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Flash Fiction

Click the links below to read one of Kelly’s shorter-than-shorties.

Johnson County Mr. Coffee

I stared down the fancy instrument panel of the $80 coffee machine, as if staring it down would make the “Clean” light turn off on its own.  I had already punched the button, glowing a yellow-orange back at me, no less than a dozen times, but it refused to turn off.

I hadn’t even wanted this fancy coffee pot, or the fancy one we’d had before that, the one that decided it was better off without a power button that worked.  I had wanted to keep the no-frills one that I’d kept back in my no-frills, one-bedroom apartment on the Missouri side of Kansas City.  But no, when my boyfriend and I moved in together in Johnson County, on the Kansas side, where the air was crisp, we had to get the fancy coffee pot.  The first fancy coffee pot broke after a year.

“How much are you willing to spend on a coffee pot?”  This was the question he asked me when it came time to throw the brushed nickel finish monstrosity in the garbage.  I longed for the black plastic Sunbeam I had inherited from a cousin who’d, in true Johnson County fashion, upgraded to a fancier model.

“Not much,” I’d told him.  Forty dollars, max.  When he came home with the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew Thermal coffee maker, also in brushed nickel finish, I had to counter with a question of my own.

“How much was this?”  I asked, ripping the shrink wrap from the tiny components in the box that was twice as big as the coffee maker, on account of all the Styrofoam.

“Eighty bucks,” he said, nonchalantly.  He’d thought I meant forty dollars apiece.  Not forty dollars total.

Now, within a month a purchase, the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew Thermal coffee maker was throwing me a warning that he needed to be cleaned.  And he would not be silenced.

“I can’t get this light to go off,” I yelled down the builder beige painted hallway.  He strode up, half-asleep, and began pressing the clean button with the same vigor I had shown moments earlier.  Meanwhile, I heard Mr. Coffee spew what it thought was a dirty, vile liquid into the thermal carafe.  When that didn’t immediately, miraculously work, he began pressing the other available slimline buttons on the slick instrument panel.  I could’ve killed for my old on/off switch.

Mr. Coffee announced that it was done brewing the dirty pot of coffee with the three high-pitched beeps I would normally be listening to from my home office down the hall, just 10 minutes after rolling out of bed, brushing my teeth, putting on a bra, running a brush through my hair, and taking the dog out to piss.  This was the baseline for a standard workday, when I wasn’t stuck in the kitchen, fighting with the coffee maker.

He shrugged and unplugged the cord from the wall, the crimps from the twist-tied confinement in the box still wavy on the too-short power cord.

“I don’t know,” he shrugged again.  Caltech education in action, I thought to myself.

I poured myself a cup and took a tentative sip.

“Tastes fine to me.”

He followed suit, pouring the hot, normal-looking liquid right up to the Sharpie-drawn line in the Starbucks Lenticular Tumbler mug he took on his stop-and-go trip to the office every morning.

“Nah.  Tastes funny.”

Whatever, I thought to myself.  Coffee is coffee.  As long as it gets me through my daily 8:30 meeting.

Halfway through the morning, I resolved to not let the fancy coffee maker get the better of me.  I plugged the machine back in, the “Clean” button reminding me again that it was in some state of non-optimalness that the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew Thermal coffeemaker would not tolerate.  I filled the removable water reservoir and filled it to the top, pressed the brew button, then returned to my office for the three beeps I was now classically conditioned to.

When I raced to the kitchen on the sound of the beeps, I found the “Clean” button laughing back at me.  No matter, I thought, emptying the hot water from the brushed nickel carafe and repeating the process, only to come back three beeps later to find the cleanliness still not to the satisfaction of Mr. Coffee.

I held the reset button for what should have been more than long enough to reset whatever it was that the coffee maker’s fancy computer needed resetting before I angrily ripped the cord from the wall.

“No, Mr. Coffee.  I am not spending another $40 on a fancy-schmantzy piece of crap coffee pot.”  I realized halfway through the sentence that was talking aloud to an inanimate piece of machinery, but I worked from home, so I didn’t hear the sound of my own voice much.  I marched, irritated, back to my office to ask the Lords of Google what was wrong with my Optimal Brew Thermal coffeemaker.  I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the top results of my support article search:

Clean button won’t shut off.

Clean light comes on and stays on.

What do I do if my Clean button illuminates?

None of the support articles had an answer to the problem, but most were filled with helpful suggestions from fellow owners who said it was “the best coffeemaker they’d ever had.”  I wondered to myself if Mr. Coffee paid these people.  Oh well.  The coffee was good enough for me.  If the boyfriend wasn’t satisfied, he could go out and buy another eighty dollar goddamned coffeepot.

