Welcome to Flash Points. Every so often (or every not-so-often, it turns out) we grab a story, live and wriggling, out of the latest batch of gorgeous flash and fillet it. Which seems particularly appropriate for today’s chosen story — that’s also this week’s winner — by superwriter Chris Milam. Loathe as I am to admit it, “Penelope” proves that some writers can pull off a great story despite a (rather embarrassing, in point of fact) dragon omission.
Word limit: 100 – 150 words
Today’s chosen flash piece: Penelope Callaghan, by Chris Milam
The man was prowling the docks for a juice joint when he saw her. Hair as red as a freshly gutted tuna. A face that could’ve launched the ship she arrived on, the Mauretania.
“Jimmy Banks. You’re a choice bit of calico. You gotta name?”
“A pleasure. You need a gig? I can get you work making dresses. Yes?”
“No. I didn’t come here to be a seamstress.”
“I dabble in muck sometimes. You game?”
“Why not. Show me your dark America.”
He schooled her. “Take advantage of your looks. Get close. Flirt with your mouth. Pop some buttons on your blouse. When he’s hooked, ram steel into his heart. Don’t hesitate. Know your onions. Make some cash.”
Years and dozens of punctured ventricles later, Penelope would think of Jimmy Banks. The rum-fisted uppercuts. The savage bouquet of cheap cologne. The way his chest opened up, like a filleted sturgeon.
Let’s kick off with dragon captain Nancy Chenier‘s comments, which beautifully pinpoint several of the elements I’ll highlight myself afterward.
So much tasty in this piece. The language is as sharp as a filet knife. The fish-gut imagery that sandwiches this piece—a reference to the mob-controlled Fulton Fish Market, perhaps?—is perfect. Penelope is a brilliant character, first through Jimmy’s eyes, through the dialogue, to the last paragraph which shifts deftly to her POV (a shift that also manages to move us ahead in time as well, without a page break). The reference to the Mauretania signals a crucial element that Jimmy (who makes the allusion) misses: it was the fastest liner of its day. We know she’s new to the New World, but she’s savvy enough to take on “dark America”. The dialogue between them crackles: her bluntness vs. his slang-heavy banter, and what wonderful slang it is too. I can imagine Jimmy having a habit of hustling new arrivals, but she turns out to be his match, established in the dialogue, confirmed in the end. Not knowing the allusions doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of this piece at all (which makes them the best kind of allusions). The last paragraph packs so much into it without getting bogged down. One tiny scintillating phrase (“rum-fisted uppercuts”) drums up enough antipathy for Jimmy that his demise in the next line seems inevitable and satisfying.
The reason I couldn’t resist spending a little more time on this story is Chris has masterfully showcased perhaps my favorite literary tool, literary multitasking.
Background first: in flash fiction the past year or two, we’ve seen a growing emphasis on scene or vignette, as opposed to story. Plot arcs (narrative, active journeys from one event to another) are being abandoned in favor of the still-life form: gorgeous, yes; powerful, absolutely — but frozen in time and space. Let me clarify right up front that my argument is less a criticism of that approach, which can still accomplish much in its own way; this is rather a defense of story as the stronger of the two approaches.
“Penelope” is 150 words. Let’s break it down into its base elements:
Characters: Penelope, Jimmy
Setting: docks, 1920s America (seamlessly established via dialect)
Plot: A hussler/gangster trains an apparently naïve new immigrant with fatal results
Conflict: man vs man
Themes: Innocence, vengeance, doublecrossing
Now let’s look at the narrative. Where do the characters begin, and where do they end?
Jimmy: Hussling on the docks –> trained Penelope in his muck work –> dead
Penelope: Newly arrived in the US –> abused, learned an assassin’s skills –> free
There is movement in this story. We are given an opening dialogue to establish the two characters, and then in brilliant telescoping we are hastily dragged from that first encounter through the story’s middle then to its violent end. The characters start in one place, both physically and character-wise; they both wind up somewhere totally different. They both change: and in tandem the reader’s understanding of the characters changes.
The characters’ narrative arcs, particularly that of Penelope, do their job smoothly: we are with the characters at the beginning; we walk with them through the painful middle; we react and retrospect with Penelope as she views her painful past. Setting aside all the other elements for a moment, and the multitasking we’re about to delve into, here is what such a narrative arc achieves in the reader: the reader is moved from interest to sympathy to satisfaction.
Did you see that sleight of hand?? Look again in slo-mo: The movement of the story causes movement in the reader. And this is where I contend the timeless format of story can engage and stir the reader in the fastest, deepest, most efficiently textured way.
So, clearly Chris has packed a lot in this story. We’ve got all the story elements, we’ve got clear development of two characters, we’ve got an emotional connection, and we have a firm plot that moves from intro to conclusion. But there’s one more angle I want to touch on before signing off: the multitasking I alluded to at the outset.
Let’s Sherlock it.
How is Jimmy’s character established? Look at the words: prowling, juice joint, freshly gutted tuna, choice bit of calico, take advantage of your looks, make some cash. Through his actions and dialogue, he’s firmly established in his seedy character. No overt description necessary. This is a fantastic example of show, don’t tell.
How is Penelope’s character established? Her name: the most famous Penelope is Odysseus’ wife, who faithfully sewed by day out of submission to her forceful, would-be suitors but slyly undid the work by night. Chris’ Penelope rejects sewing, but her name alone throws back to that classic character’s devious intelligence, a parallel which is emphasized by the reference to Helen of Troy. Further, Chris’ Penelope arrives on the Mauretania (fast, famous, luxury ship), and look at her statements: I didn’t come here to be a seamstress (she has ambition); Why not; show me your dark America (she has done her research; she is in control of her decision; she knows exactly what sort of person Jimmy is).
Now look specifically at the contrast/tension established between the two:
Jimmy: prowls, speaks in slang, focuses on money, sees Penelope’s hair as “gutted tuna”
Penelope: her sentences are pointed, direct, economical; where Jimmy speaks of getting work, Penelope speaks of a career; sees Jimmy’s death as a “filleted sturgeon.”
Their actions and word choices develop their characters and create immediate opposing tension. Not just straight dialogue, not telescoping to cheat the word count: these choices add texture, conflict, even irony. (My favorite line might be, He schooled her; we already know her to be intelligent and decisive, and it turns out later that Penelope was not, ultimately, the one being schooled.)
All right, how long is this thing now? Is anybody still awake? Maybe I should stop, though goodness knows I could talk for a lot longer about the story’s various elements and how busy they are and how madly crazy happy I am when words do that. But y’all can see for yourselves just how much can be teased out of that grim final paragraph: we can easily guess what Penelope’s life was like, at least for a time, with Jimmy.
And you already noticed how the opening startling, unexpectedly violent image of red hair/gutted tuna with the emotionless, precise filleted surgeon at the end make perfect, grotesque bookends.
Together we reach the end in horrified satisfaction and look back, surprised to see how far we’ve come.
Now that’s a story.
Do you agree? Disagree? Did this story grab you — and in what way? What elements/word choices do you especially love? Just how amazing a writer is Chris Milam? What are your favorite tricks/devices to use in flash? What devices do you see other flash writers using that make you drool? Spill!