My Fiction Writing
Here are some short stories I've written recently. I hope you enjoy them.
The Clowns Next Door
by Alysa Salzberg
“Hey Joe, what’s this pie doing in your tulips?”
My father propped his cigar neatly on the side of the thick, clear glass ashtray that brooded through all weather on our patio table, and walked over to where Uncle Calvin was standing. My uncle was staring in surprise at the overturned pie tin and the whipped cream that streaked the leaves and flowers around it, but my father only glanced quickly and then rolled his eyes and turned away.
“It must be from those clowns next door.”
He wasn’t being facetious. The Shaw’s really were clowns. They’d been performing in different circuses for years, and when their children, Buddy and Darla, were born, they’d just incorporated them into the act. Then one day they’d hit the lottery and had done what anyone sensible would do: retire to a big, luxurious house in an upscale neighborhood, where they’d swim in their private pool all day and only leave the property to go on vacation somewhere with an even bigger pool and maybe the ocean.
The only thing was, clowning was in the Shaw’s’ blood. Mr. and Mrs. Shaw had met at the circus…because both of their families were performers. If you went through either one’s family tree, you’d never find the end of clowns. They even liked to say that at least one of their ancestors had been court jester to Queen Elizabeth I. With a long history like that, it’s not easy to give it all up overnight, no matter how nice your pool or vacation plans are, I guess. We started hearing them laughing and shouting over the stone wall that separates our property from theirs. Sometimes we found objects (balls, pies, funny hats) that must have been thrown too far and landed in our yard.
Then one day, when my sister Jill and I were in the garden, we saw a pigtailed girl go flying through the air, laughing hysterically. Without a moment’s thought, Jill had scrambled to the top of the stone wall, and absently held out her hand for me to reach onto and pull myself up. When I got to the top, I could see what had her transfixed: the flying girl had landed and was running to a small, very bouncy-looking trampoline. She got onto it and started jumping. Higher and higher she went, the frilly blue satin collar of her yellow clown suit bouncing into her face, and when she got really high, she started doing tricks, flips and splits in the air. Then, suddenly she bounced and launched herself towards a pile of what looked to be pillows about ten feet away. We saw her fly just as we’d seen her before, and it was no less amazing now that we knew why. Instead, in that moment, something was born in Jill and me: we would be clowns.
It’s been several years since then. Our training with the Shaw’s has been covert. At first, they didn’t want to teach us anything, maybe because they knew what kind of neighborhood this was. But then Jill hinted she knew about a lion they were keeping in one of the bedrooms. She could see it from her own bedroom window at night, and she claimed she had pictures.
Jill and I have talent, that’s what the Shaw’s say. Of course, we’ll never be like Buddy and Darla, but they still see promise. In a few more years, we’re planning to run away to the circus. And maybe before we do, we’ll free the Shaw's’ lion and take him with us, too. He can’t be happy in a place like this.
by Alysa Salzberg
Now, when I first flew off that train, I didn’t panic. I just tried to find out where I was. If I’d known I was going to spend my new life as a laughingstock, though, maybe I wouldn’t have been so calm.
I didn’t take me long to read “Paris Gare du Nord” on a sign, so that was that. I was in the capitol, the City of Lights. I flew a little ways from the train station – they’re noisy and too dirty for my taste – and came to a small park near the city’s outskirts. There was a nice, sprawling tree, and I let myself sit down and scratch a bit at my feathers.
I’d just burrowed my beak into my chest when three or four fat birds flew up to me. Some were missing toes, and one hadn’t bathed in a while, but mostly I liked the look of them; their rotundity meant they were getting food from somewhere. In fact, I’d learn, food was very easy to come by here: On one side of the park there was a trio of buildings, angled towards each other like the leaves of a newspaper held up by a frustrated passenger in a cramped Metro car. The trash bins were outside in the paved courtyard, and little morsels always escaped them. Better yet, some of the people who lived in the buildings even put out seeds and bits of bread on their windowsills.
“Where are you from?” a well-shaped fellow asked me now. His smooth, blue-gray feathers were neatly trimmed with white, giving him the look of a finely dressed marquis in one of those history movies you sometimes see on television.
