A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 21 – Only Sunshine by Becky Mandelbaum

Belle Plaine Service Area, Kansas Turnpike

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 21 – Only Sunshine by Becky Mandelbaum

Read it online here:
Only Sunshine by Becky Mandelbaum

Baby Julia was a baby, but even she understood that she was nothing much in the grand scheme of things. She would never be one of the greats: the rain or the wind or the dirt or the sky. But maybe, just maybe, she could participate in some peripheral way—by touching or tasting or, even better, by eating the celestial thing that she admired most. Why not? All around her, things were consuming other things: caterpillars were munching leaves, the mailbox was ingesting letters, the soil was drinking rain. Not to mention that every night, some invisible glutton took another bite of the moon. Eventually there’d be a new one—full and silver and miraculously intact—but without fail, that anonymous mouth would slowly eat it back down to a measly grain of rice. And then there was her mother who, every day, without fail, put the same plastic spoon in her mouth: pudding, applesauce, mashed peas. So why not this? Why not her and why not today and why not the sun?

—-Becky Mandelbaum, Only Sunshine

The most difficult question I get asked, and I get asked it a lot, is, “Where are you from?”

For most people that’s pretty easy, but I have no idea what to say. The most accurate answer is “nowhere,” but that seems pretty insolent as does “everywhere” which means exactly the same thing. Usually I say, “I’ve lived in Dallas for a long, long time,” which is accurate and probably the best answer. I am from where I live and I live where I’m from.

One place that does hold a claim on me is Kansas. My family is from there. I lived there as a youth whenever my father was on combat tours and couldn’t take his family along. We were stationed in the Northeast corner of the state for a while (on a base and in a town known for its prisons). In high school, for a few months I was a refugee there after being evacuated from a terrible earthquake. I went to college there (since my family was from Kansas, I was granted in-state tuition, which made the decision easy. My nickname for at least the first year or so was “banana boat,” as in “Bill, you are an American, but you act like you fell off the banana boat.”) My first job, for three years, after school was in Kansas.

So the state does have its hooks in me to some extent. But is it home? Nah.

There is no home. I hear stories like, “So and so went to school in Shreveport but after a month she was homesick and came back.” I have no idea what that means. Homesick is an emotion that I have never felt. When I travel I feel as much at home in some bland business hotel as I do in my bed in the house I make payments on. Which is, not at all. Or completely. Which means the same thing.

Today’s author, Becky Mandelbaum, is from Kansas and writes about Kansas (though she no longer lives there). Her book of short stories is called Bad Kansas – which is a pretty compelling title.

I read several of her works online and chose one that doesn’t have any obvious connection to that state. It’s called Only Sunshine and is a bit of magical realism (light on the realism) about an infant that eats the sun. It’s an effective piece – you really feel for the parents of the doomed baby and their futile attempts to stop the thermonuclear fusion.

I enjoyed the delicate tone and the simple story. I’ve been around enough babies to be pretty sure this is how they look at things and they would gobble old sol if they had the chance.

While I was in school, even though I was a chemistry major I tried to slip into as many advanced literature classes as I could, wedging them in between Differential Equations and Physical Chemistry. One that I took was “Literature of the Great Plains.” On the first day the professor apologized, “there isn’t really any great literature written on or about the Great Plains – we will have to make do with what we have.”

One concept is still with me. In the classic Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rölvaag, a women is essentially driven crazy by the sky and the fact that out on the plain, you can lie down, look up, and see nothing except the sky.

Beret had now formed the habit of constantly watching the prairie; out in the open, she would fix her eyes on one point of the sky line–and then, before she knew it, her gaze would have swung around the whole compass; but it was ever, ever the same. . . . Life it held not; a magic ring lay on the horizon, extending upward into the sky; within this circle no living form could enter; it was like the chain inclosing the king’s garden, that prevented it from bearing fruit. . . . How could human beings continue to live here while that magic ring encompassed them? And those who were strong enough to break through were only being enticed still farther to their destruction! . . .

They had been here four months now; to her it seemed like so many generations; in all this time they had seen no strangers except the Indians–nor would they be likely to see any others. . . . Almost imperceptibly, her terror because of the stakes which her husband had burned had faded away and disappeared. . . . They had probably belonged to the Indians, so it did not matter; he had become fast friends with them. . . .

