The following four flash fiction stories are excerpts from the latest title from PS Books, STRIPPED, A COLLECTION OF ANONYMOUS FLASH. This is an anthology of forty-seven pieces of short fiction whereby authors’ bylines have been removed. Readers are forced to engage without the lurking presence of "what they know of the author," which is usually, at the very least, the author’s gender as evidenced by a name. Stories might be written from a typically "female" perspective or with typical "male" sensibilites, but it might be that a male writer has inhabited his female character with such authenticity or that a female contributor has gotten inside the mind of the opposite sex so convincingly. Conversely, not every story that "seems" like a man wrote it was written by a woman or vice versa-things are mixed up, so guessing will be more of a challenge, and more fun. Enjoy.
– Nicole Monaghan, editor, STRIPPED
[img_assist|nid=8621|title=Shifting Gears by Annalie Hudson Minter © 2012|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=399|height=299]
He sits out there in his rowboat, mouth half open, the Chicago skyline rising and falling behind him. I walk on my knees though the water. Inching closer, slipping farther out into the lake. There is garbage floating near the surface. Bubble wrap and empty plastic sleeves of crackers. I skirt around them, or try to. I want it to seem like an accident. Like I just drifted over, and then all of a sudden I am next to him and I can say oh, hey, how’s it going out here?
He is the lifeguard. Young and bored, probably Mexican, with smooth black hair and sunglasses that reflect the blue sheen of the lake. He wears a standard issue red tank top and his teeth are as white as forever. I am old. And fat, and I have the face of someone who has sustained some kind of injury, only I have not. It is just my face. My nipples are the size of coasters and I have no hair on my chest. He is very young. Possibly eighteen. That would be good, actually. But he is probably younger. I can feel the blood moving through my body when I look at him, even though the water is cold.
"Sir!" he calls out to me. I stare back at the shore and pretend not to hear, ashamed at being noticed. It is crowded here today. It seems like there are a thousand dogs on the beach, wrestling and shitting and chasing wet tennis balls.
"Sir," he says again. I can hear his oars cutting through the lake as he moves closer. "You really shouldn’t be out here if you don’t have a dog." He points to the beach next to us, the one for people. "It’s much cleaner over there." His voice is as dull as an old knife. I can tell that he hates this job, which seems strange to me. I would imagine that sitting in boat all day would be one of the most relaxing ways to make a dollar.
"I have a dog," I say. "He’s over there." I point vaguely towards the shore. "A German Shepard," I add, hoping that this will impress him. "His name is Larry."
He looks off into the distance like he is thinking about something very important. He wipes sweat off of his upper lip. I feel something crumple under my toes and pray that it is not a diaper. I do not own a German Shepard. I do not own any dog at all. I just like this beach because people are friendlier here. I can stand in the sand at the edge of the water, watching the dogs run in and out, back and forth along the shore. People talk to me like we are all in a club together, like I am part of something bigger.
"Alright," he says, starting to back paddle. His arms are skinny and brown, but they look strong, and they make me think about pretending to drown.
[img_assist|nid=8593|title=The Tongue by Soussherpa (Robert T Baumer)© 2012|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=300|height=388]
JERRY’S LIFE AS SUNG TO “I THINK WE’RE ALONE NOW”
Children behave. "Will you relax, Deanna, so what if the kid breaks a few things?" dad would say. Mom often looked like the last Kleenex in the box and no one was going to use her and throw her away. Her favorite expression: Be on your toes. I was on my toes, I suppose. Up for school. Hardly ever "sassy" when told to take out the garbage. When she died I learned that she had been on her toes for seventy-seven years. Her feet were damn tired. I never got her a pillow.
That’s what they say when we’re together. When I met Jeff, I had already come out to my parents. Jeff hadn’t. He’d say, "They think that gay people are poison. We emit killing fumes." His family figured us out–we weren’t "buddies." His mother remains cold but sends me Christmas cards with messages like "Remember Jesus’s birthday. He remembers yours." His father thinks of me as another channel to change. I don’t think they fear poison. Is this progress?
And watch how you play. I knew I was gay young. It’s like I was a contestant on You Bet Your Life and the secret word, Gay, came down and yes, Groucho, that’s me. I’ve felt watched all my life. I met my first lover, Ben, at Polk Junior High School. We could do anything we wanted provided we said "We’re not gay. We don’t love each other. Only gay people can love each other." That freed us to do what he called "the snooky ookums." Watched. By parents. Neighbors. School. I’ve spent decades dislodging eyes from my skin. Eyes in my most private places.
They don’t understand. Ben and I were "gross, weird, sinful, and only kooks do that kind of thing."
And so we’re runnin’ just as fast as we can. I ran and ran but they kept moving the finish line. After two and a half decades I realized that the finish line was in their heads, not mine. I stopped running. Even now, so many keep running, faster, faster–how do they do it? Bare feet. Gravel.
Holdin’ on to one another’s hand. Jeff’s hand is my favorite part of his body. I don’t rank his parts, but his hand is tops. When I hold it, deep blue forget-me-nots cover the most barren ground inside me. His hand is a map of wisdom. I don’t read maps well, but I never feel lost as long as I have his hand.
Tryin’ to get away into the night. My friend Mitch tried to get away for years. Booze, drugs, a bunch of guys he slathered all over his body. He quit trying. I was a pallbearer at his funeral. How easily it could have been me in the box. Mitch wore out from the daily battering ram of hate.
