The Flight and Sting of Nights and Nostalgia

The Zenith "Trend-Setter" was a 17" black-and-white television with inset side handles to accommodate easy transport from room to room.  Through the crackling echo of this tube I first heard the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."  I was four years old, and though my father seemed to get it (and so responded with animated encouragement), I didn't have a clue what it meant, so I built from the phrase a Sendakian imaginarium of whimsical worlds on the wings of butterflies defended by sky-bound legions of armored bees.  I was—and still am—a boy, but never have I understood the sport of boxing, and only through romanticized reconstruction do I appreciate Ali's phrase and its original context.  Like many things, the phrase has taken on a life of its own, and to this day pops up in all sort of unrelated yet arguably interwoven milieus, which is why I mention it here (and because it's nostalgic).

Ali's phrase was, and still is, liberating.  It's a link to everything first conjured through that tiny screen, a burst of sentiment from an otherwise irrecoverable past, and it is this kind of resonance, transmitted in eight simple words, that I believe is the power of short fiction.  Succinctness allows the reader to consume the work in one digestible (if we're lucky) bite, which brevity alone cannot accomplish.  Compactness and efficiency of language, while at the same time telling a story, is not as easy as it looks.  The good writers of short fiction, which are well represented in this special issue, craft refined works by eliminating the superfluous and leaving in the reader's hands, and for the reader to experience, the essence of fiction.    

I am privileged to work side-by-side with Dave (I thought his name was David) Erlewine, Stefanie Freele, Antonios Maltezos, and Meg Pokrass, at a place called The Flash Factory.  I am familiar with the work of Kim Chinquee, Roxanne Gay, and Lydia Copeland.  And I am grateful to now have experienced the work of William Bryant, Roland Goity, Kathryn Kulpa, Jarrid Deaton, Blythe Winslow, and Len Kuntz.  Nights and nostalgia are a fitting pair, as light through darkness or darkness through light, and each story provides a unique and compelling portrayal of irretrievable events, though as the reader will discover, emotion will always defy chronology. 

Dave's letter to Ms. Adams, in "What I'd Say To Ms. Adams," resonates with a nervous uncertainty about whether or not his senior year English teacher has survived the strain of dealing with high school students without adverse affect on her insight and compassion.  The letter writer carries with him an image of perfection (of her), but due in part to his own imperfection, he questions the likelihood that she remains the person he remembers, that she's still so nice, or minus that, if she's even still teaching at all. 

Stefanie Freele's story, "If The Unsuitable Neighbor Smells Snow," is quite different.  Here the main character takes action to re-create and re-live the undaunted thrill-ride of her youth.  We root for her as she skims fuel and food from the neighbors and packs the car for one more ride.  We wonder if the night trees will, this time, swallow her whole.

In Antonios' story, "The Tinker," were it not for the references to soap operas and television, or that the tinker's mode of transport is a truck and not a horse drawn cart, the setting of this story could be an ethnic urban neighborhood at the turn of the twentieth century.  With vivid imagery, to include scent and sound, he transforms the mundane task of sharpening scissors to a parade-like spectacle of painted women and lined-up children. 

Kim Chinquee's story, "There Were So Many Guest Rooms," is a sobering account of imposed reminiscence, where rather than a self-initiated recollection, or one triggered by a familiar sight, scent or sound, the story unfolds at a dead end, and at this end of the line, reminiscence follows a whisper.    

"Dry Flies," by William Bryant, is an intriguing story of trepidation and self preservation.  The distraction and disorientation of the dry flies act as a shield, or cushion, against the fear of what the main character might discover when the creatures are silenced.  All is cold without them.  He fears what in silence will be revealed.

Roland Goity, in his story "Special Performance," uses second-person narrative to tell a third-person story.  Through insider communication to a person in the audience, who by the use of second-person narrative becomes the reader, he tells the story of a great pianist who can no longer play.  This is a touching story crafted in a complex yet masterful blend of narrative.  

The second letter of the Nights and Nostalgia issue, "Dear Heap," by Kathryn Kulpa, walks the fine line between obsessive psychosis and the despair of unrequited love.  From self imposed exile in her room, the letter is one of many the main character pens to her love, which he will never see, and which she will never send him because she cannot leave her room until he comes for her.  This story weaves beautifully in and out of a dreamlike state.

"All Because," by Jarrid Deaton, is like an alibi in the form of a confession.  It would be funny if it were not so real.  A victim of circumstances and a carrier of his mother's not-so-stable genes, the narrator describes a sequence of unfortunate events.  Wry innocence from the narrator carry the piece from beginning to end. 
Roxane Gay, in "There Are Things I Need You To Know," uses sharp, biting prose to confess a preference by the narrator for a level of abuse in stark contrast to her childhood, or to what she otherwise should favor.  This story also contains an oblique Oedipal strain where the narrator desires release from the father to take up with his opposite.  

In the refined style of which I have become familiar, Meg Pokrass, in her story "Night," reveals innermost human conditions in the most basic and unpowdered way.  Pedestrian and unapologetic, she strips the flower of its petals and shows us how life endures.  In Meg's story I discovered one of the best endings I've read in a long, long time.   

When I finished reading "Clementines," by Lydia Copeland, I simply sat back and said, "Wow."  The  husband's flying dream, of which I am so familiar, comes alive in this piece, in stark contrast to the 'grounded' lives of the mother and son.  Same family.  Different dreams.  Kaleidoscopic realities.    

"Along Came A Mammoth," by Blythe Winslow, is a refreshing detour from the stark, forlorn, melancholic stories in this issue.  Beaver meat, beaver pelts, lovemaking, and man-eating mammoths all in one paragraph.  This tale is an absolute blast. 

And we wrap up the issue with the hysterical work of Len Kuntz.  From eye-damaging champagne corks to a bear man ripping apart a strawberry, this story keeps the reader going.  But in the end, the human condition surfaces and the story ends in a touching, heartwarming reunion of brothers.   

It may well have been mid-afternoon when in 1964 Muhammad Ali boasted how he would defeat Sonny Liston.  There may have been flowers in a vase and I may have been sitting on the floor in the living room with my father, not because I had been fighting with my brother and under foot was my sentence, but because there was a sporting match he wanted me to watch.   Either way, like the stories in the Nights and Nostalgia issue, I captured and retained this moment as my own, as we capture and re-tell these episodes and events to others through well-crafted prose.  I feel fortunate to have read the work in this special issue, and I am honored to offer comments to these talented authors, no matter how simple or confused my comments might seem.  


Special Issue Commentary - Richard Osgood  (c)


Copyright 2009