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The Window Well

When I became single again, and a wife was gone, and the children were gone, and I was gone from myself, in many ways, I used to do yard work at a house that had three lawns: a large, sun-coated one in front; a smaller strip of wet-green in the back that descended into forest; and a curving riband of grass on the side, where salamanders slept at the edge and could get their backs split open by the rake.

     The wall of the house by that third, slim lawn had two window wells that looked into the basement. I had always looked into window wells. The house where I grew up had them, and it always seemed that if you stayed away for a few days, when you came round again there would be animals in the well.

     Usually moles and mice, but sometimes a baby bird. I used a little plastic shovel to get the birds out, and also the mice and moles after the first time I’d seen one of each in the window well. I told my mother what I saw that first time, and she went to the neighbors and told them.

     They were very old. They lived in the town when the settlement we lived in was still woods, before streets like ours had been cleared. They had an old cat who’d snarl when you went near him, louder if he was on his back, lounging in the sun. My mother brought the cat over and put him in front of the window well, and after that, I always made sure not to tell her if anything was there.

     So at the house where I sometimes did yard work I’d check the two window wells by the third lawn. They were always empty, lined at the bottom with smooth, round rocks that made me wonder if they’d been in a tumbler, or else had been collected at a beach in a bucket that would have come with a shovel like the one I used to use.

     Checking was a formality, given that this was not my house, but if it hadn’t been I wouldn’t have seen how the window well closest to the large, hot front lawn had been covered over with layers of spider webs. I hadn’t been in some time. It could have been that my services were no longer required. No one came out. Maybe they were on vacation. You could look through the webs, like they were this gauzy scrim, and see the bottom. There was a snake, probably a black racer. It didn’t look like it was moving, but its head and most of its body were off the ground, like they’d been frozen that way, or the snake was very good at holding still.

     I figured it could climb out. I wasn’t going to touch it. But I did break the web and in a single motion, as fast a motion as I could make, I cleared it away with my rake. And then I walked around the corner to the front lawn, to take a break from my work, and I saw a girl who was walking faster than people walk. Walking faster, even, than people run.

     She went in one direction, hard, and then another, and when she arrived at each point she arrived in a manner that you felt you could not see how she was able to. From farther away she looked tall, very tall, taller than I was, like I was looking up at her even as she stood on the far side of the lawn. Then she was in front of me, and she was lower, at first, as if she was growing up from out of the ground, and so close that we were going to collide even though neither of us was moving forward or backward.

     I was scared of her, but I wanted to try and help. I wanted to say, as calmly as I could, “what is your name?”, but instead I said “who are you?” and kept repeating myself when she didn’t answer and began to move again from point to point in a way that was faster than walking or running until she returned again practically right up into me, closer than the last time, and began to scream.

     She didn’t stop even for breath. It just kept going, getting louder and louder. And then it stopped, and she started moving again, from point to point, not a blur, but not traceable, until she was at the far edge of the lawn, and I put down my rake, with as little movement as possible, and began walking away as quickly as I could without running, down the path I used as a shortcut that led back to the main street.

     The rake was where I left it when I came back the next day. I walked to the side lawn. The window well was covered over in spider webs again. I didn’t look into it. I kept a sawhorse behind the house, and I took some old pieces of plywood from under the deck and nailed them over the openings of the sawhorse.

     The sawhorse was bulky now, but I lifted it around the corner and put it over the window well. I had a marker in my pocket, so I used that and wrote “Leave This Here” on the front of my wooden sentinel steed. I saw that the rake was not where I’d left it, but I also figured maybe it wouldn’t be, as I walked as quickly as I could without running to the shortcut I sometimes used that went back to the main road, always back to the main road, the default road, the central artery that is not the heart’s.


