I first began writing postcard stories when I answered the call to a competition whereby entrants had to write a story of no more than 250 words that incorporated three words supplied by the judges. Moving forward I kept the format, incorporating three words selected at random from various sources. A story, for example, might have evolved from the fifth, eighth, and ninth word on the third page of the Saturday edition of the newspaper. (The three words are in parentheses at the end of each story.)
As a small collection ensued I noticed a theme emerging: most stories had a macabre ending. A reflection, perhaps, of what might be hidden in my psyche — though any speculation as to what that might be is probably best left to my eventual biographers (ha!).
So I have endeavored to shake things up thematically, and may also do so with the length, experimenting with both shorter and longer formats. We’ll see what emerges.
The Wreck of Emilio Sanchez
It was fate, perhaps, that a coyote wandered onto highway 89 just north of the Arizona-Mexico border and met head on with Emilio Sanchez’s truck, loaded with illegal aliens sandwiched between crates of cherry tomatoes and ripening avocados. Emilio, drunk on a homemade concoction of fermented blanched almonds, swerved to miss what he thought was a lost hermano gasping for water in the desert haze. His judgment wrong on all accounts, Emilio hit the coyote and left a tire tread down the poor creature’s back, the blond fur now tinged at the tips by road tar and dirt and resembling a thick yellow corn braid. The impact caused the trailer to rock precariously from side to side, tossing illegals disguised as fruit and fruit disguised as vegetables into a mix that lacked only a dash of balsamic vinegar.
Thinking he might have killed a member of his colossal extended family, Emilio came to a screeching halt and, hat in hand, stumbled back to the corpse, collapsed to the ground in sobs of remorse, and begged for forgiveness from all his ancestors, now and to come. When his tears finally subsided, Emilio discovered to his greater dismay not some distant cousin but a border guard’s four-legged partner, seconded from the wild when cocaine smugglers had begun using rabbits as mules. What transpired afterwards no one is certain, but the twelve aliens later arrested, bloated from guacamole, weren’t talking, and the bones of Emilio Sanchez have never been found.
(coyote, braid, blanch)
He sat on a bench on the platform, back straight, knees bent at precisely ninety degrees, hands folded in his lap, chin tucked in and his eyes fixed at center, embarrassed to look upon those he knew gave him no notice. He sat motionless except for an intermittent nervous twitch of his right index finger, and even the perfect creases of his stiff wool suit refused to sway in the maelstrom of dirt and rat feces that swirled through the Northern Line. His awkward countenance, paired with the weather-beaten leather briefcase that rested on the floor exactly three inches from his left shoe, reminded one of an accountant or perhaps a solicitor in a Victorian novel, the kind who had dared to venture past his station, a caricature of the awkward interloper.
Over the loudspeaker a crackled voice announced a change to the schedule: due to an electrical fault at Bank, the train would proceed through to Moorgate, and passengers were advised to consider alternative routes. The man glanced at the station clock, the fleeting furrow of his brow the only sign of a fracture in his practiced forbearance. The breach was brief, however, for there came the echo of the train and the flash of headlights against the tunnel wall, and the man picked up his briefcase and moved with the crowd toward the edge of the platform. Then, as the train barrelled toward the expectant commuters, the interloper touched his right hand to his heart, and leapt.
(touches, change, reminded)
Le dernier repas
Jack, a bellhop at London’s Ambassador hotel, was an odd lad — “not the sort they usually considered,” the concierge would later remark — but he had been hired at the express wishes of one of the hotel’s wealthier guests, an elderly, eccentric French chef famous for his brilliant but avant-garde gastronomy. Jack greeted his patron’s limousine as requested, aggressively waving off the doorman despite struggling under the weight of a large aluminum case. As Jack loaded the case onto a trolley, the Frenchman — “very animated, almost panicked” — suddenly gasped. “Pumpernickel!” he exclaimed. “I forget zee pumpernickel.”
Jack’s eyes fell on the aluminum case. “But we can’t have it without pumpernickel,” he said, looking distressed.
The bellhop glanced at his watch. The hour was late; all the bakeries were closed. Not easily defeated, Jack sprung to action, enlisting the aid of the concierge who dispatched an urgent message to the kitchen, who dispatched an urgent message to the grocers, who stopped the delivery truck as it neared the end of its route, and within the span of an hour the heavy rye bread was delivered to the Frenchman’s spacious suite, where he and Jack spent the better part of the evening together in suspicious isolation.
