“A Simple Life” by William H. Coles
Each day John descended nine flights of stairs in building C of the projects because the elevator stuck months ago and was never fixed. Halfway down he stumbled gripping the railing to prevent a fall. Stairs were never easy; congenital defects fused his skeleton in odd places and he limped with an arched back and a withered leg.
Fifteen minutes later he boarded the city bus at Martin Luther King Blvd and 27th Street for the hour-long ride to the university. Night still lingered when he banged on the double front doors of the indoor tennis center until security arrived to let him in. Inside, from the utility closet, he hurriedly gathered mop and broom, a slop pail, cleaning rags, and a spatula for scraping up gum before entering the member’s lounge, always empty at this hour. He found the remote to the wall-mounted TV under a sofa pillow and tuned to his favorite cartoon show. He laughed out loud at his cartoon friends’ impossible antics and jerky movements so much like his own. read …
Listen (30:18) A Simple Life
“Nemesis” by William H. Coles
How hubris robs a man of his most prized possession.
More than a year before his divorce, Fred Bean had a confrontational day at work and lost his job of twenty-two years. He was born in Clinton, Iowa, and attended the University in Ames where he matriculated one year but due to low grades did not graduate. He worked as an audiovisual technician for the Department of Business Administration at the University. For meetings, he made slides for projectors and charts for easels, maintained equipment, adjusted microphones, and fiddled with controls on tape recorders. He took photographs too, of visitors, students, and faculty . . . for publications, yearbooks, brochures, portraits, and Christmas cards. He’d held his job through the tenure of three chairs of the department, and two governors of the State of Iowa.
On the day of his career demise, he was audiovisual support for the annual national conference for businesswomen, a tradition for the department and a pride of the U. The audience numbered more than three hundred. The slide projector was midway down the center aisle and projected speakers’ slides onto a giant letdown screen at center stage. A podium stood on stage left. read …
Listen (33:46) Nemesis
“Gatemouth Willie Brown on Guitar” by William H. Coles
In New Orleans playing music on the street for change, black and white learn to see each other with new understanding.
Gatemouth Willie Brown coughed into the microphone on a boom that poke out horizontal from a chrome stand with a black painted metal base and he ease out smoke he breathed in from the lit cigarette in his left hand, his right hand gripping his battered Gibson electric guitar by the neck to keep it steady. A small easy-grab speaker at his feet amplified a short screechy inhuman sound.
Willie sat alone on a city bench in Jackson Square, on the Cabildo side. The grey sky blocked the sun and trickled a light misty drizzle, more relief from the heat than a pesky bother. Tourists were sparse. Willie quit playing until he might gather a crowd, make a few music lovers put a little something in his Cafe du Monde coffee can for playing something they thought was New Orleans special for them. But it wasn’t much New Orleans jazz what he play, it mostly Delta, some folk tunes, a lotta just strumming what he felt like at the moment. White tourists weren’t special to him and he didn’t really care what they thought about his music but he did care whether they might give up a little change, sometimes a one, and maybe even a five or a ten on a good day. But big bills like fifties was like charity, which he take but don’t like, and he don’t cotton to white folks treating him like charity. But this week he low on cash and he take anything. His wife bad sick and need a doctor. read …
Listen (16:21) Gatemouth Willie Brown…
“The Wreck of the Amtrak’s Silver Service” by William H. Coles
The administration of summary justice hovers in mysterious places.
Heinrick Clever, MD, FACS asked his wife Agnes to have a special anniversary dinner. Thirty-two years. They never ate together anymore. They really rarely talked after his affair with nurse Penny Pram, even though Agnes fully understood and forgave him years ago. Agnes still loved life, God, her dog, and her bridge parties. Her ecstasy seemed limitless. She was always too much about everything. He hated her unwavering joy that kept her brain from generating even the slightest blip on the EEG of life’s battery of significant ideas. She had been the sea-fog around his ship of opportunity, happily obscuring his chances of advancement, cheerfully diverting any choices that could have made him great. She had, insidiously, buried him in this godforsaken town with her mundane acceptance of everything with excessive good humor. He could have been a Parchlick Scholar, or a CJ Beatty in-house surgeon, for Christ’s sake. He was that good. read …
Listen (10:09) The Wreck of the Amtrak’s Silver Service
“The Indelible Myth” by William H. Coles
How innuendos and suspicions become facts to haunt a a young man seeking to marry the love of his life.
Leesville perched–and clung–to the banks of the Percumsah River, as did Natchez, on a much grander scale, on the Mississippi River on the opposite side of the state. Citizens of Leesville were born and raised within twenty-five miles of town center and it was rare for a family to leave for the outside world; no people from afar that I remember ever permanently settled in Leesville when I was growing up. Although a few tried, they always moved on.
Leesville had its own way of thinking in the 1960’s. They didn’t celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, even when it was its own national holiday, but closed the schools to mourn the death of Jefferson Davis. Above my school a confederate battle flag was raised at sunrise and lowered at sunset, without the stars and stripes. It wasn’t protest, just habit. read …
Listen (15:59) The Indelible Myth
A Short Story
“Inside the Matryoshka” by William H. Coles
A trucker breaks his rule about hitchhikers to discover evil in someone he comes to care about.
My one unbreakable rule was never pick up a hitchhiker. And never at night. But at the far edge of the headlights this girl showed up in the breakdown lane near mile marker 381, kind of humped over as if she didn’t even know I was bearing down on her . . . not like a hooker who’d be standing straight with her hand waving shoulder-high and her head tilted like a come-on . . . or some hidden robber’s decoy girl waving with both arms like the ship was sinking. I slowed with no thought of stopping. She stumbled into the slow lane and crumpled to the ground; I swerved left to keep from killing her. I checked the mirrors, black except the yellow glow-dots of my running lights. I pulled onto the breakdown lane, put on flashers, climbed down, and walked back to her. I didn’t see no movement in the darkness of roadside pine forest. read …
Listen (31:11) Inside the Matryoshka
A Short Story
“Speaking of the Dead” by William H. Coles
At a funeral to deliver a eulogy for a dead wife he despised, a college professor learns from a stranger the merit of forgiveness.