People had never dwelt here, people would never come; never could they find home in this vast, wind-swept void. . . . Yes, they were the only ones who had been bewitched into straying out here! . . . Thus it was with the erring sons of men; they were lost before they knew it; they went astray without being aware; only others could see them as they were. Some were saved, and returned from their wanderings, changed into different people; others never came back. . . . God pity them: others never came back! . . .

At these times, a hopeless depression would take hold of her; she would look around at the circle of the sky line; although it lay so far distant, it seemed threatening to draw in and choke her. . . .

. . . So she grew more taciturn, given to brooding thoughts.

But then the unthinkable took place: some one from outside broke through the magic circle. . . .

Today’s story made me think about Giants in the Earth… I’m not sure why. Maybe the opening line of Rölvaag’s book.

Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come.

. . . And sun! And still more sun! It set the heavens afire every morning; it grew with the day to quivering golden light–then softened into all the shades of red and purple as evening fell. . . . Pure colour everywhere. A gust of wind, sweeping across the plain, threw into life waves of yellow and blue and green. Now and then a dead black wave would race over the scene . . . a cloud’s gliding shadow . . . now and then. . . .

Interview with Becky Mandelbaum:

How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?

I usually don’t like using social media to promote my writing. I like to write because writing feels, in many ways, like a rejection of all the technology we’ve come to rely on. A story on paper is so simple. You have the text, the reader, and the exchange. I think bringing other mediums into the picture can ruin that interaction. Of course, it can also enhance it in other, peripheral ways. I’ve liked several of my favorite journals on Facebook, and it’s nice to see what’s going on with those publications.
—-From Midwestern Gothic

Keeper of the Plains,
Wichita, Kansas

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A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 20 – Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

Untitled (Sprawling Octopus Man), by Thomas Houseago
Nasher Sculpture Center
Dallas, Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 20 – Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

Read it online here:
Samsa in Love by Haruki Murakami

In any case, he had to learn how to move his body. He couldn’t lie there staring up at the ceiling forever. The posture left him much too vulnerable. He had no chance of surviving an attack—by predatory birds, for example. As a first step, he tried to move his fingers. There were ten of them, long things affixed to his two hands. Each was equipped with a number of joints, which made synchronizing their movements very complicated. To make matters worse, his body felt numb, as though it were immersed in a sticky, heavy liquid, so that it was difficult to send strength to his extremities.

Nevertheless, after repeated attempts and failures, by closing his eyes and focusing his mind he was able to bring his fingers more under control. Little by little, he was learning how to make them work together. As his fingers became operational, the numbness that had enveloped his body withdrew. In its place—like a dark and sinister reef revealed by a retreating tide—came an excruciating pain.

It took Samsa some time to realize that the pain was hunger. This ravenous desire for food was new to him, or at least he had no memory of experiencing anything like it. It was as if he had not had a bite to eat for a week. As if the center of his body were now a cavernous void. His bones creaked; his muscles clenched; his organs twitched.

—-Haruki Murakami, Samsa in Love

I always think about believability in fiction. You don’t have to worry about this in non-fiction… it’s by definition true and believable, even when it is wildly unlikely. But fiction has to be believable.

One important idea is “making a deal with the reader.” This has to be done right away, preferably in the very first sentence. You have to alert the reader, make a deal with the reader, and then keep up your end of the bargain.

The best example is Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Turning into a giant cockroach in the middle of the night for no apparent reason isn’t believable, is it?

But Kafka writes his genius opening line:

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

You see, Kafka has made a deal with the reader. If you continue with the story, you have agreed that people can be changed into a giant cockroach (vermin) for no reason. He offers the deal, you accept it, and he keeps it.

Today, I planned on stopping for lunch, by myself. I looked forward to the quiet and the break. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to carry my Kindle or even a book. No problem, the library was right next door and, looking in at the New Fiction display, I saw a copy of Men Without Women, Stories by Haruki Murakami. Bingo.

While I ate, I looked through the table of contents for a brief selection, something I could read during the short sliver of time I was allotted. I found Samsa in Love, and was able to finish before I had to head back to work.

Samsa in Love is Metamorphosis in reverse. It starts out with Gregor Samsa waking up in his bare room, now transformed back into a human. He remembers little of being Gregor Samsa, but even less of the time he spent as a cockroach (except for a strong fear of birds). The story tells of his first few steps in becoming human again, including falling fast in love with a hunchbacked locksmith sporting an ill-fitting brassiere.

