it is,” says Blake. “Everyone thought it was brilliant. Consider yourself lucky. We don’t usually read unsoliciteds. But, Marci was convincing, and well, friend of a friend, you know.”
“Noel, don’t be mad. This is what you wanted. Take it. It’s time. And lord knows you need the money.”
Ouch, that stung. The grant that brought me to Paris to write has long since run out, and I’ve been living off Marci and her family’s good graces.
“I know this can be overwhelming,” says Blake. “Just look for my email, and think it over. No rush. But on that note, I’ve got to go.”
Blake pays and leaves. Marci smiles at me.
“Don’t be mad, Noel.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you wouldn’t have sent it.”
“I would when it was ready.”
“Didn’t you hear him? It is ready. Let it go. Start another one. Every single word doesn’t have to be perfect.”
“Jesus, Noel, you haven’t even done anything to that manuscript in months. All we do is eat and drink and carry on like…”
“I don’t know, like you’re trying to be Hemingway or something.”
“Maybe I am.”
“Well, write like him, and stop drinking like the old sot for a change.”
“Great. A lecture.”
“Noel, I love you, but I’m tired of going on like this.” She stands.
“Where are you going?”
“Home. You can come if you want.”
“Hmph. Think I’ll hang here a bit. Looks like I’ve got a lot to think about.”
She leaves. Through the blurry windows I see her hail a cab and she is gone.
After a few moments I decide I don’t like the air in this place, so I go out and walk through the rain for a little while. At length I come to another pub. In the window is a little cat. I laugh in spite of myself. It’s the only god-damned real one we’ve seen all day. As I go into the pub, the refreshing scent of stale alcohol greets me.
Marci doesn’t know that I’ve stolen a good bit of Streets of Paris from others, taken freely the words and sentences of long dead writers languishing in obscure novels. My plan had been to turn those phrases into something I could call my own eventually, but the task has proven difficult. Perhaps I took up a crutch that never should have been used. But my mind, these days, is no longer sharp. Even my hands shake sometimes. Whatever, it will all come out soon enough. Who knows how much I will lose. The deal, certainly. My reputation. Perhaps Marci as well.
Still dripping rainwater, I approach the bar and order a drink. Outside, the streets of Paris echo with a million stories that I’ll never know or tell.
Christopher Owen lives in Texas with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared at Daily Science fiction, Mirror Dance, Mystic Signals and other places. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop and the Yale Summer Writers’ Conference.
The morning my grandpa died, during the summer I turned eleven, I stumbled from my grandparents’ small cabin to Grandma’s car for a confused six a.m. ride to the hospital, my overweight grandfather already pale blue and slumped against his seat belt. In the back seat, holding the bulky car phone to my ear as Grandma drove, I spoke to the ambulance paramedics: “We just passed the fire station, can you meet us somewhere? Now we’re by a grocery store — Grandma, where are we?”
Just before bedtime about a month later, in that same cabin, my grandma stood quietly before the cuckoo clock that had hung silent since that trip to the hospital. The pink enamel of her clipped nails shuddered against the hanging chains of the clock as she reached for the black iron weights, pulled her arms back, reached out again and paused. “Dale?”
“Yeah, Grandma?” I sat on my bed in the room behind her, watching her instead of reading. My room was the same first-story bedroom my mom had grown up in, the same room from which I had retrieved the unopened Father’s Day card to slide into Grandpa’s coffin.
Grandma turned and stepped through the bedroom doorway. “I need to ask you something.”
She sat down on the twin bed across from me. Her fine hands fell to her lap but never stopped moving, like small birds – just as they would settle, one atop the other, they would lift up and re-settle the same way, again and again.
I pulled one of my knees up onto the bed and looked at the woman who volunteered five days a week at a soup kitchen because she just didn’t know what to do with retirement; who cussed under her breath at church before smiling and shaking hands with people who talked to her like she was stupid; who had whispered “Close your eyes” as she pulled a steak knife out of my forearm after I fell with it in my hand, lodging it there. “What is it, Grandma?”
