"Old Stuff" & "Among the Licence Plates"

Thomas Elson

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Thomas Elson’s two works of flash fiction demonstrate a circular narrative forbearance that contains lifetimes. In “Among the Licence Plates,” we move from one seat to another—the State Capitol Building, on stage with Johnny Cash, on a mother’s lap, in the crowd amongst prisoners—to contemplate the various perspectives of one historical event. By juxtaposing these insights, we are asked to consider our own actions and the impressions we leave on people.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

OLD STUFF

“Have the movers box everything up,” my daughter had told my grandsons. “We’ll take care of it at the new house. . . . Oh, and make sure they label the boxes.”
          Three days later now, and I’m crammed inside the moving van on my daughter’s driveway, waiting for my grandsons alongside those boxes packed with old stuff that, for many generations and in multiple countries, had filled our family’s houses. Cumbersome stuff, an obligation, really, wedged into bookshelves, jammed in corners, or hidden behind newer boxes and forgotten in basements, only to be found upon moving again, with settling odours and resident mildew.
          Boxes of books from the nineteenth century, including a biography of George Washington in High German and several pre-Spanish Flu textbooks with my mother’s and aunt’s schoolgirl scrawls. Other books—with three-digit phone numbers I had written in green ink—carefully wrapped with what looks like a flowered cookie jar destined to sit atop a bookcase.
          Snuggled inside boxes of clothes that my grandsons will cart off to a homeless shelter is a brittle plastic Santa on broken green skis—my first toy—made shortly after V-J Day. There is a metal, chestnut-coloured horse—my grandfather’s bedroom door stop—that I, as a young boy, struggled to convert into Gene Autry’s Wonder Horse, Champion. Collages of family photos dating back to the 1880s. Two small bells: one my father used when confined to the house with pre-antibiotic pneumonia; the other had been rung by my grandparents’ maid, Bee, just before she served dinner. Crystal beverage glasses and gold-rimmed china, consigned to padded boxes my grandsons will carry down to my daughter’s unfinished basement—beautiful dinnerware once used for daily meals, but now too old and too fragile to place on any contemporary dinner table. 
          Leaning against the interior wall of the moving van is the walnut bookcase my mother had a neighbour build for me when my interests turned to reading. Against it, a smaller one I made in shop class. 
          Near the front of the van, covered with heavy furniture pads, are two bedroom suites. The dark one, my great-grandparents acquired from a territorial governor’s mansion. The other is an ornate, blond bedroom set, my grandmother’s wedding gift from her grandparents. Both sets carry family tales of trysts, conceptions, and births. Nearby is my great grandfather’s round marble coffee table where four generations balanced themselves while learning to walk, and an oval cherry table from my grandfather’s hotel.
          Two other items, each only a little over eighty years old: a beautiful mirror with a hand-carved frame—my mother’s wedding gift from her parents; and, inside one of the boxes, next to the books in what looks like a cookie jar, my ashes destined to sit atop a bookcase.

AMONG THE LICENCE PLATES

It’s always the same, sitting among men and feeling that confluence of the senses as energy accelerates from long-taut repression, followed by the collective breath, an unexpected silence—then, they rise . . .
          I’m inside a large room—no air conditioning, no windows, no wall hangings, no tablecloths covering the square tables with four chairs in that peculiar configuration of places like this. They don’t even bother to post the rules—everyone knows to stand in a line against the south wall of the unmarked floor within a lane not much wider than a common window, where men shuffle to receive sparsely-laden metal trays. 
          “Take the tray they hand you, ask no questions, walk to a table. Just look around, you’ll know where to sit.” 
          I have been here before.

