Category: #fiction

Mississippi Delta 1975

A town begins its slow demise. All its’ young, bright hopefuls are leaving in droves. My street is without sidewalks as the municipality falters. Our house, a squat, low ranch, sits behind a Magnolia. In a kitchen, knotty pine cabinets and tired linoleum, I, six, at the table, sobbing; my young parents already falling out of love, quarreling.

From this, things take root. My mother and I aligned; Daddy’s casual cruelty; a divorce. Gardens give blossoms and fruit. Also, thorns, weeds, and noxious things that will leave you wounded. Fresh soil so fertile yields such painful bounty.

I am pleased to share that these 100 words earned me a Josie Rubio Scholarship from the Gotham Writers Workshop.

Make Peace With My Bones

            The last leaves of late autumn cling to skeletal trees. They rustle in a bitter wind and I know it is you.

This time of year, the merriment of the holidays cannot stave off the end-of- days darkness. It is you, rattling your chains, keeping me from sleep.

I could sense you last night, as I lay in your bed with someone else. I had the ceiling painted haint blue but still I smell tobacco and bourbon in a house where neither of these can be found in the daylight. Burnt matches in the sink. Ice cubes rattle in a glass in a room no one is in.

I have thrown away your clothes, your shoes, your wedding ring. I did not give any of these to charity. What charity would it be to me to find your shoes on another man’s feet walking down the street? Still, I see you. That coat in front of me at the Post Office. That mustache on the barista. That thumbprint of a bruise on my neck.

Your letters, I have burnt. I do not need to see your pledges of love, your apologies, your threats; they ring enough in my battered head.

All these things, I purged from the little house we once shared. It does not matter. Like a leviathan unmoored from some sepulchral trench, you summon the pieces of you I forgot or couldn’t find, the fingernail clippings, the hairs in the razor in the medicine cabinet, the blood beneath the floorboards. All these on the harshest December night meet and mingle, rising and converging upon me.

When my love awakens tomorrow morning, in your bed, I will be as cold as this season’s first snow.

A version of this flash first appeared in Second Chance Lit April 2022.

PET

Pet

She’s the ugliest cat I’ve ever seen. At least, I think it’s a she. Always hard to tell. Poor thing has horrible breath. Anyway, she’s so ugly she’s almost cute. And obviously desperate for affection.

Every morning, she is on the back porch. Sometimes I catch her unaware, closed eyes, face tilted to the morning sun. Whatever must she be thinking?

Lately, she’s brought me horrid little gifts. I know she’s trying to endear herself; I can’t shame her for trying. I rub her leg to let her know I’m thankful.

Old Tom, the neighborhood codger, disapproves of me befriending Poor Thing, as I now call her.

Nasty, vicious animals, he spits at me. They carry terrible diseases.

Tom is irascible, but there is something to be said for wisdom and longevity. I try not to slight him.

When the weather turned colder, I became concerned. Poor Thing came to the porch less and less. Her coat changed. Now, her scent is different. Her face is a little fuller but no less ugly. When she does not show up, I find myself worrying.  I’ve really become quite fond of her.

This afternoon is a little warmer. Perhaps the coldest months might be behind us. There’s a patch of sun on the porch and I am waiting to see if Poor Thing will visit. I’ve called for her several times but regrettably this only summons Old Tom.

What are you doing calling for that beasty? I’ve told you no good can come from that, he hisses at me. 

Tom, my goodness, Poor Thing is no threat to you! She’s harmless. Don’t get all bothered on my account. You’ve been around several blocks at this stage in the game; if you don’t like her, move along. 

Old Tom fixes me with his one good eye. I see his hackles are up and his tail is fuller than a raccoon’s. He stealthily approaches, which alarms me. I feel my own fur raising, my ears flattening to my skull. Tom speaks low and in that guttural that I know is meant to be taken seriously.

You fool, he growls. That foul smelling, furless wretch you’ve befriended is no cat.

Tom has gotten very close to me; spittle has hit my whiskers. I cautiously back up. I’m frightened of his claws but it is his words that have wounded me. Poor Thing is inept and ugly, it’s true, but she shouldn’t be hated for those things. I open my mouth to defend my pet but Tom roars on.

Idiot. Those plastic mice and “food” she’s given you; she’s trying to trap you! Ever wondered why she is so large or about those hideous sounds she makes? Take it from old one-eyed Tom here, you don’t want to mess with a human.

And there, he said it. I pull my tail down defensively, wrap it around my back ankles. I tuck my chin to my chest. Poor Thing, poor thing! I feel an ache deep within me. I think about her large naked face when she puts it close to mine. Her chemical breath. Her dull blocky teeth. I knew, I knew, of course I did, that she wasn’t really a cat. Of course, she isn’t. But there is something so pitiful, something that moves me so, when she sits on the step and pats her big paw for me to join her. 

