Flashfiction: “He Had A Hard War”

In general, the flashfiction pieces I post on this blog are conceived and written based on something that struck me at that particular moment in time.  Whether that “call” to write comes from an image or a song or a written line, my flashfiction is generally a pretty immediate response.

The piece below is a bit different.  It is different because the line that gave me the “call” to write is one I read many years ago.  That line has stuck in the back of my mind because the pathos it evokes comes entirely from events that are “offscreen.”  The feelings it brings are those of memory, of things hidden and things forgotten.  It touches, also, on that feeling of uncertainty you get when you realize just how little you truly know about those around you.

As ever, I gave myself one hour to conceive, write and post the piece. I also gave myself a “limit” of 400 words, and managed to squeak in just under that with 397:

He Had A Hard War”

My uncle never talked much about the war.  His only stories had been about basic training, and the trouble he and his friends would get into.  Just how a man so given to practical jokes and petty rebellions could actually have gone on to serve, I never quite understood.

We weren’t close, my uncle and I.  But with no children of his own, and my pwn parents gone, I was all the family he had left.  It fell to me, then, to handle his affairs.

The accounts and minutiae of life had been the easiest, to be honest.  A few calls and forms and the changes were made.  The care home had been harder, a mess of bureaucracy and dead-ends until a helpful worker had cut through the bullshit and pushed the right buttons.

When I asked how, and why, she had gone to such lengths, her answer had been simple and heartfelt, “Semper fi.”

The hardest of all had been the storage unit.  Only after the housing and money and legal affairs had been handled did I work up the energy to deal with the all-but forgotten remnants of his life.  Most of it was sold or donated, until only a few boxes remained.

A photo album, then, buried behind the mementos of my uncle and father as kids.  The first picture was of my uncle in a dark blue uniform, starched and pressed and trying to look as impressive as he could.  Gone was the paunch and the tired face, and in their place…a man impossibly young, bursting with energy.  There were more pictures, of course.  Pictures of him with others, all as young and vibrant and alive as was he in those pictures.

The pictures stopped, however, about halfway through that album.  Page after page, all empty of pictures.  Why?  My uncle had lived a good life before age had caught up with him.  Where were the memories of that part of his life?  I had found other photos, from more recent days, but none of those albums had been as worn and well-thumbed as the one in my hand.

I paged back, then, to study the final photo.  A small armored vehicle in the foreground, about ten yards away — presumably his — and in the background…

In the background an eruption of black smoke, pouring from vehicles twisted and wrecked.

{Note 1 — A real world example of the line I talked about above: I met a man, once, in my old coffee shop.  He was an old man, stooped and slow.  We had never really interacted beyond the normal smiles and morning greetings of those who regularly haunt the same place.  Our acquaintance would never have gone beyond that, except that I happen to be a history nerd.  The man’s car had a license plate that struck me one morning, when I saw him climb out.  That plate bore not a random collection of numbers and letters, but a US Navy hull number.

It was a hull number that I knew*, by the way.  The number of a ship involved in one of the biggest battles in US Navy history.  A ship that, along with her partners in a little escort group, sacrificed herself to shield the big, lumbering, vulnerable assets she had been assigned to protect.  I finally worked up the courage to sit and talk with this quiet, little man…to ask him, with all the fear and hesitation in the world, about his ship.  And he told me.  He told me about the ship, and about his friends.  Over the course of the anecdotes and funny stories, he told me also about that fateful day…

*I knew the ship because I have a picture of her above my desk.  Take a moment, if you will, and click the link to check out DD-533, USS Hoel.}

{Note 2 — Oh, the line in question, the one that spawned this post?  It’s the freaking title.  Believe it or not, that line comes from “Goblet of Fire,” the fourth book in the Harry Potter series.  Now, that book is to my mind the best of the series because it marks the first time you have real depth of emotion and loss in those books.  It is when the series moves beyond the pointless silliness of kids’ books and starts to introduce “grown-up” elements that resonate in ways beyond the grinning nostalgia of “Sorceror’s Stone.”  Although the line itself is something of a “throwaway” from the book’s prologue, I have always found it a fantastically effective bit of characterization crammed into just five words.}

Flashfiction: “Movin’ On Up”

Wake up and go to work. Come home for some TV and sleep. Check your accounts to make sure the paychecks go in, and the bills go out, at the right times…

Lather, rinse, repeat…

Hold on a second, something just hit me.

Holy shit, in the time it took me to type that last sentence, this post just changed from a random piece I wasn’t sure was even gonna work into a flashfiction piece (that I’m still not sure is gonna work, just like every flashfiction piece I write)!

I don’t know how it is for others who write, but, well, welcome to my brain and how the idea and creative process works…

At any rate, let’s give this a shot, shall we?  And to illustrate the “one hour rule” I have for my flashfiction pieces, I’m taking the idea that just hit me and starting to envision and write at 9:05 AM.  I’ll (hopefully) be hitting “Publish” no later than 10:05 AM.

