Tuesday, March 15, 2011

American Tango

It had been snowing like dandruff falling from the sky earlier that day. But the sky was clear then, a few clouds, that’s all. You could even see the sun shining through. The sun, bringer of life, almost gone during that long Winter. A promise of Spring, of better days yet to come. But that was some unforeseeable future. This was now. And now sucked. Now meant one gray day after another, one fucked-up moment after another. 

Jack couldn't even read. The stress had turned into some sort of ADHD. Mrs Visa and Mr MasterCard kept calling every single day, asking, cajoling, threatening. Pay now, asshole. We don’t give a fuck you don’t have a job. That's your own fault. The landlord wasn't as punctual, but was equally effective. Next week you’re out, mark my words. Pay up or be gone.

Reading had been Jack's favorite pastime. He loved reading everywhere. At his former job —he worked the graveyard shift, so nobody could tell—, on the bus, at home. He just loved those paperbacks. The thin, cheap gray paper would yield, give up the stories within. Ah, the stories. He loved everything. He bought three or five novels a week. They'd stack in huge, gravity-defying piles in his room. At some point, he could no longer afford them, so he went to the public library. The old lady there was friendly enough.

At some point it was clear nobody would hire him. Then he became a prisoner of the building, a recluse in his own room. Well, “own” was a relative term. He was about to be evicted. But they couldn’t evict him if the bolts and locks were in place, or so he thought. Well, he feared they'd probably evict him anyway, but he lied to himself to get a semblance of peace of mind.

He had disconnected the phone and had stopped looking at his mail. His curiosity got the better of him at times, and when it did, he'd suffer. More and more threats in big bold red letters. “OVERDUE. LAST WARNING” “PAY UP OR DIE,” it could’ve said as easily. So, reading had become scary. And the stress had pushed its way into his ability to read. He couldn't concentrate. He couldn't enjoy the stories anymore. They’d gone back to being just blots of cheap ink on gray paper. The authors, former magicians who had Jack travel to all sorts of worlds, were just names now. The winter had come all right. And it was there to say. It's cold, it's merciless, and it's going to last all your life. His creditors, Jack decided, were like the winter.

When it was clear that the stories could no longer give life, he stacked the books against the door. He built a barricade. They would not get him out. At this point, the bell wouldn’t stop ringing at certain moments of the day. The landlord would knock on the door time and again, and would threaten him. Jack no longer turned his lights on. He would just lie on his bed. Waiting. He'd stopped eating at some point. How many days ago, he wouldn't know. He was holding his position. He didn't know if he'd survive the siege.

When was it? He certainly didn't know. It was definitely night time. He felt an urge to go out. He walked up to the door. The piles of books were there. From floor to ceiling. His trenches. He started to throw down a few of the piles.

A rustle outside.

Was it the landlord?

He panicked and froze in position. He was as motionless as the nameless killer in the Telltale Heart. Minutes passed, slowly, as agonizing snails, like a drop of fear-laden sweat that just won’t slide down. How long had it been? He couldn't tell. His mind was no longer running on regular. Lead-poisoning. Random, scattered thoughts. And cold air seeping in through a crevice. At some point, Jack snapped back to reality. He decided it was best to go back to bed. He was certain his landlord was lurking outside.
And he dreamed.

His dreams were usually nightmares of anxiety, but not this one. Horrid and pleasant smells dragged him down a thousand heavens and hells. Then he got there. A land of Spring. Prairies of Hope extended as far as the eye could see. And his eyes were no longer tired. A storyteller telling stories to greedy children. The sun shone in all its splendor. Warmth. Jack's skin would breathe again. Blissful release. He looked at his skin. No longer was it pale. No longer could he see his ribcage when he lifted his shirt. He told the children stories, and they loved him for it. He knew more stories than all of the tale-spinners that had come before combined. He was the sage, the ultimate lord of stories, father of the tale. The children's hero. He felt grand. He found a place he loved, where he was loved.

The bricks are dark maroon. The building walls are adorned by dozens of windows. Behind each, a hundred stories. As we approach the building we see some windows lit, some others dark. We can hear the sounds of people arguing, children playing, love making. We can smell a hundred different spices. Life. The rank odor of death. Spoiled milk, rotten eggs, and the body in 8E. They're going to tear down the door today. They expect to find him hanging from the ceiling, or perhaps swimming in his own blood in the bathtub. They certainly don’t expect to find him lying on his bed, a placid smile and his eyes closed, like sleeping. Some deaths are worse than others. Death is as certain as taxes and credit cards, phone and utility bills. Employment is quite less certain, and happiness, less certain still. Sometimes there is happiness in death. Sometimes, words are just blots of black on cheap paper, sometimes they’re magic, they conjure a better world.


This post was created because of the Flash Fiction Challenge posted by Chuck Wendig on his blog. The story is exactly 1000 words long, or so MS Word tells me, and I wrote it in about one hour (not that that matters to the challenge conditions).


  1. I like it, well okay it made me cry, but in a good way.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Aiwevanya!

  3. This is so sad and yet one has to wonder. Did the stories take him from this life and allow him to exist on another level? I'd really love to think that's what happened. This has a real Twilight Zone feel about it and I enjoy that. It's creepy and dark, but moving and filled with hope at the same time. Well done.

  4. Thank you for you comment, Joyce. I'm flattered you compare my story to the Twilight Zone. As for the ending, that's up to you; he can either be delirious from malnutrition and just dreaming of a world of stories, or he might have actually ventured to such a world.

  5. This is the first story I've ever read in which "dead body" equals "happy ending".

    Maybe my interpretation of "happy ending" diverges a little from the norm, but I really liked your story.

  6. Thank you for your comment, Diane. The ending can definitely be interpreted as happy, as well as sad. This is one thing I wanted to accomplish with this particular story. I'm glad you liked it!

  7. Great descriptions, and the title made me think.

  8. I hope the title works on two levels. On one level, it symbolizes what this blog is, a marriage of two cultures. As for the story itself, in my experience, tango lyrics are always depressing, about losing, that sort of thing, and the main character is American... However, it's your interpretation that counts. :)

  9. I didn't know that about tango lyrics. My vague idea of "tango" was from "it takes two to tango." lol

    I interpreted your "American Tango" as the "American" quest to fit into "the machine."

  10. An interesting interpretation. It's kind of ironic that the protagonist is rejected by said machine. I always considered buying books different from other forms of thoughtless consumption, but it's valid to say that in a way it's the same thing...

  11. impressive... and good enough that it should see publishing somewhere...

  12. Thanks for your comments, Krzyś!

  13. Hey, this shit is awesome. Depth and wise use of descriptive words. An array of lunatic misconceptions. Love it.