By Roberta Allen
If I were to write a story about a barbeque in Stone Ridge, would I change the location to Willow? To Olive? Would I change the number of guests from six to five or maybe seven? Would I add another female? Would I exclude the odd-numbered male? Would I change the profession of the annoying architect swatting big fat flies at the table while we were eating to lawyer? Or pilot? Or yoga instructor? Did the architect swat flies while we were eating? Or was it later, after we had finished and taken the dishes and burnt buns back inside the house? Were the uneaten buns “burnt”? Or do I just like the sound of the words “burnt buns”?
Did I say too much when I called the architect swatting flies “annoying”? Could I have said anything else? Could an architect be anything but annoying, slamming his big hairy hand on the table, squashing soft, gushy flies, or almost worse, missing them and cursing, causing us to pause in our conversation—about what? Cancer? Didn’t the man I’ll call, at least for this moment, the radio show personality, rather than the massage therapist I had thought of calling him because he is thin and wiry, which is how I imagine massage therapists, say that one out of every three people will get cancer at some point in their lives? Would I be giving too much away if I said that our host’s cat likes to lick his bald head? If I said that two of the three male guests were bald and one wore a baseball cap and it was not the radio show personality, would you imagine I was talking about the annoying architect whose profession I have decided to change to lawyer because lawyers tend to be annoying, though not my present lawyer who amazes me with her attention to detail in regard to handling my insurance settlement which is probably irrelevant to the story. Would the baseball cap be superfluous? Clichéd? Should I leave it out, especially since a baseball cap reminds me of a day I spent in a motorboat on Lake Carefree with a man from Memphis I would rather forget? Should I reveal instead that one guest was missing a leg? And it wasn’t the lawyer or the radio show personality? Should I say that I saw the prosthesis where his pant leg crept up ever so slightly as he laid his leg over the stool our host brought out from the house expressly for that purpose? Would the missing leg reveal his identity? Should I ruminate on the possible ways in which he might have lost it? Should I change his missing leg to a missing arm? If I wrote a story about that afternoon, our sitting under the tall leafy trees around a table set down on the grass, the pool and decrepit bath house down a short hill, hidden by trees and shrubs, the unheated water still too cold in early summer for swimming, would that be painting too close a picture of the actual scene even if I didn’t mention the big fat black-and-white cat with the bushy tail, the same cat who likes licking the bald man’s head and is beloved by one of the women who brought an old reflex camera she is learning to use, to shoot pictures of the feline, whose name I have already forgotten? If I said that this woman didn’t take any pictures after all, would that be giving away too much even if I didn’t say that she hates her job or likes to sunbathe nude on the deck of her house where no one can see her? Would I give her a name? Cecile, for instance? Or Nicole? A name I love. Or would I simply refer to her as the reflex camera woman? And what about the wife of the one-legged man? And what about myself, the narrator? Would I say that I never asked the wife of the one-legged man whether they had any children, assuming, erroneously perhaps, that they had none because of her husband’s disability? What would I quote myself as saying besides, “How fortunate we are to be sitting here on a beautiful day like this,” if indeed I said that while looking up at the blue sky between the tall trees whose name I don’t know but would like to know almost enough to take out my cell phone even though I’m writing this on a bus, fifty-eight miles from New York, and the driver said a cell phone can be used only for emergencies, and call our host to find out exactly what kind of trees they are since I only remember the name “Ground Ivy,” which our host used when bending down and tearing out a clump with his bare hand in response to something the wife of the one-legged man said. And what about our host? Should I mention that he once passed out from the smell of vinyl? That he said, “Shower curtains are the most dangerous.” Should I add that by then I was only half listening; that I, like the others, dozed off after drinking red wine and eating organic hamburgers despite the aggressive mosquitoes and gnats and, of course, the big black flies? Should I mention that our host also served potato salad and that the reflex camera woman brought a salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onions, a salad she said her mother used to make? Should I mention that her mother lives in a nursing home like my own mother and that she is dissatisfied with her mother’s care unlike another friend of mine whose mother has a twenty-four-hour nurse and lives in her own apartment in Santa Barbara or should I say Phoenix? Would I be going too far afield to bring into the story people who weren’t at the barbeque? My lover, for instance, an artist who sometimes wears a feather in his hair, and is thousands of miles away in Kyrgyzstan? Or the lawyer’s lover or ex-lover—I’m not sure which—who last time I saw her seemed to be missing a tooth? Or our host’s ex-girlfriend who swore the last time they broke up was really the end? Or should I, the narrator, mention my surprise upon hearing our host or was it the radio show personality or the lawyer, but certainly not the one-legged man, since his voice was too soft for me to hear anything, say that musicians in the subway audition for their spots, which led me to say excitedly, “What! On those dirty crowded platforms? In those dank smelly tunnels?”
If I were to write this story, would I say that while we were sitting there eating and drinking and talking about subway musicians and Ground Ivy and vinyl and shower curtains, death would soon take one of us? Would I wonder, as I often do when someone dies, why one person was chosen over another? Would I mention a terrible accident that happened on the highway near our host’s house? Would I make that part of the story? Would I make it happen after the barbeque that night? Would I mention the starry sky? The sweet-smelling air? The sharp flashing lights in the distance? The soft white flowers on the catalpa trees in full bloom? The long line of cars, mine among them, waiting for the charred remains of the SUV to be cleared off the road? Would I mention the ambulance that left the scene empty? The helicopter airlifting the victim to a special burn unit perhaps? Which guest would be my victim? The reflex camera woman who let me drive home alone—which is illegal with only a learner’s permit—from her house at the end of a dark dirt road, ditches on either side, at 2:00 a.m. the night of the accident? For the sake of a story, could I kill off a close friend who made a bad decision? If I were heartless enough to make her the victim, would she recognize herself and never speak to me again? Should I kill off someone I like less? How about our host who gruffly asked me to color the black and white drawing I gave him in gratitude for taking me to my driving test? Or the fly-swatting lawyer? Would any one of them not be angry or upset? Why should I worry about killing off one of my characters even if they do resemble people I know in real life? Why should I worry about anyone’s feelings? Do any of them worry about me?
Roberta Allen is the author of nine books, including three collections of flash and short stories; the novel, The Dreaming Girl; a novella, and a memoir. Her latest story collection is The Princess of Herself. Over three hundred of her micro and short fictions have appeared in journals, such as Conjunctions, Guernica and Bomb. She was long-listed for the Gordon Burn Prize in the U.K. Her micro fictions appear in the latest W.W. Norton anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction. Her writing guide, Fast Fiction, was the first guide to writing flash fiction in 1997. She has been a Tennessee Williams Fellow in Fiction and a writing fellow at Yaddo. A conceptual artist as well, her work is in the permanent collections of MoMA and The Met Museum. She has exhibited worldwide.
Originally appeared in NOR 5