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Sally Houtman: 12 Stories from 2012

Sally Houtman (1962-2017) was an American-born writer who made her home in Wellington. The author of the non-fiction book, To Grandma’s House, We…Stay (Quick Publishing, USA), she began writing fiction and poetry in 2007 and wrote her first flashes in 2012. In that year, her work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Highly Commended in the National Flash Fiction Day competition. Sally also won Flash Frontier’s 2012 second quarter award for writing. She was a generous contributor to various online writing communities, most notably Fictionaut, and she was published at Literary Mama, Juked, Headland, Takahē and elsewhere. She will be greatly missed.
 
In 2012, Sally met the challenge we set writers: she saw her work published in each issue of Flash Frontier. In February 2013, we conducted an interview with Sally, in which she reflected back on the year she wrote this set of flash fictions, and discussed her passion for writing, her creative space and her discovery of other writers too. We share that interview again here. 

Below are Sally Houtman’s twelve flashes from 2012. The January story was the first flash fiction she ever wrote.



Safari Hats and the Colour Green

January

Your partner loves the morning. He likes his coffee strong and black. He is not afraid to touch wet paint. You are hopeless with directions. You have a tendency to blurt and stutter. You can’t seem to finish a thing. He loves footprints and footnotes and patched blue jeans. You are known to brood and oversleep. You can’t imagine why he loves you. You wish your life had liner notes.

He abhors abbreviations. He loves pure, unbridled language, the ladder-bump of compound words. You prefer your language neat. He is suited to the highlands. He loves safari hats and the colour green. He longs for fields with no fences, the gravel crunch of new frontier. You are suited to the grasslands. You like map-dot travel and compass points. You’re accustomed to long, grey winter mornings, to dust-fogged windows and dream-splintered sleep. You love nothing more than daydreams. He loves nothing more than you.

He loves the bite of ripe, tart apples. He lives for take-offs and landings, the throat-catch thrill of flight. He is crazy about jazz tempos, loves the music’s dervish spin. You are troubled by things that have no entrance or exit, by music that has no beginning and no end. Mornings he rises, shaves quickly, never lingers. Mornings you dawdle at the mirror. You stand, head cocked at an angle, eyes screwed up tight, staring hard into the glass. One day, you think, you just might see what he sees.


Burn

February

“Mind if I open a window?” I say, still angry from this morning. I wipe sweat from the back of my neck with my hand. You are in bed reading, TV on. There is an argument going on in the flat upstairs. The cat is pacing sentry-style across the hardwood floor.

You turn a page in your book, lift one shoulder. “It’s a free country,” you say.

*

The voices upstairs are louder now, more distinct. On TV a fire up north rages out of control. My throat feels tight, my mouth dry. The cat is on the window ledge, head askew, looking outside. “Can I get you a drink?” I say.
You nod.

*

I go to the fridge and take out a beer. The voices above reach a crescendo, begin to subside. Outside a dog barks once. A car alarm blares. The air inside feels static, close, the way air feels at the end of a summer with very little rain. I feed the cat and fill your glass.

*

I slip beneath the cotton sheet, stretch out beside you, staring up. The ceiling fan turns in lazy circles, but moves no air. The fire up north continues to rage. It is quiet upstairs. You light a cigarette, turn away, inhale. I watch the tip flare, glowing red. I fill my lungs and close my eyes, wondering how you can do it, how you can set things alight and not watch them burn.


The sky on that day

March

Perhaps it was her eyes. Or the late November rain. Or perhaps the sky on that day was a particularly uncommon shade of grey. He couldn’t say. But he went there anyway, forced his shoulder against the wind, felt the pull.
With his head bowed forward he stood on the footpath across the street from her house. There was a quickening of pulse, a catch in his throat. What rippled through him in that moment, you could say, was something like desire.

*

Perhaps it was his mind, his thoughts having ceased their forward motion. Or the edges of his memory buckling from the weight of so much time. Or perhaps the paint on the fence had faded to that uncommon shade of grey. He couldn’t say. But years later he returned.

