1st Place – Flash 405, June 2021: “Alchemy”
After class, I usually talked to the guy who smoked outside the McDonalds near campus. He once told me his name was Frank. Sorry, I meant to say “talked to you.” You being Frank. I hadn’t seen you for a while, but as usual you started right in about Slim as you puffed out a head of smoke, then talked to Slim directly through the vapor, addressing him—like you addressed everybody, wherever they were—as “you.” This was your only rule.
“For a while, when you said ‘there’s no third person,’ I thought you were cutting into some kind of cosmic alibi, in which the presence or absence of an additional person would have made a situation made sense. Like a third man who never shows up in court. But that wasn’t it at all.” You took a breath, then slowly blew out another cloud. “You—I’m talkin’ to Slim now, you understand that, right, professor?—you might have been cutting into another conversation, time-traveling as folks do out here all the time, moving back and forth on the kronosphere, to the effect of materializing people, both living and dead, in and out of their visual field. You don’t believe in ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘they,’ only ‘you’ and ‘I.’ Talking about people behind their backs … that’s murder to you. It turns them into objects. Slim, you said to me, ‘You got something to say about someone, be a man and say it to them, even if you ain’t here. Cause, really, you still are.’”
I offered you half my sandwich, but you waved it away.
“See, you all try to break us down by turning us into The Third Person and shit. But then … but then I lost you, Slim … you started spouting Bible shit about the prophets being carried outside the city to the dump, where they would be laid to rest inside a VW bug, or turned to smoke, or…”
A woman coughed behind the bus stop, and you snuffed out your cigarette. “See, you have to understand—I’m talking to you now, professor sandwich—that out on the streets it’s different. It look like people are talking to themselves, but that’s a lie.”
2nd person is my least favorite perspective/POV. I find it condescending at best and colonialist at the beginning of bad. It gives too much credence to the idea that people can actually read minds or that a telepathic empathy exists, which it doesn’t. I love that this piece deconstructs and plays with that device and combines it with absurdity, which is my absolute favorite. It showed a wonderful and cheeky understanding of craft and language, while, most of all, having fun.
Daniel Schifrin is a fiction writer and playwright hoping to bring economically and socially marginal voices to the fore. His stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Westwind, Jet Fuel Review, Sequestrum, em, Transfer and others publications. He is also the recipient of the Anne and Robert Cowan Writers Award; the Wilner Award for Short Fiction from San Francisco State University; and a 2020 LABA Arts commission, among others. He currently has a fellowship to finish a book about the intersection of creativity and care in the age of COVID and beyond, and another to finish a play about hidden voices, called “Marie Kondo and Martin Buber Walk into a Bar.” He also taught creative writing at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State, and currently teaches in the Continuing Studies writing program at Stanford.
Photo Credit: Pavel Lozovikov