Volume 21 Number 3

"The act of writing is an act of optimism. You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it didn’t matter.”

Edward Albee
April – June 2018

FLASH

Editor’s Note: One of our judges asked if the quality of submissions was much better now than it was two years ago. I told him I think so. There was also more consistency if the judge’s reactions than usual.

The judges score independently. They don’t talk to each other. Why does this matter? If one qualified judge doesn’t like your piece, take heart and resubmit. Another one will. Just keep searching. Of course if you find things to fix in the meantime, do so.

On behalf of the judges and me, we hope you enjoy these Flash Memoirs. If you feel you have a story that would fit on “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” go to that page and read the guidelines. You can submit there anytime. Our next contest is Flash Fiction rather than Flash Memoir. The deadline is June 1, 2018.

 

First Place

How Helen Hated the Yankees

By Bill Buschel

     I’m sitting at the bar watching the game when a guy comes in and sits down. I look at him. He nods. I nod back.
    After a few minutes he points to the TV and asks, “You remember your first game?”
    “Yep” I say, then knock back the last of my beer, toss a few bucks on the bar and head out the door.

October 8, 1956
    Mom’s mad.
    Angry mad, not crazy mad, though she might be some of that too.
    The signs are all around: Ironing board, basket full of wrinkled clothes, the thunk, swish, swish, sound of the hot iron as she attacks the basket’s contents. A cigarette burning in the ashtray.
    There is no: “How was school?” No after-school snack. No hug. Just the thunk, swish, swish, and knowing dad will say something when he sees what she’s done to his clothes. She isn’t paying attention to the laundry and though most wrinkles will be brutally rubbed out, creases will end up in curious places on his pants and shirts as she focuses on the little black and white TV across the room.
    The Yankees must be winning.
    Whenever asked her favorite team, her answer is always the same: “Whose playing the Yankees today?”
    I settle in to watch. I‘m only six and don’t care about the game. But as the intensity of the ironing builds I know something’s different about this game—then I see the little man jump up and hop into the arms of another player.
    I have no idea what it all means as I watch Yogi Berra wrap his body around Don Larsen after Larsen pitches the only Perfect Game in World Series history.
    The perfect game: 27 up. 27 down. No hits, no errors, no one on base. The PERFECT GAME.
    But it’s this moment, as I watch grown men jumping around like kids, that wins me over. I fall in love with the game…and the Yankees.
    
    As a kid I’m blessed with many championships—while Mom grumbles about the Yankees.
    Then comes the losing. There are few bright spots for nearly 20 years; and without the Yanks to hate Mom’s enthusiasm for baseball wanes. But in the 90s Yankee fortunes begin to rise—as our family’s fall. Dad, who never missed a day of work, retires and becomes a hospital regular: a cancerous kidney, then quad by-pass, followed by crippling back pain. Then my sister dies. Though they never saw eye-to-eye, when she dies some of Mom’s “fight” dies too. She no longer irons.

    When my marriage fails I spend more time at Mom and Dad’s. Time’s precious.
    Mom tries different hobbies—from crocheting to making Ojo de Dios. You can’t begin to imagine how odd it is to be greeted by dozens of woolen “Eyes of God” every time you walk into the house. What a relief when she moves on to cooking. She always cooked but as a kid her menu seemed limited to about six things. Now she picks a spice and, for about a month, uses it in everything. And when I say everything I mean EVERYTHING. For weeks she puts anise in everything from hamburgers to pea soup. Then it’s onto the next spice on the rack: cinnamon, or turmeric or who knows what. After dinner, it’s cards and TV. In the summer that means baseball…Yankee baseball.    
    By 1996 the Yanks regain their glory. But it’s a different kind of team from the one we watched forty years ago. This one’s filled with grinders. Guys who play the game hard…get dirty. They’re “working class” if you can really be that when making millions of dollars.

