By Allie Mariano, Winner of the Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest
The cement steps disappear into Pontchartrain brack and Mississippi mud. A flock of shock-green parakeets roost on the rail. Our kayak is chained to its posts. We’re lucky we built houses seven feet off the ground. The higher the house, the closer to God. Murder is down; petty crime is up. This is a roguish, half-governed place.
A little skiff approaches with three teenage boys. They hold a sousaphone, a trombone, a snare drum. They look ahead, somber. The snare drummer raises one stick in greeting. The sousaphone player takes a deep breath and presses his lips to the mouthpiece. His cheeks dimple. “St. James Infirmary” moans from the horn: slow, mournful, in a minor key. Let her go, let her go. God bless her.
When the water started rising, the rich by the lake with their nice brick homes and their carports were SOL. The rest of us lifted our shotguns. We scooped sand and lifted and scooped sand and lifted, and a couple people made a few more feet. Then, they rounded us up, they made us leave; they told us the city would soon be gone.
Today, we climb in the kayak and follow the band. We pass the cemeteries first. As the water rose, the crypts stayed put. Bodies seeped out, bone laced with remnant flesh floated amongst the graves. Now, statuesque angels stand tiptoe on the water, a concrete stag looks out over the water-imbued city. A popular tourist attraction, these cities of dead. Now there is nothing, and the tourists won’t be deterred, enchanted as they are by the ravaged. A parakeet flies overhead and settles on the nose of our craft. Three more follow suit. The brass band speeds up; the sousaphone player keeps playing. When I die, please bury me in a top hat. The sky is gray and threatens rain.
Down the street, Canal, as it is, past the half-submerged pedestal where Jeff Davis once stood. The corner bar, the Holy Ground, took water and held it. Its doors are gone; its insides fully flooded. Past the hospital complex, under the highway, must and mildew scented. Fat droplets fall on our heads. Ahead, the tallest buildings rise from the water like lifeless cypress. On the left, the Quarter, deader than it’s ever been.
We came back, like we always come back, even though they said it was gone. All the wood was damp and spotted black, nothing bleach couldn’t cure. They told us we couldn’t take any more water, not for a decade. This flood will just drain into the coast. It sounds like bullshit.
Ahead, the levee separates this lake-city from the river. Once dirt and grass, it is piled high with sand bags. On the other side, a Mississippi steamboat bursts with people. They shoulder each other to see the drowned city; those in front clasp the rail and look out in wonder. They look well fed. It’s early, and this band is smart. The tuba has stopped its solo second line, and the boys don’t look at each other. The snare player counts off, steady, and they begin. Joyful. You’d never guess the tuba warmed up on a dirge.
The tourists clap. An older man on the boat knows the lyrics and claps his hands. This is all we’ve got. Everything is water. They throw food into the boat: packaged cookies, apples, cans of Coke. We can taste the syrup. We could climb on board, abandon ship, find a new place. Somehow, the water suits us. The scavenging and the singular pursuit of survival. It seems better to stay. The parakeets fly up and land on the boat’s awning. It feels sad, but they will come back.
Originally published in CutBank 88 and featured online here.
Holding His Fire
By Daryl Scroggins, Runner-Up in the Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest
Before he died from spilling bug killer on himself, Mr. Gallardo would show us neighborhood kids his command center. If you knocked and offered to mow his lawn or clean his gutters, anything, he would open his door and tell you to come on in. Most of his house never had any lights on.
What he liked to show off was in a room with a world map on the wall, where bright tube lights made you squint. There were racks of rifles and shotguns in there, and a long table that looked like it was made out of pistols. He made his own bullets at a table on the other side of the room, and he showed us special kinds he had invented himself—some he said could never be sold, even in America. He had a 4 gauge shotgun shell he said was filled with glass eyes. He had a pistol cartridge with a star-shaped slug that he said would turn into metal spaghetti on impact. I think he had some magical beliefs too, because he said he had a shell that Would Not Fire unless you said a secret word before pulling the trigger, and a pistol that, if stolen, would fire the first time the muzzle lined up with the thief’s face.
We compared stories after he died, and we had all asked him what gun he would use on a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He had it in the crawl space under his closet floor. The barrel was as long as he was tall, and instead of a stock it had a trailer thing with wheels that unfolded, and it had chains and metal stakes to keep it from rolling back too far when it was fired. Whenever someone asked him if he had ever shot it, he always said he would not have a gun he had not fired. I was the one who had to go and ask him how that could be true, if the new gun you buy has never been fired before you shoot it, you own it and haven’t fired it. I think that hurt his feelings. He stopped letting me in, and everybody says that was the start of him not being so friendly. I said I was sorry, but they all said who could tell what might make a guy like that go twitchy.
But I think maybe a question can kill you. One that has the magic in it that has a way of slipping up on a person like a little piece of dirt in your mower’s gas tank.
. . .
An ambulance came, and they him out of there, and then the bomb squad came for the gunpowder. There was yellow tape all over the place and extra locks put on all around, but Mr. Gallardo had shown us The Tunnel. A tunnel works both ways if you know where the booby traps are, and we did. He had said he didn’t have any family, so we figured it would be a shame to see the police get everything when they already had a SWAT team.
Someone said the funeral home director let a story slip out about what happened when Mr. Gallardo was cremated. There were some loud popping noises while he was in there going up in smoke, and when they raked up the ashes to put in an urn they found an almost melted .22 derringer. It was a mystery, but we figure he knew he’d be going to the hospital when he called 911, and he didn’t want to go unarmed. So he, you know, did what people do when they hide drugs.
