Higher and Harder

r.k.v.r.y. quarterly literary journal 2016

She led me down a dark dirt path off the pavement. I’d met her fifteen minutes into the Fantasy Party, we talked for maybe ten minutes, and she said let’s blow this popsicle stand, and I, always ready to follow a redhead, agreed. Our only light was the flash from her iPhone and we ended up at an old barn. “This is what I wanted to show you,” she said, sliding the barn door open and heading towards a far corner. This is the path to a nest of spiders. She began to undress and said, “Nothing turns me on more than making love in the straw knowing there are spiders only inches away.”

 

I will only follow a redhead so far. I said adios and found my way back to the party where I re-introduced myself to the bartender and chugged a double bourbon with one cube to settle me down. I saw the redhead again and watched her lead someone else out towards the path.

 

“If I had a drink like you just did, I’d feel like my soul’s on fire,” said a more safe and hopefully sane brunette. “Don’t much like spiders?” she asked.

 

“Not much,” I said feeling the bourbon mellow and massage my insides.

 

She said, “Let’s grab another drink and go down by the swings—I’ve never gotten over my love of playground swings. I love Bill’s parties, don’t you?” I told her I’d never been to one before and she said, wrong answer, and then I remembered the invite rules: make everything up including your name, occupation and phone number. This is my First Annual Fantasy Party, the invitation read.

 

It was a pleasant evening and truth be told it was fun swinging and sipping my drink. “Want me to push you?” I asked and she said, “Maybe after we get to know each other better and by the way, what’s your name?”

 

“Arnold,” I said.

 

“That’s the name of my accountant, gynecologist and former divorce lawyer and also the name the Indian man uses when he calls to sell me solar panels. My name’s Henrietta and after the spider episode what gave you the courage to follow me outside?”

 

“Cleavage,” I said and she said, “You realize you said that aloud, don’t you?”

 

“The bourbon is the key that unlocks the filter between my brain and mouth,” I said and she found that charming. Then she said, “Okay you can push me now,” and I stopped my swing and pulled back the ropes on hers and pushed her forward.

 

She kept saying higher, higher, which my brain heard  as harder harder so I pulled back and let it rip and pushed her harder and higher and when she was above the top of the swing she let go of the ropes and spread her arms and flew off to parts unknown. I walked back to the party thinking perhaps I wasn’t cut out for Fantasy Parties and went to the bar where the bartender was ready with my double bourbon and one cube, looked around and saw the spider lady and the swing lady entwined on the couch and walked out, glass in hand, looking for a cab.

Interview with Paul Beckman

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Sally Reno: I love your SOS piece Higher and Harder! Tell us something about how it came to be, your inspiration, your process

Paul Beckman: I’m in a writing group and we take turns putting out prompts. This prompt was to pick the title of a couple of books in your house and write a story using the titles. I picked Elie Wiesel’s Soul’s on Fire and Italo Calvino’s The Path to the Nest of Spiders.

I had no idea what I was going to write about. The first sentence came to me and I followed sentence after sentence with what seemed logical to the writing and ended up with an ending unlike anything I’d written before. This is my basic writing process. I rarely know an ending much less a complete story when I begin.

 

SR: Today you are published/publishing just everywhere and kind of setting the world on fire. When did you think of yourself as a writer and was it always your plan to concentrate on writing when you retired from the daily grind.

PB: I’ve always written a lot and submitted frequently during the manila envelope and stamped return envelope days. I wake up anxious to write and go to sleep thinking of stories. The only difference between being retired and writing and working is that I somehow had more free time when I was working. I knew that I’d continue to write as well as travel and use my photography skills above and beneath the water. It’s worked out that my photography has taken a back seat to writing and I’m not surprised. I find it hard to devote anywhere near equal time to two creative endeavors. So my original plan proved the old adage “Man plans—God laughs.”

 

SR: Your writing is well known for its humor. We know that the comic is harder to do well than tragic. Do you have any professional tips for us on how to get to funny?

PB: I see both the humor and the tragic all around me and both manifest themselves in my writing. I don’t plan to add humor—it comes out as part of the story or it doesn’t. If I have a tip, it’s to allow yourself as a writer to see the bizarre in all of the situations around you. I was told that my story Family Healing, which was one of the winners of The Best Small Fictions 2017, was aided in being chosen because of the humor injected in a serious situation. I write a lot about dysfunctional families and relationships and those subjects lend themselves to the tragic/comic mix.

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SR: Your narrative characters are often flawed, frequently grumpy or angry, sometimes combative. Yet, they are always likeable and relatable. They make me think of Lenny Bruce’s famous tag line, “We’re all the same schmuck.” Please tell us how you achieve this, and talk about your relationships with your characters.

PB:  There’s an old saying, “You never know what’s going on behind someone’s closed door.” I imagine I know and can put myself in their place or insert myself in a position to watch what goes on.

The smiling glad-handler’s a tyrant to his family; the goody-goody kids are screwing and doing drugs. The Rabbi is a misanthrope unbeliever. The true innocents are the little kids. My characters seem to choose the paths they take and insist on going in that direction. Years ago I was in the Anderson Street Workshop in New Haven, run by the wonderful writer and teacher, Alice Mattison, and she used to talk about her characters dictating where they should be going and how to get there. My characters role play so often to become what you call the ‘likeable’ and ‘relatable.’

 

SR: Your wheelhouse is at the shorter or micro-fiction end of the flash spectrum. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the short-short-shortest form generally and your reasons for being attracted to it.

PB: Unless there’s a requirement for a specific word count (and most of those are in the lower range) I do not set out with a goal to write to a short-short piece. One of the great things about writing flash is that you write what you write and stop when you’re finished. Nancy Stohlman, a writer, mentor and editor of mine told me to “arrive late to the story and leave early.” That has been a great piece of advice that has allowed me to write a story and then rewrite it in half the word count and if necessary come to a compromise. I also learn by reading flash and short-short flash stories and am often in awe of how much a good writer can say in one or two hundred words.

 

 

 

 

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