Short Story Of the Day – Empty Bottles (flash fiction) by Bill Chance

“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.”
― Oscar Wilde

The end of a game of giant Jenga – Community Beer Company, Dallas, Texas


 

I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.

I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.

Here’s another one for today (#64) More than half way there! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

 


 

Empty Bottles

 

Amber was drunk again when Darien came home from work. Darien was tired, he was always tired. Sick and tired. Darien worked late every night now. The sad truth is that he was afraid to come home. He was working later and later week by week on purpose.

While Darien was at the law office Amber would sleep until noon. She would watch television until three and then head down to the Rusty Duck – a dark bar full of unemployed plumbers and valet parking attendants getting a buzz on before work. He knew this is what Amber did all day because that’s what she told him.

Darien wasn’t sure when it had all gone bad but he knew it didn’t take very long. It felt like it had happened overnight.

Today there was a galvanized bucket with 3 inches of ice melt water in it on the floor in the living room and empty Budweiser bottles scattered around the couch.

“You have to give me a ride down to the Rusty Duck” Amber said “I left the Suburban there.”

“How did you get home?”

“Oh, Terry and some of the boys gave me a ride.”

“I see they stayed a while. I see you all had a nice little party while I was at work.”

“Now if you’re going to be working until after dark we’ll have the party without you. What do you expect me to do? Now don’t you go leaving me home all alone like you been doing.”

“Somebody has to make a buck around this place. You’re sure not bringing anything home.”

“Oh keep it up buddy and I’ll be bringing plenty home. Just you watch.”


The next time, Amber wasn’t even home when Darien came back from work. She had been there – the Suburban was parked crookedly in front of the house. The backyard was scattered with beer bottles, though they had remembered to take their bucket with them this time.

Darien didn’t know what to do. He grabbed a trash bag, turned the porch lights on, and walked around the back yard picking up bottles.

He could not figure out how it had come to this.

A memory came back, against his will. There was a time when they both were young. When he first met Amber he always had a book with him. He read constantly, voraciously, always had, all his life. He carried the current dog-eared paperback the way most people carried a wallet. He didn’t think twice about it and couldn’t imagine anyone else even noticing.

One evening, when Amber showed up, she had a book with her. She carried it awkwardly, like she didn’t know exactly what to do with the thing. Darien took a look at the thing – it was a cheap junk paperback thriller, with a lurid cover featuring a woman in a torn dress and a man firing a pistol from a speeding sports car.

“Oh, you don’t want to read this,” Darren said to Amber. “Tomorrow, I’ll bring you a real book.”

The next day he dug around in the old suitcase he always brought with him, his portable library. After some consideration, he dug out a slim volume – “The Awakening,” by Kate Chopin, and brought it down to the pool. It was the only paperback he had that he figured she would be able to get through. He handed it to Amber down at the pool that evening. She looked at it with suspicion, but took it anyway.

Darien realized that he had never, not in his long, awkward, desperate courtship of Amber, or in their years of marriage, asked her if she had ever read it. He knew she still had the book, she kept the same copy in her makeup drawer, but he never felt like he could talk about it. He had never seen her read another book.

He had finished gathering the bottles, so he sat down in a wooden chair in the back corner of the yard, and began to weep. He knew Amber would come home, eventually, but what was he to do then?

He was startled by the sudden loud rhythmic croaking of a single frog, somewhere in the groundcover under the tree by the fence. He looked, but couldn’t figure out where the frog was at. The sound was constant and seemed to come from several directions at once.

Listening to the lonely sound, Darien realized that he would do nothing – that there was nothing he could do. He was being mistreated terribly, but he needed this. He needed this. He had fallen that evening years ago when Amber had driven up on her little motorcycle and the cavern had become deeper and the walls steeper every day since then.

He abandoned the call of the solitary frog and went back into the house. He dialed his office and left a message that he would not be in to work the next day. He unlocked the front door and then stretched out on the sofa, trying to get a little restless sleep, waiting there for Amber to come home.

Short Story Of the Day, I Can See Right Through You by Kelly Link

It’s hard for the demon lover to grow old.

