“Are you there? Hello?” The voice breaks a little on the final oh. The sound of a foot scuffing against pavement. “Talk to me!” The distant wail of an ambulance — or is it a coyote? The paper’s been reporting more and more of them in the area, killing housepets and alarming the parents of small children.

“Hello? Hello?” Yellow light and the smell of curry spill from a window over on the far side of the parking lot. The figure at the pay phone is a dim outline in the deepening dusk. It doesn’t sound like any of the neighbors.

“Are you there? Listen, I can’t even tell if that’s your breathing, or just something on the line. Hello?”

A very long silence this time. Then in a low voice: “Just one word, O.K.? One word. It could even be ‘goodbye,’ if you that’s what you’re thinking. Just so I know you’re alive, and I’m not talking to myself.”

A car swings into the parking lot, illuminating for a couple seconds a hunched figure whose elongate shadow tracks across the face of the building like the hand of a backwards clock.

The car door slams, and the footsteps quickly retreat toward the far entrance, followed by several minutes of silence — or what passes for silence around here. It’s not a bad neighborhood. Most of us work long hours, come home, and fall asleep in front of our televisions. Weeks can pass between encounters even with the people across the hall; it can be hard to know whether a given neighbor is still there or not.

“Listen.” The voice finally resumes. “I’m sure I’ve given you plenty of reasons to give me the silent treatment. But this not knowing whether you’re there — it’s hard to take. I don’t know where you moved to. I don’t know…. Oh, hell!” The clink of coins falling into a metal well. “You people are thieves!”

Another long pause, then one final, resigned “Hello?”

The once-familiar sound of a pay phone returning to its cradle seems almost as anachronistic now as the clip-clop of a horse. Who are these people without mobile phones or Blackberries, traveling alone through their lives? “Hello,” you whisper to no one in particular. Such a funny little word! “Hello.”

9 Replies to “Missed”

  1. Love it!

    This kind of microfiction – starting in the middle, not explaining – done right (and this is) just inserts the reader into something they are carried by, syntactically and emotionally, and the projections of plot are revealed to the reader (if they’re paying attention) as entirely their own, a kind of language-Rorschachs – and and and okay enough it speaks for itself.

    Love it.

    Oh, one more thing (ha): this kind of flash also has the kind of muscular confidence many (full-length, whatever that means) short stories lack: it has nothing to prove, there is nothing fraudulent, no self-indulgent filler, no noise for the sake of itself.

    And no, I’m not saying all that just because I just did one of these myself, or like them generally, but because I like them for good reasons. : )

    People used to say short stories are the hardest form (still do say). I think they probably are, or at least understand the argument, but microfiction/flash demands a wholly different kind and quality of strength than other forms, I think, and ought to get some greater cred. for being hard as hell to do really well.

  2. Ouch.

    Almost too sad to bear. The eye for detail, social and ambient, reminds me of Jonathan Franzen. The rhythm, the order of what is revealed to the reader is more spare, teasing than Franzen. That felt very “New Yorker Magazine Fiction”. I mean that in a good way, especially an up to date 2008 NYer way, not some Golden Age reference. Maybe like this short story, “LBJ” by David Foster Wallace.

    I think I empathize because of a long distance breakup I had via telephone circa 1997.

  3. Dick – Thanks. That what I was aiming for.. though since I still don’t have a mobile phone myself, it wasn’t hard to put myself in this mindframe.

    marly@2 – Probably not, but I’ll keep it in mind as a possiblity. (I think many of the posts I’ve categorized as stories may star more or less the same protagonists, though.)

    Theriomorph – I’m glad you felt this worked. I never even heard the term flash fiction until after I started posting these kinds of things to Via Negativa back in 2004 — one of many ways in which blogging has shaped my writing, I think. And of course many of the habits of a poet — present tense, willingness to use sentence fragments, a comfort with implied or ambiguous narratives — serve one well in this medium.

    Evan – I’m flattered you think my stuff is worthy of the New Yorker. Sorry this provoked some unwelcome memories.

  4. And of course many of the habits of a poet — present tense, willingness to use sentence fragments, a comfort with implied or ambiguous narratives — serve one well in this medium.


    I think ‘flash’ or ‘micro’ fiction are about as specific and useful as ‘prose poetry’ or ‘lyric prose’ – ie: not very specific and useful only as far as they provide a way of talking about short-short form work of one kind or another.

    Blogging as influence, I can see that. For me, the stuff I like best of my own in this kind of genre came out of playwriting, oddly enough. Short dialogue often works well in this way (and this form allows for an intensity that can be lost in a larger format).

    Anyway, I like it, obviously. : )

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