The Remainders of Long Division

The coffee from yesterday warmed up and left in the microwave, the late-December sky two hours before the sun comes up outside of smudgy windows. Sitting. The desk. The bed. The bed the desk. It’s funny the things we hold on to, for no particular reason, or no good reason. I got an early start today because I want to have a good start to the year. Try to get somewhere. Get what I want. What I need. What I search for. What I used to tell myself at the end of a year might be attained in the next, until I stopped because there comes a point when the pursuer need never remind himself again what is being pursued. As I was watching a film—The Twilight Zone movie, which really isn’t very good—I decided to clean out the photos on my phone. Carpet, meet thy broom. Time to get lifted. I don’t scroll back through photos, normally. I don’t know why I take any. Memory doesn’t function that way for me. Like, “here’s a photo, and now a feeling I once had is more real to me.” I hadn’t realized how many there were of you. In various stages of undress. I hadn’t realized you wore that hat of mine when it got very cold. I didn’t realize I had a photo of that bed soaked with so many juices and squirt. That blue sheet. Like Linus’s blanket gone way, way wrong. The substance of a running joke. Of which no one else could partake. But there it was. I thought, as I looked at some of the photos of us together, of how your former neighbors, in the town where you grew up, contacted your parents voicing concern. According to you. Because you were posting photos of yourself with someone you said you cared about. They had no clue I was older. I didn’t look it. We didn’t look it. Strangers would say nice things when they saw us. “What a happy couple.” “You two just go together.” But everyone only knew the years of stage presentation. From which there must be no veering. Says more about other lives. Boredom. Discontent. The agenda derived therefrom. “I play a part,” is how you described it before I even met you. But if they only knew, right? If they only knew how you lived then, and how you live now. What I embodied. What was there. The shared wavelength, the salubrious presence. What you found wonder in, as I, in turn, believed in the wonder in you. How much I cared once, too. But one photo stood out in particular. You were working at the dining hall. It was before your shift started. We were sitting together, and you are looking at me with a look that, if I did not know better, if I did not know that no matter how much something looks like something it can always be something else, I would say is love for another person made visual. But I know it wasn’t actually that. But if I could have believed such a thing could be conveyed in a look, that photo would have been a pretty good argument maker. Like I said, it can be very strange that we keep the things we keep. I wonder if someday you’ll still have this note, if you ever even see it, if I even ever send it, which I will, probably in thirty seconds, because I know me. But yes, strange the things we keep. Stranger, maybe, what we are left with.


Into the Present

I fled the rat’s nest I live in earlier tonight because something bad was going to happen if I didn’t. I was going to drink and break my streak of not drinking for fifty days, and I figure, this time, if that starts again I’ll drink until I'm dead.

     Went to a 9:30 screening of the 1947 Robert Mitchum film Out of the Past. Looked like a crazed homeless person. Didn’t have socks on, gym shorts, two weeks of beard growth. Not that Mitchum would mind, I figured. Grizzled guy. You don’t get many chances to see classic film noir in a theater. Death is on my mind a lot. With death on your mind that’s how you think. “Last chance to dance,” so to speak.

     I was engaged to someone who is basically Kathie Moffat, the woman who destroys Mitchum in the film. Femme fatale writ over-large. Some scenes made me jolt, given that it's not easy to encounter someone in real life who resembles a person like Kathie Moffat. Good luck with that search. Which would be a pretty screwed up search. Dystopian search. As in, why on earth are you looking for that?

     I always sit in the same seat—last row of the balcony, dead middle, so everyone else is in front of me. For some reason that matters to me. Not sure why. Don’t like the feeling of having my back exposed to anyone anymore. There was this guy in the front of the balcony, maybe in his early thirties, shaved head. The type of guy you think maybe should have a neck tattoo, but he didn’t. He was tearing up a plastic container, crunching a can, scrunching plastic bags. Super annoying.

     Film ends, lights go on, and everyone in the balcony—about ten people—stand up to take a look who the noise-making prick is. The floor around him is covered in ripped up items. Blanketed. There’s rudeness, and then there’s something else going on, and this had to have been that.

     There was this woman a couple of rows in front of me, early forties, very attractive, married—you always note the presence of a ring, when you go through certain things in this life—but there by herself. She had gotten a copy of the two-month schedule of films that are in stacks around the theater, and had been circling pictures she’d like to attend before the movie started. I do that. So I thought, you know—maybe. Just maybe. I’m here a lot because I have no life and I have to flee things, and she’s here a lot and maybe she’s separated and while I usually go for younger maybe—maybe—maybe.

     We were the last two to leave the balcony, discounting the noise-making guy, who is just sitting there, motionless, head in his hands, oblivious to everything. She started to walk over to him. I thought she was going to ask him if he needed assistance. She gets within seven feet, and says, in a fairly sweet voice, “Excuse me, sir, excuse me … but next time you come to the movies, could you please try to keep the noise down?”

     She turns around, gets to the top of the stairs, and says, loud enough so anyone up there could hear it, “asshole.”

     I don’t know. I felt like Mitchum in Out of the Past would have read a lot into that, having been through what he went through. Maybe that’s why I did. Maybe that’s why I thought about walking over to the dude and putting my hand on his shoulder and asking him if he needed anything. Maybe that’s why I didn’t, and walked out into the night with my head down, more aware of the wind than usual and picking up my pace as I walked into it.

Colin Fleming’s fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Post Road, Glimmer Train, Commentary, Harper’s, and AGNI, with nonfiction running in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast. He makes regular radio and podcast appearances, and his next book is Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls. @colinfleminglit