The Fish One Page Story Prize inspired by school holidays in Iran in the late seventies.
I met Sasani at the bazaar in Gold Street, where the shop windows sparkled and dazzled my eyes. The alley was crowded with groups of women, covered from head to toe in black chadors. They flowed around us making strange clicking noises as they touched my blond hair. A young girl trailing behind her family stared at me; she had beautiful eyes the colour of dark chocolate, dark hair and henna tattoos on the palms of her hands.
We often saw Sasani at the baker’s shop, which was a scruffy concrete room with a large brick oven and not much else. She always wore a turquoise dress with red and gold ribbon at the neck and hem, over dark trousers and Converse sneakers. She liked to teach me words in Farsi. She taught me to count the sheets of na’an, as the baker slid them out of the oven and a group of men looked on aimlessly. Yek, do, say cha’ha, pan I counted. The baker laughed. Sometimes we would see her at the market and she would tell us the name of the things we wanted to buy.
Then without warning Sasani disappeared. Days passed, but I didn’t see her again. I no longer looked forward to our daily expedition, the groups of women frightened me now and men watched me as though I were a grown woman. One morning as we were standing in line at the baker’s, a woman behind us pressed her leg hard against mine. I didn’t dare complain, so I shuffled forward again, but I could feel her breath on my neck. She moved next to me, whispered my name and looked down. So I looked down too. She lifted her chador a few inches to show me her Converse sneakers.
Copyright © 2011 Henrietta Richer. All Rights Reserved.
On This Day short story anthology.
My short story Out to Lunch with the Seven Dwarfs appears in the Bridge House Publishing On This Day Anthology, which is available on Amazon.co.uk. The competition theme was unusual: stories had to be linked to ‘a world stopping event’, one of those dramatic events that everyone remembers. The event had to be an integral part of the story, without being the story, which is not the sort of thing one has lurking in the bottom drawer.
Out to Lunch with the Seven Dwarfs takes place during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which devastated New Orleans. The situation of the characters themselves was inspired by a story in the Washington Post newspaper.
Out To Lunch With The Seven Dwarfs.
1.35 pm, 27 August, 2005.
Death is supposed to be an extra corporeal experience. I’d been looking forward to it, but here I am lying in a warm pool of blood surrounded by the seven dwarfs, sorry five, and fully conscious. Doc is shouting for someone to call 911 and trying to stem the bleeding. He doesn’t have enough hands, so Sneezy pitches in. I hear the ambulance siren approach and then speed passed. I smile, the longer it takes for the cavalry to arrive the easier will be my passing. There’s a general commotion in the coffee shop, which is very gratifying. I rise above it all and see everyone, including the minders, staring open mouthed at the TV over the counter. I feel cheated in my final hour.
12.05 pm, 27 August, 2005.
Today is a special day, a coming out of hibernation day. Today and every Saturday, I am out to lunch with the six dwarfs, seven including me. We have a lot of free time, lucky us, so we meet up every week to talk about a book or something like Obama’s foreign policy, not a subject that gets much response or the weather, which is a lot easier. Of course I’ve heard the news reports about the hurricane. It hit Florida the other day. Left brain wanted me to stay home, but right brain won the argument, a little rain isn’t going to stop me. I lean against the wind, my hand on my hat, like a paperweight. I’m a bit nervous, butterflies cavort in my intestines. It’s my turn to introduce a book, but it may be because I’m being followed, which isn’t unusual in itself. I’m tall and eye catching in a bleached afro kind of way. I’m hot.
I can see the coffee shop on the corner and hurry, bent over to stop the rain from smearing my makeup. It’s a chain of shops that have spread insidiously, all over the known world, like the internet. It’s a plot to bring us closer to any old Tom Dick or Harry from across the seas, making us think we are, or can be, one big happy family. I know better, so I never refer to the coffee shop by its name, not even in my head. I’m not going to give them free advertising. I’m no chump.
Have you noticed when you walk down the street, it’s like an endless flow of walking talking commercials passing you by? Here’s a career woman wobbling through the puddles in her Jimmy Choo’s, carrying a grande mocha, double shot skimmed latte, by the look of her with no whipped cream. Then a young man slouches by with Nike spread across his flabby chest, he thinks he’s a cool dude because he’s ignoring the rain. He’s followed by a gaggle of girls sporting Abercrombie and Fitch-shirts, a size too small to show off their piercings and hug their bouncing chests. People pay through the nose to give designer brands free advertising, and some people think I’m mad! But I digress, I tend to do that, I flit like a butterfly from one thing to another.