—-Kelly Link, I Can See Right Through You

Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas

I first read about Kelly Link and her fiction when I read that Salon had named her collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen, a book of the year. I tracked down the paperback and read it – and it was as good as advertised. I’ve been a fan of her work – a weird melange of oddly modern adult stories told as twisted fairy tales – ever since.

I’ve linked to two of her short stories before – Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (unfortunately, no longer online) and Catskin. Buy some of her books – and visit her publishing house – especially since she offers so much that she has written and/or published under a creative commons license.

So today I’ll link to I Can See Right Through You – it starts out fragmented and jumping around and then settles down and then veers into something a little unexpected. Worth it… genius, really.

Read it here:

I Can See Right Through You by Kelly Link

from McSweeney’s

Kelly Link Homepage

Small Beer Press

Kelly Link’s Twitter

Can You Spare A Square?

“The worst job in the whole world must be recycling toilet paper.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

I always stop at a handful of Little Free Libraries on my bike rides around my ‘hood. I don’t pick up books (though I look to see if there is an especially interesting one – there hasn’t been) – rather, I drop books off. That helps me deal with my natural bookish hoarder tendencies.

Today, at one near my house, I spotted this extra addition.

Little Free Library near my house – with extra goodies.

Little Free Library near my house.

Six rolls of precious toilet paper tucked in among the tomes.

So if you live on the east side of Richardson, and are desperate for a roll, contact me and I’ll give you the location.

One Book In My Hand And A Stack Of Others On the Floor

“I like best to have one book in my hand, and a stack of others on the floor beside me, so as to know the supply of poppy and mandragora will not run out before the small hours.”
Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas (taken a long time ago, obviously)

There was a time when we could go to bookstores. Especially big ol’ huge used bookstores (like Recycled Books) with rooms – a confused labyrinth of passages between towering shelves – that odd quiet of millions of sheets of paper adsorbing the sound – the slight smell of mold and ancient wisdom. I would stand in a place like that (or the library) and feel panic because I would never live long enough to read one percent of this – so much knowledge that I would never possess – haunted by the thought that somewhere in there – in that massive agglomeration – is the one book that would enlighten me and tell me exactly what I need to know and I don’t know enough to find it and wouldn’t know it if I saw it.

It feels like those days are so long in the past – it seemed like we could do anything (except smoke in the elevator) – the memories are fading – will those days ever come back again?

Recycled Books
Denton, Texas

Recycled Books Records CDs
Denton, Texas
(click to enlarge)

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas

 

 

Joy Cannot Fend Off Evil

“But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil.
Joy can only remind you why you fight.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Dead Astronauts

(click to enlarge)
Mural, Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

OK, it was Monday, the end of work, I was so very tired, I didn’t have my car with me, I had to get clear across town, if I really wanted to go there, it was cold, it was raining, it was dark,  I thought about not going, I would get back home so very late, here’s how I would have to travel:

Work Shuttle – DART Red Line – walking downtown – Dallas Streetcar to Bishop Arts – Walk to Restaurant – eat a hamburger – Walk to BookstoreWild Detectives Book Club discussion of Dead Astronauts – Walk to Streetcar – Streetcar downtown – walk to DART station – Red Line to Spring Valley Station – wait for bus – DART bus 402 – walk home from Belt Line and Yale

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone, today is the next day and I’m tired I didn’t get enough sleep last night

 

But I realized I had to go because the book was so difficult and so WEIRD that I had to find out what the others thought about it. Also, I had fought my way to the end of a tough read – I had earned the trip and the meeting.

 

I asked the group, “Would you have finished this if you weren’t in a reading group? If there weren’t other people shaming you into plowing ahead and getting to the end?” Everyone (and I mean Every-One) replied enthusiastically “Hell No!”

