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Short-Shorts — examples by the pros

Last week we posted a description of Short-Shorts. Today, and for the next several weeks, we’ll post examples by distinguished Minnesota writers (reprinted with permission). You’ll see how these masterful writers utilize the form. Enjoy these provocative pieces — and get ready to write one yourself. We’ll announce submission details and deadlines next Monday.

“Haunted” by Diana Joseph
We were hoping the ghost of the Amish boy would wander through the kitchen again. My mother-in-law said she’d caught him earlier banging a fishing pole against the pots and pans in her pantry. Fully materialized and apparently living, he was blond and barefoot, blue trousers rolled above his ankles and blue jacket fastened by hooks and eyes. He’d smiled at her — “Sly,” she said, “like he’s up to something” — then he tapped the fishing pole against her walker three times — “Some sort of code, I suppose,” she said — then he faded away. “Well, I don’t want him here,” my mother-in-law said. “I’m done raising children.” I’d never seen a ghost, and I wanted to see this one bad. Try as we might, alternating sweet talk with threats of violence, the language of our marriage, Gary and I called for the Amish boy to show himself once more. Of course, neither of us knew German. We’d been married only two years. Neither of us knew it’d be over in two more. I’d stay in touch with my mother-in-law — phone calls, cards, holiday visits. I don’t think she ever stopped hoping her son and I would figure things out. But we never would, and I’d never see a ghost, not the Amish boy or any other. She’s been dead for six years now. Clear as it is to me that I loved my mother-in-law, I can’t describe what I saw in or felt for her son. Something fleeting, I suppose. Something that couldn’t be bullied back or conjured up or completely put to rest.

Diana Joseph is the author of the story collection Happy or Otherwise (Carnegie Mellon University Press 2003) and the memoir I’m Sorry You Feel That Way (Putnam 2008). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Threepenny Review, River Teeth, Willow Springs, Best Sex Writing 2010, Country Living and elsewhere, and has been noted for distinction in Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays

“Wild Cherries” by Lon Otto
He saw this once on Nova — Egyptian laborers levering an obelisk up while an Englishman tossed pebbles underneath it. They shifted the fulcrum and levered again. More pebbles, more levering, gradually raising the impossibly heavy pillar above the desert floor. Isaiah has no laborers, but he has a long iron prybar, and buckets of rock sifted from the flower bed he’s been digging, and a 10 by 12 by 30 inch artifact he discovered at the bottom of his excavation. He thinks it’s dressed limestone left over from the pre-Civil War house next door.

Across the street, Somali kids are playing basketball in front of the Withers’ garage, lots of cursing, which means Howard isn’t home. “Hell no!” a boy shouts when somebody shoots, a charm against scoring. Soon others take it up, “Hell no!” punctuating the whomp of the ball on pavement and the crash against rickety backboard and the roar and shudder of a helicopter flying somewhere close by.

Where Isaiah is working, between his driveway and the chain link fence of  the old stone house, the ground is so full of junk, he’s decided to dig everything out, separate the rubble—clinkers, bottles, rocks, chunks of brick, cow bones—then return the good soil amended with compost. He was about to leave off digging and start backfilling when his shovel struck what turned out to be this block, not much larger than carry-on luggage, but incredibly heavy.

He levers with the prybar, shoves stones under the block. When he straightens to set a new fulcrum, two little Hmong girls are leaning on the fence beneath his wild cherry tree. “Mister,” one of them says, “are we supposed to eat these fruit?”

He thinks about the question. “They’re sour.”

“We don’t mind,” the other one declares.

The girls stand on tiptoe, select a handful each from the low-bending branches, glancing over their shoulders to see how closely he’s watching them. A boy chases the basketball across the street, looks over at Isaiah, then grabs some cherries from a branch that’s out of reach for the Hmong girls. “Man,” he says, “these are good,” but he doesn’t take any more.

The roar of the helicopter hasn’t gone away. Isaiah climbs out and walks into the street, and the basketball players point until he catches sight of it through a gap between tree branches, higher than he expected, and maybe a dozen blocks to the north and west. He waits to see which direction it goes, but though the throbbing seems to advance and recede, the helicopter hangs motionless in the evening sky, as steady as a moon. A small, dark, roaring moon. The Hmong girls run away, leaving a trail of cherries rolling on the sidewalk.

Isaiah would get out his bicycle and ride over to see what’s going on that holds the helicopter transfixed, but he has the great block almost to the lip of his hole, prybar and perilous stack of rubble jammed underneath. On Nova, white men are always demonstrating how ancient Egyptians or Maya or Easter Islanders did some difficult thing. Sometimes the theory is ridiculous, like the poor dope claiming the Inca cut massive stones using the sun’s heat concentrated by parabolic golden mirrors, who couldn’t even get straw to smoulder.

The lever and pebble method works fine, however, and as darkness falls Isaiah wrestles the block onto his driveway. He’s dead tired, but pleased he managed the feat without crushing any of his extremities or having the prybar spring back and break his jaw.

The helicopter is gone. His friend Lynette tells him about it the next day. A woman had been discovered in a car’s trunk, that’s why the helicopter was there. Neighbors had noticed the smell, called the police. “I couldn’t believe it,” Lynette says, “people hanging out of windows, climbing out on their porch roofs, everybody trying to get a look.” She shakes her head. “I wouldn’t want to look at no dead body in a trunk, poor thing.”

“I thought of going over to see what was happening,” Isaiah says.

She looks at him. “You did no such thing.”

“I thought about it.”

“A dead body?”

“I didn’t know what it was.”

“What it was was a dead body in some murdering fool’s trunk.”     

In the light of day, Isaiah discovers after hosing it off that the block he salvaged with such effort is not stone at all, but concrete. He uses the prybar to tumble it back into the hole, now dotted with cherries, and buries it again, a pointless secret at the bottom of his new flowerbed’s rich, deep soil.

Lon Otto has published very short fiction in his collections A Nest of Hooks (U. of Iowa) and Cover Me (Coffee House), in Colorado Review, and in the anthologies Blink (Spout), Flash Fiction (Norton) and Flash Fiction Forward (Norton). He teaches literature and writing at the University of St. Thomas.

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