Pound of Flash has published “Monocle is for M.” This flash piece is a study of two characters, the monocle and the man who wears it. The story is the result of a writing class assignment: choose an article of clothing and make it central to the tale.
“Spat” is the piece, Fewer Than 500 is the place to read it. For a while now, this online journal has been one of my favorite places to go and read flash fiction. I am happy to join the ranks of the writers featured there.
Published May, 2016 in
I’m not sure what it says about my work, but within a year I’ve had stories appear in the waining moments of three different publications: “Beyond Imagination,” “Saturday Night Reader” and now “Unbound Octavo.” I’d like to think it was because my writing was hard to top, rather than cause for the publications’ demise. Remnants of Unbound Octavo still remain. Alas, Volume Two, which would have included my story, will never see the digital dawn. The good news is they wrote me a check and the rights they paid for no longer apply. Please enjoy:
by DL Shirey
Stealing Valium from my father used to be easy. After school, before he came home from work to drowse in front of the TV, I rattled the orange vial and dropped a few in the toilet. I hoped his doctor would notice how quickly the tablets were used and stop the prescription.
Dad started the pills the day after Mom’s accident. Those closest to us were called to the hospital where we held off fears in familiar arms. But my father shrugged off hugs, wanting only to sit in a far-off chair and hold the blood-specked purse he had given his wife as a gift.
Surgeons finished later that day, snapping off bright overheads, satisfied with rewired ribs and a plug for the unwanted lung hole. For now, nothing could be done for her spine.
Valium came home the next day. The bottle clanked with permanence in the metal medicine cabinet next to his never-changing brand of shave cream.
For two weeks I biked straight from school to hospital to watch my mother adjust from sleep to pain to tolerance. With each day’s gain, fewer neighbors and acquaintances would visit. And though the hospital was near his office, my father first drove home before joining me bedside. I would see him in the hall, shadowing the frosted window until the pills blanded worry from his face.
He would eventually enter, touch her sheet to let his presence be known, then warm his hands in pockets. As their eyes met, Dad would raise his cheeks with half a smile, but the muscles couldn’t move the dullness from his gaze.
When I was pedaling home again, the thing to stare at in the living room wasn’t television but a rented hospital bed. Conversation came only from the periodic nurse whose face and name kept changing. Then a new TV appeared in the master bedroom, next to the bathroom where he caught me flushing pills.
Mother smiled when she heard my confession. Then asked for another pillow to put behind her back.
It seemed I was always first to arrive, wherever my mother’s bed resided: the spare bedroom, another hospital, a nursing home, or funeral parlor. It was only at the final visit did someone else arrive, well before the acquaintances.
I recognized him from the rattle in his pocket.
Published January 9, 2016 in
This is a personal essay about the day skin cancer was removed from my nose.
On The Nose
by DL Shirey
In high school health class they called it the Triangle of Death, part of the educational philosophy to increase learning retention by overdramatizing worst-case scenarios. Whether it was that memorable label or the photo in the textbook, the angst was enough to make my face break out. The book showed a pretty teenage girl with a red polygon superimposed on the center of her face. The bottom points aligned to the corners of her mouth, the top of the triangle at the bridge of the nose, smack between the eyebrows. It was red for a reason; no popping of pimples or pulling of nose hairs, we were told, should take place in this danger zone. It’s where blood vessels, nasal passages and tooth roots jumble their wires together, and three senses–taste, smell and sight–all have major ports of call. Here, physiologies collide, the continental plates of anatomy meeting at one’s own, personal San Andreas fault, just offshore the brain. One tiny infection or a little internal bleeding and BANG, instant coma.
So what’s worse, 30 years of triangulated anxiety or getting skin cancer there?
In stressful situations I use the DUH Method: Denial, Understanding, Humor. First, I deny that the problem even exists. When I finally understand it’s an unavoidable issue, I learn everything about it. Then I find the humor in the choice I make. No duh.
On the scale of skin cancers, where one is a bad sunburn and ten is a Lifetime TV movie, mine was a three. Skin cancer, by and large, is the casual cancer. There are some bad ones, so don’t let the flippant tone of these words keep you from getting a spot on your skin checked out. I did, and now I can make light of it.
In many cases, treatment for minor skin cancers can be done with one visit to the dermatologist. The doctor shines a fancy, blue light on the spot, peers through a magnifying glass, then burns the sucker off. Mohs surgery is used when the thing crops up on an ear, nose or near an eye, anyplace where there isn’t a lot of layers between flesh and bone. I’ve been accused of being thin-skinned before, but in the case of my skin cancer it’s true: right on the tip of my nose.
