Online publishing…I hesitate to say a word against it, since it’s what I do for a living. Stories on the web can be more widely disseminated than texts that are locked up between the pages of a print journal, prestigious though the latter may be. But when that site comes to an end, as they often do, your story is swept away like a Zen sand painting, as if it had never been. So, which is better: a solid yet obscure artifact, or an ephemeral but easily shared one? A story that could theoretically still be read, but probably won’t be, or one that probably was read, but no longer can be?
This Borges-style conundrum is a good lead-in to young Julian’s preoccupations in “Career”, a flash fiction of mine that was originally published in 2008 on the Israeli literary webzine Cyclamens and Swords, but is no longer available there due to a site redesign. The editors have released it to be republished here instead.
It was one of Daddy’s happy nights so he was driving too fast down the hill that came after the school but before the golf course, with me and Carter strapped in the back seat screaming like we were enjoying ourselves, because that was what we were supposed to do. The air in the car was bourbon, it was the heaviness of the clouds before rain. We opened the windows and let the wind slap our faces, we yelled out like dogs.
Daddy had his angry nights and his sad nights too. We heard noises in the kitchen and tried not to put stories to them. I got good at separating the sound of glass breaking into its constituent parts: the whoosh of the trajectory, the impact, the tinkling fall, the eggshell crunch underfoot. Carter used to pop balloons. He would blow them up as fat as they could go and then stomp them. He used to go through ten, twenty a night when it was bad. I asked once why he didn’t just chew bubblegum and he hit me upside the head with his semiautomatic water gun. My big brother’s never been very introspective.
On a happy night Daddy would have gone drinking with his old Georgia Tech football buddies. He’d want to share that energy with us, enough to promise us ice cream that we never got, to give Mama a reason why we were being torn from her side on a school night. Well, we got it once but Carter threw up in a sand trap after Daddy plunged through the hedge separating the Boltwood Country Club from Route 28. We were members so I assume they just took it out of his dues. My sister Laura Sue got to stay home pressing little beady raisin eyes into the fat faces of gingerbread men. I wasn’t a girl, I couldn’t cook, and the taste from Daddy’s pocket flask was like pressing my lips to a hot skillet.
On this night I remember especially, I was about eight and Carter was ten. It was January, raining. We sped down the hill belting out “The Wanderer,” the Beach Boys one, not Johnny Cash. Daddy and Carter were out of tune and I wasn’t, but there were two of them and one of me. The black road curved across the intersection, slick in the mist.
We snapped forward, like hanged men when the rope drops, as Daddy slammed on the brakes, cursing. A truck’s red grille filled our windows, blaring its horn in our naked ears. I saw the stop sign we’d blown through, peeking out from under a low-hanging branch, like it was teasing us.
“Jesus Christ on a trampoline,” Daddy yelled, and hit the steering wheel. “Did y’all see how fast that faggot was going?”
“Yeah, I saw,” I lied, thinking it would please him. I didn’t have the same rules about this that I have now, to be true to my own eyes.
“Well, why didn’t you tell me to stop, then, you friggin’ fairy princess?”
Daddy called his boys girl names when he wanted to humiliate us into being stronger. I wouldn’t have minded being a princess if it meant I could get gingerbread instead of whiplash.
“I thought you could see. It was right there.”
“Don’t you backtalk me.” I knew what was coming. Next gas station, he pulled over into the parking lot so he could smack my ass good. He sent Carter into the convenience store with money for candy bars, both of which my brother bought for himself, pretending to forget that peanuts gave me spots. It’s funny that I didn’t notice the pain. It was only a drum beating far away. The light over the pumps was such a pure, bright white; the purple-gray sky was so big and swollen with wind. I had been on the truck side of the car.
Back home Mama was boiling rice for a casserole. I was mesmerized by the sight of the steam rising. As every unique curl of vapor lifted and dissolved, I thought, I almost wasn’t here to see this; and then, I was saved so I would see this. Why would something so unimportant keep me alive? Maybe I was unimportant too, but I was here, and the shape of the steam in this instant, from the white rice giving up its clean hot essence like laundry, couldn’t be seen by anyone else in the world.