After a six-hour drive north from Toronto, John Hampton arrived at the family home of his departed wife, Grace, and her daughter Candy, both dead six days. The house was dark. His sister-in-law, Ruth, greeted him in a nightgown and robe, and knee-length woolen socks. She led him toward an attic room. He hadn’t seen her in more than four years.
“Henrietta’s in the bedroom attached to yours. You’ll have to share the loo. You know her, don’t you? Candy’s roommate?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t see Candy often.”
“Oh, you’d remember. Tall, slim girl. Round face. Crystal-blue eyes. Black hair cut in a pageboy. Unusual, so you can’t forget.”
“Is she nice?” read …
Listen (25:54) Speaking of the Dead
A Short Story
“The Necklace” by William H. Coles
Two couples on tour find new meaning in their lives after the theft of a precious necklace.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Finalist (2011), Finalist (2012).
On our first night in New Delhi, Helen and I ate dinner in our hotel with our new acquaintances, Betsy and Anwar—from Birmingham, Alabama where Anwar practiced orthopedic surgery and she kept house.
“You two married?” Betsy asked Helen and me.
“We live together,” Helen said. She didn’t want to explain we lived together most of the time in my cramped condominium facing Lake Ontario, but that she still had her house from her divorce where she spent time during the week.
“Well, I declare,” mooned Betsy. “An arrangement.”
“A little more than that,” Helen said, bristling.
With canny insight, Betsy had cut open the conflict between Helen and me, conflict we had not planned to share with strangers on an Asian tour. read …
Listen (27:57) The Necklace
A Short Story
“The Golden Flute” by William H. Coles
Two women with declining allure fight for supremacy for the men in their lives.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Semifinalist (2011), Short-list finalist (2012).
Most of the lawn-party guests at the country club were Jean’s friends from childhood, and we knew from her brittle greeting and fixed smile that she was upset. My God. Most of us would have been weeping behind a locked bathroom door. She welcomed us alone–although the invitations read “Hosts: Jean and Tim”—without a word about Tim’s whereabouts. We knew the essential: Tim hadn’t returned from a surgical meeting in south Florida. We were curious. Who was he with? What did Jean know? But she looked too fragile and we’d been friends too long for me to ask.
Near the open-air bar my distant cousin, Patrick, talked to three women. He was one of Tim’s surgical partners for twenty-five years. I waved and pointed to a giant oak where we might have some privacy.
“She’s devastated,” I said. “Where’s Tim?”
His look scolded me.
“She’s flying solo here to save her self-respect,” I said.
“She’s embarrassed…” he said.
“She sees it as demeaning.”
“No one knows what goes on behind closed doors,” he said as if he might smirk.
Listen (31:15) The Golden Flute
A Short Story
“The Amish Girl” by William H. Coles
A girl and boy in love challenge diverse cultural values.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Semi-Finalist (2012).
Peter Pisano failed computer science and Russian literature at the state university, credits he needed to graduate, so he took courses at Hunchett College in Ohio in the summer of ’06. He lived on campus but often took his meals in the only restaurant–the Whispering Maiden–in the small town of Raspier, which had two cross streets and no traffic lights and was juxtaposed to the campus entrance like the cap on an acorn. On many days, especially on weekends, the Amish set up a table or two on the grassy central island on the main street to display food and furniture they made for sale. Usually a buggy or a wagon was parked nearby, the horse tethered to a parking meter or a tree. One evening, Peter saw a lone girl sitting next to a table with baked goods. His meal had been more tasteless than usual, and he had eaten little. He wanted desert.
The girl wore a grey ankle-length wool dress and a white hairnet/bonnet that covered her head and that tied under her chin so that only wispy dark strands of hair showed above her brow. She looked down and away as he approached.
He studied the table. A hefty assortment: apple, cherry, and mincemeat pies; muffins; shoofly and whoopie pies; and cookies with raisins and oatmeal. On a small wooden display shelf were loaves of wheat bread, and tall round chocolate cakes frosted in white. read …
Listen (37:40) The Amish Girl
A Short Story
“Dr. Greiner’s Day in Court” by William H. Coles
A young girl comes of age when her father is charged with murder.
My Auntie Caroline drove my dead mother’s plum red van on the way to the courthouse. Aaron, my older brother by two years but not quite as tall as me, sat unstrapped on the passenger side in what my mother used to call the death seat; Patsy, my seven-year-old younger sister, and I were in the back. We were dressed up to go to Dad’s arraignment, but no one was exactly clear on what an arraignment was, except maybe Auntie.
The van was soooo warm; Auntie had set the temperature knob in the red. We didn’t know about our dad, and I was afraid to talk about him–or anything–until I started sweating.
“It’s hot back here, Auntie,” I said.
“Shut your face,” Aaron snapped. I wished the death seat would do its job.
“I don’t want half moons under my armpits,” I said. It was a silk blouse my mother gave me.
“That’s not from heat,” Aaron said.
“What is it then?”
“From being so friggin’ screwed up,” Aaron said. Without Auntie around, he would have used the “f” word.
Auntie was my dead mother’s younger sister and she was taking care of us this month. This was her second day. The family members drew straws to assign responsibility for us. No one was eager to just take on three orphans like a new family. read …
Listen (19:43) Dr. Greiner’s Day in Court
A Short Story
“The Cart Boy” by William H. Coles
A store manager befriends an employee.