{Note — it is now 9:55, and I am about to hit that “Publish” button…}

Movin’ On Up

He went to work every day.  Never late, never absent.  Hard work and dedication had paid off for him.  After four years on the second floor, in a tiny beige cubicle, the call had come.  He was on the way up, they told him.

Up he went, then.  All the way up…to the third floor, where the cubicles were grey.  The walls stood all the way to his shoulders, up there.  Extra space and privacy?  What more could he want?

His pay was up, too.  Oh, the taxes took a bigger bite, but his daily checks of the bank app on his phone were still satisfying.

Four more years, then.  Four years of overtime and vacations to Columbus.  Four years of satisfied little sighs when he checked his phone.  They had even come to know his name, his bosses.  Well, six of them knew his name, anyway, and that wasn’t too bad.

Finally, an extravagance.  Those satisfied little sighs when he checked his phone had grown larger and larger over the years.  They had grown until he felt comfortable enough to step up at home, too.  No more Columbus for him.  No sir, he was on the way up!

He shuffled back into the office after his week-long vacation.  Sunburnt, hungover and exhausted, the week in Sarasota had been everything he’d dreamed.  As tired as he was, he felt ready to face the next year with a renewed vigor.

He had his eye on that corner cubicle down the aisle from his.  It had a view, that cubicle.  A glance out the small window and he’d be able watch those going to and fro on the elevators.  He’d even be able to see the office doors.

They were the Promised Land, those offices.  The dream he never dare mention.  Life with walls and a door!  The ultimate goal.  He would reach that office.  He had confidence; hard work was always rewarded, wasn’t it?

And then, after the office?  All those satisfying little numbers on his phone would grow and grow until he that magic day when the hard work was no longer necessary.  Then he would be happy.  Then the trips to Columbus and Sarasota would become trips to Paris and Tokyo.  Then the drudgery would give way to adventure.  Then life would truly begin.

The years were a blur in his mind.  His wife and kids were a blur, too.  The hard work continued, and he continued on the way up.  Up to that corner cubicle he coveted.  Up, even, to that office.  So what if half of it was taken up with boxes of paper they had nowhere else to store?  It still had walls and a door.  It still was his own space at work.

The demands on his time were up, too, to go with the bigger numbers on his phone.  He hadn’t made the last few trips to Sarasota, however.  He couldn’t go, he’d told his wife, not if he he wanted those numbers to really climb.  

He’d make it up to her, he promised.  When those numbers were up enough, they would go to all of the places they never talked about.  When he was up enough, they would really live.

She had cried a bit, then.  Oh, she had tried to hide it, but he could feel her tears.  He would make it up to her, of course.  In the end, he would make it up.

The kids were gone by the time he reached the fifth floor.  His wife by the sixth.  But the little numbers, they were impressive.  Dreams became plans, then.  Plans for month-long trips to Europe and Asia and Africa.  Plans to see the world…to see all of the world.  This what he had worked for.  This was the way up.

The seventh floor and a new office.  Oh, not a corner office, but still one with windows and a secretary shared only with six others.  They all knew his name now, of course.  They all proved that by speaking at the funeral.

“He was too young…” they all said.  “He’d climbed so far,” they all said, “only to die at the top.”

He never did make those trips.

Musical Note — it’s an older song, and most definitely not one of the greats of musical history, but it still kinda fits…

Flashfiction: “No Way To Go Through Life”

Completely random flashfiction piece for today.  There was nothing I particularly wanted to write about, then I read a funny comment on a website and decided a bit of silliness was in order.

But…inspiration?  What inspiration?  Of course there’s no inspiration, this is purely internal!  


No Way To Go Through Life

Okay, so the horse thing was a mistake.  Hey, even the best pranks can get away from you.

I had a choice to make this morning.  A choice about yet another lecture on Nietzschean dynamics in the early Shakespearean sonnets, or about the half-full keg left from last night.

The keg died well.  Well, she died fast, anyway, and that pretty much qualifies as well, doesn’t it?  But…then…

But then, after that start to the day, what do you do when there’s nothing left in the house?  What were we gonna drink for lunch in a couple of hours?!

So it became a quest, then, to reload our supplies.  We were innocuous.  We were innocent.  We were like any other student walking across the campus.  Sweaters and coats worn against the crisp fall air provided camouflage against easy observation.  Oh, they weren’t ours, those coats — there are always coats and sweaters, shirts and pants, left after a party — but they were enough to get us past the library without raising the alarm.

The administration building, however, that presented a more serious obstacle.  I don’t quite know why, but the folks in that building always seem to be watching for us. 

A curtain moved while I was out in the open.  Uh-oh. I had to move, and I had to move fast. 

You would be surprised how fast I can be, with the proper motivation.  All I had to do was get behind the cars in the lot.  A bit of crouching, and some creative duckwalking, and from there I could find real shelter behind the music hall.

The others saw my predicament, but they could do nothing to help.  The mission comes first.  The mission always comes first.  We all knew that, we all accepted the risks.  “No man left behind” was simply not an option, not with the stakes for which we played.  A look from them, and nods all around, and they were off at a sprint.

At least someone would get through, I sighed to myself.

