Short Story Of the Day (flash fiction), Backpack by Bill Chance

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

 

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 (#44). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


 

The Backpack

 

For ten years, Ricardo Zenon rode the train to work every day. He knew every foot of that track like the inside of his eyelids.

The elevated tracks ran above a shady stretch of sad squalor and forlorn misery – rundown store strips and cracked asphalt. He would look out on that world like it was served up for his own amusement.

It was not unusual to see police lights or hear the faint echo of a siren through the thick train window glass, but one morning went beyond that. The grimy parking lot of a building housing a grimy Chinese Restaurant, a Cellphone store, and a place that sold discount cigarettes was filled with cop cars and an angry looking clump of police. They were all focused on a couple of scared looking teenagers being cuffed.

Zenon only had a quick look at this drama as the train sped by. He marked the details in his memory as best he could. He figured it was a drug bust. It must have been a big one to draw that many police and all those vehicles.

So if it was a drug bust, it didn’t look like the cops had what they wanted. Even in the split second he could see their faces, the police didn’t look happy, didn’t look satisfied, even though they had caught the two kids. They looked more frustrated than angry. They hadn’t found what they were after.

And there was something else. He had looked at that same scene for so long, even a tiny anomaly would stick out. There, on the roof, next to a dingy air conditioner, was a backpack. It was a standard backpack, black, up on the roof, not too far from the edge where the cops were cuffing the two scofflaws.

He was certain that it wasn’t there before.

Zenon started to tell the folks at work about the backpack, but he choked off his talk. He realized he was keeping it a secret because he wanted it to himself.

It was obvious, he thought. The bag had to be full of either drugs, cash… or probably both. The kids must have thrown it up there at the last second, when they realized the jig was up but before the police closed in. That’s why the cops had seemed so frustrated.

“But why haven’t the kids come back to get the bag?” Zenon asked himself in the evening when he was thinking about what to do.

“Because they are still in jail,” he replied to himself.

They won’t be there forever. They’ll make bail. If he wanted to get the thing, he had better do it soon.

He looked for some way to get up onto the roof. He spotted a utility pole, a fence, and a piece of conduit high up in the air that he could use. He could climb the fence, work over on the conduit, and fall down onto the roof.

He was so excited he couldn’t think of anything else. He could pull it off.  He planned, bought supplies, and that night, after the stores all closed, he was ready.

He knew it would be dark, but he hadn’t realized that it would be this dark… pitch dark. But he was prepared – he had brought light sticks. He gave one a twist and a shake and the green glow popped out. The fence looked ugly and intimidating up close – but he knew he would be able to climb it.

Now, with his eyes used to the darkness and the light stick illuminating the darker corners, Zenon moved over to where the fence ran between the building and the pole. His feet slipped on something and he looked down at a layer of cigar wrappers. People had been buying those cheap cigars at the tobacco store and unwrapping and pulling the tobacco out of them here and leaving the trash piled on the ground.

It disgusted him.

The fence looked rustier and dirtier up close than it did from the train. Again, he was prepared – he had put on a pair of tight-fitting leather gloves to protect his hands. He took a deep breath to bolster his courage, grabbed the wire firmly, and began to climb.

He began to climb slowly, trying to brace himself against the splintery wooden pole. He hadn’t climbed anything other than a mall escalator in thirty years and it was harder than he thought it would be.

His fingers, arms, and legs were screaming in pain and his lungs burning with effort and stress as he reached the conduit that ran from the pole onto a structure over the roof.

Wrapping one hand into the wire for strength, he pulled out two more light sticks. Cracking and shaking one, he threw it out onto the roof of the store, giving him a goal to shoot for. The second he threw harder and farther, hoping to illuminate the object he was going after. He was lucky, it fell right in the correct spot, and he was able to see the backpack.

And now there he was, in the darkness, holding on to the conduit, ready to shimmy his way across to the roof.

He could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he began to slowly work his way over to the roof, hanging from the rough steel conduit. It began to sag but despite a hideous creaking, it held his weight. Zenon was about halfway across when he felt a tug from the direction he had come like someone was trying to pull him back.

He let out a cry of panic. It was hard to see in the dark. Had someone caught and grabbed him? He tried to yank free, but the pull was strong and in his hysteria one of his hands slipped off the pipe.

