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Mini Sledgehammer April 2015

Julia Himmelstein is back with another amazing story!

***

Character: The cowgirl
Action: Watching British television
Setting: the factory
Prop: A milk jug

***

Untitled

by Julia Himmelstein

It had been a while since the cowgirl had been around. He had been watching for her, shyly, spending lapses of evenings by the kitchen sink, washing the same four dishes, while peering out the window. It wasn’t really her looks that got to him, just the fact that she was so incredibly out of place. The first time, he had wondered if this was a mistaken Halloween costume, a drunken party guest in the wrong part of town. Their eyes had met as he sat on his front stoop, tongue-tied. The fringes on her leather vest rustled in the light breeze, and she made a funny clicking noise with her boots, as though commanding an invisible horse.  Long after she was gone, he thought he could hear the click-clack of her boots on the pavement.

They saw each other every few nights after that, she always wearing gingham and leather, and he always staring, dumbfounded. “Just say something to her, man,” he muttered to himself, channeling one of his high school buddies that surely would have had the balls to talk to her, and probably say something incredibly rude. But those friends were long gone, off to work in the factories that made pointless gadgets for white folks. It was just him now, him and his four dishes and the cat Theo. He couldn’t remember the last time he had talked to a human, let alone see one in real life. He used to have video chats with his sister, but that was before the internet cut out. Now when he wanted to see people he popped in one of the British Television discs that he had found in a closet when he first moved in.

He found himself dreaming about her at night. In his dreams, she was close enough that he could see her freckles, and smell her breath. It smelled funny, like something old. Sometimes she would even smile.

He hadn’t always been such a loner. He too, had tried the factory life, first for a manufacturer of milk jugs and then for a tech company. He grew listless and bored, and had enough near misses with large machinery that he was let go. With a sigh, he moved to the empty country, finding an abandoned trailer on a field to call home.

The cowgirl usually walked past around dusk. There was something about the way she looked, like a hungry child, that made him feel protective and tentative at the same time. She always went the same direction, and always looked at him, brief and hard, before leaving.

He started to worry when he hadn’t seen her in a week. He wondered if she had met someone that actually spoke to her. Maybe she even found a horse. Did she have a home, or a family? What did her voice sound like?

He awoke late one night to hear the click-clack of her boots. As if in a dream, he walked through the dark trailer and stepped outside into the moonlight, knowing she would be there. She stared at him with her usual look. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said.

© Julia Himmelstein

***

IMG_0808Julia Himmelstein lives in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches, smiles, listens, and wonders. She delights in hugs from friends, children’s smiles, and fresh baked cookies (or any food, really).

Mini Sledgehammer June 2014: Blackbird Wine & Atomic Cheese

Sledgehammer founder Ali McCart got to host her only Mini Sledgehammer in Portland for the year this month. It’s great to be back, Portland! Thanks to Daniel Granias and J.B. Kish for coming out.

Here were the prompts, no doubt inspired by things Ali missed about Portland:

Character: A bike rider
Action: Receiving a message
Setting: During a summer storm
Prop: A guitar

Congratulations to J.B. Kish for taking home the prizes. Love the intensity in this piece!

***

What Comes Next?

By J.B. Kish
“A-sharp. G. Show him, Allison, show him.”

Allison, breathless and clothes sticking to her paper-like skin, repeated her mantra, riding the ten-speed up the lonely saguaro-riddled highway with strange determination. The monsoon rain was biting at her neck, the summer storm overtaking her faster than she’d thought something naturally capable. Here she was, a thirty-two year old bicyclist from Portland, Oregon, terrified for the first time in her life to be riding a saddle at three in the afternoon.

“A-sharp. G. Show him, Allison,” she barked to herself. “Show him you can do this.”

She kicked the pedals down, allowing the pendulum of momentum to suck her heels upward, then she repeated this process again and again. Soon, the rain came in horizontal sheets and slapped against the cracked pavement rhythmically. In a matter of seconds, her picturesque view of the Catalina Mountains was swallowed by gray—what was it, clouds? Fog? She focused on the road in front of her—the only three feet she could make out between eyelid-soaked blinks and bursts of air she ejected from her bottom lip in an effort to shake free her face from that unavoidable soaking.

“A-sharp. G.”

She plucked at the guitar strings of her mind, suddenly imagining herself in front of the mirror hidden in her childhood home’s attic. She was holding her father’s guitar in her arms, wondering desperately how to play the song he’d taught her. The one that he played for her when she was afraid to go to sleep at night. Afraid of the monsters of adulthood.