Tom is nearer now. I smell his warm, feral scent. It is comforting. He brushes the top of my head with his jaw. I wait to feel his teeth graze my ear, to reproach me further but he purrs into my neck. I want to tell him no, that Poor Thing would never trap me, that she needs me. Tom has never felt the warmth of her paw when it rests in my fur.

You’re fine, you’re fine, Tom purrs. You didn’t enter its’ den. Let this be your first, your most important, your last lesson. Wild things are wild; you cannot change that. Tom licks my inner ear. I lean into the bath as he washes my eyes and nose. It’s been so long since I have been touched, other than by Poor Thing. So long since I was with Mother and my siblings. I hear the cries and calls of the colonies at night but I have been too ashamed to ask to join them. Me, the runt, left behind; who would want me?

As if his tongue has tasted my thoughts, Tom lightly nips my neck and says, you’re not alone. I look into his golden eye, noticing now more mirth than meanness. Maybe Tom was once a runt too.

The sun slinked off a while ago. A light from within Poor Thing’s den has come on and falls upon us.

It’s time, Tom growls and jumps from the porch. I follow. I look back only once, from the safe side of the fence. She is standing on the porch with a dish in her hand. I wince as she calls. Poor thing.

A version of this story was first published in The Dodge literary magazine April 2022.

In November 2020, my beloved tuxedo cat, Neo, went missing. As I searched for him, for weeks (he came home!), another little feral tuxie began following me home. Lucky is now an indoor cat too! This story began when I started to think about how I appeared to Lucky and whether he was really willing to take a chance on me. Thank you for reading. Also, adopt don’t shop and if you can support your local TNR, please do so!

Siren Of The West

Tomas, nut brown with wavy hair and wearing a crucifix, presses a plane ticket into my palm. My mother’s pearls bought this ticket. I instinctively touch the base of my naked throat. I have never left Mississippi much less flown in a plane. Tomas hands me his flask and pushes a bitter pink pill onto my tongue. It’ll calm your nerves, he whispers in my ear. Soon, I am a babe asleep in a winged cradle. We arrive in San Diego in the heavy velvet of night. I am gently placed in the cab owned by Tomas’s cousin who speeds us up the coastline.

            In the morning, I hear the sea before I see it. Churlish, it pounds over rocks etched by its’ furor. The barrier islands in the Gulf bear the brunt of the swells so the surf in Pass Christian is just a lick along the shore. Nothing, no one, could have prepared me for the sheer spectacle, the wanton audacity of southern California. Birds of Paradise cling to the cliffs, their beaks open in adulation. Manzanitas, Chaparral Broom, Sticky Monkeyflower, exotic names I would learn in coming days, cluster, tumble down arroyos. My seduction is instantaneous and complete. La Jolla. I roll the words of this place upon my tongue. It lingers on my lips. The words undulate. I close my eyes and whisper “La Jolla, La Jolla”, a prayer from a pilgrim.

            The clang of a phone snaps me awake. I am tangled in sheets. Tomas is half-dressed, buckling his belt. He is terse on the line, slams the receiver. He tells me he must go and I am not to open the door, nor answer the phone. It is fine. The verandah is a universe. I stand upon it and marvel at a world I have never known. Mountains meet the sea. 

            Tomas returns and I am nude upon the terrace, dizzy from trying to count the stars. 

Your man will come for you, he says. 

My beauty is a curse; just this once, I want to be blessed.

            Come to me now, I tell Tomas. He lies with me beneath heaven.

            God is not on our side, Tomas tells me in the morning. We will find another God then, I say. 

In Mississippi, a tempest rages.

Tomas feeds me figs and pomegranates. Fingers sticky, lips wet. 

He would bring a thousand ships, if he could, Tomas says. 

Let him, I say. I am standing beneath the outdoor shower. My wedding ring winks in the drain. I have let down my hair. 

Dios mio, you are beautiful, Tomas murmurs. His hands, a skin so many shades darker than mine, look like shadows upon my breasts, my belly, my thighs. 

Days of languor. We sleep until hunger, for food or each other, rouses us. The money is running out; Mississippi wages do not go far in southern California.

Tomas tells me his Mexico is not so different from La Jolla. I know enough to know he is not telling the full truth. His family home is far from the sea.

Zamora, he whispers into my hair, late at night. He holds me and tries to lull-a-bye me with tales of our future life in his homeland. He knows when he leaves this bungalow, when he returns, at any hour, every hour, I am on the verandah, watching her. How could he ever ask me to leave the Pacific?

