Flash Fiction: The Problems Peddler by Candice May

The problems peddler is back in town. And this year, I have something to trade. It’s a snow globe—but not just any snow globe. I made it with my own hands. And inside of it are all of my problems. Right now, the problems peddler is over at Martha’s house. Through my binoculars, I watch Martha haggle with her.

Last week at the grocery store, Martha said, “As long as she has something good for me in return, I’ll happily trade for Elizabeth. She’s been a problem all year.” Elizabeth, Martha’s sixteen year old daughter, scowled at her mother and stuck her hand right into the bin of cherry- shaped sticky candies.

I started the snow globe as a crafts project. The teacher told us to put in all the things we loved about our life. I couldn’t think of anything, so I put all the bad things. I carefully constructed a miniature version of my house. Painted it with acrylics. A plastic Lego woman standing on the lawn represents me. There’s a little fence made out of toothpicks.

Now, the peddler is stumbling up my walkway, hooded and slouching beneath her gigantic backpack. She’ll want to show me all the new problems she’s collected over the past year. She makes the rounds between the suburbs and bigger cities. Sometimes she lies, and tells us that she’s been overseas and collected foreign problems worth much more than our local ones. But we aren’t that gullible. We can tell a fake.

A few years ago, Martha traded her husband, Russell, for a bright orange snake. It needs to be fed small rodents several times a week. “It’s not that different,” she confessed to me later, as we sat in her living room, watching the snake in its glass cage. “Maybe I’ll trade it back,” she said, “we’ll see.” We never spoke of the affair, which only happened two—no, three—times, but of course she knew. Martha is very perceptive. I don’t miss Russell, either. I didn’t put him in my snow globe.

Knock-knock. I smooth my hair behind my ears and peek out the window again with my binoculars. There’s Martha, staring right back at me with her binoculars. I pull the curtains closed and go open the door.

The problems peddler smiles at me. She’s lost another tooth; now she’s got gaps in both the top and bottom set. Her hair is long and stringy, and her brown cloak is dirty at the bottom from dragging on the ground. Behind her, Elizabeth is standing with her hands on her hips. Her wrist is tied with a rope that is knotted to the peddler’s belt loop. They both speak at once.

Problems peddler: “Problem for your problem?”

Elizabeth: “Hey, can you get me out of this thing?”

The problems peddler yanks on the rope, and Elizabeth stumbles forward, bracing herself against the peddler’s backpack. The dangling objects tinkle and chime. There’s a parrot in a cage, flapping its wings to regain balance. “Thing!” it cries. An assortment of broken electronics and kitchen appliances hang from the backpack—toasters, kettles, and radios with protruding wires. Melted spatulas, burned cookie sheets.

Across the street, Martha’s curtains shake. I wonder what kind of problem she traded her daughter for. She’s been complaining about Elizabeth for months—her smoking, her laziness.

“I’ve always got something for somebody” the peddler says now.

“She really smells,” Elizabeth says. “Can you untie me and tell my mother she’ll be no better off with the feral ferret she just got? This is stupid. I’m moving out in the summer anyway, with my boyfriend, because at least—“

“Quiet!” the problems peddler says, jerking on the rope again. Elizabeth trips forward, falling to her knees. The peddler shifts from side to side, so I can see the objects tied to her pack. When I shake my head, she starts pulling things out from inside her cloak. “An arrhythmic heart,” she says, holding the slimy muscle in her hands like an expensive piece of jewelry. “It still beats.”

“Gross!” Elizabeth cries. She stands up, brushing off her leggings, and turns back towards her house. The front door is cracked open; we can see Martha’s face peeking out at us.

“No, thanks,” I say.

“Mom!” Elizabeth yells. “Get me out of here!”

The door slams shut.

The problems peddler continues to pull out her offerings. A thick wad of cash, which she rolls underneath her thumb like a deck of cards. A stack of letters, bound in twine. Gerbils, a black kitten, and an empty bottle with a label wrapped around it: Ghost of My Child.

I shake my head, no.

Elizabeth is working the knot around her wrist. Her eyes dart left and right as her fingers tug at the rope. “I guess there’s nothing I want this year,” I tell the problems peddler. “Sorry.” The peddler scowls. She pulls out three more things: a bottle of pills. A loaded syringe. A handgun. “Nah,” I say.

Elizabeth has the knot between her teeth now, tugging. “Wait!” she says, “what about me? I’m a big problem.” The problems peddler looks at me expectantly.

“You’re not a problem, Elizabeth,” I say. “You’re just a teenager. Your mother is clearly overreacting.”

“But I’m pregnant,” Elizabeth says, and her voice warbles a little. “And I want to keep it. I’m keeping it.”

The problems peddler grins and claps her hands. The parrot squawks, “Keeping it! Problems!”

The only thing I have to trade for Elizabeth is my snow globe. And actually, I filled it with sparkles, not snow. When I shake it, my world glimmers with gold and purple and silver. I spent a lot of time on it. Martha is in the globe, too. And Elizabeth, of course. They’re represented by painted clothespins. I could easily add another little clothespin, for the baby.

It’s quite lovely, actually. Maybe worth keeping.

Candice May is a writer from the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Porter House Review, Necessary Fiction, Pleiades, and December. She was a Best of the Net 2020 nominee. Find her at: candicemay.ca 

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