It was the Frenchman’s peculiar need for pumpernickel that the hotel staff would later recall most vividly, perhaps as a means to forget the more sordid details of the grand chef’s last culinary oeuvre d’art, her liver still warm when Scotland Yard came knocking.
(jack, bellhop, pumpernickel)
This is going to be fabulous, thought Esmeralda as she gazed upon the angelic face of Fabio, still as a statue as if transfixed by her beauty. She had met him that afternoon when he had come to unplug the drain in her small hacienda on the Mar de Cortés, a hot sun dancing upon the water. It was a little isolated out on the bay, but Esmeralda liked the privacy this afforded her, especially during moments like these.
In the drain Fabio had found what appeared to be the bones of chicken wings, and he had flirtatiously chided Esmeralda for her poor housekeeping, small beads of sweat cast off the tips of his black hair as he tossed his head back in false mockery. She had wanted him instantly, and it took little effort to convince him to stay. Now, in the cool of the evening, Esmeralda stood before Fabio and allowed her silk robe to fall silently off her shoulders, revealing a red corseted teddy that accentuated her small waist and lifted her ample breasts. Fabio remained still, his eyes roaming her face for clues, and Esmeralda revelled in the power she held over him. She leaned in closer, and saw again the beads of sweat that had earlier so enchanted her. Esmeralda gently kissed the tape that held Fabio’s lips silent and his naked body to the chair, then whispered sweetly, “Enjoy this night, my love, for morning shall not come for you.”
(enchanting, night, fabulous)
“What the hell you doin’, woman?” he slurred at her from his seat at the kitchen table.
“I’m making your favourite cookies,” she answered, careful to keep her voice light and cheerful: she had learned the hard way that submission and survival were synonymous. “Chocolate haystacks, with the toasted almonds you love so much.”
“’Bout fucking time you did something good for me, all I done for you,” he said with a self-righteous sneer, then took another sip of Jack Daniels.
Abby took the cookies out of the freezer, where they had hardened into little mountains of pure satisfaction, and humbly offered them to him. He shoved a whole haystack into his mouth, letting the chocolate melt on his tongue before biting into the coconut and almonds, then washed it all down with a hearty swig of whiskey.
“These taste mighty fine,” he said, licking his lips. “Too bad there’s not enough for the both of us,” he added, laughing, as he popped another cookie into his mouth.
It didn’t take long for the cyanide to work its magic. He collapsed onto the floor, shaking and heaving up bile-laced whiskey, chocolate and bits of undigested nuts. “You … bitch,” he spat as he swung a pathetic fist in her direction, and Abby saw in his eyes what he had seen all those years in hers: panic, fear, helplessness. For a moment she pitied him, but the moment quickly passed.
(taste, good, haystack)
She glanced out nervously from behind the curtain to the left of the stage, breathing deeply to quell the butterflies. As the keynote speaker she would be the last to address the thousand or so gathered to hear her proclamations, who trusted her to speak her truth, which was also their truth but a silenced, fearful one. She felt the weight of their expectations, a burden she had elected to carry but whose eventual heaviness she had underestimated. She had also underestimated the irony of speaking out as a wife and mother while her husband and children lived incognito in another country, safe but in despair of her absence. How was she to calculate the price they had paid for her decisions, or to compensate them for their sacrifices?
The event’s organizer sidled up beside her and offered a reassuring smile, but it was weak and she caught the anxious twitch at the corner of his mouth. He had been concerned sufficiently to smuggle her into the auditorium in the back of a bus, her head and face covered, another irony in what had become a life of ironies, a life that had imposed its own agenda as if she were no longer the director of her fate but an actor in someone else’s story.
She was introduced, and as she walked toward the podium a swell of fierce pride swept through the crowd — followed by an explosion, a moment of eerie silence … and then began the screaming.
(keynote, bus, incognito)
She landed at La Guardia International Airport off the red eye from Hong Kong, collected her bags and headed for customs. Passage through was swift: her visa was in order and her demeanour unassuming, so it took only minutes to answer the facile questions of border security then find the gweilo holding the placard that bore her name. Their greeting was muted as was befitting his station, and as he led her to the car she said little except to inquire as to the length of the trip to the luxury hotel in Alpine.
She had never heard of Alpine before agreeing to the assignation, and as she rode in silence she pondered the borough’s status as one of the most expensive in the country, and the cliché that for her client the gates of his stately home had become the gates of a prison. His moaning bored her, but a job was a job and he could afford her services.
