Fiction

Conversation with Francine Witte

by Swetha Amit SW: RADIO WATER is a beautiful collection of flash stories dealing with poignant themes. What inspired this selection, and how did you put it all together? FW: I published a book last year, Just Outside the Tunnel of Love, and found that there were...

Spiderweb Lungs

She was rolling a cigarette when I found her, licking the ivory paper, spitting pith onto the earth, her pepper hair stringy over her eyes in a desiccated waterfall, dryer lint rolled in balls on her shirt, dandruff flakes dusting her shoulders, one leg bobbing cross-legged over the other in a particular rhythm.

The Lost and The Found

A young man, charcoal suit, skin cold and pallid.  Tall grass brushes against his legs as he wades deeper into an endless meadow. The waning sunlight empties gold all around, everything bathed in a fluorescent glow. There is a purpose to his journey, yet the...

The Violin Factory

The factory was quiet, but our fingers were busy. It was delicate, painstaking work and we always kept our voices low. I told my parents to do the same. “Sorry,” said my mom. She always vaulted into gaps in conversation, afraid of what silence might drag out of her....

Sheila at the Bus Stop

She hurries to the corner to catch the 23 to South Philly. No one’s there except for some guy who's lying on the sidewalk with his head propped against the downtown convenience store’s stone column. He’s wearing a gray knit cap twisted to the right. Sheila must've...

I’m Not Listening

I’ve made up my mind that I will not listen in the meeting that starts in fifteen minutes, but they will think I am listening because I have this incredible knack for scrunching my eyebrows together like I’m concentrating, a behavior I adopted from my sixth-grade teacher Ms. Clemens.

Sky Blue Hydrangeas

My sister Julia was everywhere; smirking down from the billboard at the bus stop, pouting at me through the glass of my TV and phone. And she was also nowhere. Even when I looked straight into her eyes, I couldn’t find her behind them; just another screen flashing...

Anadema

There is a clearing in the woods. You lie on your back in the word clearing. In the word clearing you see the clearing. In the clearing you imagine and anticipate the word. You feel the pressure of a root in your back. You roll and dry leaves crackle. The word crackle...

Shield

When you close your eyes, you no longer see those gazes woven with doubt; that’s why I can tie on an apron without burden, and conjure up dishes of braised pork and cola chicken wings for my hardworking wife upon her return, but I am told when I feed the baby with a...

Shoot For The Stars

I swipe through Caleb’s dating profile and scroll down to his reviews. He has an average of three and a half stars out of five. Caleb’s good-looking and smart. He cares a lot about movies. He talked a lot and didn’t ask me very much about myself, so we only went on...

The Clips

The only people in the gym are the cop doing chest presses, the gym owner standing beside him, egging him on, and now her. As usual, Mr. O, the owner, calls out to her, Heya, you’re a winner!

No Flats

This human traffic cone was standing in front of the rear door, and as the other bus riders maneuvered around him to squeeze their way out, they swung their colossal, overstuffed backpacks and reusable shopping bags filled to the brim with soup cans and various other blunt objects manslaughteringly close to my head.

Us

I felt her eyes upon me before I saw her. No more than three feet tall, a blonde ponytail pulled tight from her face, her cheeks wet with tears. The street was still quiet.

A Life Lost

I was twelve years old when my father tried to kill me. We’d all gone on a day trip to the beach. I was sick of my idiot brothers splashing water all over me and throwing sand in my hair, so when Dad suggested the two of us take a walk up the cliff path, I jumped at the chance. It was such a blustery day we had the viewing point at the top all to ourselves. We scanned the horizon for fishing boats and tankers, and spent ages trying to work out if a black dot in the distance was a seal or a buoy. I was mesmerised by a gannet silently gliding past when I felt his hands on my back, pushing me. I screamed at him to stop. This was not the time or the place for Dad’s messing. But he didn’t stop. He kept pushing and pushing until, being no match for a fully grown man, I went hurtling over the edge to certain death.

Grief Trough

I prefer to eat alone, but on a dim and backlit Thursday evening, I call my sister and ask her to witness me chew my own grief. She’s surprised but says yes, she’ll wiggle the woe-bone from my throat, tell me if I have gristled sadness between my teeth.

