Flash Fiction Offensive’s 11th year anniversary.

FFO

‘Greetings all you Gutterites. Ezine years are even longer than dog years. And we’ve reserved November to celebrate Flash Fiction Offensive‘s 11th year anniversary. Readers. Writers. Editors. That’s a lotta love and energy. The chocolate frosting we offer on today’s cake is surely bittersweet. Yet we’re pleased to present the tale “Loaded Guns” — penned by Sandra Seamans — and first published at FFO back in December of 2008. We hope y’all will take a few minutes to partake.’

 

 

Fiction: The Power of the Donk by Jim Shaffer

 When Tommy slammed on the brakes of the ’56 Chevy Bel Air, two things happened: Ellie’s face bounced hard off the dashboard and the body on the back seat bashed against the front seat and collapsed on the floor.

          “Gonnamn it, Tommy!” She sounded like she was talking in a bucket.

          Ellie punched him hard in the shoulder. The other hand cupped her nose. Blood oozed between her fingers. Tommy pulled off the road into a dim slot between the last two street lamps that marked the edge of town. He chanced a glance at Ellie. She tilted her head back on the top of the seat, hoping to stem the flow of blood. He knew she wasn’t a bleeder. Her face, wet and shiny, looked kind of crumpled from her crying. He couldn’t tell the blood from the tears. In the half-light, it all looked like Hershey’s chocolate syrup.

          He shrugged. “A dog crossed the road.” That’s all he said.

          “A donk!” She talked thick and wet, like she was under water. She shot upright and faced him. “Smashed ma dose fer a fuckin’ donk!”

          “Did I mention it was a big donk?” he said.

          Ellie slapped him on the back of his head, harder than she needed to. He was her brother. Making her life miserable was his job so a hit now and then for good measure hurt nothing. She didn’t care so long as he could take a beating for it. She never let on, but she secretly liked the teasing.

          Tommy knew you gotta be ready to get as good as you give. He didn’t mind the slap. If he could get Ellie’s goat, he was a happy guy.

          “The baby OK?” he asked. Ellie placed her hand on her tummy.

          “Baby’s fine. ‘S my dose.” She ran her fingertips over its swollen shape.

          Knowing Ellie’s temper and against his own better judgement, Tommy leaned in for a closer look.

          “Looks like you got a fat lip startin’.”

          She spat her words at him. Spittin’ them cleared her head. “Guess there’ll be no kissin’ tonight then. Thanks to you.” 

          He leaned back. “Night’s young, sis. No kissin’. Fuckin’ maybe.” He grinned and fluttered his eyebrows.

          “Been there.” She patted her stomach. “Just wanna be kissed too.”

          “What you want and what you get may be two different things. Careful what you wish for.”

          They both stared out the windshield at the night. Beyond the last street lamp, Tommy spied a sliver of moon, encircled by a bright pattern of stars in a cloudless sky,.

          “Nice night for gittin’ hitched,” he said.

          Ellie wasn’t convinced. It’s what her pa wanted. He didn’t bother asking her opinion. Even a country girl has dreams, small ones maybe, but that’s how they start. As she watched the empty road disappear into the back of beyond, into nowhere and nothing, she imagined her life would be something more than what felt like a dead end. She wished for more. She may not get more, but maybe wantin’ more, wantin’ to be kissed besides, was a start. She’d done the other. Look where it got her. She rubbed her tummy and for just a little while, sitting there in the dark, pondered the future of her small dreams and made up her mind. She turned to Tommy.

          “Let’s kill ‘im.” The solution came to her all at once, but hearing the words kinda surprised her.

          “Whoa. Kill who?”

          “Donnie.” She tilted her head toward the back of the car.

          They both turned. The back seat was empty.

          “What the–!” Tommy jumped out of the car and looked around, up and down the road.

          When he’d pushed open the driver’s door, the dome light came on. Ellie got to her knees, looked over the top of the front seat at the floor. She yelled after him. “Donnie’s down there. The bastard’s sleepin’ it off.”

          Tommy scrambled to the back door and yanked it open. Donnie’s head fell out, bent over the bottom of the door frame. His eyes were open. He stared right up at Tommy but he didn’t see him. A trickle of blood ran from his nose and across his cheek, plotting a course for his ear. Tommy pressed the side of Donnie’s neck, feeling for a pulse.

