Flash Fiction By Jennifer Williams
By Jennifer Williams
He shows up after bedtime and leaves before dawn. It’s not callousness; he does so at her request, because of her sons who have never met or seen him up close. Though he visits often—every night he’s in town—he does not leave anything behind, by mistake or for convenience. For example, he does not leave the emptied To-Go cups he arrives with, or the T-shirts worn beneath button-downs, or even a toothbrush. She would give him a toothbrush—something she could tuck away from childish questions—but he has never asked and she has never thought of it when he was getting ready to leave. Usually, they are too busy kissing as if for the last time, or wiping away her tears, or his, or tracking down over the creaky, bare floor the accoutrements he mustn’t forget. She wishes he would misplace the undershirt so that she might find it later, crumpled against the headboard or beneath the nightstand, and inhale its smell after she has returned from walking the boys to school. But he is conscientious with regard to all her requests—except for the big one, of course. With the big one, which she occasionally demands in whispered rage, his expression morphs from anger to pity to concentration, as if he, too, is trying to solve the puzzle of their wayward love even though it’s a very simple puzzle and there’s nothing, really, to solve. The solution is straight-forward and destructive, you get the picture. Children are involved, and not just hers.
Sometimes they swap fantasies. Not only erotic ones, but also sentimental, those involving porch swings and the dramatic clasping of hands weak with age. His hands will weaken before hers and she wants to be there when his body starts to fail. She has said this so many times now and with such earnestness that his reaction—once, fond amusement tainted with guilt—now includes a dose of trepidation. He asks himself, do I really know her? In her too-worn slippers, she pads away to the bathroom and he picks at a thick thread on the sheet; it’s an unraveling he started on his first visit: a nub coaxed over weeks, months, into a tadpole.
He draws on the thread and watches the hem bunch. He wants to tug harder, to see once and for all whether the thread will snap or zip free, but he doesn’t want to mar the sheet because this woman (who smells to him of cinnamon bark and night breezes and when he sees her from any distance—that is, he imagines, in full—she brings to mind a dark woods with pale, moonlit blooms) doesn’t have a lot of money. She probably wouldn’t throw the sheet out; she’d decide a frayed sheet is something to live with because the boys need school clothes and the water bill must be paid. In fact, he is so certain this would be her reasoning that he decides he must know her, after all.
She comes back into the room and closes the door: a hand on the knob and a palm guiding to the juncture. She turns, but then cocks her head and looks up. She traces an old water stain on the ceiling with her gaze and listens for more sounds, footsteps to intercept. Only twice has she gone upstairs while he was here: once to bring a cup of water, the other to change wet bedding. But the house is older than any they’ve rented before and sounds of activity—or the perceived sounds, she’ll never know which—occur often. When they do, she watches the ceiling and he watches her. She knows he is thinking of his midnight woods and the unlikely flowers he’s described so many times (and with such earnestness!) scattered among a forest ground cover.
“Do I appear dressed in white?” she sometimes teases him, sliding a finger down his exposed chest. “Or, perhaps you would prefer…not dressed at all?” Here, she might graze a hand across his belly and thighs like a brittle leaf caught by the wind. “And if it’s always to be night—” Now a whirlpool motion, a suggestion toward taking him in her hand. “What form would you have me take during the day?” When she is close she lets him whimper, then flips her hand to its back and presses it, neutered, into his upper thigh. Over his groans, she asks, “Shall I be the flowers or—look at me, that’s it baby, yes—the swallowing whole of the woods?”
Once he showed up agitated and apologetic, describing a dream where he stumbled upon her stretched out like sleeping beauty, her skin blending with the forest floor and salted with petals. “You were sinking,” he says, shaken. The message was clear, and if fairy tales have taught her anything it’s that a man in a forest at night is always trespassing. But the comparison is not simple since in their own version, she is the trespasser: he was long ago spoken for. From the bed he reaches out, assuring her in quiet words that her boys are truly asleep. She lets her slippers drop and draws her legs back beneath the covers. She arches into his touch feeling as electrified as she’d been the first time. She wants desperately for him to belong to her. But, no. She must always concede once her fury has dissipated; she has no bright ideas, either.
There is a future with these two as strangers, a time when she is relieved not to have acquired any of his belongings and he, finding himself before a starry sky and dark trees, struggles to recall her exact shape. She will ask herself, did I ever really know him? After all, there will be no record—no photos or shared friendships, nor any material goods (well, almost none, if she would search her bed, she would see) which so often carry the imprints and stains of those who had inhabited them or held them to their lips or treated them as their own.
