Leslie a short story

At present I am reading short stories in Amy Hempel’s new collection “Sing to It.” In these stories most of her polished prose is in first person and reads as a stream of compelling, and of-times surprising consciousness. At first, I was confused by her style but after reading a few of the stories I tuned in and let her messages haunt. I can’t duplicate her style but admit some influence and offer this purely fictional tale for your comments.

My routine is simple. I rise before the sun, don an attractive tracksuit and run. I adopt a three-mile circuit. I warm up on the short distance down the west side of Shoal Creek to the park at fifteenth. Here I cross and turn to run up the east side of the Creek where the trial is located next to Lamar and is lit by street lights. Then, at a mile and a half, when the sun has risen, I turn left across a bridge and take the path on the west side of the Creek. I enjoy the dappled sunlit path, the green trees, the earthy smell of the ground, the bird song, and the gurgle of the water in the Creek. In one place, the path opens up, and I pause to take in the magnificence of nature. I do some jumping jacks while staring at the way that the morning sun highlights the Creek. I promise myself that one day, I’ll return with watercolors and easel to paint this beautiful scene. Invigorated, I climb the bank to my apartment, shower, put on an attractive blouse and business suit, and drive my short commute to work.

On the way, I stop at my favorite coffee shop for a sweetened café latte. There are two baristas. From the way that they interact with each other, I assume that they are close. Jose, the taller of the two, always serves me. He must see me in the parking lot for, when I enter, he has my order ready. We exchange pleasantries. One spectacularly beautiful morning I tell him that I had an invigorating run along Shoal Creek that morning.

He asks: “Did you see Leslie?”

I tell him that the route is generally deserted. He comments that Leslie visits the coffee shop each morning with an identical order to mine. We both laugh, then I turn half expecting to see Leslie, instead I see a car entering the lot with the favorite Austin bumper sticker. It reads: “Keep Austin Weird.”

I turn back to Jose and remark, “That Leslie, as a confirmed cross dresser, is well invested in keeping Austin weird.” Jose agrees with me.

I arrive at the office and open it up for the day greeting the staff and my partners with a serene sense of wellbeing tinged with superiority. When the mayoral election comes around Leslie’s name is on the ballot. Leslie as mayor – now that would be weird. The winner is Kirk Watson for another term. I like him and admire the astute way that he brought the rampant city environmentalists and the needs of in-coming employers and their developers together.

His thesis was quite simple, “The environmentalists and business leaders have the same goals.”

His premise startled every one until he explained. The environmentalists wish to protect the green Austin amenities, such as the Barton Creek greenbelt, Shoal Creek, and Town Lake, to name a few; to do this, they need Council’s support and funds. The new comers and developers come because they wish to enjoy the green Austin amenities, such as the Barton Creek greenbelt, Shoal Creek, and Town Lake. They expand the tax base and bring funding for the environmentalists.

Everything evolves and so does my morning run. It begins with an appearance where the west trail comes to my favorite spot, the place where there is an opening commanding a view down the Creek. The man, yes of course, it is a man, is completely naked. He stands fifty feet from me obviously posing for my benefit. I pretend not to see but catch his actions as, he pees an impressive long arch into the Creek. I’m a little taken aback by his presence but not frightened. He is too far away, and I can run. I wonder if he is Leslie, who is known to camp somewhere along this Creek. I do ask myself why Leslie, who likes to be seen as a woman, should wish to assert masculinity to me. I calm myself by telling myself that this person, was caught by surprise, and is as startled as I am.

My office overlooks the street of the coffee shop and, beyond, the way into Shoal Creek. Late each morning Leslie appears calmly walking up the street. He, or should I say she, is perfectly clad in women’s clothing. A clean chin, how does one shave in the woods, full make-up, skirt and blouse, hose and the highest high heels, surely uncomfortable to walk in? To top it all I keep reminding myself that Leslie is enrolled as a mayoral candidate, yep, Austin weird.