“Think, Allison,” she demanded of herself. “What comes after G. Think goddamnit.”

But she couldn’t remember. The storm yawned once more, spooking her toward the center of the road. A single pair of headlights approached, blinked, and soared past. She thought to herself how close she might have come to death had she accidentally steered in front of the car just moments before.”

“A-sharp. G. Show him you can do this.”

She closed her eyes and tried to shake the thundering clamor of storm. She pumped harder and harder. Running from something she wasn’t entirely sure of. Running from the message she’d received just five days earlier. Running from those words on the voicemail.

“Goddamnit,” she cried, taking a mouthful of rain. “What comes after G?!”

“Straighten your hand, and press here.”

She imagined her father, suddenly sitting next to her, holding her hand in his own.

“It’s important you learn discipline,” he told her, his words that special mixture of warmth and emotionless-instruction that only a father can produce. “It’s important you learn, Allison. I won’t always be here to help you.” He looked at her, his expression flat in the attic mirror.

“A-sharp. G. Then what?”

“Show him Allison.”

“A-sharp. G. Then what?”

“Allison, it’s your mother. Where are you?”

“Straighten your hand. Then press hard here”

“Allison, I’ve called you five times. Don’t make me do this over voicemail.”

“No, press harder here.”

“Allison, It’s your father. The doctors say he fought so hard…”

“Show him, Allison. Show him you can remember what comes next.”

“Allison. It’s your father—”

© 2014 J.B. Kish

***

J.B. Kish

J.B. Kish

Originally from the Southwest, J.B. Kish moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2012. He spends his weekends in a walk-in closet turned office working on his newest novel, A Wall for Teeth and Stingers, and other works. He can be reached at jbkwriting@gmail.com.

Mini Sledgehammer March 2014: Blackbird Wine & Atomic Cheese

This month’s winner, A. L. Adams, used the prompts in interesting ways, and we love the twist this second-person story takes.

Character: The person no one expected
Setting: Where everything is topsy-turvy
Prop: Untied shoelaces
Phrase: Watch your step!

***

Watch your step when you go down to the boathouse. In the winter, the stairs are frosty; in the summer the top ones are mossy and the ones at the waterline are often beslimed. If you want me to escort you, Nan, I will.  I’ll hold your and and slip my arm under your elbow to support you as we climb.

The boats are closer now; the tide is higher so they make free with more of the space. The Tollycraft wears a green visor; the tugboat’s got that brick­red stripe, designed to disguise whatever rust. No, Nan; we’re not getting on them. Yes, Nan, they are “quite a sight.” The trees? We could cross the bridge to see those trees, but remember? You didn’t like that last time. Yes, Nan, the rocks are dirty but no, we can’t clean them. Those are barnacles. See how they’re so stuck­-on?

Now let’s go in the boathouse so you won’t get too cold. We’ll open the door so you can still see the boats. This door seems stuck—no, i’m creaking it open…Hey. Everything’s in disarray. The ropes are unlooped and flung like shoelaces. Our little skiff is turned halfway over, gagging on water. The other boat…Another boat? We don’t have one! But there it is, another boat, hull­up on the concrete walkway like a space invader’s pod. Wait…I know that boat. Oh, God! It’s rolling over!

Dad?

Oh, God; how long have you been here? We didn’t know your sentence was up.

What the fuck do you mean, “It’s not?” Pardon my French, Nana, but Dad. What the FUCK.

Nana—no, it’s okay Honey. This is Wallace. Yes you do. Your son.

Dad. Fuck. We never saw you, okay?

We’re just…okay okay. Nana Honey? We saw the boats and now we’re going. That’s it; very good. I’ve got your hand, Dear.

Watch your step now as we go up these stairs.

They can be slippery.

Yes. I know.

©2014 A. L. Adams

 

A. L. Adams daylights as an art spy for the Portland Mercury and Oregon ArtsWatch. She moonlights as many things, and has more than a few stories.

 

Mini Sledgehammer February 2014: Blackbird Wine & Atomic Cheese

Congratulations to this month’s winner, Pamela Russell Bejerano!

 

Character: A Good Samaritan

Action: Seeing something that wasn’t meant to be

Setting: The eye of the storm

Phrase: Well, that was unexpected

***

Eye of the Storm

Amber stood on the edge of the park, watching all of the happy people play and sled and run around in the snow. Her plan was to stand here long enough to erase the memory from her mind. She took in the huge Doug Firs, the happy dogs wagging their tails and chasing each other, the father bouncing off his inner tube and grasping at the jacket of his daughter who slid past him, laughing. The snow softly fell amidst the chaos. She closed her eyes and listened. She could almost hear the giant, fluffy flakes that changed the world around her.