“I need you to set the cuckoo clock. For eight in the morning.”
I glanced over at the clock I had seen a thousand times, the one Grandpa had brought back from Switzerland after World War 2: the meticulously carved oak shaped into a house, the delicate plank where a wooden cuckoo flitted out on the hour, the dangling chains and the iron weights shaped like pinecones hanging from them. “But I don’t really know how.”
Her hazel eyes darted to the floor, then back up to my face, the corners of her mouth trembling. “I can tell you. I’ll tell you how.”
I sat forward. “Can’t you do it?”
Her eyes shone glossy as she swallowed hard, turning to the clock, her head tilted up like one of the figures in the church’s stained glass windows. “Your grandpa used to do it. He used to pull the chains just before bed, last thing. And I know how, but when I go to, it reminds me that his hands aren’t here to do it.” She sniffled as I thought of Grandpa being pulled from the car by the paramedics, his blue face, limp arms. Grandma pushed her lips into a weak smile. “It’s fine. It’s just been strange to go through days without it chiming.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her lips barely parted. “Let’s get to bed now.”
We each stood and I kissed her cheek. She flipped the light switch off on her way out and went to lock the back door.
“Goodnight,” I said, my gaze on her from the soft darkness just beyond the open bedroom door. “See you in the morning.”
“Goodnight,” she said. She paused at the staircase — her face in light but heart falling under shadow — and her wet eyes flickered back to the cuckoo clock, the brittle wooden borders of the roof. Then she put a hand on the wobbly banister and walked slowly up the dark stairs.
A few minutes after Grandma creaked into the shadows of her bedroom, I rose from the bed and moved out into the hallway. In the heavy darkness before the cuckoo clock, I reached for the fine chains with shaking fingers — picturing all the times I had seen Grandpa raise and lower each wrought iron weight — and tugged gently, letting go of those that felt taut, pulling further those that gave way.
Austin Eichelberger is happily still teaching English and writing in New Mexico. His fiction has appeared in Cease, Cows, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Gone Lawn, Extract(s), Eclectic Flash, First Stop Fiction, and others. More of his writing lives at austineichelberger.wordpress.com.
The Andersons spent spring break ogling breathtaking vistas at the Columbia River Gorge. On the fifth day of ogling, little Jeremy swallowed a breathtaking vista. Nothing ogle-worthy remained. A few scraps of bark and the occasional puddle. This embarrassed Mr. Anderson.
“Spit that out right this minute,” he said, slapping the back of his son’s head. Angry tourists and their guides surrounded the Andersons, their cameras threatening to become clubs.
“I can’t,” said little Jeremy, “I’m all blocked up with serene beauty.” His breath smelled of waterfalls.
This only angered Mr. Anderson more. He was a practical man; tucked in, belted, combed over. He wasn’t a fan of flowery language, and he certainly wasn’t about to apply it to his son, who, with his mangled teeth and horse nose, had somehow bypassed the Law of Universal Cuteness in children his age. “Listen to what I tell you,” Mr. Anderson said.
“Listen to what your father tells you,” Mrs. Anderson said.
“Listen to what your parents tell you,” the angry tourists said.
The boy belched pine needles.
A shortish man in khakis approached the Andersons. “As a representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society,” he said, “I am obliged to take your son into custody until such a time as he relinquishes possession of said breathtaking vista. These folks have come from all corners of the world to ogle this particular breathtaking vista. Our economy depends upon such ogling.”
Mr. Anderson grabbed his son and thrust him into the air. “Step back or the kid eats the gift shop!”
A few tourists fainted. The representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society screamed.
“Let him gobble it up,” said the gift shop manager, a moled woman with a lunch lady physique. “Who wants to buy tee shirts and key chains and velvet paintings depicting a breathtaking vista that doesn’t exist?” Half the tourists thrashed into their oversized plastic shopping bags, hunting for receipts.
The representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society took a few steps toward the Andersons, who were backing away with their hostage breathtaking vista child. “Can’t we reason this out?”