Zenon thought he was going to fall. It was a long way down to the trash-strewn concrete behind the store. But his remaining hand clenched with a desperate unwavering grip and he stayed attached, swaying back and forth. When he thought he couldn’t stand any more he heard a sudden metallic sound like a spring rebounding, and he was free. He realized that a loose piece of the fence must have been stuck in his jacket, pulling him back. His swinging jarred it loose.

He regained some strength and moved without thought across the gap and then dropped down onto the roof. He collapsed into a quivering heap on the rough gravel, crying softly as he recovered, realizing that he was not going to fall onto the cruel concrete below.

Finally, he calmed down. He tested his legs and found he was able to walk. Slowly, he moved toward the fading green glow next to the backpack.

Zenon stood staring down at it. It looked different up close.

Finally, he took a deep breath and pulled the last light stick out. Kneeling, he carefully found the zipper, pulled it around, and started to remove the objects within.

There was a newspaper, old and moldy, but still in its flimsy plastic bag. A ziplock with what may have been a sandwich, but now was reduced to a formless lump. Three cans of beer. A ragged T shirt and a pair of wet socks.

And that was it.

He felt like the had been struck in the head. He began to shiver with a renewed panic on top of desperation. It had never crossed his mind that the backpack would not contain anything of value, but also, Zenon realized that in all his careful planning, he had left out one critical step.

He had never thought about how to get down off of the roof.

Short Story Of the Day, Neiman’s (part 2) by Bill Chance

“No, I’m fine… I’ll catch the next train.” As she said this she became aware that drops of blood were running down from her shoulder and dripping off her elbow.

—-Bill Chance, Neiman’s

(click to enlarge)

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 (#6). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.

Read Part 1 Here


Neiman’s (part 2)

“Never mind my name, and that package seems very heavy for a cabbage.”

Apple realized how much effort she was putting into cradling the severed head in the crook of her arm, trying to cover up as much as she could with the remains of the shopping bag.

“Umm it’s very dense, a lot of flavor.”

“Why is it wrapped like that?”

“Valuable, Neiman’s… their Christmas catalog…”

“In Chinese newspapers?”

“It’s exotic, it’s imported.”

“Ma’am, I’m afraid you’re hurt.”

“No, I’m fine… I’ll catch the next train.” As she said this she became aware that drops of blood were running down from her shoulder and dripping off her elbow.

“You’ll have to come with us, come down and make a statement.”

Apple’s mind was drowning in a flood of panic when a sudden noise… a sharp crack echoing down the tunnel… caused all three to turn. With the corner of her eye she saw the homeless guy from the train slide something dark back into his loose-fitting trousers. She looked at him and he gave her a quick wink before he slid behind a tiled column and disappeared.

It was one of Gallo’s men, the homeless-looking guy. Apple didn’t know if she felt relief or horror.

The two cops were suddenly standing by the shopping bag thief and were yelling into their radios. The kid had slumped completely over and a large, dark stain was quickly spreading out from his now-lifeless body.

Apple smelt the ozone of a train pulling in behind her and felt the rush of cool air as the doors opened. She stared straight at the cops who weren’t looking at her at all as she stepped backward into the train, still holding the paper-covered head cradled in the crook of her arm. The door whisked shut and she was gone.

 


This bit of text is mostly from a glob of NaNoWriMo I did (I won that year) several years ago – I don’t think I have posted any of it before. I’m going to rewrite and rework some of it into something a little more self-contained. We’ll see.

Short Story Of the Day, Neiman’s (part 1) by Bill Chance

Which one?… The schoolgirl with her headphones? The businessman with his crossword?… The workman in his grimy t-shirt? Some filthy homeless looking guy was staring right at her.

—-Bill Chance, Neiman’s

DART train at the Plaza of the Americas (click to enlarge)

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 (#5). What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.

Thanks for reading.


Neiman’s

“A severed head in a shopping bag weighs a lot more than I thought it would,” Apple said to herself. She had lugged the Neiman Marcus bag from Gallo’s limousine to the train and the weight surprised her. She could feel rivulets of sweat pouring across every inch of her skin as the train moved out of the station and the standing riders lurched. Apple jerked as a stray foot bumped against the bag.

“They can’t see it – they don’t know – all I have to do is make the delivery and I’m done,” she repeated over and over – a mantra to calm her shattered nerves. As the train shuddered through each stop she scanned the faces of the other passengers, wondering which ones were members of Gallo’s crew making sure the package is delivered on time. Which one?… The schoolgirl with her headphones? The businessman with his crossword?… The workman in his grimy t-shirt? Some filthy homeless looking guy was staring right at her.

The train accelerated into a tunnel, rocking randomly back and forth, while dim lights flashed past the windows. Apple could still feel the oppressive weight of the horror in the bag against her ankle, and moved a fraction away from it. She was beginning to think she might survive – only three more stops – and the train pulled into the murky concrete cavern of an underground station. As the doors whipped open Abbey saw a kid with a burr haircut, nose ring, and some sort of open sore on the left side of his chin stand up and walk quickly down the aisle. As he passed Apple he dipped and in a quick and fluid motion grabbed the shopping bag and leaped out the door.

Apple didn’t even think as she shoved herself from her seat and grabbed the edge of the closing train doors, forcing them back open, and hurling herself out and down the platform toward the fleeing kid. The shopping bag was swinging wildly in his hand and it slowed him down. It wasn’t very far before Apple hit him like a linebacker – every inch of her muscles straining against the kid – wrapping him up as they tumbled hard to the concrete platform. She looked up to see the kid bent over, on his knees, making little “woof… woof” noises. Apple had skidded across the rough floor – one leg of her slacks was shredded up to her thigh and a patch of blood was soaking through her shirt at the shoulder. She ignored her pain in a panic, scanning around for the bag. It was only a few feet away, torn, with the round contents half rolled out – wrapped in newspaper with a grid pattern of reinforced strapping tape holding it together. She crawled to the package, gathered it in her arms and stood up, only to come face to face with two blue uniformed transit cops.

“Jeez lady… good tackle,” said one.

“It’s alright now, I have my package back,” she said, “I’ll just get going.”

“Just a minute, ma’am, what do you have in that package,” said the other one. He spoke in a serious businesslike monotone. Apple looked at his name tag which said, “Friday.” “Oh, great,” she mumbled to herself.

“Um, it’s a cabbage,” she said.

“You came out of that train and tackled a guy for a cabbage?” asked Friday.

“Come on Joe,” said the other cop, “Don’t give her such a hard time.”

“You’re name is Joe Friday?” asked Apple. “Besides, it’s a valuable cabbage… see,” she pointed to the torn shopping bag, “it’s from Neiman’s.”

 


This bit of text is mostly from a glob of NaNoWriMo I did (I won that year) several years ago – I don’t think I have posted any of it before. I’m going to rewrite and rework some of it into something a little more self-contained. We’ll see.

There Isn’t A Train I Wouldn’t Take

“My heart is warm with the friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay, The Selected Poetry

 

Mural, Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

Utter Violence In Every Inch

“I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene, whether in friendship or mere observation, that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.”
Mark Rothko

 

Artwork, Dallas Area Rapid Transit Spring Valley Station, Richardson, Texas

 

 

Dallas Area Rapid Transit Spring Valley Station, Richardson, Texas

The Inmates Made Jokes About the Chair

“The inmates made jokes about the chair, the way people always make jokes about things that frighten them but can’t be gotten away from.”
Stephen King, The Green Mile

Nic Noblique, Chair No. 3, Anita Harris Phelps Park, Dallas, Texas

There is a mathematical formula (I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before) to calculate the number of bicycles you should own.

N = the number of bikes you have

X = the number of bikes you should own

X = N +1

I’m at three right now. One supposed advantage of having three bikes is that if one breaks, you have others that you can ride. This does not work, because of some divine sense of humor, all three will break at the same time.

Last weekend I wanted to ride the train and my bike down to the Design District West of Downtown Dallas for a birthday party for some of my kin at a combination Cidery and Video Game Extravaganza. The tire blew out on my folder the day before and the front wheel on my “road” bike needed truing.

No problem, I’d ride my Commuter/Cargo bike (a converted mountain bike with front and rear racks and fenders) – it weighs a ton, but is comfortable and works well as long as I’m not in a hurry. I took it out and started riding to the train station. I noticed that I was having a bit of trouble pedaling and stopped to take a look. The shift cable housing for the rear derailleur had come apart to pieces and the chain was stuck in high gear.

For a minute I thought about quitting, but really wanted to go for the ride. I have a toolkit that I carry and with a few minutes of work, I had the chain on a more manageable middle gear. I couldn’t shift, but I could move. The route to the Design District was mostly downhill… the only steep uphills I would have would be on the way back. I’d worry about that later.

