Flash Fiction by Tara Van De Mark
When We Get Old
When we get old we imagine we will drive slowly. Slouching low in the front seat, Arden and I prepare for this future after school. Our heads are barely visible above the dashboard. We go ten miles under the speed limit down 34th Street. Weaving through the neighborhood we take only narrow single lane roads, trapping dozens of cars behind us. The windows stay open, no matter the weather, so we can hear the cacophony of horns honking at us to go faster. Here we can’t be ignored. In crinkly old lady voices we yell over the din, “Martha, do you hear something?”
Coming to a complete stop with our blinker on, slowly, carefully, one hand over the other, we turn onto Fulton Street. But wait, our hands slip from the wheel because we have so much loose skin. We must take a break, never mind that we are blocking both lanes of traffic, we need to rest. Behind us, frustrated cars jostle and beep, they drive up onto the sidewalk or into the wrong lane to pass us. The metal bumper has been hit three times, each forceful head jerk provided a release from the now.
Truthfully the car is the only convincing prop in our old lady performance art. I was tossed the keys to the gray Mercedes from my childhood, still with good German heft but outdated enough that neither parent wanted to drive it. It was exactly the kind of car my own grandmother drove for decades because there is no way in hell she was buying a new one just to die the next day.
Other than the car, pretending we are old means scrunching everything up, our bodies, our faces, our voices, we even tuck in our shirts and pull up our skirts to just below our pretend sagging breasts. Walking pelvis first out of class is our way of getting into character and getting the hell out of there. The best part, other than the honking, is using our crackly old women voices to shout zingers like, “Gertrude, what is that smell? I think you shat your pants.” or “Why yes Betty, double gin martinis for dinner sounds scrumptious!” Once we chewed an entire pack of bubble gum and molded the gooey mess over our teeth then pretended our dentures had fallen out. This made us laugh so hard we swerved into the wrong lane and knocked the side mirror off of a Land Rover.
But then Claire, a fellow loser, invited us to her house for a sleepover. We included her in our old lady ride but she refused to slouch or scrunch and had no crinkly quips. Instead, she looked unamused, tapped the ash from her cigarette and asked, “How much longer ’til my house?” Then we saw ourselves as we are, stupid rich white girls who caused accidents and traffic without reason or consequence. Now I can’t imagine driving slowly again, even when we get old.
Putting My Dad’s Toolbox to Use
After showering until the water is cold and my skin sunburn red, I pack an overnight bag as if traveling for the firm. The letter from my landlord’s son, Charlie, is on my bed, notice of a 10% rent increase. It isn’t about the money, I could buy this place outright, it’s that Charlie should have called, introduced himself, told me his mother died, and talked it through. Instead, the letter felt like the cold of my childhood winters when the power would be cut. No one called then either, just sent letters, each time a different color until finally I would wake-up under my covers warmed only by my own breath.
It takes just a few twists of Dad’s old Phillips head to remove all the screws in the water heater flue pipe. I do it in my silk pajamas. Dad’s toolbox, filled with tools he lifted over the years, was my only inheritance when he orphaned me ten years ago. Although I claim my five carat diamond studs were a gift from my great-aunt, in reality I never knew any of my aunts or uncles. The expansion joint in the middle of the flue comes apart easily and I leave a half inch gap for the carbon monoxide to escape. Then, to accentuate the effect of a delinquent plumber, I tie the flue to the ceiling with a wire, causing an upward grade. Dad would be proud, he used similar schemes to make sure his seasonal job at the RV camp lasted most of the year.
The CO alarm goes off at 3am. As I dial 911, I inhale and exhale quickly in order to sound panicked. Otherwise my voice lacks affect. Firefighters show-up in full equipment with axes and crowbars. They are so big only three can fit in the basement utility room. A lethal amount of carbon monoxide is detected near the furnace, which is directly under the flue. They cut off the gas and leave. When the police would leave our house after one of Dad’s episodes Mom would remind me, “they can stop the threat but they can’t fix the problem.” I call Charlie and keep redialing until he picks up then talk fast about poisoning, below freezing temperatures, and inhabitable conditions. He groggily agrees to pay for my hotel.
Charlie sounds worse twelve hours later when he says I need to stay in the hotel for another night. He explains that the furnace technician replaced the heat exchanger but found no leak and recommended a plumber. I am impressed — furnace techs managed to replace the most expensive part of the furnace without it being broken. I feel like celebrating and order enough room service that the bill comes to more than a 10% increase in this month’s rent. The plumber fixes the flue and manages to upsell Charlie on a tankless hot water heater. There is no way Charlie owns even a screwdriver.
Stepping onto the sidewalk a few weeks later a dead pigeon inspires me. Scooping up the bird and some nearby trash, I climb onto the roof, use Dad’s flathead to remove the chimney cap and dump it all in. The CO takes a few days to buildup. When my neighbors call I am in LA for work. Charlie’s message explained that the firefighters had to break down the door since I was unresponsive, the plumber and furnace tech couldn’t figure it out but the chimney sweep found a pigeon and a nest.
Two dozen live feeder mice were waiting for my pickup when Charlie called to say he was selling the house. I barely listened to his monologue about a pregnant wife, cost of upkeep, and living out of state. Instead, I was rereading my lease to verify it had a right of first refusal and emailing my regrets to the pet store. If Dad was alive he would have taken all the credit and moved into the guest bedroom permanently. He liked to claim the world owed him. At least I would have had a handyman onsite.
Tara Van De Mark is a recovering attorney now writer based in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Cerasus Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Tiny Molecules, CP Quarterly, On The Seawall, and The Mark Literary Review. She can be found at www.taravandemark.com and lurks around twitter @TaraVanDeMark
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela.