Flash Fiction

Origins: A Family Story In Flashes

My private cosmology—it seems my parents had sex when I wasn’t looking and so created me. From then on, I saw all that I know. I know exactly when Bill and I created James. I logged it on a paper chart. James and Jordan had Noa when they weren’t supposed to be getting pregnant (wildly dangerous). Then our juicy piece of fruit, Noa, defying all, arrived through Covid, being underweight, other perils. Now there’s a maybe baby in a surrogate woman in Wisconsin. So my world, my private universe began and continues. Thus goes Joanna’s cosmos.

The sheets are snapping in the wind on my mother’s clothesline, from the patio to the end of the lawn. The pulley’s screeching when we pull the wash in. A heaping, the rumple fills willow basket. Some days our wash smells like the first breath of air—so wide with clean—I want to walk around in it. In winter the winds freeze our wash. My father’s gray work shirts, pants, our nightgowns, our dresses all stiff as boards. We lay them in a pile like a stack of bodies in the garage, wrinkles frozen like long bones.

I begged my father to let me go on the roller coaster at five, maybe six years old. My older sister had just gone. He gave in, bought two tickets. Just him and me. The bar snapped down across our seat, the car creaked up the old wood rails, clicking up, pausing. Each creaky click brought more sickening fear to me. My father held me tight, sad that he had misjudged giving me a thrill. We went over the top and swerved hard one way, then the other, down the terrifyingly steep drops. Higher again then flung down terrifying peaks. “Scream Jo,” he shouted to me. “Scream as loud as you want.” But I had no sound in me.

I visit my sister barefoot in the morning, crossing painted red steps in front of our adjoining front doors. Or she crosses her back garden, comes up the back steps to my small porch where we sit and listen to the trees stir, the cicadas sing. I’ve alighted here temporarily camped out in someone else’s walls and problems. This untethering keeps me slightly off the earth, out of the ordinary. In this neighborhood of painted wood houses in contrasting saturated colors, of trees, backyards, small porches, insect song, rain falling, I visit my sister barefoot a few times a day.

My father’s bones. I have a 12 X 8 full-length X-ray of my father’s bones. When I look at this portrait of my father’s bones—I feel the familiarity of him. The bend in his body to one side that happened over the years is there. A sadness too that no other image brings. My sister, says, “It’s a heart stopping thing. I remember collecting it at the records window at the hospital and the tears spurting out. The young black guy behind the window saying to me, ‘Hard as it is coming into this world, you think it’s easy getting out?’”

Joanna Clapps Herman has had 40 publications during the Covid era—some are poems or micro prose pieces: in Odyssey PM, MUTHA, Pummerola, The Ocean State Review, Italian Americana, Persimmon Tree, Fatal Flaw Literary Magazine. Her book length publications include, When I am Italian: Quando sono italiana, exploring the question of whether it’s possible to be Italian if you weren’t born in Italy, No Longer and Not Yet and The Anarchist Bastard: Growing Up Italian in America. She has co-edited two anthologies; Wild Dreams and Our Roots Are Deep with Passion.