“What’s to reason?” asked Mr. Anderson. “Don’t think I’m not tanning his hide when we get home.”
“Can I take a look at him?”
“He’s hardly breathtaking.” Mr. Anderson shoved his kid forward.
“Open your mouth there, boy.”
Jeremy looked back at his dad.
“Do as the nice man says, Jeremy,” said Mrs. Anderson.
Jeremy did as the nice man said. The representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society stuck a finger in the boy’s mouth and peeked inside: the hawks were circling over the ancient trees, breathtakingly. “It’s all there,” he said. “A nice place to visit, a better place to bring home in the form of tee shirts, key chains, and velvet paintings. Take a look everyone, and don’t forget your cameras. Single file!”
The tourists shrugged and lined up in front of the boy. An old couple on their second honeymoon was first — they took turns stretching Jeremy’s mouth and pointing at the nature down his throat.
“Ma,” mumbled Jeremy, “I sick. Don’ like dis.”
“Shut up,” said the tourist. “My wife can’t see the mountains.”
Mr. Anderson went off to the side and whispered with the representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society. They returned in seconds, holding hands.
“Five dollars per view!” they said.
“Oh, I’m so proud of him!” Mrs. Anderson said, holding another tourist’s toddler up to peep inside her son.
Mr. Anderson sat in a foldout chair beside Jeremy, patting the boy’s arm and weeping tears of pride. The line went around the corner of the gift shop, which now sold tee shirts and key chains and velvet paintings depicting Jeremy’s mouth depicting a breathtaking vista.
“Isn’t he wonderful?” said Mr. Anderson between sobs. Another five dollar bill joined the others on his lap.
“Quite the wonderful spectacle indeed,” beamed the representative of the Columbia River Gorge Breathtaking Vista Conservation Society.
“Isn’t he as precious as a dewy morning?” said Mr. Anderson.
“Dewy! Yes, that’s it exactly!” said the gift shop manager.
“As the golden rays at sunrise?”
“I can see the rays, Mommy!” said a tourist child.
“As rose petals dripping with a fresh spring rain?”
Mrs. Anderson nodded, welcoming the next tourist in line.
“Scenic!” Echoed the tourists, cameras clicking.
A deer hoof wiggled out of Jeremy’s mouth. Mr. Anderson pushed it back in with his palm.
J. W. Shumate earned his MFA from West Virginia University. He writes and teaches in Boston.
William longed for the stone angel on the hill beside him. He’d take her in his arms if he were not also made of stone, an effigy of the man buried in the mausoleum below. As the sun rose, it cast the curved shadow of her wings across the brim of his tricorn hat. It was always such a brief moment, the shadow of her touch. He fantasized that moment of coolness as the angel’s hand on his cheek, but her shadow never once caressed his face. A beauty like her could never love a statue as marred as he.
If only he could conceal the rocky patch on his face where his nose had once been. Centuries ago, his fine, upturned nose had become the crows’ favored perch. The day those noisy blackbirds at last destroyed it was the day his angel came into view. Her high-cheek bones and soft cascading curls must have been sculpted by Bernini’s hands. Her wings extended into graceful arches behind her, poised to fly, Heaven-bound.
But humans and angels could never be together, not even in stone.
A robin hopped from the oak branch stretched above William and wrapped its talons around the brim of his hat. It had been months since he had heard the robin’s song. Good morning, old friend. As if to greet him in return, the bird perched on his shoulder and began to sing his high, merry tune. And if the stone had allowed, he’d invite his angel to dance the Virginia Reel under the oak growing beside his grave.
But she was all alone, no robin perched on her wings to serenade her a good morning. Go sing to her. She must be so lonely.
From under the oak, the mechanical grass-eating machine roared to life. Startled, the robin swooped from his perch and into the honeysuckle. William watched the machine near the bush, spitting out dewy clippings in its wake. The robin took flight once more, landing on the tip of the angel’s wing. Crimson honeysuckle berries dropped from its beak onto her pale curls. It hopped onto her shoulder and pecked up a berry.