“Well,” I said, aching to add, “Monsieur le Marquis” - “I travel quite a bit, but I was last in Lille.”
“Lille?” the fatter, grayer pigeon to his left – I’ll call him Featherball - cooed out. “So far! What made you fly all the way here?”
“I came by train.”
And I wish it could have ended there. But soon they had the whole story from me, how I’d entered the train following a trail of dropped crackers, how I’d eaten my fill and realized the doors had closed and the train had started moving, how I’d settled in and somehow against all reason fallen asleep – and ended up here in Paris.
This city is much bigger than Lille, but word gets around among us pigeons, and within a day or so, I’d bet every bird in the metropolis knew what I’d told the Marquis and his friends. Every day other pigeons flew to the park to try to get a peek at me, the idiot who’d fallen asleep and ended up far from home. Of course, they didn’t know two important things: 1. I have no home, as I’ve never been the kind to like to stay in a place too long; and 2. this wasn’t the first time I’d done something like my unexpected trip to Paris. I’ve hopped onto trains before. I’ve even stayed on a ship for a week-long Mediterranean cruise. I left the boat in Naples, and flew around Italy. I would have continued on to other countries, but when I got badly injured by a bee-bee gun someone aimed at me in St. Mark’s Square in Venice, I decided to head back to France.
Besides that, there’s nothing very remarkable about me. All right, maybe the fact that I still have all my toes, unlike many of the pigeons I’ve met. Here in the park there was one among us, the Pirate, I dubbed him, who in place of his left foot, had now only a pink stump. Horrible. I can’t imagine the pain of losing even one toe. Like the other pigeons do, you might think I always look down when I walk because I’m scanning the ground for crumbs. But that really isn’t entirely the reason. I want to avoid any toe-related mishap, any crack in the sidewalk or ill-placed twine.
The loud, laughter-filled visits to my new tree aside, life went on more or less peacefully in that park for a while. But then the seasons changed and Monsieur le Marquis and some of the others started to see me as a threat to their well-established families, as it was about time to get on top of some of the lovely hens (and there were some lovely ones indeed) and start a nest. So they began to intimidate me by little actions, like jutting their heads into the crumbs nearest me, when I knew they had enough just in front of them. But what really made me snap was when Monsieur le Marquis stepped on my foot. I don’t know if he did it deliberately – I thought I’d kept my fear pretty well secret – but whatever the case, I didn’t want it to happen again, and so I decided to move on.
“Where will you go?” an old biddy on the branch beside me asked, seeing the look of leaving in my eye.
“Somewhere different, and far away,” I muttered, about to take flight.
“But the weather is bad – you can’t go now! Oh, what will you do?” she clucked in despair.
I was mystified. Aged as she was, with her feathers practically falling off, she didn’t know anything. We’re pigeons – we take what’s there, and we make something of it, and usually that’s pretty darn good.
“Don’t worry, old thing,” I told her, and she said, “What did you call me?!” but already her voice was fading away as I soared up to the sky, over the rooftops.
Truthfully, I didn’t know where I was headed. With my reputation, would life in any of the other Parisian parks be very pleasant? Rumor had it that the city had set up some houses for us in certain locations – but these were prime property, and I could never get into one.
Anyway, I wanted a change of scenery, as I often do. Then, suddenly, an idea came to me in mid-flight. I changed direction, remembering something I’d noticed on a brief jaunt to get some air a few weeks ago.
Back I flew, till I saw it: a high, white block of a building, with lights and large images all over its façade.
Now, it wouldn’t be easy to do what I wanted, and I wasn’t absolutely certain it would work, but it seemed like a good plan. I stayed all day in a tree across the busy street, watching.
The next afternoon, when I saw people lining up out front, I flew over to the sidewalk near their feet, where I lingered, supposedly pecking for crumbs. A short while later, as I’d expected, someone opened the building’s glass doors from inside, and the whole waiting crowd rushed through them, and so did I. I kept to the dark corners of the place, till I reached a low, carpeted stairwell, which I hopped down. I knew what I was doing, because I’d seen a place like this on a television show once, when I was staying in a tree near a curtainless apartment in Lyon.
