Thank you to everyone who submitted to our first ever flash (ahh) fiction contest. It was not an easy task — in 1,000 words or less write a story about summertime in Rhode Island — and you rose to the occasion admirably. We received stories that took us back in time, stories about ghostly trips to RI beaches, even stories featuring Rob Levine. Although we enjoyed reading them all, there can be only be one flash fiction highlander and two righteous runner-ups.
Road Construction Season
by Jonathan Jacobs
Derek put a hand up to his eyes to shield them from the intense sunshine, as he exited the chilled and darkened movie theater. It was afternoon and he had seen the latest volume of a summer blockbuster franchise about robots battling other robots, all of whom possessed the ability to manipulate their bodies into objects other than robots. He remembered the toys on which the franchise was based being more fun to play with than the movies were to watch. Maybe the infinite expanse of a child’s imagination offered more than the movie’s plot, written by committee to assault the senses in the most inoffensive way possible. He thought of something his former boss once said: “A feast for the eyes and ears, a famine for the mind.” Or maybe it was that Derek had slept through half of the movie.
He only went to escape the summer heat. Every year, springtime teased Rhode Island with spurts of warmth within the fire hose of raw cold that lingered long past its welcome. Then, all at once, the humid blastwave of summer soaked the state in a sheen of sweat that wouldn’t evaporate from one’s brow no matter how often it was wiped by the bottom hem of a t-shirt. Derek walked through that heat now, beating from above, and reflected off the asphalt parking lot. He heard a jackhammer nearby, pounding away at one of a thousand road construction projects that commenced as soon as the heat became unbearable. He had parked his gray minivan well away from the entrance out of embarrassment because, for now, it was both a means of transportation as well as his home. Looking around quickly for security, or (worse still) anyone he knew, he slid into the driver’s seat. The heat was even worse inside.
Groggy, he started the van and thought of where to go. He wanted to go to the beach. Before he lived in a minivan, Derek had a house, a wife, and two children. The beach was one of the rituals of summer in the Ocean State. Pack the minivan with towels, cooler, extra clothes, slather every square millimeter of skin with SPF 50, and spend forty-five minutes making the thirty-minute drive jammed by road construction. Derek used to joke that Rhode Island had different seasons than the four commonly accepted elsewhere: Fall, Super-Winter, Winter, and Road Construction. His kids would laugh, his wife would roll her eyes, and Derek would mask his aggravation at the traffic with sarcasm. But that was before.
He wanted to go to the beach with his family like before his wife kicked him out for losing his job because he ate so many prescription painkillers he peed in a potted begonia that resided in the stairwell of his office building. He had kept his opioid habit a secret from his employers, but this was the last of many straws for his wife and, when she told him to go, he didn’t object. He somberly packed what he could into the 2012 Honda minivan and left. He withdrew as much cash as he could, knowing his ATM card would be useless within twenty-four hours. She would make sure of that. Now his cash was dwindling, his gas gauge was reading less than half-full, and he knew that a state beach would charge for parking. So, Derek drove toward Brenton Point in Newport.
Once the summer home of America’s gilded era elite, Newport boasts some of the most decadent, historic mansions in North America. Driving down Bellevue Avenue, past estates occupied a century ago by Astors and Vanderbilts, Derek couldn’t help but fester in his resentment of the contrast between his circumstances now and theirs then. Why, he thought, couldn’t he have been a titan of early American industry, blazing a trail for railroads or oil, or … whatever else these sepia-toned men with deep set eyes and waxed mustaches did to afford such obscene luxury? Would Cornelius Vanderbilt have packed his belongings in a wagon and meekly left home for ingesting a few too many spoonsful of laudanum? Hell no! The thought of laudanum reminded him of Oxycontin, and he realized his spiraling thoughts were the result of the Oxys he ate on the drive to the movie theater, wearing off. He only had two more pills in the bottle in the glove compartment and, without a job or health insurance, he had no idea how he was going to procure more.
