Curious & Guidelines

by: T.E. Cowell

Two offerings of flash-fiction, one that lays bare the inherent cost of curiosity, and another that exposes the cat and mouse game that writers and editors often participate in…



I was walking to the market. Passing a barbershop, I glanced inside and saw a man on the ground on his back beside the barber’s chair. He had a prominent belly that made me figure he’d had a heart attack or a stroke or something of that nature. A man was kneeling over the man on the ground, and this man looked at me as I stood on the sidewalk looking in. He looked either scared or anxious, one or the other, or maybe both – it was hard to tell.

“What happened?” I yelled.

“I don’t know,” the kneeling man said. “One minute he was cutting my hair, the next he was on the ground. He was telling me an anecdote about his ex-wife and next thing I knew he wasn’t. I’m lucky he didn’t cut my ear off.”

I looked at the barber and asked to the kneeling man, “Is he breathing?”

“Yes,” he said. “Very faintly though, it seems.”

“Have you called 911?”

He nodded. “An ambulance should be here any minute now.”

I remained out on the sidewalk staring in. The kneeling man remained kneeling, as if he feared the barber might stop breathing altogether if he rose.

A woman came walking up the sidewalk and stopped beside me to see what was going on.

“Oh my god,” she said. “Is he?”

“No,” I said. “He’s alive, and an ambulance is on the way.”

“Good,” she said. “Good. Jesus.”

She shook her head before continuing to walk to wherever it was she was headed. I stood my ground, too curious to see how this would play out to leave for the market. The market was hardly on my mind anymore. I lived for things like this, for those out of the ordinary events. Every time I saw something unusual happen, I stopped and stared. I’ve seen a few things, believe me, but I never grow tired of seeing more. For instance, car crashes. Whenever I drive by car crashes with my girlfriend, I stare out the window while she looks straight ahead, scared of what she might see. She says I have an unhealthy amount of curiosity. Maybe she’s right. But I can’t help the way I am.

Soon I heard sirens, and not a minute later both a cop car and an ambulance pulled up to the curb. A cop emerged from his vehicle and shouted at me, “Stand back!” I took a step back, wondering what the big deal was. I was in no one’s way. I took a good look at the cop and thought he looked like the sort of cop that liked to boss people around. He had a large fleshy face and a rotund body. He didn’t look intelligent or compassionate or anything like I thought cops should be. He looked like the kind of guy who ate too much meat and drank too much beer and yelled at his wife if he had one. If he did, I felt sorry for her. I didn’t like the looks of the guy one bit.

An EMT rushed from the ambulance into the barbershop while another waited outside on the curb next to the cop and myself. I braved a step forward, to my original position, to better see inside the barbershop and watched the EMT kneel down beside the kneeling man. The kneeling man rose at that moment and left the barbershop to join us on the sidewalk. Then the second EMT went inside the barbershop.

“Stand back!” the cop shouted at the man who until now had been kneeling, and he took a step or two back. Then the cop looked at me and said, “I said stand back!”

“What’s the problem?” I said. “I’m not in the way. Chill out.”

What happened next took me by surprise. The cop nudged me with his shoulder, causing me to stumble backwards.

“Hey!” I said, suddenly furious. “You can’t just do that! You can’t just push people! Hey! I’m talking to you!”

He wouldn’t look at me. He was looking towards the barbershop, which I could no longer see inside of. I took a step towards him and said, “I know my rights. You can’t just push people when you feel like it. Who do you think you are? Just because you wear a badge doesn’t mean you can get away with shit like that.”

He didn’t say anything and still wouldn’t look in my direction.

“I’m a witness,” the man who’d been getting his haircut said. “I saw what happened.”

I took yet another step forward and looked back inside the barbershop and saw the barber now being fastened to a stretcher by the EMTs. Then the cop nudged me with his shoulder again and I stumbled backwards, but unlike before, I rushed at him and pushed him back in a blind fury. I knocked him off-balance so that he almost fell over, but then he regained his footing and promptly threw me down to the ground. He put his weight on my back and handcuffed me. Then he pushed me until I was in the backseat of his patrol car.

In court I tried to explain to the judge that though I had been in the wrong to push the cop, he’d pushed me first, so technically – in my mind, at least – the cop was more in the wrong than I was. But he was a cop, and so it was his word against mine, so of course in the end it was me who was found guilty. The guy who’d been getting his haircut who’d witnessed the event was nowhere to be found.

I was charged with assaulting an officer and got five years for it.

“All for being curious,” my girlfriend said the last time I saw her. Maybe she was right. Well, I know she was. But of course there’s more to it than that. There always is.



He sends another story to another magazine he doesn’t read. He knows he shouldn’t do this, that he should read not just some of the magazines he submits to but all of them, or at the very least a story or two from them so that he has a good idea what sort of fiction such magazines strive to publish, but he does it anyway. What’s more, he submits to magazines he doesn’t read fairly regularly. About as regularly, if he had to guess, as he submits to magazines he does read. Why does he do this when he knows he shouldn’t? Because he doesn’t have time to read every magazine that might possibly be a fit for his fiction, not with work and everything else going on in his life. A lot of the magazines that he does read and submit to take a long time to get back to him about his submission, and nine times out of ten they only accept one story at a time. He doesn’t want to wait forever to hear back from these magazines before he can submit to them again. He has patience, he thinks, but not that much patience. He’s always writing new stories and he wants to be recognized for his writing sooner rather than later. His dream, as far-fetched as it sounds and as well as clichéd as it is, is to quit his day job and start writing full-time, or at least be able to devote more of his time to his craft.

He knows editors hate when writers submit to magazines they don’t read, or at least he knows some of them do, not from personal experience but from reading certain magazines’ submission guidelines and putting two and two together. “It should go without saying,” some magazines’ guidelines say, “that you should read our magazine before submitting work to us.” He knows he should, knows that by submitting to magazines he doesn’t read he’s potentially wasting both his time as well as the editors’ time. But still he does it anyway. Sometimes, though – more often not, he gets an encouraging rejection back from these magazines. A few times he’s even gotten some stories published in magazines he’s never read before but that he starts to read after his story’s published in them. He’s even developed a rapport with a few such magazines that he now submits to quite regularly. And what about the magazines he reads before he submits to them? Do they ever publish his stuff? No. Well, a few times – or, at least once. Most of the magazines he reads before submitting to are what are known as top-tier magazines, magazines that if he were to get published in might potentially jumpstart his career as a writer. The magazines he doesn’t read that he submits to probably wouldn’t do too much as far as his career’s concerned, but getting a story published anywhere is encouraging and keeps him writing on a continual basis.

He shouldn’t be all that surprised, then, and isn’t, really, when one day he gets a blunt email from the editor of a magazine he submitted to without first taking the time to read. The email goes something like this:

It is clear to me that apart from not having familiarized yourself with our magazine before submitting to us, you also haven’t taken the time to read our complete list of guidelines. If you had read all the guidelines, you would’ve learned that we do not publish stories about writers, period. I did take the time to read your story though and thought on the whole it wasn’t bad and that you might be able to place it with another magazine. But as for us, because you didn’t heed our guidelines – don’t worry, you’re far from the only one – I personally ask you to please wait at least a year before submitting anything our way again.

He reads the email twice over. His heart beats horribly as he does. He feels like a hack, a fool. He vows that from this day forth he’ll change his ways, patience – or lack thereof – be damned.

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