Exploring the art of prose


Riders by Pete Stevens

alt text: image is a color photograph of teal paint strokes; title card for the flash fiction piece "Riders" by Pete Stevens

Pete Stevens’s “Riders” is one of three winners of the 2021 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest, judged by Robert Lopez.

I was inside that ambulance with the other casualties of life while the narrator of “Riders” took all of us on an unforgettable journey. This piece makes you laugh and cringe and feel, and what else is there? When one of the characters, a man maybe named Gilligan says, “There’s a lot of pain over there,” we feel it all the way into our bones. When that same character tries to fix a painting, of all things, later on, we know there’s so much going on in this action, in this rendering. This is what the best flash does—it gives you everything, multiple layers of meaning and emotion.  Robert Lopez


My wife wants to know what my new job is, the title, so I tell her what the woman at dispatch told me, that I’m a nonemergency medical driver, which means I’m there when the situation isn’t dire, when there’s no fresh blood or the possibility of death, which really means I drive old ladies with leaky kidneys to their dialysis appointments, which means early in the morning I drive the same three guys into Minneapolis for their daily dose of methadone. These guys all live in the same halfway house, and if you hear them talk it almost sounds like something fun, like you’re with your friends all day on the porch smoking cigarettes. When they get in the car each of them will have their own locked box. If they don’t have their box, they don’t get their dose. That’s a rule, and they love telling me stuff like that, about how it works, their lives. By the third day I’d heard all their stories, all the heartache and failure, the runs of bullshit luck, about the times they were homeless and smacked out, cuddling in the park for warmth, the three of them together, these guys. They’ll joke about sucking each other’s dicks, and they’ll get quiet whenever we drive past an accident. “There’s a lot of pain over there,” one might say, maybe Gilligan. That was something they never told me, why they called him Gilligan, which isn’t his real name. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but I still want to know. In exchange for their stories, their confessions, I give them nothing of my own life in return. The woman at dispatch told me to keep a personal distance, to not get too close to any of my passengers. Don’t give them your phone number, your email, she’d said. Don’t let them know your last name. So I don’t tell them why my wife wanted to know what my new job title was, so that she could tell her mother, my in-law, who is now living in our house and has dementia, which makes me think demonic, which makes me think the devil made me do it, made her do it, and with her I’ve come to find the “it” could be anything at any time, like morning pills, afternoon pills, missing pills, phantom pains, scary men in the night, or the near-constant questioning of is the microwave broken? I don’t tell the guys about the oil painting of my mother-in-law that currently rests in the trunk of this company-owned Prius C hatchback. In the painting, a work she had professionally commissioned two decades prior, my mother-in-law sits on what appears to be a hollowed-out egg. Next to her sits Brewster, the ten-years-deceased Great Dane who by all accounts was a steadfast and loyal companion to my mother-in-law. What disturbs me about the painting is not the gargantuan scale of the Great Dane, but the unnatural bulging of my mother-in-law’s jaw, like she’s grinding her teeth with a mouth full of marshmallows. When we stop in Minneapolis at the clinic, after an hour on the road, the guys get out for cigarettes in the parking lot. They’re stretching and talking near the trunk when one of them, Gilligan, points at the glass and says, “A painting.” What? “A painting,” he says. “Looks like an oil-based portrait of a matriarch with her dog.” I tell him the painting needs a new frame, that I’m going to the frame store after work. “Take it out,” he says. “Let’s see it.” I open the trunk and lean the painting against the bumper. We all gather around to absorb what there is to absorb, the art. “I’m not having an emotional response,” one of them says, not Gilligan. Then Gilligan says, “Why is her face fucked up?” The day before, I gave a ride home to a woman coming from dialysis. She got in the car and from the look on her face, in her eyes, I could tell she’d been crying. In fact she had been crying and told me just that. She then told me not to get old and sick, that dialysis was hell. She tried to make a joke of it and failed. I thought of that woman and her face when Gilligan questioned the distorted face of my mother-in-law in the painting. To Gilligan I say, “It’s not fucked up, that’s just the way it is.” “I can fix it,” he says. He opens his locked box and from it pulls two curled-up tubes of paint and a small palette for mixing. As he’s pushing one paint against another with his thumb, he tells me that this, the process, is therapeutic. What I don’t tell him is a memory from third grade when I painted a frog on a rock, how my teacher selected the painting for an art show at a local museum, how for the first time I felt a semblance of self-worth, and instead I watch as Gilligan squats in front of the painting, as, carefully, he dabs at my mother-in-law’s face with his thumb, brushing the fresh paint with the tip of his nail, then smoothing, going back over what he’d done, then hesitation and narrow-eyed contemplation, then resuming with his thumb and the paint, and surely he’s making whatever was there worse, more grotesque, my mother-in-law’s lips now swollen and twisted, her mouth appearing to be open, like a fish, as if she’s gasping for air.


PETE STEVENS is the author of Tomorrow Music, winner of Map Literary’s Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award (2021). His fiction has appeared in AGNI, Hobart, and Copper Nickel, among others. His story “Oral History…” was named as a Best American Short Stories 2021 Distinguished Story, and he will have a story in the forthcoming anthology from W. W. Norton, Flash Fiction America (2023). He can be found online @petebiblio.


Featured image by JR Korpa courtesy of Unsplash


Our Twitter microinterview with Pete Stevens:

Author’s Note

I’ve written before about impetus, a beginning, or an origin story. The origin story for “Riders” starts with my friend and literary coconspirator, Tyler Barton. We are both admirers of Robert Lopez’s work, so he suggested that we each write a story for the contest and then workshop them together—and that’s what we did. It still baffles me that Tyler’s challenge resulted in both of us having our stories named as finalists and selected for publication. And yet, back at the beginning, when the challenge was accepted, I had a story to write and didn’t know what I was going to write about. What I had was an itch to write long sentences built with short clauses and repetition. This itch wasn’t exactly new, but it was there, and what remained was a void to fill—a story, characters, conflict. At the time, I was working as a nonemergency medical driver to supplement my income as an adjunct. The stories from that job, the experiences, the heartaches, found their way into my story. I’d gone to dialysis appointments and taken guys to methadone clinics early in the morning. I’d spent countless hours on the road. And just like the narrator in my story, I listened. I stepped back and thought about my experiences, and each trip, each passenger, was like a piece of a mosaic, with the final picture being some distillation that ended up as “Riders.” Now I had form, sentence structure, and content, but I didn’t know exactly what would happen. I still can’t answer why what happened in the story happened; all I did was write. Years ago, as a new writer, I had a habit of writing an entire story in my head—start to finish—before I ever put a word to the page. I now try to fight that urge. I am of the belief that if the story is not a surprise to the writer, then it will not be a surprise to the reader. I want that “click of a well-made box” and if the ending doesn’t “stab the reader in the heart”—if the reader isn’t held hostage, gripped, maybe caught in the sentences, their attention pulled and strained, as if, like the characters in the story, they are struggling to breathe—you’re not going to get that click.


PETE STEVENS is the author of Tomorrow Music, winner of Map Literary’s Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award (2021). His fiction has appeared in AGNI, Hobart, and Copper Nickel, among others. His story “Oral History…” was named as a Best American Short Stories 2021 Distinguished Story, and he will have a story in the forthcoming anthology from W. W. Norton, Flash Fiction America (2023). He can be found online @petebiblio.