The commuter tracks in downtown are being replaced, so I was spit out by the train at the east end of the central city. I used Google Maps to find a route through uptown to the American Airlines Center and on under Interstate 35 to the Design District. That’s were I found the nice little unexpected pocket park with the three Nic Noblique sculpture. It was a welcome peaceful spot to rest in the middle of the crazy city.

The trip back was mostly uneventful – without my low gears I did have to walk the bike in two spots – but I have no pride, so that was OK.

When I caught the train (the Blue Line this time) back to Richardson via Garland two women with five kids, including an infant in a stroller, tumbled on and took some seats in front of me. The kids were really hyped up and the women yelled at them constantly. At the Mockingbird station, one of the women suddenly shouted, “This is our stop!”

They herded the kids to the door where the four of them ran out the egress. The two women were maneuvering the stroller around when the door suddenly shut and the train started off. They were still aboard the train and the kids were on the platform. The two women panicked.

“Call the driver, push the red button,” another woman on the train said.

“We need to go back!” they said.

The voice in the metal grill was riddled with static, “This is a train lady, it doesn’t go back.”

I figured I needed to help. “Get off at the next stop, White Rock, and then take the next train back. You’ll be there in twenty minutes. Does your oldest kid have a phone?”

“My battery is dead.”

“Use mine, call him.”

She told the kids to wait on the platform. Then I called the emergency number and asked the police to watch the kids.

“What train do I take back? We’re not from here!” – she was still on the edge of panic.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “There’s only one train on this line – it goes back there.” When we pulled into White Rock another woman made sure they crossed the tracks to catch the train going back the other way. I looked up at the display and one would be there in ten minutes – so I’m sure it was fine.

It was only four miles from the Garland Jupiter station to my house – a lot of spring parties were going on in the yards on that route, I rode through clouds of bar-b-que smoke the whole way. It was nice.

Pearl

“Somewhere along the line, the pearl would be handed to me.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road

DART, Mockingbird Station, Dallas, Texas

Mockingbird station is where the DART Red and Blue (and sometimes Orange) lines converge and plunge – first into a deep canyon – and then into a subterranean tunnel on their voyage to downtown. It is weird that Dallas – the most automobile of cities – actually has a subway.

The reason for the subway is not so weird, though. North of Mockingbird the Red line follows the old abandoned Katy Railroad (full name – Missouri Kansas Texas) line. But south of Mockingbird the train tracks ran too close to Highland Park, where all the rich people live. They did not want the great unwashed riding the iron rails so close to their mansions so they exerted pressure to force everybody underground.

In the end, it was OK, though. The rest of the rail line was paved over to form the Katy Trail – which now is one of the gems of the city. Its presence raised property values along its length – making those rich folks richer.

A Streetcar Named Slothrop

Displaced Person’s Song

If you see a train this evening,
Far away, against the sky,
Lie down in your woolen blanket,
Sleep and let the train go by.

Trains have called us, every midnight,
From a thousand miles away,
Trains that pass through empty cities,
Trains that have no place to stay.

No one drives the locomotive,
No one tends the staring light,
Trains have never needed riders,
Trains belong to bitter night.

Railway stations stand deserted,
Rights-of-way lie clear and cold,
What we left them, trains inherit,
Trains go on, and we grow old.

Let them cry like cheated lovers,
Let their cries find only wind,
Trains are meant for night and ruin,
And we are meant for song and sin.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Dallas Streetcar

 

I enjoyed the initial meeting of the group that was to read Gravity’s Rainbow. My only problem was the distance. The drive, on a Wednesday evening, from my work, across town, fighting traffic all the way and back – was no fun at all. It made me doubt my commitment. Plus, one of my goals for the year was to reduce my (for me) already low driving mileage. A there-and-back-again trip across town every week would add to (maybe double) my driving.

But after thinking about it and then a good consultation of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit website I realized that I could leave from the LBJ/Central DART train station near my work, ride downtown on the Red line, and then after walking a couple short blocks, ride the new Dallas Streetcar across the Trinity River Bottoms to Bishop Arts – only a couple more blocks to my destination – The Wild Detectives.

So that’s what I did – I filled my book bag with my tabbed copy of Gravity’s Rainbow and my copy of Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow (for reference and grins) and headed for the station.

LBJ Central DART Train Station, looking at my book while waiting for the train.

The ride was enjoyable – or at least better than fighting the million other cars that are going somewhere at the same time as I was. Something about sitting in a train, relaxed, looking out the window at the miles of cars sitting still, on freeway and cross streets, all the white lights lines up on the left and the red ones on the right.