 

What do I think about difficult books? What do I think about WEIRD books? What do I think about books that stretch the envelope of what text can do? What do I think about books that play with illustration and typography in odd and confusing ways? (think House of Leaves)

 

I did say that, usually, I judge difficult and WEIRD books… in the end… by an emotional connection. I don’t care if the plot makes no sense I don’t care if there is a conventional resolution I don’t care if the theme is obscure(d) – but I prefer it if I have some kind of emotional connection or some sort of inner payoff at the end

 

With Dead Astronauts there was some (but not a lot) especially in the Sarah section and at the very end. Was there enough? Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows

 

Now, the next big question is should I read more VanderMeer? (I did really like The Situation – a protoBorne novella)  Should I read Borne? (set in the same world as Dead Astronauts but different – the people in the group that had read it said it was character-driven) Should I read Annihilation?( I saw the movie without knowing it was from a book and thought it was very cool) Should I read the whole Southern Reach Trilogy (A guy sitting next to me said he really liked Annihilation but the sequels left him cold because they resolved too much of the mystery of Annihilation)

 

So Maybe I’ll read Annihilation and skip the rest of the Trilogy. I think I will read Borne.

 

But first… I have to read L’Assommoir – Have to keep troopering through my Zola project – and then, in March there’s another Wild Detectives Difficult Book Club project – we’re going to tackle The Brothers Karamazov (about six weeks of work)………………….

So little time, so many books.

 

 

Short Story (novella) of the day, The Situation by Jeff VanderMeer

My Manager was extremely thin, made of plastic,with paper covering the plastic. They had always hoped, I thought, that one day her heart would start, but her heart remained a dry leaf that drifted in her ribcage,animated to lift and fall only by her breathing. Some-times, when my Manager was angry, she would become so hot that the paper covering her would ignite, and the plastic beneath would begin to melt.

—-Jeff VanderMeer, The Situation

Art Deco mural from Fair Park in Dallas

 

The Situation, by Jeff VanderMeer

from Wired Magazine

About a year ago I started going to book club meetings at The Wild Detectives – a bookstore in Bishop Arts that features beer and coffee… a great place. Even though I don’t have much in common with the other readers and it’s really tough to get across town after work, I like to go. Actually, now that I think about it, the fact I don’t have much in common with the other readers is the best thing about going.

The book we will discuss the first Monday in February is The Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer. I’m cranking through the book and haven’t made up my mind yet. It’s very imaginative and well written but exceedingly weird. I like weird – but only if, at the end, there’s a point… some emotional connection. I’m not a big fan of weird for weird’s sake. I have a feeling that I will be a Jeff VanderMeer fan at the end.

I think that’s a good thing. It’s always good to find a new author isn’t it? Even though I have a ways to go on my Zola reading project and enough other books to… well, to fill up my rapidly declining lineup of years left.

Looking at other Jeff VanderMeer works there’s the Southern Reach Trilogy (I’ve seen the interesting movie Annihilation which was adapted from the first book in the trilogy) and I think those books will get added. Also there is the Borne novel which is set in the same insane world as The Dead Astronauts. That’s four more books to read. So little time, so many books.

As I was looking around for info (The Dead Astronauts is difficult enough I’m not worried about spoilers) on The Dead Astronauts and the Borne world I discovered an online short novella called The Situation. It is billed as a proto-Borne story – set in a preliminary version of that universe (are we reading about the origin of the giant bear named Mord?). So I sat down and read it.

And liked it. It is a sort-of comedy about the difficulty of surviving sane inside an evil bureaucracy. Quite a harrowing story. And well-worth the time and effort.

Shit. That means I’ll eventually have to read all those books. So many books, so little time.

Short Story of the Day, Sticks by George Saunders

The first time I brought a date over she said: what’s with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

—- George Saunders, Sticks

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Conjoined, Roxy Paine

George Saunders is a writer that amazes me. If I could write like any one person I would want to write like him (though I have said the same thing about  Raymond Carver… so, well, maybe it’s a tie).

I’ve written about stories by Saunders before:

Today’s short story is a one minute piece of flash fiction that contains an entire life full of frustration and regret. It’s funny and sad, in the terrible way that only funny things can be so sad. It’s called Sticks.

