Short Shorts — let’s hear from the students

In his introduction to Micro Fiction, Jerome Stern offers an explanation for the development of the short-short: “The possibility for control, the concentration of effect, the elegance of its shape, the fluidity of its possibilities…”

In our class at the Loft Literary Center — We Like Short-Shorts! — we worked on creating what Stern categorizes “an art genre with its own evolving aesthetic.” In these next few weeks, you’ll have the pleasure of reading some of the students’ achievements.

We begin with these two very different pieces.

 

“A More Perfect Union” by Sharon R. Spartz

I didn’t set out to become a union rabble-rouser. When my colleague, Byron Nelson, started talking union, I listened to him but I didn’t act. Then an e-mail was brought to my attention in June of 1999 stating that legislation had passed, without any court reporters’ knowledge or input, specifically excluding us from organizing. I realized that Byron was right: we needed union protection. But it appeared to be too late. Workers always face an uphill battle forming a union. The court reporters faced a daunting challenge – we first had to change a law.

We were rookies to the political process, protected from the bruising of the legislative arena by a seasoned lobbyist, a former state representative from Bemidji named Bob. When a court reporter remarked, “Surely the legislators will see the justness of our cause,” Bob gruffly replied, “Everyone feels their cause is just. This is politics. The big leagues. We can’t take anything for granted. We must out-think, out-debate, out-hustle our opponents, anticipating their questions with reasoned and thought-out answers. We’re a team. I’m the quarterback. I call the plays. If we come up short, we’ll be back again next year.”

The right-to-organize hit close to home with Bob. A former public employee, Bob worked as a school social worker before his election to the Minnesota House of Representatives. He fought for the underdog. His father, Herb, a Minneapolis Moline employee, marched with fellow workers in a 1934 Teamsters truckers’ strike in Minneapolis – two were killed and fifty-five were injured after police opened fire on the strikers, who were only fighting back against the thugs brought in to beat them up. The workers won the strike, changing the course of history. Minneapolis became a labor town. Tragically, thirty years later, Bob’s father lost his pension through a corporate takeover when White Motor officials raided the fully funded pension of Minneapolis Moline. Lobbying on behalf of Teamsters Local 320 and public employees is more than a job for Bob, who once said, “It’s in my soul.”

Unionization is always controversial. Many of my fellow court reporters were reticent to broach the topic of union. There was a lot of fear. But our organizing committee, with the support of the Teamsters, was unified. Comprised of court reporters from each judicial district, we were ready to fight. This represented a sea change – we were challenging the status quo. In the midst of controversy, we met with legislators and wrote letters seeking support to amend the Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA). One Republican senator brusquely ended a bill-discussion meeting. We left his office before being kicked out. Ironically, that same senator later voted for our bill.

As a member of the organizing committee, I was energized to do everything possible to ensure our success. It was personal. I had been treated unfairly in the workplace. And that infuriated me. All we wanted was a voice – the same fairness other state employees received.

When the final vote on our bill to amend PELRA was up in the Minnesota House of Representatives, I was there. This was an historic moment. I had to be there. As the board lit up green and the final vote tallied, 130 yeas to 3 nays, Representative Steve Smith stood on the floor of the House chamber, looked up in the balcony and gave me the big thumbs up. I gave it right back to him. The images from that day – the rush and the excitement and the satisfaction – are forever seared in my memory.

We were successful in our effort to change the law and then form a union through a strong team effort and the backing of a powerful union. And Byron Nelson was a star. At the close of one celebration, Byron, a fellow organizer and I lingered to savor the victory. Byron said, “I didn’t storm the beaches of Normandy, but I did form a union.”

On April 7, 2000, we honored other key players. At an awards ceremony, we named Representative Steve Smith, “Legislator of the Year,” and named Bob, “Lobbyist of the Year.” Representative Smith said ours was one of three bills he’d chief authored in his career that will always hold special significance to him. He was proud to be the only Republican in his caucus with the AFL-CIO endorsement.