William wished his face could crack a smile as the robin leaned in to the angel’s ear. Then it sang, its chirp quick and happy. A gift from me to you, my love.
William heard voices on the wind. A woman made her way over the hill, her hair hanging in curls like the angel’s. She held hands with a small girl who cradled a bouquet of wild flowers.
They remember her still, he thought as the little girl placed the bouquet against the mausoleum’s iron door. Her mother hugged her.
She is loved and I am not, William thought. They all have forgotten me.
The night’s darkness shrouded his sadness and humiliation at having been lost to time.
The angel’s shadow did not caress the brim of his tricorn hat, for dark gray clouds blocked the morning sun. William welcomed the rain.
Leave me, he thought as he felt the robin’s familiar talons.
The bird hopped onto his shoulder, a sprig of lavender in its beak. William had never seen lavender growing in the graveyard, but his eyes spied the bouquet left for the angel. The wrapper had unraveled, lavender laying atop the carnations and daisies.
She loves me! William rejoiced as the robin tucked the sprig between his hat and ear. She loves me!
The robin did not stay to sing, but swooped off. The wind changed direction, the leaves swaying violently. Even the grass-eating machine slumbered this morning.
The shrieking gale gusted over the hill bringing with it more black clouds. The lavender slipped from his ear, flying off into the graveyard. William despaired. I’ve lost her gift.
Hail pounded the gravestones in the torrential rain. He watched his angel stand defiantly against the storm. Lightening zigzagged across the inky sky, thunder growled as if to summon up more wind.
A crackle and moan startled William, though he recognized the sound of the old oak. Its jagged branches leaned, snagging him in their grasp. Then, with a final snap, the trunk toppled cracking his feet. He wobbled as the stone split away. Free, he rolled down the roof and landed face up in the mud. William watched as the massive oak continued its path, smashing into the angel’s mausoleum. Spare her, please! But the thick branches split her from her base. Her delicate ankle cracked, the jagged line splitting her leg along the hem of her robe. William, unable to look away, watched his perfect angel fall to Earth.
At first, the dawn seemed brighter than he’d remembered. Was it because the oak tree was gone? Strong hands gripped him, lifting him from the earth. That’s when he saw it. His tricorn hat had been cleaved from his head. A jagged head to go with my jagged face.
The men’s voices boomed. “One, two, three, up!”
William’s body clanked against the metal bed of the horseless carriage the men drove. He spied the empty space atop the mausoleum, his angel still missing. Perhaps she has flown to Heaven, William consoled himself.
It was true then. Humans and angels were never meant to be together, not even in stone.
William resigned himself to his lonely fate, until he heard the men’s voices again.
“One, two, three, up!”
His hilltop angel was lowered by gloved hands onto the metal bed beside him. She rocked uneasily on the jagged scar of her missing wing, but her other wing stretched over William like a hand. Her gaze met his, unashamed of her imperfections. And as the sun rose behind them, their shadows entwined.
Samantha Kymmell-Harvey lives in Baltimore with her husband and two crazy cats. Her previous publications include Waylines Magazine, Spark: A Creative Anthology, and Lacuna Journal of Historical Fiction. She is a 2012 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.
Jennifer Miller was the belle of the fifth grade. Her long blond hair and geek chic glasses captivated us all. But what really awed us was her refusal to give in to the tacky trends of the time. She continued to wear fashionable black Mary Janes when the rest of the girls turned to My Little Pony sneaks, and when all the other girls began toting Rainbow Bright or Jem accessories, she stayed loyal to her haute couture Rave jelly bracelets. When it came to fashion, Jen refused to compromise, and we rewarded her with our admiration.
