“Let it all go,” Doris says, by which she means all my petty vendettas. Not my lover, not my sister and not even my friend—she sweeps up the mess in the living room. “What are you doing,” I ask, “and where did you find the broom?” “Where you always leave it,” she answers, “hidden behind the coats and boxes. Let it all go,” she repeats, but I have no intention of letting it go, and my anger spreads through the room, a noxious fume. Soon we both begin coughing. “Your anger is killing us,” she shouts. But there is no “us.” I stick my head out the window and take a deep breath. Then I shut and lock it. Now the air inside seems sweet to me, but Doris turns pale and can’t seem to catch her breath. “I can’t live this way,” she bursts out. “No one asked you to,” I say. “Who are you anyway?” “No one you know,” she answers. I take the broom from her, happy that only one of us will survive my anger.
When the man rises from a chair, after reading the newspaper, his body is shaped like a chair. Must be stiffness from sitting so long, he thinks, and stretches toward the ceiling, but his arms won’t reach and his lower half squats. He shouts for his wife to help him. She sweeps in from the kitchen. “What’s wrong,” she asks. “I’m shaped like a chair,” he says. “You’ve been hunching down like that for a while now,” she answers and sits on his lap. “And you’re very comfortable.” “I can’t go to work like this,” he says. “Why not she asks. You sit all day. No one will notice, and besides you’re off for the week, so don’t worry.” She brushes her lips against his. She kisses his nubby cheek, purring. “Your upholstery is lovely,” she says. “It’s not funny,” he snaps and tries to get up, but his wife yawns and stretches her legs over his arms, settling in for a nice long nap.
When Kahane, our guest, disagreed with Greta over how best to cook chicken thighs, she smoked him. The fire lasted only a few seconds then burst into sparks, but it was enough to char the tablecloth and burn to a crisp the needlepoint on the chair. “Greta, please,” I said, “we’ve got so few friends left.” She aimed her fiery red mouth at me. “Kahane wasn’t my friend.” She had a point. I had known Kahane since grade school, but she had only known him since we had been living together, two years. With her hot fleshy lips, Greta was a great kisser, and she could do magic things with her tongue. But in recent months, she had grown impatient, dissatisfied with everything. I swept up Kahane and emptied his ashes into the trash. “What’s wrong, Greta?” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “I’m a dragon,” she answered. “Do I have to explain everything? My mouth is a flamethrower.” That’s not a problem,” I said. “You can control it.” She looked so sexy in her purple crop top, beads glistening on her golden breasts, I wanted to hoist her off the ground but when I made my move, the air exploded from her mouth. My beard crackled as I ran to the sink to put out the fire. “Bad timing,” she said, then stroked the dark red stubble on my blistered chin.
Bees buzz at my head as if it were a hive. I wave my arms to repel them, but they just fly in larger circles until my arms fall to my sides from weariness. Then their circles grow smaller again until I can feel their wings grazing my cheeks and eyebrows. Perhaps I smell like honey or some sweet flower that draws them toward me. I blow out as if putting out the candles on a birthday cake, and the bees caught in my gust of breath spin out of the circle, but soon they’re back. They never sting or attack me, but I watch them closely and move slowly. I have tried to run away, but they are too quick, too sensitive to my movements to let me escape their circles. Sometimes I talk to them like friends, but they only hum in response. And sometimes when I fall asleep, a few settle on my face. but they leap off before my eyes can fully open. Each day many die, dropping at my feet. Their souls vaporize into clouds of pollen rising into the trees. But new generations replace them in flight. My lovers have all deserted me, but my friends say that I’m full of magic and charm, that I just haven’t found the right person; yet they keep their distance. Some say I belong in a circus. And others say they’ve never seen a problem like mine. I don’t know how this happened, but for now, my head glows with its own light, and the bees follow it as if it were their sun.
My lover gave me a box wrapped in pretty red ribbon. When I ripped it open, there was another box and inside that box a tray shiny with chocolates, an assortment of chocolates. “You get back what you give,” she said. I had bought these same chocolates for her. She was regifting my gift. “But shouldn’t we get what we want,” I asked. “Then you should buy your own gift,” she answered. She picked out a chocolate and placed it in my hand. “Nice,” I said smelling it before biting in. The chocolate shell cracked, and the ganache tasted so sweet I felt a little dizzy, but I wanted another. “I knew you would like this gift,” she said. I ate another chocolate and then another, and now I was no longer dizzy, just eager for more. “Slow up, she said. You’ll get sick.” “Have one,” I said. She tasted hers, letting it sit on her tongue and closing her eyes while I finished three more. “They’re delicious,” she said, “but I don’t really like dark chocolate.” “Have another,” I said. “No, they’re yours,” she said. “I didn’t get them for me.” She plucked the empty wrappers out of the box and tossed them in the garbage can. “I’ll buy you a gift,” I said. “What would you like?” “You figure it out,” she answered, “surprise me.” Maybe some chocolates, I thought and kept eating until I finished every last one. Then my belly filled with a great emptiness, and there was nothing left to eat.