Mohs isn’t the name of Homer Simpson’s favorite bar, it’s a surgical process invented by a guy with that last name. His day-long procedure amounts to a slow-moving ping-pong match between the surgeon and the lab. A doctor makes the most minimal of cuts around the lesion, then sends it down the hall for analysis. The goal is to remove the bad and leave the good, a layer or two at a time. If the specimen gets a thumbs-down, the doctor makes another shallow incision. In my case, the third time was the charm.
Despite two-hour waits for lab results, it’s not a difficult procedure. Just a lot of time to kill from the moment I arrived in the morning to the final Triangle of Gauze on my schnoz.
All eight of us Mohs Bros (I’m using ‘bro’ in the brotherhood-of-mankind sense, three of the patients were women) gathered at 8:00 am, and were served on a first-come basis. I was second to arrive. One man already had his feet kicked up on one of the comfy-looking recliners, each with a small, personal TV. He had the screen cantilevered an inch from his face, Good Morning America blaring from the speaker. It’s going to be a long day, I thought, trying to grip my own fears, He’s doing the best he can to distract himself from the battle ahead. Then his wife came in; Helen, according to her patient wristband. She ordered the man outside to the official visitor waiting room and took the seat.
This was our staging area, where all Mohs Bros would wait during the day. The clinic operated under classic, efficient, Henry Ford assembly-line principles: one surgeon, a handful of nurses, and eight human chassis shuttling between four operating rooms.
First Helen, then my name was called. I followed the scrub-covered minion down a warren of hallways, delivered to one of the four curtained operating alcoves. Classical music on the speakers, big lights above a big chair, plenty of machines to monitor whatever is needed.
A nice nurse small-talked until my blood pressure came down to a more acceptable level, then asked politely if she could inject my nose with a local anesthetic. Her good manners did nothing to ease the needle spike or creeping numb that followed. Dear Lord, do not take my blood pressure now! I could feel my pulse double, pounding throughout my body. Everywhere but my nose. The nurse then painted a target using iodine and laid strips of cloth about my chest, neck, cheeks, eyes, forehead and chin. I imagined a mummy from an old, low-budget horror flick, complete with Hollywood lighting: the overheads snapped on.
The bright lights and blindfold kept me from seeing the surgeon as her shadow loomed above and she mumbled an introduction. I raised my palm in reflex and received a handshake in return. Warm fingers. After that, the touch of cold latex joined the unknown face.
I went under the knife three times that day. Even though the procedures were quick and the people knew their stuff, all I could think about was the tip of my nose. So I cut off my thoughts to spite my face, and started concentrating on, of all things, time: how little of it the doctor spent on my proboscis, and what she did with it when she wasn’t performing surgery.
Each slice, and I think I’m being generous, took five minutes. Then off the specimen would go for analysis, a two-hour wait until it was time to slice again. From the comfort of my recliner, behind my personal TV, I tracked the progress of the eight Mohs Bros, just so I could do the math.
(5 x 8) + (5 x 6) + (5 x 4) + (5 x 1) = N, the number of minutes the doctor worked. Five-minute surgeries over four rounds of patients, successfully diminishing the number of people per round, all accomplished in six hours of Mohsying.
By the way, N equals 95 minutes. Now, I could go for the easy joke about golfing between sessions, but my surgeon did not rush to the driving range to practice her swing. She was on-call at the clinic’s Urgent Care center where she performed emergency stitchery for walk-in wounded. I don’t know exactly what happened, but she got so busy that day, another surgeon was brought in to help finish the few remaining Mohs Bros. A plastic surgeon who, I’ll wager, was on the back nine when he got the call.
Other than my eyes’ eye-view of gloved fingers and steely implements, the worse part of the day was the smells. Unlike benevolent TV doctors who asked nurses to dab or called suction! to control bleeding, Mohs was all about electrocautery. That’s right, wounds seeping blood closed with the medical equivalent of a soldering iron. It smelled as if someone was using an electrical fire as an opportunity to barbecue hamburgers, a combination of burnt rubber and cooked meat. And the smolder was emanating from the tip of my nose, so there was no way to avoid the smell.
The odor embedded itself in my olfactory passages and accompanied me to lunch, the clinic’s cafeteria being just next door. A small courtyard of tables, now filled with diners, had been alternative seating for Mohs Bros craving a different view than TV and recliners. Today’s lunch special, Indian food, and an unsavory mingling of whiffs: charbroiled rubber burgers with a side of curry. Mmm-mm.
Of course there was always the option of sandwich meats, thinly sliced by the deli guy, then expertly assembled on gauze-white bread. No, thank you. Not hungry.
