It’s funny what inspires. I wrote a new piece of flash fiction that was inspired by a thing of beauty, and my mind twists and turns and transforms this thing into something complex, more compelling (I think). I work at the top of a hill, overlooking other lovely hills, and nearly everyday I drive or walk past them. When I’m having a rough day I’ll stare at them and they help me remember my dumb luck to be dropped in this place and time, free to write and work and live in a level of comfort that can easily be taken for granted.
This is mostly schmaltz, but mostly true as well.
I watched a TV show about desert homesteads in Southern California, these forgotten time capsules surrounded by western brilliance. It made me wonder what it would be like to wake up every morning and face a landscape shivering with significance and imbued with spirit. Then I think of my hills, and I remember that I have a slice of that in my hands.
My next step is to outline a longer short story, returning to longer work and using lessons learned from my class to create something a bit tighter and more fluid. We’ll see.
I once saw a house slide down a hill and break to pieces.
I was out for a walk after there had been heavy rain. I thought I would stuff my hands in my pockets and sniff the air, be thoughtful and appreciate the clear sky. The neighborhood is hilly, and every day I have this nice little uphill walk to my apartment that I mostly take for granted except after it rains. On my way to the market I kept my eyes open for worms working themselves out of the mud and thought I might take one home and let it live with my tomato vine.
So I was walking up this hill, looking but not really looking, and I’ll be honest all I had in my head at the time was a running grocery list and the throb of a hangover. There was one house on a small adjacent hill. It was an ancient Victorian that someone had renovated at some point and I know because every so often I was blinded by the sun hitting an enormous A/C unit on the roof. It looked like a shiny tumor and spoiled the whole aesthetic. But at least they had air conditioning when last summer I was pretending to have a sweltering newborn at home so that the salesman at Sears would give me his last window unit.
Most people here are friendly, and I am too for the most part, but I never knew who lived in the Victorian. Sometimes I saw evidence of a family from far away, like a scooter on the porch or bright beach towels drying on the balcony. One night on the way home from the bar I had a friend who asked about it and talked about how out of place it seemed among Malibu-style bungalows and mid-century fixer-uppers. I shrugged and he looked at the stained glass windows and speculated about ghosts and axe murder.
A sick crack. This was the same phrase used by a witness to a woman run over by a car as he recalled the crushing of her skull and neck, and I’ll use it here. I later learned that the crack was the sound of concrete foundation coming apart when weak earth and gravity decided to team up against it. The beautiful Victorian ripped up the fresh grass and moss and all the stuff that made the hill itself beautiful. Then it showed me its goods, like a guy with a trench coat full of watches. It was hard to make out anything too specific from my view, but I did spy a mint green stove, a gaudy watercolor, and what I could have sworn was a fainting couch. The noise stopped, and a green scarf that had been picked up by the wind fluttered onto the rubble.
It happened, then it was over.
But I tell you, I didn’t do a thing.
I was supposed to scream and cover my mouth and run and cry and call the police, call the ambulance, call the Channel 4 News at 11. I stood there and watched it happen, then waited for fellow witnesses to show themselves. When no one did I walked to the grocery store and bought eggs, apples, tuna and a head of lettuce.
For weeks I thought about the Victorian. I refused to watch TV because I didn’t want to see the inevitable close-up of a teddy bear with its arm ripped off or the splintered twin bed with dinosaur sheets. I had made up my mind that something gruesome had occurred. But I kept catching scraps of conversation that had infected the neighborhood. I started assembling these scraps into a cohesive narrative of those ten seconds. It was a tale of luck and bad luck, and one that will probably never be told in this neighborhood again on account of new zoning laws and mudslide warnings and all the things put in place after someone dies in a strange and preventable way.
I never heard about a need for witnesses. Otherwise I would have called the police and told them my story. Maybe. Or maybe they’d ask me why I didn’t call them at the time and I would have to tell them that my pantry was empty and I was sick from drinking and my head was pounding and all I wanted to do was get some fresh, cold air in my lungs for a few minutes and maybe grab a few worms. They would not look kindly on my response.
I didn’t walk by the hill for two months. I took a longer route to my apartment and dispensed of the pleasant strolls. When I did have to walk by it I’d looked down and move fast. But after a while I couldn’t control myself because the force of the incident – the spirit of the house – was too strong. It pulled my head sideways. There it was. A bruise, a brown smear that grass was reluctant to reclaim. The absence of memory and place. A Victorian ghost with nothing left to haunt.