My Lost Stories

I completely forgot that a lot of my fiction is located on this site.

There’s some stuff there that’s now lost—the magazines went out of business. Stories like this one:

The Town Secrets

by Meakin Armstrong

Grace works at Minot’s Drug Store. She stands at the register, beneath a giant wall clock hanging above her like a full moon. All around are little sealed packages promising so much and everything is so white and clean. When people look in the window to find out the time, they can see her in an air-cooled, sparkling place.

Grace discovers town secrets here: Mrs. Morningstar is having “female trouble.” Mr. Johnston buys prepackaged enemas. Honey Hinnant’s father, the pastor of Venice Springs Methodist, just bought a hernia truss. She enjoys the delicate horror: does Mr. Hinnant preach while he’s wearing the truss?

Then Grace can feel his approach.

He was in the back by the toothpaste, but now he’s coming close.

She knows when Mr. Wagner is near. Is that a sign? Knowing when someone is near? Mr. Wagner smiles—toothpaste, deodorant, toothpicks, plus tax, $2.13. Mr. John Wagner. Beautiful black hair that curls like a movie star. Rock Hudson? He owns the feed store down the block. He’d lived in Charleston and only came back to take over after his father had died. His eyes glitter more than other eyes do

How old is he anyway? 35? Maybe 40? Old—but in a good and sophisticated way. Everyone says he’s good-natured and generous, Mr. John-just-like-a-movie-star-Wagner.

“Remember when I used to give you a bag of boiled peanuts every time your dad was over to the store? Seems like yesterday anymore, don’t it?”

Grace has already mastered the customer-service smile. “Of course, Mr. Wagner.” She gives him his change, three quarters, one dime, two pennies, and a receipt. While she’s giving him his change, her nails scrape at his palm. He’s watching her while she gives him his change.

He fishes out the pennies from his palm and then bounces them on the counter. With his index finger, he pushes them towards her. “You need to come by. Could use a pretty girl in there. Usually just me and a bunch of homely types not prone to good conversation. Appalling, the level of talk going on in a feed store.”

“All right, Mr. Wagner.” They smile. She looks at the floor. He squints at the full-moon clock and makes a pretense of setting his watch. The few seconds feel like minutes. The little bells attached to the front door clang and while he holds the door, he says, “Just call me John from now on, all right Grace?”

“Okay.” Then: “John.”

“John it is.” He smiles and points his index finger at her just like Uncle Sam and he wants her for the U.S. Army: “See you around, cupcake.”

After work, Grace finds many reasons to pass John’s store. She walks in for a visit, but only for minutes at a time. Whenever she’s in that store, she can’t breathe. She worries about what would happen if she were to sputter or shout or to run away. What would it be like if she—right then and there—were to take off all of her clothes. What would happen?

She goes in. John is at his usual place, leaning against the back wall. Around him are the farmers he calls a “boll weevils.” Mixed in are a few “lounge lizards”—men in shiny department-store suits. It’s dark and damp. The place has many corners with people who watch her.

Grace turns to leave after a half-hello. Those weedy boll weevils and the smirky lizards are witnesses to her behavior. They see it when he pats her on the butt by way of good-bye. They hear her blurt out  an “oh!”

The weevils chuckle. A lizard says, “see you now, Grace.” The lizard has a wicked, sweaty smile.

One Friday after choir practice, he’s by himself. The bottles of whiskey and beer are out, but the place is empty.

“Well… Grace.” There’s a certain sadness about the eyes.

His eyes—what color are his eyes? Are they black?

“Everything all right?”

“Just fine, shuge.”

“Well… Okay.” Already she’s running out of subjects. The silence, the gaps, and the dizziness—it’s here again. Again, too, she’s lost in a flurry of observations: she notices he’s left-handed, which somehow makes him vulnerable. She notices his hand has a sort-of shake, a tremor, and his forearm: is that a tattoo?

“What’s it like?”

“What’s what like?”

“Drinking. You know, beer.”

“Why, okay I guess. Not very ladylike.”

“Can I try?” He has it. That certain Brand X. A movie-star smile. It is a tattoo— yes—an anchor. Was he in the Navy?

“Can’t say as I think it’d hurt anybody, but your daddy….”

Or is he more like Errol Flynn? Mysterious how he looks a little different every time. Did he have a girl in every port?

“Maybe I should go.”

“Pretty quick visit, don’t you think?” His eyes—now they’re blue “Brightens up my day, you coming by.”

She smiles and stumbles a little bit toward the door and laughs just so slightly.

