Category Archives: flash nonfiction

I May Be Stupid, But I’m Not Clever

You can’t fool me. The sky is a bowl above me, the earth dry and broken. I sense the world on fingertips, eyes closed, the wind around my index. I touch the sides–I feel them. You can’t tell me the rain has disappeared. It’s outside this globe of sun.

I used to live outside, where the rain beat without end. I used to live at the edge of the sea, where grey water surged and white-edged waves cut into bare skin and rain shot stinging sand against fleeting foot. I lived there, where men dug in and fell under the weight of rain and couldn’t prevent the vines from easing through their open mouths, any more than they could prevent the rain.

They gave this inside place a name, as if that would help: New Mexico, Land of Enchantment. And for many years, we were enchanted–or at least, I was. I gave up my senses to it and felt the heat and heard the cicadas whine at midday, the exact pitch of heat. And I explored the meaning of light that entered through the retinas and penetrated the mind. With the excess of luminosity, the neurotransmitters produced an abundance of serotonin, and my gut moved, and my memory improved. I could remember the names this place threw at me. I could remember more than I wanted to.

I recalled the rain, and I cut off access of sun to my senses, except to my fingertips, where I felt for the truth. The wind obscured the effect. But it was there. I was–am trapped in a sun globe, and I can’t see a way out. Such a dry truth is difficult to swallow.

Some say we’re fish trapped in a bowl of water, floating without reason and staring at the waving photons that break the surface. We, the fish, see the photons as stars–but when I say we, I don’t include myself in that number. I see one star–the sun of this globe called New Mexico. And it’s as dry as shriveled cholla arms in here. The photons light the dust, and the dust waves around us, and the senses call it water, but the senses are often wrong, and this desert is dry.

I’m an alien. I’m a fish gasping in a place without water, and I’m pretending it isn’t so. I’m pretending because I can name things, as I’ve said. I can remember the names that call this place home: family, husband, children, degree, summa cum laude. With highest praise, I call them.

You can’t fool me. I’ve seen it, or I’ve read it in a book, but it’s all true. In that place, the globes were broken. The globes of sanctuary that captured the sun–the rain smashed them. And the rain will smash this one and prove that I’m an alien in this place, and that I belong to the rain.

And then I remember something so primal that it frightens me. I was an alien in that outside world, as well. That was a place with a name, too–Oregon–a place with big ears to detect the sound of rain versus sea, and to detect the sound of outsiders in their midst. And I was that. And so I suspect I don’t belong to the rain, either.

I don’t want to be trapped any longer. But I need a place to call home. Do I have to float, belly up on the air, in order to go home? Do I?

I call this love, that faith because those are the only names that matter any longer. I call this globe home. But I’m no fool. I know what this isn’t.

I may be stupid, but neither am I clever.

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The Devil’s in the Details

Most of us are lost in Plato’s Cave, though some of us are more firmly shackled there, and those who refuse to turn to the right or the left care only for watching the passing shadows on the walls. The shadows give us enough “substance” to discuss, argue, predict, and expound our great understanding of what we refuse to know.

I’m in Plato’s Cave. I’m not shackled there, except by my own self-limiting thought processes. I’m shackled by my own need to understand what I can’t see from my perspective. I woke here, on this damp earth–I woke facing red flesh, and my face is still planted there. I scrape at the flesh with a sharp rock. I peel off a pale green substance and hold it in my palms and sniff at it. I dig around the perimeter of the red-fleshed beast–I dig, and I search. I listen, I smell, I taste. I feel the soft dampness, feel the prickles that dig into my skin, feel the dampness in the space around me.

I’m confused. I’ve used my five senses, and I can’t figure this out, any of it. I can’t determine a name, an understanding. I can only chart my observations. I can chart them for the benefit of future understanding.

And just as I begin this lengthy process, in which I gather my wits and the materials around me and begin scratching out my data, I hear an irritated voice speak to me: “Are you still there?” the voice asks. “Are you still in the same place you were when you were born?”

I force my body around, even though it’s both painful and difficult. I look at the man who towers above me. “As soon as I figure this out, I’ll move,” I tell him. Without constant interruptions, such as his own, I might have finished years ago. There are interruptions, too many–they sway above, patter below, shriek circles around my head.

“It’s a tree,” the man says. “It’s a cedar. Look around you. You’re in a forest, and you’re missing it because all you can see is the bark of one tree.”

