The 2018 Screw Turn Flash Fiction Competition
BY ROBERT PERCHAN
I ran into H. at the Closerie. It was early in the afternoon. A gray winter day. He had his notebook and three sharpened pencils in front of him on the table. But he was staring off into space. He was not writing. He looked stumped. He had gotten a few words down. Maybe a whole line. But no more than that. He looked stumped. He had on that hat he sometimes wore when he wrote. But it looked a little bit too big for him today. It kept slipping down over his eyes and he had to push it back up again in order to stare off into space properly.
H. was a big man but he did not look quite so big today. Maybe he was having problems at home, I wondered. He was famous for having problems at home. No, he wasn’t having problems at home. Wife’s fine. So is the baby. It’s this shirt. And these damn trousers. Too loose.
Good for the circulation, I said. Blood flow. Free flow of thoughts. Ideas. Impressions.
No, he said. Opposite. I got this iceberg inside me. Iceberg in my heart.
Maybe you should see a doctor, I said.
A doctor, he said. He looked down at the line in his notebook. If it was a whole line. No, he said. No. Tried that. It’s this iceberg. This iceberg in my heart. Everything feels so compressed.
Go fishing then. Get out of Paris. Get out of town.
No, he said. No. Tried that too. It’s this damn compression. It just comes over me. I’m fine one minute and sitting here writing and one word leads to another word and then boom—I get so damn compressed. It comes out of nowhere. Done. Finished. Look at me. Look at this hat. It’s two sizes too big. And this shirt. And these trousers. Don’t even look at my shoes. Don’t look under the table. I used to have the biggest feet in Paris. If I get up and take two steps I’ll walk right out of them. He moaned. He groaned. It all started, he said, with that six word story business. I bet everybody I could best them. Write a whole story in only six words. Better story than anything they could come up with in only six words. And won. Hands down.
Sure, I said. I remember. I was here. A clean, well-shaven place it wasn’t. I remember that.
No, he said. That wasn’t it.
I tried again. But I couldn’t remember well. We had all been drinking that afternoon. Mendicant hits lottery. Farewell to alms.
No, he said. That wasn’t it either. Something about shoes. Baby shoes. Look at my feet. I could probably fit into them now. I get so compressed.
That’s where it all started, I said. With those little six worders?
And then it spread, he said. To the real stories. About that summer up in Michigan. Compression everywhere. Can’t escape it. I get so compressed.
It happens to everyone, I said. Sooner or later. Look at me. Ever seen anyone so compressed?
H. stared. Squinted and stared. Like he didn’t even recognize me. Like he was trying to make out something that wasn’t really there.
No, he said. Not like this. It’s in my stories now. Look. Here. This one about Nick and his old man. The doctor. The pregnant squaw. Uncle George. The Indian father in the bunk overhead. It’s gone. I can’t see it anymore.
Indian Camp, I said.
That’s it. Indian Camp.
He slid his notebook across the table. I looked down at the line. The handwritten words: Boy goes. Blood flows. Father crows.
That’s compressed, I said. That’s compression.
Full blown, he said. The worst kind. Can’t shake it.
You need to decompress. You’ve erased your best ever story so far. Compressed it till it’s nothing but six words.
Cut. I cut and cut. Can’t help myself. And this damn iceberg in my heart. Compression. Twenty-nine pages down to seven pages down to less than a single line.
You’ve got to cut out all this cutting out, I said. Decompress.
Decompress, H. said. I can’t. It’s gone. I just can’t see it anymore. He was staring off into space again. Almost like he had never really seen me at all.
Waiter, I said, and I raised two fingers. Absinthe. Deux. Your under the counter stuff. One for the gentleman in the too-big hat and too-loose shoes. And one for the empty chair he’s talking to.
Robert Perchan’s poetry chapbooks are Mythic Instinct Afternoon (2005 Poetry West Prize) and Overdressed to Kill (Backwaters Press, 2005 Weldon Kees Award). His poetry collection, Fluid in Darkness, Frozen in Light won the 1999 Pearl Poetry Prize and was published by Pearl Editions in 2000. His avant-la-lettre flash novel Perchan’s Chorea: Eros and Exile (Watermark Press, Wichita, 1991) was translated into French and published by Quidam Editeurs (Meudon) in 2002. In 2007 his short short story “The Neoplastic Surgeon” won the on-line Entelechy: Mind and Culture Bio-fiction Prize. He currently resides in Pusan, South Korea. You can see some of his stuff on his website.