***

Fourteen years ago, I was sitting at my desk in my office at the State Capitol Building, its marble walls and gleaming columns reflecting shadows onto pristinely maintained floors. The halls abounded with those on the rise, confident in their future. Subtly-cologned, pin-striped, white-shirted, silk-tied—they were as uniformed as school boys inside their group’s protective enclosure. Interchangeable young legislative assistants, assistant attorney-generals, state supreme court law clerks—all fulfilling their mothers’ greatest expectations. 
          My phone rang in that singular piercing of heavy black phones with dials. I picked up the receiver. My old law school friend, Larry, at the state Attorney General’s office.
          “Remember what we talked about last night?” he said. “Just got the message. Johnny Cash is going to be there this afternoon. Wanna go?” Before I answered, he added, “He’s bringing the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins, June, his entire band.” 
          Silence. 
          “Well, whadaya think?”
          I was a law clerk working with the newest state Supreme Court justice who was never much interested in my research. I rested the phone on my desk and walked into his high-ceilinged, six-windowed corner office. “I just got a call. There’s an opening at the dentist’s this afternoon. My wisdom teeth. I’d like to leave now to eat lunch before I go in.”
          The justice nodded, which was about as much communication as we had.
          From the third floor to the second, then inside the attorney general’s lobby where I saw Larry fidgeting near the door. “Are we dressed for this?” I asked, fingering my silk tie then smoothing the lapels of my grey pin-striped suit.
          “We are, and we’ll take my car.”

***

Before the show—out of curiosity and as a resume builder—Larry and I walked with guards, winding through the pathways of work areas. Men dressed in denim with frayed collars, the blue turned a piebald of grey and dull white. 
          A grizzled inmate strutted up to me. His whiskered jowls and unkempt hair emphasised the angry glare of a man long-deprived. “How do you spell habeas corpus?” he asked, then laughed and retreated toward his group near the automobile licence plate machines. I was left listening to the roll and clang of metal sheets being pressed into rectangles—all the same colour and design surrounded by the same border, identical except for the number on the front—stamped and dumped into boxes.
          With an attorney general’s escort, a Supreme Court nametag, and access behind the curtains, I was introduced to the Statler Brothers, who were dozing on chairs near the edge of the stage. Each one rose and shook my hand. A few steps later, Carl Perkins, standing tall and gaunt and wearing blue suede boots, nodded. Then, quickly over to Johnny Cash who called me “sir.” Mother Maybelle and her daughters smiled, including the effervescent June as she was lifted onto a chair by a dungareed man with a shaved head. She balanced herself with her right hand on his shoulder. 

***

The show was classic. Darkening stage, sudden lighting, then a turn. 
          “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
          “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line.” The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall.” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” Boisterous laughter among the crowd at asides about guards. “Folsom Prison Blues,” with Lansing inserted into the lyrics. Cheers. The Carter Family’s “May the Circle Be Unbroken.” Applause followed by more whistles and cheers. 
          Shouts of, “Where’s the baby?”
          “At the other place, I’ll have to feed him soon!” June grinned and looked down at her blouse. 
          More whistles and cheers.
          The curtains closed, fluttered, and then parted again. An encore. Johnny Cash in front. The electric guitar’s thrumming introduction to “Jackson.” June twirled onto the stage in high heels, her full skirt rising to expose her thighs. The scent from the audience was unmistakable. The men rose and continued to applaud while the couple sang.
          After the show, Larry rushed toward me. “I’ll meet you outside. We’re driving her so she can feed her baby.”
          “No shit?”
          “Yep. June herself, going to feed little John Carter Cash,” he said, with a smile as wide as his face. “The baby’s with the women’s warden in her office.”
          June in the front seat with Larry behind the wheel of his four-door 1968 Oldsmobile. I’m in the back absorbing her profile and voice as she talked about their tour, their bus, and their home outside Nashville. No documentary. No appearance. No television show. No tales of meeting other famous people ever rivalled that heady twenty minutes. 
          Especially today, as I sit here with shoes notched for easy tracking among others of my kind at a table on the south side of the invisible line in the mess hall near a boarded-up stage entrance. 
          I watch a woman carrying a briefcase, her skirt rising above her knees, walking with lowered head escorted by guards within that narrow path near the wall. And again, I feel that confluence of senses as energy accelerates from long-taut repression, followed by the collective breath, an unexpected silence . . .
          Then, we rise. 