The blonde dog is first to run into the road. It’s Sunday afternoon and except for my car all three southbound lanes are clear. I slow, but the dog doesn’t run back. It takes two quick leaps towards the median, then stops and stands erect. A signal up ahead turns green. Northbound cars come into view and the blonde dog goes to meet them. As if finally convinced of the fun, the black dog bounds from the sidewalk that borders the horse farm. It passes my car, but doesn’t look, and when it’s out of my lane, I don’t nudge forward: I want to see this through.
The road separates a dairy farm from the horses—six lanes if you don’t count the median, landscaped and tapered for future left turns. The northbound cars spread out, accelerating, and the black dog almost gets hit. The offending vehicle has to brake quickly, rocking forward even after the wheels stop. That’s how it is when a driver in lane B, slightly later to arrive, does not consider or trust why drivers of lanes A or C are stopping. I’m in lane E. Soon, cars behind me will have similar choices to make.
The dogs chase each other, nipping and bouncing away. They run in circles, as dogs do, and their mouths break open to pant. Their tongues loll. Yes, this is the right word. After all, they don’t seem entirely in control. But then I see they both wear collars and I understand: they didn’t expect to be here.
Behind the dairy farm is still the old airstrip and two-pump gas station, but everywhere else are neighborhoods or to-be-finished neighborhoods because this is the edge of sprawl. Meaning, that a few miles south the road narrows abruptly down to two lanes and becomes a desert highway, leading to the dry washes and starry hollows where teenagers go to drink. But here, we are surrounded by the staggered ranks of stucco housing, and within the remaining empty spaces—the commercial plot or dried up field—fences have been raised and concrete has been poured. Alongside the horse farm, acres of old dirt have been freshly graded, and in anticipation of tree-lined streets—yes, even here—young Palo Verdes stand lassoed to tall wooden stakes.
The southbound cars approach, not as a herd, but in a trickle. One car aligns itself with mine, then another pulls up behind it. Without fanfare, they bring themselves to a halt—all except one, a silver two-door, which creeps through and zips away. I can’t say the maneuver put the dogs in jeopardy, not directly. But I’m relieved when the next car inches forward to hold the line.
And, yes, it has become a line, offset between northbounders and south to form a kind of safe zone for the dogs. No one honks or exits a vehicle, nor does anyone appear at the sidewalk or along the horse farm’s gravel drive. A few cows have come over to their roadside fence, and now they jostle and rearrange themselves—all wanting a view. The dogs pause to watch, glancing at each other as if mutually amused. Then, separately, they move closer to the stalled traffic. The blonde dog sniffs at the bumper of my sedan. It moves slowly from right to left as if there were a great deal to investigate. But its gaze flits impishly, up and around, and when I lift my sunglasses, it springs away.
The black dog spots a grackle in the median and crouches low. The bird has tufts of gray between darker feathers and looks from my vantage point to be nearly a foot tall. Surely an overestimation, but I do not fear for it: grackles are smart and resourceful; around here they form noisy congregations in alleyways or box-store parking lots, brazenly waiting for fresher trash.
Pawing closer, the dog reaches the median’s curb. The blonde one, still near me, finally notices and barks: clear and announcement-like. I hear it inside my car. Then comes that pause we like to imagine exists between the moment when certain events become inevitable and their actual unfolding. Of course this is only a perception—the brain pretending, sparing us, perhaps—because the action never waits. But what I register next is the black dog already rearing up in a swivel and the bird, having flared its wings, shaking them back into folds. My guess is the dog got a solid peck to the nose, but that’s not quite the end of things because it’s clear the blonde dog, already on the move, can’t halt the sprint it’s started. I can say this much, the real mystery is not in how it ends, with the two dogs colliding head-to-head.
The grackle moves a few feet to pace under a brown ash tree and one of the smaller cows jaunts away from the fence. Eventually, the blonde dog pulls up on its forelegs and shakes. After pawing its nose a few times, the black dog suddenly spins and picks up speed, and the blonde dog follows it out of the road and down along the horse farm’s iron fence. They head west, disappearing into slanted light, and when they are no longer visible the cars in lanes A through F begin to move.
Jennifer Williams is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA Program. Her work has appeared in r.kv.ry quarterly, Gravel Magazine, and the anthology, The Night, and the Rain, and the River. She lives in Portland, Oregon.