Sometimes I meet others on the trail. It is rare. I greet each with a hearty “Good morning” glad that we are always passing. Leslie still appears from time to time, or I think that it is Leslie, always the same place, generally sparsely clad. Sometimes there is a wave of a hand. I respond raising my arm. Time passes, spring becomes summer and then Fall. It is still warm I wear a skimpy top and shorts. The dawn is getting later and my run through the woods is in half light. I begin to fear seeing the naked / sparsely clad one, because something has changed. I can’t put my finger on what, but my sixth sense tells me that things are different; I consider altering my route but don’t.

It is Friday the week before Thanksgiving, and my nemesis jumps out in front of my path. He holds something in his hand. It looks like a gun. I’ve never seen him this close. His chin is covered in stubble. I’m now convinced that he is not Leslie. He motions to me to step off the path into a stand of bushes. There’s a rug on the ground. He wants me to lie down. I am trembling. I must obey. There is a yell, and my assailant is attacked from behind; he drops the gun. Leslie yells,

“Go away you perverted creep. I’ve had my eye on you. You are not welcome. Go.”

Miraculously, my assailant runs off. Leslie picks up the gun and hands it to me. I feel stupid when I look at it and see that it is plastic. I am embarrassed to have been held up by a semi-naked man with a toy in his hand. Leslie gives me a smile and disappears.

I do not call the police for their presence would surely be a poor thank you to Leslie. At the coffee shop, I talk to Jose and arrange for free coffees for Leslie. I don’t explain why. I merely remark, “I’m keeping Austin weird!” Jose nods in approval

I make one additional change; I adopt a new run route around Town Lake.

BRIDE IN THE BATH

Marie disliked her brother-in-law George Smith. It was a disturbing aversion which she couldn’t understand, for she deemed him to be, like Mary Poppins, “Practically perfect in every way.” Perhaps it was this very perfection, which triggered her dislike, or perhaps, deep down, her dislike was the result of an innate sibling jealousy. When she watched him objectively, she found his good looks and healthy physique pleasing and couldn’t help but wonder how much her sister, Anne, must enjoy her intimacy with such an ideal masculine specimen. 

Before the wedding, she tried to explain her sixth sense reservation to her parents. They suggested that her sense of foreboding was ill-founded. They pointed out his solicitous kindness, and the way that he appeared to adore his wife. She told them that she wondered whether his interest in her sister was triggered by her status as a wealthy woman. They told her not to be jealous. They informed her that her fears were unfounded because George, himself, had suggested an elaborate pre-nuptial agreement.

****

A few days after Anne’s ecstatic telephone call to tell Marie that she was pregnant Anne received a call from George. He was weeping and stammered his appalling news. Anne drowned in her bath. He requested that Marie call their parents as he asserted that he was too distraught to make any further calls. No-one could understand how Anne could have drowned until investigators postulated that she must have accidentally knocked her hair dryer into the water. Her autopsy confirmed that she had died from the combination of heart attack and drowning. This diagnosis had some appeal to Marie’s family as a few years earlier one of Marie and Anne’s school friends had died in a swimming pool accident due to a heart attack and subsequent drowning induced by a short in a faulty under-water pool light.

When Anne’s affairs were wrapped up, it transpired that she and George hadn’t signed their pre-nuptial agreement. Anne’s grieving family decided not to contest the inevitable and did not challenge the transfer of her assets to her unhappy widower. Marie even faced her dislike for George and joined her mother in helping pack up his possessions in support of his proposed relocation to “get away from it all” as he put it by taking up a new position in London. They used a hoard of old newspapers which Marie’s mother had saved for such an occasion.

It is a strange phenomenon that old newspaper stories frequently catch our attention as we use them to wrap-up fragile items. In Marie’s case, it was the photograph of a widowed husband standing outside his house, which caught her attention. He was clean-shaven while George was bearded, but something about the eyes got her attention. She took a pencil and added a beard and moustache rather as she had adorned pictures in her youth. She pointed the picture out to her mother. “George doesn’t have a twin brother, does he?” she asked.

“No dear, don’t you remember he had no family at the wedding.” Her mother reached for her reading glasses to better scrutinize the newspaper photograph. “Didn’t he say that they were all killed in a car wreck when he was a teenager.”