Crisis

Steph remarked on the schema of plexiglass skyscrapers crouching over a green veneer in the distance on the drive back from the airport, three days early, telling Leon that she had squirreled her cashing winnings in a duffel, which was stolen in the Charles De Gaulle terminal, meaning she was illiquid but could gamble his savings to the gosh darned moon if he’d let her.

Freckled Gal

“Drink the dark or else you’ll forget,” laughs the freckled gal. She flits here, there. The murk obscures her figure, but not her laugh, a raspy cackle like someone being garrotted.

Denver

I loved her name because it made me think of misty haloed mountains. It made me think of snow falling from the sky and turning the earth pure and white.

At the end of a story

I wrote a story of our friendship, but tequila and beer fucked it up in the end. I even reworked the ending to undo the parts about the car’s speed and the curve in the bend of the road, but I couldn’t delete the enormous bruised oak tree on Palmer or your twisted, bloodied body being pulled from the wreck.

After the Death of Sons

In a museum dedicated to man-made landscapes,a virtual elevator lowers one couple through Earth’s calibrated crust, temperature rising from coal mine to gold mine to deepest bore hole, heats verifieduntil they are safely in hell.

A Change of Tune

You hear the strings bend, the hammer downs and pull offs, but not in ways that impress your critical ear. Although such musicianship would have been cause for celebration when you played guitar, it’s now a “pedestrian display, dragging the album throughout a rock ‘n’ roll mire.”

Possession

I don’t believe that my husband is dead. The dead cannot walk, but every night he shuffles into our bedroom and lies down next to me, swamping me with his exhale of stale corpse air, breathing with lungs that I know are as black and wrinkled as rotten plums.

At the Aeroplane Zoo Cafe

There were few safe public places left to meet, but we knew we’d be among strangers at the Aeroplane Zoo Cafe. My heartbeat was heartbeat, heartbeat, heartbeat as I entered our foreign town. You soon sat at my side, and told me about your new concert. A different...

Holy Mother

Looking back, I could’ve stopped it. When my uncles, my mother’s brothers, the five-headed mass of them, cornered me at her funeral and said, “Irene was a saint,” I could’ve said no, she wasn’t. Could’ve said, you didn’t know her like I did. 

The Ice Sculptor Regrets

One day, the ice sculptor began to melt. As it happened, he came to realize he had a few regrets. He regretted having become an ice sculptor for one thing—there was no stability in it, it had never quite felt like a solid career. His parents had hoped for a more conventional sort of success.

Airing Laundry

Polly was supposed to be an expert, but she couldn’t do it anymore. How does one stay balanced and regulated when the world is overflowing with stupid and greedy and your mom is dying and your child just got called mop-boy at school even though she’s a girl and beautiful to you and you promised yourself you would lose weight but you ate three cookies waiting for the water to heat for your first coffee and your phone therapy clients have problems that make your life sound like a dream?

Tool Box

When the hammer comes down, the constituent parts of a cell phone will go their separate ways. It is just a beautiful dream left unrealized, but when annoyed by the texting driver or oblivious teenager holding up the line, rerunning it can never fail to brighten the day.

The Dog and the Sea

They were there, every other day, at the beach. I used to come every day. To see the wind, hear the air pop like bubble-wrap on the shore. I’d come at night: the wind was wet, free from the tongues of visitors, save me. But I’m more of a resident.

Watermelon Boy

You asked me what would happen if you ate a watermelon seed, and when I said it would grow a plant in your belly, you didn’t hesitate, just popped the seed right into your mouth and swallowed it whole, laughing as it slipped down into warm and wet caverns.

Counting in Three’s

Your mother was fond of saying things don’t always happen, but when they do, they always happen in three’s. So you learned very young to count events, not apples or sticks or stones, on your fingers. When you got to three, you’d start all over again.

Docking the Boat

Pops begged for a cigarette in hospice. So Beth bummed two smokes off a tattooed nurse, lighting one in Pops’ mouth with hers—two cigarettes kissing. They smoked, Pops coughing and rattling. The nurse glared. Pops died.

Phobia

The complex phobias knew they were superior. They conquered adults, not mere children. They were difficult to treat. They fucked up big chunks of people’s lives. Someone with arachnophobia or aerophobia could pretty easily avoid spiders or planes. But try making a decent life with agoraphobia.