          “Shiiiit!”

          “What? What?”

          “Shit! Shit! Shit!” Tommy stomped and jumped, kicked the car, pounded the roof.

          Ellie scooted across the seat and out the driver’s door. She ran around the open back door and stopped when she saw Donnie.

          “Shit is right. He looks dead.” She took one step back.

          “Think so, Sherlock?” Tommy leaned against the car, trying to light a cigarette. His hands shook, but he managed.

          “How much of that ether did you give him?”

          “Just enough. OK?” He glanced at Ellie, puffed on his cigarette.

          “He was already drunk when he stumbled outta Shorty’s and you grabbed him.”

          “So? You blamin’ me?” He pushed off the car, gave her his hard stare.

          “Just sayin’s all.” She raised her hands in surrender.

          “Yeah. Right.” He stomped out his cigarette. “We gotta git goin’. Pa’s gonna be pissed. I know he’s got his shotgun primed and that young preacher from the New Holiness Church comin’ over. S’posed to be a wedding t’night. Now we got no husband. Shit!”

          Ellie hopped back in the car and slid over to the passenger seat. She spoke loud enough so Tommy could hear.

          “What’re we gonna tell Pa?”

          Tommy was thinking hard about that when he reached down to lift Donnie’s head and push him back in the car.

          “Shit!”

          “What now?”

          ”His neck’s broke. Head’s wobblin’ ’round like one o’ them toy dogs ya see in people’s cars.”

          He lifted the body by the shoulders up to a sitting position. Donnie’s head bounced around on his shoulders, following gravity’s pull and its own unfettered orbit. Tommy pushed Donnie’s head forward, then jumped free and slammed the door closed. Ellie watched it all over the top of the seat, and kept watching as Donnie’s body fell backwards to the floor, his head slumping at an odd angle against the side of the door.

          She expected Tommy to hop in the car and head for home. Instead, he circled the car once, his head down, hands jammed in the front pockets of his jeans. Her eyes followed his complete tour until at the end of the great circle, he paused for a moment just outside the driver’s door. Then he climbed into the car, closing the door with a subdued thunk.

          “Well?” Ellie asked.

          “Sorry ’bout Donnie.”

          “I ain’t. Was Pa’s idea. Not mine. I mean, sorry he’s dead, but shit happens.”

          They sat in silence for a moment.

          “I figured it out,” he said. “Musta flew off the back seat, twisted his neck when I slammed on the brakes for the dog.” She touched her nose.

          “The donk,” he said. Ellie punched him in the shoulder again but not as hard as before. “That’s our story, and I’m stickin’ to it. We blame it on the fucking donk.”

          “Okay.” She didn’t hit him this time.

          Not a word more was said as they drove down the road, heading for home. Ellie was just quietly pleased her little dreams were still in tact.

          ***

          When they screeched to a halt in front of the cabin they shared with their pa, the porch light was on. Pa’s old bloodhound, Red, shot to his feet and barked once. Their pa and the preacher stood at the top of the porch steps and watched the dust settle. The preacher tugged at his stiff clerical collar while their pa flipped his shotgun back on top of his shoulder.

          “Here we go,” Tommy said.

          He got out of the car as his pa came down the porch steps.

          “Where’s Donnie?” his pa asked.

          Ellie stepped out her side of the car.

          “Where’s that sonuvabitch!” He brought the shotgun down off his shoulder. Tommy stopped him before he got close to the car.

          “Pa, he ain’t here,” Tommy said.

          Her pa watched Ellie as she ran around the back of the car, trotted up the porch steps, and stood by the preacher.

          “What you mean he ain’t here?”

          “Pa. Come over here. We got to talk private like.”

          He steered his pa off toward a corner of the cabin. Tommy did his best to explain, paced back and forth, held his head in his hands, pointed at the car, shook his head, and finally just shrugged. Neither Ellie nor the preacher could hear the conversation. She didn’t need to, she knew the story. But the preacher was ignorant to what happened and impatient. He took two steps down off the porch.

          “Excuse me,” he said. “Is there going to be a wedding or not, ’cause I see no groom?”

          Hearing his words, Tommy and his pa looked at the preacher and then up at Ellie. She stood on the front edge of the porch, her head haloed by the yellow porch light. She looked like a bride. His pa strode over to the foot of the porch steps. He raised his shotgun and pointed it at the preacher. Ellie felt her small dreams shrink even further.

