Friday, April 28, 2017

FOOTPRINTS IN WET CEMENT, flash fiction by Peter Wortsman defines a slippery form with a wild variety of selections


Flash fiction may be "still as slippery as footprints in wet cement", as Peter Wortsman writes in his foreward to FOOTPRINTS IN WET CEMENT (Pelekinesis) But in this impressive collection, he defines an ephemeral form with a wild variety of selections in an entertaining array of categories. There are "True Confessions," "True Encounters," "Wise Cracks," "Delphic Telegrams" and here-- "Stories on the Run."


These are audacious stories which puncture our assumptions. Among my favorites are Girl on a Train (Intelligence?), Let there be Lies  (Deity's shortcomings?)  I Am Not Myself (Metaphysical identity theft?), After the Storm (Alive?) and many others. Here is a comment about an earlier non fiction work of Wortsman by a master of the short story and another on his fiction by a novelist.

“The behavior of the people [in ‘Snapshots and Souvenirs’]
was wonderfully human and moving—the sort of thing
even the best writers find it almost impossible to invent.
The unexpected in human behavior is difficult to take
out of the air, as opposed to the usual, which anyone can
invent. So that it is precisely these unforeseen details which
establish the authenticity of the text, and which give it its
literary value…excellent.”
–Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky

"A Modern Way to Die is a fantastic book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have never read anything quite like this, but my enjoyment was due to more than just novelty, it was a response to marvelous writing, wonderful craft, and the breath of imagination... [Wortsman] succeeded so well in his craft and art that it reads 'artless' and 'spontaneous,' which to me is the highest of compliments."
Hubert Selby, Jr., author of Last Exit to Brooklyn




Here are three selections from FOOTPRINTS IN WET CEMENT that I found funny and moving. Don't take my word for it. I am including as a "taste," since readers will probably have other choices, among the variety of moments and moods. I also think the illustrations are terrific.  (www.pelekinesis.com)

S.W.

The Disease of Self
What the doctor can’t cure is a point of pride,
a condition inscribed in DNA and nonsense.
There are over-the-counter remedies you could take but
they just hold off the inevitable. If only you were a worm,
which, when cut in two, could grow a new head and
tail, or didn’t even bother, but just kept wiggling along,
taking things in stride. At the border between night and
day even the shadows evaporate. Dreams scatter like
vampires afraid of the light. The sleepless are compelled
to embrace the disease of self.

Girl on Train
Her hands got to me first, as if they were knitting,
not a common scarf, but a cloth to cover the secrets
of the heart. The long graceful fingers might just as well
have been playing the keys of an arcane instrument,
a harpsichord or hurdy-gurdy, now softly, now with a
sudden fury, or else engaged in intimate touch—as they
looped and dipped with wild abandon on the seat next to
mine. Magic wands, not ordinary knitting needles, the
sharp points pricked and pierced the twilight and made
it bleed in astounding spurts of purple, red and black.

“That’s so beautiful!” I whispered, seeking an excuse to
look up.
“You like it?”

 She swept back a veil of long black hair,
revealing a fine olive complexion and full lips parted with
surprise, the startled look of an Italian Madonna just told
of the miracle. In a curious kind of harmony with her
hands, her black eyes and ruffled brows knitted an ornate
tapestry of their own, dazzling and puzzling, purple, red
and black.

“Who are you making it for?” I asked with a flirtatious
hint, not really wanting to know, picturing the scarf
wrapped round my own neck and the fingers entwined
with mine.
“For me,” she said, “for when it gets cold.”

The fingers never stopped knitting and the scarf grew as
she spoke, the fringes of its finished end grazing my knee.

“Are you in college?” I asked.
“Oh no,” she said, “I’m not smart like that.”
“Your color scheme is brilliant!” I insisted.
Whereupon she blushed. “I go to a special school.”
—“Special?”
—“For slow people.”

I choked back a barely audible: “Oh!”
The fingers kept dancing and the train rattled on as
daylight faded fast and the scarf spilled deep purple all
over my lap.
“But I’m learning,” she said, “making progress, my
teacher tells me. Last week I took a test and you know
what? I used to think I was slow, but now,”—like a last
splash of sunlight before dusk, a proud smile of radiant
beauty lit up her dark eyes and licked the crescent moon
of her lips—“now I know I’m average!”

I covered my face with my hands to hide the tears,
pretending to muffle a sneeze.
We rolled on in silence, her fingers fondling the dark,
the soft woolen shawl of night falling over me.
“This is where I get out,” she whispered, drawing back
the scarf as the train pulled into the station somewhere in
New Jersey, “pleased to have met you, Mister.”