Behind the cars, I watched for my chance.  Another rustle of the curtain and I tensed.  A creak from the door — that hinge had been quiet, once, until I spent a long night working on it — and I knew the threat was coming near.

I could not be captured, I had to escape!  It didn’t matter if the coast was clear, I had to run…

God, I was like the wind.  I flew across the grass in a beeline for the shelter offered by that far-too-distant pile of bricks.

Noise behind me, and I ran even faster.

I didn’t make it.

Pounding feet behind, then a hand on my shoulder.

“Son…” the deep voice said, puffing almost as bad as was I.

The others…I couldn’t see them.  They had survived!  I looked up, then, defiant and ready to fight.

My captor was stern, as he always was when he began to lecture, “I’ve said it before…”

Flashfiction: “Cutdown Day”

This past weekend was the time when 30% of the roster of each NFL team lost their jobs.  “Why,” I hear you cry, “should I care about millionaires getting fired?”

Because 90% of them ain’t rich.  All those huge contracts you hear about in the NFL?  Yeah, those go only to a handful of guys.  The vast majority of players are making something around the league minimum.  Now, that’s still a good salary by most standards, but it isn’t “retire for the rest of your life” money.

A lifetime of work and training…

A lifetime of pain and injuries and broken bodies…

A lifetime of consequences…

All for an average of three years playing for the league minimum.

Now, I’m a football fan but not a “football guy.”  No, I’m a hockey guy.  I know hockey, and hockey players.  And it’s just worse there.  Take those three years and play them for a salary that is barely middle-class (if that much) down in the minors and that picture gets a lot harder.  The pain and consequences are still the same, though.

Although it was the period for NFL cutdowns that got me thinking, I had to run with something I know.  The piece below is based on memories from a friend of mine:

“Cutdown Day”

Shit, did he hurt.  Two hours of pushing hard, two hours of sprints and hits, two hours of sweat and exhaustion…why do it?

Why do it?

He asked himself that every single morning, now.  He hadn’t asked it as a kid, when his mom would get him up for practice.  He hadn’t asked it in college, either, when the other students Would all praise him for the last game.  He hadn’t it asked it then, but he had to ask now.

His friends from school, they had all gone on to jobs.  Cars and condos and real lives.  Him?  He had three roommates in a rented two-bedroom, a place that didn’t even have his name on the lease.

A last chance, then, to impress the team.  A last chance to keep his place on the ice…and to keep the apartment that the team provided.

When he’d arrived that morning, it had been there, that which he most feared: a note on his locker.

“You’re on the bubble.  As of now, I ain’t gonna keep you,” the coach had said at the meeting.

He had spent thousands Just to get himself to training camp.  Had spent countless hours working the phone to friends and acquaintances just to get the invitation, and now he wouldn’t make it.

A last hour on the ice.  A last hit of water before that hour’s scrimmage, and he felt the coach’s eyes.  Oh, he knew the guy was watching the others, the ones who would get the contract offers, but still he felt those eyes.  Felt the disdain.

He felt the shame, too.  He had never failed before.

“Last chance!” the coach yelled to the milling players.  “Play your way on to the roster, or go home!”

A whistle to start the scrimmage.

Broke and soon-to-be-unemployed, what did he have to lose?  His resume had nothing on it, nothing but the blood and sweat and tears of a life of 5:00am practices and late night games.  How did you sell HR departments on bruises and concussions and pain As a job skill?

Fuck it, he thought, nothin’ left to lose.

He stood under the shower, after, and tried to soak away the blood and bruises from the scrimmage.  Every hit, every shot, every play, had been his last.  He would go home to his parents, broke and ashamed.

He would apply for that job at the call center and give up the dream he had had since he was five.  He would turn into that bitter, drunk guy that every local rink has, the one bitching about the pro career he never had.

After the shower, he wasn’t even surprised when he saw the note on his locker.  His gut still clenched, and his body shook, but that was shame and panic and desperation, not surprise.

Up the stairs, then, and into the coach’s cramped office.  An office that stank of old gear and mildew and hours-long bus rides up and down the east coast.

He didn’t say a word, just sat in the one chair and stared at the folder that sat on the desk, his death warrant waiting to be signed.  He flipped it open without saying a word.  What was there to say?

The papers inside, they meant nothing.  The words meant nothing. They couldn’t penetrate the fog.

“I told you to be ready to go,” the coach said, with no preamble, nothing to soften the sting.  “Practice starts in the gym at 6:00 Monday morning.  Sign the fucking contract and get your ass out of here.”

His hands were still shaking as he signed.

Note 1 — my friend, the guy who so barely made the roster of a minor-league team, went on to play ten years in the NHL…for the league minimum every single year.

Note 2 — WordPress just force-changed their creation and posting system.  Yeah, the option to use this new system has been there for some time, but I’ve ignored it.  Now I have to use it…and I have no idea how to.  I hate it.  I hate it to the point that I’m not sure it’s worth it to keep this blog going.  Sorry, I know that sounds petty, but I want to write, not spend my time trying to use some software idiot’s definition of a “good platform.”  I don’t get paid for this, so why bother?  We’ll have to see…