Flash Fiction: Foul Air and Revenge in Bolivar, Texas

Eddie had a beach house in Bolivar. Now, Bolivar, Texas wasn’t exactly a resort. It was mostly retired people and stragglers who like to fish and comb the beach for sand dollars and whatever. It’s not too far from Gulf Coast refineries, so things aren’t exactly pristine, and people don’t go on too much about the smell of the fresh air. It was just kind of a grimy place with gritty people wandering around.

The only place to drink was Bob’s Sports Bar, which was just a bar, really, with a TV, but people seemed to find their own places to drink, though you never saw scantily clad hotties strolling the beach with fancy cocktails. You’d more likely see grungy men and women pushing off in a fishing boat with a couple cases of beer.

You had a fair mix of retired people, refinery workers, laborers, and a few artists and musicians. From time to time, you could see music at Bob’s. If you wanted a nicer restaurant or bar, you’d have to take the ferry over to Galveston. I used to like walking out on the jetties and just taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. You’d hear the horns on the ships approaching the ship channel, the sound of rats scuttling across the rocks, and the bickering of older couples loading up their boats to try their luck at the trout, red fish, and flounder just beyond the breakers.

And you could smell, always, the remnants of dead fish, shrimp, crabs, and so on. When people would clean their catches, they’d put them in barrels at the marina, but of course various predators would also leave carcasses scattered about, which would add to the pungent aroma that is Bolivar. And, yeah, the refineries added their own sweetness to the miasma.

If you looked around, you’d see a bunch of clapboard houses on stilts, many a little worse for wear. You’d also see a shipwreck out in the water. Some of the locals could tell you how it got there and how long it had been there, but most people just thought about it the way you might think of a mountain in the background. It was just always there. Something you expect to see.

The beach was named Crystal Beach because it was crystal clear and clean in someone’s imagination. In reality, it wasn’t the worst beach. It was usually covered in driftwood and seaweed, but not as much litter as you’d find on a commercial beach. Most people on the beach lived nearby, so they weren’t interested in making a mess of it.

So Eddie loved Bolivar. It was a great getaway for him, and he spent as much time as possible there. He loved the fishing, walking out on the jetties, going to Bob’s from time to time, and just hanging out on the porch with a cold beer. He liked the sights, sounds, and even smells of Bolivar, but he didn’t like his next-door neighbors.

To be honest, I personally never even understood his grievance with them. His kids said they didn’t think he even remembered why he was mad at them, but he was mad at them all right, and he did everything he could to cause mischief. Understand that Eddie was a gruff and ruddy sort of guy, never really in a good mood, but I can’t remember ever seeing him do anything that actually hurt anyone in any way. Maybe when he was younger he did, but he was pretty harmless in his middle age.

So when he caused mischief, it didn’t amount to much. His neighbors had a big century plant on the border between their property and his. If you don’t know what a century plant is, it is a large agave plant. It’s a succulent, so it just looks like a big, blue cactus in the shape of a flower. They’re popular around the Gulf Coast because they grow well and impress the eye. They’re called century plants because folks say they only bloom after 100 years and then they die, so it’s a real treat to see one in bloom.

Well, that’s not how Eddie saw it. He hated the God damned neighbors, and he hated their God damned century plant. He’d sit out on his porch every night and drink a few beers and then go relieve himself on that plant. No one really understood why he thought the best way to kill a plant was by pissing on it. Sure, maybe it seemed disrespectful, but it wasn’t poison in any way.

At least, it didn’t seem to be poison for the plant. That thing grew up like Jack’s magic beanstalk, which delighted Eddie’s kids to no end. They teased him constantly about how he helped that plant grow. He had five daughters, and they really enjoyed annoying him, and annoying him was easy, but I guess it was all affectionate in the end.

Of course, other neighbors got wind of it and started asking Eddie to come pee on their tomatoes and everything like that. They would say that and just laugh in his face. He always acted like he was so mad he might blow up the world or something, but nobody ever believed he would do anything more harmful than fertilizing a despised neighbors plants.