“No strangers in Venice Springs.”

“Huh?”

“Town’s too small. So don’t be a stranger. Okay? After all, can’t keep coming in for toothpaste every ten minutes just to talk at you.”

What would it be like, to be in those arms? Still, she heads for the door. She reaches for the knob, then remembers Honey Hinnant’s advice: When you don’t know what to say, just pretend you’re Bette Davis.

“Just half a glass. A girl’s got to experiment.”

After a few whiskeys, everything floats nicely. Somehow, he kisses her. His rough skin is like sandpaper across her face. He smells of cigarettes. She laughs: Grace is a tee-totaling Methodist now drinking alcohol in the back of a feed store with Mr. Wagner.  John locks up for privacy. He pulls out another bottle.

“Were you in the Navy?”

“Merchant Marine. Saw the world from the side of a ship. During the war, I worked the convoys. Dangerous stuff. U-boats.” He rubs at the anchor tattoo.

“Did it hurt?”

“What?”

She points at the tattoo. “That.”

He smiles.

Grace keeps on drinking. Then she pees in the dirty little bathroom with manly smells. It’s a man’s room with pictures of Vargas girls pinned to its walls. Dizzy, her head spins. It then runs together: She’s on a cot. It’s in the backroom and John says, “Let me take these off.”

Time passes, until sick, groaning, and naked and under a single sheet, she wakes up.

The cot, the room: an unwashed little window looks onto the back. Weeds the size of bushes grow there and lost among the weeds is a rusted-out tractor.

John Wagner is sitting at the foot of the bed. He’s naked. He’s holding his head in his arms.

“You need to be anywhere?”

“What time is it?”

“About five. You been here from about one or thereabouts. Didn’t you have school?”

She can’t hear him. This is a lot to take—a naked man at the foot of some strange and squeaky bed. Muscular with black chest hair. What about the rest of him?

“Shuge, school?”

The bed: did it squeak like this?

“You all right?”

“School’s out. It’s summer.” Her stomach is in a tumble.

He’s beautiful. He’s naked but he’s naked in a way not at all like the boys she’d seen before. He lies down next to her. She’s under the sheet and he looks at her with what must be a smirk. “Your daddy—is he expecting you for dinner?”

Then a flash of memory: him on top of her.

And then she has another: His head is down there and he’s doing something she’d never heard about; and she’s saying things, screaming things, and he puts it by her mouth and she turns away, but then it’s in her mouth, until there is only the smell and the taste.

Grace pulls the sheet over herself. The bed—did it make noises? Was there really only just this one sheet, and this filthy mattress? “I guess maybe I should go.” She gets up quickly and scrambles around the floor for her clothes: her panties are balled up and inside out. And she’s naked. In front of John Wagner, she’s naked. She makes herself as small as she can while she struggles to put on her underwear.

The walls: they’re yellow, and the paint is peeling. A warm breeze comes through the little window. Who left a tractor to the weeds?

His pants—she’s standing on them. She jumps away. Her own pants are in the corner. As she lifts her leg to put on her pants, she can feel a roll of fat forming at her waist. He must see it. She can see him at the side of her eye, looking at her with that smirk. She thinks: He’s laughing at me. Her eyes dart everywhere—the window and the tractor, the peeling paint, the brand of shirt he wears, and then she looks right at him. He’s not wearing a smirk at all.

He’s scared.

Was this where they all took their girls? Was this where those farmers and those shiny-suited men would take their girls and get them drunk?

Peripherally, she notices his burned-dark face against his pale chest. She can see the line where he’d worn an undershirt while working in the sun. And there’s a deep line on his forehead, a cavernous line straight across, like a scar. Maybe he’s not some movie star at all. Maybe he’s just scared. And maybe he’s just watching her because he’s scared. He’s scared of her father, Hezekiah Shortly.

She sees the way her breasts fall when she leans down to pick up her bra; they must look ridiculous. She cups them into her bra and soon she’s dressed. He’s still on the bed and he’s naked, barely covered by the only sheet on the mattress. If only he would stand before her. If only he would show her who and what she was with.

“Bye.”

“You’re not sore or anything, right?”

“No.”

“You’ll still come by?”

She looks at him confused. Bette Davis, Bette Davis, Bette Davis.

“Just to talk, mind. Talk. I like talking at you.”

She lets her eyes glide over his body, hidden under the sheet. When this man was young he must have been so handsome.

As if she knew was what going through her mind, he shrugs.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Then daylight.

