Saturday Apr 13

Althouse Jeanne Althouse's flash fiction, creative nonfiction and longer stories have appeared in numerous literary journals. She was a finalist in the Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction contest. Her story, “Goran Holds his Breath,” was nominated by Shenandoah for the Pushcart Prize. A collection of her flash fiction, Boys in the Bank, was published this year by Red Bird Chapbooks. She lives in California and loves reading Lydia Davis.

The Moment the Light Shifts
      She stares out her window, looking down at Bush Street, the sun a flash of neon light on the sidewalk dotted with strangers rushing home from work; in the street horns honk while taxis, cars and trucks jam together, exhausts smoking. Sweat drips across her forehead, down her arm pits, between her breasts. September 14, 1971, the hottest day on record in San Francisco; she cannot open the window and she has no fan.

      The window is old, long ago stuck closed with paint, and the street noise is muted. Silence like a cancer grows in the shag carpet of her one-room apartment, wicks like water into the cotton sheets of her Murphy bed, and festers in the warped wooden boards balanced across cinder blocks she calls a bookcase. On her side of the glass, she lives alone with the sounds of silence.

      Ever since her father died in the car accident she stopped writing stories.

      She does not want to think about his death.

      Hello darkness, my old friend. She hears the voice of Paul Simon in her head, longs for night, hoping for peace in dreams.

      The bells of Grace Cathedral sing their muffled call to evening service. She thinks of Huntington Park, a few blocks up the hill across from the Cathedral, where it must be cooler. She grabs a Dickens novel from the set on the top shelf, not to read, but to hide her eyes from strangers.

      The small block of Huntington Park overflows with people, the green grass covered with flesh. A young boy in a tie-dyed shirt kneels by his mother who is cradling a white-furred puppy in the crook of her arm, its tongue lolling from the heat; a gray-haired woman breathless, opens her lawn chair and collapses with a groan; a pregnant teen wobbling on platform shoes grabs her stomach and turns her arms to display layered friendship bracelets. In the far corner facing away from the crowd, two men hold hands.

      In the sounds of nearby traffic, in the ring of the cable car on California Street, in the murmurs of warm bodies, she hears ten thousand stories, whispering. She yearns to write in her journal. Her hand aches to hold the pen, the black with the felt tip, and for a second she closes her eyes, remembering what it was like to feel a story come, to feel the words thrum like music on the page.

      She wanted to be writer, enrolled to earn her degree in journalism. After the accident, nothing mattered any more. She dropped out of college and now endures tedious days in a low-status job at a law firm, working with the all-women typing pool. They use IBM displaywriters to chug out legal briefs, wills and trusts.

      Her mouth settles into a frown in moments when she lets her private face show.

      She sits, opens her book and stares down at the print. “Come sing to me muse,” she whispers to the open page.

      The light dims, turning from bright neon to mellow, hinting at dusk to come.

      She looks up, feeling someone’s eyes on her.

      He lies on the grass next to a small tree, less than five feet away, behind the boy and his puppy. He holds his head on his hand, elbow bent. Rays from the sun filtered through leaves of the tree catch the brown shine of his long hair. She observes his sideburns, a mustache. Her eyes trace down his body to his hips, narrow under bell bottom jeans. His fingernails are round and white as if he has groomed with a nail brush and his shirt looks ironed.

      Later she will find his iron carefully stored under the bathroom sink with its cord wrapped neatly around the handle. He will spend his life keeping the business affairs of his clients as safe and organized as that carefully folded cord, his drive to do the right thing for him both a blessing and a curse. Liking the harmony of things properly in their place, she will tidy up her iron, its cord a messy tangle.

      Today in the park she lingers on his face. In her head, she begins to write, warming up to his brown eyes: Brown, brown as a newborn deer, brown as a polished cello, brown as eggs, brown as earthworms, a robin, brown as a bear, brown as bricks, brown as shovels, tool handles, wagons, brown as trumpets singing, brown as potato skin, tortilla chips, brown as a tanned bottom, brown as the beach. Brown as birth.

      He gets up, walks toward her. She senses he is someone she can trust from the careful way he moves around the boy and his puppy. Later she will discover he is a man whose eyes shine with the pleasure he gets from giving, but whose risk is giving too much, depleting his energy, ignoring his own needs.

      “What are you reading?” he says, stopping.

      She looks up into the chocolate eyes, deep as campfires. Each pupil holds a candle flame, flickering amber inside its iris lake of chocolate. She presses her flushed lips together. Take my arms that I might reach you. But she does not say this.

      She says, “Dickens.”

      “Are you old enough to get a drink with me?”

      She is twenty-six, years past the legal drinking age of twenty-one. But she feels old. Older than the gray-haired woman who shuffled past on her walker, chewing her gums in a toothless mouth. Older than the stones of Grace Cathedral staring down at her from across the street. Older than centuries. Older than stars.

      She smiles. “How old are you?”

      He hesitates. He is twenty-three.

      The light shifts again to the moment of intense glow that comes with sunset. She holds her breath, looking up at his face. The air around her floods with hues of coral, crimson, and violet. The sun’s blush of pinks spread over the clouds, across the grass, and up his cheeks.

      She makes up her mind to be open, to be open to change. She will go back to college. She will make her father proud.

      “Yes,” she says to the stranger in the park. “Yes.”

      She feels his moist hand, gripping hers as he pulls her to her feet. As they stand arm to arm, with his free hand he lifts his index finger and runs it across the inside of her elbow, barely touching, tickling, raising the hairs on her skin, as intimate as intercourse between them in public on the lawn, as sacred as later, when they wed before the altar of the chapel at Grace Cathedral.

      Her body vibrates like the strings on a guitar: Thrum. Thrum.

      And the story comes to her.