Short Story Break

I’ve been quiet here on my book blog for a month because I have been focusing on my HR/workplace writing. I am reading and working on my fiction when I have time, and I have some interesting posts planned for this blog in the next few months. Until then, enjoy this short story I dug out from a few years ago. Happy reading!

Rearview Mirror

By Stephanie Hammerwold

He was ordinary at first glance, but that changed the more she took him in, framed, as he was, in her rearview mirror. His grey flannel jacket blended in with the upholstery of the backseat, and he seemed to wear the sort of things she saw others wearing as they crossed Pacific Avenue in order to avoid the college kids harassing passersby into handing over credit card numbers for monthly donations to Greenpeace. He was skinny. Too skinny. But she tried not to let it bother her too much as she sucked in her own stomach.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Is that it? You’re not scared.”

“No,” she laughed and turned the keys in the ignition.

“A strange man is in your backseat, and you’re not scared?” His voice was soft. It was reassuring in a way. Someone with a voice like that was not likely to pull out a gun. She could see him having a knife in his pocket, something he most likely grabbed out of his kitchen drawer before leaving his undecorated studio apartment that afternoon. But that was just for protection from the outside world and not for use inside this car. With the messy black hair and intense blue eyes, he looked young in this body.

“Just get on with it. Carjack me or whatever it is you plan to do. I’ve had a long day.”

“You? A long day? What do you do? Sit behind some desk in an office sending email and bossing people around to compensate for your own inferiorities?”

“Wow, you know me so well. It’s like we’ve been friends for a really long time,” she said, coating her voice with the forced cheeriness one often found among the staff at big box stores selling bed linens and colanders.

“Really, what do you do?” There was such disdain dripping from his voice that she thought for a moment he might decide to get out of the car.

“I listen to people whine all day—that’s what I do. You don’t like the smell of your coworker’s cologne? Well, come complain to me about it for a half hour! You don’t like the way your supervisor looks at you as though she doesn’t trust you, and you just want someone to vent to? Well, she probably has good reason not to trust you. From what I hear you’re often late, and you might be taking food without paying for it.”

“You work in HR then?”

“Uh, yeah. You’re a regular genius.” She found sarcasm as comfortable as the old grey sweatshirt she often put on as soon as she got home. Not tonight though—instead she was on an improvised road trip with a stranger in her backseat.

“Just drive,” he said.

“I am, and I was planning to regardless of what you requested. That is generally why people get in cars, isn’t it?” The second floor of the garage only held a scattering of cars at this time. “If you’re going to take my car, there are a few things I want to get out of the trunk before you do.”

She kept watch on him through the rearview mirror as she drove down the ramp and out toward the street. He kept clicking a retractable pen in his left hand, and it annoyed her even though she had the same nervous habit. He was looking back and forth and occasionally at her eyes in the rearview mirror where she would keep watch on him when she could take a glance away from the road. She drove toward home at first, mostly because it was what she usually did at this time.

“Where are you going?”

“Home.”

“Get on highway one and head south.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?!”

“Excuse me?”

“There’s just so much traffic at this time. I don’t normally swear. Sorry.”

“Yeah, I can tell. Just drive.”

She responded by heading up River Street toward the highway instead of left on Water as she usually did. The sun was long gone and light in the car was limited to what seeped in from headlights and streetlights. She had no fantasies of befriending this strange man and running off with him somewhere, but she was intrigued nonetheless and continued to take in what she could by the small piece of him she could see in the rearview mirror.

“What’s your story?” she asked as she drove south, weaving in and out of the Wednesday night traffic. She passed a man in a Lexus hitting his steering wheel and singing along to what was no doubt something as unexpected as Jewel or the Dixie Chicks.

“If you keep asking questions, I’m going to hurt you.”

“And that would get you where? Can you even drive?”

“Of course I can. Shut up.”

“I’m not going to shut—”

The headlights from the car behind her glinted off the blade and flashed in her right eye. He held it up just long enough for her to catch that glimpse in the mirror before  dropping it back down by his side in the back seat.

“Ha! I thought that would shut you up. Now drive.”

“At least you know what you want. Besides, you’re not going to use that on me. It’s just not you.”

“You’re right.”