Static electricity made my leg hairs stand on end
and I trembled, feeling naked. The pleasure was all
mine!, I wanted to say, or something to that effect.
Too slow to react, I couldn’t find the words in time
and pressed my eyes shut tight to retrieve the fleeting
purple, red and black impression as the train pitched
forward into the darkness.




I’m Not Myself
My feet, stomach and forehead are inherited from
my father, my dark curly hair from my mother,
my voice from my maternal grandfather. My walk is his
too, I’m told. Only my worries are my own.
This morning, a woman I’ve never met, a perfect
stranger, walks up to me as I am about to descend the
steps at my regular subway station on my way to work and
whips out the wallet-size snapshot of a child.—“That’s
her!” she half-howls half-hisses with a strangely insinuating
sneer.

I don’t know what to say, feeling the eyes of the morning
rush of passers-by upon me, and fearing that I am about to
be wrongfully and publicly accused of paternity, kidnapping,
rape or worse.

The woman keeps staring. “Don’t you recognize her?!”
she insists with considerable emotion. “You finally delivered
her after five miscarriages. You are Dr....!”

“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, ma’am!” I shake my head
with a half-hearted shrug, all choked up for reasons I
cannot rightly explain, then and there doubting my own
identity, her tone of assurance overpowering my own
wavering doubt.

Her piercing gaze cuts me like a scalpel. “But you look
so much like him!” She keeps staring, clearly hoping to
break down my stubborn resistance and make me recant,
even as I race down the subway steps, shaken to the core.
And though I adamantly maintain that the woman and
the child in the picture are complete strangers, there is
little doubt that had I been hauled off for interrogation, I
would have failed a lie detector test.
But that is only the beginning.

Arriving at work, I find a curt message left on my
answering machine by a collection agency located in
Arizona, on behalf of their client company in Virginia,
assuring me that, if I act immediately I will not face prosecution,
but reminding me of my outstanding debt.
What debt?

A call to the collection agency reveals that I, or
someone pretending to be me, has apparently purchased
a cell phone and proceeded to ring up a telephone bill of
$10,000 at last count.

“But I don’t even know how to use a cell phone!” I
protest, which, in this day and age, the collection agency
agent in Arizona finds hard to believe. My options, she
says, are to pay up immediately or file a police report
and attempt to clear my record with three credit bureaus
located in Georgia, California and Texas, who never
answer their phone.

Whereupon I hasten to the local precinct.
“You may or may not,” says the detective on duty, eying
me suspiciously, “be the victim of identity theft.”
—“What’s that?”
—“Someone out there pretending to be you!”
—“How is that possible?”
“The imposter,” he says, “might have apprehended your
name and digital data (social security number, date of birth
etc.) from a garbage bag, a hospital record or a conversation
fragment overheard in passing–especially from a cell
phone.”
—“But I don’t own a cell phone!”
“My advice to you,” he says, “is to exercise extreme
caution in all future interactions, shred your garbage, filter
your calls.”

My upset exceeds the strictly financial.
I have stopped answering the phone and suspect every
stranger in the crowd.

It’s an outmoded metaphysical dilemma, very
19th-century, very Poe-like, I admit. Contemporary
consumer society has no modern recourse or remedy for
the Doppelgänger syndrome.

If the culprit was shrewd enough to tap into my vital
codes, could he not just as easily break into the private
precincts of my life? Mimic my manner? Sign my name
to restaurant checks, contracts, love letters and bylines?
Charm my children? Woo my wife?

And may he not at this very minute be dwelling on me
as I am on him, reading this very text as a way to read my
mind, predict my next move and beat me to it? Chances are
he’s a smoother, and I suspect, far more polished version of
me than myself.

My bank, until recently a low-key neighborhood operation
geared to financial simpletons such as myself, was
taken over by a foreign-based international conglomerate
with an intimidating acronym. When I stop by at
lunchtime to deposit a check and verify the status of my
accounts, the teller almost pushes me to tears. All the
account numbers and modes of transaction, which it has
taken me years to memorize and master, have been altered.

I am obliged to fill out three complete sets of withdrawal
and deposit slips before getting it right, all the while
enduring a barely suppressed snicker from behind the
bullet-proof window and the smoldering protest of the
growing line of customers behind.

“Tell me,” I ask the teller, “has anyone else tried to
access my money?”
“No one,” he sneers, “other than you!”
And when I get home, the children glance up from
their perch at the TV set as if I were a total stranger,
clearly more in tune with the people on screen.
“It’s me!” I cry.

My wife flashes me a quizzical look. “You’re not yourself
today, honey!” she says, confirming my worst suspicions.