“Pocket Stories” by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia)

Kathleen Coskran writes:

Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67)

I am currently working on a collection of essays called Married to Amazement (thank you, Mary Oliver for the title), that opens with an essay called “So This Is Paris” that I wrote shortly after leaving Ethiopia. Those two years in Ethiopia were formative for me and prepared me for a life of discovery and even an adventure or two that would never have happened if I hadn’t landed in Addis Ababa in September 1965, 21 years old and ready for….I had no idea, but knew I was incredibly lucky to be there.

That’s what these little stories, that I call Pocket Stories, are because they are so short and would fit in a pocket (inspired by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers poem “Keep a Poem in Your Pocket.” I write more stories than poems, but some of them are as short as poems so I post them on line (https://pocketstories-kcoskran.blogspot.com) because (paraphrasing de Regniers), if you keep a story in your pocket and a picture in your head, you’ll never feel lonely at night when you’re in bed.

I begin most mornings reading poetry, reading poems like reading a novel, start on the first page, read 10 poems or so, then stop for the day, calmer, ready for what comes next . . . which is usually writing something short. A few years ago I began writing very short stories, one, maybe two typed pages, just to see what might happen.

Something always happened, usually as a surprise to me, and without much thought, like telling a story to my grandchildren, making it up as I went along and turning for home when I knew it was time to end the story.

A couple of years ago I organized many of them them roughly by topic, Love, Lust and Leaving, Families, and Two Together. Here is the introduction to the Families set, with a couple of examples. (All are available on my blog, https://pocketstories-kcoskran.blogspot.com.  Recent stories in the “Families” category are “More” and “Invisible Gifts” in April 2024, “Skipped Generation” in May 2024, “In Beauty” in June 2024.)



Families are complicated. We all have them, somewhere, somehow. Families are formed in many ways, none are perfect, all are heartfelt — and the heart feels pain as well as joy, anxiety as well as comfort, gratitude as well as resentment. Norman Rockwell steered us wrong. There is no one way to portray a family; no idealized family; no perfect family. Just family.


One Hand

“What happens to the pens? I buy a ten-pack of pens on Monday. By Friday they’re gone.” No response. His daughter is sprawled on the floor, buried in . . . a book? Her young mind captured by the power of the written word? Oh, no. She’s hunched over her phone, both thumbs flying — texting? tweeting? playing a mindless game? but not reading.

“Are you eating them?”

Her head rises slowly as if from a trance, the phone makes a metallic sound, then a swish, then the sound of applause. The phrase one hand clapping flits through his head — that sound exactly.

“Eating what?” she says, looking at him wide-eyed with that face he has loved for 14 years, that baby’s face, wide brown eyes, his nose — he was always sorry about that — once thought of apologizing, the child’s face now more woman than he is ready for. “Eating what?” she says again. “I had toast for breakfast.”

Now he feels silly, standing there holding the empty cellophane wrapper that the pens came in, that he’d found on the floor next to his desk. She could have at least taken the three steps to the wastebasket.

“Eating what?” she says for the third time, interested now, those bright eyes alert as if she knows she caught him in an irrational burst of anger.

“The pens,” he says with enough edge to his voice so she knows it was a reasonable question when he first asked it.

“The pens?” she says. “Am I eating the pens? Nope, not me. I don’t like the taste.” Her thumbs are moving on the phone again, a bell sounds in her hands, then another. He’s still standing there. She looks up. “Ask Mom. She’s weird like you.”

“Okay,” he says. “Right.”

Her thumbs are really moving now. There’s music. “Good job,” a female voice says as he turns to go. Applause. One hand clapping.



 “One of you will lie,” he said, giving me advice the way big brothers are wont to do — his explanation and a favorite phrase — are won’t to — as in parents are wont to worry when their little girl . . .

            I’m not a little girl!
When their little girl goes out with a man
. . . A man? Joe’s . . .
A man 8 years older than you, a bearded man who shows up in leathers and a Harley . . .
A Honda.

. . . motorcycle to meet them.
He was wearing a helmet.
But he only brought
one as reckless men are wont to do.
I have my own.
You do!
End of monologue. He’s staring at me, waiting for me to produce the

helmet, no doubt, which I can’t do since we’re in his car on our way to Mom and Dad’s for Easter.