 

You can read it here: Sticks, by George Saunders

In the introduction to the published version in “Story” magazine he explains how he developed the idea for the story (if you follow my link above you can find out for yourself). That short explanation is as amazing as the fiction itself. We all see things along the road, especially along our commute to work, that become part of our lives so intimately that they disappear. Still, your imagination is filled with these things and the stories they generate. Only a genius like George Saunders can imagine something so poignant and unforgettable, so buoyant and unforgivable.

Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

A Stack Of Others On the Floor Beside Me

“I like best to have one book in my hand, and a stack of others on the floor beside me, so as to know the supply of poppy and mandragora will not run out before the small hours.”
Dorothy Parker, The Collected Dorothy Parker

I believe we all have our addictions. Life would be unbearably dull without addictions. The trick is to pick ones that won’t destroy you and then try and manage them.

One of my addictions is used books. In this Kindle age, my book addiction is tempered (that devilish device already has more words entombed in it than I can read in the brief time I have left to live) but every now and then it rears its ugly head. Today was one of those times.

It was the annual Half-Price Books Clearance sale at the Dallas Market Center.

Image a huge room – almost five acres in size – that usually holds massive collections of boats, recreational vehicles, or cars. That vast expanse of space is covered with hundreds of long tables and every table is stacked with books. All for two dollars apiece. That’s the Half-Price Books Clearance Sale.

Half-Price Books Clearance Sale, Market Hall, Dallas, Texas

The books (and other goodies) are only roughly organized – YA, Fiction, Cookbooks, Non-Fiction, Audio CDs, DVDs, Children’s Books, History, Vinyl, Comic Books, Coffee Table Books, and Vintage. If you are looking for a particular tome – it might be there, but you are not going to find it. The only way is to abandon yourself, walk up and down the tables, picking out what catches your eye.

I know that somewhere in that immense assortment there is one book that would change my life – and only cost two dollars.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find it.

When we arrived the outer edge of the room was almost completely filled with a long line of folks pushing big shopping carts piled with books. It looked like it would take hours to get through that queue and make a purchase. Luckily, the line shrank precipitously while we browsed – these were the true addicts that had shown up at first light for the prime books (though the staff was constantly restocking).

I saw the folks that I have spotted at library sales before – people with an app on their phones, working down the line scanning the barcodes. They have some online database they are working against that will tell them the value of the book they are passing. They will do this for hours – scanning through thousands of items looking for something they can sell on their online store. I guess this is cool – but what a hard way to make a buck.

I went to the sale with the idea of not buying anything other than maybe a book or two – simply enjoying the scene – like a junkie going somewhere to look at gigantic piles of heroin. Of course, that did not work. I bought a few books – less than ten – not too bad. I’ll have to get rid of that many – I control my addiction by limiting my shelf space (a book goes in – one goes out). So many  books, so little time left.

If you live in Dallas, you have two days left to get over there. They completely restock every morning.

The Ladies Paradise

“I would rather die of passion than of boredom.”
Émile Zola, The Ladies’ Paradise

Cover of Au Bonheur des Dames by Emile Zola

I am now a good chunk into Emile Zola’s twenty volume Rougon Macquat series of novels. Attacking this pile of books in the recommended reading order:

  • La Fortune des Rougon (1871) (The Fortune of the Rougons)
  • Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) (His Excellency Eugene Rougon/ His Excellency)
  • La Curée (1871-2) (The Kill)
  • L’Argent (1891) (Money)
  • Le Rêve (1888) (The Dream)
  • La Conquête de Plassans (1874) (The Conquest of Plassans/A Priest in the House)
  • Pot-Bouille (1882) (Pot Luck/Restless House/Piping Hot)
  • Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) (The Ladies’ Paradise/Shop Girls of Paris/Ladies’ Delight)
  • La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (1875) (The Sin of Father Mouret/Abbe Mouret’s Transgression)
  • Une Page d’amour (1878) (A Lesson in Love/A Love Episode/A Page of Love/A Love Affair)
  • Le Ventre de Paris (1873) (The Belly of Paris/The Fat and the Thin/Savage Paris/The Markets of Paris)
  • La Joie de Vivre (1884) (The Joys of Living/Joy of Life/How Jolly Life Is/Zest for Life)
  • L’Assommoir (1877) (The Dram Shop/The Gin Palace/Drink/Drunkard)
  • L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
  • La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
  • Germinal (1885)
  • Nana (1880)
  • La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
  • La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
  • Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)

The next one up was The Ladies Paradise.