Marie stopped her packing and read the headline “Wife drowned.” This was accompanied by the photograph which caught Anne’s attention and instructions to turn to ‘Drowned’ on page A6. She sat down and read on. The names were different, but the circumstances were remarkably similar. Marie was so disturbed by her find that she contacted the police. They reviewed her evidence and although they agreed that there were similarities, they told her that they didn’t think it  sufficient to open the case for further investigation and certainly didn’t want to change their report of accidental death to murder.

****

George disappeared from their lives. Marie’s grandfather died and left her a fortune. Even though much of the family deemed her slightly insane as a result of her ongoing obsession about her sister’s death no-one contested her inheritance. Now that she didn’t need to work, she spent most of her time searching newspapers and obituaries. Her dedication was rewarded and she found him living in Hollywood under a different name. By now, she was so embroiled in her murder theory that she determined to catch him, and elicit revenge herself. She changed her name, died her hair, lost weight and moved to Los Angeles. Here she mixed with the rich and famous constantly manipulating until she managed to meet him, the George Smith, who married her sister, now going under the name Francis Brown. He invited her on a date, and she found herself attracted to him. Could it be. She wondered, that her original dislike really was a manifestation of jealousy?

****

She accepted his marriage proposal. They had a quiet chambers exchange of vows and purchased an enormous house with a lap pool. Francis told her that he liked to swim in the morning as part of his fitness regime. Before she did what she knew that she had to do Marie picked the lock to his desk and searched his papers. At the very bottom, she found his scrap book containing a jumble of images of not two but three wives all of whom had died in their baths. At this moment, Marie knew him to be a ruthless murderer. She ought to have gone to the police, but she didn’t. Instead, she researched electricity on-line and when she was confident that she knew what she was doing she switched one of the pool lights from a GFI circuit to a regular one. Then she wiggled the light and adjusted the worn wires so that a short would occur. Meanwhile, she managed to avoid marital intimacy by claiming a yeast infection sincerely hoping that the pool light would do its job before she ‘recovered.’

They were married less than a month when she saw her chance, while he changed into his trunks, she turned on the lights. They sparkled seductively in the morning light. She took her coffee and sat in a beach chair next to the pool. She blew him a kiss as he dove in. He came up spluttering clearly in the onset of cardiac arrest. He shouted to her but she smiled, and waved. She shouted “Remember them, remember Anne.” and slowly ambled inside to call 911.

Marie skillfully acted the bereaved wife and waited until he was interred before she ‘found’ his secret journal and alerted the police so that he could be named the ruthless serial killer that he was. She thought it poetic justice that she should inherit his vast assets but after the police dubbed him a murderer, she magnanimously contacted each of the bereaved families and restored to them the equivalent of their daughter’s assets. Then she emigrated to New Zealand to distance herself from the terrible memories which haunted her, and away from her fear that someone might question the strange way in which he had died.

Underground Initiation

The Northern Line has become my line. Every day I board in Earls’ Court, where I live, and ride its cranky elevators deep into the earth. Then I follow the black Northern Line signs and take my train. I stand swaying with the masses of other commuters until the train whirls into Russel Square where I emerge for a brisk, I think cleansing, walk to our office in Bedford Square. Sometimes the crowds throw me back five years to the time when I was a nineteen-year-old student riding this same line. Only then things were very different. On that occasion, it was night. I rode from Earl’s Court where I had been at a late-night get-together to Russel Square the closest station to my student digs on Bedford Way. As I doze off in my wedged upright stance, I relive every moment of that ride………

It is late, there are no standing room only crowds, indeed, my coach is empty except for me and a noisy threesome of young men. I select a seat a reasonable distance away from them and am pleased that they exit at South Kensington. I am now alone rattling through space. He boards at Hyde Park, the next stop. I am surprised when he selects to sit in the seat beside me even though he has the choice of the whole empty coach. I am penned in with a seat in front and this man on my right.

