Portrait of the Artist as a Purse (Flash Fiction)

First published in the Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Issue 38.

A small notebook and a mechanical pencil, always.  The notebook is unlined and the mechanical pencil—a Pentel GraphGear nicked from the art school—never needs sharpening.

There is a ticket stub in there, pressed between two pages, between a Rembrandt self-portrait and a study of Dr. Tulp.  I have a thing about doctors, not in a good way.  In The Anatomy Lesson, their faces float like masks against the gloom.  The one hovering in the back looks just like Dr. Boushey, concerned but distant, as if he had a migraine coming on.  I didn’t draw the cadaver, though I stared at him for a long time.  Yes, I thought, I’ve had days like that.  That is the promise of art.

There’s also a brochure from the museum’s Rembrandt exhibition, tucked against the notebook, its map much consulted.  The edges are curled and the glossy paper feels a little damp to me still.  I got caught in a downpour on the way home and barely had the strength to keep one foot squelching in front of another.

I walked so much that day, more than I had been able to do for months.  Even simply standing in front of the paintings, extracting faces from them for my own practice, was tiring.  That night my feet swelled to the size of bread loaves  and I had to hobble from the kitchen to the couch with my supper.  But it was still the best day I’d had in a long time.

The front zippered pocket contains a salad of green bus tickets and white transfers.  Breadcrumb trails from my journeys to and from the medical building on Sheppard Ave.

Lipstick—Pink Sand by Motives—because you never know where the day might take you.  I’m as prepared as a boy scout.  Cover-up for the dark circles under the eyes and to camouflage the three tiny blue dots on my chest.  My only tattoo.  Something for the technicians to aim at.

A condom.

Well.

And there’s Sam’s number on a small triangle of paper, ripped from his notebook.  While I was sketching Rembrandt, he was sketching me.  It wasn’t a good likeness; I didn’t recognize myself at all.  His eyes were very blue and his hair, grey and thick and wiry, shot up from his head like someone’s cartoon depicting surprise.  He’s an art teacher, like me, only he teaches high school.

He caught up with me on the museum steps—I had skipped the gift shop—and right there, a stranger, as thunder detonated in the air around us, asked for my number.  And gave me his.

A brand new travel pack of tissues.  I buy them in bulk now and always have one or two packages on hand.  You have probably never had reason to imagine how your nose would keep running, a thin constant irritating trickle, in the absence of nose hairs.

A red plastic travel comb.  This is a token of optimism.  The hair that has grown back so far is thin and soft, like a newborn’s.  I don’t even trouble it with shampoo.

Another ticket stub from a few days later, this one screwed into a tight little ball and fallen into a corner, wedged beside the seam.  I would never have saved it otherwise.  Sam and I were supposed to see World War Z.  It was freezing outside so I bought my ticket and went in.  The concession stand had a clear view of the front doors.  There was no possible way to miss him.

I waited.  The movie started.  No Sam.  Sick and headachy from the smell of synthetically buttered popcorn, I left.

A seven-day pill dispenser, rattling with the usual suspects.  Tamoxifen, Gravol.

My phone, with several texts on it, saved and unanswered.

Two green and white striped mints in clear wrappers that rustle invitingly whenever I rummage around for something.  Souvenirs from Sam’s “I’m sorry” dinner at La Dolce Vita.

“You were sick,” he said, like it was an excuse.  “I didn’t realize at first.  I didn’t want to get into all that.”

“But I’m not anymore.”

“I know.”

He reached across the table to where my hand would be resting if we were in a movie.  He stroked the white tablecloth, damp from my water glass.  I kept my hands to myself.  One non-clinical touch, I thought, would transform me into an ebullient puppy, all licks and yips and tail whipping so hard from side to side that it would set my whole body vibrating.  Not to mention the danger to the glassware.

I bit hard into a piece of garlic bread, surely a preventative against kissing him too soon.  But Sam had ordered the zucchini soup, which came with tiny slices of garlic toast floating on its surface.  By the end of the night, it didn’t matter.  We ended up tasting like each other.  I pretended to be what he wanted.

An appointment card for Dr. Boushey.  Nine o’clock, Tuesday, on Sheppard Ave.  Exactly a year since the biopsy.  I won’t be taking the bus this time.

Sam said he would drive me.

I have a sketch in my notebook, drawn from memory, of Sam, of the expression his face held as he made that promise.  It’s something I can hold him to.

The 85 Bus (Flash Fiction)

The bus stops in front of him and the pneumatic door hisses open. Is this the 85? he asks. Going downtown?

Sure is, answers the driver.

The bus is almost full. Even the near silence of sleepy morning commuters can’t disguise it. All those bodies displace the lightness, the thinness of the air. His footsteps don’t reverberate as cleanly on the floor as he find his seat in one of the front sideways-facing rows.

He counts the minutes, the number of stops.

And here she is, alighting at Bronson and Gladstone, fresh from her yoga class. He can smell the thin coating of sweat from her body and the tart rubber from her rolled up mat.

Hey Jonas.

Hi.

Her name is Rosalie, but he’s too shy to say it out loud, though it repeats itself in his mind endlessly. Rosalie Rosalie Rosa—

Off to work?

Where else? Another day, another dollar.

Is that all they’re paying you, she laughs. Her voice is like birdsong and lilacs. He laughs too and it burns in his throat.

How was class?

Sometimes he imagines sticking out his cane to trip her up when she leaves just to have an excuse to catch her. He imagines the feel of her bare arms in his hands, how they would flex and slacken. He hopes she would feel the same way he does. A mixture of elation and stomach ache.

Great. I have twice the number of students than I did last year. Everyone wants to squeeze in a session before work. Are you sure I can’t persuade you to sign up?

He did take yoga, years ago, when it was offered as part of an outreach program at the centre. He remembers the instructor’s slow measured voice describing each position, the strong hands molding his arms and legs, straightening his back. He breathed so deeply during those sessions he became lightheaded. He is lightheaded now.

I’m pretty busy these days. Some other time?

Of course, she says and he can hear the smile in her voice.

He has no idea what she looks like, whether her skin is light or dark. He has no idea if she has a boyfriend or even a husband. She could have ten kids and a mortgage. While he has a dark one-bedroom apartment on Waverley that smells of other people’s cooking.

But after counting up all he lacks and all that he imagines her to have, he realizes he has this one thing: tomorrow he will see her again.

He turns his face to the sun, feeling its warmth. The first real day of spring.

New Story Published (And I’m pleased as punch)

issue4-cover-shop1The new issue of Firewords Quarterly is out and I’m proud to say I have a story in it.

“Salt” is a short piece that began life as a writing prompt. The prompt was “Describe the texture of salt.” Or something like that.  It was enough to get my pen moving and I quickly had a middle-aged woman waiting in a cafe, playing with spilled granules of salt on the table. She was waiting for someone but I had no idea who.

A few weeks later, in late October, the shooting on Parliament Hill happened. A gunman shot and killed one of the guards at the War Memorial and then ran up to Centre Block on the Hill to inflict as much damage as he could there. I don’t want to go into whys and wherefores of that day, about whether the gunman was mentally ill, recruited by Isis or whatever. But one thing that struck me was how young he looked.  I knew who my character was waiting for that day. Her son.

I’m pretty happy with that piece, which is rare for me (even more so after a story’s been published and I suddenly see all the places it could be improved, made sharper, shorter, punchier). And I’m happy to have it included in Firewords, which is a great little magazine of short fiction and poetry.