The overall story is a very thin romance between a poor, country girl that comes to Paris and finds work in a new, rapidly expanding department store and the owner of the store. He is Octave Mouret, the relentless womanizer of the book before this one – Pot-Bouille. His desire to possess women has now metastasized into the need to dominate them commercially by creating a retail establishment that they cannot resist – literally a ladies’ paradise.

But the real protagonist of the story is the store itself – the eponymous Ladies Paradise. Large swaths of text are dedicated to detailed dreamy descriptions of the store, its wares, and the elaborate displays set up to show off the goods and lure in the women of Paris and, most importantly, to separate them from their money.

As the book progresses the store grows and grows, taking over building after building, until it dominates the area and all retail commerce. There is a heart-tearing description of the woeful ends of the various small shopkeepers of Paris – trying to scrape out a living selling cloth, shoes, or umbrellas – until they are inevitably ground under the heels of the behemoth growing through the streets – their owners are driven into bankruptcy, poverty, and madness.

The book was written a couple of centuries ago – but it is a story that is still going on today. We have all seen small businessmen destroyed by large corporate chains that offer lower prices, bigger selections, and spectacular shopping experiences. It is a story that could take place in the last couple of decades.

Except today, even those huge conglomerates are being driven out of business by a technology that Zola couldn’t even imagine – online shopping. Though, now that I think about it, The Ladies Paradise puts together a company of horse-drawn delivery vans, with advertisements plastered on the side, that resembles today’s fleet of Amazon-Prime vehicles.

The novel’s fictional department store was modeled after a real place – Le Bon Marché in Paris. The store is still open.

This was an enjoyable tome in the series, though the long, detailed descriptions of ranks upon ranks of goods placed on sale went on too long for my taste – but probably necessary to drive home the point of the plot. It was simultaneously a record of the past, an reverse echo of the present, and a warning of the future.

Pot Bouille

“When younger, he had been fun-loving to the point of tedium.”
Émile Zola, Pot Luck (Pot Bouille)

Pot Bouille, by Emile Zola

In September of last year (2018) I began the task of reading all twenty novels in Emile Zola’s Rougon Marquat cycle. There was a three month gap in this reading plan as I plowed through Gravity’s Rainbow with a reading group. But now I’m back at it – though not in too much of a hurry… I am reading other books too.

I finished The Conquest of Plassans (book number six) a week or so ago. It was an interesting read – especially how it began slowly as a story of small-town gossip and intrigue and built into a climax of madness, horror, and death. Now I am onto the seventh (in the recommended reading order), Pot-Bouille.

That title doesn’t translate to English very well. I’ve seen it as Pot Luck and other things. From Wikipedia:

The word pot-bouille is a 19th-century French slang term for a large cooking pot or cauldron used for preparing stews and casseroles and also the foods prepared in it. The title is intended to convey a sense of disparate ingredients, the various inhabitants of the building mixed together, to create a potent and heady mix like a strong stew. The impression is to hint at the greed, ambition and depravity which lies behind the pretentious façade of the outwardly well behaved bourgeois apartment block. There is no equivalent word in English to convey this. The closest English term would probably be an expression such as melting pot.

In the film The Life of Emile Zola, the novel’s title is rendered as Piping Hot.

So, I think of the book as being called “melting pot.”

It seems to be a complicated story about numerous residents in a multi story rental house in the center of Paris – most related to each other in one way or another. To help with the book I spent a few hours and complied a list of characters I could refer to… then discovered somebody else had already done it.

I’m on the road and working hard for the next week, but I should be able to find some slivers of time and finish the book. Then on to the next, Au Bonheur des Dames – a direct sequel to Pot-Bouille.