A Poem A Story A Prompt, Issue 27

Flashes Before Your Eyes

I stumbled across today’s poem and story on other people’s Twitter threads, so I guess that website isn’t all bad (though it is pretty bad.) I’m amazed by how both collapse entire lifetimes into relatively short texts, how in each piece we find ourselves darting across space and time before the stanza or sentence is complete. In both time is a brute force jerking the protagonist forward without his having much of a say in it. And the endings of both bring us to deathbeds and the question of how it all flashed by so fast so as to have barely even registered. (Another story that fits into this theme is Tobias Wolff’s Bullet in the Brain—in which a character experiences scenes from his life, “in a phrase he would have abhorred,” flashing before his eyes—but that one’s been so widely anthologized it doesn’t really need my help.)

Poem

The Chorus

1. 

It’s, you know, the part that repeats,
the bit you’re supposed
to remember, the bit that bears

repeating, the part that means
something new
each time, something different,

and the same thing, too,
the thing you can’t forget,
that gets stuck in your head.

So, like, childhood
is endless and over
almost as soon as it begins?

Yeah, like that. Ten years
shrinks like the pages
of a water-damaged book.

No, the pages don’t really shrink
or shrivel, they crinkle, get kinda
crisp and brittle, but

time’s like that, a wrinkle,
and suddenly you’ve been
married as long as

you were ever a kid,
ever awash in the interminable
Thursday of your first ten years, when

three months was an aeon, when,
like, childhood was endless
and over as soon as it began.

See what I did there? Shifted
the refrain into the middle.
Yeah, time is like that, and

2. 

suddenly your newborn
is ten and your wife
is celebrating the birthday

only grownups do,
and you must be older
than your mom was

at your age, and it’s not
Thursday—was it ever? And the two
pills you have to take every night.

How is it Sunday, I mean
Monday, this morning, your alarm,
your coffee grumbling, thunder,

and the kids (two of them,
suddenly) are out the door, and
their childhood is

endless and already over
as soon as it begins, and
you’re on the bus to work. See what

I did there? I don’t. The four
pills you have to take three
times every day, you might

3. 

as well be already
at your desk, your deathbed,
holding your daughter’s

grownup hand, you
hope, the hospital calm and
clean, like the one your mother

died in, and there’s hopefully
money somewhere to take care
of everything, and this

is like childhood, endless
and over as soon as it begins,
or as close as you’ll ever get

again—see what I did
there? Did you
see? Did anyone?

—Craig Morgan Teicher

Who is this guy?

The author of three books of poetry and collections of stories and essays, Craig Morgan Teicher teaches at the New School and New York University. He also works as a book critic and is digital director of the Paris Review. Hilton Als writes that Teicher’s poems are “miracles of compression. But there is nothing compressed about his mind and spirit.”

Story

Going for a Beer

He finds himself sitting in the neighborhood bar drinking a beer at about the same time that he began to think about going there for one. In fact, he has finished it. Perhaps he’ll have a second one, he thinks, as he downs it and asks for a third. There is a young woman sitting not far from him who is not exactly good-looking but good-looking enough, and probably good in bed, as indeed she is. Did he finish his beer? Can’t remember. What really matters is: Did he enjoy his orgasm? Or even have one? This he is wondering on his way home through the foggy night streets from the young woman’s apartment. Which was full of Kewpie dolls, the sort won at carnivals, and they made a date, as he recalls, to go to one. Where she wins another—she has a knack for it. Whereupon they’re in her apartment again, taking their clothes off, she excitedly cuddling her new doll in a bed heaped with them. He can’t remember when he last slept, and he’s no longer sure, as he staggers through the night streets, still foggy, where his own apartment is, his orgasm, if he had one, already fading from memory. Maybe he should take her back to the carnival, he thinks, where she wins another Kewpie doll (this is at least their second date, maybe their fourth), and this time they go for a romantic nightcap at the bar where they first met. Where a brawny dude starts hassling her. He intervenes and she turns up at his hospital bed, bringing him one of her Kewpie dolls to keep him company. Which is her way of expressing the bond between them, or so he supposes, as he leaves the hospital on crutches, uncertain what part of town he is in. Or what part of the year. He decides that it’s time to call the affair off—she’s driving him crazy—but then the brawny dude turns up at their wedding and apologizes for the pounding he gave him. He didn’t realize, he says, how serious they were. The guy’s wedding present is a gift certificate for two free drinks at the bar where they met and a pair of white satin ribbons for his crutches. During the ceremony, they both carry Kewpie dolls that probably have some barely hidden significance, and indeed do. The child she bears him, his or another’s, reminds him, as if he needed reminding, that time is fast moving on. He has responsibilities now and he decides to check whether he still has the job that he had when he first met her. He does. His absence, if he has been absent, is not remarked on, but he is not congratulated on his marriage, either, no doubt because—it comes back to him now—before he met his wife he was engaged to one of his colleagues and their co-workers had already thrown them an engagement party, so they must resent the money they spent on gifts. It’s embarrassing and the atmosphere is somewhat hostile, but he has a child in kindergarten and another on the way, so what can he do? Well, he still hasn’t cashed in the gift certificate, so, for one thing, what the hell, he can go for a beer, two, in fact, and he can afford a third. There’s a young woman sitting near him who looks like she’s probably good in bed, but she’s not his wife and he has no desire to commit adultery, or so he tells himself, as he sits on the edge of her bed with his pants around his ankles. Is he taking them off or putting them on? He’s not sure, but now he pulls them on and limps home, having left his beribboned crutches somewhere. On arrival, he finds all the Kewpie dolls, which were put on a shelf when the babies started coming, now scattered about the apartment, beheaded and with their limbs amputated. One of the babies is crying, so, while he warms up a bottle of milk on the stove, he goes into its room to give it a pacifier and discovers a note from his wife pinned to its pajamas, which says that she has gone off to the hospital to have another baby and she’d better not find him here when she gets back, because if she does she’ll kill him. He believes her, so he’s soon out on the streets again, wondering if he ever gave that bottle to the baby, or if it’s still boiling away on the stove. He passes the old neighborhood bar and is tempted but decides that he has had enough trouble for one lifetime and is about to walk on when he is stopped by that hulk who beat him up and who now gives him a cigar because he’s just become a father and drags him into the bar for a celebratory drink, or, rather, several, he has lost count. The celebrations are already over, however, and the new father, who has married the same woman who threw him out, is crying in his beer about the miseries of married life and congratulating him on being well out of it, a lucky man. But he doesn’t feel lucky, especially when he sees a young woman sitting near them who looks like she’s probably good in bed and decides to suggest that they go to her place, but too late—she’s already out the door with the guy who beat him up and stole his wife. So he has another beer, wondering where he’s supposed to live now, and realizing—it’s the bartender who so remarks while offering him another on the house—that life is short and brutal and before he knows it he’ll be dead. He’s right. After a few more beers and orgasms, some vaguely remembered, most not, one of his sons, now a racecar driver and the president of the company he used to work for, comes to visit him on his deathbed and, apologizing for arriving so late (I went for a beer, Dad, things happened), says he’s going to miss him but it’s probably for the best. For the best what? he asks, but his son is gone, if he was ever there in the first place. Well . . . you know . . . life, he says to the nurse who has come to pull the sheet over his face and wheel him away.

—Robert Coover

Who is this guy?

Born in Iowa in 1932, Robert Coover began publishing stories after serving in the Korean War. He has since written (mindbogglingly) more than twenty books, which include novels, short fiction, essays, and plays. His work frequently dispenses with conventional narrative progression; of so-called realism, he told Hari Kunzru, "I didn't think of it as realistic. It used modes of response to the world that had become stultified and so were easily communicated. I learned my realism from guys like Kafka."

Prompt

I have sometimes felt that having to physically move characters around (“They decided to go the carnival, so they caught the B51 bus…,” etc.) is one of the more tedious aspects of writing fiction. In “Going for a Beer” Coover discards this practice entirely, jumping from his protagonist’s thinking of performing some action to the aftermath of the action within the space of a sentence (“Maybe he should take her back to the carnival, he thinks, where she wins another Kewpie doll”…) Try this in a poem or story—see if you can leapfrog from one setting to the next without having to show the reader how we got there.


Alanna Schubach is a fiction writer, freelance journalist, and teacher. Follow her on Twitter @AlannaSchubach and read her work at alannaschubach.com. Send questions, recommendations for future newsletters, and the results of writing prompts (if you’re so inclined) to info@alannaschubach.com