Road Trip, 1958

The father doesn’t know where he’s going. He tells the mother to pull the map out of the glove compartment. Two little girls in the back seat. I want ice cream, the smaller one says. She is only three, but already a princess. This is how she will be the rest of her life.

Christmas is Cancelled

My son says Santa isn’t real, but I’m dying tonight. Snarling at sleigh bells, I sink beneath bloody bubbles into a whirl of bathwater. The Jacuzzi swallows me like a sperm whale and spits me out when it realizes what a terrible mother I am.

Melting

The thing about having a child is that you’re always sick. And after a while this perpetual sickness starts to bleed into your actual health, so what started out as daycare residuum (a clogged nose and cough that feel, even without squinting too much, like an...

Among Many Things

I didn’t want to go to the thing but he wanted me to go to the thing. He always wanted me to go to the thing and I never wanted to go. All year long, he thought about the thing and so did I. He thought about liking it and I thought about not liking it. But sometimes he thought about me not liking it and I thought about him liking it.

In a Jar by the Door

After the burial, we’re taking what we want from your house. I pause to look around the living room, which smells of perfume and cat urine. The room appears even smaller now, but it’s still the interesting assortment of clutter I recall as a kid.

Roadside

The doe was definitely dead. Of that, Sean could be quite certain in his diagnosis. Her eyes rolled in their sockets, glassy and cold, her neck skewed backward at a disjointed angle, and her tongue hung out her open mouth, resting on the tarmac.

Conversation with Francine Witte

by Swetha Amit SW: RADIO WATER is a beautiful collection of flash stories dealing with poignant themes. What inspired this selection, and how did you put it all together? FW: I published a book last year, Just Outside the Tunnel of Love, and found that there were...

Spiderweb Lungs

She was rolling a cigarette when I found her, licking the ivory paper, spitting pith onto the earth, her pepper hair stringy over her eyes in a desiccated waterfall, dryer lint rolled in balls on her shirt, dandruff flakes dusting her shoulders, one leg bobbing cross-legged over the other in a particular rhythm.

The Lost and The Found

A young man, charcoal suit, skin cold and pallid.  Tall grass brushes against his legs as he wades deeper into an endless meadow. The waning sunlight empties gold all around, everything bathed in a fluorescent glow. There is a purpose to his journey, yet the...

The Violin Factory

The factory was quiet, but our fingers were busy. It was delicate, painstaking work and we always kept our voices low. I told my parents to do the same. “Sorry,” said my mom. She always vaulted into gaps in conversation, afraid of what silence might drag out of her....

Sheila at the Bus Stop

She hurries to the corner to catch the 23 to South Philly. No one’s there except for some guy who's lying on the sidewalk with his head propped against the downtown convenience store’s stone column. He’s wearing a gray knit cap twisted to the right. Sheila must've...

I’m Not Listening

I’ve made up my mind that I will not listen in the meeting that starts in fifteen minutes, but they will think I am listening because I have this incredible knack for scrunching my eyebrows together like I’m concentrating, a behavior I adopted from my sixth-grade teacher Ms. Clemens.

Sky Blue Hydrangeas

My sister Julia was everywhere; smirking down from the billboard at the bus stop, pouting at me through the glass of my TV and phone. And she was also nowhere. Even when I looked straight into her eyes, I couldn’t find her behind them; just another screen flashing...

Anadema

There is a clearing in the woods. You lie on your back in the word clearing. In the word clearing you see the clearing. In the clearing you imagine and anticipate the word. You feel the pressure of a root in your back. You roll and dry leaves crackle. The word crackle...

Shield

When you close your eyes, you no longer see those gazes woven with doubt; that’s why I can tie on an apron without burden, and conjure up dishes of braised pork and cola chicken wings for my hardworking wife upon her return, but I am told when I feed the baby with a...

Shoot For The Stars

I swipe through Caleb’s dating profile and scroll down to his reviews. He has an average of three and a half stars out of five. Caleb’s good-looking and smart. He cares a lot about movies. He talked a lot and didn’t ask me very much about myself, so we only went on...