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Flash Fiction: Almost Suburban Murder, Really

“I guess I’m just too innocent,” she said. She was looking through the sex ads in the back of one of those independent papers all the cool kids used to read in whatever city you happened to be in, and for reasons you can only guess, she’d never seen any independent papers the cool kids read. She’d never seen ads for “hot, wet bisexual babes waiting for your call” before, so she figured she was pretty innocent.

The courts disagreed, of course, but she didn’t seem aware of the irony of her being too innocent for the commerce of the flesh but guilty of attempted murder. I mean, what’s a little attempted murder between friends? She never would have gone through with it, surely. Truth be told, and I think it was, she didn’t even know how to do it the right way, which is surely why she got caught. It’s safe to say a real criminal would have handled things a little differently.

She got off pretty easy, because the jury found her guilty but basically too incompetent to take out one of her neighbors by hiring a backstabbing cousin who wouldn’t lift a finger for you, much less kill someone. She later admitted she was crazy for thinking this layabout cousin could kill a mosquito, much less a neighbor lady. So she was back to her more or less suburban life, living two houses down from the woman she tried to have taken out. And her daughter was still good friends with her intended victim’s daughter, so they all just continued to live their suburban lives, except with lots more publicity.

These are the kinds of things you are driven to, she explained on television, when you love your children a little too much. That’s exactly what she was guilty of, she said, loving her daughter too much. You know, if you love your kids, you should be willing to hire someone to kill their friends’ mothers. Otherwise, can you really say you care at all? Donohue seem sympathetic but unconvinced, and that irked her even more. What did he know about her or her life? He acted all sensitive and everything, but he was still a man, and no man can understand the love between mother and daughter.

So there you have it, the picture of innocence, sitting in a Mexican restaurant while being scandalized by the idea of bisexual women taking money from desperate men. Some sins really seemed worse than others in her eyes. She was counting on the fact that Jesus would see a mother’s excessive love as the way of God and not at all like flaunting perverted sexual proclivities in ads that could be seen by children. I mean, good God, can you imagine a family eating in that restaurant and having to explain those ads to their six year old?

So she just went about her business, taking classes at the community college and hoping to work up to a better job and everything. Maybe make enough to send her daughter to a good university. Of course, it was a little awkward at the community college. The mother of her intended victim was the supervisor over at the college food court. She couldn’t eat lunch at school without seeing her, so she ate at home, in her car, or just on a bench in another classroom building. It was a small sacrifice but worth it.

Of course, everybody knew her business, anyway, seeing as she’d been on national TV during and after the trial. Even after the Donohue fiasco, she’d accepted a few interview offers, and she’d again tried to explain about how much she loved her daughter and all that, but the audiences never really want to hear the truth. They just all thought she was some kind of joke, and she made her way into more than one comedian’s monologue. Luckily, she could laugh at herself, too. After that all the hullaballoo had died down, the local video store had the movie about her in the bargain bin.

She walked right up to the cashier, waving that video around, and said, “Hey, this movie is about me. I’m a local celebrity! I think I’m worth a little more than $1.99, don’t you?” The cashier doubled over with laughter and said, “I sure do, lady. I sure do. Y’all have a good day now, y’hear.”

Flash Fiction: Infidelity and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy of Divorce

Maureen was at the door in a flood of tears. Jan didn’t know Maureen. They’d never met. Maureen lived two doors down, and there she was on the front porch crying her eyes out. She was crying because he left her. Why did he leave? Because she was so afraid he was going to leave.

That’s about all Jan could get out of her for the longest. She was just sobbing and going on and on about how it was all her fault. That’s what he said, of course. He said it was all her fault. He didn’t want to leave her, but she gave him no choice, see? He just couldn’t stay with someone acting the way she was acting.

How was she acting? She was acting like she was afraid he was going to leave her, and the circle just went on like that for the longest. It went on that way because Maureen was ashamed to say how it all started, but eventually she got her composure enough to explain the situation to a neighbor who was also a near complete stranger. Maybe it’s easier to unburden yourself to a stranger, anyway. I think that’s probably what I would want. Maybe you feel differently.

