Short Fiction

Leaves by August Miller

The spiced cool air blowing through the car vents comes laced with wood smoke. It is a scent that weaved its way into the fabric of childhood alongside that indoor fireplace, which had been a burning city, or a burning home, or a burning bridge, or any burning spectacle I felt should be extinguished during games of heroism in the autumn and winter months.

Trees in flaming autumn outfits spot the horizon as the road beneath a too small and too full car finally stops unraveling. I thought it never would, but I always think that. I should get a bigger car or fewer things, but I pretend that this is the last time. When locked in a box with nothing but my thoughts, it’s safer to pretend I’m going somewhere for the last time than it is to dwell on where I’ll go next. I’ve never bothered renewing a lease. I always decide to try again elsewhere.

 And then I pack my things and I drive to elsewhere. Every mile has more trees and more houses and more small towns, and I am supposed to believe they are different trees and houses and small towns, though I suspect someone of shuffling props in the cover of backroads, like a theater hand between brief curtain falls of a mundane theatrical performance. And then I feel I’ve gone nowhere when I see the fire station I had a few miles back, just tilted a little more to the right. I’m certain there’s been no progress when I spot that same tree tucked away behind that familiar house, or that same pitiful old man sitting in that faded diner where old memories cling to the tables just like the years of layered bacon grease, praying for someone to clean it all up. But then the road stops unraveling, and I picture the prop mover collapsing from exhaustion, satisfied with a job well done.

I get out of the car. I stretch my legs a bit. They are slow to respond, and I worry that this is their breaking point. I suddenly drown in a future of ruined legs. I picture them as nothing more than tools for manipulating pedals on floors. I have exhausted the search for place and emerged empty-handed; there is nowhere for my body; it has morphed into something made for searching. I feel anxiety tugging at me. I breathe. I squeeze the inside of my coat pockets. I breathe again. I can use my legs after all, though my pounding heart has not realized it yet. I open the trunk and begin to unpack my belongings, person-loads at a time.

 The cold and fiery trees create an unsteady mixture. As I make the brief trip to the apartment from my resting car, the hot engine clicking like an old man’s broken yawn, the fluttering symphony of falling leaves conspire to inform me that I am replacing another lost home, not creating a new one. What do they know? I place an armload of things onto the floor of the new apartment and return to the car for another. The leaves are still fluttering. I brush a few from the roof of my car. I think about driving all these miles, dodging terrible accidents, testing my luck, just to rest here and ruin the year-long anticipated journey of a leaf to its freedom. I feel guilty for parking beneath a tree, but there are trees everywhere.

I overthink when I under sleep, and I am prone to assign meaning to meaningless things. That’s what I am told, anyway. I turn off my mind and carry in another load. But the thoughts come slobbering back like a puppy, eager for me to appreciate their presence, biting at my leg when I try to ignore them, and ultimately winning my attention.

Soon, everything clutters the floor of a new apartment. The space is a bit too clean and a bit too nice to be welcoming. I watch it all for a moment, anxiously waiting for the contrast to awaken a mystical friction and for the whole room to burst into flames. But nothing happens. It is like forgetting to pay for a pack of gum. My heart pounds. Between heavy beats, I remember that the world does not care about sins like accidentally stolen packs of gum and old things in nice new apartments.

So, I breathe. I remind myself that I am here. I breathe in, and I breathe out. I hold on tightly to the inside of my coat pockets.

Dad had once explained that coats irritated his skin. But my brother, who had been hurt more than any of us, never complained about things like coats. Coats never bothered me. In fact, I found them comforting. I always thought Dad needed a few more reasons to stay miserable after everything had happened. It is as though he might forget if he isn’t miserable. In defiance, I hold on tighter to the inside of my warm coat pockets.

I open the new door, leaving my things unpacked, strewn about, misplaced. When I enter the cool air, I quickly stuff my hands back into the safe woolen pockets at my side and hold on tighter, as though a sudden gust of wind may carry away the warmth. I am swallowed up in the ripe melancholy of autumn. I take step after step and lull myself into blissful ignorance of my mind buzzing with dodged accidents, unpacked things, old men, lost homes and roads and prop movers. I reassure myself that I’ll be back to unpack it all.

It’s hard to say how long it had been, me walking like that, ignoring my thoughts, ignoring the leaves and their talking and crunching. Time dulls in the tactile trance of soft slapping shoes, where one can be certain of where they are going because no sleight of hand can operate at such a slow pace. But after some time, my focus pulls away.