It’s blistering-bright. People are following-through on whatever their agendas are. It’s strange; these people—all of them—are going on with their lives and it’s got nothing to do with what’s just happened. Nothing: nothing is going on; nothing at all is going on that has anything at all to do with Grace.

It’s crowded and hot, even though according to the drug store wall clock it’s 5:15. All around, there’s the too-bright sun and the bright colors that make up downtown: the greens of the grocery store signs and the reds-and-whites of the five-and-ten. There’s the searing blare of reflected light on the shop windows. All of this is mixed in with the blues and pinks of the floral dresses of the ladies shopping before they rush home, late, to fix their meals.

She sees her brother loafing across the street, friendless and eating a Popsicle. He’s dawdling and aimless, just outside of Poodle’s. Strange, seeing Merrill out of context, and not at the dinner table or at the house. Is this how others see him too— tic-filled and too-tall?

“Merrill!” She crosses the street. Suddenly he’s nervous like he’s just been caught.

“Where you been? They been looking for you,” he says. Merrill’s Popsicle is melting onto the street. His arms, Grace notices, seem independent of him; they jerk and flutter in little spurts. The Popsicle melts down his hand.

“Better watch that.”

He sucks at it and licks his hand. “What happened?”

Grace realizes that Merrill is here a shadow of their father’s anger. In Merrill’s distraction, she sees the coming fireworks.

“Nothing. Just lost track, it being half-day and all. They mad, Mom and Dad?”

“Dad yelled. We got meatloaf. I left because I wanted to get me a Popsicle before the store done closed.”

Done closed. She hates her brother’s redneck pretensions.

“They mad?”

“You know. Dad. Et. Cetera. Blah blah.”

They walk home together. For Grace the mental image of her father grows. She looks at Merrill as he struggles with the Popsicle. He’s trying to get it all before it falls in icy cherry chunks onto the street. Merrill is a favorite of Dad’s. A tinge of jealousy courses through her—what’s so special about this boy with a melting Popsicle? Merrill sucks at it and makes slurping sounds as a chunk falls to the street.

“Damn!”

They’re at the corner and before they turn she sneaks a glance at John Wagner’s store. From this distance, it looks so small and shambly. The town itself seems smaller, too. This town, she thinks: pathetic. From this distance, she can see his store windows clearly, but they appear dark from here. She just knows he’s at those windows, watching. His eyes are on her.

Just then she notices her blouse is awry. She adjusts it and pats down her hair. She’s going to be okay, she tells herself; she’s going to be fine; everything will be okay. Again she looks back at the shop. She tells herself it’s so small and far away—even just two blocks away, it’s so small. Its windows are dark but she can see him; he must be there.

A little too brightly Grace says, “my Lord, it’s warm” and soon they’re at their house. Their lawn is green, so green, greener than any others in town. Little stones painted white are at the edging. The bushes are neatly trimmed. They come in under the carport and her house is reflecting heat, but it looks so inviting nonetheless. She knows tonight there’ll be the humidity and sticky night heat. She’ll stick to the sheets. Tonight she’ll read her book and she will look out at the stars as she lies in bed. She’ll situate herself as close to the fan as possible and she’ll pretend as she always does, that the fan is bringing her cool breezes from somewhere exotic, where such winds originate.

Other stories by Meakin Armstrong

My Grandmother the Flirt

My grandmother was a Southern woman who dropped out of school to raise her four brothers and sisters when her parents died. I’m vague on the details, but life was hard. She got the kids off the farm near McClellanville, SC, and moved to Charleston.

She worked the cosmetics counter at the old Kerrison’s department store. She then became a star at Elizabeth Arden, when Arden was just starting out (”Miss Arden was a lovely woman”). My grandmother traveled to New York. She dated many men (”Men are like streetcars—another one will be around in 5 minutes”). She turned down a South American millionaire to marry my scrappy (and frankly sexy), grandfather.

From what understand, it was a pickup on Lee Street. He said hello to her on the sidewalk a few times. She said hello back. He asked her out, and that was that. Goodbye, South American millionaire.

She raised me when my parents were in Japan, working on the marriage, which ended in divorce. She kept a bottle of sherry by the water heater. She kept a bottle of Coke back there, too—because—well, that wasn’t any of your business, that’s why.

She was far from rich, but to the end of her life, she used only Elizabeth Arden products and she was perhaps the best-dressed person in Ehrhardt, SC where my grandfather worked after he had to sell his company, the old Cream Crest Dairy (now, Charleston’s West End Dairy).