October 20, 1998
    Gone is the tiny black and white. Now we watch in color.
    The Yanks are losing when scrappy Scott Brosius, an unlikely hero-to-be, steps up to the plate in the 7th inning and crushes one “outta" the park. He hits another the next inning, this time with two on.
    As we watch Brosius rounding the bases I ask Mom if she still hates the Yankees. She hesitates, then a faint smile crosses her face.
    A night later and it’s over. The Yanks sweep the series. It’s Mom’s last game too. Shortly after that we find out her nearly seventy years of smoking has finally caught up with her. She’s gone before teams report to training camp the next spring.

    So, yeah. I remember my first game.


At one time Bill Buschel’s “business card” had just two words on it: WORLD TRAVELER. During the ’90’s he settled down and now, more than a quarter century later, it’d be difficult to get all he’s done on both sides of that card. It would start with storyteller, radio show producer/host, poet…and continue on from there.


Second Place

Home Again

By Amie McGraham


Photo credit: Karyl Bannister, the author’s mother

     You’re there because she’s your mother. You’re there because you’re the only child and there’s no one else. You’re there because four years ago, you quit your career in management and managing your mother is your new career. You’re there because she’s getting worse and the need for a memory care home is now a question of “when,” not “if.”
You’re there because she’s needed the comfort and routine of her house, the one where she’s lived for almost a half century, the one that creaks on the seventh stair, the one with the kitchen that’s tinier than the galley in your father’s sailboat, the one that gets dark in the living room at two o’clock every afternoon in December, the one you ran away from forty years ago, the one that’s big and old and terrifying to stay in alone.


     You’re there because she’s lost in time and space. You’re there because she’s convinced the digital clock—the one she calls the “atomic” clock—is telling time in German. You’re there because she’s reverted to the days when she was a newlywed and boiling water was the only recipe she could follow and because she’s now forgotten how to boil water and the burner was on so long it burnt a hole in the antique kettle. You’re there because when the message light flashes on the answering machine, she lives in panic that the phone will blow up like a bomb. You’re there because “they” don’t let her drive anymore and she gets bored sitting in the overstuffed chair in the living room, the one that smells a little like piss, the one with the coffee stains and spots from last summer’s blueberry pie you made together, the one that is both her throne and her prison.


     You’re there because no one else will sing the old familiar hymns or recite her childhood prayers when she’s confused about where she lives and who you are. You’re there because she needs to get out and walk every day and is overwhelmed trying to put her shoes on the right feet. You’re there because she’s forgotten to wash her hair and it’s greasy and flat and smells like potatoes until you point out the Clairol in her rust-stained shower stall. You’re there because keeping up appearances at church, which she has done for the past eighty years, is vital yet exhausting performance. You’re there because no one from church will visit her or help because they only see her an hour a week and think she’s as sharp as she was twenty years ago.
You’re there because the calendars that clutter the walls and desks and tables, the ones she insists upon “mastering” may as well have been written in Sanskrit. You’re there because you find whatever it is she’s lost, rearranged or “they” have stolen from her. You’re there because some nights she gets lost in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. You’re there because she has lost herself. You’re there because going out to lunch every day was part of her life for so many years and no one else will take her. You’re there because you hate Fox News but force yourself to pretend you’re watching it because it calms her even when she can’t recall the “horrible thing” that they’ve televised all day, every minute, every hour.


     You’re there because after the holidays, when you tried to bring the familiar holiday traditions back to life even though they seemed as completely foreign as her reflection in the hallway mirror, you finally realize she needs more care than you can give. You’re there to close up the house, to pack her clothes, the watercolors she painted, the teacup she bought in London, her photo albums. You’re there to say goodbye to the cove across the street where you swam with your family dog every summer, to look at the beach where you used to picnic together, to say farewell to the neighbors who’ve remained a little distant lately. You’re there to move her across country to the dementia care home five minutes from your house.
You’re there because in the end, it will all seem like you have always lived this one day. You’re there because she’s your mother.


Amie McGraham grew up on an island off the coast of Maine. Her articles have appeared in The Caregiver Space; Motherwell Magazine; Best Friends Animal Society and elsewhere. She received her BA from Arizona State University and lives in the desert southwest where she is a family caregiver and petsitter. Her flash blog, “Taking Care,” is read in more than a dozen countries.