Woodall Rogers Expressway, Dallas, Texas

The streetcar is pretty cool. It crosses the river where there are no overhead power lines, so it is the first streetcar to rely on batteries to bridge an unelectrified stretch.

The trip isn’t fast – it took an hour each way… mostly spent waiting on a train or streetcar. The walks at each end or between stations weren’t bad at all, though.

Oh, and the discussion was enjoyable and cool. And someone brought banana bread.

The Only Right Thing to Do

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do.”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

Oblique Strategy: A line has two sides

I rarely remember my dreams. When I am able to grasp the wispy end of something as I’m waking up it is always some form of daily frustration, like my car won’t start or my key won’t fit. I guess that’s why I can’t remember my dreams – they are simply more boring versions of my daily life.

This morning, though, as I crawled out of bed, I remembered. I was hitchhiking through Japan with two other people, a young couple. Why we were three was hazy, though there seemed an adequate explanation somewhere. At the time of the dream we were wading through a rice paddy, each clutching a train ticket. The tickets were paper and plastic, white and bright yellow, and valuable.

Ahead, rising out of the rice, was a track on a levee and a simple station. The biggest passenger train in the world was stopped there, vibrating and smoking. As we approached, it blew its whistle and slowly pulled off, just as we arrived. I was frustrated at the fact we had missed the train, and clutched at my ticket in frustration.

A minute later, we realized that this massive transportation system was too large for one single train, and a second, identical one came huffing into the station. Suddenly elated, I had my ticket stamped and boarded the nearest car. My two companions followed close behind me.

The rest of the dream consisted of me exploring the various cars up and down the line. They were laid out in a linear cornucopia of delights, each car more opulent and fascinating than the one before.

My alarm went off – time to get up and go to work. I hit snooze to see if I could drop off again and visit a car or two more, but the train had sped off to somewhere unknown.

The Abyss Will Gaze Back

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

Table of tiny monsters, Clarence Street Art Collective, The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Oblique Strategy: Question the heroic approach

Yesterday was a long and tiring day (though it was fun) and my head felt like it was full of cotton. I kept forgetting things all day – until late at night when I realized that we had left Candy’s car parked at the train station. I didn’t want to leave it there all night and didn’t want to have to deal with it in the morning. So there was nothing to do but to move my lights over onto my Xootr folding bike and ride to the train station. I made sure I had the right station and that I had Candy’s keys in my bag and set out.

My folding bike, Stock Xootr Swift – I only added the seat bag and bottle cage
(click to enlarge)

I immediately realized that a front had blown through and, although it had been windy all day, the north wind had kicked up a notch, and it was cold. I had not dressed for it. But it is only three miles to the DART train station, so I just soldiered on.

Once I get off my lazy ass and get going, I enjoy riding my bike at night. The traffic is so much less, the trails are mostly empty (of people… there are a surprising number of various critters that come out even in the city) and everything is so quiet and still. I understand that it is dangerous, but my lights are good, I keep my eyes out and my ears open… nothing is safe… nothing worthwhile, at least.

As I rode farther, my efforts warmed me up and I felt better. I fell into the Zen mode of bicycling. If I think of the distance that I have to ride, it feels daunting, like I might never make it to my destination. The key is to only think about the next few feet in front of your handlebars and look around and enjoy every second. The miles drop away.

Before I could really think about it I was at the station. I rode around until I found Candy’s car and popped the trunk. That’s one big advantage of a folding bike – yank a couple of quick releases, pull out the seat, fold the wheels together and the bike goes into the trunk. It’s really handy for going and fetching a car.

I drive a tiny car – a Toyota Matrix. I always liked it because I could fold the rear seats down and get a bike (barely) into the back of the car (never liked exterior bike racks). I ways surprised at how small the Xootr Swift folded down. I was able to fit it easily in the small space behind the rear seat. Now I have a four-passenger car again.

My Xootr Swift folds differently than most. You undo two quick releases and pull the seat post up. Then the bike folds front to back (most fold side to side) until the two wheels are together. If you need more space, the seat can come out completely and another quick release lets the handlebars slide out. It doesn’t fold as compactly as, say a Brompton, but it has the advantage of being strong (a big rider like me needs the strong frame) and it uses standard bike parts – which is a great thing over the long term.

So I drove Candy’s car home and stowed everything away in the garage.

Tomorrow’s another day.