With the winter in his hair he lingered in the shadows across the street from her house. His hands were in his pockets, his trousers hitched up with a piece of string. There were no curtains on the windows, no footprints in the snow. What rippled through him in that moment, you could say, was something like regret.


Do you remember…

April

Do you remember, Saturday, 6 a.m., waking on some mattress, an elbow digging at your chin. Do you remember ragged breathing, the stale smell of smoke and liquor, your stockinged feet on a black and white tiled floor.
Do you remember showering in a strange apartment, scrubbing hard, the reddened eyes of your reflection. Do you remember gathering clothes peeled off the night before.

Do you remember trying to remember, the stop-motion jerky footage of the evening. Headlights. Streetlights. A squinting, starless sky.

And do you remember slipping through that doorway, the same doorway you knew must have let you in. Do you remember pausing on the footpath, fingertips pressed against your lips, a trembling something just beneath your skin.
Do you remember heading homeward, how you paced your steps – heel to toe, heel to toe – avoiding the cracks, and all the while you were thinking, thinking, thinking that somewhere out there something must be breaking, someone lying to their partner, someone playing a guitar.

And do you remember sitting, knees together, at the bus stop, wondering just when your party ended, when you’d ever started thinking you could connect the scattered dots inside you with the slim salvation of cheap whiskey and strangers’ beds.

And do you remember, once again, asking yourself if it was worth it, when all you have to show for your striving is the hole in your pocket.

And the new bruise rising on your cheek.


To Dislodge –

May

1. Brace yourself

Forget about why he left you. Forget the whole last year. It never happened. Hit delete. Forget about your thinning skin and the grey that flecks your hair. Today your divorce is final. Today is the day everything will change. When people ask you how you’re doing, tell them you’re just fine. When your sister asks you out to dinner, don’t make excuses. Take off the silver locket he’d had engraved with your initials. Tie your hair back with a ribbon. Put on some mascara. Go.

2. Hold tight

At dinner, make small talk with the waiter. Comment on the prawn cocktail. Ask about your nephew’s job. When the couple at a nearby table coos and giggles, leaning close, smile quietly to yourself. Remember you got the house and the car and the cat. If you feel a tug of envy, take a sip of water. Think about your ex’s bald spot. Think about his sweat-stained shirts. Picture him with his short-skirted tennis coach, her on top, his beer gut jiggling like unmoulded flan.

3. Pull free

Notice the tall man at the salad bar, between the olives and the tub of baby greens. Ask your sister if he smiled at you. Swear he did. Feel an ache crawl up from your belly and settle between your breasts. Leave your sister at the table. Say you need some air. Step out onto the verandah and lean against the railing. Remember how it feels to breathe.


What Lily Knew

June

She knew she wanted more. More than wiping down counters and staring into vacant eyes. More than the all-day creak of sensible shoes and the all-night vibrato of her daddy’s drunken rage.
So the first time Elgin Stafford came into the diner on his heavy-booted stride, Lily, with sleeves rolled down to hide the imprints left by Daddy’s fingers, touched her fingertips to her lips while smiling, and refilled his coffee seven times.

Elgin twice more sat in Lily’s station, brushed her hand with his rough and callused fingers, and Lily felt something slack go taut inside. So without regard to pedigree or manners, without regard for the ring that glanced between his left hand’s middle finger and his pinky, that day she let him take her home.
And the next time Daddy cinched his grip around her forearm, called her names reserved for livestock, Lily twisted free and let the screen door slam. With Elgin waiting on the front porch, she hitched her bag over one shoulder, took two steps towards him and let him take her by the hand.

Then, with Elgin at the wheel, her bare feet dangling out the window, they did a gravel-spitting fuck-u-turn right there in Daddy’s drive. Because Lily knew, sure as the sun will rise, that all her double shifts and empty cupboards, all her aching muscles and her promised comforts, could not outweigh what could be held in the curved palm of a stranger’s hand.


