I've been struggling with phantom lung distress (no one knows what it is, but it makes it hard to breathe) lately, and this story keeps coming back into my mind, a lovingly funny and odd releif from focusing on what is wrong with my body.
I hope you enjoy it as well.
Chicken Soup de la Soul
A flash fiction story by Tod Highsmith (an un-edited student writing from last spring)
I felt sick last week, my stomach was upset and after a few hours I went in the bathroom, kneeled by the toilet for a while and finally vomited. It was unpleasant as it always is, and I was surprised to see a slip of paper in the toilet. Did that come out of me? I wondered. I almost flushed it down, but something made me fish it out, dry it off and check it out.
It was a poem, not a very good one, written in my own hand. I’d never seen it before, but I recognized my own tracks in the words and images. Some of the words were the wrong words, they were close to what was necessary but just far enough off to sour the image or the meaning. I had tried too hard in other parts of the poem, so that it felt overwrought and over written, it wasn’t a poem you could relax into, it had the uptight energy of someone trying to force square words into round meanings, or mixing words of different colors to make new colors but always ending up with gray or brown.
I went outside later on to sit on the front steps and feel the sun on my face. The neighbor was coming out to get in her car to go somewhere. She saw me and commented that I didn’t look so good.
“No, I’ve got some stomach thing,” I told her.
“You should try chicken soup,” she said, “for the soul.”
I thought she was talking about that popular book which I’d never seen but assumed was full of folksy aphorisms about life and love.
“Oh, I don’t think that book’s for me,” I said.
“No, not the book,” she said, “Chicken Soup de la Soul. It’s a rap group. They’re at the coffee house tonight. You should go hear them.” And she drove off.
That night I walked down to the coffee house. I was feeling better since I’d purged myself, so to speak, and thought maybe an evening out would do me good. I walked the few blocks, my eyes alternately moving from the cracks in the sidewalk where ants were moving in masses, each carrying a tiny white egg, to the horizon, where shining dully in the sunset a comet was visible, its fuzzy tail dragging behind like a spritz of spray from a freshly opened can of soda or the blurry swish of a cat’s tail being violently wagged.
After thinking up those images, I felt sick again and had to stop for a couple of minutes, squatting on the sidewalk. Then it passed, and I decided I’d go on to the coffeehouse. A cat walked across the sidewalk in front of me, her tail held high like a signal of warning, her loud purr a cross of affection and foreboding.
I vomited a small puddle of yucky stuff in the grass, almost started home again, but stopped and looked in it. There was a tiny piece of paper -- it looked like a wrapper from a piece of candy. On it were written in my own hand the words “June, croon, moon, spoon.” I kind of laughed, looked around to see if anybody was watching me, and put the paper in my pocket.
When I finally got to the coffeehouse, the show had already started. There were three men on stage, and I could hardly believe my eyes. They must have been identical triplets -- is there such a thing? And they were dead ringers for myself when I was about 25 or so. They were rapping with an incredible complexity, wrapping words and rhymes around each other in a magical way. I was spellbound. I recognized some of the words that I’d been using in my own poems recently, but in their hands the words flowed with color and feeling.
There was a woman at a small table next to me who was listening intently and weeping softly. When the band took a break and she got up, I looked over at a small notebook she’d been writing in. She had written something about how the three women on stage reminded her of her younger self. That kind of freaked me out, and I got up and went into the men’s room.
When I opened the door, the musicians -- I guess that’s what you’d call them -- were all in there. Well, two of them were. One was standing on a box by a small window. The other was supporting him from behind as he crawled through the small opening. When he heard me come in, the last brother turned and gave me a sheepish look before he climbed up and disappeared through the window himself.
He said, “Sorry, all we can really do is suggest a little melody, try to provide a little music. The words are yours. You have to own them. It’s okay if they make you sick now and then. That happens to all of us. Good luck!”
When I got home, I pulled out the paper I’d rescued from the toilet and looked at it again. I started copying the poem onto a new, clean sheet of paper and spent most of the night playing with the sounds of words, humming a rhythm into them and underlining them with bright primary colors. I was quite pleased with the poem by morning and taped it to the refrigerator door. I went outside to look at the sunrise just in time to see the comet’s tail disappear over the horizon.