So, anyway, Maureen finally explained that she met Carter when he was still married to Marie, and she and Carter carried on quite the affair right under Marie’s nose without Marie really suspecting anything for the longest time, and Maureen did not want to be like Marie—how could anybody be so unsuspecting and trusting in the first place? Maureen didn’t want anyone thinking she was naïve or too innocent or anything like that.

So, you know, she kept her eyes wide open. She looked for signs. Did he always take his phone to the bathroom with him? Did he answer his phone before work? She and Carter had enjoyed some pretty intense conversations when he was commuting to work, so now she would call him in the morning just to see if he answered. She didn’t want to be stupid about anything. Not the way Marie had been.

But Carter wasn’t unaware of her snooping. Even worse, though, was that she was constantly nagging him about what he was up to. She was constantly asking if he still loved her. She was constantly asking him to compliment her looks. She just needed lots of reassurance.

And, of course, she made the odd accusation or two. Where were you? Who were you talking to? Can I see the texts? Can I see the office email about the work lunch you said you were on? You get the idea.

So Carter told her he loved her, but he couldn’t go on with all the suspicion and nagging and all. It was like that Elvis song. You know, “we can’t go on together with suspicion on our minds” or however it went. And Maureen went nuts over this, but she tried to calm herself. She tried to show that she trusted him, but she thought maybe he would meet someone else like her who would be able to keep secrets and be available at odd hours and all that.

Maureen was just afraid he’d meet another Maureen. He told her he’d been down that road, and never wanted to go again, but he was really breaking under the pressure of constant surveillance. And so there you go. You have Maureen crying her eyes out at Jan’s table and telling all her secrets. Well, she told some of her secrets, anyway. I guess they both thought they might become friends after that, but it never happened.

They didn’t talk again. Six weeks later, a for-sale sign went up in front of Maureen’s house. And that was that.

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Fiction: Sex as Nuclear Option

“I’ve had plenty of anonymous sex before,” she said, “and I still know how to find it.” Jan intended this as a threat or warning, obviously, but she also knew it stung in its own right. She first learned to weaponise her own sexuality when she saw the crestfallen look on her father’s face when she knew he knew what she’d gotten up to with John one night. Since that day, she had learned a number of ways to use her own numbness to sex to devastate men. Not that it made her feel that much better, but it was something.

Maybe it was revenge. Maybe it was something else, but it gave her a feeling of power, and who doesn’t want to feel that sometimes? Everyone wants to feel a little control over things. The way she told it, she had always controlled her own sexuality. She was 12 the first time, she said, and she knew exactly what she was doing. Her parents were gone for the day and she called her school band director on the phone and asked him over. It was her idea. That’s what she said.

She said it hurt, but he was very nice. He took care of her. When he lost his job at the school, she and some other girls formed a group to get signatures on a petition to get him his job back. They really liked him. When she graduated high school, she wrote to him to let him know she was doing all right, and he wrote back and said he was glad to hear it.

Bobby couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He told her she was only 12, for God’s sake, and definitely no child could be responsible for what she described. She had obviously been groomed and manipulated, and so had all the other girls. She was raped, he said, but she averred. “But I knew what I was doing was wrong,” she said, “That’s why I never told anyone before now.” Bobby told her it wasn’t her fault, but he wasn’t prepared for this conversation.

Somehow, he made her feel more judged than supported, not that he was trying to, but he really wasn’t equipped to respond to this information, and he felt a little sick. But Jan didn’t notice that. She was just trying to make a point about her prissy classmates who acted so shocked to find that a professor was having an affair with a student. She was just wanting to say, “Hello! I was having sex with a teacher when I was 12! Grow up.”

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Fiction: On the Behavior of Bears, Bobcats, and Wolves

After a pretty much fruitless day of hunting that big trophy buck Johnny said he saw, the guys were just sitting around the fire doing all the things you’d expect a bunch of grown men to do around a fire: you know, drinking beer, pissing on the fire, throwing pennies in the fire to watch the flames change colors—the usual stuff. The only difference was that Ricky had one of those new Q-Beams, I think they were called. It’s like a flashlight, except it has the brightness of a thousand suns or a million candles or some other damned thing I can’t remember.

