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FICTION SHORT STORIES

No big breaks

The hall is not fully full, if that can be said of anything that ought to fill up

“What does it take to write a story that punches, Joe?”

“A pen, a piece of paper, working fingers, and a brain that’s at least half-functional.”

“Really?”

“Of course not. Only someone who’s never written anything that punches would take that as solid advice. By Jove, I haven’t used a pen to write anything since high school… The true answer is that I don’t really know.”

“Then how is it you do it every time?”

“I don’t know about every time, but perhaps you get that impression because you’ll never see ninety-nine percent of what I write. And the one percent that you get to see doesn’t punch me anywhere except in the nuts. Makes me want to crawl back into my little cave in embarrassment and never come out again.”

The setting is a book reading event. The hall is not fully full, if that can be said of anything that ought to fill up. About a quarter of the seats, all of them at the back, are empty. Not because no one wanted to sit on them. Not because the amount they were asked to part with in exchange for sitting on them was more than they could afford.

No. It rained cats and dogs earlier today, and a section of the road that was to bring in the missing quarter got flooded. Most of them are waiting for the water to subside so they can continue their journey. A few, the faintest of heart, have turned back and gone home.

The book that’s to be read, the one to whose ability to punch our interlocutor has alluded, has been out for only two weeks. The physical copy, whose oversized dummy sits inside a cubic glass case, hasn’t sold that well. But the digital version has topped most of the local charts. Because this is the twenty-first century, and people these days, at least the ones who read, like carrying their books around in the form of electric charges.

The book tells the story of a young talented orphaned writer who can’t seem to catch his big break. No agent wants to take him on because he hasn’t had much of a formal education, and he is too under-resourced to self-publish. He moves from casual job to casual job, squeezing in time, between pushing mops on grimy factory floors and hanging his head while being berated by irritable car wash clients, to scribble away his inspirations.

The day after he finishes working on something he thinks the world should see, a stirring novel manuscript that has absorbed years of work, he is walking home when a car jumps the curb and squishes him against a concrete utility pole, spilling his intestines out onto the street. His body is taken to the mortuary, then buried in a potter’s field after a month because no one has claimed it.

His petty landlord, after noticing that his little shanty town shack has been empty for two weeks, breaks the door and clears it out so another tenant can move in. He salvages everything that looks valuable and tosses out the rest. The story ends with an illiterate street child sitting atop a pile of garbage in the city’s dumpsite at sunset, puzzling over the fading text scrawled across the yellowing pages of the manuscript.

“I cried when I finished reading this book, Joe. If that doesn’t punch, what does?”

“That’s the first time you’ve read it, Phoebe. If you were me, you would have read every single word in there a million times already, and you would have replaced every single one of them a hundred times over. By the time I handed it over to the editor, I was rather glad to be rid of it.”

“What kept you going?”

A pause. A collective drawing of breath by the attentive audience. Expectation fills the air. Somewhere, a phone vibrates. It is quickly hushed.

“Because it is the story of my life. The only difference is that the car missed me by a whisker and hit someone else instead.”

“Are you saying this is based on a true story?”

“To some extent, yes. You could say that.”

“Well, we cannot wait to hear you read it.” She turns to the audience and raises her voice a notch. “Ladies and gentlemen, the legendary Joe Mabor.”

Joe rises. His flowing robes ripple as they settle around his lithe extended form. He twists the cap of the water bottle he has been drinking from. Carrying it, he walks to the wooden lectern that has been set up in the middle of the podium. The book sits on it, open to the first page. He sets the bottle on the little ledge hanging off the side. He clears his throat and starts reading.

“Kurt didn’t know his grandfather was a war criminal because his father never said a thing about him…”

Feature image: Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash.

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