Flash Fiction: “Our Autumn Town”

For a long time, my writing has suffered from an expectation that the things I write need to be finished, polished and complete before they are read. Finished, polished and complete are all important. The unspoken corollary is that writing must be perfect before it is read.  That belief has made my writing a lonely, sometimes painful, act.

I am trying to kill that mental habit by writing in public. Posting these unfinished, unpolished snatches of “flash fiction” helps me subvert the belief that the point of writing is to make perfect things. I am practicing with the idea that the point of writing is to be read.

So here’s another piece I wrote last night. I was listening to “Autumn in Our Town” by Dave Brubeck and Ranny Sinclair.

*****

He hadn’t meant to pick up the phone. Dialing her number was sheer mutiny, and yet, here he was, pressing the numbers, his fingers finding the buttons from long lost habit deeper than memory. They hadn’t spoken in years. He couldn’t quite remember why. There had been a reason. A good reason.

The phone was ringing. He closed his eyes, trying to remember the color of her eyes. They had been green. Her eyes were slightly misaligned, though he couldn’t well remember if they had moved more to the left or the right. It was a thing he noticed when she stared at him. She had stared at him a lot, a bit like an idiot perhaps but the remembered impression of that stare was powerfully erotic.

How had they met? Was it in physics class? Had they been lab partners? Or had they met, perhaps, in the library? Maybe it was on the bus? Had he ever ridden a bus? Where would he have ridden a bus?

These questions crowded as the phone rang — once, twice, three times. He was about to hang up feeling foolish for indulging this fantastic whim when the line opened and a voice spoke.

“Hello?” A man’s voice with a British accent. She had always loved men with British accents. She had made him hate his own Southern Georgia drawl, he remembered suddenly. So many things she had helped him hate about himself, he realized with sudden panic.

“Hello?” the Englishman said again with that tone of patient annoyance that must have driven her wild. “Is anyone there?” he asked.

A choking croak rose in his throat when he tried to answer.

“Hello?” the Englishman said again, this time less patient, more annoyed. “Is there someone on the line? Can I help you?”

He swallowed a second croak, which went down his throat like a thing with a hundred legs. The taste of bile. He was dizzy and sweating a little.

“May I speak to Celine?”

The man on the other end grew silent except for suddenly labored breath. There was a moment when the latent sound of telephone wire was the only sound shared between them. And then, the British man spoke, “May I ask who’s calling?”

“I’m an old friend of Celine’s,” he said quickly. Even as he spoke the words, they sounded wrong to him. Even to his own ears, they sounded very much a lie. “Norbert,” he added, realizing he needed to add more information.  “My name is Norbert.”

The British man was being careful now. “Norbert,” he said, as if practicing the name for the first time.

“Yes. Is Celine there?”

The British man sighed. “No. Celine isn’t available. She can’t speak on the phone.”

Norbert pondered the odd turn of phrase. “May I leave her a message? Like I said, I’m an old friend. This is terribly important.”

The man sighed again. “Terribly important.” He said it as if taking dictation. “How long has it been since you last spoke to Celine?”

Norbert sensed a trap. Besides, his mind couldn’t capture how long it had been. Surely twenty years or more. Maybe thirty. Yet standing there, having dialed Celine’s number on his phone, he felt as if he had spoken with her as recently as yesterday. Time was a tricky thing. It folded in on you and doubled over while you were not looking. Things that happened yesterday seemed years ago and things from years ago were as close to hand as yesterday.

“Not sure. Years, I’m sure,” Norbert said.

“Years,” the British man confirmed. “I see.” Now it was a clinical pronouncement, the way a doctor might deliver hard medicine. “Bad news, I’m afraid, Norbert. Celine isn’t well. She hasn’t been herself. For years, I’m afraid.”

“Not herself?” Norbert asked. “Then who has she been?”

“I’m sorry. I really must be going now.”

“Please.” The edge of panic in his voice surprised Norbert. Her eyes had been green. They had tracked slightly to the left when staring at him. She had a spray of pale freckles across the bridge of her nose and her eyebrows were thinner at the centers than at either side. “I need to speak with Celine. It’s very important.”

Another sigh. “Celine isn’t here. She can’t be here. She is in hospital for people who aren’t themselves.”

He waited for the words to sink in.

“A hospital for people who aren’t themselves?” Norbert asked, feeling dense.

“Psychiatric,” the man said, his tone deadly dull.

“I see.” It was the only thing Norbert could think to say. And then, “Still, it is very important I reach her. Is there a number I can try?”

“You aren’t getting this,” the man said again. “My wife isn’t able to take your call. She isn’t able to speak with you. She isn’t able to speak with anyone. She isn’t Celine. There is no Celine. You should forget about Celine. Give up on her. Move on. There isn’t any use in pursuing this line. You will not reach her. She can’t be reached.”

The man was angry. Norbert hadn’t intended to make anyone angry. Quite the opposite. It was quite simple, really. He had only wanted to make contact and explain a few unresolved things from his own perspective. He had only wanted to hear her voice, to remember those crooked eyes and the way her wicked smile had filled him with equal measure of fear and excitement.

The man on the other end of the line had stopped speaking. He had run out of things to say. Norbert tried to hear if he was fuming or crying. In the end it made no difference. Love was a madness that descended where it would, ruining the plans and expectations of everyone it touched. Whether this man, Norbert or whatever other men had crossed paths with Celine. It was no matter. There was nothing to be said. Nothing to be accomplished.

“I am sorry to have bothered you,” Norbert told the man. And he was. He hung up the phone and felt a sudden giddy rush and his incredible good fortune. Love had come upon him, had ruined him with its crushing madness. It was a beautiful thing after all, he decided. No less delicious, however unrequited

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