By Jason Peck
My favorite work of flash fiction comes from a former postal worker in Georgia that no one’s heard of, who skipped his MFA and has more online writing credits regarding agricultural than he does for his fiction. Chuck Strangward is not famous, but not in the sense that we should be ashamed of his anonymity. He is not famous because he does not seem to particularly care about being famous.
And yet this unknown author broke the rules of flash fiction.
In 2015, Chuck succeeded in flash fiction where I had repeatedly tried and failed. His story “No One Here Knows a Damn Thing About Birds” successfully chronicled the complex life of a woman and several members of her family over the course of decades without breaking the 1,000 word limit. A common “rule” of flash is that it should cover a brief period of time – a moment or a scene, not an entire family history. In this condensed format, it’s the impact of that specific moment that carries over into the decades after the story ends.
As an example, I’d point to one of my favorite writers Justin Torres, author of We The Animals, for my money still one of the greatest works of flash ever produced. In a story about dancing with his family to Tito Puente, Torres shows us the complex relationship with both his heritage and his father, feelings that we know continued long after the story ended. In a story about watching a comedian on TV, he expresses the profound sadness that his mother feels behind a façade that slips. But at no point does Torres tell just one story that condenses the entire family experience.
But Chuck pulled it off in a story shorter than this blog post. When people ask me for examples of quality flash, I’m as likely to send them the link to Word Riot where his story was originally published.
The last lead I had was an email address a decade old. Definitely a last resort, but within a week, I had directly contacted the author at last.
Regarding the actual story –
“No One Here Knows a Damn Thing About Birds” tells the story of a woman who goes through a series of “lovers, husbands and boyfriends” in the 40-odd years following her split from her husband. Covered within this story are the fates of her children and even some of the pets. Even more surprising than the fact that Strangward put so many years into less than 1,000 words is how many characters he added. All told, I counted 11, not including the narrator. Some are just names, a few are several lines of dialogue.
In short, the story’s secret weapon is the protagonist’s somewhat obsessive habit of slapping stickers on her car.
Of course, it goes much deeper than that. Each sticker represents a member of her family. Her husband has one, she has one, the children have theirs and on down to the family pets. Stickers update as the characters age and family members change. It’s an odd habit that more than one character comments on negatively (“fucking banal,” one of her boyfriends memorably calls it). However, the conceit is shockingly effective. For one thing, it gives good reason why we focus only on the major life events.
“I used to deliver mail to an elementary school,” Chuck told me. “One day I parked behind a vehicle with a long sticker trail across the back windshield. Except there was a dusty outline of where the Dad sticker used to be, which struck me as hilariously sad. I began to write an account of how it disappeared.
“I’ll be honest – I was never really sure myself if the concept worked. But once the story started I couldn’t write the stickers out. So I just went with it. I liked the idea of transforming a mundane tchotchke into a kern that held all these chapters of a life.”
More importantly, it also lets Strangward write about those major life experiences without recognizing them as the serious moments they actually are. In the opening paragraph, he never uses the word “divorce.” Nor does he explicitly write about the protagonist’s struggle to move on. Instead he just writes about how easily she removes his sticker: “No, Paul was a breeze; she scraped at his flat little head with her long nail until the flap was big enough to grab, then she lifted him slowly and cleanly.” Conversely, language about the residue left behind by the husband’s sticker conveys the void that she then tries to fill.
“Birds” just kept leaping forward,” Chuck wrote. “I just saw that main character so cleanly in my head. The way she crossed her legs, the way she blinked her eyes when angry – it took two days to write and two days to edit.
“So much flash reads like poetry arranged in paragraphs. I wanted the story to have the familiar feel and linear structure of longer forms, but without sacrificing those concentrated sentences you discover in great flash. I feared it’d come off like a stack of non-sequiturs. I found it harder to write than the moment-in-time story because in those stories you can go back, sideways, forward, etc. “Birds” was limited to one trajectory more or less.”
In a similar manner, Strangward can introduce the unusually fast pace of her dating life by recounting the speed that the stickers change until one boyfriend, “a little concerned, asks how many stickers have there been. She isn’t even removing them anymore, just slapping one on top of the other like those tags she puts on her license plate once a year.”
Strangward’s other weapon is his control of time. Years pass by without overt acknowledgement that years have actually gone by. In one scene, a different boyfriend comments on the stickers. They say they love each other. She buys a new car, and in that action we instinctively know time has passed, along with that boyfriend’s time in her life.
In my favorite part, her second husband Walter is represented by a cigarette because he smokes. And so Walter’s story is nonchalantly introduced and ended in a passage I must reprint in full:
“Do you remember those stickers people put on cars, the stick figure families?” she asks Walter.
Propped up in his hospital bed, Walter nods. Words are too much pain for his irradiated throat.
“I think they’re trending again.”
Addie comes and stays with her for a while. The top of Walter’s urn has a knob like the lid of a cookie jar. Where did that come from, Addie says, referring to the sticker on her mother’s car.
At the risk of being overly sentimental, the piece ends with the first husband that started the piece, who gets his memorial sticker. Stickers throughout have carried subtle poignancy; no as the protagonist ruminates over feelings she didn’t know she had for a husband she hasn’t seen for some time now. Another surprising thing about Strangward’s language is its simplicity. His ending uses no fancy words to convey the feeling, but in recalling a scene at the opening, he picks his details expertly.
More than anything else, the story is heartfelt despite the overt silliness of the sticker concept. Reading it, I could tell that the author put personal history into it, which Chuck confirmed.
“Annie Proulx said, ‘The scraps that feed a story come from many different cupboards,’” Check wrote. “I was very close to my grandmothers, who each passed away after extended periods of declining health. Their two lives could not have been more different. I was holding the hand of one as she left us, an experience which certainly feeds into this story. The other I visited regularly and listened as her recollection of stories (she had traveled extensively and was a fine conversationalist) expanded into a director’s cut of her life, as if the stand-by memories had been usurped by rogue scenes. In a literal sense the title is probably just that, a mnemic outburst.”
I’ve probably read this story a few dozen times by now – more so that most of the flash pieces in anthologies by famous – and therefore, “distinguished authors.” In those few dozen times, I’ve tried learning so I could adapt and write something similar. All I’ve done is learn; try as I might, I doubt I’d be able to pull off something like this.
Chuck has published nothing new since Word Riot. Here’s hoping he takes it up again.