The story makes a deal, and sticks with it.

Interview with Haruki Murakami:

Is each book you write fully formed in your mind before you start to write or is it a journey for you as the writer as it is for us as readers?

I don’t have any idea at all, when I start writing, of what is to come. For instance, for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the first thing I had was the call of the bird, because I heard a bird in my back yard (it was the first time I heard that kind of sound and I never have since then. I felt like it was predicting something. So I wanted to write about it). The next thing was cooking spaghetti – these are things that happen to me! I was cooking spaghetti, and somebody call. So I had just these two things at the start. Two years I kept on writing. It’s fun! I don’t know what’s going to happen next, every day. I get up, go to the desk, switch on the computer, etc. and say to myself: “so what’s going to happen today?” It’s fun!

—-from The Guardian

(click to enlarge)
Adam, by Emile-Antoine Bourdelle, plus admirer
Cullen Sculpture Garden
Houston, Texas

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 19 – The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

The Sweepers
Wang Shugang
Cast Iron (2012)
Crow Collection of Asian Art

The Sweepers
Wang Shugang
Cast Iron (2012)
Crow Collection of Asian Art

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 19 – The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

Read it online here:
The Pomegranate by Kawabata Yasunari

Two weeks or so before, her seven-year-old nephew had come visiting, and had noticed the pomegranates immediately. He had scrambled up into the tree. Kimiko had felt that she was in the presence of life.

“There is a big one up above,” she called from the veranda.

“But if I pick it I can’t get back down.”

It was true. To climb down with pomegranates in both hands would not be easy. Kimiko smiled. He was a dear.

—-Kawabata Yasunari, The Pomegranate

Today’s delicate short story is by Kawabata Yasunari, the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. He wrote several acclaimed novels, including Snow Country and the semi-fictional The Master of Go. But he was also known for his very short works, which he called “palm-of-the-hand” stories.

Kawabata Yasunari:

In Zen there is no worship of images. Zen does have images, but in the hall where the regimen of meditation is pursued, there are neither images nor pictures of Buddhas, nor are there scriptures. The Zen disciple sits for long hours silent and motionless, with his eyes closed. Presently he enters a state of impassivity, free from all ideas and all thoughts. He departs from the self and enters the realm of nothingness. This is not the nothingness or the emptiness of the West. It is rather the reverse, a universe of the spirit in which everything communicates freely with everything, transcending bounds, limitless. There are of course masters of Zen, and the disciple is brought toward enlightenment by exchanging questions and answers with his master, and he studies the scriptures. The disciple must, however, always be lord of his own thoughts, and must attain enlightenment through his own efforts. And the emphasis is less upon reason and argument than upon intuition, immediate feeling. Enlightenment comes not from teaching but through the eye awakened inwardly. Truth is in “the discarding of words”, it lies “outside words”. And so we have the extreme of “silence like thunder”, in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra. Tradition has it that Bodhidharma, a southern Indian prince who lived in about the sixth century and was the founder of Zen in China, sat for nine years in silence facing the wall of a cave, and finally attained enlightenment. The Zen practice of silent meditation in a seated posture derives from Bodhidharma.

—From his Nobel Prize Lecture

Buddah
Liu Yonggang, Chinese, b. 1964
China, 2013
Painted Steel
Crow Collection of Asian Art
Dallas, Texas

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 18 – Feral by Christopher Moyer

Patricia Johanson, Sagitaria Platyphylla (Delta Duckpotato), Fair Park, Dallas, Texas

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 18 – Feral by Christopher Moyer

Read it online here:
Feral by Christopher Moyer

Our grandmother watches us some of the time. The rest of the time, we do what we want. At school, the adults asked a lot of questions about that, so we stopped going. We haven’t gone down to the school in weeks or maybe months, I don’t know—our watches stopped a long time ago, too, and after that we threw them in the creek down by the park just to watch them splash.

—-Christopher Moyer, Feral

I had always wanted to own a home on a creek lot. Our house technically is, though it is more of a ditch than a creek. At any rate, there is quite a cavalcade of critters parading by, other than the joggers and dog-walkers. If you sit in my back yard at dawn and sip a cup of coffee you will see the coyotes trotting back to their dens – I assume hidden in the clumps of trees along the fairways of the golf course. A family of beavers live under the road and sometimes can be seen on the jogging trail bridges at night. Rabbits, ducks, and possums are common, sometimes a fox will show up. There is a bobcat terrorizing the neighborhood – not much can be done.