A week later, I shuffled into the kitchen to the sound of Mr. Coffee’s three, high-pitched beeps.

“Oh, hey,” my boyfriend said, quickly shoveling his instant oatmeal breakfast.  “I fixed the coffeepot.”

I whipped my head around to look at him, then quickly back to the coffeemaker’s shiny instrument panel.  The familiar yellow-orange glow behind the Clean button was gone.

“What?  How?”

“I cleaned it.”

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Familial Paranoid Android

I am the world’s biggest Radiohead fan. I know you every song on every album, in chronological order. I’ve got all the b-sides and unreleased material you’ll never hear. I own every music video they’ve ever recorded. I can name every movie to ever feature a Radiohead song and every charity and political organization the band has ever had its hands in. I’ve bought Thom Yorke’s solo albums. I’ve bought Johnny Greenwood’s solo albums. Today, Phil Selway’s new solo album was released, and I was going to buy it. I already knew from press releases that the name of the album was Familial, but as the macabre album art, artist name, and album title stared me in the face, I had to choke down the wave of anger that washed over me. The word familial and I went way back.

I was a senior at Pepperdine, and as part of my program, I was required to take this idiotic marketing class I could have passed with one arm and one leg tied behind my back if I hadn’t been an overachiever. It took large portions of writing and drinking time that I will never get back. It was also one of those classes that involved a lot of team projects. My entire academic life, I’d grown to despise team projects, because I’d served the same role in them from the beginning. When I didn’t end up doing all the work, I did all the research and all the writing. The end of year project in this class was no exception. Our assignment was to develop a full-scale marketing campaign for bottled water, and because the class was full of marketing major sorority girls and frat boys who had been in classes together since Welcome Week, a graphic designer, a future salesman, and me, I ended up in a team with graphic designer and future salesman.

The twist on the bottled water project was that it was pretend-manufactured by a microbrewery in the Northwest. As a team, we decided to align the bottled water very closely with the beers and other beverages the make-believe microbrewery made, as if the bottled water were just another member in the family of fine products this family-owned microbrewery made. Because I was the writer of the team, I wrote everything: the thirty-eight-page marketing plan, the copy on each piece of ad media, and the slides on our team presentation. Because neither the graphic design guy or I were people-people, the sales guy agreed to give the presentation. The night before the presentation, I distinctly remember him asking me what familial meant, and explaining to him that it was just a fancy way of saying family-y.

But the next day, when he presented my slides to the class, the explanation had been lost, and he pronounced it familiar every time. The first time I heard it, my eyes nearly bulged out of my head. By the tenth time, I wanted to crawl inside the tri-fold tent that was our ad display and hide until the end of the presentation. I was relieved when the class – just as sleep-deprived as we were – applauded us. Then came the time for the professor to give us her last evaluation before the three of us could graduate in two days.

I’d been intimidated by this professor from the first day of class. She was short and rotund and had bright red spiky hair she used to hold up her horn-rimmed glasses when she stood back to look at our work. She wasn’t afraid to tell you your work was crap, and she didn’t like stupid questions. She reminded me a lot of my eighteenth century lit professor, except that he liked my determination. I expected her to lay into the sales guy about his lack of preparation with the presentation, and his gross mispronunciation of the word familial. Instead, she delivered her forced and contrived opening remarks of pseudo-encouragement, and followed it up with “In your presentation, you misspelled the word familiar, and it’s misspelled in many, many places all over your marketing plan. I had a really hard time reading it because I kept seeing the word familiar misspelled. You must have done a find-all-replace-all or something, but you really need to use spell check. I had to mark you down a letter grade because of it.”

I was so flabberghasted I couldn’t speak. If there were one word to describe our marketing strategy, it would be familial. Our marketing plan probably said that exact sentence ten times. I looked around the class to see if anyone else’s face was saying “Yes, familial is a word. It means of or pertaining to family,” but I saw nothing. As the eyes of the entire amphitheater burned into me and my teammates, the part of my brain that would raise my hand and point out that familial is a word died. She handed our graded marketing plan back to the team and as I flipped through I saw the word familial circled in red and the note This is not a word, use spell check written larger and more angrily with each page.

Ever since that day, I can’t see the word familial without getting angry. Why didn’t I just speak up and say I was right? All it would have taken was a dictionary and an apology, and I would have graduated with more honors. Instead, I let the word leave a taste in my mouth like a belch consisting of Dr. Pepper and Cornnuts.

I wanted to hear the album. I’d heard a couple of teaser songs from the album before there was an album, and they were good. But as I closed iTunes, I knew that if I bought it, the word familial would eat away at me slowly until I reached the point where I couldn’t even listen to Radiohead anymore. I was doing this to save our relationship.