          “I hear you’re single, preacher,” was all their pa said.

          Red lifted his head off the porch floor and howled once.

Bio: Jim Shaffer grew up in rural Pennsylvania, spending his early years on his grandparent’s farm. Since, he’s lived almost half his life abroad. Recently, he’s appeared in Wrong Turn, a mystery/thriller anthology by Blunder Woman Productions, and will soon feature in the Hardboiled anthology series from Dead Guns Press. More of his short stories and a novella can be found on line at Close to the Bone, Flash Fiction Offensive, and Bewildering Stories.

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Tchao Pantin (So Long, Stooge) by Jim Shaffer

Tchao Pantin (affiche)Lambert drinks. He works the night shift as a pompiste at a 24/7 petrol station in a quartier called Belleville in the northeast of Paris. Ensconced in the petrol station’s tiny office, Lambert sits alone and drinks. On his way home from work in the morning, he stops by a bar and drinks. Arriving home, he drinks some more. Falling into bed in a drunken stupor, he sleeps, numb from the alcohol and indifferent to the daylight. When night falls, the cycle begins again. 

      He’s nocturnal. In his night-time transient world, the customers come and go, just passing through. Except for a few empty words with the station’s clients, he speaks to no one. He has no friends. “Je suis mort,” he says. Dead, disconnected, withdrawn from the real world. In its place, he creates his own, an alcoholic stew, a fog that blurs the present. Anything to keep the past at bay. 

     Enter Bensoussan.  A young man, half-Jew, half-Arab, part of two opposing worlds. That’s fine with him. On the streets of Belleville, he chooses his own way. A low-rung drug dealer and petty thief, he works out of a bar called Chez Rachid. He sells drugs for Rachid. On the side he makes his own deals, some cash for a rainy day.

     He lives in a one-room flat at the end of a rabbit warren of dank, dark passages and crumbling stairways. One wall of the flat is filled with a library of Que sais-je? (What I know). He hides his cash and stash between the book’s pages.

     As a thief, his speciality is mopeds and motorcycles. He carries the right tools, bolt cutters, pliers, and possesses an acute sense of the streets, how much a small-time thief can get away with.

     One night he steals a dodgy moped. It’s pouring rain. It breaks down. He can’t get it re-started. A police car pulls up behind him, its blue lights flashing on the wet street. He panics. Desperate, and hoping to elude the police, he pushes the moped into Lambert’s petrol station. Lambert thinks he wants essence (petrol). No. He says he thinks it’s la bougie (spark plug). Lambert looks half-heartedly for moped spark plugs. Says he doesn’t have any. Then glances through the window through the rain at the police car pulled up at the edge of the station. Bensoussan looks out at the police car, then turns toward Lambert. Lambert stares at Bensoussan as the police car pulls away. That is the beginning of the story, and those few scenes define the balance of their relationship. It’s not a friendship. More of a kinship. Maybe they see reflected in each other something they recognize in themselves.

     Then Lola appears, une jeune femme punk, spikey-bleached hair, a clubber, full of attitude, hangs with the punk crowd. And she loves motorcycles. Bensoussan steals motorcycles. Voilà! If he can’t steal one, he “borrows” Rachid’s. Not the best move, and it could be the worst if Rachid knows. But it’s worth it for Lola. Anything for Lola. One night he takes her pour faire un tour (a spin) through the streets of Paris on Rachid’s motorcycle. And so it begins.

     Bensoussan tells Lambert about Lola. As an unusual twist on the femme fatale, she becomes the link between the two men and the catalyst for rooting out Lambert’s past. Lola plays a large role in bringing the story to its climax.

     Things come to a head when the police get involved. That happens when there’s been a suspicious death or a murder. In the course of the investigation, Lambert comes to the attention of Bauer, a Paris police detective. It’s through him we learn the details of Lambert’s past. It’s the past he drinks to forget.

 

     In William Faulkner’s 1951 novel, Requiem for a Nun, he says, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And in the film, Tchao Pantin, the past is very much alive.

     The French noir film, Tchao Pantin, was released in 1983. It won a César (French equivalent of the Oscar) for Best Picture. It’s a story of les paumés, the isolated, the lost, the disoriented, the ones who live on the edge of reality. In the end, it’s a story of vengeance, of righting past wrongs, of love and a little hope, and more, an attempt to speak for the dead as some form of redemption.