I pretend that he isn’t there. I can feel the warmth of his body as his presence rubs my right shoulder. I smell his body odors, smoke mixed with unwashed human, sweat. He grunts, and I quiver. Green Park passes we are still alone as we run through Piccadilly. His body odor becomes more oppressive. I consider trying to get off. At each station I hope that someone, anyone will board. No-one does, we continue to be alone. He is fidgeting with something in his lap, I turn and see what I have never seen before. I react with a quiver and start shaking; Leicester Square, Covent Gard, Holborn, the stations take an eternity to pass. I stare and try to turn away. I make a futile attempt to ignore what he is doing. As we roll into Russel Square, I stand and say,

“Excuse me, this is my stop.”

“Mine too” he gives a toothy grin.

He lets me pass, my body rubs against his. He touches me with his hands but I wriggle and am free. I run down the platform and vault up the escalator. I think that I can hear him behind me, but I’m not sure. I am too terrified to turn and look as this might slow me down. At the top, I am thankful to see that the ticket booth is still manned. I rush up and whisper,

“Help! A man! He exposed himself to me,” I turn “he’s…….” but he wasn’t – he had disappeared.

The ticket clerk jumps up and opens his door. He invites me inside. He tells me to sit down while he calls his station manager. The manager arrives. He is an elderly, old enough to be my father. He puts a kindly hand on my right shoulder I try to make it erase the memory of the touch during my ride, but it doesn’t. He and another man usher me into a very warm inner office. They offer me tea. It arrives hot and strong. I warm my trembling hands on the surface of the mug. Although I never add sugar, I do so now as the brew is strong. They want me to make a police report. I am calmer now. I let the glow of the tea permeate my body. Once we have got past the easy questions, name, age, residence et cetera we get down to specifics. I am so flustered that I can’t describe him. His smell maybe and his noises but these men are not interested in this information, they want specifics.

“Circumcised or not?”

“I don’t know”

“Did he ejaculate?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well,” they shrug,” describe the size. Describe what you did see.”

I look at their anxious faces, and notice their leaning-in body language. I realize that they are deriving as much pleasure in this debrief as he took in sitting next to me. I stand and thank them. I say that I must go now; maybe another time. Yes, I’ll complete the report tomorrow. I rush out and, with a renewed spate of energy, run home to my apartment. I lock the door.

The incident still haunts, even though I am beyond that fear. I handle things differently. Recently I rode a late tube home and found myself in an empty car with a man wearing an expensive Burberry raincoat. Like the other, he sits next to me. I know the routine, he starts fiddling and opens his coat to reveal his goods. I turn to him and remark, in a bored, matter-of-fact voice of irony,

“Put that thing away. I am not interested.”

He does just that. He gets off at the next station.

THE CAMPING TRIP

This one is under 300 words, and  so I classify it as  flash fiction.

Amanda listened, wide-eyed, to her elder brother’s report about his Boy Scout’s camping trip. He spoke of s’mores, ghost stories, flickering flames, camp-fire cooking, the aroma of wood smoke and the beauty of the stars. His discourse gave Amanda and her younger sister images of a cozy home-from-home, little wonder that Amanda begged her parents to give her a tent for her tenth birthday. 

When the tent arrived, Amanda requested a camping trip. Her parents weren’t excited by the thought of an out-of-town excursion, and hit on the idea of a camping trip in their premises. The weather forecast was good, no rain predicted.

Their father arrived home on the day of their camp to find that his daughters had already managed to erect their tent. They were blissfully playing house with an assortment of dolls and stuffed animals. He and their brother set up an adjacent tent. They cooked hot dogs on a portable BBQ and roasted marshmallows before a chimaera.

When it was time to sleep their mother kissed the children and told them that she was going inside to her very own comfortable bed. She invited anyone who wished to follow her indoors. An hour later, her son joined her. He explained that night sounds of coyotes, and distant traffic was eclipsed by his loud snoring father.

“Two fifths,” said his mother “Three to go.”

At midnight, the girls woke up with a shock for it was raining and wet inside their tent. They gathered up their wet toys and ran into the house.

“Four fifths,’ said their mother, “One to go.”

Before joining the family inside, their father, woken by the kafuffle, ran to the garage to turn off the irrigation system for the girls had pitched their tent on top of a lawn sprinkler.

