Hello and welcome to Week 18, Starting Over. This week we have stories from five writers (well, and my own as well, so six): Matt J. McGee, Tim Clark, Linda M. Crate, Deb Felio, and Sunil Sharma. Each story includes the prompt in a unique and compelling way, making this revival collection a really splendid set. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I did.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT CHICKEN
Matt J. McGee
“Can you imagine you and me married?”
It would’ve been a perfectly reasonable question coming from a fiancée, or a girlfriend, or at least a friend, none of which I have right now.
But this slim blonde woman, alone at a nearby table in the Jack in the Box, her hair pulled back in a tight single braid and her figure wrapped in a light cotton jumper, apparently decided to go out of the house this evening with the intent of popping the question. It had been a hot day, the kind people go crazy on. I took that into consideration.
“Sure,” I smile. “Does that mean I get half your stuff when it doesn’t work out?”
The smile beneath her beautifully high cheekbones didn’t fade. “Alright by me. I don’t have anything so you wouldn’t be getting much. So where are we getting married?”
I dumped my trash in the can and slid the tray on the top rack. “If we leave for the airport now, we can get an Elvis impersonator in Vegas by six.” I walked near her table and held out a hand. She didn’t take it right away.
“You’re not half bad-looking,” she said. “What a shame you have no taste in romance.”
“I’m as romantic as the next guy.”
She smiled. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“I ended a bad relationship recently,” I say, thinking if six years ago counts as recent. “Maybe this will help me get over that hump.”
She smiled. Her head shook lightly. “Thanks. I don’t want to be anyone’s slumpbuster.”
“Say it that way it makes me sound desperate.”
“No offense but you did just accept a proposal from a random stranger in Jack in the Box.”
I rolled my eyes. ‘Didn’t you ever see Rebel Without a Cause? I’m James Dean staring down death and jumping out of the car at just the right moment.”
“Didn’t he end up dying when his coat got hooked on the door handle?”
“Nah, that was the other guy.”
We stood in silence a few moments. I still had a smile on my face. She finally looked up, smiled back, then shook her head lightly again. I shrugged.
I took my drink and turned for the door. “What a shame. I was just starting to like the idea of starting over again with another total stranger.”
My car still had all its ambient heat from the day’s sun. She waited until I was pulling away to get in her own car: a brand new Nissan. I thought: Nothing valuable, huh? See? Not even married yet, and already we’re lying to each other.
MATT McGEE writes short fiction in the Los Angeles area. In 2018, his stories ‘A Day in the Life of a Favor Saver’ and ‘Schneider’s Last Stand’ appeared in Grey Wolfe Press’ ‘Legends’ anthology, ‘The Flaming Tadpoles’ will appear in the UK-based ‘Painted Words’ anthology in July and his first romance novel ‘Wildwood Mountain’ was released June 19th. When not typing he drives around in a vintage Mazda and plays goalie in local hockey leagues.
As a child you are taught the importance of the accurate measurement of time. The big hand, the little hand, the fast moving, long, skinny hand that they seemed reluctant to explain, all described in glorious, Gregorian detail. Time is everything, and if you didn’t believe that try showing up late for 1st grade class. Time was a tool to provide the gauge of just how awful you were.
Time, it was said, was a constant, unchanging motion, or fixture, or state of decay, despite being absolutely distinct from any method used to measure its passage. Sixty seconds would always be one minute, and 3,600 of them an hour. The people who always lectured the most on the passage of time didn’t want to answer a lot of questions about it. And they hated the really difficult questions; “why is this taking so long?” “When will this be over?” Those were the kind of things that got you sent to the Principal’s office, where time took forever.
But, you never really understood time until you got a job. Once you are trading time for money things start to make sense. Once that “commodification” takes place then the true value of time becomes apparent. “Love to come to your pre-sentence hearing, mom, but I have to work.” Time is money, you know?
Once you sit there counting down the days until vacation, or the weekend, the minutes, or seconds until lunch, or quitting time (which is kind of mislabeled, it isn’t when you quit, I won’t make that mistake again) then you understand the measurement of time. Newton’s first law be damned. The last five minutes of a day can be an eternity. The last day before vacation is a black hole. Slowing time to the a crawl. And if you are lucky enough to make it to the last five minutes on the last day before vacation you might want to bring some extra lunch.