After my third go-round, and being pronounced cancer free, I felt my shoulders slump in relief. My only remaining concern was the bill. The cost wasn’t outrageous, especially when prorated by the hours I’d spent. Besides, it’s the C-word, and the real price one pays is ignoring treatment. Complain about the high-cost of healthcare or the price of premiums, but Mohs was a simple, effective treatment to remove the skin cancer from my nose. Worth every penny.
I even left a tip with the doctor.
Zetetic: a Record of Unusual Inquiry published my short story. It was originally titled “An Occasional Family Photo,” but the editor wanted me to change the name. It was easy to agree, “The Dead Fund” was the working title of the piece before it was finished.
Published November, 2015 in
Literary Hatchet, Issue 13
Small publishers help many writers to appear in print, often without turning a profit. Please support this publisher and purchase this volume. Since the first rights have now expired, the story is also printed below.
There was no true inspiration for this piece other than the length some people will go to maintain their appearance. This is a story about a man who truly enjoys his work.
The Middle Box
by DL Shirey
A trick of light. The wafer-thin disk spins, a mirror dangling from a silver chain, reflecting the chocolate-brown iris back into her pretty, pretty eyes. The left one, now the right.
“Concentrate on the color,” I say to the woman, none of that your-eyes-are-heavy or you’re-getting-sleepy nonsense.
The spinning pendant does not make her mind relax, nor the pendulum from one eye to the other. It’s the mirror and the vanity of seeing oneself, even for a brief moment. Appearing for an instant, then spinning away; reflected again, and gone; there, not there.
Her lids flicker and fall, breath evens out. She is asleep at the hands of a perfect stranger.
Names don’t matter. Call her Mrs. Dunmadder. The one stenciled on my office door is Dr. Spratt, weight loss specialist.
Mrs. Dunmadder snores softly, her long, greying hair fanned over the pillow supporting her neck. The Victorian chaise on which she reclines was specially built, a bit wider than the store-bought variety, the leather upholstery plumper to accommodate the women who see me. Full-figured, curvy; Rubenesque, they were called, way back when.
I love women of this sort. Even in their teens, when they were most active, they were hardy. Always longing to be like the popular girls, fighting in vain to achieve the stick-figure status of models in magazines. For who? Slack-jawed, TV-raised yokels who think large breasts atop tiny waists and hips are somehow anatomically possible?
What do these men know?
Mrs. Dunmadder has big curves up top, along with a generous undercarriage to support them. When she first walked in for consultation I nearly swooned. As much as I wanted to take in her bounties, I locked my gaze on her pretty, pretty eyes. Soon, they were all I wanted to look at, welling and sad, as she confessed her greatest concern: fear of joining ranks with the morbidly-O. Quite possible, if Mrs. D would let herself go. But she’s not a quitter, and everything looked exquisitely firm from my point of view.
She’s perfection in my eyes: buttery skin, a touch of makeup, and fashionably attired to accentuate that décolletage. She’s concerned that her clothes fit too tightly. Balderdash, as we said back in the day. Tailored to show every buxom curve, I say– to hell with drapery that hangs to hide a womanly body. Despite my protests, Mrs. Dunmadder wants a bit of tending. At very least, those fleshy areas on the arms. And the thighs, she wants her thighs a bit firmer.
“I think you’re beautiful already, but if you insist,” I told her. I didn’t tell her about the sedative.
Beside the chaise is a nightstand. In it are three small, lacquered boxes. The one with the fleur de lis has the ampule I need. I crack the plastic capsule under her button nose and watch her chest rise with each inhalation. The box with the paisley has an ampule of smelling salts to undo the narcotization when we’re done. The middle box, a tiny jade sarcophagus, holds the leech.
Brittle-looking now, it will reanimate when warmed by her skin. See there? It twitches to life, crawls to just the proper spot and bites through flesh; not for blood, it wants the delicious cream filling of subcutaneous fat. It starts shriveled like an unused party balloon, but look how it grows. Bulbous and pink, just like the stuff it craves.
The bite will leave a mark, but not a scar. The blame explained by the laser, that useless prop lying on top of the nightstand. No need explaining my excitement, watching a dead sack fill itself with new life, almost to bursting after a second helping from her other arm.
Time for all of us to rest. Mrs. Dunmadder will soon wake to the vague smell of ammonia in her lovely, little nose. It will be something she quickly forgets as I escort her to the full-length mirror. Her arms will be firm against toned muscle, skin radiant from the effects of our session. Beguiling, as we used to say.
“Next week and we’ll do the legs?” I’ll ask.
“No. Thank YOU,” I’ll say.
“Surf Guitar,” my 100-word story has been published on Microfiction Monday Magazine. The soundtrack for the piece came before writing it. I happened on a band I hadn’t heard before: Daikaiju. The word in Japanese means “giant monster,” but to me, as inspiration for this brief, grizzly tale, it was the band’s giant surf-rock sound.