This will never work out,” Mr. Rich said sitting behind his metal desk, his thick arms crossed on his massive chest. On the wall were photos of him with his high school football team, with golf clubs and friends, on a family ski trip to Colorado, at the helm of a sloop with all six children and under full sail on Penobscot Bay, and a large print of him at the wheel of his vintage-fifties, two-seater, red convertible.
“You aren’t worth a damn at hiring, anyway,” he said to me.
Even after sixteen years as manager of his independent grocery store, I could never remember a compliment from Mr. Rich. He was a hard-line employer who thought the best management strategy was never being pleased with any employee. I’d learned to ignore him whenever possible.
“He’d just be a cart boy,” I argued.
“What’s this disabled shit?” he said.
“He’s got some spastic disorder.”
“I hope it’s not offensive.”
I’d never seen the kid. My sister, a volunteer social worker had counseled him after he had dropped out of a special ed school. “Don’t be a brute,” she said. “Give him a chance.” She was condescending as always, believing me responsible for my divorce after my wife went West with our children, and disdainful of my reclusive social life over the past few years. “It’ll be good PR,” she added. read …
Listen (25:14) The Cart Boy
A Short Story
“Big Gene” by William H. Coles
A black piano player infiltrates the KKK in the cultural wars of the seventies.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Semifinalist (2011), Semi-Finalist (2012).
In the seventies, in rural Maryland just outside Washington, DC, The Black Mountain Boys, an all white band, had a regular gig at this all-white truck stop and hired Big Gene—a black piano player–who had an eleven-inch thumb-to-pinky stretch that whacked out tenths like octaves. Big Gene played boogie like Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons and could walk down into infinity of R&B with a left hand transplanted from Professor Longhair and James Booker. Sid, the fiddle player band-manger, saw Big Gene as a savior for the diminishing popularity of his country repetoire. “Play the book,” he said to Gene, “but make it sound like they’ll want to shake their bootie.” On Big Gene’s first night, the truck stop owner approach Sid as they were setting up.
“Who the fuck is that?” the owner said to Sid.
Big Gene did not look up.
“Piano player,” Sid said.
“We don’t hire no coloreds.”
“You hired us. He plays the piano.”
“He ain’t playing my piano.”
“I didn’t know you played piano.”
“Don’t smart ass me.”
“He’s got his own. One of them electric things.” read …
Listen (23:36) Big Gene
A Short Story
“Grief” by William H. Coles
A mother grieves her former boyfriend and sees her daughter in a new light.
William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Awards Finalist (2010), Semi-Finalist (2012).
Tuesday, the old cardboard shipping box with UPS tracking labels left outside Sarah Tanner’s door by the building manager came from Florida. Masking tape fortified the torn edges and black-marker blotted out the original California wine company logo and on the top were coffee-stained partial circles from coffee-cup rims. She briefly worried the box might be a threat; she was afraid of everything lately after her divorce. She cut the carelessly applied transparent tape that sealed the top; she folded back the flaps. She rummaged items from a camping trip: a backpack, water bottles, a toilet kit, extra hiking socks. Every item evoked memories of her fervent, secret affair with Peter Musconi more than twenty-five years ago.
In the bottom of the box was a business envelope with no markings, the flap sealed with Scotch tape. She opened it. A white-gold engagement ring dropped to the floor. A faceted diamond, perfect color, no inclusions, and more than a carat, glittered rare value. Pristine without blemishes. She picked it up, clutched it in her hand. It’s how she remembered the perfection of her affair with Peter Musconi. Pristne.
She’d never seen this ring before but knew it was meant for her. Their love for each other had been interrupted by the suddenness and immediacy of the breakup; Peter believed she’d been unfaithful … unfounded, but circumstantial evidence delivered in rumor and innuendo had convinced him otherwise. read …
Listen (27:30) Grief
A Short Story
“The War of the Flies” by William H. Coles
A grandmother helps her grandson maneuver in the custody battle of his parents.
One summer when I was eight the dead flies were so thick on Grandma’s porch that Mom swept them into piles and shoveled them into large plastic trash bags. “They’re a danger. Think of the disease,” Mom said.
It was our once a year visit to Grandma. The flies arrived one at a time at first.
“I didn’t invite them,” said Grandma.
“They’re here for some reason. Flies are attracted to something,” Mom said.
“Well, it’s not that I’m dirty.”
Grandma went into her workroom at the back of the house to weave throw rugs on her antique loom–whish, whish, bang, squeak, squeak. Whish, whish, bang, squeak, squeak. Mom stayed in the kitchen scrubbing sinks and floors with Lysol. “Your grandmother is mean and stubborn,” she said.
I thought it was Mom who was mean and stubborn, not letting me spend my summer time with Dad in Alaska, but I didn’t say so.
Grandma lived in Calliope, NY, a four-hour train ride from New York through farming country. Grandma’s house was just out of town near the river at the edge of a bog. From my bedroom window I looked out on the two-thousand-acre farm owned by Obadiah Waddle whose wife had died. He had a few dairy cows, lots of laying chickens, and grew mostly cash crops like soybeans. He never said much but he let me ride with him on his tractor and taught me to milk a cow. Grandma frequently took him tuna fish casseroles covered with crushed Ritz crackers in a Pyrex bowl to heat up in the oven. Sometimes she stayed to share dinner with Mr. Waddle almost until bedtime, while Mom and me ate alone. read …
Listen (12:49) War of the Flies
A Short Story
“Father Ryan” by William H. Coles
A Catholic priest confronts lust.