Tuesdays were for herself. She often took a bus from Ehrhardt to see her friends at Kerrison’s or to catch a movie at the Riviera. She left her bags at a store called Hunley’s, where Mr. Hunley did a bit of flirting with her. I saw it, and as a ten-year-old, I learned something. But none of this was my business. She was quite clear about that.

She was famous for her sauerkraut, which I never tried because I hated the idea of sauerkraut. As a substitute, she gave me beets in a jar and she led me to believe they were made from scratch. They weren’t. That photo is of her recipe on how to commit fraud.

She laughed when I found out, a few decades later. Then told me about that man who was flirting with her—”He has a lot of Brand X.”

Her name was Leona Brunson Henderson. She was quite a bit more than “my grandmother.”

Guns and Funerals

Fresh from getting my Columbia MFA, I was broke and in need of quick cash. I accepted a gig as a proofreader and editor of funeral brochures in Brooklyn. The company, located in a rambling warehouse off Gowanus Canal, was a death-industry behemoth: It sold religious cards, gravestone markers, custom funeral tents, a magazine called Jewish Funeral Director, and some kind of special “no-smell” embalming fluid.

I was there for the funeral brochures, those pamphlets with the Order of Service. I sat in a warehouse room and looked at copy all day. Others photoshopped photos of the recently deceased—sometimes, those photos were taken from employee ID cards, because that old man who died had no recent pictures. We were considered the high-end for these kinds of brochures. The brochures were usually for those who had died outside of the church—their families wanted a religious funeral but didn’t have any religion they could claim. So they rented a preacher, often the same preacher, a man with the last name of Ford, who seemed to preside over 4-5 funerals a day. The orders of service were almost always the same: Rev Ford read the same Bible verses and the group sang the same songs, 4-5 times a day, every day.

Many of the services were for African Americans who had been shot, only a night or two before. Sometimes, I’d read the police accounts of the crime before I’d read the copy for the funeral brochure: this kid sold crack, the police said. This other one was a gangbanger. That kid who ended up separated into three trash bags? He was a blight to the community. Then I read the copy for the cards: It was never written well; it was never evocative of the life just lost, “He is among the stars,” some grandmother wrote. “He was the light of my life,” wrote another. I was told to just run the copy as the person wrote it; don’t interview the grandmother and write something better, just clean up her words and use AP Style in my edits.

But there’s this: Words are what we use to understand the pain of others. Without that, we see the weeping on TV of these kids shot by the latest mad gunman. We are left with the spectacle of inchoate pain. And then we move on, because that pain is too big for any of us to understand. And then we simplify the stories: That was a good kid who was accepted to college. She liked music. When she entered a room, that room lit up. Or in my case, that kid? That kid was a gangbanger who was still “among the stars” for some grandmother, somewhere.

I quit the job after a couple of weeks—I guess I was just a tourist. But something stayed with me: We’re in this together, and we all so much more than what we can say. Those kids who died in the shooting: They were more than we can say and they were murdered by a society that refuses to see that. If they’d understood, this would not have happened.

Instead of their safety, we thought only of ourselves and our “right” to have a gun. So we watch parents as they cry. And Florida’s version of Rev. Ford is still showing up for work.

War on Christmas

When I was a kid in Japan (the child of a diplomat) the Canadian embassy invited the American kids over for a holiday party. Santa came and it was the first time I’d seen a real Santa up close. His beard looked real. He was in a quality red suit. This was Santa. And Santa was probably Canadian because it’s cold up there so this was real. Santa winked. He ho-ho’d like it was real and I was meeting Santa.

He leaned in close. Then he gave “Meakin” a girl’s present, a cheap and stupid doll. I cried on the little stage in front of everyone and I cried all the way home, vowing to never forgive Santa. I threw the doll onto the Tokyo subway tracks.

So fire truck kid, I see you. That truck was nice, but there you were on Sixth Avenue and it was Christmas Eve and that truck just wasn’t right. Fuck Santa and his bad presents.

My Second Mother

I was born the child of a diplomat in South Korea. My parents were more or less of the Mad Men generation, so my actual upbringing was outsourced to a nanny I called Miss Kim.

Miss Kim fed me and changed my diapers and took care of me when I was sick. She sang Japanese songs to me and told me about the various folk gods. She spoke to me in a mixture of Japanese and English. She yelled at me. She defended me from strangers—once she even beat off an intruder with a broomstick.

But for the longest time, I didn’t really know her full name, Kim Kang-Hee. She was only Miss Kim, who my father hired when he showed up at his door one day, covered in lice and weighing less than 100 pounds. No one asked her about her past. My parents just took her in and she helped raise me from the day I was born.

