Flash Points: KristenAFC

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Welcome to Flash Points. Every (ish) Monday we stick one of the previous Friday’s entries under a sparklyscope and tear it to pieces (in a good way). What makes writing “good”? Specifically, what makes great flash? Let the discussion begin!

Prompt: Dust storm

Word limit:  340 – 360 words

Today’s chosen flash piece:  Facing the Smokeby KristenAFC

The landfill is burning. The smoke is visible from everywhere; the beaches, the highways, even way out here in the country. The landfill is a monster; the talk radio callers love to rant about it. Seagulls dive at the garbage heap, fighting for treasures in its belly. The odor of methane gas rides the wind; sometimes, we smell it in the little farm town where we moved to get away from the dirt of the city. It twists over the backs of Jersey cows, runs its fingers through the sheep’s fleece, flows up the nostrils of the Border Collie and swirls around the running feet of the chickens in my neighbors’ yard.

Today, the landfill burns.

I am watching the smoke advance toward the edge of our property while Samuel tells me he is leaving me.

“It is for the best,” he says.
I nod. The dark plumes swell and spread above the trees and houses.
“We haven’t been happy.”
They look ravenous, like they can’t help swallowing us.
“We?” I scratch my head. How funny how ‘you’ can talk of ‘we’ with such authority. There was so much between the lines of those vows.
“But don’t worry,” Samuel assures me. “The house – it’s yours. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Do what, exactly?” I ask. The puffs are closer still. I smell the smoke. Can’t he smell it? He stretches both arms, palms out toward me in a “stop” gesture, as if I am about to become hysterical and he’s trying to quell it. Hysterics were never my thing. Suck it up. Face it. Keep calm.
“Look, Annie,” he says, his hands still out straight and flipped up like fins. “There is no need to pretend.”
“I wasn’t aware I’d been pretending.” My voice is soft.

I keep my eyes on the advancing smoke, so I don’t see him fill up the car with the boxes I hadn’t noticed. He is behind me, rummaging, sliding crates, slamming doors, turning the ignition, backing out, driving away.

I stand and hold my breath. Facing the smoke head on, as it inches ever-closer.

What works

I loved so many of the stories this week, such as Charles Short‘s The One, with its deftly punctuated twist, and Nick Johns‘ dialogue-sculpted tale with a hilarious, comeuppance-type twist, and more.  If you haven’t had a chance yet, skim through to read these and other masterfully spun pieces for yourself and leave a comment!

From among these, it’s Kristen’s artfully woven tale of looming disaster I wanted to talk about this week. There is so much going on in this tiny story! The inside-out structure grabbed me right off the bat. We have the twin catastrophes–the burning landfill and the crumbling marriage–told in an almost chiastic or DNA-strand form, with the introduction of the landfill first, followed by an introduction of the husband’s leaving his wife. Then both stories are twisted together and developed in tragic parallel, with the second disaster concluded first, and the first disaster concluded last. This is some powerful structuring, and it works to great effect here. 

The story-within-a-story of Samuel leaving Annie is told in a horrifically straightforward tone, with a significant part occurring on a third, unseen level. Any of you who’ve read Flash Points for any length of time know that I’m crazy about subtext, especially in dialogue: the delicate, almost surgically precise layering of what we see going on on top of what’s really going on. This sort of thing can be hard to pull off well, but Kristen does it in a way that’s both magnificent and chilling. Look again at the narrator’s description of Samuel’s leaving:

“It is for the best,” he says.
I nod. The dark plumes swell and spread above the trees and houses.
“We haven’t been happy.”
They look ravenous, like they can’t help swallowing us.

The dialogue is simple, factual, without maudlin drama. But it’s echoed by descriptions of the coming danger, fire, smoke plumes, death. The narrator tells us without telling us how she really feels about Samuel’s announcement. It’s marvelous. And look at the next part too:

“We?” I scratch my head. How funny how ‘you’ can talk of ‘we’ with such authority. There was so much between the lines of those vows.
“But don’t worry,” Samuel assures me. “The house – it’s yours. I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“Do what, exactly?” I ask. The puffs are closer still. I smell the smoke. Can’t he smell it?

Here Kristen gives us a hint of what Annie is thinking, but still her description is unemotional and objective. In fact, it gets worse as we realize Samuel is caught up in his own activity and is completely oblivious to the pending physical danger. That double meaning with his paralleled oblivion of the state of his marriage…. ohhh it makes me all giddy inside. love how Kristen did that! 

Next up: Annie’s character development. Annie tells us outright how she sees herself:

Hysterics were never my thing. Suck it up. Face it. Keep calm.

But literature has taught us to suspect the narrator; just because Annie sees herself this way does not mean she is any more right in her conclusions than Samuel. In fact, in some ways Annie is shown to be quite passive. She stands and watches the firesmoke approach. She endures without protest as Samuel packs his car–in fact, perhaps in some form of denial, she refuses to watch him do so, looking instead at the billowing smoke.  This refusal to watch would seem to counter her claims of being a person who faces things. Except:

I keep my eyes on the advancing smoke, so I don’t see him fill up the car with the boxes I hadn’t noticed.

She tells us about the boxes, that she hadn’t noticed them before, that she isn’t watching what he does with them now; but we recognize this as a lie. If she hadn’t noticed them, if she weren’t watching him, she could not have told us about them. It’s a clever bit of misdirection from this anguished narrator, and we don’t buy it. She is not as objective, untouched, as she’d like us to believe. Break my heart, Kristen!

I’ll stop here, though this is hardly a comprehensive look at Facing the Smoke (I didn’t discuss the conclusion, or Samuel’s character–don’t get me started!). I’d like to give y’all a chance to chime in. What other layers and textures do you see here? What else makes this story so devastating? Spill!

Your turn!

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4 thoughts on “Flash Points: KristenAFC

  1. Love this story, enjoyed the parallels between the tragedy she can see coming and the one she seemingly didn’t. It’s as if the environment is mirroring her mood, dark clouds rolling in. Subtle but powerful storytelling.

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