Suddenly it was there. The image, again. When you see something that wasn’t meant to be it has a way of imprinting itself so deeply onto the brain that it actually makes a new ridge and settles itself in for life. His face. His deep, brown eyes. The tears welling on the rims, quivering, as if the fall would kill them.

“What are you doing here?”

It was all she could think to say.

“I had to see you.”

The storm had passed. Or so she thought. The weathermen always talk of the eye of the storm, that moment when you believe with false hope that it’s over. That you’ve survived. But then the other half of the storm rips through. This half, the one they always claim was unexpected, is the one that breaks down the fragile barrier that you thought would hold. But it never does. And when it falls, the Good Samaritan is nowhere to be found.

A loud screech pierced her vision, sending his face shattering into a million tiny pieces. She opened her eyes, too late. The toboggan slammed into her shins and sent her knees buckling in a direction that was not human. Another sound filled her ears. She realized it was her own scream.

“Don’t move!” a voice shouted in her ear.

It was the man, the father. His daughter sat by her side, her eyes filled with horror. Moving was not an option, so Amber stayed, the snow soaking through her pants, her jacket. It seemed hours before a medical crew arrived. Faces appeared in her line of vision, then disappeared, only to reappear again. A poke stung her arm. The world went black.

Seven months, three weeks and four days. That’s how long it took her to walk again. In that time she had been confined to a wheelchair, then crutches, and finally a simple cane. It was month eight when she stepped out into the sun and walked to the park. She stopped and turned in a 360 degree circle. It was all there, right where she’d left it. The happy people, the dogs playing, the Doug Firs swaying in the wind. It was the only thing she saw.

 

©2014 Pamela Russell Bejerano

Pamela Russell Bejerano is a writer who works as a school administrator in Portland, Oregon. Pamela has published a poem and was invited to read a short story at the Cannon Beach Historical Society; this is her fourth Mini Sledgehammer win. Pam has lived abroad several times and weaves multicultural issues and the strength of women throughout her writing. She is currently working on her second novel about a young woman living in Nicaragua whose tenderly crafted life and community are shattered by an atrocity that she alone must find the strength to overcome.

Mini Sledgehammer January 2014: Blackbird Wine & Atomic Cheese

We missed you, Mini Sledgehammer! In this first contest of 2014, two Sledgehammer veterans and two people new to the contest tackled the four prompts and the clock. Congratulations to this month’s winner, J.B. Kish.

Character: A reformed omnivore

Action: Choosing bananas

Setting: The bottom of the bowl

Phrase: Oh yes, I know the Muffin Man

***

The Difference Between Snow

He reached out, choosing bananas again. He always chose bananas on colder days, when the snow had drifted up against the front of his cabin like the lip of cake frosting. Jerking his massive wooden front door open, he welcomed a sharp, cutting breeze against his cheek and shook it off. Mother winter was kissing him awake. Kisses were always their brightest in the morning. Not like sundown.

Jack Shadowsong stepped out into the high-desert sunlight and carefully peeled one of his bananas from the bottom up. He took an enormous bite, and carefully wedged the rest of his fruit lunch into his parka. The others stuck out from his belly like lumpy tentacles, giving him a queer look. He chewed complacently, staring at the fruit in his pocket. He had a long day ahead of him. Longer now since he’d become a—what did his daughter call him?—a reformed omnivore. 75 years of sugars and elk and hamburgers down at the gas station had made him sluggish and slow.

“You’re an old buffalo,” his daughter Suzy told him. “You’ll die in these mountains an old buffalo, papa. You have to start eating better.”

And so, much to his chagrin, Jack Shadowsong had banana lunches and fruit dinners, and fruit breakfast, and fruit, fruit—

“Fruit,” Jack muttered. “God I hate fruit.” He spit the rest of his banana and it disappeared into the snow at his feet. And then he was off, to the bottom of the bowl, to watch the young skiers get in fistfights with snowboards and drink until they were red in the face.

“That was Justin Jackson new hit single, ‘Oh Yes, I Know the Muffin Man,’ and you heard it first, right here on KRSMACK Radio.”

The radio DJ’s voice blared through the speakers at the base of the ski slope near the ticket booth. The line was down to the parking lot. And the children were already screaming. Jack hadn’t even made it into the lodge for coffee yet before his boss was waving him to the chair lift for a quick relief shift. That’s what he called them. “Relief shifts. The only smoke break that took forty-five minutes, Jack thought to himself. But there he was, standing in line and checking tickets and thinking to himself about the coming night.