And then you put your arms around me and you say I think we’re alone now. Alone is a rake standing by the garage door. It needs to be put to good use. Alone is sitting with Jeff watching My Three Sons, not saying anything, but knowing when he will laugh at Bub. Alone is being in a crowded mall and trying to start a conversation with a clerk.
Alone is finding a place to hide, you think no one will ever find you, you’re OK with that, kind of, but someone does find you. Hides with you. And emerges with you. Into light. And darkness.
[img_assist|nid=8616|title=Birches, Bridge by Melissa Tevere © 2012|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=350|height=359]
THE TASTER’S LAST MEAL
When I first began tutoring Shin Chan-Hwan, I did not feel attracted to him. I found his shy sadness endearing, but his body repulsed me. He had the narrow bones and taut sinews of an unhealthy woman, and yet his face betrayed masculinity. I found this combination grotesque, perhaps because I did not yet know of my preference for it.
The Supreme Leader appointed Shin Taster of Meals because He believed nobody would feed poison to such a sympathetic figure. Shin was orphaned at ten when his mother, a prostitute, was killed by one of our Dear Leader’s bodyguards. He was raised by the Generalissimo and His staff. I volunteered out of pity to tutor him, convincing the Generalissimo that the more worldly Shin became, the better able to notice culinary oddities he would be.
While it was the boy’s mitochondrial response that mattered most to the Dear Leader, He could see the benefits of having one taster for as long as possible: familiarity with His favorite dishes, a well-practiced nose, and the social ease that comes with not having a stranger at the table.
Not long after we met, Shin introduced me to sexual passion. Although I taught him to read and to know his food, we figured out as peers how two men might lie together, and how, over time, their lust might give way to a stronger bond.
Shin became a national mascot, a symbol of the invincibility of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. If some callous usurper should manage to poison Shin and the Supreme Leader, the People would never stand for Shin’s sacrifice and would revolt immediately.
The General had always believed in a top-down sentimentality, but many of us in the Cabinet knew better. We knew how tenuous was His hold over the Premiers, let alone over the writhing passions of the People. We heard tales of our cousins’ cousins in China growing wealthy as we begged for moderate villas in the hills outside Pyongyang. Most worrisome, we watched as the Generalissimo grew both weary and furious-a dangerous combination-over constant criticism from other nations.
Soon, a few of us decided that no consequence of an assassination could be worse for Korea than the inevitable consequences of no assassination.
Because I had tutored Shin for so long, it fell on me to approach him. I insisted we give him the chance to be a knowing martyr, one whom the People would praise long after his demise. Perhaps I felt he deserved the chance to look in my eyes as I condemned him.
"Shin Chan-Hwan," I said as we began a lesson on European mushrooms, "I suspect you have waited for this day." I showed him the vial of thallium, a poison slow enough to wait for the Leader to eat before killing Him and His taster.
I held my gloved fingers to Shin’s mouth, to express the risk of discussing the matter further, to indicate the means by which the poison was to be administered, and, finally, to touch his lips before they parted one last time for our Korea.
When I removed my hand, Shin said "Yes, I have waited." His resolve brought tears to my eyes.
I could not watch as Shin tasted the tainted insam-ju. I do not know if he omitted his customary sniff of the gingery liquor, or if he took a larger sip than usual to steel himself against the effects the poison would later have. I must believe, though, that as the liquor passed over his lips, he thought not only of his loathing for his keeper, and not only of his country, but also of me.
[img_assist|nid=8595|title=Alignment by Marc Schuster © 2012|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=400|height=300]
Crystal and her moon-faced children live upstairs. I live downstairs, alone. We both waitress at The Outback, and I take business classes at community college. Crystal doesn’t see a need for it. I tell Crystal that pretty soon, I’m going to own the damn place while she’ll still be washing the bloomin’ onion smell out of her hair each night. We’ll see, is all she says while she laughs and blows smoke. She tells me she’s not holding her breath. We used to fall for the same guys. I’m a lot younger than Crystal but she’s better looking.
Crystal, despite her baggage at home, made herself available to every guy who bought her a drink. To each his own. She said she’s settling down now, playing for keeps. Her kids, a boy and a girl scare me. I’ve never been good around kids. I just don’t know what to say to them.
I can smell their cigarette smoke from the back of the house, where they like to torture the large, one-eyed rabbit they named Pistachio. I’ve told Crystal it is a goddamn shame what they are doing to a living breathing thing. She always says, "Wait until you have your own, then we’ll see." But she never sees things the way they really are.
It’s hot out and I am feeling the cumulative effect of so many things. I take three aspirins with a glass of cold beer. I feel sick from the sounds of the rabbit squeals. Crystal and her boyfriend, a man my mother would have called "rogue," are thumping around in the bed, calling God down from his heaven.
Her son, throws rocks at the bedroom window that faces out into the back yard. I open my window. I yell "STOP!" They laugh hysterically. The rabbit is motionless, his only eye, blood red, frozen in fear.. I think of calling the police. I turn on the big fan in the house to block out the noise, and though my skin is moist, though I am shaking with cold.
The rhythmic thumping has stopped. I hear the murmur of their voices in the sweet afterglow before reality sets in. I want to go and rescue that rabbit, but fear grabs me by the throat. I tell myself I don’t know what to expect. But my heart knows. I stand at the door. I wrap my arms around my waist. Squeeze myself hard and think it might not be a bad thing to have a man of my own.