There’s something compelling about the Jazz Age in the U.S. The wild excess and Prohibition, Wall Street and overnight wealth, all horrifically colliding in the disaster of the great stock market crash of October 1929 which hurled the country into years of dark depression. Many of you emphasized that tragic outcome; others of you told stories with sharp-edged sarcasm; still others threw it all out the window and made us dissolve in laughter. Regardless of which of the myriad directions you took doomed Jay Gatsby this round, one thing’s for sure: you made it impossible for us to look away.
Pearl-dripping thanks also go to Dragon Team Seven, Nancy Chenier & IfeOluwa Nihinlola. There’s nothing quite like foisting The Great American Novel on judges who live in Canada (albeit transplantedly) and Nigeria, but you’ll find their expert eyes pierced through the boundaries of time and culture with the greatest of ease. (OK, they might take issue with ease.) Handing the mic over before I get myself in trouble:
IN: For a 90s kid from southwest Nigeria, the prohibition-era US of Gatsby might as well be a galaxy far far away. The writers, this week, within the constraints of the word-count, did their best to render that world in vivid detail, and I appreciate that. Picking winners was not made easier by the shorter length like I thought it would; if anything, it seemed to bring out the best of everyone here. It’s another day, another winners list, but with more sleep and a different weekend, I could have easily rooted for a different set of stories from the pool and they would still be fitting winners. Thank you all for being great contributors.
NC: Whoa! Seventy-eight razor-sharp flashes. Who knew Gatsby could inspire such bloodthirsty tales? This batch may be even darker than the dystopian futures under oppressive governments we had the last time we assumed the Mantle of Judgement. The task of picking our favorites was, as ever, a daunting one. I know, judges say that all the time, but it’s true. It hurts to settle on a final list since many, many great stories get shoved off the podium. On the up-side, that means we got to read a lot of great stories. So, thank you, everyone, for making this round as difficult as it was.
Scream Award for Horrifying Phone Communication Award: Josh Bertetta, “Text I’ll.” Even though I had an idea where this was going (as with Scream’s opening scene), it wasn’t any less frightening. The text messaging diction of teenagers almost adds to the menace.
Zestiest Use of Language Award: Richard Edenfield, “Silencer.” Even though the English instructor in me wouldn’t even approach parsing the sentences, the artist in me cheered for the femme fatale story that sparked from those sentences. Like reading Woolf but way more fun.
Infinite Worlds in Finite Space Award: Mark A. King, “NYi.” Loved the parallels between the polar opposite Harrys. The placement of each Harry at either end of the spectrum implies a myriad variation in between. Killer closing sentence too.
Most Intimidating Inside Joke Award: Karl A. Russell, “Top Dog.” Sure glad #flashdogs do everything via e-mail.
Tetris Award: Eliza Archer, “Sinking Fast.” For incorporating nearly every element into a coherent and enjoyable bit of flash.
Sassiest Award: Liz Hedgecock, “Whiskey Sour.” For the sassiest capture of the Roaring 20s. What a figure that flapper cuts! Her attitude, the sly cues from the bartender, the line “she slid a dollar bill across the bar, and herself onto a stool” (channeling Chandler?) made me long for a time machine.
Best Use of Compare/Contrast Essay Format: Steven Stucko, “Book Report.” This piece enshrines the relatively new push for students to relate the classics to their own lives. The parallel between Gatsby and Joe (the writer’s EX-stepdad, making Mom the approximation of Daisy) is really a look at two prohibitions. Gatsby gets shot, Joe gets probation—we can call that progress.
Koolest Award: Margaret Locke, “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em…” This story is a pop-kulture junkie’s dream. It’s the klosest we got to keeping up with the stories on E! and MailOnline. He got his kloset, and I got my fun out of parsing the story’s details for what is based on life and what is not.
Bill Engleson, “The Dancer.”
IN: The Dancer’s opening sets the character’s voice right away: cold, lucid, emotionless. Then the imagery that follows is exquisite: dead woman’s shawl; heaved herself off the 8 story tenement bought for a song. The switch, midway into the story, isolated in a one-sentence paragraph, is made more jarring by the deadpan opening. And it is here that the story really soars. Suddenly we see that the numbness of the narrator is the result of someone who has become cold so as to be able to deal with a lover’s serial infidelity without resorting to self-pity.
