Flash Fiction II

Only Flowers

It’s quiet today. Damp and hushed, with only a soft weeping of rain on the pavement and the distant hum of traffic, still thready at this hour of the day. I pass under a stone arch, shadowed with water and laced with budding vines that drip into my hair as I cross underneath. In the summer, the trellis and low wall will be smothered with clematis and jasmine, constantly at war with the invasive ivy that the groundskeepers seem unable to quell. For now we have the bubbled stalks of grape hyacinth, swaths of daffodil, cherry trees as pink as cotton candy. The creek at the bottom of the hill is thick with caramel-colored water as it weaves between the pines.

I wonder whether someone planned the Seussian landscape particularly for this part of the graveyard, where the children are strewn under miniature headstones and the grass-stroking leaves of a willow. I have never walked around the rest of the cemetery, so I don’t know whether the larger graves are decorated or left alone. Here we adorn them with small bouquets, and there are stuffed animals, pinwheels, and fallen balloons dotted across the grounds, as if a party has ended abruptly and the detritus left out in the rain. I used to bring that sort of thing myself, but now I make a point of bringing only flowers. The sodden toys depress me, lying corpselike on the grass, and I often wish they’d been given to living children instead. The flowers are something different, and rot more gracefully than the poor abandoned bears lying slumped against the graves.

I open my bag and use a pair of rounded scissors to strip the daisies of their grocery-store cellophane and the thick rubber bands that hold them together. I like the way they tumble loose across the grass, stems crossing, their faces turned to the sky.

Flash I

The Clockmakers

I’m not where I’m supposed to be. You have a knack for sensing this, and I can mark the beat of silence here and there throughout our conversation, where I imagine you with the phone pressed between your ear and shoulder, pausing at your workbench with a pair of tweezers in each hand and that wrinkle of consternation on your forehead, and thinking perhaps that the background noise on my end is not what you’d expect.

My imagination carries on sometimes—a juxtaposition in which the two halves of my life are reversed, and this is our home. Despite the generous expanse of window, no view exists beyond the mossy brick facade of the building across the street, now painted by a watery dash of sunlight and squatting into a dark skirt of ivy. A thinly drawn line of bleach-gray sky separates the sturdy blocks of apartments, one from the other, and behind the speckled windows there are occasional shadows and squares of screen-light as the residents reach the end of their afternoon. I think you’d like the tableau. The lack of pretension, the sense of containment. This is a neighborhood into which you’d fit as sweetly as any oiled cog.

I get up and pass through the sliding glass door to the patio, damp beneath my bare feet. Two stories down, a young woman is jogging up the sidewalk, pushing a three-wheeled stroller and accompanied by an enviable Vizsla. I wonder if you can hear its paws clicking on the pavement.

“So you don’t want to try anymore?”

Your voice is gentle, level. A flat aspect, my mother once remarked, but after such time its freighted modulations are not lost on me.

“Of course I do,” I say as the stroller sweeps past, a tiny fist pumping the air. “Of course.”

You are silent, and the sounds of the workshop fill the empty space. The intermittent buzz of the Foredom, a disembodied voice reading the news. A clatter now and then from that decrepit old fan by the window, which neither of us can decide to repair or discard.

I start over. “I’m just not sure about…”

You wait. You’re good at waiting. A hundred unsynchronized clocks carry on in the background.

“The timing,” you say, finally.

“We can still try.” I glance down the street, empty now but shimmering with rain. “Just on our own, you know. And see what happens.”

The work sounds on your end are fading, and I wonder whether you’ve laid down your tools and loupe to step outside. Automatically I glance in your direction, as though nothing stands between us—not the city with its brutal mat of asphalt, its spires of brick and steel, not the tangled swathes of forest, fields of verdant green, nor the corrugated walls of the workshop, where my tools lie on a bench next to yours. You left them there to act as paperweights. You left, as well, a pen.

“I thought we agreed,” you say.

We agree on everything, I want to reply, and not all of those agreements have been binding. I’d like to remind you of things—the bottles on the bookshelf, the receipt I found last fall—but you and I are gentle with each other. I don’t want to hurt you.

A door opens in the room behind me.

“We did agree,” you say, though your voice sounds far away and floats toward a question.

I close my eyes and imagine yours: gray and steady, laugh lines taking wing across your temples, but flattened now against your cheekbones with only a tracery of white to mark their place.