Nature is never as far away as we think it is.

Today’s bit of flash fiction by Christopher Moyer reminds us, not only of the wild presence, but how easy it is to slip back… to lose our humanity… to become feral. Easy, and maybe not so bad.

Christopher Moyer:

The first time I bid on a freelance job to ghostwrite a doomsday survival guide, I was only asked one question: Did I have experience writing for middle-aged Republican men? I told the client that I had experience writing for a wide variety of ages and political affiliations, which was noncommittal enough to be true.

The client said, “Sounds good, bro.”

We were off to the races.
—From Confessions of a Former Apocalypse Survival Guide Writer, at Vice Motherboard

They don’t call it Duck Creek for nothing.

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 17 – The Mice by Lydia Davis


 

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 17 – The Mice by Lydia Davis

Read it online here:

The Mice by Lydia Davis

Although we are pleased, we are also upset, because the mice behave as though there were something wrong with our kitchen. What makes this even more puzzling is that our house is much less tidy than the houses of our neighbors. There is more food lying about in our kitchen, more crumbs on the counters and filthy scraps of onion kicked against the base of the cabinets. In fact, there is so much loose food in the kitchen I can only think the mice themselves are defeated by it.

—-Lydia Davis, The Mice

Lydia Davis is a writer known for ultra-short works of flash fiction. I haven’t read very much of what she has written – though I think I’ll pick up a book of her stories now.

There is something about flash fiction that is appropriate for the way we live our lives today. Who has time for a giant novel anyway? Bits and little tales you can fit in before meetings, while waiting for something, or riding the train. That is all the freedom we have anymore – those tiny slivers of time when the world forgets about you for a moment.

Sure, it’s tough for a deep connection or for strong emotion to take hold in such little slivers of seconds. But that is what we are left with.

Interview with Lydia Davis:

in those days (fall of 1973, age 26, living in the country in France), I would force myself to stay at the desk for a certain number of hours, giving myself admonitions (written in my notebook) like “Alright, let’s establish one firm rule: from when I get up—at 7 or 7:30—until, say, 12:30 … allowing one break for a modest, circumscribed, abrupt meal of porridge or eggs at about 10:30, nothing else will be allowable—no cooking, no cleaning, no walking, no talking or playing, etc.”

At the desk, I would write and write, in my notebook, whatever came to mind, as a way of working up to the point of writing something like a story. This would not be free-association writing—I never did that—but thoughts, descriptions of what was around me, always written carefully, revised. I might write something incomplete, possibly the beginning of a story, but possibly just a fragment:

Although the house seemed very bright, clean, and elegant, one could tell by the number of flies that swarmed in it, landed on the furniture, and crept up and down the windowpanes, that something about the house was rotten.

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 16 – War of the Clowns by Mia Couto

Klyde Warren Park,
Dallas, Texas

 

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 16 – War of the Clowns by Mia Couto

Read it online here:
War of the Clowns by Mia Couto

The following morning, the two remained, obnoxious and outdoing
each other. It seemed as though, between them, even yucca soured. In the
street, meanwhile, those present were exhilarated with the masquerade.
The buffoons began worsening their insults with fine-edged and finetuned
barbs. Believing it to be a show, the passersby left coins along the
roadside.

—-Mia Couto, War of the Clowns

Today, we have a brief bit of flash fiction by Mia Couto, an excellent writer from Mozambique.

At first, the parable seems like a bit of literary fluff. But it also feels terribly familiar. It feels like watching the evening news.

Are you afraid of clowns?

The biggest movie right now is It – from the Steven King novel. Like today’s flash fiction, It plays on our fear of clowns. The clowns in today’s parable are even more frightening, in the end, than the horrific Pennywise. They are the end of the world.

Interview with Mi Couto:

We know we are made of memories, but we don’t know the extent to which we are made up of forgetfulness. We think of oblivion as an absence, an empty space, a lack. But in most cases, with the exception of neurological disease, forgetting is an activity—it’s a choice that demands the same effort as remembrance. This is equally valid for individuals and communities. If you visit Mozambique, you’ll see that people have decided to forget the war years. It is not an omission. It’s a tacit decision to forget what were cruel times, because people fear that this cruelty is not a thing of the past but can again become our present. And moreover, in rural parts of Mozambique the notion of nonlinear time is still dominant. For them, the past has not passed.

