Paul Simon and New Work (!)

I’m beginning to think this class is the best thing to happen to my writing. Why? Because it is teaching me word economy. Keeping it brief and saucy. No bullshit. As I’ve been writing flash fiction, I’ve also been thinking about song lyrics, and how some songwriters are masters of conveying setting, mood, etc. in just a few simple lines. Specifically, I’ve been listening to Paul Simon’s “I Do It For Your Love,” which does an amazing job at setting the scene and moving the story forward.

First, there’s:

We were married on a rainy day
The sky was yellow
And the grass was gray
We signed the papers
And we drove away
I do it for your love

BOOM. Action, scene, refrain. A yellow sky and gray grass. I’m there.


The rooms were musty
And the pipes were old
All that winter we shared a cold
Drank all the orange juice
That we could hold
I do it for your love

I feel like I already know this couple. I’m sitting on their first weeks and months of marriage. “Drank all the orange juice that we could hold.” I feel it.


Found a rug
In an old junk shop
And I brought it home to you
Along the way the colors ran
The orange bled the blue

Such a tender action, and I see that bright rug so clearly, ol’ Pauly S. lugging it across town to his new bride.


The sting of reason
The splash of tears
The northern and the southern
Love emerges and it disappears
I do it for your love
I do it for your love

We know what happens. It’s there. Short and sweet and sad.

ANYWAY. Here is the piece I wrote that was just workshopped in class last night. I made some edits and feel very, very good about it. In fact,  it may be one of my all-time faves. Enjoy, dear readers!

Needle Work

“A stitch in time saves nine.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means the quicker you fix something, the less work you have to do. Now let me see.”

Nelle turned the milky forearm and examined it at different angles. Veins branched and curled along its length. She ran her thumb over the tender spot that joined the humerus with the radius and ulna –  the “crook” of the arm. She smiled while pressing the bulging blue.

“You’ve got great veins, so this should be easy.”

They called her Nurse Nelle. She had an informal questionnaire she presented to patients upon intake, as they sat nestled in crocheted pillows on her sofa. No checked boxes or ballpoint pens, just:

“Why are you here?”

“Who referred you?”

“How much do you think you should pay for this?”

The answers were always uncomfortable – a friend of a friend said you could help me do it. My friend said 50 bucks, but I only have 40. My right arm’s worn out, try out my left. My friend said 100. My foot is swollen. Not sure, someone just gave me your address.

This girl was an uncommon beauty under sunken cheeks. Pale skin, black hair, and blue eyes like a china doll. She was nervous and chatty and told a familiar story. College was tough, drinking made her fat, coke made her thin, boyfriend made her cry, Oxy made her indifferent. Injecting it would provide instant relief.

“I swear I’ve never heard of anyone like you. You’re like a nurse or something…”

“I want you to lie down for me and make a fist.”

Day and night they knocked, sometimes getting an open door, sometimes not. A junk box of junkies with goods in hand, here to see the guru with her clean needles, heaps of cotton balls, bile-colored disinfectant, boxes of Winnie-the-Pooh Band-Aids. For some it evoked their earliest memories of doctor’s offices and booster shots, of their mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and then, with calm apology, they left her den to think things over. Others saw her as the shining answer to their own washed-out families.

She liked to use an old trick on them that worked on squealing toddlers. Nick the Needle was a friend here to visit. Yes, his greeting stung a bit, but he always came bearing gifts. He found fresh injection points and taught new techniques. His buddies could clean out infections and store dirty needles.

With a voice like a lullaby, she instructed and demonstrated and suggested they try it on their own. Some visited many times before they left the nest. Until they learned to use an alcohol swab, hold the syringe, use the scale to measure, properly tie off. Until they embraced the soft pressure of the bevel, and the sudden release as it punctured the skin, the single drop of bright blood that was a sign that they did well. And as their conscious lives crawled aboard a raft and traveled towards a shrinking tunnel of bliss, they all saw the same framed certificate on her wall, from a little college up north. “Phlebotomist” was a funny word. Tough to say, even tougher when you were out of your body. Some, in their last right-minded moment, recalled what it meant.

“Hey, so you used to…”

Then they were gone for a while. For those trying it for the first time, a good long while.

Nelle thought of brothel girls in Victorian Paris as she secured the girl’s arm. Those hapless addicts who struggled to get their fill with massive needles and a bit of rag tied round their thighs, gritting their teeth and taking a wild stab. If only she’d been there before the gangrene ate up their lovely legs. But she was here now. Her home was a teaching school.

“Now I know you’ve been told that you shouldn’t look at it, but if you’re going to learn to do it on your own you need to.”

“I’m not scared.”

This was where they usually called it a day. Where they saw the blood mingle and billow inside the barrel, then the plunger force it all under the skin. Where they passed clean out. But this girl was determined, and stared at the arm until her eyes welled. Nelle had to tell her twice to release the fist and when she did she shuddered, then went loose, then still.

Nelle would have a few hours with her before the girl would emerge from her stupor and head home. She quietly packed a small take-home kit – two clean syringes, two alcohol swabs, two Band-Aids, and a short piece of green Latex.

Patients were impressed by how neat and tidy she kept the place. But she never welcomed them into her bedroom, with items stuffed in messy drawers and stacked on closet shelves. Copies of old patient files and letters of thanks. Yellowed pictures of newborns and family portraits. A personal recorder with dozens of labeled tapes. And a piece of paper from a big university up north that in loopy script bestowed her with another title: Doctor.

After the girl had groggily taken her package and left, Nelle lit a cigarette and stared at her living room wall. She smoked only half before rolling up her sweater sleeve and pushing on her own sore skin and tired veins. If only she had someone like her. What a comfort that would be.


2 responses to “Paul Simon and New Work (!)

  1. Amy

    Beautiful! I too often think of song lyrics when I’m doing writing excercises. It must be the sense of immediacy.

  2. Surprising story–imaginative, great detail, succinct. And, of course, disturbing!

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