Francine Witte

Francine Witte stories are forthcoming in Best Small Fictions 2022, and Flash Fiction America (W.W. Norton.) Her recent books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (ELJ Editions,) and Just Outside the Tunnel of Love (Blue Light Press.) She is flash fiction editor for Flash Boulevard and The South Florida Poetry Journal. She lives in NYC.


First time I met my brother, he was a hum in my mother’s swelling belly. 


When he was 10 and me 14, we’d mock our parents’ arguments. We’d sneak up to the attic. He’d put on Dad’s soggy fedora and kick my bottom hard. When I flinched, he’d say, “hey, that’s how Dad does it.”


I remember the first dead rabbit. It was the winter it wouldn’t stop raining. Always on the edge of snow, but not. My father scowled at my brother, who was something like 11. “What’d you go and do that for?” He shook the dead fluffy thing at my brother over the dinner plates. “If you wanted to be useful, you could have killed a chicken.” 

My mother tried to explain we could eat a rabbit. She said she’d put it right into a pot of water that very minute. The rain, a rattle at the window, and Dad throwing the rabbit straight through it, the sudden hole, the shattered glass, and puddle on my mother’s clean linoleum. 


When my brother was old enough, first thing he did was join the army. He expected Dad would be pissed and was ready for it. Oddly, Dad just sank back into his armchair and fluffed up the newspaper. “It’s good,” Dad said, “you’re good at killing shit.”

My mother said, “There’s plenty to do in the army besides all that. There’s learning responsibility and how to be a good husband.” She stroked my brother’s shoulder. “And what’s more important than that?”


My brother didn’t get a military funeral. Deserter, or something. They cremated him, and my mother scattered most of his ashes into an aimless wind. “Now it’s like he’s everywhere,” she said. Dad, on the other hand, couldn’t even say my brother’s name without a snarl. “Best to forget a mess like that,” Dad said and never mentioned him again. 

After that, my mother would sit up nightly, quietly, in Dad’s armchair. Dad would be upstairs snoring the whole house into a tremble. My mother would take out a tiny jar where she kept a handful of ashes she’d sneaked home with her. Some nights, I’d find her there, slumped into sleep, one hand on her belly, one hand on the jar, as if there were some way or other she could connect the two. 

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And Benny Jones telling me about Darlene. In other words, he pulled me through to unlove me. 

Something about how love is a crispy pepper one minute, but then it goes wilty and soft. I told him I’m not a goddam pepper and get to the goddam point. 

Problem is, I gave Benny Jones my heart too fast. My heart is a bristle I keep in my pocket and I can never wait to give it away. 

Benny Jones sat in the boat in the Tunnel of Love, all squirm and tangle of words. Friends, he was saying, and didn’t mean to. 

Then he pointed to a pin’s worth of light right there in front of us. “That’s the future,” he said. “It gets bigger and brighter the closer we get. All beautiful and warm.” I told Benny to shut the hell up. If we’re not a thing, we’re not a thing, but don’t go making a movie out of it. 

When we did get outside the Tunnel of Love, into the future Benny Jones had promised would be warm and bright, I didn’t see anything. I didn’t feel anything. Just thought back to that summer at my grandma’s house, when her old dog, Punch, got a fever and she was going to shoot him. How I stroked Punch’s tan fur, telling him, it’s okay boy, when I knew damn well it wasn’t. My heart wriggling around in my pocket even then with no damn place for it to go.

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First thing I notice, new haircut, the grays dyed clean away.

I’m careful with my words. Nice shirt, I finally say.

I’m aware he never dressed this nice for me.  I found it in my closet, he says.

The waitress brings a basket of bread.

You look good, he says.  I can smell the scratches on his neck.  They smell like blood and sex and another woman.

Would you like some bread? I ask.

Cutting down, he says, pointing to his stomach, flatter than I recall.

The waitress returns, and we order small.  Nothing that will take too long.

The bread is piled high in the basket.  The smell is filling up the air between us.  When I look at him again, he has the eyes of a ghost.

My shoulders sink, and I grab a piece of bread.  I bite into it, final and hard, because, frankly, it lets me.

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BURGLARS by Francine Witte

I used to wish my parents were burglars. That would have been more honest.

Instead, we had to live in a shadow. It looked like a house, but it was a shadow. All dark and hushed and Daddy about to lose it anyway.

Always about to lose everything on some bad business deal. Some neighbor or something would tell him a mountain of lies, and Daddy would climb it like a stupid goat.

One night, I woke up to my mother screaming. Daddy started pounding the piano keys. When that didn’t stop her, he pulled the vacuum out of the hall closet. Ran it back and forth and back and forth.

And me upstairs, shushed up in pink curlers, transistor radio next to my ear. I was wearing the paper ring Daddy gave me from the cigar he bought that day to celebrate the money he had suddenly found. Kiddo, he had winked, sometimes, the thing you need is right there for the taking.

And now, later, much later, the vacuum roaring, looking to eat everything it saw. Then it stopped. Just like that. And my mother still screaming how he took the money from my Alzheimer uncle, and didn’t he have a soul?

And that should have stopped everything right there, but it didn’t, and Daddy yelled back how she was getting all wrinkled, and how would her boyfriend like it, and oh yeah, he knew about the boyfriend, and my mother screaming back that she had to take love wherever she could find it.

Next morning, my mother came in, panda mascara and hair like a scratchy tree , and told me that daddy lost us the house this time for real.

And I tore off Daddy’s paper ring, and wished again they had been burglars like the ones on TV, who wore masks and jimmied windows on sleeping houses, maybe making off with rings made of diamonds and gold, and that way my parents wouldn’t have to scrap for whatever money and love happened to be lying around.

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