Third Place Tie

 

For Opening Day

By Trapper Haskins


     I was a Memphis kid with a Chicago hat. There was nowhere I went that summer that my blonde, unruly locks weren’t covered by the same blue wool and red embroidered “C” that my baseball heroes wore. I was 7 years old. As I sat looking out the window of a CTA train an unfamiliar city passed by, an unrecognizable blur.

     Riding on rails was a foreign thing to me. The trains I knew carried coal, carried chemicals, but not people. My grandfather sat next to me with a Cubs hat of his own — a floppy brimmed hat with sweat stains from a thousand innings under the sun before the lights brought night baseball to Wrigley.

     We rode the Purple Line from Linden Station, stopping at Noyes and Dempster, the car becoming increasingly full of revelers dressed in blue. We passed graffiti-sprayed rooftops, the sprawling Graceland Cemetery, and came so frighteningly close to buildings that I was sure whomever laid the tracks had gotten their math wrong.

     The hissing and clanging of the rails quieted, and as we rolled to a stop at the Addison platform, Wrigley Field rose into view, its steel framework standing like a cathedral to summer. Or maybe futility. It was a hulking slab of Midwest Americana older than half the teams that visited there. The park had, until then, always seemed to me more legend than ballpark. A haunted place.

     The doors of the train slid open to a scene of roiling humanity below at street level, and the car cleared. Vendors of every type shouted for your dollar with T-shirts, peanuts, and tickets for sale.

     Hats. And buttons. And pennants.

     Grandpa bought a program and led me through the tangle of people, past the turnstiles, and up to our seats in the bleachers. I was awestruck by the enormity of the outfield. It was an impossibly broad expanse of green. There was no way only three fielders could cover it — even if their names were Mumphrey, Martinez, and Dawson.

     We saw the Cubs play the Pirates that day. I don’t remember who won. It doesn’t matter now. Grandpa taught me how to keep score by recording the details in baseball shorthand — a “6–3” ground-out, the backwards “K” for a called third strike, and penciled-in diamonds denoting runs scored. By the bottom of the ninth, the entire game was written out like some cryptograph, a coded language for the faithful.

     My father taught me to play the game of baseball. My grandfather taught me to love it — its cadence and choreography, its geometry and grace.

     In 2003, after the Cubs’ playoff collapse just five outs shy of the World Series, I asked my grandfather if he was disappointed, the luckless letting redemption slip away yet again.

     “No,” he said, “this is the way of things.” Then he added, “Just wait ’til next year.”

     Baseball is a game of small victories where failing as a batter less than 70 percent of the time is a benchmark of success. You learn to make peace with your losses.

     My grandfather died the following May at the age of 92. Born in Chicago in 1911, he never saw them win it all. When I flew back to Chicago for his funeral, I went to the only place I could to be near him. I rode the Purple Line to Howard and changed trains to the Red. I passed the graffitied rooftops and Graceland Cemetery where he would be buried the following day only ½ mile from his beloved ballpark.

The doors slid open, and I walked down from the platform at Addison and through the tumult and the clamor of wandering hordes and vendors hawking wares.

     Hats. And buttons. And pennants.

     And there, on the corner of Clark and Addison, I bought a scalper’s ticket —  halfway up on the first base side, I looked out over that green lawn toward the ivy and the bleachers. Surely, someone in those outfield seats was there for the first time, maybe with their own grandfather. I kept score the way mine had shown me on that hazy and distant afternoon.
We lost. The players’ names were different, but the teams, the game, and the field — that hallowed field — was exactly the same.

     I don’t know my grandfather’s birthday. I’ve never asked. But for me, Opening Day is a more fitting time to honor him anyhow. Because we have waited. Because this is next year. And because the promise of October belongs as much to us as anyone.


A writer, musician, and custom woodworker, Trapper Haskins is a cross-disciplinary creator living in Franklin, Tennessee with his wife and two children. He prefers baseball to any other sport, the Chicago Cubs to any other team, and Wrigley Field to almost any place on Earth.


What Does It Mean to Be a Witness?

By Julia Poole

 


     The movie was "Saving Private Ryan". I had read the buzz about the film’s first twenty-seven minutes. It was the intent of the director, Steven Spielberg, to place the viewer beside the soldiers storming Omaha beach on D-Day. The scene screeched violence. Chaos and cacophony, no music. No pulsing horns or drumbeat, just zinging bullets, screaming, explosions, men and body parts flying through smoke-filled air. Rivers of red flowed through sand. Blood, carried by waves, brushed against the beach. I held kernels of popcorn in my hand and couldn’t bring them to my mouth. My eyes shifted from the brutality on the screen to Grandma sitting beside me, her face grimaced, her eyes wide.

     I dropped the popcorn into the bag and set it on the floor.

     I didn’t want to watch "Saving Private Ryan". It was the film’s opening day, the theater packed, and I wanted to sit in the back row where the space between me and the film was greatest. Scenes of war disturbed and reminded me of humanity’s vulnerability and cruelty. I wanted to be farthest away from the reality of WWII, decades in the past and yet I was here because Grandma had invited me to attend the movie with her. I was here because I knew if I didn’t accompany her, she would have come to the theater by herself. I was here because I didn’t want her to see the film alone.

     Grandma chose a seat close to the screen. Walter, her older brother, had died in France during WWII. During fifty years of solitary mourning, she had survived hellish battles of her own.

     “I want to see what Walter saw,” she said.

     What does it mean to be a witness?

     When the opening battle scene ended, there was a collective sigh in the audience. Chairs squeaked as people leaned back in their seats. I sipped a diet Coke, teeth fidgeting with the straw. I didn’t know the details of Walter’s service. Had he landed on Normandy beaches on D-Day? Where in France had Walter died? I wanted to stop the film, to ask Grandma the questions I had contemplated but had never got around to asking. There was an absence of whispering in the theater. My questions would wait.

     I was aware of the movie’s storyline—fictionalized characters based on real events. Captain Miller and eight men searched for Private Ryan, a missing-in-action paratrooper because his brothers had been killed-in-action. D-Day, French countryside and villages—each step of the way, this band of soldiers encountered danger, and one-by-one they died gruesomely. As the tension peaked in each scene, Grandma gasped, sometimes clutching my forearm.

     “Oh, God,” she said, loud enough so I could hear. An utterance, I thought, not meant for me but a beseeching cry to the heavens.

     Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.

     Near the end of the movie, we watched a soldier from Brooklyn fighting for his life with a Nazi, their two bodies entwined, rolling on the floor, sparring to gain the upper hand. Sweat and desperation. The men peered into each other’s soul, close enough to know what the other had eaten that day, the color of their eyes. Death didn’t discriminate between victors and losers. Or heroes. The Nazi slowly stabbed the American in the neck with a bayonet. Gurgling. Shrieking. The impasse was unsustainable, a truth especially merciless in war. Grandma moaned, grasped her scarf, her neck, and didn’t look away.

     She leaned over and said, “That could have been Walter.”

     Like everyone in the theater, she was a spectator to a depiction of events she had only read of, but events that had deeply affected her life.  Time hadn’t answered Grandma’s questions. I sensed her wondering. Constant. Fixed. A wondering that exceeded what she witnessed on the screen, and now, I also wondered. What had Walter been thinking during the last moments of life? How had he suffered? What had he seen? Walter—a second generation German-American—peering into the eyes of the German who killed him.



Julia Poole is a writer and speech-language therapist. Her writing has appeared in The East Bay Review, The Dime Show Review, Dime Show Anthology, MOON Magazine, Motherlode: Essays on Parenthood, and forthcoming in Minerva Rising Journal. Julia lives in Rockford, Michigan. Her family - a husband, son, daughter, and a dog - offer unending patience and inspire her daily.

 


Honorable Mentions

Carolyn Sherman for

When Good People Say Little

 
&
 

Ashley Stimpson for

A Slow Reckoning