The wind gust between the walkway and the airplane door chilled Father Ryan as he waited for Bishop Henley to move into the cabin. Father Ryan’s hand swept across his rustled thick head of light brown hair as the flight attendant smiled and turned to open a can of tomato juice in the galley.
Inside, the cabin was warm and humid. The Bishop pushed ahead for his assigned window seat in first class.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like the aisle, sir?” Father Ryan said with a touch of sincere sympathy for the bishop’s large frame in cramped circumstances; but there was more than a little sarcasm too. The Bishop liked to look down with a divine sweep of gaze over his ecumenical territory as they took off, a move Father Ryan described often to the delight of all who knew the bishop.
The Bishop did not answer. Being around Father Ryan had consistently engulfed him in an intense resentful smoldering. The Bishop thanked God for this duty of taking father Ryan from Boston to his new parish in Idaho, and he pushed aside any guilt of being delighted to never have to speak to Father Ryan again, except maybe at conferences. Being rid of this priest gave him hopeful expectations of a tranquil future. After much prayer, the Bishop believed that his dislike for Father Ryan was not just their personality clashes, but an appropriate distaste for his loose, too-friendly demeanor with the parishioners. That, the Bishop was sure, had been the source of the complaint too, from a young married women, whom the Bishop did not trust but could not ignore. During the Bishop’s interview with the complaintant, she had been unable to hide surprise and pleasure—and a touch of mischievousness–in her eyes at the moment when the Bishop expected anger and accusation. She did not claim assault, or even touching. “Suggestive” she said. “He hinted,” she had added. Was she a prevaricator? Probably. But with all the recent sex scandals among the clergy, he could not let this explode. He’d seen enough of danger in his thirty-five years of service to the Lord to know when it lurked. read …
Listen (14:30) Father Ryan
A Short Story
“The Gift” by William H. Coles
A determined mother protects her deformed child from the destructive sympathies of family and society.
In 1959, a week after her seventeenth birthday, Catherine missed her period in February, and then in March. By late April she was not sleeping well and most of her waking hours were spoiled by nausea and hating everything she ate. Her mother Agnes made an emergency appointment with Dr. Crowder.
“Stay here,” Dr. Crowder said to Catherine before he left the exam room. The receptionist had brought Agnes into his private office where she sat in the wing chair for consultations.
“She’s pregnant,” he said.
Agnes’ face paled with the accusation. “She’s a child,” she said.
How often mothers would not let their children grow up. He gave her time to absorb the truth. “She’s a young woman who is going to have a baby,” he said.
Agnes wept with her hands to her face. Dr. Crowder handed her tissues from a desk drawer. After some moments, Agnes blew her nose and breathed deeply with a long exhale.
“Have you told her?” Agnes said.
“I’ve told only you. But she’s not stupid.”
“Can something be . . . you know . . . done?”
Dr. Crowder stared. He had been the family physician for over thirty years. He had delivered Catherine. “You might find someone. But never ask me, Agnes.” he said. “I do not approve.”
Agnes flushed. Now she was ashamed. “It will ruin us,” she explained. read …
Listen (32:14) The Gift
A Short Story
“Suchin’s Escape” by William H. Coles
An abducted Chinese girl, trapped in the New Orleans sex trade, struggles for freedom from her captors. A short-list finalist in the 2010 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition.
Antoine lit a cigarette with the lighter from the dash of the twenty-seven year-old 1976 Lincoln Continental and leaned forward with both forearms on the steering wheel. Harry beat out a rhythm on the dash with both hands—BOOM chee CHEE—di di BOOM; and he sang a song of lost love. Antoine liked the tune, liked the way his cousin could make it flow.
Antoine watched the green two-story frame house across the street from where they were parked on a side street in Gretna. The image of the thin child Suchin, the eleven year old Chinese girl, materialized in the dark narrow alley between the houses, the blurred outline of a man blocking the alley behind her. She was naked except for a pair of patent leather Mary Janes. She stopped before stepping into the glint of the morning sun, and slid a lace-trimmed white dress over her head, pushing her arms out the sleeve holes. She smoothed the fabric in front with both hands and the hem fell to her ankles.
“She’s done,” Antoine said. Harry stopped his rhythm and got out of the car. He met the girl still in the shadows, grabbed her arm, and brought her quickly to the car, her moving feet barely touching the ground. Harry opened the back door and shoved her into the back seat.
“Don’t push me.” Suchin said, kicking out, her shoe heel glancing off Harry’s arm.
The girl made money and this guy in the shadows was one of her many repeats. But Antoine didn’t trust her. Something about the way her eyes held his, hard and cold in their darkness, and the way she never flinched if he had to cuff her. read …
Listen (37:42) Suchin’s Escape
A Short Story
“The Stonecutter” by William H. Coles
Stonecutter’s son falls hopelessly in love with a client.
I was fifteen, never in love, and yearning to leave home when a red, two-seated convertible drove up to our gate. The driver’s door opened, and a girl of twenty-two with a perfectly shaped, light-skinned body emerged in a see-through dress that showed almost everything, and I imagined the rest.
My father, a tall, imposing figure of a black man with bulging muscles from carving statues and grave markers for the dearly departed, tried not to look. He felt strange around women, I assumed because my mother had left when I was two. He never talked about her or much of anything, and we lived alone on a twelve-acre plot of half swamp property where I suffered his long silences broken only by the sharp blows of a hammer driving a metal chisel into stone.
Well, this girl was a treat for both of us. She closed the door and looked to our been-here-forever, two-room shack raised two feet off the ground by concrete blocks, with only a screen door on the front and all the windows up to catch a breeze. My father worked on, but slipped a glance when he knew she wasn’t looking.