A few years later, we left Korea and we took her with us to Japan when my father was transferred there. As we moved about Japan (Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe), she moved with us.

I spent my first 10 years with her until my father became the head of the Japan Society, in New York. He left her in Japan. I cried. My sister cried. Miss Kim cried. She begged us to take her, but my parents left her.

Later, on her own, she came to America with the Japanese ambassador to the US. She had become the nanny to Japanese society. She got rich. She bought a house in Maryland.

After my parents divorced and my father lost his shirt in the tech bubble, she became richer than my parents. She visited me in New York with the ambassador’s daughter, who had a baby. The ambassador’s daughter gave me a present and told me as the original person raised my Miss Kim, I was like her child’s older brother. I agreed. I still agree.

But who was Miss Kim? One Christmas I asked her. She visited my family, made sushi to eat alongside the turkey and Tofurky. (See next)

She was repatriated to Korea after the war. But repatriated to the North. During the Korean War, she had to carry her brother on her back, some 500 miles through the battle lines.

She carried her bother because he was too young to walk well—but also because of landmines. If was better if she was blown up, her father thought. Better than if the son were to die.

Her mother was strafed (a war crime) by the Americans as they walked on a road with other refugees. She buried her mother by the side of the road. She stopped believing in any god after her mother died and swore she would make it on her own.

She didn’t want to talk about the years between the war and when she showed up at my parent’s house—it’s a blank period. God knows what hell she went through in Seoul as she supported her father and brother and South Korea was emerging as a country on its own. She also, it should be said, barely knew any Korean. She was an ethnic Korean but had grown up in Japan.

She only said she hated her father who treated her badly but took care of him and supported him. She also put her bother though school.
And this isn’t talked about much in my family, but Miss Kim helped keep my father from beating us. He’d beaten my sister so much, she has permanent damage to her spine. But my sister is older than I am and she didn’t have Miss Kim around to protect her.

My family took her in but we treated her like a pet, I suppose. I loved her, but my parents abandoned her in Japan. Still, she made it to America with a little bit of help from my father.

She died an American. America let her in, first on a work visa then after a decade, she became a citizen. She was more determined, more amazing, more appreciative of this country than anyone I knew.

Her death was noted by the Grand Chamberlin of the Emperor of Japan.

That’s What “They” Said…

You can now use “they,” instead of “she” and “he,” the AP says.

They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them.They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze.

Interviewing Etgar Keret

imagesHe’s Israel’s top writer, a man whose work I adore—and I got to spend two hours with him for Guernica

In America, where writers are preoccupied with the craft of writing, I always try to introduce this concept of the badly written good story. Turning the hierarchy around and putting passion on top and not craft, because when you just focus on craft, you can write something that is very sterile. It looks beautiful, but soulless.

 

My Essay on Emanuel A.M.E. Church and Dylann Roof

2928014507_1c7c581bbe_zI lived in Charleston, SC from when I was around 11 to 20 years old. I went to a private, all-white elementary school right next door to “Mother Emanuel,” Emanuel A.M.E. church. I wrote an essay about the #CharlestonShooting — and about a stupid childhood prank I played on that church.

And how kind they were to me.

The essay contains some paragraphs like this, too:

Both sides in this race war (and it is a war, the longest in American history) have been fighting for generations. White people are in denial of it, perhaps because it’s too hard for us to see it. And when we we’re told about, we wish it would just go away. We find it a boring topic because our privilege allows us to be bored by it. It’s our privilege to be bored. And yes, it bores me. It’s boring because people like me swim in privilege, like a fish swims in water. Often, I only see the hard work that got me where I am, not the extra boost I got along the way because I am white.

 

 

The People’s Pervert: John Waters

Waters-John-c-Greg-Gorman-CARSICK_TOPI interviewed John Waters for Guernica.

Now at sixty-nine (“an embarrassing age,” he said at a recent appearance in New York City, “I don’t even like the sex position”), John Waters seems to have a career on the upswing: he’s in development for a TV series, and he has a bestselling memoir, Carsick, the story of how he hitchhiked across America in 2012. His traveling stand-up show, This Filthy World, packs the houses on a regular basis.

 

A New Flash Fiction Piece Up at Joe + Gigs

I wrote a flash fiction piece for the online journal, Joe + Gigs.

Joe + Gigs is an ekphrastic site: all stories are in some way about paintings. For no reason at all (other than I’d given myself about an hour or so to write the piece), “This Country” was inspired by that famous dogs playing poker painting series . . .

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Fiction | Nonfiction