In late July of 2004, I was in Copenhagen, Denmark on the tail end of a 10-week backpacking trip of western Europe. I had been traveling with two friends, but for the eighth week of the trip, we decided to go our separate ways. John went to Paris for the week. Stephan went to southern France. And I went to Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where I wrote my first flash fiction.
Struck with a Writing Idea
After having been with my two friends consistently for eight weeks, it was really nice to be alone. And since 2004 was a world where cell phones were really just phones and I didn’t have one with me anyway, I was truly isolated. The only method of communicating with my friends about how we would meet up again in Paris was for me to log in at an internet cafe to check my email.
With all this time on my hands, I wrote a lot. More than usual. I had been journaling at every stop along the way. I had written a number of poems during the course of my travels. But as I sat beside one of the small lakes in Copenhagen, I was struck with a different sort of writing energy. Unexpectedly, I had an idea for a story.
I pulled the gray spiral notebook out of my small messenger bag that I’d picked up in an East Berlin army surplus store. And I started writing. I didn’t know the term flash fiction at the time. In fact it’s not a writing style I’d even become aware of until more than ten years later. But what I started writing was flash fiction.
My First Foray Into Flash Fiction
I wrote the story out by hand in my notebook. I’d never written anything like it before. I didn’t really know where it came from or quite what to make of it. But I enjoyed writing it.
Over the next few years, I wrote a dozen or so other flash fiction stories. I’m going to share this first one with you, not because it’s good — it isn’t — but because it exists. In some ways, it is in the lineage of writing that has become the novel I am writing and the future novels that I hope to write.
I find it difficult to read the poetry and fiction that I wrote in my teenage years and early 20s, because it is so much different than how I write now. But I do have some appreciation for it as it is part of my writing evolution.
So without further delay (albeit still having some trepidation), here is my first flash fiction, “Children the Grass Grew”.
Children the Grass Grew (July 28, 2004)
The dog was barking. The dog never barked. Jim didn’t worry because the dog had never been a collie before either. The house was the same except for the plums on and around the tree; they hadn’t been there when he left for the institution one hundred seventy-one weeks ago. The leaves had just been budding then.
The doctor always worried because once a week another tick mark appeared on Jim’s arm signifying that another week had passed for Jim in the institution. The doctor often asked Jim about the marks, but Jim never seemed sure where they came from. This did not at all reassure the doctor. The doctor had any sharp objects removed from Jim’s room, but the marks continued to appear.
The green door was the same, and the shutters that matched. The grass seemed to have grown children who played in it. They seemed like such nice children. The grass must be very proud.
The boy and the girl watched Jim with as much wonder as he did them. Their games stopped as their memorization drew all their concentration.
No one had told Jim he had a problem. It didn’t seem to be important that he knew; the doctor was not even certain he was capable of understanding had he been told. Jim was very simple, simple and pleasant, mostly.
The shrubs were the same; maybe bigger, but definitely the same shrubs. What could the dog be so upset about on a day like this. It’s a very nice day, no day for a dog to be barking.
The day was an exceptionally mild eighty degrees Fahrenheit for east Texas in mid-summer. Boys were drawn to creeks as much as mosquitoes were drawn to the boy’s susceptible, uncaring bodies. Chasing grasshoppers and running from snakes were all part of the day’s agenda. The boys’ only concern was whether or not the cattle were lying on their sides, which according to all grandmas was definitely prophetical of rain. So goes an east Texas summer, the kind Jim remembered so well, so vividly.
Jim let himself into the yard through the waist-high wooden gate, remembering first to unlatch it from inside. Jim noticed that the grass-grown children continued to stare at him. Upon opening the front door by its brass-plated handle, Jim noticed that one of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was playing. Jim loved Vivaldi.
The doctor always played the Four Seasons during his and Jim’s sessions. It had a way of soothing Jim while the doctor tried to open the recesses of his vaulted mind. He had yet to find the combination to that particular safe. Jim always became confused when the doctor asked questions he didn’t understand. And these questions were always asked.
Jim could never remember what happened after he became confused, but he always woke up in his white sheet-covered bed in restraints. The straps didn’t bother Jim because he could see out the window, and the hummingbirds were often on the feeders contending with wasps for the sweet red nectar.
Jim followed the music into the kitchen where he found his mother. Only, she didn’t look or smell like his mother. She had similar features, but she seemed different. And his mother had never screamed before when she saw him. His mother grabbed a kitchen knife and a nearby telephone. Jim was suddenly very confused and tried to stop his mother so that she would understand that he was her Jim.
The doctor was always kind to Jim and never became impatient at Jim’s inability to remember so many vitally important things when he seemed to remember every detail of other seemingly less significant things. When Jim occasionally inquired about his family, the doctor always avoided reminding Jim why they could not come to visit. Jim got along well with the other patients and was generally free to roam his ward. What the doctor could not understand is how Jim had walked out the doors without the staff noticing. The doctor was frantic to find Jim before something happened.
The screaming sirens brought Jim to. He was in restraints again but this time in the back of a car rather than his bed. Red and blue light danced off the front of Jim’s house; he was enthralled in their beauty. Jim noticed the children, who were no longer staring at him, were not playing either. He thought they must be asleep; they were very still.
An ambulance arrived, and the crew, already informed of the situation, descended the vehicle hopelessly.
The front doors of Jim’s car opened. People climbed in. The doors closed. Jim smiled because he liked people, but the men in the front did not smile. The dog was still barking. Jim wondered about that.