Better than Fiction (creative non fiction)
In this issue we bring you four excerpts from Tobi Alfier’s new book Slices of Alice: & Other Character Studies (2018)
A Slice of Ruby
Ruby lived by swampland all her life. Tourists sometimes said it with a sneer: it smells, it’s dirty, but they said the same thing about New Orleans. They said the same thing about Paris! Well her well-loved landscape wasn’t dirty, wasn’t dangerous because of outlaws and crooks, and didn’t smell like piss. You just had to watch out for gators and mosquitoes, but she learned that young. And she learned to stay away from the juke joints on Saturday nights—she was a pretty little thing, and sometimes alcohol could do things to a man that they’d regret come church on Sunday. Ruby had on occasion had her back pushed up against the outside wall, music and stompin’ bursting out the open windows, but men knew her uncle, and Ruby carried a knife. Even the strongest barrel-made moonshine didn’t have a chance to work them up stupid before some angel on their shoulder beat the hell out of the devil in their pants.
Such a contradiction in this haunted, mesmerizing medley of greens and golds, shot through with sun rippling the water—while every street sign and neon drive-thru was shot through to hell with buckshot, the writing instrument of anyone over sixteen with a truck and a gunrack. Ruby was gettin’ on to that age but still she walked to school each morning, her bare toes squishing in the track, sometimes dry as bones, sometimes muddy with last night’s rain. She didn’t care. And yes her muddy feet said she was poor but also said she loved the earth, and she loved school. Ruby carried her lessons in the backpack her older sister Jade picked up last August at the church donation and give-away. But Jade decided she’d had enough, carried herself north with a boy who was leaving to make his mark in Nashville, one guitar, a banjo, a baggy full of change, and two phone numbers written on a matchbook from the nudie bar where he subbed sometimes—after the real musicians got too drunk to stand. Jade packed just a few things in a shopping bag, left the tell-tale charity backpack at home, and Ruby grabbed it for at least one more year of writing sums, practicing her letters and carrying any books she could get. Reading under the covers at night, flashlight illuminating the pages, was her favorite way to spend an evening, and she didn’t need to make no apologies for that.
Mama worked hard to make a good life for her girls. She told everyone she’d married too young and too wrong; she gave up on Jade once she given them all the slip, but didn’t want the same to happen to Ruby. So Mama cooked, and swept, and worked her ass off in the local hunter’s motel, the one with sheets faded yellow the color of dirty-blonde whore-hair. She always kept a little cash hidden in a biscuit tin in the pantry, just in case. Ruby tried never to take it, she always thought of it as Mama’s getaway money. She borrowed a bit once a year to buy a couple pairs of underwear—she couldn’t go commando to gym class. Otherwise she didn’t need nothing. Everything was there for her among the willows and the wild skies. Her people, her stories, ties for her hair and a swimming hole. Whatever else does anyone need.
A Slice of Hal
He woke just in time to see his brain disconnect from the universe. It was like when you’ve gone to the eye doctor, and you can see the veins reflected in the pure air with no mirror. Sometimes that’s what happens when he is startled awake—a violation as if he were being robbed and not getting anything in return.
He has a coffee maker that can make two pots of coffee at once. He rarely has the chance to use it, to make more than his usual two morning cups. He feels cheated and sad, but he’s never had anyone over to make both decaf and regular.
He subscribes to “Word of the Day” to build his vocabulary. Rarely words to be used in everyday conversation. Yesterday’s word was “circumambient”—all-encompassing or surrounding. Today’s word is “Ukase,” which he doesn’t even try to adopt. Quite honestly he can’t even pronounce it.
He continues to see things out of the corner of his eye. Should he go back to sleep, stop watching reality TV, stop thinking for a moment, certainly stop trying to broaden his vocabulary, and maybe try meet someone? Anyone?
He has run a gamut of emotion in just a few minutes. What will happen during the rest of the day? Maybe he’ll leave home early, stop to pick up the paper at the newsstand where the girl was there exactly at 7:42 yesterday. She might be there at 7:42 today. She sort of smiled at him—he wasn’t even wearing his lucky shirt. Maybe that’s what he needs to do, stop sitting on his hands doing nothing, and be hopeful for what might happen. That’s enough for him.
A Slice of Teddy
Teddy married a Korean woman because his mother talked so much. His mother-in-law Helen could not get the grandchildren to sleep and she did not speak English. A small price to pay for quiet.