 

Nose

At a cocktail party, a middle-aged gentleman told his fishing story. It was about a snake; not about the colossus that got away. He said that the incident had happened years ago but was one of those life moments, which haunts forever. Apparently, he was doing some deep-water wading when he felt a long slimy body slither between his legs. He instinctively knew that this was not a fish. Then, his eyes agog, he told of his subsequent horror when a six-foot-long water snake reared out of the water to stare at him with cold unblinking eyes. Its head was a few inches from his nose. Thoughts flashed through his mind, “If it bites me on the nose, and I survive will I have a deformed face with no nose?” and “What should I do to survive even if I do lose my nose?”

The man paused to take a sip, and I looked at him skeptically. His nose was intact. I wondered whether he was exaggerating the size of the snake, for most do in an attempt to validate fear. A snake enthusiast in our group commented this was probably a benign water snake; easily distinguished, he said, because the poisonous Cottonmouths are aggressive and have fatter bodies. The gentleman looked at us, gauging our disbelief and went on to tell how he managed to keep his cool demeanor and slowly raise his hand to cover his vulnerable nose while he gently blew in the snake’s face. To his relief, the snake took his suggestion. It backed off and swam away almost as though it were as scared as he. As for the type, he said that he was too frightened to be able to distinguish what kind of snake it was. I don’t blame him.

Jane Stansfeld 296 words

GRIM REAPER

Aimee was with Peter the whole time. She sat by the hospital window and watched while the doctors administered to him. They explained that they hoped to prevent his minor TIA from morphing into a deadly stroke. When they kept him overnight  she moved beside his bed and held his hand. By 2:00 am, she was exhausted and let her eyes close to catch a brief nap.

Peter moaned; Aimee opened her eyes to see a dark figure looming over the bed. She recognized him and tried to thrust him away.

“Go.” she ordered, “It is not time.”

“You are wrong.” countered the figure.

“You don’t understand.” she replied, “We two are soul mates. We found each other late in life, we haven’t been married long. We must have more time together.”

“Time together?”

“Yes, we are together. You must not separate us!”

The figure nodded and disappeared.

By 4:00 am the ward was humming with action. The man in the adjacent room had died. Aimee knew that this was a result of her conversation.  She did not discuss her suspicions. The the next morning she was delighted when the doctor told her that Peter could go home. She brought her car round to the door of the hospital and watched the nurse wheel Peter out. He climbed into the passenger seat with ease. She loosened her seat belt and leaned over to kiss him on the lips. She turned on the radio and they laughed as she drove away. The dog appeared at the first intersection. She swerved to avoid it. In that prolonged awful second that they slammed, out of control, toward a concrete wall she saw the nocturnal visitor again.

“Wish granted,” he said “You are together!”

The Puppy

I’ve been reading the recently published book “New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction”. The forward informs me that “a good micro hangs in the air of the mind like an image made of smoke,” and that it needs to be under 300 words. The following is my first attempt at this literary form. I hope that my readers enjoy it!

The eighty-year-old man’s hands trembled. He gripped his chair making his veins stand out against his aging thin skin. He turned to his wife, his eyes tearing, “They shoot a horse with a broken leg, don’t they?” he asked. She heard his question as she had heard it before, and nodded in affirmation. She watched him cast his thoughts back to his childhood.

He went back over seventy years to himself as an eight-year-old boy on a farm in South Dakota. He stood and looked north the flatness stretched seemingly unending through Canada to the north pole, or south to the Rio Grande and beyond into Mexico. East and west were the same thing from sea to shining sea even though logic told of the Black Hills three hundred miles to the west. He remembered how you knew that a vehicle was approaching on the dirt road by the cloud of dust seen above the standing corn. You heard the engine about the time that the dogs on the adjacent farm started barking, then it passed and the whole sequence occurred in reverse.

He was doing his chores and being responsible, feeding chickens, gathering eggs, slopping the pigs; while his parents worked in a distant field. He could hear their voices, mingled with the sound of a nearby yelping puppy. He found it in the dairy limping miserably on three legs. He picked it up and stroked its soft fur. As he did so he reminded himself of the sentence for a farm animal with broken leg. He fetched a pail of water and a gunny sack. Then, he knelt beside the bucket. He didn’t cry through the ordeal even as he realized that doing the right thing carries a heavy burden.

294 words