A Sentence by William Carlos Williams

I’ve been reading WCW’s collected stories and came upon this very simple perfect sentence: That night I was going home (“An Old Time Raid”). I wish I could write like that–all the time. It evokes so much with so little.
I think I will steal it. I will write a story that starts: That night I was going home. No one will ever know.
But what to say next?

My Brother Was Run Over: flash piece by Andrew Rooney

Andrew Rooney

My Brother Was Run Over

            My brother was run over by a train.

We showed him how we put coins on the track.

He sat down on the rail when we left.

The big long coal train couldn’t stop.

He blew his horn over and over.

We didn’t know it was about him.

When we came back he was as thin as a penny.

Roll me home and put me under the bed, he said.

Mom is really going to be upset, we said.

Pump me up with the bicycle pump, he said.

But that didn’t work.

Pour water on me, he said.

That didn’t work either.

We rolled him to school and his teacher said, Just stand him up in the back.

My brother was worried he might miss class and get put back.

He could still read out loud pretty well, but it sounded kind of flat.

Mom eventually got used to him being in his room all the time.

When he slept he snored like crazy, but we got used to that too.
 

Interview with Meg Tuite

1.     What is you personal/aesthetic relationship to the sentence? That is, how do you understand it, use it, etc.
 
I have always been hypnotized by those long, rhythmic poetic sentences that flow like music. Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer, was a master of this mesmerizing, brilliant prose that streamed like a river.
I can’t say that I always work with longer sentences. It depends on the story being written. Flash fiction calls for terse, punch-in-the-gut sentences that say as much as possible in as few words as possible. Longer stories allow more freedom to draw out characters, setting and theme in whatever way the writer desires. My preference is for poetic prose, no matter if it’s longer or shorter sentences.



2. Do you find a relationship between words and writing and the human body? Or between your writing and your body?
 
My work has always been character driven. The human psyche is what intrigues me the most–those bombs that are not dropped by mouth, but sometimes tell through tics, folded arms, tapping feet and tightened lips. I always try to keep the movement of the character in mind when writing.
As far as my own body and writing? The best times are when I don’t feel myself anymore and get completely lost in the characters. That’s when I know I’m getting somewhere. When I am aware of myself, my body, I have a harder time moving a piece forward. I need to get out of my skin and into someone else’s to write.



3. Is there anything you dislike about being a writer?
 
I’m not one of those writers who can pick up the pen at any point in time, when I have the time, and write. It has to come to me. I still work at it whenever I get a chance, but it can be frustrating when I have a whole day ahead of me and I’m struggling with a sentence for hours. Don’t like that so much, but like anything else it’s part of the process of birthing something, so I stick with it and muster out a few lines and then try and go back to it after reading some inspiring writers like Flannery O’Connor or Djuna Barnes. Somehow, reading the work of these brilliant writers can sometimes get the flow moving again on my trickling faucet.



4. How does it feel to publish your first book?
 
The best part about getting an entire book together and published is that now it is out in the world and you have people reading your work!!! That is exciting and scary, but it feels great!!! I spent a lot of time on this first collection. To have a publisher say, YES, we want to publish this, is also a blast of cold, fresh air!!! I’m very happy with the book and am now working on a novel and always sending out stories and flash fiction. I have a chapbook coming out soon through MonkeyPuzzle Press out of Boulder, CO. They are publishing 20 of my flash stories and that’s another cold splash in the midst of this inferno!!! In writing, as in living in the desert, we’re always praying for RAIN!!!!!

Meg Tuite’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals
including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, One, the Journal,
Monkeybicycle, Hawaii Review and Boston Literary Magazine. She is the fiction
editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel
“Domestic Apparition” (2011) is now available through San Francisco Bay Press
(www.sanfranciscobaypress.com). She has a monthly column “Exquisite Quartet” up
at Used Furniture Review. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.

Mid-Summer Flash by Julia Goldberg

Drought and isolation—talk about themes with resonance this summer! Of course, when the fiction writers from SFCC’s intermediate fiction class embarked on this summer’s flash project last spring, we had no idea the summer would include massive forest fires and days on end spent inside with the windows shut and the fans blowing! (I can’t help but wish we’d chosen “fire” as a theme).

