Category Archives: Short Fiction

Hometown Sketch: Neighborhood Watch

neighborhood-watch

Nobody got away with secrets on Lorna’s street. Affairs were unlikely. Teenage liaisons: failures from the start. Unemployed, and unable to sleep, Lorna was a one-woman neighborhood watch.

“New car?” she asked at the door of any neighbor whose driveway sported unfamiliar wheels. Several times a week she’d turn off the stove, leave on the TV, and go out knocking. And she already knew who was home, so there was no pretending you weren’t.

“Hi, Lorna. Sue’s brother is over for dinner.”

Lorna didn’t take hints. “How nice. Is Paul staying long?”

She stood with her arms crossed over her sagging, unsupported chest barely concealed by an over-worn purple blouse. Her left foot stuck out, as though ready at any moment to slip inside the door.

“Just today. Better not keep him waiting. Take care.”

Slam.

When the Branders to the East put up a garage between their houses, Lorna gave them up for an entire year. But not without withdrawals. She and her daughter Mary—who often sat lounging in their driveway after Lorna watered the pavement with a garden hose—grabbed the aluminum arms of their lawn chairs at the sight of the Branders, and swiveled their ample bottoms to face the other way.

This left Lorna to turn her attention to the west, slicing her hand in front of her neck to stop Mr. Fletcher from mowing, or beckoning to his wife, Nancy, while she hung clothes on the line out back.

“I don’t know why he had to go and move us out here,” Lorna said of her husband, Earl. “California has post offices, too! How do you stand this place? I’m so miserable.”

Nancy clipped a pair of Hawkeye boxers to her clothesline and asked, “How long have you lived in Iowa?”

Lorna’s eyes widened, accentuating the charged look of her black and gray striped hair. “Twenty-two years next month! Can you believe it?”

Across the lawn, Earl felt for snakes in the landscaping and flung them windmill-fashion into the cornfield.

Lorna called over to him, waving her arms wildly. “Earl! Watch your hands! We don’t need another trip to the emergency room.” Then to Nancy she said, “I’ve never met a more accident-prone man. I won’t let him near the kitchen. I’m Italian, after all, not Cajun!” She laughed and then stopped abruptly as she spotted another neighbor through the houses. “There’s Sheri. Her mother passed away last month and she’s taken up the bottle to cope. I’m gonna go say hi. We’ll catch up later,” she said and took off.

“Thank God,” muttered Nancy.

Most of Lorna’s neighbors endured her intrusions with good humor. Those who didn’t moved away or installed deadbolts. Yet despite her meddling, Lorna’s neighbors felt secure knowing that their children were safe and their spouses faithful. And there was something to living with such an assurance.

Advertisements

Hometown Sketch: Walking Man

 

blog map

 

No two days on the streets were the same. Flowers bloomed at different rates and snow accumulated in shifting waves and peaks. The sights of this small town didn’t get old when each day the cloud patterns cast new shadows on the lake’s surface and on the red brick businesses just north of the water’s edge.

All weather was walking weather for Walking Man.

An addiction, people called it—equating him with the meth heads in the basements and trailer parks of the town’s underground. But his was a lifestyle of health and vigor. Of gainful occupation.

A stolen car incident in high school prompted his hobby—the same high school, incidentally, by which he now lived and started his daily trek. He clocked out at the packing plant before dawn and was on the streets by noon, making his way south to the lake, along the shore past the University then west towards the hospital. School traffic sent him north, where kids attempting greatness at the Field of Dreams provided passing entertainment.

He knew what people called him. Not that it was clever. A red-haired man in a Chevy sang out in smooth tenor whenever he crossed his path: “Walking Man, walk-ing the streets aga-ain!” It’d be more amusing if it weren’t the same man who stole his car all those years ago.

In his forties Walking Man married a woman whose only daughter kept mostly to her room. It was a good arrangement; neither he nor his wife required much affection or attention. And if she did—well, then she had the daughter, or her hospital patients. They divided the domestic duties, and the yard work they hired out. She hadn’t the time, and his snake phobia kept him out of the grass. The pavement was his domain.

When the local Times took notice of him, he wondered whether the Cullens were lacking for material. Who would find his routine interesting? They even printed his miles per day. He got more attention than expected and endured months of exaggerated nods and waves from townsfolk—those people who, from a distance, Walking Man watched grow older, plant gardens, run stoplights. There was serenity in the events not in his control. He had his walking, and his work, and that was enough.

In many ways this town didn’t change. The farmers offered their predictions, the mayor maintained the vote, Walking Man walked the streets, and the paper published it all.


Hometown Sketch: Thorna Walstrom

spam2

“Our bodies adjust to nature if we let them,” says Thorna Walstrom, a woman with a high, sun-bronzed forehead and an air of omniscience. You can read her thoughts in the wrinkles around her mouth: If only people thought to ask my advice, this town might be a better place to live. But she doesn’t wait for people to ask; she puts her opinions in the newspaper, from the inconvenience of street closings to the need for a community auditorium.

Thorna is one of the stragglers, holding up the library exit after Tuesday night book club, testing the patience of the facilitator who stands with a pasted smile and feet inching closer to the door, key poised, for each minute past closing.

Thorna has a way with words and knows how to get results. Her editorials spurn City Council decisions, but in person she’s more likely to inspire a mental run-through of your to-do list.

“I never turn my heat above fifty, whether it’s thirty above or twenty below. And air conditioners—you know, we invent all these things for convenience but are lost when they break down.” She stands at the exit in one of her monochrome outfits, thinning brown hair, and no makeup. “I like to feel connected to the earth. There’s beauty in recognizing our insignificance.”

Thorna doesn’t own a car. She relies on her bike and her own two feet—a lifestyle uncommon in small-town Iowa. If not for her editorials, locals recognize her by her stooped-shoulder jog and unmistakable sense of fashion. Her shoes, socks, leggings, shorts, shirt, jacket, scarf, jewelry, belt, and headband all follow a single color scheme. Green is her favorite.

For this my mother calls her the Green Hornet. But it’s not Thorna’s only nickname. Favored by students (Thorna works in education) is The SPAM Lady. This is less an insult than an invitation she brings upon herself.

Her SPAM collection exceeds the thousands—has even caught notice of the LA Times. She enters classrooms looking like a walking ad for SPAM, down to the miniature cans dangling from her ears (though she’s never tasted the product).

Not a teenager in town has taken her seriously in twenty years.

But Thorna doesn’t give a damn. She displays her collection for charity, and when she’s not advocating for the town, she’s running marathons and coaching track. Her classroom is wallpapered in clippings devoted to running. She’s a multi-medal holder, and doesn’t stop moving even while her dog takes a dump.

“Humans shouldn’t be so comfortable,” she says, putting a hand on the library door. “It weakens our resolve. Get rid of your TV and see how it improves your life. I dare you.”

She exits, leaving the librarian to shake her head and with a curt laugh say to herself, “It takes all sorts to make a town.”


Snooky Bear’s Bad Day

“Snooky Bear hasn’t been acting herself,” said Sissy Struthers at the library desk. Sissy had wild hair and judged books by their covers. New, shiny, sultry–a well-conceived cover graphic trumped the story every time.

“In this one,” she said, displaying a cover of a surly cat staring down a middle-aged woman, “a cat-whisperer falls in love with a client’s owner. It doesn’t seem like much of a love story, but I’m hoping it’ll give me insight into Snooky Bear’s recent behavior.”

There were a dozen books on the counter for checkout, and a dozen more in the return pile. Sissy came in two times a week—sometimes three—each book she brought back smelling of cat dander and cigarettes. The librarians took turns fanning them over charcoal in the smoke box.

“She won’t even chase the red dot,” said Sissy, scooping her checkouts into an old blue backpack. From the bag’s front pocket she pulled two wrinkled photographs. “This is my last cat, Winifred, at the vet before she was put down. And here she is with her favorite yarn ball. The way Winifred acted then is how Snooky Bear’s acting now. I don’t know if I can go through that again.” She sighed and shook her head.

“Estuse me,” said a girl walking up to the counter. “Do you have the Jussin Bieber movie?” One hand palmed her left hip while the other stretched her Dora the Explorer necklace like a slingshot. Her name was Myra. She was four years old and came in every weekend with her mom and brother. She knew all three High School Musical soundtracks by heart, and her literary tastes were of the princess variety.

“Who’s Justin Bieber?” Sissy asked, looking down.

“What? You don’ know Jussin Bieber?” She released her necklace and suppressed a wince from the backlash. “He’s only the bestest, cutest singer ever!” She looked as though she might start dancing any moment.

Sissy nodded.

“Is that your cat?” Myra poked at the vet photo.

“Yes, that’s Winifred. Right before she was put down.”

“Put down where?”

Sissy frowned, choosing her words. “Put to sleep.”

Myra squinted and said, “Ohhhh.” Her head tipped back as though weighted by the word. “My cat puts to sleep all the time. It’s so boring.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“If your cat’s being boring, you should watch High School Musical with her. The songs will cheer her up and she’ll be fun again. Here, I’ll show you.”

Myra led Sissy to the Family Movies shelf and pointed just out of reach.

“Ooh, nice cover,” said Sissy. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Sissy checked out the movie and then left with a renewed energy, her backpack bouncing behind her.