She walked through the opening in the iron fence that stood on the front line of the property. That gate had never kept anything in or out. My great grandfather had installed it in the time of Calvin Coolidge to let people know he had made some cash farming, and my father was too proud to recycle it. Neither the shack nor the fence impressed the girl. read …
Listen (21:58) The Stonecutter
A Short Story
“Facing Grace With Gloria” by William H. Coles
Finalist in the 2007 William Faulkner Creative Writing Competition
I was sleeping in this mission after being discharged from the psych ward at DC General, and some hophead stole my cash from my veteran’s disability checks that had piled up while I was so rudely and unjustly incarcerated. So I dropped by my best buddy, Arthur, who lived in two side-tilted Dumpsters at the edge of inner Washington, DC.
“You got any cash?” I asked.
“I want to visit my mother.”
“She write to you?”
“Not yet. But she needs me. Came to me when I was inside.”
Mother was in Eureka, California. At least her spirit was, and her ashes were, too, in an urn in my older sister’s bungalow; I hoped they were out of reach of her two young children by her second husband. My sister refused to see me, but Mother cared that I came to visit. I slept in a cardboard lean-to near Route 101, and I could feel Mother in the air, even when it rained.
“I need money,” I said.
“Work the monument,” Arthur said.
“That’ll take weeks.”
“Hey. You might get lucky.”
I cleaned up best I could in the restroom of a discount trade mart, and headed on down to the Potomac River. read …
Listen (18:47) Facing Grace with Gloria
A Short Story
“Homunculus” by William H. Coles
In the late 19th century, a circus dwarf falls in love with trapeze artists failing to value those who cherish her. A top three finalist in William Faulkner:William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition 2008.
Didi sits on a three-legged stool on the stage in a sideshow tent. It’s the third show of the night. She listens to the barker, Captain Withers, as he gathers a new crowd outside. “Didi, the Dynamic Dwarf! The doll of the midway!”
On stage, Didi is hidden behind the wooden façade of a miniature house with a hinged door and two fake windows and an angled roofline bent on each side of the peak. The tent air is hot and stuffy, and sweat trickles from her armpit down her side. She wonders if it is due to nerves or the weather.
“This tiny morsel – born of ancient royal heritage – is the reincarnation of Cleopatra, an Egyptian goddess. The smallest woman in the world. Thirty-two inches low. You will see every detail, of God’s amazing work. Right here, tonight, gentlemen, and for two nights only.”
Didi’s real name – Gloria Pinkham – is rarely used, a smudged memory from the real world. After eight years with the circus, she barely remembers the shape of her mama’s house on a side street in Lewiston, Maine. She carries a scratched daguerreotype of her mother sitting in a chair; her father, stiff as a cigar-store Indian, stands by her side with a hat in his hand. The war killed him when Didi was four; he faded away in some Georgia prison. He left her no memories.
Captain Withers yells until he fills the first four rows of the twelve benches with customers. Didi doesn’t care how many; she gets food, shelter, and a few dollars every month if there are two, ten or twenty. These farmers and farmers’ boys are like fish in a pond – different sizes and hard to tell apart. They’ve never been more than twenty miles from their mothers or wives, and they clump together like curdled cream to gawk at something from away. She sees in their gaze how they undress her, their curious glares often speckled with desire. She loves to be wanted and she wants to be loved. But she hates pity; when she sees it in a sucker’s eyes she looks away and pretends it’s not there. read …
Listen (28:22) Homunculus
A Short Story
“The Perennial Student” by William H. Coles
An associate professor learns more from his student than he expected.
Associate Professor William Possum was looking for student Denise Witherspoon, this attractive, slightly overweight, moderately intelligent woman who was destroying his class. Denise had caused five angry letters, two dropouts, and a formal complaint that said she “made an evening of anticipated learning a dreadful experience.”
And it had gone farther than the classroom. Possum’s mentor and department chair, Alice Cherry, had made it clear she was “damn tired” of the “deteriorating” situation.
“She’s impossible,” Possum had countered, and he described Denise’s undeserved pride and unjust criticism of her fellow students.
Finally, in frustration, Possum had argued Denise should be dismissed. “Give her her money back,” he said. He was shocked at Cherry’s lack of understanding. Students paid good money and were entitled to their education, Cherry said. “This is an administrative problem. Talk to her!” Possum had to talk to Denise alone before she got to the classroom.
Possum waited inside the entrance hall of the ivy-coated building that housed the Departments of English and Computer Science. He had a direct view of the front, although he made sure those coming in could not make out his features in the shadow of the backlit, life-sized statue of the school’s founder.
Possum saw Denise entering through the left side of the twelve-foot oak doors. How innocent she looked. “Denise,” he called, “over here.” She squinted toward the sound of his voice.
“Will?” she said. All his other students respectfully called him Mr. Possum.
“Yes. Over here. Behind the statue. I need to talk to you.” read …
Listen (24:23) The Perennial Student
A Short Story
“The Activist” William H. Coles
Coming of age while helping a nephew.
“I ain’t going to stand for it,” Mama said. She said this often.
She held a small dead human about as long as an ear of corn. Even though the head was too big, the hands too small, you could tell it might have been somebody.
“Push down,” Mama said.
My sister moaned. With a gush of blood the afterbirth slid onto the bed. Her skin was white as wood ash.
“I don’t feel good,” she said.
“Shut up, Pearl Anne,” Mama said. “Shut up and grow up.”
“You’re acting like a two-year-old.”
“I’m going to throw up,” Pearl Anne said.
I wasn’t feeling so hot either.
“Go get some towels, Ether Mae. Help get Pearl Anne cleaned up.”
