I love the line from the bartender, that there may be “a lingering sense of exhaustion that if inhaled might be contagious.” As a reader, I feel a sense of exhaustion from being in the world of this story, which is disturbingly true to life, where people’s response to tragedy is to pose and take selfies. It all leaves me with a sick feeling. Without knowing anything about the jumper’s personal life, I imagine I feel some his pain. Would you talk a little bit about this line and its relationship to the story as a whole?
That’s exactly it—like you, the bartender knows nothing of the jumper’s history and yet feels some of his pain. What frightens her is confronting a familiar hurt in its ultimate and irreversible form, that red line between when life feels like too much and when it actually is. Most everyone understands the former—it can be exhausting to be alive—but when confronted with the latter, it’s natural to consider what could push us over that line, too. We cannot fully imagine it, our survival instinct opposes it, and yet because weariness is part of being human, we understand it at some level. It’s a disturbing form of empathy, and to me empathy is a sort of emotional contagion that pressures us to be compassionate. The catch is that compassion demands we turn away from ourselves, but often we can’t or don’t want to do that—hence, masks, poses, and selfies to inoculate ourselves against engagement. The woman at the end manages to reject those things and has clearly and willingly been infected.
I’m also struck by how people in the story are haunted by the sound of the jumper’s body striking the ground. There’s an interesting contrast between that and all these selfies the characters take with the body. Do you think we’re more sensitive to sound than sight? Or, in other words, that we may be desensitized to sight in many ways, but less so to sound?
There’s a distressing scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where soldiers who have learned to cope with the ghastly human carnage of World War I nevertheless find the screaming of wounded horses unendurable. “We can bear almost anything,” the narrator says, “but now the sweat breaks out on us. We want to get up and run, it does not matter where, in order to not hear the screaming.” Tellingly, he says, “If we could see the animals, it would be easier to tolerate.” So though we may be less sensitized to sight these days, I think we probably do have an inherently greater sensitivity to sound, as the soldiers did. Sound is the most unremitting of the senses—we can control the others quite effectively, but sound can penetrate our most vigorous mental or physical defenses. It follows that it has a commensurate power to invade memory.
Do you recall the first words you wrote for this story? What were they?
Story beginnings vex me endlessly, but in this case, and if only it were always so, the opening words never changed from first draft to last.
Is there a particular flash fiction that you have read again and again? What is it? Who is the author? Why do you come back to it?
I’ve read Franz Kafka’s 650-word parable “Before the Law” countless times because of the breathtaking scale of its humanity and its terrifying existential accuracy. Its truths are unassailable and universal. Skipping ahead a century, Jen Michalski’s “The Meteor” is a masterpiece of structure; the prose is as luminous as the celestial body of the title, and it has to be one of the most unusual love stories ever written. It gets more miraculous with each read, and I revisit it often for lessons in story craft and for pure pleasure.