The second round of this season’s Summer of Flash is now up on campus, and features work by Ree Mobley, Ken McPherson, Pat Barnes, William White and Meg Tuite.

Writers from the class, in groups, chose themes for this summer’s work (drought and “the outsider,” were two prominent themes for this round of flash), although these themes, ultimately, served mostly as prompts, rather than strict frameworks for the pieces. Still, Pat Barnes‘ piece hits home!

Drought

By Pat Barnes

The windows on the west looked out on the parched high desert plateau as strong stubborn winds blew dust that clouded the sky from limb to limb. 

The plants had withered in meek submission and all sense of green had died a gruesome death.

Tumbleweeds rolled across the flat spaces like hellish heathens hurling their disgust into fences, agoras and whatever stopped their path.

A pair of birds forgot to chirp during the morning moments.

Swirling mirages loomed far into the distance suggesting some movement remained.

Dry tongues panting could not be heard.

 The fury of the sun spread across the land with demonic dances of delight.

This was the punishment for the misdeeds of mankind.

Drought, deadly drought, will this be the end?

In addition to the pieces by Barnes, McPherson, Mobley and White, the second round of flash includes several pieces by Meg Tuite, who also published, this summer, the very fine collection, Domestic Apparition.

The pieces will be on display through the summer on the campus of SFCC (click here to view the map). Hey, you’ve been shut inside most of the summer—time to get out and about!

Apparently, while drought and alienation are not necessarily stellar goals for mankind, they do apparently make for decent writing conditions. After watching my students turn out numerous pieces of inspiring flash fiction, I also played around with the form while shut in my house with the windows closed. I find it very challenging to tell a story so briefly, but here’s my flash fiction for the summer of 2011 (it’s not very cheerful!)

Divisible

By Julia Goldberg

Her bruises look like flowers, symmetrical strangled purpled fingerprints, like a choking necklace of faded rubies strung on the princess’ neck before she’s lain in the ground and covered by dirt, ash, blown leaves and rising grass.

For 20 years they were Marlee and Lauren, one cell divided: physically inseparable and identical; acerbic and docile; obsessive and laconic; suspicious and trusting. Lank light brown hair, hazel eyes, 5’5,” swimmers’ shoulders from a childhood of man-made lakes; strong legs from early morning and twilight bike rides and sprints in the woods by their home.

At 25, though, He showed up.

One bridesmaid, one bride. Two hundred guests on the lawn of their parents’ home. A waning moon, a lilac cake with frosting that tasted like lollipops.

“No,” Marlee screamed in her head. “No. No. No.” She stayed silent, drank champagne, watched the late summer cirrus clouds cross the flattened, celadon sky and her parents’ anxious eyes.

Five years of whispered phone calls and broken dates. Their face separates like an egg yolk. Eyes shadowed and distant, cheeks gaunt and gray. Her muscles lose their strength and memories. Her arms are thin and bruised.

The door is unlocked. The phone beeps, never replaced from the last phone call she placed. The hour-long drive at 85 miles an hour was too long. It was forever. Marlee pants as if she ran it. Her heart beats painfully against her ribs, the way it used to when they swam too far across the lake. Then, they would pull themselves out of the warm summer water onto the bank, haul themselves onto the scraggly grass and laugh into each other’s arms: entangled, together, the same.

Outside: March, drizzle, a sky bleached by storm. Inside: A dirty yellow linoleum floor. Lauren’s eyes stare and do not see. Spider webs of blood vessels mar her gaze. Marlee closes them with her shaking hand, covers her own bile-dry mouth, holds Lauren’s fish-cold hand and pulls the diamond ring from her sister’s finger.

Summer of Flash by Julia Goldberg

I am a greedy reader, a pleasure reader, a literary hedonist. I want my coffee strong and my novels long. I want to escape for days on end into story and character. Some of my favorite writers are those such as Kate Atkinson, Ellen Gilchrist or Richard Ford, whose works include recurrent characters whose stories continue over spans of years in short stories or novels. I normally eschew food metaphors but, in this case, devour would be the apt verb to describe my relationship to fiction. I do not want taste a morsel, no matter how exquisitely prepared; I want to ravage.