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Are You There, Wall? It’s Me, Kerri

Kerri Lindsey had never been very good at math.

She stared blankly at the half-sheet of blue paper in front of her, covered in random clusters of numbers grouped into corners in no logical order, hoping that if she looked at it long enough, it would start to make sense, and she could answer the question she’d been asking herself for the last hour.

If there are 9.85 laps in one mile, and I was able to run 24 laps out of 40, and my average lap is a minute and twelve seconds, then how long will it take me to do 26.2 miles?

She’d tried cross-multiplying, one of few mathematical operations she both understood and liked. The more methods she tried, the less logical the answers were. At one point, her math had told her she could finish the marathon in forty-three minutes; at another, seventeen hours. Frustrated, she picked up the half-sheet of number-scrawled paper and wadded it into the tiniest ball her swollen hands would make. It didn’t matter how many times she tried to figure out if and how she’d finish the marathon, she knew her numbers wouldn’t scale to twenty-six miles. Of the four she ran, most of the running was at the front end, not the back. The further she went, the more she had to walk. She knew that at the rate she was going, she’d be restricted to walking after the first seven, because her stupid knee wouldn’t cooperate.

She’d been rocking it before her knee decided to be an asshole. It was a beautiful early summer day, just after a light rain and just before dusk, the week she was scheduled to run ten miles, the farthest she’d ever attempted. She’d gone all the way from her house at Walnut five miles straight down Los Robles right before I-10, had turned around at the halfway point, and stopped at Valley Boulevard to wait for the light to change. She was feeling good – really good. Then the light changed, she took off across the street, and felt like a shark bit her right in the side of her leg. Well, what she surmised a shark bite would feel like, anyway.

Ever since then, her ability to run had been sketchy. Some days, she could run four or five miles with no trouble. Other days, she couldn’t even run one lap around the track without feeling like a railroad worker was driving a spike through the side of her knee. She tried to ignore the pain, just like she’d done before ten-mile Sunday, but after limping home five miles with no water and no cell phone, the pain would not be ignored. She’d told the story of ten-mile Sunday to three different doctors already, all of whom said she should be seeing some improvement by now. She was doing everything they told her to do: taking the Naproxen, taking a break from running, taking time to stretch out really well, warming up and cooling down. Nothing was helping.

She figured people were probably tired of hearing about it. It wasn’t their fault; they just didn’t understand. The marathon entry fee had been paid. The hotel was paid for. She’d requested the time off work. She’d bought pricey new running shoes. She couldn’t look back now. She had to finish the marathon, even if she had to walk the whole damn thing, which was looking more and more likely every day. It didn’t happen to one of the people who had to hear about it. It happened to her, and it wasn’t fair. Why did it have to happen right before her training plan kicked into high gear?

As she tossed the rumpled ball of blue paper, a song from her running playlist came on the radio in the bedroom. She closed her eyes and thought of how it felt to jog in a zigzag down a slow downhill slope with a cool breeze in her face, and felt her heart turn to lead and sink down into the pit of her stomach. She leaned into the wall and sank down lazily to the cold floor, where she rested her head on her knees to sob comfortably. This was the fourth breakdown she’d had this week.

She didn’t even want to go to the gym anymore. She’d see women in ill-fitting sports bras and worn out shoes they’d mowed their lawns in jogging haphazardly around the track, and her lungs would burn with jealousy. It wasn’t fair that they could run and she couldn’t. They weren’t training for a marathon that was seven weeks away. They were taking their ability to run for granted. They weren’t even enjoying it. She wanted to walk up and punch them all in the face, but instead, she walked with her head down so she didn’t have to see them and so no one could see the tears roll down her burning cheeks.

This was supposed to be her fourteen mile day, and she knew she couldn’t do it. The summer was getting hotter and more humid, and her marathon buddies were getting up at 4:30 AM to do their long runs. Even if she got up at 4:30, she wouldn’t be done until most of 9:00, and what was the point? She knew she wouldn’t be able to run more than a handful of the fourteen miles. Like the doctors said, she was supposed to be seeing improvement by now. The only improvement she was seeing with anything was with her ability to hide her emotions in front of her friends, her ability to tell the story of ten-mile Sunday with increasing accuracy and detail, and her ability to stomach anti-inflammatories with fewer carbs.

She wiped her eyes with her bare arm and took a calming breath, rising from the floor. She ripped another day off the Far Side calendar on the kitchen counter, a page that read “58 days until marathon”, followed by five exclamation points.

