flash fiction collection

A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas

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By Charles Rammelkamp

“In those years I still believed in magic,” the schoolgirl narrator of the story “Bulldog” tells us after she has been informed by the boys in the schoolyard “no girls allowed” when she tries to participate in a game of handball. That night she dreams about her transformative powers. The stories in Nicole Rivas’ collection, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, winner of the 2018 Rose Metal Press flash fiction chapbook contest, brim with magic as young women cope with their powerlessness in the face of the abracadabra of love and ambition. So often, the magic lies in the contradictory pull of toughness and tenderness, as if the collision of the opposites creates a spell all its own. Emblematic of these opposing impulses is the image that concludes the story, “The Butcher,” in which the girl protagonist takes on her father’s butcher job. She routinely brings scraps of meat to the feral cats in her neighborhood. “…the cats slip and turn around her calves like warm and eager lovers, ready to strip the butcher of everything she has to offer them.” There is so much violence implicit in this image, yet so much affection.

Or again, take the conclusion of the story, “The Comedienne” (note that Rivas uses the obsolete term to identify a female comic), a story in which a young woman is effectively ostracized from a party after she makes a crude joke; she accidentally breaks her mimosa glass on the handrail going out, getting shards of glass stuck in her palm. Rivas writes about the pieces of glass that Sam, the protagonist, has removed from her hand, “If she arranged them one way, they looked like a dagger. If she arranged them another way, they looked like a halo.” Murderer or angel, sinner or saint?

And yet another example of this DNA-coiling of the yin and the yang, comes at the end of the story, “The Woman on the Bus,” when the narrator observes, “Though you know it’s unwise, you will continue to love and hate him until you can no longer tell the difference between the two.” In this story, the protagonist, “you,” is a young woman on a date with a man who clearly annoys her. Yet when he gets food caught in his throat and she has to perform the Heimlich maneuver to save his life, she speaks to him “in the soothing voice of a mother.” The woman is taken by surprise to hear herself, “the way it leaps out of your throat like a warm blanket.”

In all twelve of the stories that make up A Bright and Pleading Dagger these same contradictions are at play (or war), and the result is magic. “Gretel’s Escape,” which plays on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, may be the most magical of all. In this version of the story, the brother and sister are – surprise! – lost in a deep dark forest and they come upon a ruin. Sound familiar? Only, Gretel discovers a charred hardback (it’s apparently Grimm’s Fairy Tales) in which she reads about her brother and her being duped by a witch in a candy house. The witch tries to eat them, they get away, a lesson is learned, blah blah blah. Gretel’s reaction? “She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate.”  She tries to ditch her brother, but she’s ultimately resigned to her fate. The story ends: “Gretel exhaled sadly, knowing Hansel would find her again, once upon a time.”  Once upon a time. The love and the resentment are both so nakedly apparent.

Indeed, the fairy tale, with its implicit magic and its didactic moral message is the perfect genre by which to understand Rivas’ flash fictions, except that she turns it on its head: there is no moral; there is no bright distinction between “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “bad.” There is savage and there is compassionate, there is violent and there is kind, but they are never separate, only barely distinguishable.

These are all stories about girls navigating through some bizarre #Metoo world, at once victims and agents of their own fate. The teenage girls in the title story are picked up by some older hillbillies in a truck near Savannah. We don’t know what happens to one of the girls, Jada, who wanders off with one of the men when they park in a field miles from town, except that she’s apparently uninjured, but the unnamed narrator is sitting in the truck with her guy who masturbates while talking to her about scifi thrillers. Gross. Jada meanwhile quits her job and the narrator never sees her again. In the story, “Death of an Ortolan,” the young narrator is drawn into a relationship with Penny, her gynecologist, a woman more than twice her age.  How can this not be exploitative?  But the narrator seems to know what she’s doing.

The magic and the just plain weird aspects of these stories (In “The Staring Contest” a young woman speed dates – and falls in love with – “the oldest man in the world,” who dies sitting across from her) add up to a dark humor that takes the edge off the savage undercurrents, but the sheer menace just around the corner makes these stories extremely potent.  This is a collection you will read straight through.

You can find the book here:

https://rosemetalpress.com/books/a-bright-and-pleading-dagger/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press.

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Kiss Kiss by Paul Beckman

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By Francine Witte

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When you pick up Kiss Kiss, Paul Beckman’s just-released collection of flash fiction stories, get comfortable. Sit down in your easy chair, maybe bring a cup of joe, because once you start reading, you aren’t going anywhere.

            These tiny stories, (I believe the number is 78,) are so sharp and so entertaining you will find yourself saying “one more, just one more.”

            That’s because of just how readable they are. Beckman’s style is straightforward. Perhaps it’s his background as an air traffic controller that comes into play here. His stories are carefully guided and very easy to follow and then wham! he hits you with an ending that seems both surprising and inevitable all at the same time. The perfect landing.

            Beckman’s world is full of odd things made entirely plausible — a picnic in Italy where only the dead are on the guest list, a dentist with his eyebrows tattooed on, a grandmother’s diary revealing her risqué past. There are brief encounters like that in “Helen and Ellen” where a twin sister passes by her dead sibling’s stalker on an airport conveyor belt. One tiny moment, exploding.

            This is what flash fiction does, it takes a few well-chosen words, surgical details, and blends them into a beautiful synergy. And while Beckman’s language is straight-talking and no- nonsense, he evokes some very touching emotion. His stories about a childhood in the projects come to mind here. Most notable in this category are “The Only Hope of the Jews” and “Father Panik Village.”

            The stories vary in length, the longer being 3 pages and the shortest being one tiny paragraph. Here is an example of what Beckman can do in four lines:

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            The Blame Game

            Every morning, when I leave my house for work, I have to
            run to my car as my neighbors shoot rock salt at me with
            shotguns.
                        Why me and not their wives, who took turns bringin
            warm casseroles and hot bodies when my wife left me?

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In a mere 49 words (and that includes the title) we are given place, character, situation, conflict and backstory with the author mentioning  none of these specifically. This is what separates flash fiction from merely an anecdote. And Beckman shows his mastery of the form in little gem stories such as this one throughout the book.

             There are also more fully-drawn, recurring characters such as the aforementioned grandmother, or the man who is a product of the housing projects, and, my favorite, the Woody-Allen-esque Mirsky, who has trouble making small talk at parties. In “Wallflower Solution,” Mirsky’s wife worries about how he currently handles chit chat in social situations, warning him “there are other things besides weather and cleavage, you know?” (Probably my single favorite line in the entire book.) She goes on to make him a crib sheet which becomes wildly successful, but not for the reason she thinks.

            Get  yourself a copy of Paul Beckman’s Kiss Kiss. Relax. Kick off your shoes. Sip your coffee like you sip these stories, which are fun and poignant and make up a beautiful collection of characters and adventures.
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You can get the book here: Kiss Kiss
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Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks and two flash fiction chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection, Café Crazy, has recently been published by Kelsay Books. She is reviewer, blogger, and photographer. She is a former English teacher. She lives in NYC.
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