The idea was that you could shine this light around and see animals in the dark, especially if you happened to catch their eyes. So they were just shining it around, not expecting much of anything, especially with all the noise they were making, and sure enough they picked up some reflections.

They suddenly went all quiet and started shining it around more slowly to see if anything jumped out at them. They were all cool about it. They were like, “Hey, man, maybe it’s a bobcat. I’d like to have a bobcat to mount on my wall.” But they were getting a little more serious about their search for wildlife or game or whatever. They were aware, also, that a few black bears were moving back into the area, and it would be nice to get a glimpse of one.

“Just remember,” Jimmy said, “If it IS a black bear, you don’t want to run a way from it. If you run, it WILL chase you, and it WILL catch you. No, you want to stand up to it. Show it your ready to fight it—man on bear.” At that, they all laughed, “Don’t worry, Jimmy, we’ll punch it right in the nose if it tries to get you. There ain’t no black bears around here, anyway, though.” But Jimmy still thought they’d better take a minute to verify that fact.

So, anyway, they kept shining that light around and just looking for bears or bobcats or whatever. Hell, I guess they would’ve been excited to see a ‘possum or armadillo or anything really. And sure enough, they picked up another little glint of something. They kept shining until they could see a set of eyes just as clear as if it was the light of day.

And then they saw another set. And another. Pretty soon they saw seven or eight pairs of eyes, but they thought they saw much more than that, because their adrenaline production had picked up a bit, if you know what I mean, so they were convinced they were surrounded. And then they heard a little sound that was kind of like a dog but different enough for them to know they were surrounded by a vicious pack of wolves. At least that’s how it seemed to these drunk boys who’d been pissing on a fire all night.

They weren’t too worried, though, because they had guns and everything. They were on a hunting trip, after all. It was about that time that Ricky remembered they’d left the guns in the cab of his truck, and he thought it might be a good time to go get some of them out. So he walked slowly out to his truck as Bobby shown the Q-beam on it to light the way.

Once he opened the truck, Bobby started shining the light off at the trees to see if he could see any more animals. About that time they heard a bark or a howl and a crashing sound over by the truck. They were a little worried and Johnny called out, “You good, Ricky?” Ricky shouted back that he was and then came back to the fire without his gun and didn’t say anything.

After that, they all decided it was time to get some shuteye, so they all just got in their respective campers and went quiet. They next morning, when Ricky got up, Johnny was waiting for him. He said, “Looks like you had quite a night fighting them ol’ wolves, Ricky! The barrel of your gun is clogged with mud and the whole gun looks like you dropped it in slop. There’s also about 8 or 10 holes punched in the dirt by your truck.”

By this time, Johnny was laughing so hard I worried he might have a cardiac. They still give Ricky a good ribbing about that every time they go to the hunting lease.

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Fiction: Seven Oaks and the Alcoholic Lifestyle

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Someone said Jim lived in Seven Oaks. Now, to some people that might sound like a compliment or, at least, a nice comment on account of the fact that some pretty nice places are named Seven Oaks, but Seven Oaks, Texas isn’t one of them, and Jim didn’t own or rent any kind of home in Seven Oaks.

Jim lived in Livingston, Texas, which was a few miles south and happened to be the county seat of Polk County, which was a dry county, meaning you couldn’t buy a drink of alcohol in Livingston come hell or high water. If you liked to imbibe a drop or two of spirits, wine, or beer, you’d have to drive north or south on highway 59 until you got out of Polk County.

If you drove north on 59, you’d cross the county line and be greeted by a sign saying, “Welcome to Seven Oaks.” If you drove a tiny bit further, you’d see the Seven Oaks bar. I don’t think it is there anymore, but you’ll still find a liquor store there.

Anyway, that Seven Oaks bar didn’t exactly have a concealed parking lot, so your car would just be sitting there for God and all the world to see.

So if any of your nosy neighbors or family saw your car there more than once in a week, they might start gabbing around about how you lived up there or something. It was a not so nice way of saying you were a drunk.