So at first glance, flash fiction, micros, compressions, suddens, whatever you want to call them, struck me as yet another blow against expansiveness. As a journalist, I would consider myself as having been on the front line of the “short, shorter, shortest” campaign of the last several years. Yes, the power of 140 characters to topple a dictatorship, gather followers or keep everyone updated on your mood is, indeed, impressive. But, you know, some of us still like to read!
I needed a quick and radical adjustment to my attitude during the Intermediate Fiction course I taught at Santa Fe Community College this spring, after Miriam Sagan asked if I would be interested in curating a collection of flash written by my students for the poetry posts on campus. I liked the idea of the project, but didn’t think I could appropriately inspire my students with a tirade against abbreviated thought.
So I plunged in and read a whole lot of flash: the classics, the award-winners and the very, very new.
As a reader, I do not anticipate a huge change in my habits (for instance, when I fly to Europe this summer, I don’t anticipate I’ll bring 80,000 pieces of flash fiction versus a few long books). But as a writer, and a teacher, I have come to see the value of the form and have abandoned my view of it as yet another trendy excuse to shorten my already shortened attention span.
The students in Intermediate Fiction divided into groups and chose various themes for their flash projects: drought, family loss and The Outsider. The extent to which all the pieces adhered to these themes varied from writer to writer, but the resulting group of 20 pieces, which will be on campus June 1-Aug. 26, show, I believe, the amazing versatility offered by the form. The pieces range from writing I might characterize as prose poetry to simply short fiction. They also show the challenge of instilling the various attributes of fiction writing (character, plot, story, for example) into such short works.

Here are the writers for Summer of Flash, and their works. You can find a map of the poetry posts here.

Installation 1, June 1-July 14: Benjamin Lucas Buck, Meg Tuite, Ana Terrazas, Sarah Velez, Alona Bonanno, Lisa Neal, Tina Matthews

Installation 2, July 15-Aug. 26: Meg Tuite, Ree Mobley, Ken McPherson, Pat Barnes, William White

Post by Julia Goldberg

“Death Says See You Later”–Flash Fiction by Bond

SEE YOU LATER
S.L. Bond

Death comes to you and he asks you for a cigarette. He says “Can I bum
a cigarette?” and you give him one, you let him hold it in his long
thin fingers. He says “Got a light?” and you’ve got one, and as if in
a dream you move through air as thick as water. You strike the coarse
little wheel with your finger and make a flame appear there. Death
leans in and inhales. Cigarette lit. He leans back. You put your
lighter in your pocket.

Death takes a drag. You watch the white smoke pass through the holes
in his rotten throat. It leaks a little, smoke dribbling out of his
neck and some even out of his eye sockets as he exhales through his
nose.

His nose. Just two holes in his flat face, the rest of it gone. He has
lips left, but barely, just ragged black pieces, and no eyelids,
eyeballs bugging out of sockets, held in place by taut gray tendons.
Death is completely hairless, his head as smooth and round as a baby’s
except for the patches of white skull peaking through.

He can see that you are staring. “Pretty grim, I know,” he jokes.
“Smoking kills, kid.” He winks at you. You flinch.

“No need to be so nervous. It’s not your time yet.”

Whose time is it? He doesn’t say. He just sits next to you on the park
bench, smoking the cigarette you gave him, making small talk.

“Listen,” he says. “You seem pretty hip. What do you think of my
outfit? I’m trying to update my image.”

You look him over. He is dressed like he might be any of your friends:
blue jeans and a dark purple t-shirt, black sneakers, a thick metal
gauge in his one remaining ear.

“Where’s your scythe?” you ask him, the first thing you’ve said.

Taking a drag he shakes his head, explaining as he breathes out: “No
resonance. It’s meant to scare people. Obviously. But you all aren’t
afraid of that stuff anymore. The hood, the costume. Too much drama.
Too gimmicky. You kids are media savvy — what’s a shroud or a cloud of
smoke to you? You see that shit everyday. No. I won’t bore you. If
there’s one thing I refuse to be it’s predictable.”

He bends to put the cigarette out on the ground, tosses it into the
ashtray. A perfect shot. He looks at you.

“No gimmicks for you. No costume. No devil. No evil.” He slings his
backpack over one shoulder, standing up to go.

“No need for it. This,” he says, gesturing with one hand at his normal
clothes, his black backpack just like the one you had in high school.
“This is the scariest costume I could wear for you. Don’t you think?”

You can’t speak but he hears your answer.

Death says: “See you later.”

Flash Fiction by Alexandra Hesbrook

Drinks Tonight?

They had been friends for a very long time. They met in junior high school because both of their parents forgot to pick them up one day. At five pm they were the only two kids sitting on a concrete partition. Her grandmother showed up in a gray Dodge and gave him a ride home.

Although they didn’t grow up in Chicago both worked downtown now. He at a very important engineering firm and she at a theatre. Every Friday they went to a restaurant and depending on the week one of the two would say: “I am not going to really drink tonight. I have to get home early.” This never happened. Both of them ended up drinking too much and the night always ended at the top of the Hancock building looking at the city and trying to pick out where they lived through all the lights. Then they would share a taxi. He was always dropped off first.

That night was different. As they looked down on the lights each having picked out their individual houses next to the great black lake Michigan, his hand instinctively reached down towards the canvas messenger bag resting on his hip. He froze suddenly recognizing that he forgot the work he was supposed to bring home. “Do you think we could stop by my office? I forgot something.” He isn’t really asking her to go because he knows she will based on the years of her doing so before. “It’s really cold. Can we take a taxi?” She asks as she pouts slightly. She bites the left corner of her bottom lip. She has a scar there from long ago and he knows she bites it habitually whenever she is dissatisfied with a situation. He just says in a sympathetic tone: “Come on.” They leave the top floor above the lights and start walking among them. He never hails a taxi and she just keeps walking. Her maroon scarf blows in the wind and his blond hair rises slightly with each step he takes. She slows in front of one of the Michigan street windows. He does not obviously wait for her, but he walks a few feet and then bends to tie his shoe lace.

He works in a very tall building downtown. The building is so tall it has four types of elevators. One takes people up to the floors 1-23 and another takes them up 24-50 and so on until floor 104. He works on the 87th floor and he has for several years.

They come in from the cold Chicago street to the empty building. He is still dressed in his grey shirt, khaki pants, and grey over coat and looks appropriate for the large marble building. She is not as put together. Her black hair is wind blown and her skirt is crooked. Its after hours, and the security guard eyes them suspiciously as he hands his bag over to be searched and pulls out his ID card. He says: “I left my work upstairs. We will be back down in just a moment.” The security guard doesn’t look up. “mmmhmm.” They start walking to the elevators and push the button to call the 75-104 elevator. With a soft “bing” the doors open. The elevator has reddish carpet that, like most floors in winter has been stained with salt, and a warm lighting that reflects off of the brass side panels.

Still shivering from the December lake wind and tired from the week and the hour they are not talking much. He pushes the button for his floor and she leans her head against his shoulder and pretends to nap. She fake snores slightly. He rubs her arm to keep her warm. The back and forth movement bunches up the sleeve of her green pea coat. It is a gesture he has done for many years now. She responds in the sarcastic tone she always has: “Thanks my arm is warm now.” He laughs, swiping the dirty blond hair from his eyes, and says: “Everyone at work thinks I have a small child because of that drawing you gave me.” About a year ago she had visited his office and been distraught that he had no pictures or anything of a personal value on his cubicle walls. He was finishing a last minute email and she sat down on the ground and drew a picture of a dream she had. It was a deer in a giant soup pot crying. The front of the pot said “Suffering Deer Soup: do not touch the deer.” She had said: “The tears are apparently the secret to the soup. I had it in the dream and it was delicious.” He was a vegetarian, so she added: “The deer was fine. They only needed his tears. That’s why you could not pet the deer. Petting made him happy.” She thinks on the drawing for the first time and laughs. “I can’t believe you still have that up. You must really love me.”