I’m a little irritated by his need to explain this to me–typical man. I could have figured it out on my own, eventually. But I rise, anyway, and admit that not only am I in a forest, but I’m in a forest with an entire eco-system at its floor. Beyond that, the ocean stretches with its own systems, and to the south, the sand hills stretch with worlds within worlds. Soon, I’m lost in these worlds, and when the man finds me again–he does, every once in a while–he shakes his head at me. I might as well have remained at the base of the cedar because I don’t get it, and I never will.

If I were to create myself as an archetype, I would be the researcher. Sadly, the researcher is a lost soul–not the hero, no, never the hero. The hero deigns to visit the researcher and discover certain facts important to his heroic mission, and then leaves the researcher in his cave, in his darkness, in his web of cryptic knowledge that can’t fit itself into a larger picture, at least not in the researcher’s mind. Meanwhile, the hero uses his instincts to save mankind, and nobody cares that the researcher translated the archaic language on the ancient map that leads the hero out of the cave.

At this point, I’m not about to change my archetype. In fact, I don’t think it’s a possibility. But I’m ready to circumvent the labyrinth. I’m ready to stop wasting my time planning, thinking, reading and researching in order to, at some point in the distant future, begin.

How have I come to this? Recently, I read Tolkien’s biography, and his method of writing was so eerily familiar to my own that it made me physically ill. He researched. He wrote. He edited. He edited again and again and again and conducted more research. I don’t want to edit and re-edit and research and dig deeper. I don’t want my magnum opus, whatever that may be, to remain incomplete at my death because I couldn’t wade out of the details. I don’t want the process to replace the work, and I’m firmly convinced that, to Tolkien, the process of creating legend was more important than any completed work of literature.

I need my story to have an ending. No longer ask me how far in I want to go, because I don’t want to go in. I want out. Some of us, deep inside, are asleep, and others are awake and studying shadows on the wall, convinced the shadows are truth. And others have left the cave. I want that to be my story, my end.

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Cracking the Life Code

For as long as I can remember, I’ve viewed life as a series of codes that must be cracked. Relationships, school, physical activities such as competitive sports–I was barred from these life situation by mysterious codes that others seemed to possess. Why did I, of all people, not have access to the necessary cryptic information? Would I never enter into the secret fellowship of humanity?

In my immaturity, I viewed any success as a cracking of the life code, an entering into the world that others inhabited. I have a very early memory of this: I don’t think I attended preschool, but I visited a preschool for, perhaps, one day. Despite my inability to connect with others, two girls fought to sit next to me during circle time. I solved this problem by explaining to them that they could sit on either side of me. I was elated by this. I thought I had finally cracked the code. I would thus be able to exist as others did. Later, not surprisingly, I discovered I was mistaken. I filed the experience away for further meditation, but as with other minor and inexplicable successes, it never made sense.

The only way to be as others, I discovered, was to mimic them–mimic their behavior or dress or pretend to be in rapture over their flavor of music, even if it left me cold. But this method only worked through junior high, and it didn’t actually work if you want to get right down to it. By the time I was sixteen, I had been smacked over the head so many times and called stupid so many times that I knew my mimicry was a pale imitation of what it meant to be a human, or more precisely, a teenage girl.

Fast forward to adulthood, and I’m desperately attempting to crack the code of being a wife, a mother, and a success in the world. And because my success as a human came to revolve around writing, it was clear from my general lack of acknowledgements that I would never crack that code. Don’t misunderstand me–when I won a short story contest in my twenties, I thought I had finally cracked the code, but it became painfully obvious that I had only cracked the code for that moment, with that story, and with one judge due to the poor quality of the other entries.

I’ve experienced other moments of elation–other moments when the universe coalesced into illusive veils of success–moments in which I could convince myself that I belong to the same human race as others–that I belong, and that I deserve the answers to the codes that have barred me for decades.

I bring this up for an important reason, and not merely because I need to give voice to my thoughts. Recently, I felt I cracked an important code. I cracked the code of the book I was working on–where to begin, where to end. And as with all past experiences with my code-cracking abilities, I believed in that moment that I had finally cracked the code to life.

But I haven’t, have I? Do you want to know why? There is no code–that’s the horrifying truth. I will never find the answer that will allow me entrance into the secret society of human beings. There isn’t a handshake. There isn’t a secret numerical list, a selection of words that rents the curtain.

The truth is horrifying, but it’s equally liberating. I no longer need to find the answers that will make me human. I’m already that. I’m weak. I’m broken, and God has reached me through my weaknesses. His veil was rent, not simply for those around me, but for me. Do I need more proof than that?

Do you feel as unsettled as I do? Do you feel uneasy with my answer? God has reached me, but if there’s no code to be broken, no answer to be found, then the problem with humanity was always in my head. And that leaves the problem squarely with me, with a version of me so little, so young that the answer is incomprehensible–no code, no answer, no fix.

Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be, after all.

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Skate Rink Memories

It was pouring rain outside the skate rink, and inside, the line was long and the corridor fogged and sweaty with kids wet from rain. Near the skate rentals, the smell was of rubber mats and dirty socks, and the boy behind the counter pulled out wads of dirty laces before plunking the skates on the counter. The benches were broken wooden things, at one time painted red and green, but now peeled mostly down to boards. Kids sat on them, pulling off their Nikes or K-Mart knock-off shoes, and lacing their brown skates with the frayed strands. Then they walked past the smoking closets, peering in surreptitiously to see what they could see of the older kids, who puffed away at forbidden cigarettes while clouds of smoke drifted out the open doors – a curious, sweet spicy smell of cloves mixed with the staleness of Marlboros and Camels.

Across from the closets was the café, and it was like a beacon – bright lights cast over orange booths and red and blue signs hung from the ceiling. Clutter covered the food counter: a popcorn machine filled with yellow corn, a jar of fat green pickles and another jar of red Twizzlers. The kids ordered hotdogs and fries with ketchup until their skin and pores were penetrated by the sour and sweet and greasy smells; they drank icy Cokes, syrupy sweet and sparkling at them with bubbles.

When they finally scooted over the worn, stained carpeting and back onto the rubber mats, they began to glide. Many of the boys wore special black skates, hockey skates they’d saved their allowance money to buy. Some of the girls wore special white skates, princess skates, but not very many. The timid girls split off and rolled down into the kiddie rink, where they pushed themselves off padded walls, tried to spin and turn, until they hit the other padded wall. The brave girls skated out into the big rink, where they ching-chinged their wheels over the glossy skate floor, taking care to avoid the show-off boys who raced around them before lowering themselves to a balance pose on one leg with the other leg straight out in front of them.

All over both rinks, the disco lights played and the music blasted out tired rock songs they’d heard thousands of times because the music selection was old and out of date. Really, no one listened to Lionel Richie anymore. Didn’t they know that? Some kids approached the DJ’s booth to request newer songs, but most wouldn’t dare to go near that high-up throne. The older boys who worked in the booth were cocky. They could do all the skating tricks the young boys could do, only better and, besides, they were the ones who could hoist you from the rink if you caused trouble.

That was the skate building, a worn building in a bad neighborhood with a big orange skate painted on the side that faced Sunset Highway. It sat next to the railroad tracks – and beyond that were blackberry brambles and cottonwood trees – beyond that were fields filled with rain and shadows. Shadows moved slowly; they seemed to roll along the tracks as though they were composed of the bad characters who roamed over the neighborhood. Crimes happened here and were rarely reported. One summer, a family that moved into a seedy rental unearthed the small skeleton of a young girl, and nobody had a clue that a young girl had ever gone missing.

After that, the police were all over the neighborhood that they normally avoided because it was better to leave well enough alone – let those people live as they would, and they needn’t involve themselves. The skeleton seemed to open something up, a new fear, an acknowledgment of the silent violence. The next thing the police knew, a fourteen-year-old girl reported that a local man had raped her. Everybody knew the man, knew he prowled like a lion at night, searching for prey. And though it seems unlikely that a skeleton should be the first to break the silence, that was the case – and the silence was broken forever.

The police began to roam through the neighborhood, to position themselves in the park at night, where rain and shadows met under enormous pine trees that could have hidden anything – monsters of the deep, instead of shady refuges for young children. Young children didn’t play in the park, hadn’t played there ever in the night, of course, but not in the day either, not for years. Rumors of drug deals and illicit sexual favors floated around. Some reported that, before the police began their own prowl, gang members practiced knife-throwing at the trees, where their blades sank deeply into the barky flesh.