Sure enough, at the bottom of the stairs was a heavy-looking door. I waited patiently. When I heard human footsteps behind me, I flattened myself as much as possible against the wall, then followed closely as they flung the door wide. Now, I was in.
There were rows and rows of soft chairs, and beneath them, I found what I’d hoped: popcorn kernels, pools of soda, and puddles of melted ice cream. I could be quite happy here, and I thanked myself for my brilliance. I just had to make sure I stayed away from where the people were sitting. But the theater was so big, I couldn’t imagine every seat in every row could ever be occupied.
Now, I knew there’d be something on that enormous screen, but I confess when the lights went down and the images started flickering onto it, and the sound was so loud, I got a bit surprised. And with a bird’s reflex, I flew up, up, towards a small window containing a flame-like white light.
Below me, I heard: “Look – a pigeon!”
The whole theater filled with laughter and movement, but I was too high up for them to catch. I knew I’d made a serious mistake. I’d have to stay flying, or find somewhere to perch near the ceiling, and then hope they’d forget about me. And if not, well, I’d have to leave before a professional came in to catch me. I knew if that happened, there’d be more than my toes to be worried about.
So I kept flying, far above the people. I turned my head away from the window with the white light, and that left me facing the screen. And on it was the most wonderful image of a flight over fields and then deserts. Far below, as if I were looking down on them from the sky, men galloped on horses, their hats’ brims like wings. “Well look at me,” I thought, “I’m in the Wild West!”
I flew the length of the screen and back in happiness, following those cowboys as far as I could into the sunset.
All the World
by Alysa Salzberg
I never knew the truth until today.
I’m a skinny twelve year old swaying with shock. Pa in the ground after a fatal gunshot wound, inflicted by himself and the Depression. My mother and I are in the parlor. Stewart and Kenneth, my brothers, are out somewhere. I can see my father’s fresh grave in my mother’s eyes.
“You have to leave.”
The scene always comes back to me so vividly, not only the turmoil inside me, the feeling of falling down an endless tunnel, but also the furnishings. The mahogany table. The silver mirror, older than both of us by three centuries.
“You’re not our daughter. You’re Miss Farley’s child. We took you in.”
I remember the story, the only time I asked for it, and look at it now, so bare. Listening to it then, too stunned to pick it its bones, to lift the carcass and see its face.
Still falling, I followed my former mother’s mechanically voiced instructions and packed a suitcase. My brothers still weren’t home when I’d finished. To be unable to say goodbye to them, the thought that I’d never see them again, punctured the pillows of grief that had surrounded me, and made tears flow from my eyes.
I remember coming downstairs so clearly, the suitcase a lead weight at the end of my left arm. A neighbor was supposed to drive me to Miss Farley’s home. But I went to our back door and opened it and ran.
Panic made me a moth trapped in a jar. I flapped my wings desperately. I ran miles with that heavy suitcase at the end of my arm. I’d never believe it if anyone else told me, but I know I arrived at Miss Farley’s doorstep panting and hot, sweat- and tear- stained, and I took one long breath and knocked.
Miss Farley was a strange woman, strange enough for some people to call a witch. She stayed inside her home, mostly. When she did go out, she carried herself ramrod straight and never smiled. In our small town, no one knew anything about her, not even where she came from or when she’d arrived. This is what had always made me suspect she was some sort of supernatural being.
I took another breath and waited. Everyone else in the family I’d thought was mine had blue eyes, but mine were brown. I thought of how my hair was a few shades darker than my brothers’. I’d never been one of them.
The door opened slightly, then after a few seconds, wider. Miss Farley stood straight as always before me, her nose like a beak, her eyes brown like mine.
“What is it?” she asked.
I slid through that internal tunnel completely, and found the revelation tumbling from my mouth: “My mother says I’m yours. She says they took me in and now my Pa’s dead and….
You have to take me back.”