I don’t remember anyone ever saying he was an alcoholic, though. In fact, his sister insisted that he most certainly was not an alcoholic, though she did concede that he made a habit of being drunk, so she was willing to say he was a habitual drunk, but he never got the DTs if he didn’t have a drink for a few hours or anything like that.

And he could clean up and get through a Sunday sermon all right if push came to shove, and alcoholics can’t really pull that off, so he just stayed drunk because he wanted to—not because he had to.

And I guess that’s all that matters sometimes, you know? We’re all just trying to do good enough to pacify the family and the neighbors. If you can keep that up, you might just have a pretty good life. And who knows, someday you might hit it big with one of those scratch-offs you keep buying at the Seven Oaks bar.

R Horton

Deaf and Dirty in Public (#fiction)

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XII

Being deaf isolates you from people. From hearing people, anyway. That’s true, obviously, but sometimes deaf people forget they aren’t actually alone. A deaf couple was chatting amiably, well, maybe amorously is the better term, as Doug was eating lunch in a Luby’s Restaurant.

If you’ve ever eaten in a Luby’s, you’d be surprised to learn of anyone feeling amorous or frisky there, because it just isn’t that kind of place. Something about standing in line and holding a tray with a bunch of retirees quells any rising sap, if you know what I mean.

Still this couple was chatting away and working up a bit of lather. Sometimes even a Luby’s can’t dampen the heat of young love, or lust or whatever. So these two were talking about each other’s bodies and what they planned to do with various body parts when then got home or maybe even to the car.

To be perfectly honest, many sexual signs in American Sign Language (ASL) are graphic enough that even most hearing folks can make them out with a little effort, but Doug didn’t need to make any effort. He was deaf and quite fluent in both sexuality and ASL. He was alone and bored in a Luby’s, so watching an erotic conversation a couple of tables away didn’t seem like too bad a way to spend a few minutes.

Now, hearing people tend to stare at deaf people in public. Some are being rude. Some are being judgmental. Some are trying to see if they can understand any signs. Some are just confused. And some probably don’t even realize they are staring. Anyway, this deaf couple wasn’t surprised to see someone watching them talk.

They decided to check it out and signed a couple of questions to Doug to see if he understood anything. For his part, he thought the prudent thing to do would be to pretend to be hearing. When they signed to him, he just looked confused and shrugged his shoulders. Feeling relieved, they sort of waved him off and went back to their conversation. He gave them the hearing sign for “OK,” and all seemed well.

And it would have been fine, too, except a hearing acquaintance of Doug’s happened in at about that time. It wasn’t an amazing coincidence or anything—this acquaintance just worked across the street. Anyway, he knew that he and Doug would be at an event later in the week and signed, “Hey, how are you? I’ll see you Thursday, right?”

Doug blushed. The couple blushed. And for reasons he didn’t understand, the acquaintance blushed.

Randall Horton

Sociology of Stress in Office Settings (#fiction)

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XI

The FedEx delivery driver was a little aggressive. I mean she acted like delivering our packages was keeping her from the really important tasks on her list, but we all sort of thought delivering our packages should be the important task on her list, but most of us were too timid to actually say so. In fact, we were pretty deferent.

Except Imogen.

Imogen said, “She might talk to you that way, but she’s not going to try it with me, because I know where she stays. I know where her Daddy goes to church, and I know where she went to school. No sir, she’s not going to come in here talking to me about being stressed.

“Stressed? Black people may have worries that put them in the ground, but they don’t talk about being stressed. ‘Stressed’ is how white people talk, and Black people only talk about stress when they’re talking to white people.

“Make nothing of it. She’ll do what she has to do, and I’ll do what I have to do, and we’ll get our documents on time every day, and everybody will get along just fine.”

And Imogen was right, more or less, as we didn’t have any more big problems in our office. We developed a mutual if grudging respect with our delivery driver, until she was suddenly replaced by a young man that the ladies in office obviously found preferable for reasons I won’t go into.

We heard something about our former driver leaving some pretty important boxes on a loading dock over at the law school without getting any signatures. Someone seemed to think it wasn’t a good idea to leave legal documents unaccounted for, so we got this nice new young man who looked like he knew how to handle all kinds of boxes, or at least that’s what the ladies said.

