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The Skins by Tyler Barton


Reading Tyler Barton’s flash fiction, “The Skins,” is akin to watching a cooking competition: it’s all about a perfect sound that we obviously can’t hear. And it’s as delightful and tense as the GBBO or Chopped finals. The voice is distinct and rhythmic. The premise and plot are complex and original. The pace is precise and the tone compliments the content.

At the line level, Barton does not disappoint. You will laugh, audibly: “One by one, my team began to flee, talking of union contracts, families, the sour taste leftover from the finger-snap debacle. ‘It’s getting dark,’ they said. ‘Outside, too.'” Please be sure to pair your reading of the story with Barton’s author’s note, a discussion of mystery and wonderment, of permitting the author a bit of the unknown. Join Ziegler and the producer in the quest for the perfect clap.  —CRAFT


 

The producer wanted wet hands. Sweaty and tense to where the sound really snapped. So my team detained the clappers in an overwarm anteroom beside the recording booth. Made them wait. Clammy, anxious, beating on the soundproof door: We’re still in here! Eventually they were released, palms moist, only to find their mark at the mic and fail her. Each time, the producer sighed. The perfect clap was somewhere far off but—she assured my team and I—reachable.

 

She wanted trim nails. Short fingers. “I need compact percussion.” At noon she called the bassist’s handclap languorous. “I need hands that don’t take all day to come together.” We brought in children, but they had no strength. We brought in brawny wrestlers, varsity but rhythmless—and even though I could’ve made it match the beat in post, the producer wanted someone with an intuition she could sense. A soul she could hear on tape.

 

She wanted my team to stop bickering. A chat about the proper pop-filter had spiraled into a dispute over whether, in a finger snap, the sound comes from the friction between thumb and middle finger, or rather in the finger striking the palm. Battle lines were drawn, mapping neatly onto two worldviews, neither of which the producer was interested in exploring. An intern was let go.

“What if you just do the clap yourself?” I asked her, trying to distract from the episode. “We’d probably have it in like one take.” But this song was a part of her Selfless series, records with pages and pages of credits. One is only built from a pile of others, read the pull quote from her Vibe interview, even though the album art was always, front and back, full-bleed headshots of the producer’s stoic pout.

“No, Zeigler.” She loved to put a touch of Dutch on the pronunciation of my name, even though I had never stepped foot in Europe. She had her own engineer in every country, refused to fly me out for tour. “It is not my role to clap,” she said, pressing the delete key to erase an entire track.

 

So I brought in music students who cupped their hands in exotic ways. It didn’t take. We got creative, idiotic—we had a policeman fire a gun. Blanks, but still. “It sounds forced,” she said. One by one, my team began to flee, talking of union contracts, families, the sour taste leftover from the finger-snap debacle. “It’s getting dark,” they said. “Outside, too.”

 

Hours meant nothing. What were hours? The coming lump sum would float my team through another summer. The payday was out there somewhere, invisible but within grasp. Marcus and I had decided not to adopt until I was established, until my name was a stock you could trade.

“You’re getting all their information, right?” she asked from inside her stress-relieving VR headset. “The failures, I mean. I need each one credited.” Yes, I assured her, and then made more calls. Calls. Calls until my phone died. I wandered down the street, past the café, past the poke bowl place, past the new lofts, and into the barber school. They didn’t seem to understand my request, but I left an address. One man set down his scissors and shook my hand.

 

The producer ate dinner—a family-size bag of peanut M&Ms—right there at the soundboard. She’d suck the candy down to its furrowed core, pinch the nut from her tongue, and stack each one beside the mixer. It was times like these that I’d try to break a clipboard with my hands. I’m still working on it. Perfection, to me, is a pile of trying. I tried to explain this to her, how the pile eventually grows high enough to be enough. “You know, Ziegler,” she said, “I’m not paying you for an opinion.” And before I could sulk away to send some emails, she softened, turned to me, and confessed that perfection was immortal. “Omnipotent, yet quotidian,” she said. “Like finding a dropped dollar.”

“More like a million of them, all at once.”

Our only agreement was that the handclap is the supreme snare. No drum, acoustic or digital, sounds immaculate as that: two hands brought together. To this day, I get a little kick when someone calls a set of drums the skins.

