Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Short-Short: Blackout on St. John's Avenue

Here's a short-short fiction, part of an interlinked manuscript-in-progress of short fictions called How the World was Made.

It comes from a time living on St. John’s Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida. Massive thunderstorms would shut down the grid in my section of town every summer. There were candles in windows, rats on the phone wires, shadows in doorways.

Mystery & Melancholy of a Street/de Chirico
I was also reading a lot of Pablo Neruda and Cesar Vallejo. There were lines bouncing around in my head like:

Strike the old flints
to kindle ancient lamps, light up the whips
glued to your wounds throughout the centuries
and light the axes gleaming with your blood.

I come to speak for your dead mouths...

(from "The Heights of Macchu Picchu", Neruda)

And lines like:

From the Champs Elysées or as the strange
alley of the Moon makes a turn,
my death goes away, my cradle leaves,
and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,
my human resemblance turns around
and dispatches its shadows one by one...

(from "October, 1936", Vallejo)

Love song/de Chirico
Blackout On St. John’s Avenue

Black out all down the street. Children are ghosts, moving through trees, phone poles. An old woman crouches in the darkness in front of an old folk’s home, smoking. The burning tobacco is trying to become a saint.   
Someone is slipping through backyard fences, along the tops of low walls. A girl who was playing hide and seek when all the streetlights went down, forgotten by her friends, quietly follows. They enter the alley behind the old folk’s home and the smell of cafeteria food – soggy okra, boiled meat, stewed carrots – fills the girl with pain. School, tomorrow. But what if the electricity’s still down? What would she do with her life if she didn’t have to go back to school?
Down by the river, the one who has been wondering how to go about putting out the eyes of all the children in his neighborhood – to save their innocence – skips a stone across black water.  The Tao Te Ching is right, he thinks, was right all along: “Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom.”   

Soothsayer's Recompense/de Chirico
The girl watches the figure open the back kitchen door of the old folk’s home. This might be a way out, she thinks. It does not occur to her that she might be following in the footsteps of a murderer or rapist. She slips through the closing door.
A man plays a harmonica by the river wall. Bearded eels rise up to the surface of the water to listen. The musician is not afraid. He thinks he’s invisible.

The girl follows the figure down a long hall, into a lounge where old men and women sit staring out a large picture window. They could be dead but for the reflection of revolving yellow truck lights shining in their eyes. The figure leans down and kisses an old woman full on the mouth, as if to swallow her. This is not what the girl expected. She feels she is watching something secret, not hers. Is this what death looks like? She runs.
Emergency candles shine in windows up and down the street. No one really wants the lights to go back on. Not right this minute. They want to give the manatees time to become mermaids. 

Melancholy of a Beautiful Day/de Chirico
The girl runs until she’s out of breath.  She looks down into the slush garbage collecting against the concrete river wall. Is someone waiting at home? A mother, father, sister? She cannot remember. She puts her finger up into the sky, touches the sound of a rat scurrying along the phone wire. 

(Previously published in Quarterly West)

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