JOHN RILEY: Hell no, you skinny-legged creature

Flash Fiction by John Riley


My mother’s father died in 1922. He walked into the veneer mill on a winter morning to open up—he was a new foreman and proud of it—and stepped into a vat of slowly boiling water. Someone on the second shift had left the grate off. My mother and the mother before her said it was murder. Some bastard was jealous of his new promotion. I did not know for years that logs have to be boiled to remove the bark that’s used to make cheap veneer like the veneer inside the mobile home my mother was finally able to buy when she was nearly fifty-five. I’d escaped into history and poetry by then at the university in another town and was already used to central heat and pipes that didn’t freeze every fall. She sat there alone in the new warmth most nights thinking of the calls she wanted to make to all the people who’d done her wrong.

It was said he was a good man, her father. That he worked hard to care for his six kids. My mother was the youngest and couldn’t remember his face but she could remember her mother’s and how she snarled at her dead husband’s children when she became a mistress to a married professor. She was in charge of the key when her mother was gone and some days she would leave it where it was easy to forget and tell the new children they had no home to enter. It was her house and her dead father’s and they would need to find a new place to live. They believed her until they were past the age when they should and she’d have to walk the hills around the mill and find them sitting and crying in one of the tiny, dirt yards. You’d have thought the new kids, the ones my mother eventually learned to care for, product of the professor’s sperm and her mother’s bitterness, would have been the smart ones, but she was the smartest. This is what she hated most of all. “All the things I figured out,” she said, “and there’s nothing to do about any of it.” I loved her when I was a child but when she died I hadn’t loved her for years. She finally loved me by then, of course. A few days before she died she summed it up: “That’s the type of shit that baffles me.”

The Heron

I lie here on this floor, my mouth muffled by milky sheep fleece. It’s hard to decide what to do with my face when I’m stuffed like this. I should have paid attention to the signs that things were changing when I saw the long-legged crane walking up the dirt road. He didn’t look as though he’d seen water for days and he didn’t seem to miss it. It was sunrise and he wore tiny shoes as he took small steps circling my small cabin. The summer sun was beating down on my tin roof. I figured he’s hit me up for free room and board, maybe some of the bars of luxuriant soap for sensitive skin I use when I bathe out in the water tub back behind the shed. No, instead the bastard told me I had to leave. That a week for me to stay in the Settled Hotel was paid for and after that I had to make out on my own. I said hell no you skinny-legged creature and he said maybe I’d prefer a room with bars on the windows. Then I got nice and tried to sugar out of him what in the hell was happening. Seems like my deed to my property had been superseded. That’s the word he used. Superseded. Seems he was a scout for new resorts, the type that have bathing beauties sitting around the swimming pool. When I said “What the hell, Mr. Crane. You can’t just toss a man out of his home, even if it ain’t much” he nodded his head and said, “OK, we’ll move to plan two,” and suddenly out from behind my cabin came the strangest mix of cranes and herons and peacocks and even a loon that I reckon was in charge since he had the deepest voice. Before I could turn around they were on me. You might know how skilled these species are at making nests and they set out using the same skill to tie me up with feathers and weeds and grass so I could barely move. “We’ll just let you rest inside your shack, Silly Human,” the crane said. The spooky loon watched me from behind the crane. He hovered over everything. I don’t know how animals with no shoulders can be so damned strong. That’s what I’ve taken away from the experience so far. I’m sure more lessons will follow that one but it’s hard to think trussed up like this.


I was strolling along the edge of the giant field, over on the other side of Hoover Road, and thinking my brain is a prison. It’s no joke. I have more briefs lost in my head than a lawyer should ever write. It would be fun to cut my head open someday and have a good time pulling them out. Everyone would have a great laugh. They float in this giant vat of dark water, which seems to me to be like the blackest bean soup. Millions of roots crawl out of the bottom and attach to the skull walls. These are the twin ghosts of all the thoughts that kept me awake at night. If I opened my head there are people I would like to join me. We could pitch pennies up against the wall of the old barn, the one we used to slip to and smoke cigarettes inside, with no concern for all the old, moldy hay that could have easily caught fire. So many of my mysteries are hollow. This I have learned. They are only mysteries because I don’t look at them squarely. I should treat them like single green peas alone on a tin plate, not the mush of a melon or the twinning of the roots.

John Riley has published poetry and fiction in Smokelong Quarterly, The Ekphrastic Review, Better Than Starbucks, Banyan Review, Connotation Press, Bindweed, Fiction Daily, The Molotov Cocktail, Dead Mule, St. Anne’s Review, and numerous other anthologies and journals both online and in print. Exot Books will publish a volume of 100 of his 100-word prose poems in 2022. He has also published over thirty books of nonfiction for young readers.

Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela

Published by poetrybay

Flash Boulevard is a product of, since 2000 a flagship online poetry publication.

One thought on “JOHN RILEY: Hell no, you skinny-legged creature

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: