Flash Fiction: Dinner Music

My flash fiction for this week is “Dinner Music.” Please share any constructive criticism you can offer. To read more flash fiction from a great group of writers, search #fridayflash on Twitter or visit Mad Utopia.

Dinner Music
by Olivia Tejeda

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The tedious, dawn to dusk recon was winding down and Lance Cpl. Jason Palmer said a silent thank you that he made it through another day. The nine-man squad didn’t see any action on this patrol. Nothing. But that only made the day longer and would make the night more tense. At least when you’re in combat, the adrenaline burns off with the fighting, but on a day like today, when there’s nothing but uncertainty, the pressure just keeps building and has no good outlet, at least not one that they had found so far.

The men gathered where their squad leader told them they’d bivouac for the night, and they unloaded their gear in exhausted silence. Palmer still had to dig a hole to sleep in, but his hunger won out. He stuck his hand deep into his pack and pulled out the first MRE he felt. Chili mac. Not bad. At least it wasn’t the chicken fajita. That was the worst.

Most of the squad had the same idea and by time Palmer was pouring water into his food packet he was surrounded by six other Marines tearing open their own dehydrated dinners.

“Fucking fajitas again,” Pvt. Lozano said, looking at the label on the plain cardboard box. “I can’t eat that shit tonight.” He tossed the box on the ground and dug into his pack for something else.

Pfc. Carnahan whooped. “Yes,” he said, pumping his fist in the air.

“What’d you get, Carny?” Palmer asked, surprised at Carnahan’s enthusiasm.

“Meatballs Marinara,” Carny said, smiling at the box. “My favorite.”

“Wanna trade?” Lozano said.

“Live with it, buddy. I’ve had fajitas six nights in a row,” Carny laughed. “Tonight, I got the balls.”

“Yeah, it’s the only time you got balls,” Lozano said.

Carny put the MRE down on the ground beside him. He slowly stood up, straightened himself out, and stood tall, staring at Lozano.

“To celebrate my meatballs,” he said, pointing to the foil pack on the ground, “I have some dinner music for you.”  He had never outright performed for the squad before, even though they all heard him sing. He had a beautiful voice, deep and rich, and he sang all the time. Back home, he was a member of the choir and performed in local musicals. Some of the squad made fun of him; Wheeler called him songbird, Tats called him Pavarotti, but mostly they appreciated Carny’s singing, and looked forward to the  sweet diversion that came with it.

The group quieted as Carny cleared his throat and he began:

On top of spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,

I lost my poor meatball,
When somebody sneezed.

After the first line, most of the guys were laughing, Lozano cursed at him and Palmer threw his empty MRE box, but by the end of the second line they all joined in. Mostly they didn’t know the words beyond the first verse, so as quickly as they joined in, they stopped and let Carny finish on his own.

It rolled off the table,
And on to the floor,
And then my poor meatball,
Rolled out of the door.

It rolled in the garden,
And under a bush,
And then my poor meatball,
Was nothing but mush.

The mush was as tasty,
As tasty could be,
And then the next summer,
It grew into a tree.

The tree was all covered,
All covered with moss,
And on it grew meatballs,
And tomato sauce.

So if you eat spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,
Hold on to your meatball,
Whenever you sneeze.

“Everybody finish with me,” Carny said, and they all joined in as he led them through the verse like a conductor:

On top of spaghetti,
All covered with cheese,

I lost my poor meatball,
When somebody sneezed.

They ended the verse with a flourish, as Carny raised his arms up in the air and shook his open hands like a crazed conductor leading his chorus to a deafening crescendo. They sang at full volume, each trying to out-sing the other.

As Carny signaled to end the last note, they followed his lead and burst into applause, laughing, whooping, and cheering each other.

“That was fucking great,” Lozano said still catching his breath. “Hey, Carny, Do you know the other one?” he asked. ‘The real one?”

“No, that shit’s a bummer,” Carny said. “You don’t want to hear that.”

“Yeah, we do. Come on sing it,” Lozano goaded him. The squad cheered him on, chanting, “Carny, Carny,” so he went ahead.

On top of Old Smokey,
All covered with snow,
I lost my true lover,
For courting too slow.

For courting’s a pleasure,
But parting is grief,
And a false-hearted lover,
Is worse than a thief.

A thief will just rob you,
And take what you have,
But a false-hearted lover,
Will lead you to your grave.

The grave will decay you,
And turn you to dust,
Not one girl in a hundred
A poor boy can trust.

They’ll hug you and kiss you,
And tell you more lies,
Than crossties on a railroad,
Or stars in the sky.

So come ye young cowboys,
And listen to me,
Never place your affection
In a green willow tree.

For the leaves they will wither,
The roots they will die,
And you’ll be forsaken,
And never know why.

After Carny sang the last line, there was no applause. Palmer had stopped eating and was staring blankly out into the distance. Tats was looking down, his head resting heavily in his hands.  Wheeler turned his back. Carny stood there lost in his own thoughts, wondering if the lyrics were true. Hoping they weren’t.

Only Lozano spoke up. “Why’d you sing that shit?” he asked.

“Oh, fuck it,” Carny sighed.

He sat down among his fellow Marines and they finished their MREs in silence.

© Olivia Tejeda and Liv Loves Lit, 2008-2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Olivia Tejeda and Liv Loves Lit with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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32 thoughts on “Flash Fiction: Dinner Music

  1. Poignant story, dear. Laughed along with the men as they bantered and then sang the song.

    Just for that moment, the men were not thinking of death, of war, of families back home.

    Then another song stopped the fun and brought them back to the reality of their lives as marines.

    Well told.

  2. You really capture that scene well, putting the reader right in the action. It’s very believable, that diversion and levity would snap into the stark reality of where they are and what’s going on with them. I’d want a man’s opinion to validate this, but you seem to really capture the male experience. One suggestion: as he reaches into the bag, you might want to consider substituting “the first MRE he grabbed” for “the first MRE he felt.” Sorry, I’ perpetually self-editing and I can’t help myself.

    A great story, Olivia.

  3. Another great one, Olivia. It was so uplifting, at first, and then so sad, a real emotional roller coaster. I had forgotten the old folk song, but it came back to me as I read it. Could almost hear Pete Seeger. Not a good way for the Marines to end their day.
    ~jon

  4. You wove that wonderfully. From exhaustion to boyish fun to the sad realization of, well, everything. Very nicely done.

    You asked for constructive criticism, which I, too, love. So here goes: Posey preaching on word economy.

    Look at this sentence: “At least when you’re in combat, the adrenaline burns off with the fighting, but on a day like today, when there’s nothing but uncertainty, the pressure just keeps building and has no good outlet, at least not one that they had found so far.”

    What if you made it into this: “At least when you’re in combat, your adrenaline burns off. But on a day like today, the pressure just builds and has no good outlet. Not that they’d found so far.”

    There’s less repetition there from the first part of the paragraph, and yet tells the reader all they need to know.

    Just my thoughts. You’re the alpha dog. You get to decide. I’m just a stinking fan.

    1. Thanks for the input, Jeff. I worked around that sentence for so long that it got to the point I didn’t even know what it was saying anymore. I’m still too close to it, I think, but I’ll let it percolate for a few days and then take a look at your suggestions again. Thanks so much! And by the way, I have been listening. Closely!

  5. Oh, I forgot to say that I LOVE your male banter. Right on the money. You’ve not been, like, listening to us, have you? We didn’t think women really listened.

  6. I quite enjoyed it!

    I’d never heard the original song, although I recognized snippets of its lyrics from other folk songs.

    Well-written AND educational!

  7. This is a beautiful story Olivia!
    I haven’t read many soldier stories, but this was wonderful, you described the picture very well. And using the songs was an amazing idea, songs always express our feelings.

  8. This is a great story – i have little kids and we frequently sing the meatball song! I came upon the original lyrics of “on top of old smokey” when i was a kid and knew they were depressing but never realized what they mean. This was very nice – setting and emotion throughout.

  9. Olivia, your stories are becoming more refined and subtle every week. The writing is crisp, direct, but still full of shadows and wonder. Your work is very special. I hope a publisher takes note very soon!

  10. Chili Mac MRE… oh my goodness. I grew up on and around Camp Lejeune. As I was reading this, the story came alive in sight and smell, all in Marine green. I thought your dialogue was natural and the whole thing moved smoothly. Nice slice of their life, and of course a good reminder about how difficult things are for them. Well done.

  11. I really want to echo the other comments – the use of the two songs was brilliant. I was in the Air National Guard during the Gulf War and had my bags packed. But luckily that was a quick war and I didn’t go anywhere. I feel deeply for the troops right now and your story really conveys the great emotions that they are probably feeling. Ever think of sharing it with them?
    Very well-written!

  12. Oh, wow, I’d never heard the original of the song. I always thought it was about spaghetti!

    Beautifully written and poignant. My only criticism would be the first paragraph, as Jeff said. I’d rather see the info on their feelings come out through dialogue, which you do so well. Other than that, it was perfect!

    Cecilia

  13. Good story! I enjoyed how the marines were able to lose themselves in the fun version of the song. A great break in their day. I hadn’t ever heard (or read, in this case) the real version of the song, so I’m glad you had him sing it, even if it was a downer for the group.

  14. wow… for a few moments i was right there with them….. and it reminded me of all those there for us, here….maybe a good reminder of what christmas is all about… !
    it reminded me to pray for all of them… great work olivia, very poignant. the words touched my heart , felt the tears of their relaity.
    God bless them all and you. a+

  15. This was really good, Olivia! Your dialog was very in-character for me — great job with it. I love the emotional 180 the song was able to pull on the soldiers, too. Makes sense for people in such a high-stress environment, I think. Wonderful work!

  16. Hello Olivia. I really enjoyed reading this. I thought it was very well written, and flowed effortlessly. There was so much character (listening to them moaning and bragging about their food was totally believable). And you’ve obviously put some thought in to include the meatball song! (That was hilarious!)

    I’ll look forward to reading some more of your work.

    Rich.

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