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Flash Fiction Reprint: Nance Van Winckel’s “1974”

Nance Van Winckel


For the third April morn­ing in a row, Dr. Swift has turned off his pager, put his fin­ger to his lips, and nod­ded con­spir­a­to­ri­ally to Delia, who closes the closet door on him, gen­tly. He’s perched in her lawn chair in there amid the indus­trial-strength every­things: clean­ers for glass, for chrome, and for the mar­ble hos­pi­tal foyer it’s her job and hers alone to make shim­mer.

The doctor’s sick,” she told the nurse on Two East who’d asked if Delia had seen him. Where had she seen him last? As if he were a set of lost car keys. Delia mopped around her: swish-swish right up to the tips of those blar­ingly white shoes. 

Up on Four West,” Delia told her. “He’d didn’t look good. I think he’s sick.” This wasn’t exactly a lie. 

In Room 213 the blotto-boy’s par­ents waited for the ver­dict. A leg to go? Or to stay? The frost­bite inches up. After the snow­mo­bile acci­dent, it’d taken hours upon hours to reach the boy who’d some­how lost his boot. 

First the toes had gone, then the foot. Delia imag­ined the doctor’s saws get­ting big­ger.

Behind her door she knew there would be tears for a while … as her lit­tle tran­sis­tor radio radi­ated the war news, death scores fol­lowed by ball scores. Then the Expo Update. From the ruins of old rail­road yards and park­ing lots, the Great World’s Fair was ris­ing in the still win­try heart of Spokane. The hos­pi­tal was full of its mishaps: the top­pled lad­der (a con­cus­sion, a bro­ken femur), the nail gun fiasco (nail through a palm!), and the wiring job gone awry (a still pur­pling, still shriv­el­ing elec­tro­cuted right arm). From those rooms came lan­guages Delia felt sure could have been hymns from the Stone Age. 

After the weather fore­cast, the door would open. The secret door. And the doc­tor would emerge.

Doc­tor Swift. The pag­ing voice was shrill. The com­ing weather was sleet. Then rain. 

The door opens. A face peers around it. He nods to Delia then closes the door. She thinks: we own the dawn hall­way. Only steeped inside the closet’s ammo­nia stench may sad resus­ci­tate. In the closet was the nec­es­sary alchem­i­cal change needed to drive a deci­sion through to its end. She watches the doctor’s face to see what he’s decided. To save a life a leg must go. No doubt he’d known that all along. And now to make it hap­pen.

Doc­tor Swift, please dial Two-East.

The boy wanted to go to the Fair next month. Expected to go. Lying there all March and now April, he’d heard the jack­ham­mers rat­tle the hos­pi­tal win­dows. He’d seen the tele­vised footage of the Soviet Pavil­ion with a forest inside it. A big wide world, the nurses had told him, was com­ing to our town.

And now step­ping into the shad­ows and out of the doctor’s path, Delia tries not to look into those eyes that have the hard black shim­mer at the cen­ter, those eyes ablaze with what—who can say?—ungodly or most holy fire.

The sleet rains down. Will a thaw ensue? Will the frost ever quit? Or will the boy’s par­ents step out into it later after the boy’s asleep and the sharp­ened-up saws have done their work and the hall­way is pristine again and Delia’s door is locked and her yel­low rub­ber gloves snapped off and the mop propped up and the bucket kicked? Kicked hard. Lit­tle bug­ger.


Note: Orig­i­nally pub­lished August 2014, The Spokesman Review.


Author’s Note

I worked in a hos­pi­tal while I was going to col­lege, and I remem­ber a young boy who lost his foot, then his leg, to frost­bite. I also recall the doc­tor cry­ing in a lit­tle “break room” behind the switch­board, which was where I worked. I made him some cof­fee and he told me why. Years later I had sketched out a few other sorts of details through an invented nar­ra­tor, but it wasn’t until our news­pa­per asked me for a piece of fic­tion to cel­e­brate the 40-year anniver­sary of the World’s Fair in Spokane that I had that extra some­thing that pulled the piece into focus for me: the set­ting itself. The larger world of work and adven­ture and all that the boy might have to miss. An aside: I had been con­sid­er­ing med­ical school after col­lege, but I thought I’d first try to get this “writ­ing bug” out of my sys­tem so I wouldn’t regret it later. I’m still get­ting the bug out. Still not regret­ting it. 


nanceNance Van Winckel is the author of five books of fic­tion, most recently Ever Yrs, a novel in the form of a scrap­book (Twisted Road Pub­li­ca­tions, 2014) and Boneland: Linked Sto­ries (U. of Okla­homa Press, 2013). Paci­fic Walk­ers, her sixth col­lec­tion of poems, was a final­ist for the 2014 Wash­ing­ton State Book Awards. BOOK OF NO LEDGE, a book of visual poetry, will be out next month with Pleiades Press. Nance is a Pro­fes­sor at East­ern Wash­ing­ton University’s Inland North­west Cen­ter for Writ­ers, the recip­i­ent of two NEA fel­low­ships, the Pater­son Fic­tion Prize, the Amer­i­can Short Fic­tion Award, Poetry Soci­ety of America’s Gor­don Bar­ber Poetry Award, a Christo­pher Ish­er­wood Fic­tion Fel­low­ship, and three Push­cart Prizes. She also teaches in Ver­mont Col­lege of Fine Arts’ low-res­i­dency MFA in Writ­ing Pro­gram.


Excel­lent story. It reminds me of Hemingway’s “ice­berg prin­ci­ple” where seven-tenths of the story is what is not said. I love the con­ci­sion, the word choice, and in only a few words, the reader achieves insight into the nature of the two main char­ac­ters. This is almost poetry, and with a lit­tle tin­ker­ing and some for­mat­ting changes could make a great poem. Ms. Van Winckel achieved a lot in a few word! Bravo!

Very nice story. The story fits the flash fic­tion for­mat beau­ti­fully. Most flash fic­tion that I have read is either too brief and has to be expanded with super­flu­ous mat­ter to reach around 1,000 words or the back­story is too long and obvi­ously crammed into a short for­mat (of which I admit my own guilt). The narrator’s voice is nicely done as is the unstated “punch line”. I will have to read more of Nance’s works.

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