Miss Farley was silent after this. I remember her brown eyes darting over me like a clever, reasoning crow’s.
Finally: “That snake,” she said. Then she gestured me to come inside.
Miss Farley’s house was empty. For some reason, this frightened me, and I started to tremble.
But then I noticed the large wooden crates piled in the corners and corridors. It turned out that if I hadn’t come then, I would have missed my birth mother: unbeknownst to even the most skilled of our town gossips, she’d decided to move away.
“I’m going to open a boarding house in the city. Respectable, but with low rates and a free breakfast every morning. Do you know how to make a bed?”
“Good.” She nodded back.
We set off the next day before dawn. When everyone else awoke that morning, there was no trace of us left.
The boarding house was a good idea. Soon, all of our twelve rooms were occupied, mostly by hardworking men, or small, hungry-eyed families. I didn’t let myself think of my old life. It was something I left behind, something that had stuck in time and couldn’t go forward with me. My new life was spent keeping our boarding house clean and going to school.
My mother did her part in both things, and though she was never very affectionate, the brisk, satisfied nod she’d give when I’d done something well came to mean all the world to me.
James also came to mean the world to me.
He was my new brother. An unmarried woman with not one but two children is not something many people would have approved of, and I felt strange speaking about it with my mother. So I never asked about my father. Whatever the case, I couldn’t change what my mother had done, and I saw that she was a good person despite it all. She worked hard, and was clever at helping me with my schoolwork, and always ready to lend one of our lodgers a hand.
James had been away at boarding school for most of his life, but once we’d gotten settled, my mother called for him to come to us at the end of the semester.
He was, and is, tall and pale with loping limbs, and light brown hair tinged with gold, as if the sun had followed him into the room. When he laughs, he throws back his head and a sound so riotous comes out, you want to make him do it again. He shared many of my fascinations: chemistry, radio programmes, and inventing stories about the “real lives” of our lodgers.
But that isn’t enough. There was something in James that made me uncurl from the ball I’d curled myself into for all this time. There was a chord in him and a chord in me and when played together, they made the right harmony, a sound that vibrated through my bones, through my blood, to my center. But I couldn’t feel as my heart wanted me to; he was my brother, and that was the only way I could love him.
How lucky the girls were that he took to have a milkshake at the soda fountain after school. I had my fellows, too, but when they spoke or laughed I rarely felt more than a mild humming inside.
Still, I was happy despite what I couldn’t have. We were a family, and each night I would come home and take my turn at setting the table, and we’d three sit down to dinner. James and I would laugh and joke, and our mother rarely spoke, but I could always see happiness in her eyes.
Years passed. Lodgers came and went. The War came and didn’t leave for years. James left to fight. I felt myself curl up again, and hoped that would be enough to protect me from the blow that news of an injury or the unspeakable worse would be. My mother and I continued our routine. I finished school and decided to stay on at the boarding house; my life suited me. We’d listen to the radio every night, and on Sunday’s we’d see a matinee and forget our troubles for a little while.
James wrote long letters full of funny stories about his fellow soldiers and little mishaps. They had a dog who was their mascot, a bulldog he threatened to bring home and let wreak havoc in the boarding house when the War was over. He was often able to get past the censors and give us enough of a picture of the sights around him – and though they were often terrible, sometimes there were beautiful things, too. He saw churches that had been built before people knew about America. He once passed a distant castle, like something from a fairytale illustration. My world felt so small. I started going to museums more often. I let myself imagine that one distant day, the three of us could visit a peaceful Europe, a place that had become our land of stories.
The day the War was over, I learned another kind of chaos: mad joy. The lodgers poured out of their apartments, cheering and shouting, and we greeted them with embraces. Everyone piled into the dining room and brought out precious bottles of wine and carefully made family dishes, and we had a feast that lasted all night. I looked over at my mother. Her cheeks were unusually pink, her eyes didn’t sparkle with their usual controlled gleam: they shone out. I knew I looked the same.
Today, about half an hour ago, someone rang our bell. From our living room window, I saw two uniformed, blonde-haired boys. I went to the door and opened it.