Really, it is no wonder people have been fascinated with time since a long, long time ago. It is the thing that gets us through the day. Watching the clock, counting down the seconds, cursing the dragging, crawling seconds, because you just know the minute hand never changes. Never!
And you wonder “what bastard invented the digital clock, anyway?” At least with an analog clock you see the destination. Five o clock, target acquired, assume attack formation. With a digital clock it is only the present, only just now, and when it is gone there it is again. Damnit!
Really, they should teach you more about time in elementary school. When you are forced to pick it up on the streets the whole thing gets a little weird. But, it is time for me to go to work. See you next time. Have a good time, and last but certainly not least, the always appropriate Bob Dylan “And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, cause the times, they are a’changing.’”
Broken But Healing
Linda M. Crate
Nicholas knew that he had to let bygones be bygones. His late sister Michaele would want him to start anew. But he didn’t want to forgive the man that had taken her life.
“Forgiveness isn’t about them,” Michaele’s voice whispered in his ear. “It’s about you. It’s about freeing you.”
He knew that living with all this wrath and anger couldn’t be healthy. He didn’t want to disappoint his own wife and children with all the complicated emotions he was feeling, but he thought in forgiving this terrible man he would be forgetting Michaele, too. He wasn’t willing to let his sister go, too.
Walking to the church, he paused outside the doors for several long moments. He feared what he may be told. As he walked to confess his sins, he wondered if he would be able to voice out loud what he was thinking.
“Forgive me, father, for I have sinned,” he began. The words were caught in his throat for a long time before he could spit them out. “I know Michaele would want me to forgive the man that murdered her, but I’m afraid if I let go of my rage and my wrath that I will let go of her, too. I’m not willing to lose her.”
“The ones that we love never truly leave us,” came the voice on the other side. “Release your rage and your wrath. Not for the sake of your enemy, but for yourself. You will find in embracing peace that it may help you cope better with the loss of your sister. I’m sorry for what has happened to you and your family, Nicholas. I pray that things will get better for you all.”
“I hope so, too. But God has no easy answers.”
“He never does. He sometimes requires us to be stronger than we feel we can be, but He never gives us something we cannot handle.”
Nicholas didn’t know about that. He was barely holding himself together. Instead of saying anything, he simply nodded, and left. He didn’t know how he was going to forgive this man.
Slowly, as the days passed he figured out the answer. Simply to release his anger. He didn’t like what had happened to his sister nor would he ever understand it, but he couldn’t go back in the past and change it so he had to accept it.
He could not control the actions of others, either, Nicholas reasoned.
When he let go of his rage, he found the pain was still there, but somehow felt different as the priest had said it would. He found that with each day, he was putting one foot before the other, beginning again in a meaningful way.
Some days Nicholas stumbled and he fell, but his wife and children helped him when he faltered. He had discovered in that asking for help that Nicholas had actually helped free a piece of himself because there was no shame in admitting that one was broken.
Another New Day
deb y felio
She opens her closet and wonders aloud, “Where did all these new dresses come from? How shall I decide what to wear? I want to look nice. This blue one with the flowers and specks. I like this. Now where is my powder and lipstick? I thought I put it in this drawer…oh, here it is. Now I look ready.”
Tap tap tap. “What is that?”
“Mrs. Walters, are you ready?” “Yes, dear. Now why are you here?”
“We’re going to breakfast, remember?”
“Oh, of course, dear.”
“But, Mrs. Walters, we’re going to need to change your dress.”
“But I like this dress – it’s new and my favorite color.”
“Yes, you’ve worn it every day this week, but there are a lot of food stains on this dress, and it really should be washed to keep it in good shape for you.”
“I’ve worn this dress before? I thought it was new. I didn’t remember it. I have all these new dresses in my closet.”
“Well, here’s a lovely green one. Let’s put this one on and go to breakfast. Then we’ll look through all your other new dresses later to see if any of the others need to be cleaned.”
“I like this dress. I think it’s my favorite. And it’s brand new.”
“Mrs Walter, every day is brand new for you, at the Care 4-U Memory Center.”
Monday blues and after
Generally it happens on Fridays—the late-afternoon chat with the boss over tepid coffee; some common topics and then, the pink slip given without warning—a Tyson punch that knocks the wind out of the hit.
Hurried goodbyes. Silent tears!
For him, it happened on Monday.
Morning he was in the job. By 5 pm—out!
As in a tragedy, he could not believe this happening to him.
Why me? He asked the gods, quiet as usual.