The Clips

The only people in the gym are the cop doing chest presses, the gym owner standing beside him, egging him on, and now her. As usual, Mr. O, the owner, calls out to her, Heya, you’re a winner!

No Flats

This human traffic cone was standing in front of the rear door, and as the other bus riders maneuvered around him to squeeze their way out, they swung their colossal, overstuffed backpacks and reusable shopping bags filled to the brim with soup cans and various other blunt objects manslaughteringly close to my head.

Left Coast

In early November, I quit drinking for the 87th time. What disgusted me was how I kept cracking beer after beer on a Friday night, complaining to the kids about their deadbeat father.

Fuck Me In the Dumpsters

and you know I don’t mean inside the dumpsters because holy fuck how gross would that be but in the cinder block enclosure that hides the dumpsters from the public with its blocks textured on the outside to mimic cut stone

Us

I felt her eyes upon me before I saw her. No more than three feet tall, a blonde ponytail pulled tight from her face, her cheeks wet with tears. The street was still quiet.

A Life Lost

I was twelve years old when my father tried to kill me. We’d all gone on a day trip to the beach. I was sick of my idiot brothers splashing water all over me and throwing sand in my hair, so when Dad suggested the two of us take a walk up the cliff path, I jumped at the chance. It was such a blustery day we had the viewing point at the top all to ourselves. We scanned the horizon for fishing boats and tankers, and spent ages trying to work out if a black dot in the distance was a seal or a buoy. I was mesmerised by a gannet silently gliding past when I felt his hands on my back, pushing me. I screamed at him to stop. This was not the time or the place for Dad’s messing. But he didn’t stop. He kept pushing and pushing until, being no match for a fully grown man, I went hurtling over the edge to certain death.

Grief Trough

I prefer to eat alone, but on a dim and backlit Thursday evening, I call my sister and ask her to witness me chew my own grief. She’s surprised but says yes, she’ll wiggle the woe-bone from my throat, tell me if I have gristled sadness between my teeth.

Patrilineal

Dad got taken by Grandpa again. We were all sitting around the dinner table when his eye did that twitchy thing, his head snapped back, and he screamed, “Timmy!” (That’s Dad’s name.)

Universal Love Story

You are not pretty, and that’s what I love. Jowls like a bulldog’s and white, chalky makeup that collects in the ravines between your nose and cheeks, turning to wet cornstarch when you sweat—and you’re always sweating.

Crisis

Steph remarked on the schema of plexiglass skyscrapers crouching over a green veneer in the distance on the drive back from the airport, three days early, telling Leon that she had squirreled her cashing winnings in a duffel, which was stolen in the Charles De Gaulle terminal, meaning she was illiquid but could gamble his savings to the gosh darned moon if he’d let her.

Freckled Gal

“Drink the dark or else you’ll forget,” laughs the freckled gal. She flits here, there. The murk obscures her figure, but not her laugh, a raspy cackle like someone being garrotted.

Denver

I loved her name because it made me think of misty haloed mountains. It made me think of snow falling from the sky and turning the earth pure and white.

At the end of a story

I wrote a story of our friendship, but tequila and beer fucked it up in the end. I even reworked the ending to undo the parts about the car’s speed and the curve in the bend of the road, but I couldn’t delete the enormous bruised oak tree on Palmer or your twisted, bloodied body being pulled from the wreck.

After the Death of Sons

In a museum dedicated to man-made landscapes,a virtual elevator lowers one couple through Earth’s calibrated crust, temperature rising from coal mine to gold mine to deepest bore hole, heats verifieduntil they are safely in hell.

Nobody Told Me Flowers Scream

A car drives past my bedroom window blasting ‘Return of the Mack’ and I just — feel so jealous. I’m in the dark with my newborn who has finally let sleep win, lives going by outside like carriages on a Ferris wheel, luminous and swinging with adrenaline.

A Change of Tune

You hear the strings bend, the hammer downs and pull offs, but not in ways that impress your critical ear. Although such musicianship would have been cause for celebration when you played guitar, it’s now a “pedestrian display, dragging the album throughout a rock ‘n’ roll mire.”

Possession

I don’t believe that my husband is dead. The dead cannot walk, but every night he shuffles into our bedroom and lies down next to me, swamping me with his exhale of stale corpse air, breathing with lungs that I know are as black and wrinkled as rotten plums.

