April 19, 2020: “There Is No Albuquerque” by Kathy Fish

Good Sunday to you, Story366!

Is this the first Sunday in ordinary time this year? No, I guess the Sundays in January and February before Lent were “ordinary” and now we’re just back to that, Easter coming and going last week. I looked it up. Even after nine years of Catholic school, I just found out that the liturgical year starts on December 1, with Advent, a fact that somehow was not embossed onto my brain at good ol’ St. Andrews. Now I know! And really, I don’t care about any of that, but as I was sitting here, wondering what my lead-in would be today, I realized that it’s already been a week since Easter; a week ago, right now, I was watching my kids tear through their baskets and hunt down eggs in the back yard (still two or three they never found—something out there got to them by now …). I especially thought it was kind of funny, in an ironic way, to call anything that’s happening now “ordinary time.” Maybe the world will repurpose that phrase, use it to describe pre- and post-coronavirus quarantine. Everyone can agree, I’m sure, that we’ll use this era as a time marker, the way we’ve been using 9/11, even the dawn of the internet. For some reason, I sat down and “ordinary time” popped into my head and I cracked a smile. As if.

Yesterday, I took part in a second Zoom party for SmokeLong Quarterly. These parties are online shindigs attended by SLQ staff and contributors, thirty to forty people squeezed onto a screen, Brady Bunch style, a community of like-minded artists.

And what a community it is. Along with readings by various SLQ contributors—yesterday we had Amber Sparks (who blew the roof off), Brendan Stephens, Hadiyyah Kuma, and the great Kathy Fish (inspiring today’s selection). These parties are set up so all the participants can hear the readings and watch the readers read (it’s Zoom!). In-between readings, SLQ chief Christopher Allen also puts us into various chatrooms so we can visit with a half-dozen people at a time. I love those chats, as I get to meet all kinds of SLQ contributors whom I’ve worked with (as Interviews Editor). We introduce each other, talk about how we’re coping, and discuss what we’re working on, maybe if we’re even able to write at all. It’s been affirming and inspiring these talks, and last night, I wrote an entire flash piece. Yay!

Remember when flash fiction was kind of an outlier in terms of fiction genres? Maybe, maybe not. But I seem to recall twenty years ago a dark era when not a lot of people were writing short-short stories, that doing so was considered experimenting. A lot of journals had no-flash policies. Some academic writing profs didn’t allow flash into workshops. One of my own professors, a mentor, told me that short shorts were just outlines for real stories, of regular length (to which I countered that “real stories” were perhaps, then, just outlines for novels …). Books were rarely published that featured flash, and of course, most of those newish online flash journals didn’t yet exist. Could be that I’m misremembering, rewriting history in my head so I can make a point my point (i.e., academic scholarship). I don’t think so, though.

What I’m getting at here is how flash has evolved into a major genre, one that’s thriving. Those chats yesterdy revealed a whole underworld of flashy connections. Most of the writers I encountered knew each other, not from social media or SLQ itself, but a variety of workshops, conferences, and other endeavors. Even I, a proprietor of flash and an editor on SLQ‘s staff, had no idea how deeply this network ran. Along with every other aspect of this online party, this whole new world sent my heart a flutter.

Inspired by these discussions, by the readings, and my own writing success last night (or morning—I closed my computer at 3:25 a.m.), why not read and discuss Kathy Fish today? She has several books, but the one I’ve had waiting on my stack is Wild Life, out in 2018 from Matter Press. I picked it up at the SLQ offsite at AWP in Portland and got Kathy to sign it. Today I sat and read the whole thing, a delightful way to spend a Sunday, like a picnic in a park, a carriage ride through a vast woodland estate, or an all-you-can-eat chicken-wing competition during Wildcard Weekend at a sports bar.

Like with any flash collection, it’s really hard to pick a story and spend a lot of time summarizing it, as a lot of the stories have truncated arcs, carry a vague sense of closure, and literally are comprised of fewer words than my average post. I’m picking one, anyway, because I always do, and that story is “There Is No Albuquerque,” the fourth story (of about sixty) in the book.

“There Is No Albuquerque” features a woman who announces, in the first line, that she was born with three birth defects: crossed eyes, a hole in her neck, and three bumps on her forehead that eventually grow into horns. The former two take care of themselves, but the latter, the horns, only become more pronounced as she grows older. She looks like a devil, only with three horns instead of two, and when she’s an adult, people call her “Dinosaur Girl.”

Her parents seem to love her, do everything they can to help her adjust to her abnormalities. Tragically, they die in an elevator-shaft accident when she’s young and she’d given to the only relative she has, a distant uncle who works as a clown in a freak show (clowns populate a few stories in this book). Our hero is unlucky once again, as all the love and care bestowed upon her by her parents is negated by Uncle Clown turning her into a freak, charging people a quarter to walk into a tent and feel her horns as she sits on a stool. This protagonist of ours has a horrid life.

Eventually, she grows old enough to break away from the circus—her uncle, Buddy, apologizes for not doing better—and finds a pretty traditional job. Still, she feels like an outcast, nobody wanting to talk to her, save her boss, Mr. Kenton, who acts as though she has no horns at all. Of course, our hero falls in love with him, the first adult since her parents to show her any compassion, to treat her like a person.

When Mr. Kenton announces he is leaving, taking a new job in Albuquerque, our hero is sent into a swirl. He can’t leave! She had plans! And if he does, who will be nice to her?

I won’t go any further into the plot of this, as I’m pretty far in already. “There Is No Albuquerque” reads like a lot of Fish’s longer stories—long as in three and a half pages—some sad loners, with grotesque characteristics, finding their way in and out of happiness, usually regarding a relationship with another grotesque fringe-dweller. Other stories in the book that operate like this are “Sea Creatures of Indiana,” “Foreign Film,” “Florida,” and another favorite, “Swell,” another story featuring a clown—this time at a zoo!

Fish has other modes, too. Several one-paragraph, half-page micros populate the book, and those might be Fish’s real strength (not that she has weaknesses). There’s quite a few of these and I enjoyed all of them, how economical Fish can be when she chooses to be, expressing so many images and emotions in just a few hundred words, what some writers can’t do in thousands. Highlights of this brand include “Searching for Samuel Beckett,” “Dalmatian,” “Faulty Keys and Latches,” “Foundling,” “The Cartoonist,” and the coda, “Space Man.”

There’s a lot of different kinds of stories in Wild Life, different lengths, different types of protagonists, and some formal endeavors, too: list stories, numbered stories, and a sequence of five micros about Betsy, entitled Five Micros. Within the realm of short-short/abbreviated/flash/micro/sudden/snap/immediate/truncated/urgent fiction, Kathy Fish has probably conquered it all, no matter the size, shape, or tone. Her absurd sense of surrealism, human emotion, interpersonal interaction, and plot shine in every piece. Not reading the whole book today was impossible: Fish compelled me into the next story, every time, and just like that, I’d read them all.