I didn’t move. Pearl Anne got herself into this fix, not me. I’d never had a boy put his thing into me. Pearl Anne said it felt funny but not so good that she couldn’t do without it. So she’d decided to quit. She wanted more respect. She quit too late.
Now Mama moaned and held this dead thing. “My grandchild,” she said. “Didn’t I tell you get some towels?”
“Don’t want to.” I backed away a little.
“You’ll get the stick. You’re too old to have me telling you what to do.” I was eleven. read …
Listen (15:44) The Activist
A Short Story
“Curse of a Lonely Heart” by William H. Coles
A dinner party goes awry.
In college, I had been attracted to my roommate, Peter Townsend. But after fifteen years of marriage to Amanda, my thoughts of Peter had faded, until I heard a rumor that he would interview for Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University where I was a professor of botany. I called to invite him to our house for a dinner while he was in town. I told Amanda.
“Goddamn it, Tony. I don’t like him.”
“You could try,” I said. There were a few minutes at my twentieth college reunion when I thought Amanda could never get enough of Peter.
“You made a move. He turned you down,” I said.
“I’ve never ‘made a move’ on any man.”
“That’s a little disingenuous,” I said. I was surprised at my anger. We had so little between us. And I truly didn’t care if she slept with every man she met, as long as she was confidential.
“Only if you grill. We can eat outside,” Amanda said.
“Do a sit-down dinner,” I said. Amanda was a proud cook of exacting proportions, frequently adjusted temperatures, and rigid freshness. Peter deserved the best.
She finally agreed and insisted we invite another faculty couple, Ester (in social science) and Henry (in molecular biology), and Amanda’s sister Madeleine, who was to balance the table as Peter’s dinner partner. Madeleine was in library science, thirty-five years old and never married. She was attractive but with a porcelain-figurine look to her face and a frightened-rabbit personality that I did not think was Peter’s taste. But I said nothing to Amanda. read …
Listen (25:18) Curse of a Lonely Heart
A Short Story
“The Miracle of Madame Villard” by William H. Coles
Miracles emerge in the chaos of the French revolution.
The hands of the faith healer probed the lump on Jean-Luc’s mother’s neck. Stone hard it was and fixed like a burl on a log.
“She will need strained carrot and turnip broth fortified with smushed, dried eucalyptus root,” the faith healer said to the father staring at her rigid with concern.
The mother’s eyes burned with owl intensity, brimming with much fear but little hope. The father’s eyes were glazed and opaque, hiding the memories of this dear wife, Charlotte, mother of his two sons, core of the family, whose once lovely hands were now calloused from her work as a seamstress, and her once warm heart had turned cold as winter with age.
The boy, Jean-Luc, was sixteen and man sized. The faith healer had seen him grow clever, learning his father’s ironmonger’s trade quickly and creating strong, pleasing designs; how his eyes burned with love for his mother.
The faith healer stood and motioned to Jean-Luc and his father to step outside into the alley. The chilled night breeze swirled among the single room dwellings as low clouds moved swiftly overhead to cover and uncover the bright half-moon in the black sky. To the east, the glow of fires from the riots near the Bastille outlined the rooftops of the city.
“She needs a miracle,” the faith healer whispered. She had seen many sick with these throat lumps before. They were hard to feed and often choked to death. “The good Saint Marcouf. He is the Saint of neck swellings,” she said to the boy and his father.
“How do we pray?” the father asked.
“In the Cathedral near Dieppe,” the faith healer said, unable it instruct in a man’s contact with his Lord, “where the Saint cured a girl well after the time of Charlemagne. The bones of his hand lie in a glass case, on a velvet pillow the color of ruby. The faithful who have touched have been cured. I have heard it from two pilgrims. I have no doubt of the power of his healings.”
“She cannot walk to the north coast,” Jean-Luc said. read …
Listen (48:18) The Miracle of Madame Villard
A Short Story
“On the Road to Yazoo City” by William H. Coles
Discovering love in Mississippi when there’s nothing left at the bottom of the bucket.
My life at twenty-one was never in tune–like a D-string on an antique Gibson with a peg that wouldn’t hold–and I’m walking up this two lane side road about ten miles West of Canton and North of Jackson where I have just come from. Haven’t seen a car in maybe an hour, the straps of my pack digging into my shoulders, the sun burning my eyes because I lost my shades leaning over a riverbank to fill my water jug, and dragging the guitar case cause it’s just too heavy to lift off the ground. Pure shit. But I got to make it work. I’m flat broke.
About half a mile down the road I see this man on a bike peddling like to die and holding straight on the faded centerline. I flag him down and drop my backpack. He stops the bike, straddling the bar and breathing hard.
“Mister!” I say. “You point me to Yazoo city?”
He points to his mouth and pulls out a little broken piece of slate and a piece of chalk from his pocket.
“Why?” he writes in block letters on the slate.
I guess it is a Mississippi kind of question. Someone asks you something. You ask them back something different. Then you spend a lot time being sure you don’t tell them what you know they want to know.
“Gig,” I say. I’m not about to give him the scoop. Truth is I was feeling so bad about this sweet girl–damn near a virgin–in Biloxi, I got drunk and missed a whole week of gigs with a band I’d been working with for two months. Manager left a note in the F-hole of my archtop acoustic. “No job. No more. Try Yazoo.”
The guy’s eyes light up when I say “gig,” as if he dreams of being me someday. He points straight ahead, smiling, and he draws an X on his slate and circles the right upper branch.
“Yazoo City?” I ask again to be sure.