    

     The starring role of Lambert is played by Coluche (Michel Gérard Joseph Colucci), a much-loved stand-up comedian in France. Considered the “clown prince” of comedy, he delivered his irreverent social commentary in his trademark striped bib overalls, yellow t-shirt, yellow boots, and frizzed-out hair. Most of his film roles (28) were in comedies. Lambert was Coluche’s first important serious role, and maybe it’s fitting it should have gone to a comic. After all, who knows more about the serious side of life than those who can laugh at it. Coluche is quoted as saying, “I am capable of the best and the worst, but in the worst, I am the best.” No truer words than in his role as Lambert in Tchao Pantin. Coluche won the Best Actor César for his portrayal of the drunken petrol station attendant.

     The two young actors, Richard Anconina (Bensoussan) and Agnès Soral (Lola) both started their film careers in 1977. Anconina, with his dark looks and wavy black hair, is convincing and memorable as the smart-ass hustler, Bensoussan. For this role, he won the César for Best Supporting Actor. Agnès Soral, in playing Lola, the bitchy jeune punk, fits in perfectly between the deux autres paumés, Bensoussan and Lambert. She gives as good as she gets and takes no shit from either one. Soral won a César for Best Promising Actress for her role as Lola.

     It’s a small role but an important one. Philippe Léotard plays Bauer, a Paris police detective. Léotard is probably best known for his starring role as Dédé in Bob Swaim’s La Balance for which he won a César for Best Actor. He’s appeared in 105 films, and his presence in this one lifts the film and its story to another level. His several meetings with Lambert prove his worth as a detective but fail to penetrate Lambert’s stony indifference.

       

     Claude Berri directed the film and was nominated for a César. A well-respected director in France, most famous for directing the two Marcel Pagnol films, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources. Camera angle and placement are essential to telling a story on film, and Berri knows his stuff. At times, the way he holds the shot on Lambert’s empty face is unsettling.

     The film is based on the novel by the same name by Alain Page (pseudonym for Jean-Emmanuel Conil). He and Claude Berri co-wrote the script, also nominated for a Cesar. Through to 2015, Page has written scripts for film and TV as well as over a hundred novels, including romans policiers and espionage. Tchao Pantin is an intimate story. It takes place in a small community in Paris with a limited number of characters, and as Page said himself, they are all les paumés.

     Bruno Nuytten shot the film. He was the cinematographer on the two Pagnol films that Berri directed. The look of Tchao Pantin is reminiscent of the gritty, rain-soaked streets of Taxi Driver. Since most of the film takes place at night, the colour film almost resembles black and white. The film is dark but lacks no detail and meshes well with the portent of the story.

     The soundtrack/music for the film is a first-time outing for pop-rock musician, Charlélie Couture (Bertrand Charles Elie Couture). The soundtrack was nominated for a César. Couture left the music scene in the nineties and now calls himself a “multist”, presenting his creative work across several disciplines. The music in the film is mournful, despairing, with phrases that, in their repetition, suggest a return to something, perhaps to the past, a place Lambert is all too familiar.

That’s it. Tchao Pantin. Great story, great characters. It’s well worth a watch. You won’t forget it.                

Fiction: Excerpt from “Bit Player” by Jim Shaffer.

Setting: A bar, somewhere in the fifties, a cold New York City night.

Action: An actor, a bit player, sits at the bar.

I pulled a copy of Back Stage from my pocket and laid it flat on the bar to catch the spill from the dome light overhead. I flipped the pages to the open auditions, the cattle call section. I was an actor looking for work. If you asked me, I’d say I was an up-and-coming actor. But honestly, I hoped you didn’t ask. I wouldn’t have to lie.

Off-off Broadway had offered me a small part in a play that closed after ten days. I think ten people saw it. None of them wrote reviews. In my line of work, if a door cracked open, you squeezed through, no matter how small the crack.

 

My claim to fame was a bit part I got in a De Niro film. I’m not a tough guy like Bob is, so I played the victim. I learned I was good at playing victims. I knew just how to act stupid enough. I rode that stupid-victim horse for as long as I could after that, dropping Bob’s name every chance I got. I wasn’t proud. I was like the bum in the park throwing bread crumbs to the pigeons, hoping somehow the deed would redeem me, and the pigeons would shit on somebody else. Meanwhile, I sat sipping my drink, circling job prospects on the magazine’s pristine pages with my stubby pencil, drawing little circles of hope around each stellar offer.