 

When the barbers arrived, the producer was sugar-crashed on the couch, facedown, so I led the session—instructing them through the microphone. “Just clap,” I said, forgetting to hit record, and the four men began to applaud. My team was gone, so I cracked up all alone. My laughter woke the producer, who stood and leaned over the board, watching as they kept clapping.

“Who are these men?”

“Barbers,” I said.

She touched the red button to capture their ovation. “They work with their hands,” she said, raising her arms above her head—a victory, a stretch.

 


The song, you’ll notice, is totally snareless. No claps, no snaps. No pillars prop up its structure. It marks the start of her Formless phase. You can hear a thread throughout, soft in the background—applause like rain. If you scroll through the credits, you’ll find me buried there, beneath a sea of names.

 


TYLER BARTON is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the Submerging Writer Fellowship. His chapbook of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud (2019), won the Turnbuckle Chapbook contest from Split Lip Press. Find his stories in Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Subtropics, and forthcoming in The Iowa Review. Find him at @goftyler or tsbarton.com.

 

Author’s Note

The iceberg theory thrilled me in high school. You’re telling me the words on the page make up only a fraction of what the story is “about,” that stories are ninety percent hidden in subtext, waiting to be discovered and stumbled upon? Reading became a great mystery. I felt challenged to question my own confusion, consider details closely, and play around in the uncomfortable unknown.

 

Where I went wrong in this worship was in assuming that the writer knew everything about the piece, that he (and yes, it was almost always a he then) understood one hundred percent of all that mystifying stuff below the water. Adjacent to the document in which these masters typed their story was a separate document, an analytical term paper about their own work, describing how every single choice in the text bore out the secret of the subtext. Having this idea in my head made writers Gods, geniuses, untouchable—why even try? Luckily, I no longer believe this.

 

Instead (and this goes mostly for fiction under 2,500 words) I believe now in a breakdown like this: thirty-three percent of the iceberg is out of the water (the story’s text); thirty-three percent of the iceberg is under there, and I could describe it if asked (the story’s intended subtext); and thirty-three percent of it is unknown even to me. And I need that last thirty-three percent shrouded in darkness. Without it, I get bored—I get boring on the page.

 

In workshop a few years ago, I was challenged about the end of one of my stories. I couldn’t say whether or not a strange beast on the side of the road was real or imagined by the narrator.

“Seriously,” a classmate said. “Just tell us.”

“I really don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t figured it out. I can’t say what the animal is exactly.”

“Well, neither will your reader. You’re responsible for figuring this stuff out.”

The consensus was that if I didn’t know it all, the story wasn’t finished, and I hadn’t done enough work. This moment sticks with me more than any other workshop moment because I was forced to verbalize something I did not know about myself as a writer.

“I don’t want to know everything about my story.”

I felt like I had sinned in the name Fiction. I could hear Poe turning in his grave.

 

Every time I write a flash story that I love, the first draft is drenched in mystery. Each revision organizes, contextualizes, explains, tames, gives backstory, causes the draft to grow. I’m still learning when in that process to stop adding, stop smoothing, stop learning more about my own story, before it’s too late, before I color in all the lines, before the story becomes unwild to me.

 

I gave what I believe is the best reading I’ve ever given at AWP this year. It was a reading of this story, “The Skins.” The reason it worked (and I’m borrowing from something Angel Nafis said in a panel on giving good readings) was that the piece still held mystery to me. As I read it, even now, I am still actively wondering. I don’t know why the producer is the way she is. I’m not sure why Zeigler stays. The worldviews created by the snapping argument are hidden from me.

If I knew these things, I worry I’d begin to feel as if I were only tracing the sentences, traveling the same paths, instead of consistently happening upon some new unknown underneath.

 


TYLER BARTON is a cofounder of Fear No Lit, the organization responsible for the Submerging Writer Fellowship. His chapbook of flash fiction, The Quiet Part Loud (2019), won the Turnbuckle Chapbook contest from Split Lip Press. Find his stories in Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Subtropics, and forthcoming in The Iowa Review. Find him at @goftyler or tsbarton.com.