And meanwhile, kids skated at the Skate World. Once they had their hands stamped, the bouncers wouldn’t let them come and go. Security was tight at the skate rink. It was the one place where parents felt they could drop their kids for awhile so they could get away by themselves, have a beer, maybe two or three. It was just odd that, all too often, the cocky young boys who worked in the DJ booth would open the back fire-exit door, the one that faced out on the railroad tracks, open it wide to allow in the fresh night air. Or so they claimed. But make no mistake, and never tell your parents, that the skate rink wasn’t the safe haven it was supposed to be. 
  
p.s. Spotted Owl pen and ink by A. Leon Miler

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A Blazing New World

There’s nothing that says “culture” like Facebook. Facebook is the epitome of twenty-first century American aesthetic. It’s a place where we can manufacture ourselves by updates: honest, exaggerated, or false. We are our Facebook creations. Accept this universal truth.

I suspect my profile is something akin to the chaos theory, but with a pessimistic twist on it of predictable results. No amount of force I exert changes these expected results. I simply push more objects into motion. Because the results of the chaos are predictable, order does inhabit my chaos theory, even if the order is a simple lack of irony. The expected will occur. That is order. That is good. That is ironic.

On a serious note, an old college friend—we’ll call her Camilla—typed out a frantic list of all the things she had to do this week, which included, but was not limited to a dance performance plus rehearsals, reading through hundreds of essays, and a load  of scholarly studying on obscure historical subjects. I immediately commented, “Let’s switch schedules.”

Camilla’s update reminded me of a truth not so universal, but still harsh. My schedule wasn’t so different from hers on the outside, but was diametrically opposed on the inside. Hers was a reflection of her personal dreams and goals, while mine mirrored a loss of myself–dance performances for my daughters–essays I read as a homeschool mom. Any other studying I might engage in is done surreptitiously and applied haphazardly to my sense of well-being, as if tacked on to mask my blank wall with ornaments and images. Recently, for example, I hung an avant-garde canvas covered in topological mixing (see above) and called it “Self Confidence”.

I sneaked out today to avoid staring at my blank wall, as well as my Facebook page. I tucked my computer inside its bag and left my house to haunt the corridors of the local college library. My plan was a pretense, of course. It was a pretense to scholarly achievement where none existed, and this pretense included having to request a guest ID to enter the scholarly databases. Then, after coming up blank yet again with my search terms, I typed utter nonsense in the parameters, such as “James Boswell, you’re a dirty old goat, and you’re no longer my favorite animus.” Then the library shunted me, the fake scholar, from their system. I sat at the table and felt sorry for myself, just as Boswell might have done nearly 300 years ago. I don’t know how anyone can beg a question, or conversely how a question can beg, but the circumstances implored, “Why is a dead man part of your psyche, anyway?”

I looked up blearily from my computer screen, and I saw him—not James Boswell, but a man whose presence in the library chilled me to the deepest place of my heart. I won’t name names, but ten years ago, we occasionally allowed this man to sleep on our floor because he was homeless and had been for years. He still is.

And he, too, haunts the libraries in town. With his 160 IQ (I made that number up), he searches for truth and gathers knowledge and works it all into loony 500 page dissertations on alien spacecraft technology. Really, nobody with an IQ of less than 160 could entertain the kind of technology he writes of—it wouldn’t occur to somebody with less intelligence, better social acumen, and a few more doses of sanity antidote.

Back then, when I was still in my twenties, and he in his forties or fifties, I knew we were alike. I sensed it and, therefore, wasn’t put off by him as another young person might have been. Unfortunately, my acceptance of him gave him the wrong impression, which ended in general embarrassment for all parties. This also meant he no longer felt welcome to sleep on our floor and moved his sleeping bag back into his van. To this day, he spends his nights by the river. And by day, he haunts the corridors of the libraries, searching for more information, for that crucial understanding of life, the universe, and everything that will allow him to reenter the world of men.

I saw my sad face reflected in his trifocals today. No, he wouldn’t look back at me. He quickly lowered his head to the large volume he held in his hands. But that didn’t matter because I witnessed in him what I needed to apprehend. I saw with blazing clarity what happens to fake scholars who wait and wait for understanding before they reenter the world. I know what you’re thinking (not really). I know that exiting the real world worked for Isaac Newton. Whenever he felt threatened by life, he retreated, and through his retreats he wrote his masterwork. But most men aren’t Newton. And aside from that, Newton wasn’t a fake. Newton was the real deal, a genius of the first order.

Now it’s time for me to acknowledge this most universal of truths and reenter the world. I’m also considering a change to my Facebook profile.

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