 

Hunched over the bar, fingers cramped, I’d lost track of time. I sat back in my bar chair, stretching my arms straight up above my head. The clock over the back of the bar said it was close to the tail end of the evening.

I turned around. There were only two other patrons in the bar. They sat on the same bench in a booth in the back, oblivious to the rest of us suffering souls, concentrating instead on their shared wit and charm and smiles, highlighted by the occasional caress and kiss. They were the lucky ones, still warm and living in oblivion.

 

I turned around and faced the bar. “Carl, can I get another?” I lifted my glass in Carl’s direction.

“I’ll pay this time.” I laid some bills on the bar.

Carl brought the bottle over and filled the glass.

“Slow night,” I said.

“Yankees are playing.” He set the bottle on the bar. He didn’t touch my money.

I reached for my drink as the door opened. We both turned to look. I left my drink on the bar and watched. Carl retreated further down the bar.

 

A couple walked in. The woman took the lead and headed straight toward the far end of the bar. She was blonde, fortyish, tall in high heels, maybe five-ten or a little more. I preferred tall women, even older tall women. Her hair was done up in a French twist, a little foreign and exotic, the Inger Stevens look in her day. When she glided past me, her solid breasts swayed against the silky fabric of her royal blue cocktail dress cut mid-thigh. I figured she wore no bra. I imagined, just a camisole. I imagined lots of things. Could be she liked the way it felt, or maybe she just liked the edge it gave her over us mere mortals. Either way, I didn’t mind. I watched her pull a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her coat pocket and slap them on the top of the bar. Then she slipped out of her black top coat. It looked like cashmere. On her, it had to be. She flung it over the back of an empty bar chair before taking a seat next to it. She lit a cigarette, tilted her head back and blew a stream of blue smoke at the ceiling. At the row of lights over the bar, I watched it billow, then disappear into the darkness overhead. I peered into the darkness. I thought I saw storm clouds and a flash of lightning. Maybe I imagined it. Maybe it was just the smoke and the lighting. Maybe I saw nothing.

 

The man had stopped at the end of the bar near the door. He hadn’t followed the woman. He’d removed his coat. While I’d been distracted, he’d hung it over the back of a chair to my left. He rapped an impatient knuckle on the bar top. Carl finished drying and stacking some shot glasses then came to the end of the bar.

“Two vodka martinis. Onions in one, olives in the other. And hurry it up.”

Carl said nothing as he walked behind the bar in an even pace down to a shelf holding a row of bottles. The man dragged his coat off the back of the chair and passed behind me. He bumped the back of my chair harder than he needed to. I jerked around to face him. He stumbled to a stop. He swayed. A slight smile played on his lips as he turned toward me. He gave me a slow blink with watery eyes. He looked a little high. He’d already had a few. He said nothing. Instead, he raised his hand like a traffic cop. Then he turned away and sauntered past the row of bar chairs towards the woman seated around the end of the bar.

“Do you have a choice of vodka, sir?” Carl barely contained his sarcasm.

“Anything Russian. If you have Russian vodka here.” He was less subtle than Carl.

The man slouched out of his coat, lifted it up by the collar so it hung straight then folded it slowly over the back of a bar chair. He moved with the deliberate care of a drunk. He patted the coat like it was the head of his favorite pet before falling into a seat next to the woman, jostling the chair that held his coat. Unnoticed, the coat slithered to the floor. He teased a cigarette from her pack and after a few failed attempts, lit it with her lighter. They didn’t speak. They didn’t look at one another. I figured they were the typical happily married couple.

Read the rest of BIT PLAYER at RETREATS FROM OBLIVION.

Bio: Jim Shaffer grew up in rural Pennsylvania, spending his early years on his grandparent’s farm. Since, he’s lived almost half his life abroad. Recently, he’s appeared in Wrong Turn, a mystery/thriller anthology by Blunder Woman Productions, and will soon feature in the Hardboiled anthology series from Dead Guns Press. More of his short stories and a novella can be found on line at Close to the BoneFlash Fiction Offensive, and Bewildering Stories.

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