At the hotel she took a bath, ordered room service for two, then changed into a black silk pantsuit that hugged her slender curves. When he arrived as scheduled he paid in advance as agreed, then she took the briefcase he had brought with him and left without so much as a kiss.
An hour later she joined him back in her room, her uneaten meal as cold as his wife on the foyer floor, her feet, as custom dictated, pointed toward the door.
(luxury, feet, international)
She rocked impatiently in her chair as the television blared and stoked her anger. She felt she would soon explode, and when she did she knew the media would paint her as an enigma — everyone would say how normal she had been, that she had no history of mental illness nor prior contact with police — and she resented the ease with which society dismissed her as no threat. The report would then mention how many “innocent” people had died in the attack, which also annoyed her as she knew there were no innocents: there was no one left who had not succumbed to the twin diseases of greed and egoism. Politicians, bankers, the neighbour who had poisoned her beloved oak: there was no shortage of culprits. We have become a nation of mercenaries, she thought with disgust. Her violence would be an act of karma for sins unacknowledged, a righteous act of retribution.
She caressed the WWII photograph of her late husband that he had kept in a trunk alongside his uniform and service medals. Theirs had been a proper generation, she thought indignantly, one that had understood sacrifice, community, selflessness! She broke the seal on the box that housed the grenade he had also kept, lifted it carefully and cradled it to her breast, imagining the devastation. She savoured the thought for a minute … then sighed deeply, resigned the grenade back to its box, locked the trunk, and took another sip of tea.
(seal, minute, died)
It was barely dawn when Adam ventured out into the forest, his dog, Macy, springing ahead with her usual, infectious enthusiasm. It was a change from the night before when she had growled at the cabin door; Adam, assuming it was a bear or perhaps a cougar out there in the dark, had stroked Macy’s head and cooed until her shaking had ceased. Locals would have claimed it was the scent of the werewolf Lucius or perhaps the she-beast Diviana that had panicked Macy: the woods were home to as many mythical beasts as real ones.
They were deep into the forest when Adam saw her. She was truly stunning, with a horse’s chestnut mane, a woman’s face and upper torso, her naked chest perched atop the slender body of a deer. Macy snarled at the creature and instinctively placed herself before Adam, but was quickly tamed by a soothing hum only she could hear, falling fast asleep at Diviana’s feet.
Adam was entranced. Diviana’s beauty was legendary, but he had always thought her no more than that: myth, fantasy, the folly of children and the peasant stock that populated these parts. Yet here she was in the flesh, standing magnificent before him, with eyes that were bright and welcoming. And then she spoke, and her voice was exceptional, and Adam’s thoughts were no longer his.
Macy was found days later wandering the forest and pining for her master, but Adam never returned to his cabin in the woods.
(exceptional, stunning, spring)
Souvenir of a Secret Life
When Brian awoke that morning his first thoughts were not about whether he should feed the children cereal for breakfast or something more substantial, like toast and eggs, or about the need to take the dog out for a quick walk and to relieve itself. They were not about the unfinished report on his desk that was due by day’s end, nor his need to pick up the dry cleaning on his lunch hour and the small detour from the food court this would entail. They were not about the young woman in cubicle three, whose personal phone calls were a constant distraction, her nasal voice, tinged with sarcasm, rising over the inadequate walls as she eviscerated yet another stranger, perceived enemy, or celebrity. His thoughts were not about the drinks he would begrudgingly agree to after work with his much senior supervisor, a man who insisted all hard liquor be referred to as spirits, as if such nomenclature were necessary in a civilized society, and whose “casual” invitations were refused at one’s corporate peril. With Brian such thoughts were unnecessary, for his days had a way of unfolding as required, subconsciously automated, each one indistinguishable from the previous or the next.
No, Brian’s first thoughts that morning were more reflective, about whether he should take a white or clear plastic bag to tie over the head of the elderly woman who lived in the seniors’ apartments that ringed the nearby cul-de-sac, whether he wanted to see the fear in the old tart’s eyes as she perished, or if he preferred to contemplate only the outline of her face, the thin white plastic forming a macabre relief when she gasped for air, and which piece of jewelry he should take as a souvenir, a cherished memento of a secret life.
(spirits, first, these)
Maribel anxiously pressed the stubs of her chewed fingernails into her palms as she toured the extended care home on behalf of her mother. The elderly woman suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and it seemed fated that decades of erratic behaviour and unpredictable moods were now manifest in the involuntary shaking of her arms and legs, the imbalance of her gait. It was ironic that it was now her mother’s own hands that trembled when she raised a glass of brandy to her lips, yet the ghost of the terrified child still evident in Maribel’s eyes forbade such wicked thoughts from reaching her tongue.