(Looking for) the underside of white

July

Thursday and it’s time to leave. It’s not your fault. It’s what I do. Pull an arrow from my quiver and fire away. Another failed attempt to hit the target. One more casualty of Cupid’s misguided aim.

Inside I’ve got this yearning for imbalance, a need to feel dizzy and dumb-footed – my father’s dull-toothed longing for the road. One day I might shake this need to seek the passing of scenery, the safety of a doorway. But not today.

There are things I’ve kept hidden. Fractures in the mortar, damage done by another – secrets snugly held. I am a shutter-shift of forward motion, a thing that scatters when you try to draw it near. Loving me is like trying to find the ghost inside the shadow. Like looking for the underside of white.

If you ask me why today, I couldn’t tell you. There was just something about that womb-dark Wednesday sky – a kind of negative pressure in the void. I lay awake as the hours ticked past, uneasy in the darkness. The whole night and not one single star.

Morning now. I fold your shirts, then tip the blinds and peer outside. The day is still, no clouds only the parallel trails of jets raking an otherwise perfect sky. I do the dishes and let the water run, thinking about the last time you kissed me, the hug that lasted too long.

Thursday and it’s time to leave. It’s not your fault. It’s what I do.


Soliloquy

August

At the director’s cue she crosses the stage and positions herself in the jewelled light. For weeks she’d practised her soliloquy before the mirror, pulling out the stitches of her own identity, wrapping her fingers tightly around the role. She gestures with one hand, palm extended, as rehearsed, lets her chin drop for just a moment and then begins to speak.

Ask me what is love and I will tell you. It is but a brittle canopy of illusion, born of wild stupidity and faith. Speak not to me of love, that chaste and tandem gaf that makes the songbird weep.

Turning her inflection upward she feels her breathing quicken, the iambic beat of her heart. She is surprised by the fire in her tone. As a child she’d dreamed of a fabled world, free of fighting, where she was someone’s princess and even in whispers, she was heard. In character, she is unbound, her words both nimble and precise. She touches her fingertips to her lips and lets the lines fall free.

Speak to me, instead, of desire! Let me hear its faint and jilted wisdom. Let me rest my foot upon its stair.

Centre-stage in medias res, she feels a peace she has rarely known. Later, standing in her dull-hued bathroom, one hand pressed against the sink, she will be playing to a different truth, bowing to an incandescent glow. But for now, in the twinkling, winking light she shines, if only for a little while.


Du livre de sa vie (from the book of his life)

September

1.
They met at a faculty mixer, she the hard-bound historian, he the loose-leaf literary type. He complimented her necklace. She commented on his shoes. In the weeks that followed they sat on the lawn beneath spun-sugar clouds, debated Descartes, read poetry in French. “Free will,” she said, looking up, “is an illusion.” He laughed. “An illusion,” he said, “is just the truth in comfortable shoes.”

2.
They attended the theatre, ate pretentious foods from too-large plates, faced the days headlong without regard for the angle of the sun. She discovered flat-pack furniture, dreamed of colour wheels and designer jeans. He discovered a call for a professorship across the sea, dreamed of a desk that knew the weight of his elbows, a Main Street that turned into the Champs Elysées.

3.
When the letter came he held it tightly. He dimmed the lights, stood at the window to wait. At the news she reared back, an automatic response. “Think of it as an opportunity,” he said. “A new beginning for us both.” “Opportunity,” she said, “is just goodbye in fancy dress.” On the way to the airport he counted pylons. They drove without saying a word.

4.
The cab moved along the Place de la Concord, streetlights passing in a pearled blur. There was electricity in the dry summer air. He eased back, stretched his legs. The rush of passing traffic seemed to whisper on y est presque / on y est presque – nearly there / nearly there.