Derek was now on Ocean Drive, the rocky shoreline to his left, sparkling with sea spray. For a moment his dark thoughts abandoned him, and he was grateful for the view despite himself. He remembered taking his children to fly kites at Brenton State Park the summer before. Wendy, who was eight at the time, had managed to get the little delta up in the air. But Daniel, who was only six, couldn’t manage enough speed and height to keep it from nosediving before it could catch enough breeze. So, they put the kite away and kicked a soccer ball on the grass. The memory hurt him deep inside, knotting itself in the nerves somewhere behind his heart and in front of his spine. Then he remembered himself as a child coming to this same rocky shoreline with his mother and father. And the burning nostalgia radiated further, branching upward behind his shoulder blades, and rooting in his stomach.
He rounded the curve, and the park came into view. Against the clear blue sky, half a dozen kites hung on the wind. Across the road, waves crested and foamed against the rocks. It was a postcard of Newport, live in front of him. And that’s when his jaw, slightly slack, was jolted shut hard enough to cause his teeth to clack. With a BANG the entire minivan bounced and lurched to the right. Panicking, Derek pulled the wheel hard to the left, but it resisted. He hit the brakes. And, as he looked through the windshield, he watched in startled confusion as his right front wheel kept rolling another fifty yards, arced lazily, and bounced comically off a wooden rail fence before toppling. That’s when he noticed the orange traffic cones marking the site of a hole cut in the asphalt by a road crew. It was midafternoon and the workers were already gone. Derek had passed several orange signs and driven over the cones directing traffic away from the unfinished five-by-five square cut deeply into the asphalt. His right front wheel had dropped into that hole and completely broken off.
Now what, he thought? The van – his home – would have to be towed. Police would be called. Questions would be asked that he didn’t want to answer. Expenses incurred that he couldn’t pay. Blame would be assigned that he was unprepared to assume. Unbuckling his seatbelt, he reached across the console and opened the glove compartment. He removed his registration, proof of insurance (expired), and the amber plastic prescription bottle. He popped the cap and tipped the last two pills into his mouth, dry swallowing hard. Then, he placed the paperwork on the passenger’s seat and exited the vehicle.
Derek stepped over the low rail fence around the park. He lay on his back and looked up at the cloudless blue sky, felt the breeze against his skin, and watched the kites dance high above him. He wanted to be one of those kites, unselfconscious and careless in the Rhode Island sea air, yet safely tethered to the world below. But he wasn’t a kite and it wasn’t summer. It was Road Construction season and he was the fucking wheel.
The Beach Break
by Mark Binder
Heading south out of Providence on I-95, Jody’s shoulders finally relaxed after passing the Big Blue Bug. Sneaking out early hadn’t been a challenge, because almost nobody came into the office anymore. Still, there was that niggling fear of getting caught and fired. And in this economy…
Jody shook it off and grinned. The highway was clear, the sun was high, the sky was blue and it looked to be a perfect beach day.
Then the traffic backed up at the Route 4 split.
Why hadn’t anyone invented teleportation yet? And why didn’t all the Massholes go to the Cape?
It took an hour of stop-and go before freedom down Pt. Judith Road, a left onto Burnside Ave. and that first glimpse of bright rolling Atlantic whitecaps.
Scarborough Beach ahoy! Hot sand, a quick dip, and then blissful relaxation.
And at 3:17 in the afternoon admission would be free!
Except it wasn’t. The teenybopper attendant shrugged, swiped Jody’s card, and said they’d changed the rules after Covid.
At least there was parking near the pavilion. Jody never understood why everybody headed back at 3, but they did.
Jody popped the trunk and stared. An extra spare tire? What? No! Come on… And then remembered. Two weeks ago, Kaya had borrowed the car to fix a flat and left Jody’s beach bag and cheap lounger on the side porch.
Jody’s shoulders slumped. Giving up was not an option. There had to be a…
Gift shop? Beach store? Yes!
The trunk slammed. Jody ran, shoes thwapping on the hot concrete, just in case the place closed at 3:30.
Hail Mary! The shop’s window was open. Thank you, Jehovah, Buddha and the Great Spaghetti Monster! The door was unlocked, and they had everything the forgetful needed – from sunblock and snorkels to tee shirts and towels. Prices weren’t bad either. Not as reasonable as Benny’s (damn, Jody still missed Benny’s), but not gouging like Newport or Watch Hill.
Jody piled stuff on the counter, mulled over buying a folding chair, but decided to put the extra bucks into a longer beach towel.
