Flash Fiction by Frankie McMillan
Swimming with Cliff
Cliff was the guy who sat in the upstairs glass booth at New World and read out the promotions over the intercom. Fresh, our cake is fresh! If you find fresher cake elsewhere, we’ll give you your money back. Sometimes I’d just hang around the aisles with my pushcart and laugh at the crummy things he said. Maybe he saw me laughing and thought I had a happy disposition and that’s why he came down from his glass booth or maybe he saw me staring at the cake and thought I was too poor to buy cake but whatever, one thing led to another.
‘….a drive,’ he said. He jerked his head towards the door. ‘I’ll take you up to see my hill top paradise.’
‘Uh, huh,’ I said staring at the blow-up rubber pool, several fake palm trees and a recording system that blared out old Elvis songs.
I know you don’t get out much,’ Cliff said waving his arm over his rubber pool. I tried to tell him I didn’t get out much because of what travel was doing to the planet.
‘Sure, sure,’ he said. It’s not a good day for me to swim, I told him. I’ll walk home now.
The next time I went into the shop Cliff began talking on the intercom about ending period poverty. Period poverty, Cliff’s voice shrilled, and Tampax only a dollar a box! It made me feel uncomfortable, like maybe I’d left a spot of blood on the passenger seat of his car. I walked straight back home again. My mother took my side. ‘He thinks he’s king of the castle up in his glass booth,’ she said. ‘He doesn’t even own that shop.’
Winter came early. People started boarding up their houses. My mother said Cliff was like his father, they let snow pile up on the roof. And their house was a clutter inside. Boxes of old grocery stock. Newspapers all over the floor. Stuff from garage sales; hand pumps, spares for inflating his rubber pool, old deck chairs etc. ‘Don’t encourage him,’ she said.
When I knocked on Cliff’s door there was a lot of rustling of newspapers before he answered. He poked his head out the door. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt covered with brightly coloured birds. There may have been a palm tree too but I didn’t want to look.
My boots scuffed up the newspapers as I walked down the hall behind him. I’m not staying, I told him.
Up ahead the room was fiercely lit up by a heat lamp. The walls glowed orange. I held out my arms to the warmth.
Cliff grinned. ‘You’ll be swimming, next,’ he said.
Because the ferris wheel wouldn’t start until all the seats were full we called out to Doreen to come join us and she looked up from her candyfloss and came running all dogish and eager until we told her she had to sit in her own seat, because she could be radioactive and even though it was long ago her father got an X ray machine for his shoe shop; a black box you put your foot in and could see where the bone of your big toe met the tip of the shoe and your heel the back, the stories kept going round and round and each time we heard someone from our town had gotten cancer it was because they must have been to Clarke’s shoe shop , even just walking past, the invisible rays could go right through you and when the Ferris wheel music finally started, the cogs and gears cranking and us swaying up to the very top, Doreen was always below, her eyes shut tight and then as we circled down we flung back our heads urging the Ferris wheel upward again.
‘Laugh, Doreen,’ we cried, ‘laugh.’
And then for a brief time Doreen was up and we were down and she had a long-haired boyfriend who operated the go karts and she’d look at us as if she knew something we didn’t and once her boyfriend came up behind her and put his long tattooed arms around her waist and Doreen laid her glowing face against his shoulder, but all the time looking at us in a funny sort of way. ‘You don’t know what you’re missing,’ she said and we felt the sort of emptiness where the big ride fills fast and we’re left behind the fence with tired legs, clutching our tickets that shred to pieces in our hot sticky palms before our turn eventually comes round again.
Frankie McMillan is the author of five books, the most recent of which, The Father of Octopus Wrestling and other small fictions was listed by Spinoff as one of the 10 best New Zealand fiction books of 2019. She has won numerous awards and creative writing residencies including the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship, 2019. Recent work appears in Best MicroFictions, 2021.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner Photograph Wes Candela.