Without a word, they rushed to me and held me between them, pressing me hard against their chests.
They must have felt me struggling, and they released me and backed away slightly.
“Katie!” one of them burst out.
Suddenly, I knew who they were. Stewart and Kenneth, once my brothers, were standing in front of me.
I realized I’d never pictured them as men. For me, they’d stayed the boys I’d never been able to say goodbye to. I wondered at how I’d never thought they could have grown up and gone to war. In a way, I was glad; I hadn’t had to worry for them.
I’d been silent for so long, I was afraid they might think they’d been mistaken. “How did you find me?!” I asked. Then I remembered myself, “Oh, but please come in first!”
The sight of them in our living room was a strange one. One world had invaded another.
Stewart answered my question: “You remember our friend Paul? He was up here in the city for a while and said he thought he’d seen you leaving this boarding house.”
“It was the first time we had any idea where you were,” Kenneth continued, “so we got up here as soon as we could.”
“We didn’t know what had happened to you.”
“We’d always wondered where you’d gone.”
It was then that the thought of the years we’d missed together slapped us like a dragon’s tail. We fell silent for a while.
“You weren’t there when I had to – go,” I finally managed to say.
“Why did you run away?” Kenneth’s voice was soft.
“But I didn’t run away! M-Your mother must have told you!”
“The day after you went missing, she went to town. When she came back, she went into her room and we heard her scream. And that was it.”
It suddenly occurred to me that maybe she’d been disappointed we’d moved. I wondered why. She’d made it clear I wasn’t welcome.
“She’s never been exactly the same.” Stewart went on. “Sort of sad, always.”
Kenneth tugged at his right ear, as he’d always done when he was nervous. “And now, she’s- well, she’s pretty sick. We thought you might like to know, if you want to go to her.”
The puzzlement must have been easy to read on my face. “That’s not why we came here!” Kenneth said quickly. “We’ve wanted to see you for so long! If only we’d known before!”
“No, I understand. But why should I go to your mother? I’m not her kin.” I found myself looking at them as though they were very far away.
I saw their faces crumple like paper bags. “Why would you say that?” Stewart’s voice was a deep wound. I opened my mouth to speak.
Suddenly, there was a loud creak from the floorboards behind me. My mother emerged from the dark corridor beyond. She must have been here when I’d brought my brothers in, and hadn’t wanted to disturb us.
“Miss Farley!” My brothers said, politely standing to greet her.
I noticed she was pale, paper-white, and she stood so straight. I hadn’t seen her stand like that in so long. I’d almost forgotten.
“She is kin,” she spoke without looking my brothers, only keeping her eyes on me. They were no longer clever, but dull and confused, like the eyes of a stunned animal. “When you came to my doorstep that day, I knew who you were. What you told me was untrue; I have no children besides James. But I understood what your mother had done. How could she support three children with nothing but debts to her name? Times were hard. The boys could be hired out for farm work, but what could you do?”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Kenneth and Stewart exchange a surprised glance. I imagined them thinking, "How does she know all this?", and then, “Witch.”
“Your mother was grieving,” Miss Farley went on. “She surely realized that you wouldn’t leave home, and where could she send you anyway? So she told a lie, a well-planned yet thoughtless lie that brought you to me, a woman she knew had some money.”
She stopped. I could tell she knew I was thinking back to that day on her doorstep. Never once had she said she was my mother. Not then, not in the years that followed.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I choked out.
“There was nothing I could do. Your mother brought you to me, and I helped.” It sounded so simple. Yet I knew there was so much beneath her words, enough to have drained all her color away. Miss Farley was not my mother, yet she’d mothered me all these years. I thought I’d been a lodger in my first home, when I was a daughter. Here, I’d thought I was a daughter, and I’d only been a lodger.
The enormity of it all, of what I’d lost: my father, my brothers, my home, my mother – the enormity of what I’d gained: love, a future, my mother, James – all, all, came rushing, filling me up like water. Tears ran from my eyes and fell to the floor.
I never knew the truth until today.
All stories copyright Alysa Salzberg. Please contact me for permission to reprint them.