She shook herself and focused again on the tour director. The wiry-framed woman was waxing eloquent on the facility’s extensive social programs, exceptional housekeeping, and compassionate medical care, but her chirpy voice, brightly coloured clipboard, and animated pronouncements failed to muffle the moans of indignation that crept along the vinyl-tiled corridor, failed to sweeten the air soiled with abandoned expectations. The home was a monument to familial resignation. It was a tribute to death.
It was perfect.
Maribel plumped up the pillows behind her mother’s head and pulled a knitted afghan around the woman’s shoulders. A wiry hand reached out and grasped her daughter’s arm, digging hard into the flesh. “So this is how you repay me, is it?” the old woman hissed. “You ungrateful little bitch.”
Maribel peeled the bony fingers away with diffident determination. She raised her eyes and whispered, “Goodbye, Mother. May you live longer than you deserve.” Then Maribel awkwardly straightened her back, smoothed her dress with tremulous hands, and walked out the door to freedom.
(facility, housekeeping, program)
He approached the brownstone and looked nervously about, but the street was empty and its windows dark. An iron fence edged the property, but she had left the gate unlocked as agreed, a gesture intended to whet his appetite. He could feel the heat pooling in his groin.
He descended the stairs and quietly pushed open the basement door, also left unlocked. What would she look like? he wondered. Her online photo had been deliberately obscure, but that had only peaked his interest further. Over the course of three weeks they had corresponded in the chat room, had teased out each other’s fantasies, had offered to fulfill them. Now he was here, and his wildest dream awaited him at the back of the suite.
He crept along the narrow corridor toward her bedroom as instructed. The door was ajar, and he saw her body framed by the light that filtered through the sheers, penetrating the darkness. He removed the rope from his jacket and twisted it around one hand. He could already feel her struggling, could feel her breasts heaving against his chest as she fought to breathe beneath his weight. The anticipation was intoxicating.
Her eyes flashed as he clamped his hand over her mouth and straddled her. “Don’t fight and I promise not to hurt you,” he hissed. “You know you want this.”
He grabbed one wrist and began to bind it with the rope. She writhed like an angry animal beneath him, and from the corner of his eye he saw a flash of metal — then a searing pain as the blade pierced his side. “Never again,” she hissed back as he fell motionless onto her bed. Then she stood to watch, triumphant, as his life force darkened her sheets, and was spent.
(course, street, metal)
Beauty at the Beach
Jeremiah sniffed the air and thought it glorious, a new, delightful scent floating on the east wind. His eyes scanned the beach until he discovered the source of the enticing perfume, his heart skipping a beat at the sight of the sweetest redhead he had seen since the dog days of his youth. He was known then for landing a female with just a toss of his head and a crooked bad-boy smile, but he was getting older now and the females somehow younger, and lately it seemed he usually lost out to some slick fiend with shiny hair and a toned chest. Rejection was getting more painful, he had noticed too, not something he could shake off with a stiff drink and the attentions of his next mark.
Jeremiah kept one eye on the redhead while the other eye scoped out potential competition. He was lucky: only a few others were also out this early, taking advantage of the cool coastal breeze that would soon give way to a stifling heat. She was jogging down the beach beside a friend, and when the friend veered off to drink at the nearby public fountain, Jeremiah made his move. He ran toward her, heart lusting, loins aching, when he hit the end of his leash and came crashing down hard on his belly, his nose filling with sand. Jeremiah let out a mournful yelp but the retriever barely gave him a backward glance, and uncharitably jogged on with her mistress.
(thought, east, usually)
Luky Phuoc Dong
This is a true story.
I once had an elderly Vietnamese neighbour whose name, when translated into English, was Luky Phuoc Dong. I and the other building residents could never quite decide if the name Luky Phuoc Dong was a blessing or a curse, in either language.
Now, Luky Phuoc Dong had been dead five years, but he still received more mail than I did, a fact that caused a great deal of anxiety because, as a much younger woman, I had travelled the world and met many people, some of whom wrote to me after my return to Canada. One day I had bumped into my letter carrier, who was thrilled to meet the woman who received correspondence from all over the world, some of which had been imagined as love letters, and which, in fact, some of them were. But now, with the march of technology, the advent of email, I no longer receive posted letters from around the world, and I imagine I must now appear far less interesting to strangers.
(true, march, email)