Jack could stand for hours at a time. He didn’t mind his job. He didn’t mind standing, and pressing the button when a child fell down onto its face. He liked picking them up, brushing the snow of their noses and helping them onto the lift. He didn’t mind all the money, and the white people, and the radio DJ, or the lack of coffee. What Jack minded was the snow. What Jack minded, was the spirit of the mountains.

“You’ll die in these mountains, papa. An old stubborn buffalo,” his daughter told him. And maybe she was right. There was no fruit for stubbornness. And so maybe he would die in these mountains. Hell, Jack thought to himself. Maybe I’ll die right here in line, taking tickets and listening to radio DJs. Maybe I’ll turn into a Popsicle and they put a flashlight in my hand. But he wouldn’t leave his mountains. He wouldn’t leave mother winter.

What Jack minded was the snow. The white snow. The perfect, white reclaimed snow that they made in machines so the money would come and the music would play and the snowboarders would fight. Jack hated the snow because he couldn’t tell what of it was new and what of it was old. He couldn’t tell what mother winter had brought him and what the lawyers made with their documents and their paper and their signatures.

Jack missed the days when he was a boy, and he didn’t have to think about the people on his mountain. When snow was snow. And winter was winter. And the cold was—

“Hey asshole, are you paying attention?”

Jack’s eye’s fluttered to life and landed on the boy holding out his ticket. Jack narrowed his focus, and then his expression fell. He feigned a smile, scanned the ticket, and the boy got on the lift.

When the sun dropped down, and the temperatures reached their lowest, the mountain emptied, and Jack found himself still standing at the bottom of the bowl. Mother winters kisses were at their darkest, and there was no shaking that kind of cold. Not until he was home and in his bed. But that night, Jack decided to stay a little while longer and stand in line. With no tickets to scan and no little children to help to their feet. Jack stood in the bowl and remembered the time when he was little. When the snow was really snow and there was no reason to think other wise.

“You’ll die in these mountains, papa,” his daughter told him.  “An old stubborn buffalo.” And maybe she was right. Maybe he would.

©2014 J.B. Kish

J.B. Kish

J.B. Kish

Originally from the Southwest, J.B. Kish moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2012. He spends his weekends in a walk-in closet turned office working on his newest novel, A Wall for Teeth and Stingers, and other works. He can be reached at jbkwriting@gmail.com.

 

Mini Sledgehammer December 2013: Blackbird Wine & Atomic Cheese

It’s the time of year for thinking about, well, time. This month’s prompts speak to that. Congratulations to this month’s winner, Daniel Granias, who wrote in memory of Elissa Nelson.

Character: Timekeeper

Action: Pencil it in

Setting: Calendar sales rack

Phrase: Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana

***

Untitled

Dedicated to Elissa Nelson, beloved friend and former Mini Sledgehammer facilitator, who first introduced me to the series.

In my dreams, my father rides on the back of a whooping crane. It flies through an amber sunset, its neck undulating in a long S. Together they splash and patter in the high tide while the rhino burrows its great iron horn in the glittering sand searching for nematodes. The crane takes my father’s belt in its long beak and throws him into the dusty lavender thickets, where he rolls across their dense beds under the cattail reeds that tower eight stories high. The king of the nematodes carries an hourglass with three bulbs; one for red sand, one for yellow, and one for green. When he turns the glass, the sky turns grey and my father and I are sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for the nematode secretary to call our name.

“Bastille! Bastille! I’ve been calling you for the past century! Where have you been? You’ve missed your bicentennial treatment again, now we must pencil you in for the next millennium, and we’re booked through Julaugustary!”

The day-by-day calendar on the desk curls its pages into lips that say, “Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana!”

With a flourish, my father throws on a lime green doctor’s coat and lifts me in its folds. He takes me to the bookshop he owned, to the corner where my mother quilted the pillows and blankets in so many shades of violet, plum, and indigo.

It is there I wake, beneath the cherry-cedar rocking chair where he’d take me in his lap and read me tales of places near and far, while I stared at the pictures of birds and mammals on the calendars we sold on the rack by the register. The pillows still smell and feel like my mother’s bosom; it was so long ago I fit in the linen nest of her apron before her cancer took hold for the year that followed, each day feeling like a month, each visitation hour like a second.