Thomas Elson’s writing has been published in numerous venues, including: Ellipsis, Better Than Starbucks, Cabinet of Heed, Flash Frontier, Short Édition, Sandy River Review, Bull, Litro, Journal of Expressive Writing, Dead Mule School, Selkie, New Ulster, Lampeter and Adelaide. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas. 


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OLD STUFF “Have the movers box everything up,” my daughter had told my grandsons. “We’ll take care of it at the new house. . . . Oh, and make sure they label the boxes.” Three days later now, and I’m crammed inside the moving van on my daughter’s driveway, waiting for my grandsons alongside those boxes packed with old stuff that, for many generations and in multiple countries, had filled our family’s houses. Cumbersome stuff, an obligation, really, wedged into bookshelves, jammed in corners, or hidden behind newer boxes and forgotten in basements, only to be found upon moving again, with settling odours and resident mildew. Boxes of books from the nineteenth century, including a biography of George Washington in High German and several pre-Spanish Flu textbooks with my mother’s and aunt’s schoolgirl scrawls. Other books—with three-digit phone numbers I had written in green ink—carefully wrapped with what looks like a flowered cookie jar destined to sit atop a bookcase. Snuggled inside boxes of clothes that my grandsons will cart off to a homeless shelter is a brittle plastic Santa on broken green skis—my first toy—made shortly after V-J Day. There is a metal, chestnut-coloured horse—my grandfather’s bedroom door stop—that I, as a young boy, struggled to convert into Gene Autry’s Wonder Horse, Champion. Collages of family photos dating back to the 1880s. Two small bells: one my father used when confined to the house with pre-antibiotic pneumonia; the other had been rung by my grandparents’ maid, Bee, just before she served dinner. Crystal beverage glasses and gold-rimmed china, consigned to padded boxes my grandsons will carry down to my daughter’s unfinished basement—beautiful dinnerware once used for daily meals, but now too old and too fragile to place on any contemporary dinner table. Leaning against the interior wall of the moving van is the walnut bookcase my mother had a neighbour build for me when my interests turned to reading. Against it, a smaller one I made in shop class. Near the front of the van, covered with heavy furniture pads, are two bedroom suites. The dark one, my great-grandparents acquired from a territorial governor’s mansion. The other is an ornate, blond bedroom set, my grandmother’s wedding gift from her grandparents. Both sets carry family tales of trysts, conceptions, and births. Nearby is my great grandfather’s round marble coffee table where four generations balanced themselves while learning to walk, and an oval cherry table from my grandfather’s hotel. Two other items, each only a little over eighty years old: a beautiful mirror with a hand-carved frame—my mother’s wedding gift from her parents; and, inside one of the boxes, next to the books in what looks like a cookie jar, my ashes destined to sit atop a bookcase. AMONG THE LICENCE PLATES It’s always the same, sitting among men and feeling that confluence of the senses as energy accelerates from long-taut repression, followed by the collective breath, an unexpected silence—then, they rise . . . I’m inside a large room—no air conditioning, no windows, no wall hangings, no tablecloths covering the square tables with four chairs in that peculiar configuration of places like this. They don’t even bother to post the rules—everyone knows to stand in a line against the south wall of the unmarked floor within a lane not much wider than a common window, where men shuffle to receive sparsely-laden metal trays. “Take the tray they hand you, ask no questions, walk to a table. Just look around, you’ll know where to sit.” I have been here before. *** Fourteen years ago, I was sitting at my desk in my office at the State Capitol Building, its marble walls and gleaming columns reflecting shadows onto pristinely maintained floors. The halls abounded with those on the rise, confident in their future. Subtly-cologned, pin-striped, white-shirted, silk-tied—they were as uniformed as school boys inside their group’s protective enclosure. Interchangeable young legislative assistants, assistant attorney-generals, state supreme court law clerks—all fulfilling their mothers’ greatest expectations. My phone rang