            It’s at home, I say, in my dorm. I just didn’t have it that day.

Convenient explanation, he says. And your boy friend — emphasis on boy — is a man.

Of course he’s right about that. I hadn’t really thought it through. I’d been going out with boys until Joe came along. Joe, tall, blond, handsome, just a hint of beard really. He keeps it trimmed.

            My brother starts again. One of you will lie. That’s all I mean to say. One of you will lie.

I wonder if I’m the one. The liar. We’re almost there — two more stoplights. We never make them both so I have a minute to decide: who will lie?

I can’t tell her, I say at the first light. Omission isn’t really a lie.
Liars are wont to say that,
he says as the light changes.
The second light mercifully is red. I think he slowed down so we’d catch it. If I tell her, she’ll lie, and say she’s so happy—a lie . . .. Which makes me tear up because my mother would lie to spare me, to make it a nice day for us all. If I lie, everybody will know I’m lying, but it won’t ruin the day, at least not publicly.

We’re there. I’m out of the car, walking towards Mom, in her slim, green dress, smiling, arms out, noting my tights, the blousy tunic, the slight bulge.

Oh, Darlings, she says, meaning us both. I’m so glad to see you. She looks at me, the usual up and down — and . . . and . . . I see you have something to tell us.

I nod, and we both burst into tears, neither of us lying. My brother was wrong as he is wont to be, but I see him nod and smile — glad to be wrong for once in his life.



Steady Boy

Steady, boy, steady.” The old man put his hand on his grandson’s shoulder as he reeled in the fish. It was his first fish, and the man felt panic and hurry pulse through the boy. “Steady,” he said again.

“I’m okay,” the boy said. He handled the reel well, letting the bail pull in the line evenly. The old man saw that the line moved smoothly through the water and admired the boy for not jerking back on the rod and losing the fish or catapulting it into the boat. It’s what he had done with his first fish. He’d wrenched the line so suddenly that he crashed against his father and nearly knocked them both out of the boat. They watched the fish rise in the air, spit out the hook and slap back into the water, a long, shimmering northern pike. Biggest pike I ever saw, and my idiot boy lost it, his father said every time he told the story. Trophy fish and Stupid here threw it away.

The old man brought his attention back to his grandson. A big walleye was now visible six feet out, coming closer as the boy reeled him in. The man picked up the net. “Steady,” he said.

The boy nodded, and in a moment the fish was alongside the boat. The man dipped the net in the water and brought it up. “A nice one,” he said and laid the fish in the net in the bottom of the boat. It was a beautiful walleye, nearly two feet long, with gold and green scales that flashed in the early morning light. The white belly trembled and the big, hazel eye stared back. Its dorsal fin caught in the net for a moment, then the long body was suddenly free and flopping across the bottom of the boat.

The man put a hand to steady the fish and lifted it from the gills. It was hooked just inside the lip. He started to take the hook out, but the boy stopped him. “My fish,” he said and slipped his hand under his grandfather’s to take it. “I’ll do it.”

The boy was a quiet one, a listener and watcher, and the old man knew he’d heard his father — the old man’s son — say nobody could fish in this family unless they baited their own goddamn hook and strung up their own GD fish. Made people laugh and, as the boy’s father pointed out, kept women off the lake. That morning he’d bet the boy his week’s allowance that he’d get skunked. Need muscle to pull in a big one, he’d said, and I’m not paying for any goddamn perch.

The boy braced the heavy fish against his body and slipped out the hook.

The old man offered the stringer. “You want to do this?” He was already planning how he’d pull up to the dock and send the boy on ahead with the fish while he tied off the boat. The boy would hold up his great walleye to show his father — his first fish, a big one, a real keeper. His mother would take a picture of the two of them, the boy with his father, the father holding up one end of the stringer as if he’d caught it himself. The old man was happy. His son had inherited a cruel tongue, but he wouldn’t need it when he saw the boy’s trophy fish.

The boy looked at the stringer, shook his head. “No thanks,” he said. He held the walleye out from his body, then leaned over the side of the boat, and lowered it into the water. A brief flash of gold, and it was gone.

“But your father?” the old man said

“Tell him we were skunked,” the boy said.




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