Now I’ll sort and stack the pillows, activate the register, and flip the paper clock in the window back and unlock the doors as parents and children visit our rows of pop-ups, pictures, and puppets, and I’ll assume my place in the cherry-cedar rocking chair and read the next tale to this afternoon’s visitors just as my mother and father did.

©2013 Daniel Granias

Mini Sledgehammer October 2013: Blackbird Wine & Atomic Cheese

This month’s Mini Sledgehammer writing prompts celebrate Ali McCart, who returned to her Metlakatla home after a lovely extended stay in her Portland home. They each are a take on something about her. (We explain how in parentheses below.)

And congratulations to this month’s winner, Tim Fritsch, who successfully incorporated the following four prompts into what the judges deemed the most successful story of the evening.

Character: A cat herder (Ali successfully manages a variety of people on a regular basis, and over her last week in Oregon, she really added to that as she facilitated components of two conventions.)

Setting:  In the doorway to a room for employees only (Ali straddles the line between her roles as leader and worker well.)

Prop:  A freezer full of salmon (Knowing a lot of people who fish, Ali has one of these in both Oregon and Alaska.)

Phrase:  Allow me to introduce… (Ali opened many an event during her short time in Oregon this year.)

***

Untitled

“Ginger…she’s over in the corner acting to snide, so self assured. She knows it’s about time. I’ll let her wait.”

The old man, who wore nothing but denim and patches, ushered me into the room.

“Don’t mind them, they will all come and see you when they’re ready. When you’re ready.”

“When is ready?” I ask.

“Eh, you know, I don’t even know,” the man said.

“Which one is your favorite?” I ask after a drawn out moment of silence passes between us. He lights a cigarette before he responds. The match smoke mingles with tobacco in the air. Ginger scowls at us.

The man gestures with his free hand up towards a tall bookcase. On the shelves, untold pages contained sacred writ on the rituals and ceremonies passed down through the ages. The ‘Dingle Mouse’, the ‘Laser Chase’—he had it all. Even atop those sanctimonious shelves, two yellow eyes burst with demon’s glow as they observe me.

“Allow me to introduce Patricia. She’s as old as my grandson in college and three times as smart,” the man said, chuckling. “Hopefully she’ll like you.”

“If not?” I ask, a smirk on my lips.

“Well, let me show you a glimpse of your future if she doesn’t like you,” the man said. He pulled his sleeve up, rolling it past his elbow.

I grimace.

Scars crisscross up and down the man’s arm. “If she doesn’t like you now, she will after she has a taste of you.”

I swallow loudly.

The man laughs and guides me down a hallway that opened to the right. “Down here will be your quarters,” he told me. With a knowing look, he added: “Be sure to keep your door closed at all times.” We turned to the left.

“Down this way,” the man said, “is where we let them roam.” The hall opened up into a large auditorium filled with a tangle of mazes, jungle gyms, and tunnels.

“Do we ever let them outside?” I ask.

The man smiled and shook his head. “There is a whole nother branch for that. We don’t specialize in the outdoorsy types here,” he said.

We took another right turn and kept going downwards. Another left and we were down some stairs. Two swinging doors with a sign ‘Employees Only’ emblazoned atop stood beside us.

“Wait here a moment,” the old man said.

“Sure,” I say, thinking nothing of it.

He vanishes through the doors soundlessly.

A minute, two…twenty. I lose track of time and curse myself for forgetting my phone in the car, somewhere miles away.

I hear a subtle crunch. It’s the strangest sound to hear in a hallway like this one.

Crunch…crunch…

I can’t stand it any more. I just barely push one of the doors. I see a sliver of the room beyond.

The man is standing in a poorly lit room. He’s standing in front of a large freezer. Icy steam is pouring down around him as he lowers his head and that awful crunch noise hisses through the air towards me.

Crunch…crunch…

I let out a gasp—the smallest of exhalations—and the man yells, his back still turned:

“I thought I told you to wait!”

The old man drops the frozen hunk of fish from his hands…his…paws? He turns to face me. Bright yellow slits for eyes, teeth razor sharp.

“Welcome to the herd,” he hisses at me.

I don’t even have a moment to think and he’s on me.

©2013 Tim Fritsch

Tim headshotA new Portland transplant, grown to perfection in Michigan and shipped via South Carolina, Tim is way into writing. Young adult fiction being one of his favorite genres, he recently produced his own YA novel during his spare time in the Southeast. Up in the Northwest, he hopes to find his niche and polish up a glorious third draft while also working as a part-time baker and server. He’s a Sag/Cap with his moon in Gemini and he only sort of knows what any of that means. His spirit animal might as well be a cat, but who knows, right?