We eat sardines from a can, crackers from a wax paper packet. Tomas’s eyes flit, onyx gulls searching for better scraps. The fig tree still drops honey-ripe fruit onto the verandah and I happily feast upon what I am given. Warily though, I notice her blues deepen as the sky above the Pacific turns leaden. 

Later, when my man has indeed come from Pass Christian for me, when Tomas has returned to Zamora, when all around me is ash and ruin, I take myself into the thunderous sea. No rings on my fingers, no pearls around my neck, I hold surf-pounded stones deep in my pockets and wonder, what good beauty has ever brought?

Stanchion EIC Jeff Bogle was kind enough to include this piece in Issue 7. I pay homage to my love to fairy tales, classic myth and The Awakening with this little piece, and with a wink and nod to the Mississippi coast. Please follow Stanchion on Twitter @StanchionZine. Better yet, order a subscription! Photo by Fannie H. Gray

Elegy

Democracy as a Noble Element

Pitiable

The country that proclaims itself

Leader of the free world

Tarnished and sooty faced

Greedy fingers dipped in

Oil, in coal, in blood, in gold

dried, caked, set

We do not carry forth

banner or flag

no honor to unfurl

A world away rockets

toys of a demagogue

embed in schools, apartments, homes

Bodies

We wring hands

When we should be wringing necks

We should be carrying our brothers

In arms, in our arms

We should

We should

We won’t

As they lay dying

In their streets, in their beds

Bury us now for we began dying in 2016

Democracy is only alive

When its people stand up for it

Beyond Repair

Rust. Above the loose tailpipe, a crumpled corner of the plumber’s van is rusting. Margo worries from the attic window, if a man cannot maintain his vehicle, could he be a good plumber? 

She told Robert to take care of this issue, claiming she had deadlines, backlogs, was already overburdened. Yet, here she is, chewing a hangnail, wondering if she should call Patrick’s Plumbing.

The front door slams and she peers over the windowsill. She is surprised the plumber is a woman. She pauses en route to her van, shakes down a cascade of copper-blonde hair, like some tawdry shampoo commercial, Margo thinks. The plumber neatly sweeps her locks into a chignon and tucks it back under her cap.

Ouch. Margo has drawn blood. She spits a brittle crisp of fingernail into the wastebasket. 

Ping. Alex would like to chat. 

Margo steps closer to the window to watch as Robert approaches the van. He leans upon it, casually chatting with the plumber. Margo cannot hear their conversation but she can see Robert’s smile. The plumber reappears, arching her back like a cat, thrusting her midriff toward Robert, her apple-round breasts straining at her overalls. She accepts a cup of coffee from Margo’s husband.

Ping. Alex is persistent.

Margo is profoundly annoyed. A vehement self-proclaimed feminist, she is irritated with herself for wondering what this pinup-cum-plumber knows about plumbing. 

The front door opens and she hears a feminine voice, throaty, thick with coffee and maybe cigarettes too, a Lauren Bacall in her foyer. Then she hears Robert’s laugh. Earnest, not the cheap “ha” he employs at dinner parties or PTA meetings. Footfalls, two pairs, taking the basement steps.

Ping.

Margo closes her laptop. She trundles down two flights of stairs. Standing at the top of the basement, she hears easy banter. Wine. Robert is talking about orange wine from Austria. Margo smirks; he’s trying to impress the help but then Lauren Bacall rattles off her three, three, favorite wineries in Austria. An oenophile centerfold plumber. 

Margo goes to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and finds the pot empty. Fine, she thinks; I’ll have tea. She puts on the kettle. Ping. Her phone buzzes in her pocket. She is looking at the text from Alex and does not notice Robert enter the room. He clears his clears his throat. They stare awkwardly at each other.

“I’ve just come to make more coffee”, he says.

“Oh, I’ll just have tea”, Margo responds.

“Right. Well, Daphne wants another cup.”

Margo slides her phone into her pocket. Robert stands with two empty coffee cups. The blue cup, the one with a bold black M embossed on it, bears a heavy frost of red lipstick on the rim. Robert looks at his feet but does not take an inch toward the coffee maker.

Ping.

Lauren Bacall huskily calls Robert’s name from the basement.

The spouses of nine and a half years lock eyes, briefly, briefly… like the last flash of a firefly. There is a multitude of grievances in this house –unperformed chores, broken dishes, unaired complaints, and vicious words that no amount of cleansing could purge from the fabric of their life.

Ping.

“Right”, Margo says; “get on with it.”