I walk into the coffee shop and hold the door for the man who’s following me. He looks surprised. I smile at him and wink. Everyone is waiting for me, so I wave and shout Hi. I see my hand in the air, empty. Shit, the hand-outs. I don’t have a bag and my pockets are too small, so where the hell are they? My butterflies go manic. A light tap on my shoulder distracts me. The man smiles and hands me the papers. How did that happen? Confusion flits through my brain, in one side and out of the other. I must have dropped them, when I held the door open. The man goes to the other side of the coffee shop to sit with a group of friends. They’ve nabbed the armchairs. I order my lunch and vaguely watch the TV over the counter. Sandwich, muffin and chai latte in hand I shimmy over to my group,
“Hi happy,” some of them reply with varying degrees of eye contact.
They were pissed about the nicknames at first, but now they’ve got into the spirit of things.
“Hey Doc, you’ve forgotten your glasses.”
He’s chubby and calm like a Buddha, his brown eyes miss nothing. He slips his glasses off his head onto his nose. He is trying to get Dopey to contribute something,
“Did you enjoy the book?”
He puts his hand on Dope’s arm,
“Did you enjoy the book?”
Doc looks at Dope, whose mind is wading out of the fog,
“Yeah, liked Lizbeth, she’s got balls.”
He twists his curly hair around and through his fingers. He’s really spaced out; eyes looking out from a fish tank, the lights are on but nobody’s home. Sometimes taking meds is like that, like being in your own private bubble, a space suit with a golf ball head, floating away into space, visiting vapid village. He looks like he’s only got one hand. His left hand is under the table, trapped between his thighs, keeping company with his balls.
“Where’s Sleepy?” I ask.
Bashful stares at me through his long girly lashes,
“You know he’s asleep, has been for weeks.”
He’s not shy really. It was just the last name to find an owner.
“A few days actually,” corrects Doc.
“Time to come back from La la land,” remarks Grumpy.
He has a permanent frown, like Botox gone wrong. He shreds things. He’s shredding paper napkins. The stack of confetti rises and flutters as I wave the hand-outs in his direction. He glares at me, but lets them float and settle, then starts in on another napkin. He needs a paperweight. I could lend him my hand.
An intern at the local station is stuck out on the street giving an update on the hurricane….
The National Hurricane Center has declared a hurricane watch from east of Morgan City to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, meaning the area could see hurricane force winds within 36 hours.
The tropical storm is located 400 miles southeast of the coast as a category and is expected to move over warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Landfall is expected early Monday.
“Thank you Jim,” says the anchor woman safe in the warm TV studio.
We pass round the summary for those that haven’t read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, question for discussion and a biography of Stieg Larsson, dead before he got fame and fortune. Life’s a bitch and then you die n’est-ce pas?
“How are you today?” Doc asks me.
“Fine, “I say with a wide smile. “Good.”
He studies me longer than good manners allow. He’s wondering if I’m taking my meds. I change the subject,
“About the book, there’re three books in the series, but this one is the best.”
Sneezy stops fiddling with her plastic silverware,
“You’ve read all three?”
She squeezes a blob of hand sanitizer onto her palm and rubs her hands together as though talking is a dirty business. She has a surgical mask around her neck just in case and latex gloves in a sealed packet carefully positioned to the left of her fork, napkin and knife. His cup of bottled water is the point of the triangle, which delimits her eating space.
“They’re as thick as this one?” Sneezy continues, without looking up from the careful manoeuvring of her sandwich into a harmonious position.
“Thicker,” I say with pride.
“Christ,” Grumpy swears, seriously grumpy.
“Couldn’t read it all,” says Dopey. “It’s too complicated.”
“Pity, it’s good,” I reply.
“How far did you get?” Doc asks him.
“Five chapters, I can’t concentrate.”
“That’s great,” Doc reassures, “Your concentration will get better.”
“Sweden’s different from here. It’s dark all winter,” says Grumpy.
“Right, there’s between 4 and 5 hours of daylight in the winter, depending if you’re in the north or the south. It’s near the north pole.”
I am showing off. When everyone is listening to me, watching me, I feel warm all over.
“Teacher’s pet,” Bashful mumbles, his mouth full of BLT.
An anchor woman now drones on with a suitably concerned frown….
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, in a joint news conference a few minutes ago with Gov. Kathleen Blanco, warned residents to take Katrina seriously, although he’s hoping for another near miss.
The mayor said he would stick with the state’s evacuation plan and not officially call for residents to leave until 30 hours before expected landfall, allowing residents in low-lying surrounding areas to leave first. Mayor Nagin urged residents to take Katrina seriously and start moving.
“Hey Bashful, you trying to curl your hair?”