Teddy’s mother knew everyone. As a child, Teddy did not even like to go to the store for milk. He knew it would take an hour. Teddy didn’t care about the checker’s boyfriend, he didn’t care how the butcher’s hands went raw from endless chopping and carving. Teddy wanted his milk, so he could have cold cereal in the morning before school—where it was blissfully quiet.
If you say "Bless her heart" first, you can say anything you want about a person. Teddy only felt that way about Helen. Helen always brought fruit over to the house as a special treat for the kids (sometimes Teddy neglected the shopping). She loved KFC! Everyone knew that “Family Night” was fried chicken, coleslaw and mashed potatoes, and everyone went to sleep full and smiling, especially Helen.
So really all Teddy could say was Bless her heart, she doesn’t speak English. If he had tried the same thing with his mother, he wouldn’t have known where to start, and he definitely wouldn’t know where to stop.
No one knew where Teddy’s wife was. Helen didn’t even know. She had gotten a collect call once from an off-strip apartment hotel in Las Vegas, but she did not know beyond that how to find a person. She was okay with her daughter not being found. Teddy thought so too.
To be fair, Teddy’s mother did her share of grandmother duties. She was a perfectly coifed, perfectly dressed woman, who would take off her very expensive shoes to climb up on the top bunk and cuddle Danielle, the oldest of her grandkids. The younger one was still in a crib, so she cuddled him in a chair before putting him to bed. Really that was the only time Teddy’s mother was quiet, when she was putting the grandkids to bed. He used to wish she would only come over after eight at night, when she would quietly do nurturing things before taking Helen home.
They were a beautiful family with a striking resemblance to each other. Perhaps they were tied together by Teddy’s lost wife—no one talked about it. Teddy wondered sometimes about finding another wife, but he knew that he would need another mother for his children as well. Usually second wives step back, they know they are not the mother, so they hesitate to do the hard things. Teddy needed help with it all, and he also wanted a woman he loved for his own.
He wanted a woman who would climb in the top bunk and cuddle Danielle, then climb in his bed and make fierce, loving love with him. Each night, when it was finally quiet, his voice echoed a small wish for this miracle to come true.
First published in Open: Journal of Arts & Letters.
A Slice of The Internal Revenue Service Agent
The Internal Revenue Service Agent called to schedule an appointment. In no less than four phone calls lasting an average of twenty minutes each, he rescheduled three times and confirmed directions and times at least twice. Every conversation turned to food, this being the holiday season. He wanted to make sure there was going to be at least a stray pumpkin pie or some sweet available, if he needed to stretch his legs. That said, he made it extremely clear that the maximum value of any delicacy could not exceed fifteen cents. Even a pie made by Grandma and hand delivered would be worth more than that. I would have to tell him it was worthless, but then why would he want to eat it?
On the designated day upon which he’d called one last time, I assured him that I had chocolate from an invitation to a party which was free, and many varieties of tea. A single tea bag would not be worth more than the maximum. Quite happily he arrived thirty minutes late, ready for some friendly conversation to be billed to the client but necessary to assure him this was not an adversarial appointment.
I could not describe this gentleman other than to say he had a wild shock of white hair, above beautiful blue eyes, above a horrid tie with tiny numbers on it.
The Internal Revenue Service Agent was quite the conversationalist. His forceful handshake proved he was used to being in social situations. Whether those situations were Internal Revenue Service training classes or other functions—I had no clue. He seemed to be a very lonely man, using his position to talk to someone other than the television, or his cat. I really had no idea.
After a very long day, the Internal Revenue Service Agent thanked me for my assistance and offered me a job. I declined and did not even feel sorry for him as I imagined him stuck in traffic on his way home. I should have thanked him for allowing me to listen as he verbally drew his own conclusions. It was a mystifying display of stream-of-consciousness, something I had never before witnessed. But I will not dwell on my bad manners. Most certainly he had already moved on, and was learning Italian on tape, or mentally reviewing a list of what he wanted for his birthday, thinking about what he’d reheat for dinner, dissecting his findings from the day, planning his strategy for tomorrow. Who can say. The Internal Revenue Service Agent is always ready.
Tobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart nominee. Her full-length collection Somewhere, Anywhere, Doesn’t Matter Where is recently out from Kelsay Books. She is coeditor of San Pedro River Review. Her new book, Slices of Alice: & Other Character Studies is available on Amazon. Click on the book image below to order a copy.
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