As far as I know, the T. rex gun is still there. It would be hard to get it through The Tunnel, so you would have to take it right out the front door. I bet there’s at least one pistol still in there too.
. . .
Sometimes, I dream about that big gun in the crawl space, and it’s always the same dream. There’s a family like mine living in that house, and aliens are invading, everything blowing up and people screaming, and everybody runs to hide under the floor. Someone shines a flashlight on boxes and boxes of ammo stacked up all around. They are wondering what it’s for when the spotlight finds it—the only gun that will make you feel safe again when you don’t know what world the trouble is coming from.
Originally published in CutBank 88 and featured online here.
A Posture of Grace
By Kim K. McCrea, Runner-Up in the Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest
April shattered at my feet, a barnacled shell salvaged from a maze of days, days battling kelpies at the bottom of the sea. This morning, I look up to see it is May. The grass is thick, riotous and defiant. The buds of the honey locust tree, the last leaves to unfurl, open fists of gold, the misers. Rosemary is blooming and the rhododendrons shine like starfish. A black crow flies east against a white cloud, blue sky. I am prone to seasickness. I am back on land.
On the first day of April, I sat at my father’s cluttered kitchen table and clutched the edges like a tipping raft, fighting to keep my balance.
In my father’s house, keeping watch. Walk him, faltering and wizened, to the toilet. Inspect his leavings expecting to read an oracle: tea leaves, this is, omens found in flights of birds. In two weeks, he will be the same age as his own mother when she died, died at last, alone and unmoored in a house of strangers caring for the old and unanchored. Stand watch. Old men enduring assaults on their flesh to repair the rending of time threatening to choke the bowels. Slipping backward, further under the waves, with each incision and intrusion--glasses of water, pills of different colors, oatmeal and soup, laundry to wash away the blood and urine, a cane, a heavy walker, a cane, a slow recovery, if it comes, silver hair a broken halo from hours upon the pillow, bandages on his head where he slipped and fell and bled. I sit alone and keep watch. Three days ago, a tiny golden bird hit the window above me and broke its neck. I put it in a box to see if it would survive, somehow. Later, I wrapped it in a shroud of paper towels and whispered a small prayer for forgiveness, for the waste, my sorrow. Ask pardon.
My father was sinking below me, fading into the distance, sifting down in the murk at the bottom of the sea. I tucked him in bed and kissed him goodnight. I stood watch. The next day, I maneuvered him somehow back into the hospital. Each morning, I stopped at the hospital cafeteria and cheated the self-serve espresso machine into adding an extra shot to my latte. I tipped the cashier extra because I felt guilty. I drew the curtains around the hospital bed, straightened the blankets, and consulted the nurses. I asked for clean towels and soap, filled the plastic tub with warm water, and swished a washcloth through it. I sat beside the bed and read my book. Gradually, Dad got stronger. Kicking toward the quivering surface, we struggled upward.
Some hours, while I sat with my father, I read from Home by Marilynne Robinson. The novel is set in Iowa, in a small town called Gilead. The author’s spare language, with lines as lean as an Amish chair, is often difficult for me to grasp. I must read a paragraph several times to take its meaning, sounding out each sentence like a primer. Perhaps it’s a difference in vernacular, a syntax of rhythms that is unfamiliar to me, or the gentle piety of Midwestern pastors that is foreign. I’m still working my way through the book.
It is the idea of grace that Robinson returns to like chaining psalms. “Assuming a posture of grace,” is a phrase I read and ponder as I sit with my father. I conjure Isadora Duncan draped in a sheer pale gown striking an arabesque. And what is grace? What does it mean to assume a posture of grace?
Recovery was slow, yet steady. In the middle of the month after he was discharged, we celebrated Easter and his 85th birthday together. With a posture of grace, first comes the possibility of forgiveness. And, with forgiveness, then comes the possibility of understanding, Robinson goes on to write. I have come to realize a posture is not a pose, but a raw and persistent readiness, that grace is simply, but not only, a tender embrace of mercy. I return to the idea as I stand in the garden, pondering how we broke the surface in our embrace and found footing again. As I’m pulling up long blades of grass, I notice the grape leaves are unfolding. The new green leaves are edged in rose.
Originally published in CutBank 88 and featured online here.
About the Authors:
Allie Mariano lives in New Orleans. Her writing has appeared in Saw Palm, Day One, and in New Orleans’ Times-Picayune. She is the nonfiction editor for Midway Journal. She is working on a novel, and she’s happy to be here.
Daryl Scroggins lives in Marfa, Texas. His poems, short stories, and creative non-fictions have appeared in magazines and anthologies across the country, and his most recent book is This Is Not the Way We Came In, a collection of flash fiction and a flash novel (Ravenna Press).
Kim K. McCrea worked as a system analyst for 25 years, building out the internet of things, before returning to letters. In 2017, Kim won the Treefort Wild West Writing Prize and was a finalist in both Proximity Magazine’s Essay Prize and the Barry Lopez Creative Nonfiction Contest. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Tishman Review, Thoughtfuldog, and Watershed Review. Kim lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she wrangles her Labrador in the rain and scouts for Great Blue Herons.
About Weekly Flash Prose and Prose Poetry:
CutBank Online features one work of flash prose or prose poetry every Monday. Submissions are free and open year-round. Send us your best work of 750 words or less at https://cutbank.submittable.com/submit.