H Visits the Hardware Store

Each flaps gently on its peg, a bird’s wing. H fingers the shiny gold letters: A. B. C. J. L. Z. Z. The numbers: 2. 2. 5. 7. 9. 0. flutter at his fingertips. The hardware store’s floor is rough, with a few malicious splinters haywire from the long, worn boards. Shards. Edges he’d like to touch. A quick, musty smell. It’s there for a second, and then the bustle takes over.

    He and his mother, slender in short pumps, have stopped in the hardware on their way home from lunch on Saturday afternoon. As they walk down the sidewalk hand in hand, her flowered skirt swings with the breeze and light. H is always happy in this childhood of his; he’s always walking down softly lit streets with breezes and flowers holding his mother’s hand. Candy Store, Tailor, Donut Shop, Grocery. His endless world, holding his mother’s hand. All minutes, every minute from the time he was born, leading to this one in the hardware store, Saturday.

    His mother buying paint, Canary Yellow, for the powder room under the stairwell. In the front of the store, someone is getting a key made, the metal saw cutting the jigsaw piece that keeps people in; people out.

    H has no boundaries. He is eight years old, fingering luminescent letters and numbers hanging from a rotating pegboard display. He is eye level with H, with 8. Everything leading up to this moment—Mr. Y leaning over the key making machine; his mother in the back of the store picking Canary Yellow from a narrow card of bright yellows marching toward lime green, flirting with homely Mr. Z as her paint can purrs in the shaking machine. She touches Mr. Z’s fat wrist, touches her slim throat, laughs. He will give her a 10% discount.

    H takes two letters: D. M. Cups them in his palm, hard and glossy; fitted and perfect. With these letters—silly adhesive rectangles that help decent people mark their mailboxes, their doors—anything is possible. The power starts in his fingertips, works—throbbing—through his wrists, up his arms with a gentle tingle. Traveling, traveling. He slides the letters into his pocket.

    His mother’s heels on the wooden floor. He can smell her salty perfume before she’s at his side. Flooding him, her smell, her. His life. She can’t see the change. She thinks she’s squatting down to look at the same loving, obedient boy. She can’t tell.

    H is serious—steady—looking into his mother’s eyes. She ruffles his bangs, says, “Look at you. I’m done now. That wasn’t so long, was it?”

    She can’t tell.

    His mother looks at the shiny letters.

    Gold. They are pure gold.

    She taps a few lightly with pink fingernails; they swing and bob.

    “Here. Look. Can you spell your name?”

They’re driving, the can of Canary Yellow wedged between them, a dollop of perfect creamy color dried on top. H runs his finger over the spot. Thinking, Canary, canary, canary. Creamy. Caraway. Custard.

    “Could we get an ice cream?”

    He watches her, his letters burning a hole in his pocket. A flame on his thigh, through his shorts, that he doesn’t dare touch.

    It’s his world now, not about sharing thoughts or telling the truth, not about sin. This is something she doesn’t know.

    The first step into the unknown. Here is where the story begins.

Mother Paints the Bathroom

The paint is thick—a milkshake spreading over space and time. Mother covers the sink with an old, speckled sheet, uses a step stool, hums secret songs. Later, H will crumple the sheet, hug it to smell the sweet, acid yellow once again.    

    The bathroom is shining and new, a tiny morning sun rising under the stairs.

    Mother slaps her hands together one-two, smiles at H.

    “We’re handy, aren’t we?”

    H smiles, not answering yes or no, not knowing how he’s expected to commit to this efficiency. He is somber and worried.

    H has hidden the gold adhesive letters under the bed and in his shirt drawer. They are sacred and baffling. He thinks about owning, having. He never wants to decide on a color for a bathroom; never wants to flirt with the ugly hardware man; never wants to walk confidently into a room, smiling, with his hand extended.

    H wants to be invisible. A ghost. A fine, evening mist.

    It comes to him, like a fever, through his toes to the ends of his ears—bright pink. He fingers his lobes—rubber, elastic—nudges the knotted lines of embroidery on the quilt his mother has hand-stitched for his bed. Each uniform square is another bird: Robin. Finch. Eagle. Blue jay. Boxes bordered with solid, green squares with white stitches running through.

    Theft: the moment of decision. This will be his sentence: to take quietly in the slanting light of day. Beyond his mother, beyond the canary, beyond the tiny specks of yellow accidentally splayed onto the wooden floor by her waving brush.

    Later, framed by dim afternoon light, H lies on the floor in the foyer, picking slowly at the freckled flecks. A tiny chip, a memory, a dream—his cheek flat against the hard, unforgiving wood as his finger traces each glossy pinpoint. The floor is endless and cold, the oak slats running away, taunting, daring him to think as far as infinity while his mother is shopping at the market. He falls asleep this way, across the doorway, face first. His mother returns, a shuffle of bags and carrots and cartons of milk. A jostle of keys. Heels. Perfume. When she turns, she believes H is dead.

Sherrie Flick is author of the flash fiction chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume Press). Recent anthologies include two from Norton: New Sudden Fiction and Flash Fiction Forward as well as You Have Time for This (Ooligan Press). A recipient of a 2007 Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship, she lives in Pittsburgh where she is co-founder and artistic director of the Gist Street Reading Series.

photo by Heather Mull

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Sherrie Flick

Inside, No, Further In:

Two Stories