Randall Horton

First Impressions That Last (#fiction)

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X

People overstate the importance of first impressions. It’s possible to change your impressions of someone, for better or worse, on second or third impressions. It is even possible to change your mind about someone after 25 years. I’m sure of all that, but some people sure do make memorable first impressions.

Sharon pretty much introduced herself to me by saying, “Well, I’m a Black bisexual woman who just wants to make trouble and maybe help make a better world.” Some people would say that for shock effect, but I don’t think she really cared about that. She just liked to vet new friends. It’s sort of like those signs that say, “You must be this tall to get on this ride.” If you were bothered by her introduction, then she didn’t need to waste any more time on you.

As far as I could tell, she loved life. She loved men and women. She loved humanity. Somehow, the world can’t accommodate people like that, though. Some of us just never find a safe place. One day she would talk about all the drama women cause. The next day she would lament all the baggage Black men bring on dates with them. What’s the difference between anger, fear, grief, or love?

Blame the structure of the world. Blame biology. Blame the devil. Do what you want, but it is hard for some of us to feel connected to anything. It’s like that Jimmy Cliff line about how loneliness would never leave him alone. You know, we’re all in this together—it’s just that we seem unable to share the burden of that, so we’re all seekers.

So, anyway, at her funeral, her aunt gets up and tells all the family and other busy bodies that no one knows where Sharon is now but Sharon and God, and no one else even needs to worry about it, so just shut your mouth and show a little respect. I guess some people think Heaven is a hotel that rejects people who couldn’t find safe shelter on Earth. Some people believe in a God that locks the door for his most sensitive children.

I guess that’s just our nature. We all want to feel we’re blessed. We want to feel protected in the end. We’re not like the others, somehow. Flannery O’Connor’s Mrs. Turpin had this vision of good Christian folks like herself having their virtue “being burned away” as they descended into Hell while her inferiors sang and praised their way into Heaven. Some of us find out we are like the others before it is too late. Some of us don’t.

Randall Horton

How Cancer Complicates Relationships (#fiction)

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IX

Cancer complicates things. By things I guess I mean relationships, though I’m sure it complicates many other things as well. Still, it does a number on relationships. People are just going along planning their lives with certain expectations, and—bam!—cancer throws everything out of whack.

It’s like how people thought Johnny Ramone should visit Joey on his deathbed, but Johnny thought he was the last person on earth Joey would want to see as he drew his last breaths. Would Joey be more of a monster for not visiting or for showing up? I don’t have to figure it out, so I’ll leave it to you decide.

I just know there are some people I would never want to come to me as I lay dying, but others would be forgiven and welcomed on sight without a second thought, because I miss them so much. I don’t think Joey was missing Johnny, though, so maybe Johnny made the right decision. I know I wasn’t going to choose sides, but I never know what I’m doing from minute to minute, so it’s something we have to get used to.

Anyway, Kat knew her husband was wanting a divorce when she got the diagnosis. Just his damned luck she got sick and people would think he was a real heel to leave her in the lurch. Kat was not one of the people who thought that. In all honesty, she wanted him to get out of the way so she could at least have enjoyable sex once or twice before she got too sick, so she wasn’t wanting him to hang around.

Family and friends are sure to have an opinion about whatever choice he made, though, and it wasn’t easy to negotiate everything. How do you explain to your grown daughters that you are happier for their father to leave so you can enjoy getting laid once or twice before you are laid to rest? It can be done, sure, but let’s face it—it’s not a fun conversation.

She managed the whole thing somehow, though. She had an amicable divorce, was happy with how the property was divided, and managed to sleep with her divorce attorney. Not a bad trick, really.

I’m not one to say whether there’s such a thing as a happy death, but some seem much worse than others. I guess death is always traumatic for the living. Even if you don’t know a soul in the world and die anonymously in the street, someone has to find your body. Someone has to report it. Someone has to pick it up. Some find it more traumatic than others, but you are sure to leave some pain in your wake, no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

So that’s something we have to live with. As we die.