Tag: flash fiction

Kaliman and the Madness of Writers

Kaliman is a walking wreck, with hair like a bush, swarthy from complexion, some of it dirt, and of this I’m sure, he has identified me as a writer—since he is one, too—and is trying to infect me with all his insanity. His eyes are squinty from too much thinking. My mother would have faulted him for his dirty ankles, more for his lack of socks. “Were you brought up in a barn?” she would have said with her gentle scold. I’ve known him for thirteen years. He was brought up on the street, and apart from cows.

Today he spoke to me for the first time. I was sitting in a local wreck of a café, sipping moras y yoghurt, blueberries and yogurt, a berry-like tea for Mexican yuppies. The window was open to the street, and I sat behind an iron railing, thank god, a little below the slanted callejón where he was standing. He brandished some writing at me and said some unwritten words. I ignored him, like a dessert we’re wise to decline. So little separates us from Kaliman and, as much as I would like to have broken our thirteen-year silence, I did not. There are traditions to uphold. Plus, dementia often waits for us down the line. A little preview baked by Kaliman might have been ahead-of-time contagious. One bite of him could have been enough. One glance at his scribbling bereft of words as we know them could have destroyed my own—all part of his plan to induct me into the Hall of Insane.

Clearly, someone had told him I was a writer like him. And now he wanted to change that as well, infect it, so that my words collapsed into kuneiformed rubble like his own? But, hold on. I could be just as devious and put an end to harassment of this sort. I stood up, collected my Apple things and beckoned with my index digit to coax him into a cyber café, where I plopped him down in front of a computer—not that I cared one way or another whether he knew what one was. I showed him how to touch the keys, my account, meaboutme@gmail.comto an old and unresponsive friend, and only inserted a few words of my own. Camel, Allah, NSA-Great Satan. The rest of it looked like rat droppings fonted in pungent rows.

Some time passed while the words flitted through Our Coaxial Who Art in Heaven, and then the FBI visited me—its Mexican cell. The snoop cartel.

“Did you write this?” they asked, at my mesquite door, showing me a stamped and dated official copy of the time-sensitive drivel.

“No, my friend Kaliman did,” I replied—as truthfully as truth allowed.

“Who is Kaliman?” they asked—taking notes.

I described Taliban—I mean Kaliman—and where to find him, near the Museo de Leyendas, description enough—little visited repository of legends. An institution I thought would list him eventually, once things had passed.

They returned.

“He’s not sane,” they said.

“Who is these days?” I answered, palms outstretched.

“He doesn’t understand the words camel, Allah, USA or Great Satan.”

They looked at me with suspicion, looking for guilt.

“That should be ‘NSA-Great Satan.’ Not ‘USA-Great Satan.’ And written together,” I said, precise from my training as unionized teacher-citizen, California.

“Whatever,” said the less amused of the two.

The seat of his pants was shiny. I could see he is on his way to being Kalimanized. I wondered whether I should tell him, or what.

“You need to be careful,” I say. “He can infect your thinking.”

“Perhaps you’ve infected his,” says Agent Less Amused. “Adding words to his.”

“I have never spoken with him,” I said.

At that moment, Kaliman showed up. Not surprisingly, he had found out where I lived. He brandished a scribble. We were all in danger.

“He’s a writer like me,” I said. “And doesn’t wear socks.”

They tried to examine the page, but Kaliman clutched it, like a raccoon with an egg, and looked at me for help. I smiled at him and told him—breaking my vow of silence—he could trust me and that I would read it for him, without cracking the egg. His eyes brightened, one of them wept a cleansing line down his cheek. I had won his confidence. That much was clear.

I struggle with the first word. “Ben—gha—zi,” I read. “Benghazi,” I said. translating from Kalimandarin to English. “Al…al….al…,” I read.

“Al Qaida?” barked Agent Grouch, with a professional tone and ready to pounce.

“Al—lah,” I completed, nodding and pleased at my code breaker talents.

“It’s clearer now,” I continued. “Allah…be praised…my camel…Benghazi…knows more…about…Libya…than…Obama’s whole Stasi.”

I looked up at them, their darkened Homeric brows.

“That’s what it says, the rest is gibberish,” I said. And then, “I appreciate your trouble….”

“What does it mean?” they asked.

“Who knows?” I said. “The man is mad, as mad as a hatter—without doubt it’s a thing of no substance—of little matter.”

I often rhyme when it’s least appropriate.

Just then, Kaliman did me a favor, plucked the page out of my hands and stuffed it into his gob and, with shark-like pressure of grinding enamel, re-encrypted the code beyond all reach. He picked at his tooth where a phrase had got suck, spit out a glob of something penciled and strutted away, I supposed to re-establish the silence that he had broken between us.

“His brain is limited,” I said, “unlike our own. He must read the paper, AM or Correo or Corazón—all reliable rags. He’s like a parrot and repeats whatever he’s told. Nothing to worry about. Thank god there’s surveillance. I’ll keep you informed if I learn any more. Things that begin with ‘al…’—and words of like clout.”