“Any bathing suits my size?” Jody asked.
The young studmuffin behind the counter looked up from Instagram, shook his head, snapped his gum, and went back to flicking and liking.
“Come on,” Jody insisted. “Really?”
Studmuffin’s tanned shoulders shrugged.
That was it then. Going buff or in cotton undies just wasn’t done in Narragansett. Scarborough wasn’t Moonstone. Cops would be called. Or the funny wagon for Butler.
Resigned, Jody turned, and was trudging out as Studmuffin suggested, “Try lost and found?”
At the idea of putting on somebody else’s used bathing suit, Jody shuddered. But then reconsidered. Wash it the sink with hand soap, rinse it in salt water? Maybe.
“Okay. Hold this stuff for fifteen?”
Studly held up a thumb.
There were a surprising number of bathing suits in the cardboard bin. Three were Jody’s size. The blue one in the best shape wasn’t a bad style either. Jody hesitated and then checked. No skid marks. Another shudder.
Fifteen minutes later, Jody draped the new beach towel in the sand, and dropped the rolled-up bundle of officewear on top.
The damp used bathing suit felt hinky and louse-infested, so without waiting another moment, Jody took off at a dead run toward the water.
Hot sand scattered, Jody’s feet hopped over seaweed, hit the cool damp foreshore, patted gingerly across the rim of wet pebbles, rocks and shells, and then into the ankle foam.
At about knee-deep Jody’s mind registered the body’s emergency signals that this water was an icy cold frozen death trap, but the revulsive disgust at the borrowed bathing suit, and the fact that there were at least a dozen twelve-year-olds boogie boarding, kept Jody’s legs pumping onward.
Thigh high, the cold got to be too much, but just then the egg carton of tweens caught the perfect wave, which steamrolled in like a black wall.
Jody barely had enough time to gulp a breath, close eyes, and dive.
Everything went cold and black. Underwater, Jody screamed. It sounded muted and burbly.
Then the wave was gone, and Jody struggled up, standing in hip-deep water with a mixture of disbelief and pleasure, like the winner of a Lou Gehrig Ice Bucket Challenge.
“Holy shit that was cold!”
Once your hair’s wet, the water temperature doesn’t matter. For a little while at least.
Jody dove and swam. Touched the bottom. Squinted at a hermit crab. Surfaced, inhaled and dolphined back down. Rolling swirls of bottom sand and grit. Surfaced. Swam a few strokes up the beach, touched bottom, flipped over and back-floated with closed eyes.
Toes up, arms dangling, the bright sun shone red through Jody’s lids.
Utter bliss. The surrender and support of buoyancy. Lapping rolling waves. Jody felt like a tiny leaf, or an insignificant waterbug on the edge of an unfathomably vast sea…
Then the image of the open-mouthed shark from Jaws, and the sudden certainty of another ginormous wave about to crash, jarred Jody upright just in time to dive through the incomer.
Laughing and sputtering and freezing, Jody rode the next one in like a champion body surfer, hopping upright before bellyscraping on the sand.
Up the beach. Flop on the towel, lay back with wet hair on the officewear pillow and again, bliss. Cool evaporation then warm UV radiation. Eyes closed. Red sun. And a breeze.
The sound of the waves. A quick lifeguard warning whistle. Gulls. A boom box playing Taylor Swift. Somebody talking to someone else named Cheryl about “that guy with the stupid hair…”
Jody heard skuttering sand and jolted awake, staring right into the black eyeball of a hungry hookbeaked gull.
“Awk!” Jody and the gull both squawked.
It flew off, and Jody laughed, heart racing.
The beach was emptier now. Lifeguards gone.
Lie back down. No rush.
Life was so good.
THE END •
Mark Binder is an author, storyteller, playwright and the former editor of Motif Magazine. Visit him @markbinderbooks
Summer Somewhere Else
by Tim Lemire
A funeral motorcade traveling within a cemetery moves at a faster clip than cars stalled on Route 4 in the summer, all headed south toward the beaches of Rhode Island. Inching forward and separated by inches, these cars bearing families, or couples in love, or students escaped from Rhode Island Junior College, all slow their way to get south of the Tower.
