Sisyphus (Flash Fiction)

He may have started with the frail sinews and slack muscles of a man near the end of his life, but he had been working at a pretty effective workout every day for over three thousand years.  Just look at his legs now.  Solid.  And upper body?  Forget about it!  He could give even Heracles a run for his money.  The skin may still be a bit pasty, there were a few wrinkles where it had not been stretched taut by muscle, a few liver spots, but what lay beneath was made of steel.  Amazing what the constant application of one man against a boulder for a few millennia can do.

He had finished.  Finally wrestled that boulder right to the top.  Hell, he’d even given it a nudge and sent it tumbling down the other side.  The deal was done, they had to let him leave.  He knew all his friends were dead.  His wife, the lovely (if a little shrill) Merope, likewise.  His children.  Still, he wanted to give it another go.  Plenty of life in him yet.  Persephone hung around while he packed his bags and he told her as much.  She sighed, looking both wistful and decorative as she leaned against the doorframe.  Everyone knew she hated goodbyes.

There was a dizzying amount of choice in the world now.  He loved the decadent luxury of selecting from hundreds of possibilities what particular combination of food and drink would make up his lunch.  There was the same delight in shopping for clothes.  The colours!  More than he had ever seen in one place; a rainbow held less splendour.  He did not miss the shapeless grey tunic, faithfully laundered by Merope every week.  He did not miss his old life at all.

He knew he cut an unusual figure.  His shirt, called Hawaiian by the store clerk, was brighter than he saw other men wear; his shorts, a print he found exciting and which he learned was called rainbow plaid, made him feel like an actor playing royalty.  He knew he studied the menu in the restaurant with too much relish, practically smacking his lips as he mouthed the names of each entree.  What did he care?  Life was too short to spend aping the indifference of  others.

Choosing a new name for this life was much easier than choosing a career.  The restaurant that provided him with such tasty ribs was called Sid’s.  Henceforth, so was he.

Back home the choice had been no choice.  He broke his back in fields and olive groves for half the year, as his father had done before him.  The other half was spent marching all over the countryside in heavy armor if there was a war on.  Drinking and wrestling, if there wasn’t.  Anything to keep him away from home and his nagging wife.

He tried his hand at a few things.  He worked at a shoe store, pumped gas, did odd jobs at a printer’s.  Even a stint doing secretarial work in an employment office, for which he was ribbed mercilessly for doing a woman’s job.  It all seemed like pushing a boulder up a hill to him.

Then one day, after leaving his shift at the printer’s, he walked slowly down the street, hoping the light October wind would blow off the heavy smell of ink that settled in his clothes and in his hair.  The neighbourhood contained warehouses and little else.  Since the war, which he learned had rather improbably involved the whole world, many of them had been abandoned.  Only a few still held any life at all.  Once the ringing in  his ears from the rolling and pounding of machinery left him, a familiar sound caught his attention and pulled him toward an open door.  The solid thwack of a fist into a punching bag.  The accompanying grunts.  He couldn’t help himself, he really couldn’t.

Sunlight attempted to enter the large, high-ceilinged room through the high, dirty windows, but gave it up as a bad job.  He breathed in the familiar, sharp smell, a mixture of chalk dust and sweat, and began to make out shapes in the dim interior.  Equipment, none of it new, lined the walls haphazardly; dumbbells, barbells, punching bags and skipping ropes.  In the centre, a kind of roped-off stage.  He had never seen an arena for fighting quite like this before but he recognized it instantly.  He was punctured right through with homesickness.

It wasn’t long before he was working there.  It was called work and he was paid for it (very little) but it felt more like belonging.  The rules had changed a little.  And the large red gloves, cartoonish things, he had some trouble getting used to.  But if he knew anything at all, it was how to build muscle out of nothing.  To find strength in improbable places.

Lorem Ipsum (Flash Fiction)

This piece was previously published in Flashquake Vol. 11, Iss.2.

She was lower case italic, with tear drop terminals and romantic serifs, thickly curved like the stroke of an old-fashioned nib on parchment. At the same time she was colour and noise, all the things the eye mistakenly thinks it can translate from words on the page into a dream of sensory experience. She was like a page of lorem ipsum, that dummy Latin text printers use and into which trickster typesetters inject their own coarse jokes. She was all the lewd humour and forbidden words that made his stomach feel like he had been pitching about in the sea. Dangerous and unpredictable. And lately she loomed over him, dwarfing him like a sixty-four point font on a page designed for sixteen. She could make his prized Waterman fountain pens wilt. She was wonderful.

