After Jim, my uncle, threatened to cut my thumb off because it was always in my mouth, I thanked him. I said thanks for the knife, Jim, and then listened to him talk.
It was my 7th birthday and he had just given me his prized KA-BAR from his time in Vietnam. Under nightlight of my room, notches ran down the shaft in a perfect, secret line. I could see my father down the hall in the kitchen too. He was off from his shift at Wonder Bread and working on a new can of beer. Between cigarettes he was fixing the dial on our radio looking for the oldies station he used to dance to with my mother—before she went crazy, and before Jim, his younger brother, moved into our basement.
Jim went on to tell me how he was changed, how he was done with blades.
First, he explained how he used a knife to cut around his hand on paper. He said this happened early, around my age, and each year he did the same to follow the growth of his fingers. At twelve, and wanting to know how things worked on the inside, he skinned rabbits. His mother, my grandmother, used the pelts to line leather gloves, which she exchanged for his piano lessons. Next, without diploma, he enlisted to strum guitar in boom-boom huts using the blunt edge for a slide to play to his fellow soldiers. Of course there were fights. One night he had a disagreement with a man in an alley. It seems the nightclub owner was light with the front door gate. As he puts it, the guy had his mitt in the jar. So Jim gave him a close shave. But when he showed me the scar under his wrist, the one running up the center bone, I had to ask what does that mean. When I did he brought his arm up close and told me to get a good long look. “That’s beauty,” he said. What Jim remembered was how easy it was. How easy it was to see the lines in his palm, relieved in color.
At the time I refused to look away. Without thinking, I waved the knife. My father was now shimmying by himself to Canned Heat in slow rhythm as Jim pulled down his sleeve. Back and forth I diced the air like I understood the two of them perfectly. Like I could feel my family history for the first time.
In order to pull off a satisfying personal experience or historical account worthy of the telling, sometimes we have to offer up our own direct insights (as I’ve attempted in the previous narrative). On other occasions, however, we can take a page from the poets and juxtapose matter-of-factness with a shocking use of imagery to bring the reader to a staggering truth beyond the events of the story (as with the piece below by Carolyn Forché).
What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.
- Carolyn Forché
Stace Budzko has been published or is forthcoming in Blip, Southeast Review, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptations of his stories have received numerous honors and showcases as well. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.See other articles by Stace Budzko