Pushcart 2013: Bess Winter, “Signs” from American Short Fiction Fall 2011

Koko: BIRD RED SLICE

Koko: BIRD RED SLICE

It is after a series of nubile young researchers have begun to parade through Koko the gorilla’s life that she learns the sign for nipple. She draws her heavy arms close to her chest, and her leathery pointers spring out toward the unsuspecting graduate student. A look of expectation settles onto her simian face.

As I read this, everything seemed familiar – the bras on the table or draped over the chair, the oddness of the situation, the change in direction not once, but twice. Turns out, I’d read it last Spring when it appeared on the Wigleaf Top 50 List. That’s what happens when you read 50 flashes in a couple of days – you even forget the one about the lesbian voyeur gorilla.

Though that makes a great teaser line, it’s not really what this story – all 638 words of it, available online – is about. Sure, it starts off a little goofy, and then there was the section where I thought the supervisor just found a unique mode of expression for his perversion. But it’s a lot more tender than that; it delves into a strange kind of intimacy, and an intense jealousy. By the end, it’s pretty fascinating, none the less so because it’s based on actual events. And yes, the painting above is actual gorilla art by the actual Koko.

In her author interview with American Short Fiction, Winter explains, ” The flash pieces that stick with me, and that I enjoy reading the most, begin with a scenario that’s entirely unique to the story and quickly reach out and go straight to the core of the reader, implicate the reader in some way by touching on a fundamental human truth.” I think she’s done that quite effectively here. The less information the writer gives, the more the reader has to supply, and at some point a story becomes more about the reader than the writer. That can be taken too far, of course, but I’m a fan of fiction that demands, or at least allows, reader participation. In a writing workshop a while back, someone told me, “Don’t force the reader into a chair when she might want to dance.” That’s always stuck with me. With these 638 words, Winter has provided several chairs, as well as a dance floor.

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