The FBI said I would be hearing from them, but I never did. It’s possible they read my blog and tap my everything Google or Apple—looking for things like “NSA-Great Satan” and equivalent babble.

As for Kaliman, he avoids me with care, I suspect smelling treachery. And all has returned to its former quiet. I am still un-demented, my writing as well, don’t you think? Everything is good, everything swell. And so, Happy New Year everywhere, there’s nothing more to this, as there wasn’t before. But should more come up, you’ll be able to tell.

A Christmas Story

Sometimes a Christmas story is about a reverence for snow, cold cheeks almost burning, wet socks, the smell of guava punch with apples and cinnamon, the heat of a wood stove with gingerbread baking in its oven, half burnt potholders with crows to protect the fingers, an Aunt that plays French songs on the phonograph and, half swooning, lays her hands splayed across her chest, just above her dove-like bosom that smells ever so slightly of mothballs and talcum powder.

She was a Catholic—me a diluted Protestant—and it was the Church, she said, that had kept her single because the men of Ireland had never learned to love women, only the Virgin, and tended to abuse them—not to mention themselves—because of the nuns’ warning not to touch. Not even with the heart.

I had no idea what she was talking about, except that I wondered now and then what it would be like to touch her, perhaps when she was asleep and not so sad. I was almost fifteen and curious about bodies, not the least about my own. In a moment of questionable trust, I told my father I found myself wondering about women’s bodies. He took his pipe out of his mouth and told me that was all right and natural enough, and then said with a humpf that I shouldn’t get anyone pregnant.

That remark caused me embarrassment, and I think I blushed—which made it harder for me to see myself as the man my father was. He had seen straight into my deepest secret, which, when I look back on it, overwhelmingly had to do with Nature’s plot to make babies.

My Aunt’s name was Georgina, and I suppose she wasn’t much older than twenty-five at the time. She already had a reputation in our family for not being responsible, for herself or anything else. She forgot to take things off the stove and didn’t tighten the tops of jars, so you had to be careful that the contents—oatmeal, for example, or popcorn—gripped  by their lids, didn’t slip away and crash on the straight-grained fir floor of our kitchen, creating two messes, not just one.

Georgina loved my mother’s guava punch—a fruit that was shipped from Florida each winter by her brother Antonio, and that arrived only half rotten. Georgina would carry her cup into the unheated front parlor and add sherry to it. She let me try it, and I thought it was awful, except that it made her a little less concerned about the young men in Ireland that still, at age forty, lived with their mothers and spent too much time in the pubs drinking Guinness and listening to fiddlers rattle their strings with angry jigs and reels, all the while complaining that Ireland should be fighting on the side of the Germans.

One evening near Christmas, my parents drove away in their 1943 Ford station wagon through falling snow to a cocktail party at the end of a dark New England road, to the house of two German bachelors, Herbie and Hans Wanders, who never spoke German, because of the war. That left me and Georgina alone in the house. A pot of guava punch sat thinking at the edge of the stove top. Georgina pushed it with one of the burnt crows to where it would heat up—with me watching her. Then she poured herself a cup and headed for the front parlor. I followed since, in many regards, she was my leader. She clicked on the phonograph, its orange eye lit up and, with another click, the plastic arm came alive and dropped the needle onto Edith Piaf’s “C’est lui que mon Coeur a choisi”—He’s the One My Heart Has Chosen.

I didn’t understand a word of it, and I’m pretty sure she didn’t either. We sat next to each other, with just the light of a distant street light, on the small settee upholstered in pale flowers, with our hips practically touching, and passed the cup—now fortified with my mother’s cheap sherry—back and forth, and I tried not to stare at my Aunt’s knees, which had somehow glided forward from the edge of her corduroy skirt and, at least to my memory, gleamed as if touched by moonlight.

The more I drank of the awful brew, the more I thought about things. How I too was still living with my mother—as well as my father—and how it was somehow wrong to be drawn to my aunt’s exposed knees. The punch made me warm all over, at the same time that I felt perched on the edge of nausea. The song was a walz and very emotional, and right then Georgina took hold of my jaw, brought my head up and around toward hers, and gave me what I think must have been a very un-Catholic kiss square on my lips.

I stared shocked into her eyes, at that moment lit up by the headlights of my parent’s Ford which, returning early, crunched to a halt the front of the house. The bridge over Prospect Creek, on the way to the Wanders, had collapsed, and my parents had seen the gaping black hole just in time and had stayed only long enough to drag brush across the road to warn motorists coming from the same direction. Back in the kitchen, while my mother studied us with a curious expression—possibly suspecting loose lids, my father marched to the phone on the wall, told all the listening busybodies to get off the goddam line and called the police about the fallen bridge.

Georgina, as it turned out, left for New York on the morning train and returned by ship to Ireland, which zigzagged all the way, she wrote, to avoid the torpedoes of German U-Boats. And I went on to lead a life only occasionally drawn to sherry, and more often to guava in any form—for its intoxicating smell. I no longer live with my mother, and I often thought of Georgina and her knees, until I met my first love—and then, like the men of Ireland, I forgot her.