And without warning or hesitation he kisses her. She doesn’t quite know what to do. Her arm stays half way in the air. She doesn’t know if she should put it down or move it towards his face. After a few stunned seconds her lips begin to respond and after a few more seconds her mind begins to respond. She reaches up and grabs his coat near his shoulders pulling him closer. She stands on her toes to be taller. Her black wool lined ballerina flats stay against the ground and the hole in her black laced tights around the heal is exposed. He lifts his hand to brush a few loose hairs back from her face, but forgets his fingers and leaves them in her hair. He breaths a sigh of passion and begins to kiss her more furiously. He is amazed that her arm can be so cold and her lips so warm.

The doors open. Both looked shocked and lost. He dizzily steps off the elevator away from the warm glow and into the florescent lights. She follows and in the reflection of the steel elevator door adjusts her dark hair and skirt. She is suddenly aware of what a mess she is. He uses his card to enter the dark floor. They walk silently to his desk. He grabs his paper work, while she stares at her child-like drawing. They turn back around. He looks at her out of the corner of eyes. He sees her brown eyes and says: “Maybe we should take the stairs.” She nods in agreement. Her face still bright pink from the cold and the kiss. They walk silently down the many flights of stairs and into the night where he hails a taxi. He opens the door and says: “So I will see you next Friday?” She nods silently in agreement and says: “I am not going to really drink though, I have to be up early on Saturday.”

Love & Money by Susan Nalder

Peter got up at his usual time – in winter, neighbors can see his kitchen light flick on around 6.00am. He pulls his old fleece serape around his shoulders and begins his routine. First things first, he makes a stop to whiz in the toilet. Well, since the cancer treatments, he manages to get the thing done. Period. Toothbrush in hand, he inspects his stubble. Not so bad, shaving can wait until tomorrow. Moving on, he touches his lips with his fingers and blows a kiss to Mary’s picture he keeps in the kitchen. Looking twice at those beautiful blue eyes, he finishes the gesture with a tap over his heart. Next he sets out a fresh bowl of water for the dog Money and for Love, the cat. He pours kibble for Money who chomps it down with almost as much enthusiasm as in years past. Then he rummages about and gets the cat food taken care of. That’s how it’s always been. Passing headlights tell him the paper must be out there. He calls Money, opens the door and his paper is delivered to his feet. It’s all done in a dignified pace now. He gets his coffee going and sits down where he can browse through the paper and see the neighborhood come alive slowly. Love jumps up on the table and sits there purring. Money comes and sits right by his side, making the strangest chirping sounds, as if he wants to compete with Love’s purring. The dog noses his calf as if to remind him that it’s time to get that walk underway. Peter glances off in the direction of the mountains.

Oh God, he mused, patting Money. When you were just one year, we’d go there on the weekend. It was so different then. Before Mary stirred, I’d slip out to the edge of the arroyo and whiz in the quiet morning air. Man it was good being younger, well, fifty-something, leaner and ready to run. He could almost feel his memory, pulling on his running shorts and finding his shoes and sox. The smell of morning air would beckon. Money would be there on the porch; his tail thumped and recklessly cleared anything they’d left on the little table by the swing with a banging clatter. He’d whistle and off they’d go. They had pounded out a trail through the pinon and juniper and would come out on down the country road where they’d keep on going for a few miles. Sometimes they’d get dusted by a passing pickup, but mostly it was solitary in the early morning. The sound of his breathing and the light pounding of his feet in the dirt with Money by his side was a symphony.

Ah gee, how much time slipped by on that one? He glanced at his watch, wow, it was now almost nine. “Okay Money, lets get going.” Cane in hand, Peter and Money head off down the street to the neighborhood walking trail. His morning reverie was on his mind so he patted Money, “okay boy, lets see if we can pick up the pace a bit today”. The two of them had aging joints but this morning Peter wanted to feel the wind in his hair and the freedom of that feeling he used to be able to get on a run. Well, putting a little speed in his step would have to do. It felt good, and Money kept up too, even though he had an unmistakable rear-end waddle that bespoke pain. A coyote appeared on the edge of the arroyo. A flurry of Sialias, the small brightly colored Mexican bluebird, launched from a juniper just off to the left. They swooped and flew off to another spot further up the trail. Those blue flicks make him think of his Mary, as if her spirit had just flown by. Money crouches, hips up and two paws forward, tongue hanging out, and refuses to budge. ”Okay boy, we’ll turn here and head back”, Peter conceded. The two ambled up the trail, pausing every five minutes or so. Some days were just better than others. The beauty of the place was, however, constant.