Two Flights Down

October

Every Saturday we go with Mama, take the bus to the three-storey house. We stay upstairs, Sophie and me, while Mama works. It’s our job to fold the washing. She brings us the basket filled with sheets, pillowcases, fluffy towels, warm from the dryer, smelling lemony and sweet. When Mama’s gone we play a game. We knot the sheets around our heads, drape our shoulders. We are angels, brides, fairies, sheiks, sometimes peacocks, the washcloths our tails. The house is big with white walls and a twisty marble staircase. We can hear Mama in the kitchen, rattle-clatter-clink, sounds echoing through the halls.

Sophie stands on the bed, arms outstretched. She flings the sheet and twists. She is a dancer, centre stage. Her dark hair hangs loose around her shoulders, lit by a skylight above. The room has cushy carpet, closets filled with boxes, dresses, shoes. I wonder what it would be like to have a cupboard just for handbags, a coat for every season. Sophie giggles. Downstairs I hear water running, metal clattering, woosh-klunk-splosh, Mama singing a gospel song.

We lie on the bed beneath mounds of linens, look up through the window. We are dolphins, Sophie and me, swimming in the white-capped waves. Sophie’s breath is warm against my neck. From two flights down I still hear Mama, laa-la-aah, her voice a cello-hum. I reach for Sophie’s hand, squeeze her fingers. It’s all I need, just Sophie’s breath and Mama’s singing and a perfect square of sky.


Dilation

November

Wilton likes the names of things. In the optician’s office he leans in close, studies the diagram pinned to the wall. Pupil. Cornea. Optic Nerve. The eye reduced to its component parts. He admires the precision of anatomical drawings, the way they map the body’s topography with primary colours and clean, clear lines.

Touching a fingertip to the drawing, he traces a triangular hollow between the retina and its partnering veins. He blinks, eyes tearing from the administered drops. As his pupils widen, letting in more light, the dissected eye appears to swell and waver. The room takes on a silvery sheen. He steadies himself, eyelids fluttering, searching for visual footing. Width and depth merge to murky blurs.

He blinks hard, eyes squeeze tight, triggering a branching after-image like luminous veins, jittery clefts and ridges webbing outward, splitting, opening into an inward mind’s eye spiral and he feels like he is slipping, heart racing with the sense of something passing, speeding backwards, time, dreams, things lost, images of the before and the forgotten, and he tenses, resisting its pull, but the trapped light pushes deeper, penetrating layers, doing what it will, and in the distance something flickers, a tiny spark of cosmic something, one small speck of star-stuff, and he reaches out, fingers clasping, opening his eyes.

PupilCorneaOpticNerve. An edgeless swirl of words and colours. A muddle, he thinks, but with an awkward, discordant kind of beauty. Like an abstract painting. Or the artwork of a child.


The seasons, it is said…

December

It is said they met in autumn, with the shadows at drowsy angles, in the clearing where the field sloped steeply towards the hidden creek. She caught his eye in the curious light, kneeling in the clover, thick curls hooked behind one ear. Perhaps it was the gentle way she clipped the roses that made him want to know her, who she was, how she thought. He approached her, bashful, grinning, buttoning and unbuttoning his jacket, blunt-nailed fingers fumbling slits. A glance of sideways approval and he was smitten. He received her smile like a gift.

*

In spring they wed beneath the petal trestle. She gave him a paintbrush with squint coral pigments. He gave her a drainpipe and a tarnished gong. At home she managed book and ledger, kept the teapot full. He worked on conduit and woodpile, hollowed pits for seedlings in their broad backyard. Winters came with heavy footsteps. Summers lingered, long in stride. Twenty years his senior, he knew one day she’d leave him, as all breathing things will do.

*

It is said the day she died the clocks ran backwards. Starlings wrestled with their warbles. The skies filled but gave no rain. Decades later, some say that you can see him at the window, a silhouette of shadows, searching for her in the hinged wing of the sparrow, in the twisted branches of the cypress tree. Forever he is watching, waiting for the seasons to cycle back around again.


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