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Flash fiction by Sam Martone, Knox '11

We Knew How to Sweat

Around here, the humidity curls your hair, even at night. The poorer girls, the night before prom, they don’t even go to a hairdresser. They set up a nice comfortable chair in the front yard of their houses and sleep in the spring heat. Then they show up at the country club in their pretty dresses, traces of foam still around their mouths from where the teeth-whitening strips melted, their hair in perfect little spirals.

Prom just makes me think of backseats. Most of my friends, they didn’t even go to prom. Rented a tux but then skipped to the main event with their sweethearts. My girl and me, most nights, there was no place for us to be alone but the back of a car. We’d go down to the lake docks, or to the elementary school parking lot, or sometimes to this unfinished neighborhood behind her own. It was a suburban maze of roads lined with dim streetlights and houses in various stages of completion. Sometimes there was just a single wall standing over a tile floor, the open air on three sides. When we drove through this neighborhood, with the windows down, our music bounced around these lone walls. When we didn’t play music, there were echoes of things we couldn’t hear.

The weirdest, though, were the fully built houses, normal except for that blank emptiness inside them. No furniture, no television glow, no framed photos hanging. You could see it all, all that nothing, through the unshuttered windows.

One night in summer, my girl and me, we were in my dad’s car way in the back of that ghost neighborhood, parked in the curve of a cul-de-sac. Couldn’t leave the car running, couldn’t afford the gas. It was so hot, every time we moved, we had to peel ourselves from the leather interior, from each other’s skin. We were soaked. I kept saying that I wanted her outside, it was too hot in here, but I stopped when I saw something moving out there across the street from us.

I cursed loudly, my pulse feeling like it was trying to escape my wrist, and started pulling my pants up. She reached around in the dark, frantic, for her shirt and panties. I was about to start the car, ready to get the hell out of there, but then I saw it again and relaxed. It was a deer. We looked together and saw, further away, it wasn’t just one deer, but a whole herd, dozens. Bucks and does and fawns, emerging from the dark trees at the edge of the neighborhood, just roaming around. They moved together, a huge body of deer, but also pulled apart from each other, rippling, the way river water does as it’s pulled towards the ocean. So many deer and all these half-built houses. We felt like the world had ended and we were the only survivors, but then we remembered her curfew.

We had to dry our hair before I could take her home, so we drove around the empty neighborhood for a while, the air conditioning on full blast. Her hair was lifted up around her shoulders, flowing behind her like she was a model. It was curlier than I had ever seen it by the time I walked her to the door. People started moving in the next fall, the houses suddenly complete, kids playing on the sidewalks, lights going on at night. We couldn’t park there anymore. Everything was so full.

I don’t know that I’m old enough to know what nostalgia is, but there’s something about leaving the place you grew up that puts this insurmountable distance between you and yourself, the version of yourself that held that girl’s hand. And that girl, the only other person on the planet to see a great cloud of deer in the middle of the humid night, she’s been living a whole 'nother life and there’s no room for you when you come back. When you come back to this town, the humidity is the only thing that’s the same, the way the air itself sweats. I guess the point of the story is, that’s not me in that car in the pharmacy parking lot after prom, that silhouette moving behind the fogged-up glass. It could’ve been me once, but not anymore.

Sam's definition of flash fiction:

Flash Fiction n. Not a flash in the pan, nor that faraway flicker of heat lightning. Or at least it
shouldn’t be: it should be close, the kind of bright flash that makes you squint, the kind where
you can hear the heavy thunder roll in right behind, doesn’t give you a split second to catch your
breath. It should be like when you were a thirteen-year-old boy, watching late night television,
and every girl in a bikini that showed up on screen, you got that thrill in your chest, hoping
something might slip past the censors, she might flash her breasts. That’s the kind of thing that
happens in the dark, right? The kind of thing that is supposed to be secret, kept away? The flash
illuminates. It shows us something that might otherwise go unseen. Words arranged to provide
the same light as a camera flash, to capture that image, to cast those tall shadows looming behind
us. Flash fiction is non-poetry, it is prose stripped to the whitest bones, it doesn’t dress itself up
to be flashy. It is something comforting. Like on those lonely two-lane highways late at night, the
moon obscured by clouds, when the only car you’ve seen for miles—does he? Yes, he flashes
his lights at you, just before you pass, and you feel you have shared something, you feel you are
safe.

Sam Martone is a creative writing major from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.