I spent countless nights staring at her in our class photo, imagining me standing next to her rather than Jonathan Sinclair. Sometimes I would get behind her in line at the water fountain and watch the way her hair fell over her face as she drank. Life was so unfair. Up to that point, every boy in Miss Green’s class had taken his turn dating Jen Miller. Everyone, that is, except me. I found myself looking for a sign that she might be interested before I made my move. It was like waiting for a sign from God that he existed. I analyzed every little gesture—each giggle, each smile, each “bless you” after a sneeze—but none were conclusive enough to prompt action. I was obsessed, though, and it was that obsession that led me to make my first move.
I carefully crafted a letter for my sister to give to her. It read:
You are cute and pretty. Will you go out with me? Or maybe we could just be friends? If it is just friends, let me know so I can start talking to you more often. If it’s going out, I think you can come with us to the movies Saturday afternoon. It will be cool. But let me know soon. Thanks.
PS — Even though I said we could just be friends, I’d rather go out. Okay? But friends is better than nothing. Okay?
I used my sister’s purple paper because Jen liked purple. I folded it into this little paper triangle Mark Affeld had taught me and gave it to my sister for delivery.
When the next morning came, I felt nauseous. I went into the bathroom and vomited several times. Usually this would be good news, a day off from school, but today wouldn’t do. I needed to get the results of my romantic inquiry. Was Jennifer Miller my first girl friend? Were we just going to be friends? Was I going to be the laughing stock of JFK Elementary School?
Despite my nausea, I gathered myself and headed off to school, a three-minute walk, which I finished in two despite having to trudge through the snow. Outside the brick two-story I snuck into the crowd waiting outside, hoping to go unnoticed. Unfortunately, Arlene Raymond, one of Jen’s best friends, caught sight of me. We all knew she had cooties. Her grandmother once brought in cupcakes for her birthday with cigarette ashes sprinkled in the frosting.
“What you wrote was so cute,” she said.
Cute? What was that supposed to mean? Just when I was about to bail on the whole situation, I saw her. Jennifer Miller was holding my purple triangle in her right hand and her glasses were sagging a bit low on the left side. I was mesmerized by her smile as she stood there in the snow. Then… it happened.
As she began walking toward me, I puked. It snuck up on me, so I was unable to make arrangements for a clean getaway. It just kind of choked out of my mouth and down the front of my coat. Jen’s bright eyes dulled, and her smile flat-lined. I turned without saying a word and ran home.
My mom set me up on the couch with some ginger ale and The Price is Right, my favorite television show. After twenty minutes recuperating with Bob Barker, I got up to use the bathroom. When I returned, a frozen image of a huge piece of cauliflower had replaced my show. I thought I must have accidentally changed the channel to a cooking show when I stood up.
Then the frozen screen cut to video of the space shuttle launch. The black and white ship soared through the blue sky, pumping a billowing trail of smoke and fire behind it. Suddenly, The Challenger’s ascent to the heavens was instantly replaced by a ball of smoke — the cauliflower I’d seen seconds earlier frozen on my screen — with smoky trails shooting off in various directions. A fireball propelled toward the ground. I sat silent. Stunned. Confused.
The days that followed were marred with non-stop coverage of the Challenger disaster. A band of brave astronauts had been obliterated in a heartbeat before the nation’s eyes, including Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher whose smile reminded me of Miss Green’s. My mom cried several times, which scared me and made me cry, too. I watched the replays over and over until I was numb.
After school on my third straight sick day, my sister came to me with a purple triangle folded in her hand. I was sitting on the porch in order to get some fresh air. I took it with trepidation and said a silent prayer before I opened it. The tenor of the rest of my elementary school life would be decided by what it said on that tiny bit of paper. Under my note, Jennifer Miller had written her own and affixed a Strawberry Short Cake scratch-and-sniff sticker. It read:
Thanks for the note. Can I still come with you to the movies if I choose just friends?
PS — I hope the puke gets cleaned off your coat before Saturday.
I looked up at the clouds drifting across a pale blue sky and shivered in the winter cold. I took a deep breath, walked inside, and threw the purple note in the trash.
William C. Friskey is a graduate of Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program in creative and professional writing. He is currently working as a writing professor and lives in Connecticut with his wife and two children.