He grins a grin-with-gaps and gives me a thumb up. Before I get my stuff mounted again, he’s back on the road, peddling like mad now. read …
Listen (13:26) Yazoo City
A Short Story
“Captain Withers’s Wife” William H. Coles
Finalist in the William Faulkner: William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition
In 1963, on an American base in France, Amy Withers loaded her husband’s hair-trigger automatic pistol, called the military police, wrapped her newborn baby in a hand-knitted beige afghan with a purple border, and waited at the front window of her commonplace bungalow. The policeman arrived, parked his car near the curb, and walked toward the house. She opened the front window from above and shot four rounds into the air.
The policeman backed away. “We got a call . . .”
“I called,” Amy yelled. “I want the commander.”
The policeman swore. “You need a shrink,” he mumbled.
“I heard that, you creep.” She shot another round into the air.
Amy grabbed the baby, left the afghan on the floor. She opened the door and shoved the baby out, grabbing his clothing over his spine and supporting his bottom with the right hand still holding the gun.
“I’m afraid I’ll hurt him.”
“I’m not calling the commander!” He crouched behind the car, his gun drawn.
Amy closed the door and went to the window. Her next bullet made a hole in the rear door window of the police car.
The policeman crawled into the front seat from the passenger side, keeping his head down. He called for backup. A second car arrived with a superior officer. From a safe distance and with a bullhorn, the new officer demanded Amy’s surrender. When Amy didn’t respond, he zigzagged toward the front door of the house with a weapon under his flack vest. Crouching, he knocked.
The door opened six inches and the automatic came out. He couldn’t see the woman.
“Give me the baby,” he said standing up.
“I want the commander. ”
“The commander can’t come.”
“Captain Withers has left me without a dime.” read …
Listen (32:42) Captain Withers’s Wife
A Short Story
“The Thirteen Nudes of Ernest Goings” William H. Coles
A finalist in the 2008 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative writing competition.
Amanda Goings parked her station wagon in the unpaved drive to her mother’s two story white clapboard house with green trim and a pitched roof that had kept snows from long Maine winters collecting and crushing the Goings family. The curtains parted on a window to the right of the door. The interior lights were turned off and it was too dark see, but she waved to let her mother know she’d be back in a few minutes to take her to the luncheon. The curtain fell back in place.
She walked fifty yards to the stone wall at the edge of the property, her rubber-soled shoes unsteady on the sheets of wet leaves under the maples and the walnut tree. She came to a ragged break that had been there since her childhood. For thirty-two years, the wall was the divider between the Goings family’s property and the neighboring property recently purchased by her father.
She climbed the knoll and passed through a line of cedars. She stumbled near the top, the turned in foot and withered left leg from a birth defect failing to support her adequately. On the downhill slope, invisible from her mother’s house and the road, was a barn, the only structure that remained on the property. She swore as she always did when she saw the two rectangular roof skylights that mirrored northern light from grey overhead clouds. She thought the expensive renovation of the barn a waste of money – split levels floored with slate and twelve-inch antique floorboards, directional track lighting, and an open-loft living facility adjacent to a studio with rows of vertical racks for drying and storage of paintings.
She knocked at the door to the right of the original swinging doors that had been sealed and left as authentic-residual decoration. She heard nothing.
“Goddamn it,” she yelled. “Answer the door.” Her father was probably up. It was eleven o’clock, but his hours had been erratic since he had begun living alone in the barn.
“I’m busy,” he called back from the silent interior. read …
Listen (40:52) The Thirteen Nudes of…
A Short Story
“Reddog” by William H. Coles
Winner 2006 Sandhills Writers Competition
On Christmas Day my second year in prison for murder, my mother stopped coming to visit. She doesn’t call and I can’t get in touch with her. In August, she missed my twenty-fifth birthday. A couple months later, my sister came and said, “Mother doesn’t want to think about it anymore. Try to understand.” I did try.
Eventually my sister quit coming; she had a lot on her mind with her van full of kids – and no husband. So I go a year with no visitors, and when I get dragged to administration to face an assistant to the warden, I’m half-crazy.
“A graduate student working in criminal justice wants to include you in her experiments,” he said. “Your choice. Two or three times a month. Goes on your record as good behavior.”
Sessions would be out of maximum security . . . like a mini-vacation.
“Hey. What’s with the experiments,” I said. “She stick you with drugs, stuff like that?”
“Hey, Captain. She a looker?”
“Don’t get your fantasies revved up. She’s a pro.”
“You be there?”
“Just you and her. And high security.”
“Maybe I get out of max sooner?” I asked. You get a cell in the main building and you could talk to guys, set things up.
“Can’t promise.” He walked around the table, stuck a ballpoint pen in my cuffed hand, and showed me where to sign. “Consent papers.”
You need a magnifying glass to read the print on the last two pages. “I don’t know about signing anything,” I said.
“It’s permission to talk, record, use information,” he said.
“I thought this was research,” I said. I hated do-gooders and I didn’t need rehabilitation. I needed parole, miraculous DNA evidence, a new trial. read …
Listen (33:13) Reddog
A Short Short Story
“Clouds” by William H. Coles
A mother drives her handicapped son to be institutionalized.
“Put your glasses on,” Margaret said to her son. He touched his neck wet with sweat and wiped his hand on his tee shirt. The back window was down a few inches for ventilation and gave a steady breathy growl at highway speeds.
“The glasses, Ben.”
He picked up the thick lenses from the seat and with a couple of missed tries, pulled down the temple straps over his head.
“We’ll play a game, Ben,” she said. “You want to play a game?”
“Play game,” he said. She passed an eighteen-wheeler leaving plenty of room when she tucked back into the slow lane. The sun was mid morning and wavy lines of invisible heat from the road were already distorting the view. Ben rocked back and forth; she let him go on for a while.
“Can you see the clouds?” she asked. There was a line of cars slowed in the fast lane . . . and bumper to bumper. She kept a good distance to let them sort it out. Ben stopped rocking and was shaking his head from side to side.
