S H O R T S T O R Y
b y l i a n n e m e r c e r ~ f r e d e r i c k s b u r g , t e x a s
IN THE kitchen of a small yellow house with sagging white shutters, on a narrow street named Santiago only two blocks long, an old woman named Anita fries words in a black skillet. On the tan, clean linoleum, a hen and rooster flutter. They believe in handouts. In burnt offerings.
But Anita is careful. Few words ignite. Fewer char beyond recognition. Anita feeds the nameless rooster and hen raw words. They are learning to like the taste. From a ring of ruby and green and yellow depression glass bowls (gifts from her mother), Anita picks the parts of speech for the day. When she was in ninth grade, she loved grammar even though she got a D+ because she took too much time to translate English into Spanish and back again when she diagrammed sentences.
She washes, slices, pares, and soothes. After the frying, Anita drops the hot words onto paper towels on warped cookie trays. The words are cool when Anita places them between layers of pale linen napkins washed so many times they are soft like cocker spaniels' ears. She puts the wrapped words into four baskets and takes them to the market, where she squats near the pretzel maker and sells them after siesta and before the loud voices of tourists drown the subtle music of the market place.
Her customers are intense folk dressed in t-shirts and Dockers, flowing skirts and gauze blouses, or shorts and dyed denim shirts, long sleeved to keep out the sun and comments on tattoos. Anita does not ask what they write, doesn't listen when they complain about rejections and their inability to find the right words.
Her business has grown by word of mouth. Last week, when a chauffeur parked a black Lincoln and left the motor running while the head of the English department at a local college purchased a mix of nouns and verbs, Anita asked no questions.
The words do not cost the same.
Nor do they taste the same.
Nouns taste sometimes like gumbo, sometimes like stew. Anita listens to the words come alive above the fire, then uses certain spices to enhance the flavor. Her adjectives tingle the tongue with not-quite pepper. Adverbs dipped in corn meal batter are cheap and full of cholesterol.
Verbs are dear. Anita fries up only three kinds.
Forgotten, raggedy men empty their pockets of coins for translucent verbs with cilantro and lime that explode in the mouth and in the mind.
Future perfect buttery caramels find their way into the hands of young girls writing their secret hearts in love poems to young men with dark eyes and exclamation points saved from packages of cigarettes they are too young to buy.
But it is to middle-aged women that she sells the third kind: subjunctive verbs in past tense caught in the heat like dying rose petals curling colorless in the cooling of remembered lovers. Some women don't look at her; they make their furtive purchases and vanish into the salty smell of hot pretzels. Others make excuses, their eyes darting down aisles of geodes and regrets and leather purses. After taking their money, while they are still talking, Anita looks past them at the next customer. Still others defiantly pull wrinkled dollars from pockets packed with lists and paperclips.
Anita coult tell all these women they are being frivolous. Because their eyes tell their stories far better than words. But she does not.
This flash fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize
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