Muffy McPherson by Ariel Gore

Muffy McPherson
 
Muffy McPherson lives across the street. Her house has two stories and a swimming pool in the back yard.
Muffy McPherson has a pink canopy over her bed and a Barbie Dream House under her bedroom window.
In her back yard, behind the pool, Muffy McPherson has a big red playhouse with a Barbie oven in it. We wear red-and-white-checked aprons and we pretend to make chocolate chip cookies. When we’re done we go inside and Muffy McPherson’s mother has made us real chocolate chip cookies that cool on a tray on an island in the middle of the kitchen. That’s what it’s called when you have a counter in the middle of your kitchen that you can walk all the way around—an island.
Muffy McPherson doesn’t come over to my house to play and I’m glad—my mother wouldn’t make us cookies and if my stepdad did, they’d have carob chips that he bought in bulk from the Briarpatch co-op market and then he might take out his teeth.
Muffy McPherson’s mother wears a lavender leisure suit and she uses real chocolate and she never takes out her teeth. Muffy’s father goes to work in the morning and doesn’t come home until dinnertime. He’s important because he invented something called “collagen implants” that makes skinny people fat in the just right places.
Muffy McPherson is in love with Harrison Ford.
It’s not a crush. It’s true love.
“I’m going to marry him,” she says. And she dances across her pink-canopied bed, swishing her straight blonde hair back and forth.
My hair is dark and curly and I know there’s not much I can do about it, but I think maybe if I had a pink canopy over my bed, I wouldn’t feel so scared all the time.
“I have a poster of Harrison Ford,” I tell Muffy.
“You do?” She stops moving, stares at me.
“Yeah,” I say. “You can have it.” I shrug, cool as I know how.
She nods real slow and I can’t believe I actually have something Muffy McPherson wants. It makes me feel calm and powerful at the same time, like maybe we’re not so different, Muffy and me. Like maybe even with my hair, I can be one of the pretty people when we go back to school in September.
 
The next day I come back with my poster of Harrison Ford, rolled up all nice. It’s not actually my poster, I stole it from Leslie, stole it right off her wall, but I’ve already practiced my denial, practiced the blank look on my face when I’ll claim I don’t know what happened to the poster.
Muffy McPherson’s mother answers the door and calls upstairs to Muffy. I bound up those soft stairs, close the door to Muffy’s room behind me and begin to unfurl the poster.
Muffy McPherson’s face is all thrill at first, but then she frowns. “That’s not Harrison Ford,” she scowls, then squints her eyes at the picture. “That’s. Some. Old Man!”

“It isn’t?” I look at it. Harrison Ford. The guy who’s Doctor Doolittle in the movie.

Muffy McPherson clenches her teeth and crosses her arms and shakes her head, her hair swishing a little. “That’s Rex Harrison. It says so right there.” She points her thin finger to the signature at the bottom corner of the poster. “REX Harrison,” she says again. “Are you stupid? Do you know even know who Harrison Ford is?”

I look at the poster, at Rex Harrison with his side burns and sly smile, and then at Muffy McPherson with her long blonde hair and stern look. I roll up the poster. I glance at the Barbie Dream House behind Muffy and I already miss playing with the Ken doll. I swallow hard. I say, “Yeah, I know who Harrison Ford is. I just. I was only kidding.” And I feel something in the back of my throat that’s hot and sore, like a coal from the campfire that got stuck there. And I don’t know who Harrison Ford is.

I don’t know who Harrison Ford is.