The way the light tripped across the blade had momentarily shifted her focus from the road ahead. What did she have to lose by the actions of this man? She could keep driving south or somehow end this and go home to an empty house, heat up some questionable leftovers and continue to work on that bottle of wine she had opened two days ago. She looked ahead to the curve and the road, dotted here and there by the red glow of taillights and brake lights, and she made her decision. “So, I really want to know: what’s your story? This carjacking thing? It seems sort of, well, you know, sort of out of character for someone like you.”

“Who says this is a carjacking?”

“Oh, just a guess. Why else are you here?”

“Are you one of those religious fanatics who is going to talk to me about Jesus and get me to cry about my lost childhood or something?”

“Far from it,” she laughed. “Just another lonely human being looking for something or someone to connect to.”

“I just need to get out of town.”

“Don’t we all,” she said more to herself. “Why me? And how’d you get in my car?”

“I have my ways, and this just seemed like a good fit.”

“You’re not going to kill me, are you?”

“Probably not.”

They drove on in silence for a while, mostly because neither of them could think of anything to say. By the time they reached Moss Landing, she caught him staring out toward the ocean. The water was calm that night, and it was almost as though she could make a sharp right out there and continue driving across the smooth surface, but such things were an illusion. She looked back in the rearview mirror and saw only the scattered headlights of the cars behind her and kept driving south.

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The Art of the Short Story

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I spent the summer immersed in short stories for Rediscovering the Classics, a book group run by a friend. We used The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. We were assigned all but nine stores, but a few of us were tempted to tackle even the unassigned stories because of the offer of a prize at the end of the summer. It was worth it to read all the stories for the prize (an awesome bookmark listing 50 books to read before you die), but it was also an enjoyable journey through American short fiction.

I tend to get my short story fix by listening to Selected Shorts, which has actors reading short stories. I occasionally pick up a collection of stories by someone like Kurt Vonnegut or Aimee Bender, but I usually favor novels. After spending the summer reading and discussing short stories with an amazing group of women, I have realized that I need to make them a more regular part of my reading routine.

In the best short stories, authors have to be extremely economical with their words. Each sentence is important, and there is no room for unnecessary description. I like to think of the master short story writer moving their fingers slowly over the keyboard and constantly asking, “Do I really need that word?”

As we often discussed in the book group, short stories offer us a brief glimpse into the lives represented in the story. This means that authors often leave us with vague endings. It is a reminder that the story will still continue after we read the final sentence. Novels can end like this too, but it takes much longer to get there. A short story can provide us with that experience in as little as 20 minutes—sometimes even less time than that.

One of the standout stories in this collection is “In a Far Country” by Jack London. Not only is his description of the far north vivid, so too are the emotions his main characters experience as they slowly spiral to the brink of insanity due to their starvation and isolation. London’s story is one of the finest examples of how 15 pages are enough to pack the punch of a full novel. Each sentence is so full of meaning that I felt the satisfaction of completing a whole book at the end.

“Something to Remember Me By” by Saul Bellow was also memorable. I have not read anything by Bellow before, but this story has made me want to pick up some of his longer work. The narrator of “Something to Remember Me By” says of the story, “I haven’t left a large estate, and this is why I have written this memoir, a sort of addition to your legacy” (540). The narrator is speaking to his adult son, and the story he leaves his son is one of his own childhood. I will not share the details of it here because I think it is best to approach this story without any knowledge of what it is. Let the story unfold for you as though the narrator is telling it aloud to you for the first time. In the opening paragraph, he writes, “My first knowledge of the hidden work of uneventful days goes back to February 1933” (511). I love the phrase “the hidden work of uneventful days,” and I think that is why I find the narrative voice in this story full of both charm and emotional depth.

“Fleur” by Louise Erdrich is also worth mentioning here. Erdrich’s writing is incredibly rich and her descriptions are worth a slow read. I have enjoyed going back and carefully rereading some of my favorite sentences, such as this gem: “The girl is bold, smiling in her sleep, as if she knows what people wonder, as if she hears the old men talk, turning the story over” (740). This story captures the power of Fleur Pillager and is told in the voice of a quiet narrator who often sinks into the background, only to be noticed by the title character.

I feel like I could write something on at least ten more stories, but I will stop here to keep this post from being overly long. Pick up this anthology and take the time to savor each story. You won’t regret it.

Work Cited:

Oates, Joyce Carol, ed. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.