As union members, we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. We are “brothers and sisters.” Our common ancestors are men and women who gave their lives for the cause to ensure workers the dignity of a voice, a forty-hour workweek, and just compensation. They created a middle class. My fight for this cause is more than a job – it’s in my soul.

Prior to taking classes at the Loft with Marge Barrett, Sharon Spartz studied creative nonfiction with Carol Bly. Her essays and poetry have been published in the Hennepin Lawyer and Fine Lines. A lifelong Minnesotan, she lives in Southwest Minneapolis.

“Women In A Corner Store” by Deborah Girdwood

The long brown-haired counter guy is out smoking in front of the corner store. A catlike lady dressed in black, barely fifty, is thumbing through a magazine. She returns it to the shelf and goes on to read the tables of contents of several more magazines as she moves down the aisle. She walks over to the snacks, reads the back of the can of chips she likes to have with her wine before supper, and adds it to the basket. She arches backwards to see if the guy outside will notice, then returns her posture to neutral. She has straight dyed blue-black hair with a thin white stripe along the middle part, which she often fingers as if to push the roots back into her scalp. When she tilts forward, the edge of her hair cuts a sharp angle across her jawbone. She has beautiful bone structure. She’s more aware of how she’s hinged together than most women half her age. She looks like she may have been a dancer. She taps her fingers on the counter staring back at the rows of cigarettes.

She goes to the back of the store and enters the narrow wooden hall to the restroom. She reads postings on the bulletin boards for apartments, bean suppers, bandstand concerts, an old 4th of July fireworks flyer. She reads them all, when the dark wooden door pocked with tack marks opens, and a white haired woman in a short terrycloth zip up one-piece and a kelly-green plastic visor creeps out.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I’ve got a horrible stomach today,” she gestures delicately with a wave, “You might want to wait a few minutes.”

The dancer lady raises her eyebrows and quickly holds her breath. She back-sashays herself out responding in an instant, “Oh, that’s fine. Nothing that can’t wait.” She rises to her toes again and turns, searching the aisle headings for drinks, murmuring, “Um, I should get some diet coke.”

“Oh, that’s excellent stuff,” the senior warbles, following her, “I take it for a blood thinner. Phew. I was out too late last night with the girls: ‘Karaoke On Wheels.’ They do it in town now. Not this town of course, I mean in the actual city. Some people still call it town. You know, dear, ‘in town’ as they say.”

“Sure,” says the dancer lady obliquely, “I know what you mean,” but she is suspicious. The older lady removes her visor by pulling it down around her neck. She sighs and pats down her soft-permed white hair. She looks into the face of the dancer for more of a response. Her pale watery blue eyes flutter with cataracts. Caught off-guard, the dancer lady glances downwards, her eyes quickly drawn past the old woman’s dwindling knees to the shocking pink toenails strutting out from bright yellow vinyl sandals. One of the toes is overly bandaged.

“Oh, that,” she fervently explains, “I lost a toenail coming down the stairs the other day.”

“How awful,” the dancer must say with inflection.

“I screamed,” she confesses, “and I tell you, I am not a screamer. It was like seeing a horrific accident and there’s nothing you can do about it,” she concludes with a catch in her voice.

The dancer exhales deeply, and puts down her things to help the old woman unfasten the clasp on her embroidered handbag. She receives an orange tic-tac and a cold squeeze on the arm. The two stand and wait more closely together now, in their newfound state of simpatico.

The guy has come back and is shuffling loudly under the counter. He is still getting the hang of things after only a few weeks at this. He struggles to unlock his cash drawer, banging it, using unnecessary force with great physical difficulty. The women practically lean on one another, hovering over their wares. The guy’s register is ready; he mops his prematurely receding greasy brow, wipes his hands on his faded pants. He is finally giving his attention to the ladies who are now silently screaming with patience, but his eyes scan only for what they have in their baskets and hands.

Deborah Girdwood transplanted herself to Minneapolis in 2004. She has written a few feature length screenplays and many very short stories. Her flash fiction piece, “The Mayflower,” was a miniStories competition finalist published last year on mnartists.org.

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