Our attention is on one car: a 1968 Dodge Polara station wagon, a vehicular land barge painted gun metal gray and, at a glance, easily confused for a hearse. Certainly the car’s inhabitants, on this sweltering August weekend morning, feel as near death as any of them would ever want to be, owing to the fact that the dark car, absorbing the sun’s energies like a heat magnet, has no air conditioning.
In the second row of seats, brother and sister lean at angles against the dark green polypropylene: they sweat, even with their windows rolled completely down. Dad drives; Mom occupies her perennial position to his right; and in the far back of the car, in the luggage compartment, the younger brother sits cross-legged—what was called, back then, “Indian-style”—slowly turning the pages of his comic books.
The older brother moans: “Can’t we get into a faster lane?”
Dad answers: “There isn’t one.”
“The cars in the other lane are moving faster.”
“And if we all got into that lane,” Dad replies, “we’d be going even slower.”
Mother says: “Be patient. Your father is trying to drive.”
Music from the other cars’ radios and tape decks fill the family station wagon like the heat, and there is no fighting it, for in addition to no air conditioning, the Dodge doesn’t have FM radio.
Snatches of songs waft past: “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones, “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac, “Emotion” by Samantha Sang, and from the soundtrack to Grease, Olivia Newton-John singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”
The youngest child, in the rear, looks up from his comic book to watch the cars passing: the open convertibles and Jeeps, driven by skinny boys with no shirts accompanied by laughing girls with ironed hair past their shoulders. These were the cool kids, the older kids, who always were having more fun.
The cool kids slathered themselves with Aztec or Hawaiian Tropic tanning lotion or something with coconut oil instead of with whatever the pasty white stuff was from CVS. The cool kids could wear T-shirts with the names of rock bands on them; they could wear cut-off jeans. The boys could wear sailor knot bracelets, and the girls could wear tube tops.
The youngest pivots to face his family, whose backs all are to him.
“If we went to Scarborough Beach, we’d be at the beach sooner.”
Mom, not turning around: “We’re not going to Scarborough Beach.”
The older brother whines: “Can’t we just once?”
“It’s not a family beach,” Mom says.
“We’ve already paid for a pass to Sand Hill Cove,” Dad says. “I’m not paying more money to go somewhere else.”
This was a different decade in a different century in a different time in America, a time when parents’ every decision wasn’t based on how to keep their children entertained, satisfied, stimulated, or occupied. Children were along for the ride, like luggage.
The father and mother in the 1968 Dodge Polara station wagon, being children of the Great Depression, didn’t believe in credit. Fearful of debt, they provided necessities for their children but no more. Not only were there never family vacations to the Grand Canyon or to Disneyland, there were never Firecracker® Ice Pops from the refreshment stand at Sand Hill Cove, no cans of soda, no plastic kites.
The parents believed that what had been true for them would be true for their children: You can’t miss what you never have.
But years later, miles from the southernmost shores of Rhode Island, far from the occluded highways and caravans of cars headed to and from the beach, there would be rooms — a room for one, with a mattress and a chair and a window and no telephone, and no comic books.
Beyond these rooms, in the carpeted quiet of the hallways, there would be no music from a radio: no hustling shuffle of “Miss You” or Olivia Newton-John sighing the refrain of “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”
These hallways connected conference rooms and waiting areas to offices, and nowhere was there direct sun or the roar of waves, no peal of children’s voices or the piercing report of a lifeguard whistle.
There was only the institutional silence of never knowing what day it is.
This was the endpoint to which one of the children in the station wagon had come, along other men and other women, each of them searching in their own way for wherever the cool kids were, for the place where summer never ends, where the wave forever crests and never crashes into its trough, where the good times and the sweet tunes and the cocoa butter and the paper money folded in the back pockets of cut-off jeans never runs out. In that summer somewhere else, there is no reason to deny oneself anything.
But somehow, somewhere, on the road to get there, there were decisions—one or two, or perhaps just one critical decision—that now couldn’t be undone and could only be dealt with. Or not. At bottom, making a difference started with knowing that you can harbor within yourself a belief to hold onto: the belief that one day the sun will shine again, that summer will come, and on that bright day, you will close your eyes and the inside of your eyelids will be warm and orange, and once again, you will stretch out your bare feet to burrow them into the cooling sand.