NC: The second sentence really drew me in: “The moon is hidden by a dead woman’s shawl” raises so many questions. The initial lie of this one says volumes about the character. It’s the lie she’s used to telling and flows from her naturally. Yet, there’s the crucial detail that betrays the lie: why is she lingering in the room of the dead woman? Another wonderful aspect of this tale is the implication that the full truth has yet to be revealed. Yes, she’s come clean about knowing the woman, but not about how she died. Instead we’re left with Grant discovering the MC’s “interests”. Very sly.
Catherine Connolly, “The Sins of the Flesh.”
IN: Gatsby evoked a lot of dark tales in this round of stories, but the fantastic elements in “Sins of the Flesh” made it stand out. Nothing is given away easily. Metal is fumbled between hands. Then revealed to be a grubby coin. One character is asked to take his leave, to close his ears. Then another—definitely dead—is asked to free himself and rest easy. Hunger rises, rides the narrator roughshod, then the month descends, ravenous. He swallows to keep ‘it’ down, then a cough threatens regurgitation. He says it is done. Then he says he’ll reunite whatever he ate with the owner later. Why? Because the price is not right. *cringes* Perhaps the details of the narrator’s old ways are better left in a fudge. But the fact that they are held back makes the story even more appealing.
NC: A dark fantasy that refuses to show its hand to great effect. The first paragraph is ominous and intriguing. The MC seems to be some kind of gruesome psychopomp. Elements such as reference to the old ways, the deference of the client toward the MC, the cannibalism, the idea of “premature regurgitation” in conjunction with “I’ll reunite it with its owner later”, all work to make this tale a chilling one. Once tasted, this one lingers on the palate.
Jess Carson, “Just A Taste.”
IN: Like Nancy rightly points out below, the narrator of this story and “The Dancer” could be two incarnations of the same person. Here, again, is the cold detachment of the voice, the deadpan delivery of the narrative, all made into a lyrical description of a love heist. The satisfaction of the narrator as showed in the ending is clear. I can almost see the smirk on her face as she delivers the last line: Even tarnished trophies shine.
NC: This one and “The Dancer” told similar stories from a similar POV and setting, yet gave us very different results. Love, love, love the voice of this one, the disaffected tone, the figurative language surrounding the consumption of alcohol (so appropriate, this being prohibition: once one taboo is broken, what other lines stand ready to be crossed?). On top of all that, there is something incredibly satisfying about the wife slipping off with the “trophy” her husband intends to cheat with. The final line lands on a splendid note.
Michael Wettengel, “Gold (to) Dust.”
IN: I’m not a fan of genealogies (the after-effect of reading the book of Numbers as a child) but Gold (to) Dust does really well with the form, creating fully realised histories out of simple declarative sentences—Michael=rich, Andrew=poor, Mary=lonely—and showing how each one’s existence precipitated the other. In Mary, the start of a cycle is established. And seeing her back in that apartment makes me sad for her, for how sometimes we can spend most of our lives struggling to evade the shadow of family members who are long gone, even if our shelves contain no pictures of them.
NC: A sad decade crossed in 150 words, rags to riches to rags again. The absence of pictures of key family members bespeaks a poverty that money can’t break, driving home the message that money (or lack of it) does nothing to secure love or loyalty. The language of this piece is rich and devastating. Andrew’s dissolution is told with incredible imagery: “Gold dripped from his fingers and champagne fountained from his mouth until his fingers went cold and his mouth gathered flies.” And we come full circle with Mary back at the apartment that once inspired us to pity Andrew (daughters of Midas figures rarely fare well).
THIRD RUNNER UP
IN: The first statement of the story already invites us not to take what we see on face value. “It’s not so much a speakeasy as a ragged carousel of illicit expectation…” It’s not so much a story about a potential rape as it is a story about an abandoned murder. It is not so much a confession as it is a story of regret. But what exactly does the narrator regret? How did he become the possessor of a dark heart, of a serpent in the head? The story is not resolved this way or that. Heaven or hell. And by holding back that resolution, the writer makes this worth reading again.