The Love of a Stranger–flash fiction by Jillian Burgie

Jillian Burgie
 
The Love of a Stranger
 
There is no place in the world so lonely as an elevator. She thinks this every morning as she rises, languid, through the decades of stories to her office. Sometimes she wished there were windows, so she could watch the world shrink as she rose. Instead it was only confined stale air, uncanny artificial light, bad music. She clutched her briefcase and sighed.
This was never where she thought she would be. A high-heels and business-suits job, a towering office building, a cubicle. Sometimes her world felt like an elevator, a little box of old air climbing to something else. It never reached that place; at least, it hadn’t yet.
A small ding sounded and the elevator halted, opening wide jaws to welcome a stranger to its tiny domain. He wore jeans and a polo, a clean-cut, respectable-looking man. The kind she would have glanced at twice, or more, when she was younger. When things like that mattered.
The door slid closed, sealing them in this little lonely space, oddly together. He leaned against a wall, watching the numbers climb steadily. She thought he had a nice face. Grey eyes, cast down politely. Primly cropped hair, good posture. He seemed a decent man.
Not like Mark. His face had been hostile and cold, jagged blue eyes over a stubbly strong chin. His hands had been strong too. Great paws like pinchers, easily reaching around her biceps and leaving black and blue stripes, a painful tattoo of mistakes and bruises. She’d stayed there far too long.
Sometimes she thought of the time there wasted, thought that she had squandered her youth and beauty in a foul marsh of ingratitude and disrespect. Those were the most wretched days, the days she felt age tugging at her edges, felt tired and used up and alone. Thinking of what she’d been then. What she was now.
The elevator moved steadily upwards. The man shifted, sliding his hands into his pockets.
“Long way up.” He smiled. It was a great shining smile, a joyous, youthful grin of a young man. It immediately took years from his face and she stared, surprised, as he returned to his stoic gaze at the floor.
She nodded politely, glancing at him. Where did he come from? She had never noticed him before, a fresh face on an elevator ride she made every morning. She found it refreshing, welcomed his presence, his calmness, his smile. He did not seem tired. He did not seem worn out by the endless elevator rides and work days. Something about him was still lively, still hopeful. She stared shamelessly at him. What was his secret? How did he guard against the futility she felt clawing at her every day? How did he survive in this little tiny world with so great a joy?
She knew he felt her staring at him, but she didn’t care. She wanted to understand. She wanted to know how to get her life to open up onto the upper stories of happiness and fulfillment. She wanted to know what it was like to look back and see that all was not wasted, that every step was merely getting her here, wherever that may be. Wherever he was. She wanted her smile to shine like that. Not to attract the gaze of any nice man, not to flirt and win any hearts, not even to feel beautiful again. Simply to know that she could, that she had reason. She wanted that vitality. She stared, seeking his secret, searching every laugh line in his face.  How do you do it?
He met her gaze and smiled. Suddenly, with no more warning than that calm, nice smile, he stepped toward her, stretching a hand to her face, and before she could even stiffen or yell he kissed her. Gently. Simply. He pressed his smile into her tired lips and breathed a touch of magic on her face. For a moment she saw it, the answer, the beautiful simple secret to this stranger’s brilliant joy. She gaped, overjoyed, shivering, lost in the baffling moment of that one strange kiss. It was no more than a glimpse, and then it was gone, and he was on the other side of elevator, staring at the floor.
She gaped at him. She knew she should be outraged, but instead she found herself calm, as she had not been in years. This man was happy, not because he did anything differently than she. He rode this elevator to work every morning. He toiled in his cubicle all day. He went home to whatever family or friends he might have. He too had made mistakes, and they haunted him. But yet he did all with a smile, a determined liberty and decided joy. He lived with the courage to kiss complete strangers and relished the little moments when the infinite space between people dissolved. That, he understood, was what mattered, come whatever tiny worlds or soulless jobs that dared. It was simple, really. Brilliant. Beautiful.
The elevator dinged again and he exited, no less a stranger than he had entered. He made soft footsteps on the carpet, crossed the threshold, and ducked into the bustling crowd on the other side. And was gone.
She found herself waving goodbye anyway, a smile tugging at her lips. She rode the rest of the way up to her office in silence, grinning softly. As the ring sounded for her floor and the doors spread wide before her, she stepped out confidently, and offered a little prayer of gratitude for the love of a stranger.
***
Jillian Burgie is a junior at St. John’s College, doing a lot of reading, thinking, and essay writing. She finds her sanctuary in fiction, and hopes to continue writing as a career. She hopes her story amuses.