He was an undernourished nonentity. Can anyone imagine a fat man designing type? It was the pursuit of an ascetic, a hermit in a cave, endlessly chasing the perfect form. His pale face, which he now bent over his immaculate desk, dark wood precisely framing the white rectangle of his sketching pad, was furrowed between his eyebrows and around his mouth, deeper now from years of folding his face into concentrated lines, pursing his lips as he measured out letters and the spaces between. His pearl grey cardigan hung open finely, if a little limply, from thin shoulders, framing the pressed white shirt beneath. More Humanist than Garamond. Taller, slimmer, without the excess of serifs and ligatures. Upright and detached. He used to have such concentration, caught up for hours in a single letterform, adjusting the serif, thickening or thinning its lines, calculating its symmetry. Now he fiddled with his pens as he waited, impatient with himself for his anxiety. She was to arrive any moment. He wanted to talk to her so much it was painful.

To speak was impossible, the thought of writing a letter was agony. Enough of this. He needed to get on with his work; he promised the analphabet glyphs would be completed today. He turned his mind to the work. For most people, type was like a moving pavement at an airport, inviting the eye to ride along its back, unthinking, into the meaning of the words. It aspired to a state of transparency. But for the lucky few, the seeing few, like him, type could replace the meaning. For they were captivated by its precision and eloquence, its provocation of meaning before the brain has time to process it.

On a fresh sheet of paper in one long, hurried flourish he drew the snake of interrogation down the centre. He did not measure it, he did not map out its lines.  There was adjustment for symmetry or harmony or italic tilt. He bent his head over the vacant bead that sat at the snake’s tail; his heart thudded as he imagined its void filled in by her presence.

She entered the office.

Still Life with Sunflowers (Flash Fiction)

SunflowersWhen he opens the tube, the paint hurts his eyes. It’s like staring into the sun, except the sun never had such a sharp, acid tone. Or smelled like linseed oil. He squeezes a dollop onto the wooden board that serves as a palette and with quick, practiced movements, cuts and mixes his colours.
He has to work quickly. He has been finishing a painting a day for weeks on end – manic, when once he laboured for months on a single canvas.
Against all the rules of colour theory he works up layers of paint. Yellow on yellow. He can only paint what is in front of him, what his heart sees, so rules be damned. Rules are supposed to be broken anyway. Theories reformulated.
He builds up the sunflowers’ centres, capturing their form with thick gobs of paint. Is he a painter or a sculptor? He shakes off the question; he can’t think too much about process or he’ll get bogged down. The sunflowers though. They fascinate him, caught between states of growth and decay. Life and its decomposition. Saffron, sulfur, mustard, buff. He thinks of the word luteous, he thinks of citrine. He thinks bilious and keeps on working.
The sunflowers are set against a yellow wall. The cross-hatching of the background is done so thinly. In places the paint barely covers the weave of the canvas – doesn’t matter, the flowers are the thing. They push out from the canvas, all thirteen of them. He thinks of unlucky thirteen, of the apostles and their leader. Of the yellow house and dreams of it one day containing an artists’ colony, of the thirteen chairs purchased for this very purpose.
His hand is slowing, his arm is tired. He stands back and looks at what he’s done.

He’s miscounted – there are fifteen blooms. But the idea is still there. The flowers may take two or three days to harden completely. All it needs is a thin line to mark the edge of the table, to accent the shape of the pot. He mixes paint the colour of the Mediterranean sea.
And the signature, not tucked away in the corner where tradition would place it, but proudly, splendidly, on the pot itself, practically in the centre of the picture. No surname, just Vincent.
He steps back from the easel, drops the palette on the wooden table that holds his brushes and tubes of paint. It is crowded with pots of sunflowers, all different varieties, all at different stages of decay. Some have dropped petals on the museum postcards and art books scattered there – books on Impressionism and the south of France.
The painting emits its own glow, warmer and stronger than the sunlight trying to penetrate the grimy windows. Good enough, he thinks, to fool anyone.