The New Year
It’s late Christmas Eve at Spinelli’s when Dominic presents us, the waitstaff, with his dumb idea of a bonus—Italian hams in casings so tight they shimmer like Gilda’s gold lamé stockings.
At home, Gilda’s waiting up for me with a surprise of her own: my stuff from the last three months is sitting on the stoop. Arms crossed, scarlet nails tapping the white satin sleeves of her robe, she says she’s heard about Fiona. I balance the ham on my hip and pack my things—CDs, weights, a vintage Polaroid—into garbage bags she’s provided free of charge. Then I let it all drop and offer up the ham in both hands, cradling it as if it might have been our child. She doesn’t want any explanations—or the ham.
Fiona belongs to Dominic, and we are a short sad story of one night’s restaurant despair. But the story’s out and for sure I don’t want Dominic coming after my ham.
Under Gilda’s unforgiving eye, I sling my garbage bags into the trunk of the car and all Christmas day I drive with the radio off except when I call Gilda from a phone booth by the side of the road. Bing Crosby and me singing “White Christmas” means nothing to her, so I head west, the ham glistening beside me in the passenger’s seat. Somewhere in Indiana I strap it into a seat belt.
I stop to call again, but Gilda hangs up every time. After the next state, I send her pictures of my trip instead: The Ham under the silver arch of St. Louis; The Ham at the Grand Canyon; The Ham in Las Vegas. I’m taking a picture of The Ham in the Pacific when a big wave washes it out to sea. I send the picture anyway: The Ham in the Pacific Undertow. In this picture, you can’t tell which of us is missing.
Some months ago my wife delivered twin sons one minute apart. The older is Joseph and the younger is Liam. Joseph is dark and Liam is light. Joseph is healthy and Liam is not. Joseph has a whole heart and Liam has half. This means that Liam will have two major surgeries before he is three years old.
I have read many pamphlets about Liam’s problem. I have watched many doctors’ hands drawing red and blue lines on pieces of white paper. They are trying to show me why Liam’s heart doesn’t work properly. I watch the markers in the doctors’ hands. Here comes red, there goes blue. The heart is a railroad station where the trains are switched to different tracks. A normal heart switches trains flawlessly two billion times in a life; in an abnormal heart, like Liam’s, the trains crash and the station crumbles to dust.
So there are many nights now when I tuck Liam and his wheezing train station under my beard in the blue hours of night and think about his Maker. I would kill the god who sentences him to such awful pain, I would stab him in the heart like he stabbed my son, I would shove my fury in his face like a fist, but I know in my own broken heart that this same god made my magic boys, shaped their apple faces and coyote eyes, put joy in the eager suck of their mouths. So it is that my hands are not clenched in anger but clasped in confused and merry and bitter prayer.
I talk to God more than I admit. “Why did you break my boy?” I ask.
I gave you that boy, he says, and his lean brown brother, and the elfin daughter you love so.
“But you wrote death on his heart,” I say.
I write death on all hearts, he says, just as I write life.
This is where the conversation always ends and I am left holding the extraordinary awful perfect prayer of my second son, who snores like a seal, who might die tomorrow, who did not die today.
How to Touch a Bleeding Dog
It begins as nothing, as a blank. A rose light is filtering through the curtains. Rosy and cozy. My blanket is green. My blanket is warm. I am inside. Inside is warm. Outside is the dawn. Outside is cold. Cold day. My arm reaches for a wife who is no longer there.
The stillness is broken by the voice of a neighbor, yelling from the road outside. “The dog! Your dog’s been hit!” It’s the farmer down the road, keeping farmer’s hours. “The dog!”
It’s not my dog, but it’s my responsibility. It is Beth’s dog. I don’t even like him, with his nervous habit of soiling the kitchen floor at night. I used to clean up after the dog before Beth came yawning out of our bed, and that was an act of love, but not of the dog. Now it doesn’t matter why I clean up. Or whether.
Beth’s dog is old and worn. He smells like a man given to thin cigars. Beth found him at the animal shelter, the oldest dog there.
I find the dog quivering on his side where he limped from the road. He has come to the garden gate, where the rose bushes bloom. A wound on his leg goes cleanly to the bone, and red stains appear here and there on the dull rug of his coat. He will not stand or budge when I coax him. A thick brown soup flows out of his mouth onto the dirt.
On the telephone, the veterinarian asks me what he looks like, and I say, stupidly, like an old Airedale. He means his wounds. After I describe them, he instructs me to wrap the dog in something warm and rush him over.
I make a mitten of the green blanket and scoop weeds and clods as well as the dog. The dew on the grass looks cool, but the blood that blossoms on the blanket is warm and sick. He is heavy in my arms and settles without resistance in my car. He is now gravity’s dog.
Driving past the unplowed fields toward town, I wonder if my clumsiness hurt the dog. Would Beth have touched him? The oldest dog in the shelter! It’s a wonder that she thought having a dog would help.
The veterinarian helps me bring the dog from the car to the office. We make a sling of the blanket, I at the head. We lay him out on a steel-topped table. I pick weeds and grass from the blanket and don’t know what to say.
The veterinarian clears his throat but then says nothing.
“He’s my wife’s dog,” I say. “Actually, he came from the shelter over on High Street. He wasn’t working out, really. I was thinking of returning him.”
The veterinarian touches a spot below the dog’s ear.
“Maybe,” I continue, “maybe if it’s going to cost a lot …”
“I don’t think you have to make that decision,” says the veterinarian, who points out that some papillary response is missing. “He’s dying,” he says. “It’s good you weren’t attached to him.”
Beth, I remembered, enjoyed taking the dog for rides in the car.
“These breaths,” the veterinarian is saying, “are probably his last.”
He seems relieved that he needn’t bother to act appropriately for the sake of any grief on my part. He asks, “Did he run in the road a lot?”
“Never,” I say. “He never ran at all.”
“What do you make of that?”
“Beats me,” I say, lying. I watch the dog’s chest rise and fall. He’s already far away and alone. I picture myself running out into the road.
I watch my hand volunteer itself and run its finger through the nap of his head, which is surprisingly soft. And, with my touch on him, he is suddenly dead.
I walk back to the car and am surprised by how early in the day it still is. Blood is drying on the green blanket in my hand, but it will come off in the wash. The blood on the carpet of the car is out of sight, and I will pretend it isn’t there. And then there’s the touch. But soon the touch, too, will be gone.
1. Work with a designated word limit: one sentence, or perhaps 250 words, 500 words, or 750 words.
2. For your subject, choose a moment of high intensity, and do think in scene: For inspiration, focus on the moment you quit your job, the moment you got busted for cheating, the last car ride you took with your wildest friend, the moment you realized he wasn’t just wild, but actually dangerous. Choose something you know well.
3. Try sketching the scene that will anchor your flash.
4. Begin with the words “It’s [time of day] on [day or holiday] at [specific place—house, restaurant, dock] when [person] [action] [at least four details].” Notice how that one action in Pamela Painter’s “The New Year” creates the whole first paragraph and, essentially, the first act.
5. In your next paragraph, move to the next part of the story—your main character is in a new location and surprised, very surprised. In paragraph 3, you are allowed a sentence or two of backstory. In paragraph 5, you can use strong action lines and detail to dramatically move your character through space and time.
6. Then consider your turns. In the last sentence, will you leap forward in time? Painter uses a photograph, which serves to frame her short-short. Try to show your main character, still struggling, but in a different relationship to the issue than he was at the opening.
Of course, there are endless ways to construct flash. Read widely to find models you enjoy, and consider using them as inspiration for your own stories.