Flash Fiction: How skinny the leash, how thin the arms that hold me.

(From a gradeschool grammar worksheet: “Mr. Hartwell snapped the shade open.”)

Mr. Hartwell snapped the shade open. This was something he was good at, a skill he’d perfected as a child. If you snapped it too fast, it came unhinged, it went round and round, fast and loose, and you couldn’t pull it down again to make it stay. If you went too slowly, it only half-rose, and remained limp and bobbing halfway, neither up nor down. The sudden shock of sunlight set him back a step, and he stood blinking and reeling as if hit by an actual wave of something strong and warm.

He wondered how long it had been since he’d left the house. The quarantine had come as a relief at first. Months or possibly years (who could know?) later he was still very comfortable and hadn’t returned to extended trips out of the house. He suspected others had, though. As a boy, when he played hide-and-seek with his friends they would never tell him that the game was over, that it was safe to come out. He’d stay in hiding–crouched in a cupboard, lying in the hollow of a bush, perched in the crook of a tree–until the the shadows turned blue. It felt like that now, and he honestly couldn’t remember the last time he’d left this hiding place. The days added up, they piled up into a dusty mass in some dark corner, and he never noticed until he snapped the blind open. He thought about opening the window but he couldn’t tell how warm it would be. He thought about going outside.

“How skinny the leash, how thin the arms that hold me.” This sentence had been in his head all night, he stopped now to wonder what it might mean, as he stood in the blinking sunshine. Of course no arms had held him in a while, but he didn’t want to think about that. Who would want to think about that?

He thought about dogs, and how they don’t know they’re on a leash. They never know. They’ll walk around a telephone pole or a parking meter and when they get stuck they’ll stare up at you with an expectant wagging smile, wondering why you’ve stopped them. Maybe this meant something, maybe it didn’t. He’d been busy, writing. He’d been writing his essays, his diatribes, and when you’ve been writing you become accustomed to wondering about meaning.

When he left the house he found that the world hadn’t changed as much as you might expect, and he headed to the park, although he knew it would be full of people. He had a sentence in his head, and it made him think of the park. “If you have a field far away in the air, but you’ve glued the boys’ feet behind you, and you’re waving to them to sit on the flowered air, beneath the rising from mounds. And we don’t know…” And did he, himself, write these words? He could not recall. He could not be expected to remember.

The bench was only a little damp, so he sat down. Only when the prickling cool water seeped through his trousers did he realize how warm the day, how bright the sunshine, and the park was teeming with people. All of the voices yelling for attention, laughing and calling, lost or joyful or indignant, were like the words going round and round and round in his head asking him to put them in order. Someday the world would know all that he thought and wrote about, he had no doubt about that. He used to send his writings out, he used to submit them, but he didn’t any more. It didn’t matter, he didn’t need to. Someday the world would know.

A child sat next to him on the bench, and next to the child sat a young woman. His nanny, probably. She was reading a book, and the boy was filthy. Green crusty nose, smears of chocolate on his chin, jam matted in his hair. He stared at Mr. Hartwell, and his eyes were luminous green, with a glow in the center, they seemed so clean and clear that Mr. Hartwell felt very confused, and though he needed to leave he also felt that he couldn’t, and he wondered if the boy was trying to hypnotize him. He half stood, and remained crouched and foolish, limp and bobbing, neither up nor down. The nanny noticed him for the first time, and she looked scared, and she grabbed for the boy’s hand to take him up the path.

But the boy wound his arms around Mr. Hartwell’s arm, and he could feel even through his jacket how strong they were. The nanny pulled the child free, and it was as though she’d released a stuck balloon. The boy took off in one crazy floating jagged movement and he was gone. Mr. Hartwell looked down at his jacket, the grey wool tweed was smeared with jam and chocolate and glistening with snot. It almost formed a pattern, he almost felt that he could read it. But he didn’t know. He didn’t know.

When Mr. Hartwell went home he pulled the blinds down, but they snapped up again and scared him. He left them but he couldn’t write so he lay in bed with the blankets pulled up around his face, shivering in the warmth of the day. He fell asleep and dreamed about falling from a great height, but he wasn’t scared.

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