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Manifesto of a Neglected Chipmunk

I got played with more when I was on the shelf at Target.  Toddlers would pick me up and whack me against the other toys until their mommies forcibly extracted me from their tiny vice grip fingers.  They’d say “that’s not for babies” and then smear more Germ-X on their miniature hands.  Those were the good old days, “the before-time”, as I like to call it.  Then I got stuck with you.  When we first met, you didn’t even give me the sniff test or the slobbery-tongued lick test you enjoying giving to finer objects like the laundry room floor and the concrete slab on the back patio.  No, you just cocked your scruffy head at me, trying to be all cute and then looked at your owners – no, I’m sorry, I forgot we’re all PC now and you call them “human companions” – like what is this rubbish? and pranced away with your shiny black nose up in the air and your long prissy tail fur all fanned out, swaying meticulously with each calculated stride.

As undignified as it is, my life’s purpose is to be covered with your nasty droolies, get batted around like a kitten’s ball of string, and be shaken until my stuffing brains burst through their flimsy seams.  It is not to lie unplayed with in the same spot, day after day, until it’s time to vacuum.  They bought me to help you deal with your sissypants separation anxiety.  I was supposed to be the friend you got to play with while mommy and daddy were at work all day.  After they finally accepted that you weren’t interested, they didn’t even bother to put me up on the fridge, where the view is better and the air cooler, when they came home.  From up there, I could see you in the backyard whenever one of the real life versions of me decided to cheat death and cut through the lawn to the Bellefontaine Nursery across the street, where they have all the unshelved 20-pound sacks of birdseed stacked up in the parking lot.

I don’t blame the real chipmunks.  It’s like taking candy from a baby, and it’s not like they can’t outrun you, fatty.  Yeah, I know all about the eight pounds you gained last year.  Eight more and you’re in the pricier tier of pet meds.  That’s why they want you in the back yard where you can get some exercise chasing the real me’s.  It’s like someone puts speed in your kibble.  And yet, just because I don’t have the inner architecture for locomoting through the house, you won’t even give me the time of day.  Hello?  We have the same tail, the same stripes, the same beautiful snowy white belly.  Who needs motion when you’ve got a squeaker?

Oh, that’s right.  You probably didn’t even remember that I had a squeaker.  You spend too much time playing with your other friend, that filthy, ratty old penguin Mr. Tuxedo.  He’s told me his side of the story.  He was the twelfth stuffed animal penguin Christmas gift from your Grandhuman, given to you so she’d get the hint that your mommy didn’t want penguin paraphernalia as gifts anymore.  How come he gets the cool name, and I get stuck with the unimaginative moniker “Chip Monk”?  He certainly doesn’t have a squeaker.  I am an American Kennel Club 100% polyester faux fur canine companion.  My label even reads perfect for dogs.  Harrumph.  Perfect for normal dogs.

Then again, you’re the dog who didn’t even like the Kong.  Oh yeah.  Mr. Tuxedo told me all about it.  When you don’t like the toy Dr. Mears recommends to all pet owners – sorry, human companions – there’s something objectively wrong with you.  You’re like a kid that doesn’t like candy, a man that doesn’t like beer, a hardwood floor that doesn’t like Murphy’s Oil Soap.  Ahem.  Forgive my specificity on that last menu item. The living room floor and I have been spending a lot of time together.  We really hit it off that first day your human companions left you home with me and Mr. Tuxedo, the day after you tried to eat your way through the door of your room and peed on the floor during that horrible thunderstorm.  Yeah, Mr. Tuxedo told me about that, too.  The floor got to look at my clean alabaster tummy all day long, because I was in the same all-fours position they put me in when they left for the day: poised for chasing, alert, ready to take on the world.  You were supposed to love me.

It’s a good thing they leave the TV on for you because of your shelter dog separation anxiety.  It gives me something to do while you play with Mr. Tuxedo in plain sight to make me jealous.  I’m not jealous.  Mr. Tuxedo thinks that maybe it’s my bad attitude that makes you less likely to play with me.  I think Mr. Tuxedo got dropped on his head on that trip from the sweatshop to the Wal-Mart clearance aisle one too many times.  That or his bowtie is cutting off circulation to his brain.  Besides, I like watching that Jerry Springer.  His final thoughts are really insightful.  And I’m convinced that one of these days Brooke will remember that she and Ridge are soul mates and figure out that Taylor gave her amnesia and that Whit is not her real son.  Yes, I know you’re more of a Y&R fan, you overgrown fleabag.