At the Aeroplane Zoo Cafe

There were few safe public places left to meet, but we knew we’d be among strangers at the Aeroplane Zoo Cafe. My heartbeat was heartbeat, heartbeat, heartbeat as I entered our foreign town. You soon sat at my side, and told me about your new concert. A different...

Holy Mother

Looking back, I could’ve stopped it. When my uncles, my mother’s brothers, the five-headed mass of them, cornered me at her funeral and said, “Irene was a saint,” I could’ve said no, she wasn’t. Could’ve said, you didn’t know her like I did. 

The Ice Sculptor Regrets

One day, the ice sculptor began to melt. As it happened, he came to realize he had a few regrets. He regretted having become an ice sculptor for one thing—there was no stability in it, it had never quite felt like a solid career. His parents had hoped for a more conventional sort of success.

Airing Laundry

Polly was supposed to be an expert, but she couldn’t do it anymore. How does one stay balanced and regulated when the world is overflowing with stupid and greedy and your mom is dying and your child just got called mop-boy at school even though she’s a girl and beautiful to you and you promised yourself you would lose weight but you ate three cookies waiting for the water to heat for your first coffee and your phone therapy clients have problems that make your life sound like a dream?

Tool Box

When the hammer comes down, the constituent parts of a cell phone will go their separate ways. It is just a beautiful dream left unrealized, but when annoyed by the texting driver or oblivious teenager holding up the line, rerunning it can never fail to brighten the day.

The Dog and the Sea

They were there, every other day, at the beach. I used to come every day. To see the wind, hear the air pop like bubble-wrap on the shore. I’d come at night: the wind was wet, free from the tongues of visitors, save me. But I’m more of a resident.

Watermelon Boy

You asked me what would happen if you ate a watermelon seed, and when I said it would grow a plant in your belly, you didn’t hesitate, just popped the seed right into your mouth and swallowed it whole, laughing as it slipped down into warm and wet caverns.

Counting in Three’s

Your mother was fond of saying things don’t always happen, but when they do, they always happen in three’s. So you learned very young to count events, not apples or sticks or stones, on your fingers. When you got to three, you’d start all over again.

Docking the Boat

Pops begged for a cigarette in hospice. So Beth bummed two smokes off a tattooed nurse, lighting one in Pops’ mouth with hers—two cigarettes kissing. They smoked, Pops coughing and rattling. The nurse glared. Pops died.

Phobia

The complex phobias knew they were superior. They conquered adults, not mere children. They were difficult to treat. They fucked up big chunks of people’s lives. Someone with arachnophobia or aerophobia could pretty easily avoid spiders or planes. But try making a decent life with agoraphobia.

Road Trip, 1958

The father doesn’t know where he’s going. He tells the mother to pull the map out of the glove compartment. Two little girls in the back seat. I want ice cream, the smaller one says. She is only three, but already a princess. This is how she will be the rest of her life.

Christmas is Cancelled

My son says Santa isn’t real, but I’m dying tonight. Snarling at sleigh bells, I sink beneath bloody bubbles into a whirl of bathwater. The Jacuzzi swallows me like a sperm whale and spits me out when it realizes what a terrible mother I am.

Melting

The thing about having a child is that you’re always sick. And after a while this perpetual sickness starts to bleed into your actual health, so what started out as daycare residuum (a clogged nose and cough that feel, even without squinting too much, like an...

Among Many Things

I didn’t want to go to the thing but he wanted me to go to the thing. He always wanted me to go to the thing and I never wanted to go. All year long, he thought about the thing and so did I. He thought about liking it and I thought about not liking it. But sometimes he thought about me not liking it and I thought about him liking it.

In a Jar by the Door

After the burial, we’re taking what we want from your house. I pause to look around the living room, which smells of perfume and cat urine. The room appears even smaller now, but it’s still the interesting assortment of clutter I recall as a kid.

Roadside

The doe was definitely dead. Of that, Sean could be quite certain in his diagnosis. Her eyes rolled in their sockets, glassy and cold, her neck skewed backward at a disjointed angle, and her tongue hung out her open mouth, resting on the tarmac.

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