I am grateful to Full House Literary for first publishing this work in January 2022. You can visit their site directly using the following link to hear me narrate this story. https://www.fullhouseliterary.com/prose/beyond-repair-by-fannie-h-gray

Reflections on an 18th Anniversary

Five years have passed since I wrote this post on Facebook. In that amount of time, I assure you, we have had more trials and tribulations but also joy and wonderment, as the above photo from a few nights ago should indicate. I will let the words I wrote then speak for themselves but I will say this; buckle up and try to enjoy the ride.

I won’t tell you about 18 years of wedded bliss; I don’t have them. I won’t tell you that marriage is easy if you are truly in love. I won’t assure you that Love conquers all. I have fantasized about chucking my life and becoming a waitress in Key West. Marriage sucks the marrow of your bones. It skins you and leaves you under a desert sun. It laughs at your dreams and undermines your hopes.

And then, it awakens your forgotten wishes; it uncovers that part of your soul you thought had been shrouded.

Don’t dream about your wedding; dream about being 50 and waking up next to someone who knows exactly how many teaspoons of sugar you like in your coffee, who knows that you think Hemingway was an asshat. Mostly though just don’t forget to dream and especially remember to share those dreams with the person you love.

Cut Me to the Quick

Cut Me To The Quick

We gathered all the prescriptions in the house. Robert bought a lockable file cabinet which we put it in our walk-in closet, storing the drugs there. Even veterinary medicine. Tylenol and Advil as well. No guns in the house to fret over. Robert and I don’t drink so we didn’t worry about booze. Alcohol, drugs, would we need to lock Emery in her room? Should we buy a baby monitor? These are the questions you ask yourself after your child tries to commit suicide.

Anyway, we locked up all the medication. We were taking Emery to counseling every other day. Well, honestly, we were all in counseling; it wasn’t just for her. We were all broken. Even Harvey, the cat, could sense the discord. He had never been a snuggly, but those days, every time someone sat down, Harvey jumped onto their lap. It’s true of course; petting a cat greatly reduces anxiety. We watched Emery’s face as Harvey burrowed next to her on the sofa. Each time she stroked his fur, we hoped to see the smile our child used to radiantly bestow so freely. We hoped Harvey’s unconditional love could coax our sweet Em to return to us. Robert and I agreed that if she went back to college, she should get an apartment, one that allowed pets. She couldn’t take Harvey though; I needed him. We would get her a cat of her own.

It didn’t come to that. Emery wouldn’t return to college. We had thought about the obvious vices. We even took away her hair dryer, afraid she might bathe with it. We just never thought about the knives.

It was terrifying. Walking into the kitchen and finding Emery seated at the table, every knife we owned laid out before her. I dropped my coffee, the mug shattering. I remembered thinking I would never drink coffee again, that the taste, the burnt velvet of it, would never be the same.

What happened next though – how could I have ever been prepared? Months of counseling and pleading. All the conversations with her therapist about finding a purpose, developing an interest. The sleepless nights. The mornings Robert and I would wake only to discover we had shared the same hopeless dreams in which we asked ourselves how our bright, engaged girl had dimmed her own light so low.

Emery picked up the paring knife and my child, my only child, my daughter, my life’s work; she looked at me saying, this is the one I will start with. I will peel the apples with this one. I’ve been watching YouTube videos and you need killer knife skills to embark on a culinary career.

That moment. I relive it all the time. At night when I lie next to Robert in bed. Mornings when I drink my coffee, absentmindedly stroking Harvey’s coat. That autumn, as friends plied their cars with secondhand furniture, suitcases, bundling their children off to campuses. Our first visit to New York, when Em became sous chef at Coteau. With each forkful of silken tagliatelle or rich gribiche she makes for us when she visits. That moment when the glint of a steel knife reflected in my daughter’s eyes, and I recognized the flicker of redemption.

A version of this piece appears in Passengers. I am honored they chose to publish this piece. Please visit http://www.passengersjournal.com to hear an excellent reading by the talented John E. Brady.

Sleeping after 30

What can be said of

all the rules we make and follow 

or do not

you carry love and shame and hurt and pride

and

if you could, you would sew these up 

in a deerskin pouch wear it around your neck and sleep

so 

these things would not seep into your dreams

you could dream instead of white sugar sand beaches and

clear streams 

perhaps

kittens or even blisteringly hot days when only the grass it seems

can whisper your name

no

instead you remember stealing valentine candy 

from Greg Carson’s desk in the 2nd grade 

you remember

pulling Mary Elizabeth Long’s hair on the bus 

you remember cheating on the 5th grade spelling test 

in Ms. Littlepage’s class

these things

these bright and hurtful moments

these are what lie upon your heart