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Ad Hominem

Alex Wilson placed her hands on the heart rate sensors of the treadmill. Two miles down, two miles to go. This was her thrice weekly training routine for the upcoming Pasadena marathon. It was her first, so she didn’t really know how to train, but she figured as long as she kept running, she wouldn’t fall apart too badly. She began to give herself the internal encouragement speech she gave herself every time she ran, to keep from quitting early or thinking about a juicy cheeseburger.

All right, you’re halfway there. You did one half; you know you can do two. Doin’ great and feelin’ good.

She adjusted the volume in her earbuds, attached to the TV mechanism of the treadmill. Sometimes, she came to the gym just to watch TV. At home, she got eight channels. At the gym, she got 150. Friends asked her why she didn’t get cable, but between her job at legal aid, where most of her cases involved helping illegal aliens seeking asylum, and her law school student loans, it just wasn’t in the cards. Alex didn’t mind much, though. There wasn’t a whole lot on TV she wanted to see anyway. Except C-SPAN, which she was tuned to now. Alex didn’t care that other people considered C-SPAN the golf of the news world; to her, it was like porn. She couldn’t get enough of it, and it kept her going through those extra miles. It was keeping her going right now.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Coughing Dude approaching. She called him Coughing Dude because she didn’t know his real name (and didn’t care to), and because he coughed and cleared his throat constantly while working out. Alex had considered choosing a different treadmill, since Coughing Dude liked to pick the one next to her, but she liked this one, and thought that because he was the annoying one, he was the one who should pick a different machine. She adjusted the volume in her earbuds higher to have a plausible excuse to not talk to Coughing Dude, but the House floor was in the middle of voting, so there was a lot of intermittent silence.

“Hey, it’s C-SPAN girl,” Coughing Dude said in Alex’s general direction, throwing a gym towel over his shoulder. She briefly considered by saying Hey, it’s Coughing Dude, but instead pretended to not hear him and placed her hands on the heart rate sensors to indicate how focused she was on her workout.

The gym was Alex’s fourth least favorite place to be hit on, behind the ultra-cheap grocery store, her office, and the laundromat. She kept her eyes locked on the tiny TV screen and tried to avoid watching her un-California white legs in the giant mirror facing the entire cardio room.

“So,” Coughing Dude yelled from his treadmill, his pace a brisk walk. “Whaddaya think of the healthcare bill?”

Alex half-considered pretending she didn’t hear him again, but knew he wouldn’t fall for it. Her thoughts on the legislation in question were many, and complicated, but she just wanted to placate him and get back to her run. She removed her right earbud only long enough to answer.

“There are things I like about and things I don’t.”

He sped up his pace to a jog. “Think it’s a step in the right direction.”
Alex smiled, nodded, and fixed her eyes on the screen again. One and a half more miles to go. The floor was taking a fifteen minute recess. She thought about changing the channel, but then thought Coughing Dude might just ask more questions.

“Ya think Obama’s gonna reverse all the actions in the Patriot Act? I sure hope so.” He coughed, then cleared his throat.

Alex didn’t bother removing her earbuds or looking at him. “Me too.”
As soon as the red digits under Distance ticked over to 3.25, Alex turned up the pace. She hoped she could do the last three-fourths of a mile in enough time to avoid any more questions from Coughing Dude. Five minutes passed before his treadmill slowed to a stop and the next question came.

“So didja hear ‘bout Jackson buildin’ 3,000 more square miles of razor fence at the border? Right thing to do I hope.”

Alex looked up from the TV and caught her face reddening in the mirror. She hoped Coughing Dude didn’t see it. She thought of all the immigrants she saw in her run-down, musty office, day in and day out. She thought of the young women who spent every penny they had to come to Hollywood, where they were promised an acting or modeling job that didn’t exist. She thought of the young men who washed dishes in diners that couldn’t pass health inspections so they could send money back home to pay for a parent’s medical operation. She thought of the children who smuggled drugs in for the Mexican cartels only to end up living on the streets. She thought of all these things as she told Coughing Dude what she thought of the additional fence at the border, running hard, her face flushing brightly.

Coughing Dude nodded. “Makes a lotta sense.” He wiped his face with the towel on his shoulder then exited the treadmill.

“Y’should really run fer office,” he said, walking past her.

Funny, Alex thought of saying. I didn’t know watching C-SPAN and having an opinion qualified you for public office. Instead, he shot him an incredulous half-laugh to signal what a joke that’d be. He waved as he rounded the corner out of the cardio room.

Alex was no fool.  She knew how Pasadena politics were. Her family didn’t live in an estate overlooking the arroyo or have ties to the Hollywood elite like other Pasadena politicians, and she didn’t play well with the State attorneys who wanted to get tough on immigration.

Still, Alex thought to herself, there’s a lot of good I could do.

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