“Look up,” she said. “In the sky. Clouds are in the sky, Ben. Next to where God lives.”
“God live,” he said. He strained against the seat belt to lean forward and look up through the windshield.
“Can you see them?”
“See them,” he said.
“Well, we’ll find one and we’ll name it. Tell what it is. There are all sorts of things up in the sky.”
“I do good,” he said.
“Of course you will.”
“I do good,” he said again.
“Find one up there. Keep looking. Tell me what it is.” read …
Listen (4:29) Clouds
A Short Short Story
When is a life not worth saving?
“Dilemma” by William H. Coles
His sweet troubled son, alone in his room; he and his wife sitting downstairs irritated by the bass thrust of the loud music coming from the second floor. They knew he had taken drugs, taken him to a psychiatrist, paid for the Prozac that insurance didn’t cover; but they didn’t know that he had taken a loaded shotgun from the locked cabinet, a gun that he put with the stock on the floor and while sitting on the bed placed the barrels under his chin and pushed down on the trigger.
After the explosion they were quickly inside the room. The gun had fallen to the floor. His son had fallen to one side; his face gone: the lower jaw blown away, a few upper teeth haphazardly clinging to flesh. Nose and lower lids gone, the deflated eyeballs wrinkled like a fallen soufflé. His son’s legs, then his arms, went into spasms; he was alive but without air.
I’m a surgeon, he thought. Focus. Think like a doctor and not a father.
His wife had crumpled to the floor, her hands over her eyes, wailing.
He held his son’s head with both hands; straightened the torso. “Get up,” he said to his wife. “You’ve got to do this.” She stood. “Slide the pillow under his shoulders.”
He let the head fall back hoping to find the glistening end of the trachea. There were no landmarks, only flesh and blood, and bits and slivers of bone. read …
Listen (4:24) Dilemma
A Short Short Story
“Crossing Over” William H. Coles
Presented at Kenyon College and at Zoetrope Belize Workshop
My name is Agnes Swaggert and I work in this nursing home for next to nothing. I do good things for old folks like Mr. Wiggins who has been with us for two months. He lost his hair to radiation, his eyesight to Cadillacs, and his voice to a trach. He moans non-stop, drools and spits, shits five times a day so the sheets got to be changed. I don’t think he ever sleeps.
I go to sit for a moment at the nurses’ station, put my arms on the counter. I got scars on my right arm, and I set to thinking, as I often do when I feel like this. Them scars make me think about my kin – grandma mostly. Mr. Wiggins moans but I pay him no mind. Mr. Wiggins will be number fifty-nine.
Funny how I can see every one of them. I think goodly about each one, being as I knew them so well. Like being down front in the movie theater and the lights go on and you turn around and there they are lined up row after row. Sometimes I think I’m a mother duck, all of them waddling behind me, crossing over the road to the other side. Mr. Wiggins is whining real good now, so I think about Grandma. What the woman she was. I’d be guessing I liked her more than momma or daddy.
It was my granny who taught me, after momma had left for work and it was bed time.
“What is that grandma?” I said to her one night.
“You’re mother will never teach you.”
“No. No. What’s in your hand?” I had expected she had a peppermint stick hidden for me. But it was only a cigarette. She lit up, took out the cigarette from her lips, and picked a piece of tobacco from her tongue.
“When can I smoke?” I asked.
“When you’re old enough to know what’s right and wrong.”
“I know what’s right and wrong,” I said. read …
Listen (6:12) Crossing Over
A Short Short Story
“The Bear” by William H. Coles
Sacrificing a child to survive.
We left our two snowmobiles, crossed a frozen river that I knew wouldn’t carry the vehicles with my brother-in-law Errol weighing 340 stripped and riding his twelve year-old stepson, Sean, my sister’s kid by her first husband. I led the way shouldering my Winchester 70, Sean with a 22 rifle, his legs spread wide trying to keep in my snowshoe tracks, and Errol with a Savage 110.
We checked traps. Two snares were empty and one of the spring loaders had a small hind leg in the clamp claws but something had ripped off the body.
“Coyote did it,” Errol said.
“Bigger than that,” I said.
We began to circle back to the rigs. Sean’s 22 discharged.
“I’m hit” Errol moaned to scare the kid.
Sean started to cry. He didn’t think good and had no schooling.
Errol slapped him on the back of the head. “Grow up,” he said. “I was joking.”
Sean stood. “Bear,” he said pointing to the edge of the clearing. The sun was low and the shadows long over the snow cover, and the trees in the forest seemed welded together.
“He’s big,” Errol said.
Sean fired a shot. The bear reared back on his haunches. read …
Listen (4:21) The Bear
A Short Short Story
“Lost Papers” by William H. Coles
Losing a wife to keep a secret.
It is 1941. Isaac the Jew and Rebecca, his wife of twenty years, stand in line at the checkpoint between Germany and Switzerland for three hours before they reach the barrier.
“Passports,” the guard says in German. Isaac hands over his documents.
“You are from . . . ?”
“Born in Munich,” Isaac says.
“You are going to Zurich?”
“No, no. To Basel. I must meet my brother’s daughter now orphaned. She is alone and will be waiting at the train station. Friends have sent her.”
“You, woman,” the guard says, “where are your papers?”
Rebecca does not look up from her frantic search in her bag. “I cannot find them,” she says. She has slipped into her native Polish.
“She will find them,” Isaac says.
“Go to the back of the line,” the guard says. “Next.”
Isaac grabs Rebecca’s arm and takes her to the side.
“Incompetent,” he whispers.
“I thought they were here,” she pleads. “Maybe you have them.” read …
Listen (6:07) Lost Papers