When he smoothes the hair on the neck of a horse, the horse whinnies and snarls. “Now you have wings,” St. Francis says, but when the horse gallops off, his wings fail to open, and he plunges into the thorns, desperate to get away. When St. Francis picks up a dove, it struggles to escape his hands, but Francis sings the dove a song, and the song silences the dove and the other birds listening in the trees. He tosses the dove in the air. “Go find the rainbow,” he commands, but the dove falls to earth, its body crushed. When St. Francis encounters a rabid dog, he gathers him in his arms, and for a moment the dog stops drooling and panting; for a moment it loosens its fixed stare, and the ears relax. The hackles fall. “I won’t go to heaven without you,” he says. Then the dog bites him and runs into the fields. Many years later, St. Francis approaches the gates of heaven, but the same dog blocks his entrance. “You’re not ready yet,” he says. Though the other animals and creatures plead his case, the dog doesn’t budge, and St. Francis turns away to begin his long walk back to life.
Once we learned to breathe under water, we could resume our normal lives again. Things got easier. We no longer needed parking spaces or automobiles because we swam everywhere. We no longer needed grocery stores because we lived on what the ocean offered. We still worked every day to keep the economy stable, but produced nothing of any worth, nothing that any creature living underwater would want to buy. Our goods floated to the surface and then disappeared. We slept while in motion, only opening our eyes when a bright shaft of light penetrated the darkness or when we sensed an imminent danger. At first the fish fought us, sending armies out against us, but we repelled them with our superior weapons and our bombs, thousands of them belly up in seconds. Sharks and killer whales abandoned their hunting grounds and headed for other territories. They never returned. The fish who remained came to the bargaining table. “We’re human,” we said. “We just want to live in peace.” They signed our treaty, and before they could swim away, we ate them.
“You’re blurry,” she says, tilting her head as she stares at me. “No edge.” I don’t understand the comment, but rise from the couch to give her a better look at me. “Now what do you think?” “Still blurry,” she answers, “as though you’re floating under water or standing in the distance, waves of heat surrounding you.” I run my hand around my face and down my hands and shoulders. “I’ve got plenty of edge,” I say, “maybe your contacts are fogged.” I don’t wear contacts,“ she replies. “Are you sure you don’t mean fuzzy, because I haven’t shaved?” She shakes her head. “You are no doubt fuzzy because you rarely shave, but now, you’re more blurry than fuzzy—amorphous really.” I chalk this up to the whimsy of one of her moods, the vagaries of her emotional states. There’s nothing vague about me. I’m solid as ever and head to the mirror to show her that this is all in her head. However, the mirror reveals an indistinct face like a fogged window or a cable channel that doesn’t quite come in. Maybe I got too stoned last night or maybe I’ve woken in a dream in which I’m waking. Behind me, Hanna’s face strikes sharp as a bell. “You’re not sleeping enough,” she states matter of factly. “And you’re working too hard.” “I don’t have a job,” I say, “and all I do is sleep.” “That’s it, she says. “You’ve solved your own problem. Get out of the house more, and find a job.” “I can’t go out like this,” but she’s already opened the door, and there’s nothing blurry about what she wants.
A fox came to the door, the sun shining on his pretty red coat. “Can you spare a dollar,” he asked, his paw extended. “A dollar won’t get you anywhere,” I said. “It’s not worth a cent.” I wondered why a fox would want a dollar anyway. The fox shook his head, “Sad times,” he said. “Then make it five dollars.” I considered that for a moment. I looked at his red fur, which now seemed a little worn, crusted with dirt. “I can’t see that five dollars will help you either,” I said. “If a dollar’s worth nothing, then five times nothing equals nothing. And what’s a fox going to do with money anyway?” I see your point,” he said with a smile, but when I went to shut the door, he slipped inside. He sniffed the floors, trotting from room to room. As I followed him, he seemed to ignore me, but I grabbed his tail and then he leapt back to face me. “Okay,” I asked, “What’ll it take to get you out of here?” “I could ask the same question,” he replied. I opened the door and pulled out a twenty dollar bill, but he laughed and leapt onto the bed. “Some things money can’t buy,” he said and fell into a deep slumber. Soon his smell filled the house, and the snoring was unbearable.
Jeff Friedman’s poems, flash fictions, and translations have appeared in Poetry International, Poetry, Agni Online, New England Review, The Antioch Review, American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Missouri Review, Sentence, Quick, Fiction, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry, Flash Fiction Funny, The New Republic, and Hotel Amerika. His sixth book of poems, Pretenders, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in February 2014. His translation with Dzvinia Orlowsky of Memorials: A Selection by Mieczyslaw Jastrun was published by Dialogos Press and they were awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in Translation for 2016.