Monday, December 27, 2010

A Twist Of Noir 652 - Jane Hammons

THE UNKNOWN SUBSTANCE - JANE HAMMONS

Mama is good at finding things, but hardly ever what she’s looking for. When we had to move out of town, she found us this little trailer so far off the highway we can’t even hear the semis at night. We can barely see their lights.

Apaches used to live here. We dig their stuff up. Pottery shards, flint, arrowheads, and bones. Sometimes a whole bowl or grinding stone. When we find something good Mama sells it to her friend Clyde who has a little museum in his gas station at the edge of town. He says the dried-up girl locked in the glass case is a mummy. He took her from a basket at a burial ground.

When she’s down in the dirt, what Mama really wants to find is a scrap of boot or a sparkly spur that belonged to Billy the Kid. I tell her that cowboys didn’t leave things behind the way Indians did and how would she know if it was his anyway? He’s buried over in Ft. Sumner, not that far from here. In the picture postcard she has taped to the fridge, he’s slumped over looking dumb. Mama says back in history people didn’t turn out the way they really were because of how cameras used to be.

I have a camera, but I have to use all my film taking pictures of nothing in the sky. Late at night when it’s almost morning, Mama comes into my room smelling like her favorite perfume. It comes from a bottle that wears a little straw hat. Her breath is always fresh with a mint.

Bright lights in the sky. Get your camera, she says.

If I don’t she’ll crawl into my bed and tell me about how when she was a little girl a flying saucer crashed over by Corona. She lies and says she was there. We sit on the cold metal steps of our tiny trailer and snap pictures of the morning star all night long. By the time we’re done, I have to get ready for school and ride my bike a mile to catch the bus at the gate of H-Bar-Y Ranch. Kids live there, but they go to boarding school. The bus comes just for me.

One day after school I’m riding my bike home, and I see Mama running toward me down the dirt road. She’s wrapped up in something shiny and almost clear. She says she found it out by the windmill. I can see Mama’s bosoms and her dark hair down there. For the first time I’m glad we live way out here.

It’s the unknown substance, she says.

When we get home, she gets out her book on UFOs and reads to me about when the flying saucer crashed and the aliens left their unknown substance behind. It looked like tin foil and snapped back into shape like it was alive. She takes a corner of her substance that looks just like a silky weather balloon I saw in science class and crumples it. She sees what she wants to see. I’d call Clyde, but the phone’s turned off, so I eat crackers and go to bed.

For days Mama wears nothing but the unknown substance. She stinks like Clyde’s bathroom when she slips into my bed and snuggles with me.

They’ll be here soon, she says, her rotten breath warm in my ear.

They’re here now, I tell her. You better get ready.

She is smiling at the window like she can see what’s coming. I pull the filthy substance up over her head and wrap it tight until she looks like the kind of mummy you see in the movies. She doesn’t fight me; she doesn’t even care that she can’t breathe. When she’s done, I wait another day just to make sure she isn’t going anywhere. Then I get on my bike and ride.

BIO: Jane Hammons teaches writing at Berkeley and is working on novel. Some of her writing can be found at Fictionaut.

21 comments:

fictdoodles said...

Let me be the first to say, WOW. That was some good, gritty, trailer park noir.

Michael Solender said...

the voice here is wonderful. it carries the story and is half-way between too knowing and too naive, just the way a child with a whacked out mom should be. just so well paced and descriptive, i saw the entire piece unfold. smart.

Marcus Speh said...

excellent story, love the physicality here. as always, jane hammons observes very closely. i don't usually "do noir" but in her hands, this genre (?) shines.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

That was creepy, and a good read.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Creepy for sure. Lovely writing.

jrlindermuth said...

Spooky tale. Loved it.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Impressive. The writing is elegant and precise. That last paragraph was might powerful--shivers down the spine.

AJ Hayes said...

When you're abused day and night without end you make whatever choices seem to be needed. The circumstances that create the terrible necessity driving those choices is made horribly clear in this story. Horrible because Jane defines the mother and daughter's reality so unflinchingly that neither can be blamed. Each was only playing the hand they were dealt -- no matter that the hand was crooked and the odds were zero. Powerful stuff.

chad rohrbacher said...

perfume with a straw hat -- really vivid tale -- loved it

Paul D. Brazill said...

Classy and chilling!

Joyce said...

Very chilling indeed, but oddly, no real sadness. It's a clear example of 'do what you have to do to survive'--regardless of who is involved. Excellent read.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Awesome piece, Jane! Wild stuff. Amazing what you packed into 652 words. Well done :-)

Jane said...

Thank you all for reading and for your comments.

M. C. Funk said...

Beautiful, Jane. The voice was really captivating without being overly stylized or saccharine - pitfalls for many attempting to write a child. The coherence of the plot kept me both engaged and guessing, conducted by an incomplete mind viewing a broken one. The final emotional note was a sudden elbow to the chest.

Keen job.

Des Nnochiri said...

Weird. Wonderful. Nasty.
Beautifully done.

Madam Z said...

The matter-of-fact narration of this heart-wrenching story makes it seem very believable. I felt myself identifying with the child and was pleased when she turned mommy into a mummy.

Naomi Johnson said...

Wow indeed. So much story in so few words. The voice is appealing, the atmosphere creepy, the ending perfection.

Kathleen A. Ryan said...

Congratulations to Jane for winning the Short Mystery Fiction Society's 2011 DERRINGER AWARD for BEST FLASH FICTION STORY. This is awesome news for Jane, and for Christopher Grant & his incredible work here at A TWIST OF NOIR. Thrilled for both of you to receive such well-deserved recognition!

Here's the announcement: http://j.mp/hQKxdA

Marcelle Heath said...

GREAT story, Jane - Bravo!!

Jane said...

Thanks, Kathleen, for your comment. And though I've said this to Christopher already, I'll say it again. I am deeply grateful to him for the invitation to the to 600-700 word challenge and also to the wonderful open-minded way he edits ATON.

Thomas Pluck said...

A brutal slice of truth without any patronizing. A well deserved win. Congratulations.