in that singular piercing of heavy black phones with dials. I picked up the receiver. My old law school friend, Larry, at the state Attorney General’s office. “Remember what we talked about last night?” he said. “Just got the message. Johnny Cash is going to be there this afternoon. Wanna go?” Before I answered, he added, “He’s bringing the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins, June, his entire band.” Silence. “Well, whadaya think?” I was a law clerk working with the newest state Supreme Court justice who was never much interested in my research. I rested the phone on my desk and walked into his high-ceilinged, six-windowed corner office. “I just got a call. There’s an opening at the dentist’s this afternoon. My wisdom teeth. I’d like to leave now to eat lunch before I go in.” The justice nodded, which was about as much communication as we had. From the third floor to the second, then inside the attorney general’s lobby where I saw Larry fidgeting near the door. “Are we dressed for this?” I asked, fingering my silk tie then smoothing the lapels of my grey pin-striped suit. “We are, and we’ll take my car.” *** Before the show—out of curiosity and as a resume builder—Larry and I walked with guards, winding through the pathways of work areas. Men dressed in denim with frayed collars, the blue turned a piebald of grey and dull white. A grizzled inmate strutted up to me. His whiskered jowls and unkempt hair emphasised the angry glare of a man long-deprived. “How do you spell habeas corpus?” he asked, then laughed and retreated toward his group near the automobile licence plate machines. I was left listening to the roll and clang of metal sheets being pressed into rectangles—all the same colour and design surrounded by the same border, identical except for the number on the front—stamped and dumped into boxes. With an attorney general’s escort, a Supreme Court nametag, and access behind the curtains, I was introduced to the Statler Brothers, who were dozing on chairs near the edge of the stage. Each one rose and shook my hand. A few steps later, Carl Perkins, standing tall and gaunt and wearing blue suede boots, nodded. Then, quickly over to Johnny Cash who called me “sir.” Mother Maybelle and her daughters smiled, including the effervescent June as she was lifted onto a chair by a dungareed man with a shaved head. She balanced herself with her right hand on his shoulder. *** The show was classic. Darkening stage, sudden lighting, then a turn. “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line.” The Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall.” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” Boisterous laughter among the crowd at asides about guards. “Folsom Prison Blues,” with Lansing inserted into the lyrics. Cheers. The Carter Family’s “May the Circle Be Unbroken.” Applause followed by more whistles and cheers. Shouts of, “Where’s the baby?” “At the other place, I’ll have to feed him soon!” June grinned and looked down at her blouse. More whistles and cheers. The curtains closed, fluttered, and then parted again. An encore. Johnny Cash in front. The electric guitar’s thrumming introduction to “Jackson.” June twirled onto the stage in high heels, her full skirt rising to expose her thighs. The scent from the audience was unmistakable. The men rose and continued to applaud while the couple sang. After the show, Larry rushed toward me. “I’ll meet you outside. We’re driving her so she can feed her baby.” “No shit?” “Yep. June herself, going to feed little John Carter Cash,” he said, with a smile as wide as his face. “The baby’s with the women’s warden in her office.” June in the front seat with Larry behind the wheel of his four-door 1968 Oldsmobile. I’m in the back absorbing her profile and voice as she talked about their tour, their bus, and their home outside Nashville. No documentary. No appearance. No television show. No tales of meeting other famous people ever rivalled that heady twenty minutes. Especially today, as I sit here with shoes notched for easy tracking among others of my kind at a table on the south side of the invisible line in the mess hall near a boarded-up stage entrance. I watch a woman carrying a briefcase, her skirt rising above her knees, walking with lowered head escorted by guards within that narrow path near the wall. And again, I feel that confluence of senses as energy accelerates from long-taut repression, followed by the collective breath, an unexpected silence . . . Then, we rise.