Devastated, he went to the Marine Lines and watched a rain-soaked Mumbai skyline.
Lights came on, giving the place a magical feel.
The murky waters of a choppy sea beckoned as a solution to all the existential blues.
He sat dangling over the sea wall and thought of his options. At 38, no job; piling house -loan arrears; medicine bills; tuition fees; groceries.
Jumping into the sea was a temptation…
He looked back.
A kid selling roasted grams—eyes and tone pleading; frail body in faded clothes; tousled hair.
He dismissed the child with a rude gesture.
The voice was grating.
—Go away! He ordered.
—Saar! Saar! Please take a packet. Got a family to feed. Ma suffering from cancer; brother handicapped; father dead.
The tone was pleading.
—Your five rupees might get us a modest meal, Saar! I am not a beggar but a student working extra time…
The voice trailed off. The body shook. Tears mingled with the July rain drops pelting the city of glitzy bars, hotels and offices.
The downsized man looked into the eyes of the child, sobbing loudly—and oddly, saw his own kid in that gaunt face.
And felt terrified!
—Any elders left in family? He asked.
—Two elder brothers.
—They not supporting?
The kid paused. Then: The eldest separated long ago with his family. Second brother ran away.
Shocked, the man asked: You too can also run away?
The kid took a long breath.
—Running is not an option for some, Saar.
The man was struck dumb!
Everything changed fast afterwards.
He fished out a ten rupee note, patted the boy and said: Keep on fighting. Those down will rise up one day in life!
A message by a father to a migrant son trying to find work and shelter in Mumbai—recalled suddenly and relayed to another struggler.
The boy smiled through the tears, mumbled a thank-you and left.
Then he got a visual on phone, sent perhaps by a divine design: Sisyphus riding up the mountain with his burden.
Revived, he picked up his bag and bid goodbye to the murky depths.
—Where are you?
—Starting over again…he wrote back, smiling at the world in general.
Bio: Sunil Sharma is a college principal, freelance journalist, author and editor. Mumbai-based, he has published 19 books—solo and joint. His prose and poetry have appeared in many places in the world.
Brown. Brown houses, brown roofs, brown cars, brown boots, brown shovels, brown towels, brown fingers, brown steps, brown plants, brown soccer balls submerged in the brown.
Fumiko used a rusty dustpan to scrape the mud from her front step and then her neighbor Fujiyama’s step. Fujiyama’s daughter had taken him to the evacuation center on the second day of the rains, before the street was closed. Fumiko was overjoyed when she uncovered her grandson’s tricycle, its red paint and silver spokes now brown. She put it in her kitchen so it would not be crushed by the bulldozers rolling past towards the mountain villages.
Fumiko was supposed to be in the evacuation center too but without electricity or running water, the elementary school serving as the town shelter was now overrun with exhausted neighbors whose collective body odor made Fumiko’s mud-caked house feel like a palace. She had to sleep upstairs with the windows open though sleep was hardly the word. What she did after sunset was to lay on her now dry but still dirty futon and alternate between staring at the ceiling and talking to her mother, whose framed portrait hung above a makeshift shrine.
After sunrise, Fumiko would put on her dusty clothes and go down the hill to the grocery store where the volunteers had set up tents and tables. Every morning, those who were still in their own homes like Fumiko gathered for a bottle of green tea and a small bag of sweet bean buns. There would be rice balls for lunch and either curry or spaghetti for dinner. They had a generator running there so Fumiko could charge the battery on her phone to call her son in Yokohama. He had offered to come and get her but it was impossible. The mayor told them just yesterday that it would be weeks before power was restored. And since the bridges had been washed away, the train would not be running for months, if not longer. The roads were so damaged that the volunteers had to carry the food and supplies into town on foot.
After breakfast, Fumiko returned home, walking slowly over the brown that was now cracking from the unrelenting sun. The excess rain had been exchanged for excess heat. Someone heard on the radio that over ten-thousand people had been to the hospital with heat stroke since the rains had stopped. Over thirty dead. The village on the other side of the mountain had almost thirty dead as well, washed away in the river. Fumiko lowered herself slowly onto the front step and sat there fanning herself with a newspaper until the shade disappeared. Then she went inside and found her dustpan, now warped from overuse. She began to scrape away the brown that covered the living room tatami mats, knowing that they were ruined beyond repair but also knowing that they would be replaced, filling the house once again with the sweet scent of freshly cut grass.