NC: Delightfully sneaky in its sinisterness, this one hooked me in the first line. The wonderfully contemptuous description of the not-speakeasy (“ragged carousel of illicit expectation”) bespeaks an attitude we’ve come to expect from sadistic killers. All of his actions, too, build the threat toward the drunk woman. Loved the imagery of his internal struggle as a “gnarling” serpent, and also how “bone-snap of intention” reveals that it’s murder on his mind. The game he plays, making sure she sees him in the mirror, catching a whiff of the peril she’s in—or, rather, might be in were the MC to close the narrow gap between innocence and guilt.
SECOND RUNNER UP
Joey To, “Crashes”
IN: Take away the explanation at the end of this story and I would still love it as much as I do now. By immersing us deep in the mind of the character and simply moving through his thoughts, I know him more than the word-count would have otherwise permitted. All of his feelings are bare: the initial self-loathing, the cockiness when he becomes successful, and that last line. Reading this story, I thought of George Saunders. Anything that reminds me of George is good.
NC: I liked this before I read about its link to the Chinese proverb and liked it even more once I learned of the link. The unique single-line format really leant itself to the story being told. We get vivid and rapid-fire flashes of the break-up, heartbreak and recovery interspersed with the MC struggling through school, adding semester after semester. One might read that as the MC being a failure (as apparently the “she” of the story does), but the reader sees instead someone who doesn’t give up. The persistence that keeps him pushing through failed exams is probably the same quality that keeps her in his head and that he chides himself over (“I must be pathetic”). The shortest line is the pivot for the story and it even contains the line “it went quickly”. Then the lines gain length as the MC gains confidence, so when he rebuffs the woman, it is the cherry on top of his success parfait. Fine flash-craft here.
FIRST RUNNER UP
Michael Seese, “Birds.”
IN: Reading “Birds” felt like watching someone speed-paint. Every brush stroke is defined and sure, doing just enough to show there’s something good coming out in the end. Each detail, taken separately—birds, dogs; blank and white, colour; crows eating humble pies—means next to nothing, but together, they become a clear image of sadness and regret. And the way the conclusion is left open takes quality up a notch. I think he jumps and hits the concrete and becomes red mass like the stockbroker. But I think that says more about me than the story. Isn’t that what all good stories do?
NC: The setting is established in the very first sentence with its coy reference to Black Monday. The fluttering thoughts woven through with bird idioms on the first read is entertaining and endearing, but by the time I reached the end, I learned how appropriate the imagery is. The flow from paragraph to paragraph is remarkable and each seemingly disparate detail fits into the overall puzzle. Every seemingly flighty line (see what I did there?) follows a deliberate progression to the end. By the time the reveal hit, I was fully sympathetic with the MC. The presentation of “Mr. Charles Mitchell, the stockbroker” as an impact character, a man not separate from his title, makes him seem somewhat culpable in the loss of money and not merely the messenger. The last line leaves me wondering if the MC might attempt to prove the last line. That he’s on the ledge does point to eventual suicide, but it’s not finalized so I can hold onto that sliver of hope that he “flies away”.
And now: joining Phil Coltrane as our only FIVE time winners, it’s the mindblowing, freshly returned from break
IN: “Penelope” does all the good flashfiction-y things. That usually goes very wrong or very right, but here it goes the right way. The framing (from freshly-gutted tuna to filleted sturgeons), the imagery, the well-tuned dialogue, and the end-twist, all deliver a complete story in 150 words. There’s only one description each for the characters (“A face that could’ve launched the ship she arrived on, the Mauretenia,” and “The savage bouquet of cheap cologne”), yet their sketch is clear: Jimmy is lecherous, confident in his knowledge of the world; Penelope is, on the surface, naive, but she turns out to be the darker of the duo. Unlike Nancy, I’m unaware of the allusions in this piece, but it’s so well written that even without knowing them, the story works. Having Nancy point them out below just increases my enjoyment.
NC: 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.
Congratulations, Chris, you stunning writer! Please find here your updated winner’s page; your winning tale will be found there shortly as well as over on the winners’ wall. Please watch your inbox for directions regarding your fifth Sixty Seconds interview this week. And now here’s your winning story:
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.