I like provoking Bashful. He’s such an easy mark.
I add, “You got a Goldilocks syndrome or what?”
Everyone’s head comes up. Bashful starts to get up, but Sneezy stops him with her manicured hand. Grumpy’s eyes dart from Bashful to me. Doc interrupts,
“Would someone like to read the summary?”
“Yeah,” says Dopey surprising us all.
He reads slowly, swigging coffee for his dry mouth, water would be better.
“Thank you,” Doc says and turns to me.
“Did you write that yourself? It’s very good.”
“Yup, it took longer than I thought it would. It is a bit confusing at first.”
“Well you’ve done a good job.”
I smile feeling warm all over. Sneezy and Dopey nod, agreeing. Bashful glares at me. He knows I did a cute and paste. He’s more with it than you would think.
“What are you looking at?”
“You, you cheating bitch,” Bashful spits.
“What, are you jealous? I know I’m hot, but you’re not my type. You’re too effeminate.”
Bashful rises up, pressing his large hands down on the table opposite me. Doc pushes him back down.
“Stop provoking him,” he says to me, his tone unusually curt.
He turns to Bashful, “And you sit down. Now is neither the time nor the place to settle your differences. I want to see you both in mediation tomorrow morning.”
Doc fixes me with his intelligent eyes, his eyebrows are twitching asymmetrically. How does he do that? It’s a neat trick. I know he’s wondering if I’m taking my meds.
“Why did you choose this particular book?”
“Well,” I stand up and launch into a prepared spiel, but I hear myself prattling. Get control, you idiot. I take a deep breath and feign a calm I don’t feel, the butterflies are back.
He reads the first question, Buddha like, “Who do you consider the novel’s protagonist, Lisbeth or Mikael? Why?”
“Mikael,” says Sneezy. “It’s written more from his point of view.”
“There’s more story on him than Lisbeth,” Grumpy kind of agrees.
“OK. Question two…..”
Doc reads the question to himself and frowns, “What point was Larsson trying to make with the themes running through this novel? How do issues such as man’s brutality to women, journalistic integrity, and more general notions of trust tie in with each other throughout the book?”
Dopey seems to get hold of the first part about brutality and then gets lost. Sneezy makes notes in a notebook and rereads the question sotto voce. Grumpy thinks. I want to put my hand up. I prepared the answers since I was the one with the list. Studying keeps me out of trouble, especially in the wee dark hours.
“Lisbeth is persecuted by men. First her father beats her mother, then that shrink, no offense,” Grumpy says to the Doc.
“He locks her up and does things to her. She gets attacked in the subway and Bjurman abuses her.”
“He’s one sick bastard,” Bashful says. “It’s bastards like him, who should be locked up, not me.”
Doc’s heard this before.
“You volunteered to stay at the hospital.”
“When are you going to get over it?” I say. “We’ve all been there.”
“Been there, done that,” Dopey says.
“What’re you getting at?”
Bashful has a mean look in his eyes. He’s boiling, barely contained.
“You’ve been playing on that for months. You only stayed a few weeks. It was ages ago, for Christ sake get over it.”
He lunges across the table possessed by a fury far greater than I deserve. He’s got the winds up his tail like a horse, makes them crazy. A blade appears in his large hand. He throws me to the floor, food, drink and Sneezy’s confetti fly in all directions. He stabs me twice before the minders pull him off. It doesn’t hurt after an initial sting.
So here I am lying in a warm pool of blood, looking at puddles of coffee and lumps of crushed food. I’m surrounded by the seven dwarfs, sorry five, and fully conscious. Doc is shouting for someone to call 911 and trying to stem the bleeding. He doesn’t have enough hands, so Dopey pitches in. I hear the ambulance siren approach and then speed passed. I smile, since the longer it takes for the cavalry to arrive the easier my passing will be. There’s a general commotion in the coffee shop, which is gratifying, but it’s not for me everyone, including the minders, are transfixed by the news.
The Mayor is talking,
“This is not a test. This is the real deal. New Orleans is definitely the target for this hurricane. Start moving – right now. The city will open the Superdome as a shelter of last resort for evacuees with special needs. People should bring their own food, drinks and other comforts such as folding chairs, as if planning to go camping. No weapons, no large items, and bring food for three or four days to be safe.”
As I said I feel cheated in my final hour. Only Doc is still shouting for someone to call an ambulance. Warm blood oozes through his helpless fingers. No one else in the shop pays attention. My finest hour, my final scene, and I pass over ignored, unloved, just like the rest of my useless life.
Copyright © 2012 Henrietta Richer. All Rights Reserved.
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