The Known Unknowns

[flash fiction]

1.

What do we know about her, a retired social worker, wife to a stubborn sonofabitch who refused to evacuate when the big one finally came? What does it say about the sonofabitch that he teaches conservation law, that his eyebrows go untrimmed, that he jogs in day-glo short-shorts each evening along the flooded path of the streetcar line? What did it mean when he struck his youngest with an open palm that same sweltering summer, when he tucked the boy into bed later that night in his softest hand-me-down shirt—the one from the marathon that blew his knee out—and then sat cross-legged in a chair in the hallway, his fingers working little chunks of paper from the pages until the boy was asleep? What does she say to him when they speak to each other in French, their voices tense but volume capped somewhere just below shouting, each with one eye on the children wheeling their plastic dump trucks in the garden? What words does she recite when the sun sets and he still hasn’t returned from canoeing in the swamp, when she knows he purposely tries to get lost, just a little more earnestly each year, even as his body thins out, dries up, crackles like tinder when he walks? What kind of love knows that he truly lives to be alone?

2.

We might think she’s chosen to be the stitches for a man bent on unraveling. We might make easy metaphors about a city and its people, each duty-bound by momentum to raise the stilts and keep going. Some questions likely don’t have an answer beyond the fact that he suspects, in ways he wouldn’t articulate to himself, that he is himself still a child, that striking his boy proves he will always be one, and although this suspicion is a source of dread for him, it is also a strange and bitter reassurance. He likes, for instance, that they’d made a game of speaking French to each other around the kids, taking something originally meant to hide their fights and using it to talk about the things they’d otherwise lost the words to say.

And when he’s gone, alone in the woods or the swamp, no calls past dark and the empty driveway visible through the open front door, she will say a few of those words like a chant over a mug of tea. For her kind of love is only sentimental at the surface—hand-holding after dinner, a weekly picnic on the river levee when summer heat gives way to fall. The core of her love is pragmatism. Let it be quick, she’ll say to the tea. Let it be quick, and let him be alone.

3.

Tomorrow New Orleans will bulldoze one hundred vacant homes. Three people will be shot, and a car fire at the I-10 onramp will stop traffic from mid-city all the way uptown, a line of honking cars that he will bike past on his way to work, still sleepy from making it home late, his mind still on the blackness of the water at sunset, the canoe still atop their battered station wagon, duckweed and a film of sulfurous mud still caked to his shins. She will walk the dog, past the neighborhood trees that survived the storm, past the toy figurines from her sons’ toy chest that she’s left in their branches as talismans, and home again to their sunwashed kitchen for tea, a check of weather, and a long, unquiet silence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGabriel Houck is originally from New Orleans, and studies in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has MFAs in writing from the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Iowa, and his work has appeared in Drunken Boat, Flyway, Spectrum, Sweet, Western Humanities Review, American Literary Review, Grist, PANK, The Pinch, Moon City Review, The Adirondack Review, Fourteen Hills, and Mid American Review, where he was lucky enough to win the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize. He is currently working on his first short story collection, along with a nonfiction manuscript about a creationist museum in Kentucky.