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Flash Fiction
528 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

The Dirigible

by Jerry Bumpus

This gray winter morning descends like the huge lead-coated balloon I had one summer when I was a boy. I called it my dirigible. As I pulled it along with clothesline, it didn’t bump and bob like nice ordinary balloons but smoothly cruised, profoundly preoccupied, and as I lowered it under the back porch and nosed it through the kitchen door when I brought it home from the carnival, my folks were stunned.

When they got their breath they managed a comment on how uniquely I had spent my money. But I saw more in their faces. For the first time they let slip their disapproval of something at the center of me. Or that was the first time I had seen the slip. In a glance I saw it all. I wouldn’t be surprised by later, fuller revelations of their wariness of that person who had started off as their boy and relentlessly turned into something different from themselves and anyone they had ever known. What I saw on their faces wasn’t fear, though it was going in that direction. It was a mixture of suspicion, fundamental doubt, and dread—not the sort which comes from incomprehension but from recognition of something old and familiar.

Stunned myself, I blamed the dirigible for what was happening while we stood there in its shadow. They blamed it too, probably, then tried to convince themselves this was merely another case of young Sonny going too far. But this time he had outdone himself, having worked up from turning the place into a leprosarium the summer half the dogs in town had mange, to luring a 40-pound snapping turtle into the house and claiming it had chased him home, to deeper commitments such as harboring blue racers and even young water moccasins in the bib of his overalls. Now this great awful gray-black steel thing, this floating petrified fish, this ghost whale thing...

After the carnival left town the helium, or whatever magic had held the dirigible aloft, began leaking out. It shrank somewhat, becoming steadily denser. One morning I woke to find it on the floor, with pathetic nobility resting what I felt was its head on the limp clothesline. I tried sneaking the dirigible out but the rumbling as I rolled it through the house woke my family. I felt them watching from the kitchen window as I worked at the far corner of the garden. I miscalculated on the hole; the dirigible was bigger than anything I had ever buried, and I was running out of steam. Maybe by a long stretch of imagination and tolerance my folks would think the big jutting nose was ornamental. Also it could serve as a common marker for the birds, snakes, possums, raccoons, cats, dogs, and everything else crowded into that other garden which lay beyond theirs. If my folks bought that, would they also go along with my notion that the same spirit which had levitated the dirigible might lift beans, tomatoes, and onions out of their garden, for hadn’t the Pilgrims learned similar magic from the Indians who religiously stuck fish in the ground when planting corn?


—Previously published in American Made: New Fiction from the Fiction Collective (Fiction Collective, 1986; pages 37-38), an anthology of American short stories; appears here with author’s permission

SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Jerry Bumpus

is the author of two novels, both of which were published by December Magazine and Publishing: The Happy Convent (1989) and Anaconda (1967); and five collections of short stories: The Civilized Tribes: New and Selected Stories (University of Akron Press, Technology and the Environment Series, 1995), Dawn of the Flying Pigs (Carpenter Press, 1992), Heroes and Villains (Fiction Collective Two, 1986), Special Offer (Carpenter Press, 1981), and Things in Place (Fiction Collective Two, G. Braziller, 1975).

(As an interesting side-note: Novelist, editor, and publisher Curt Johnson referred to Bumpus’s novel Anaconda as “outlaw literature,” the kind that suited his personal taste, and he published the book in 1967 after it had been rejected by commercial publishing houses. The founding editor of December Magazine had passed the reins in 1958 to Johnson, who edited the magazine for several decades. From 1962 to 2008, operating from his home in the Chicago suburbs, he also published more than 30 books under the December Press imprint, including in 1989 the second novel by Bumpus, The Happy Convent.)

In a career that spans 50 years, Bumpus has placed more than 120 of his stories in such notable venues as Epoch, Esquire, Fiction International, Kansas Quarterly, Shenandoah, The Paris Review, The Best American Short Stories, and The Vagabond Anthology, among others. In its Issue 51 in 1975, The Transatlantic Review published his story “The Idols of Afternoon,” which won the O. Henry Prize the following year; and his story, “How It Will Be,” appears in Volume Two of the Pushcart anthology (1977-78 edition).

He holds a BA in English from the University of Missouri and an MFA in Creative Writing from the Writers’ Workshop of the University of Iowa, where he studied under poet Donald Justice and novelist Vance Bourjaily, the latter of whom in the 1970s dubbed Bumpus “king of the underground writers.” Bumpus is Professor Emeritus of English at San Diego State University, where he taught creative writing for 25 years (1971-1996), including in the MFA Program. Born in 1937 in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, he turns 81 in January.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury