Phantom Limbs

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NEED A MIRACLE | Karie Fugett.

Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal.

Sometimes when we discuss flash pieces my commentary ends up being longer than the story in question, and I’m pretty sure that will be the case today. Since an in-depth look at this piece will require some spoilers, why don’t you go ahead and read Karie Fugett’s “Need a Miracle” right now? Make sure you come back when you’re done.

Read the story here.

Okay. Welcome back.

I appreciate that many writers of short-form prose like flash are willing to take on the really “Big” social issues out there, not just leaving it to the novelists. Even though flash fiction is strongest when it hinges on tiny details, on seemingly mundane gestures or small-scale events, there’s no reason these microcosmic snapshots can’t speak to something much greater. In fact, that’s pretty much the touchstone of good flash.

Karie Fugett’s “Need a Miracle” accomplishes this in spades, taking on the challenging topic of post-war scars and their domestic consequences. Obviously, war-induced traumas are a familiar topic, but we’re usually exposed to them through schmaltzy TV ads for non-profits (starring a country music star, inevitably) or Hollywood movies that don’t have enough respect for their subject or audience to offer anything more than stock histrionics and troubled war hero cliches (Hollywood long ago realized that subtlety doesn’t sell). In good writing, though, subtlety is a virtue. The author of “Need a Miracle” has a strong sense of when to use it and when to get more dramatic.

Since you’ve already read this piece, I’m not spoiling anything by taking the story apart a little bit.

The structure is simple but effective: four paragraph-long sections (micro-vignettes) offer a present-day event and a past event (or series of experiences), the paragraphs arranged Present-Past-Present-Past. There are three characters: the narrator, her ex Cleve (in the past vignettes), and the homeless man (present day). Naturally, the two men are counterparts, and we have other parallels stitching the past and present together, including the narrator’s continuing sense of guilt/loss, the sense of inevitability (Cleve’s death was outside her control, as is the flow of traffic that prevents the narrator from giving the homeless man some change), the missing limb (obvious parallel) and other potential emotional scarring the two male characters might have in common.

This story about the narrator and Cleve, the physical/mental trauma he experienced at war (Iraq? Afghanistan?), and all the events that brought about the dissolution of their relationship and his eventual (unexplained, though we make inferences) death–this story could all be told without the homeless man. This story could be presented in a very straightforward manner.

But it wouldn’t be nearly as successful.

For one thing, the constant cuts between time and subject match the emotional fragmentation and disorientation of the narrator. Also, remember that projection and redirection are powerful tools to make the reader independently discover and connect with truths about the story’s characters. This story doesn’t really tell us much about Cleve or the narrator’s relationship with him. We don’t learn about the homeless man either, though the narrator’s internal questions about this man tell us a great deal about her own former partner:

I reached for my wallet, wondering if his limb was taken by a senseless war, too. I wondered if the drugs and the shellshock ruined him. If his wife left after he hit her in an unfamiliar rage. If she had guilt. I imagined their bodies in flames. We needed a miracle, I thought.

Do we know for sure that Cleve hit our narrator, causing her to leave? It’s pretty heavily implied. And what’s useful about presenting this information implicitly through a series of thoughts about another character is the fact that Cleve becomes less a person, more of a presence that haunts our narrator and shows up in the form of a panhandler on the side of the road. Really, when you think about it, this piece is a ghost story.

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