—-from Paris Review

Laissez les bons temps rouler

A Month of Short Stories 2017, Day 15 – Limited Edition by Tim Maughan

Over several years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month…. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year – In September this time… because it is September.

Today’s story, for day 15 – Limited Edition by Tim Maughan

Read it online here:
Limited Edition by Tim Maughan

Avonmeads is less than ten minutes walk from Barton Hill, from his ends, but it feels like a different world to him. Whenever there’s any trouble with youth in places like this the timelines erupt with opinions, people angry and shouting, saying why are people like him making trouble and tearing up their own community. He shakes his head and laughs to himself. Community? There’s no community down here. This isn’t a community space – it’s nowhere, a non-place. Nobody lives here, it’s populated only fleetingly by transient visitors – van drivers getting lunch, shoppers buying the few things they still can’t buy through their spex or print at home. Even the staff in the shops here – none of them live here, they just come for a few hours a day, a few days a week. And most of them don’t even hold that down for long – there’s about as much a sense of career down here as there is community. For a start the shops never stay for long – something opens, fills a short-term need, then closes. Storefronts lie dead and abandoned, until someone thinks they’ve found another fleeting need, moves in, shuts down. Open, close, repeat.

—-Tim Maughan, Limited Edition

I am an old man, old enough to know a time when athletic shoes were called sneakers, or maybe tennis shoes – and were made of a single, simple layer of canvas with a simple rubber sole. The only “brand” I remember were PF Flyers (PF stood for Posture Foundation – bet you didn’t know that) and there were ads for them on television. I do remember a bit of the thrill and envy when I saw a pair – always on somebody else.

Now, of course, the innocent and silly tropes of my ancient youth have been distorted and blown up by technology and the shallowness of modern life until they have become reality. Sneakers have been replaced by Kicks, and Johnny Quest replaced by millionaire athletes.

Throw these ingredients into the soup of social media and powerful portable devices and you have the world of today’s story, Limited Edition.

This truly is the best of all possible worlds.

Interview with Tim Maughan:

Odo: Current technologies such as virtual reality, social networks and online games are prominently featured in your stories. How would you say that the use of these technologies is changing our way of thinking, our way of interacting with other people?

TM: That’s a good question. That’s a big question! I’m not sure we know yet, I think we’re still feeling our way. That’s why I’m writing about them, I think, to try and understand myself. I think everything is so double edged now – online communities for example, they can be both embracing and alienating, both to degrees we couldn’t possibly imagine a couple of decades ago. The same goes for the anonymity and distance that ‘net culture grants us – it can be liberating, allowing people to express themselves in ways they would be too scared to in real life – but of course the flip of that is it lets people get away with saying or doing terrible things with no consequence. I was reading a forum recently where someone used a homophobic slur, and when they were confronted about it they said nobody should be offended as it was ‘only pixels’. That struck me as simultaneously both horrifying and logical – it’s a defence that must make some sense if you’ve grown up spending a large percentage of your communicating life online. It’s the complete stripping of meaning, postmodernism made real, I guess. How do you argue against that? In fact, with meaning gone in that way, how do you argue about anything?

Odo: Trust (and distrust) is an important theme in your stories, where characters are often deceived by their friends. Do you think that trusting other people is more dangerous today than, say, twenty years ago?

TM: No, I don’t think so – the media would love us to all believe that, it feeds on fear, and is constantly looking to spread the illusion of distrust so that consumers turn to it for a kind of fake truth. I hear a lot of media talk here about the ‘blitz spirit’, about how British society was more unified during the war in the ’40s. I largely suspect that’s bullshit, and some terrible things happened when the lights were out, there was looting, people cheated on departed lovers and so on. When I’m writing about distrust I’m not saying that it’s a new thing, or a futuristic thing – to be honest it’s sometimes just a plot device! – but more that it’s there, and our media and culture likes to amplify it, to separate and alienate us, to make us better, competing consumers. Consumerism doesn’t work well if everyone trusts each other, it only works if we feel the need to compete with our neighbours, friends, even families.

—-from Sense of Wonder

On the way home from the store with a bag of Miller High Life.