A small child is jumping in neat leaf piles and boiling over with happy giggling and shrieking, like a forgotten teapot proclaiming the news that tea could now be made. I was happy to have my stupor forgotten for joy like that. I was grateful to notice before the water boils over and something terrible happens, which is sure to occur if joy that requires appreciation from strangers staring at their feet and walking next to it all is not spotted.

The kid is as loud as an alarm, but he is happy, so I don’t mind that he is loud. I wave and shyly smile at the boy’s mother, who is leaning gently on a rake and admiring the display in her front yard. She smiles brightly and waves back. She is beautiful, in a motherly sort of way, and I find myself drawn into her. She reveals hints of carefully concealed eagerness for strangers to admire this home, and the security and happiness it holds. She smiles the way someone smiles when told of a job well done. I suppose I’m happy to give that to her. I suppose she’s happy to let me slow my pace and admire from the sidewalk a bit longer.

The bright red cheeks, runny nose, and shining eyes of the playing child capture my attention. In those eyes, there are nothing but piles of leaves that need jumping into, nothing but a mother who keeps raking it all back together. There is no need for moving, because home is here and it will not blow away. There is no getting old, but if it were to happen, there is surely someone to get old with. And when all the jumping makes the child hungry, there will be dinner, and groceries to make dinner, and the money to buy the groceries, and the job to earn the money, and the education to do the job. The dedication to piles of leaves will forever underpin it all, like the interworking intricacies of a clock broadcasting an instant they could never lay eyes on.

The child shrieks and jumps into another pile. The mother rakes it all back together. Everything about the delicate scene deserves admiration, and I admire it while trying to keep a slow and steady march past it all.

As I walk, I think of the new apartment and my things in assorted boxes. I think of something terrible happening, and the detective on the case observing those boxes to derive a life lived. I wonder if he’d glean my trouble with unpacking things. I wonder if he would discover my fear of placing them in dangerous places. I wonder if he would see them as I do, looking wrong wherever they sit, like a man at a wedding who only wears suits at weddings.

I hear another pile of leaves being raked back together. I keep walking and I keep thinking.

Perhaps if I did not think so intently, things could do what things do when nobody thinks of them. They could plant themselves like seeds into that clean carpeted apartment. They could make the newness of it all a home.

I hear the boy scatter another pile of leaves. Something in the air churns up an old dream where I had been a fourth little pig, and I had built a house from the autumn leaves. There had been huffing and puffing, and my house had suffered the same fate as the house of straw and the house of sticks. The dream must have come from one of a handful of childhood autumns. A smoky spiced thread must have snagged that nightmare and the memory that it was terrifying because I don’t recall the nightmare being terrifying enough to stay standing all on its own. It was a dream of which my remembering is a mishap, accidentally stitched into the comfortable blanket of nostalgia because the man at the loom was perhaps exhausted from moving props for an audience I had not yet joined. I often find the autumn air awakening that meaningless dream and the memories around it.

I remember a pool of sweat and a pang of terror. I remember being unsure if I had peed, for I was prone to it at the time. I remember that it didn’t matter if I had, because, in that moment, there was nothing but terror and falling leaf houses and the grotesque embodiments of it, all of which were huffing and puffing in horror in the low light of the bedroom beyond the reach of my eyes. I remember springing to the door, giving a wide berth to the darker areas where the more terrible monstrosities roamed. I remember swinging open that door and leaping out before a shadowy hand could snatch me.

I remember my mother and my father sitting before the roaring fireplace, admiring the colorful dance. It seems cloudy now, smokey in some way, but I saw them and the light and the warmth, and suddenly nothing else had ever existed. Nothing else ever would exist. The dreamt leaf house had never blown away; it had been raked back together at that very moment. Monsters were like that. They were terrifying cardboard cutouts, burned away in the same momentary shock they sprung up in, unable to stay standing. I remember running to my parents and falling asleep among the splashing firelight.

The boy’s mother rakes together a new pile of leaves in her front yard. I had slowed my pace while thinking, as though I carried something impossibly heavy. My gait had become haunting and grotesque in the unanticipated load. The mother is still smiling, though it is twisting to a look of concern. I can tell she is sorry I still remember bad dreams from long ago. I think it’s nice of her to feel sorry for me. She must be a great mother. I think for a moment of jumping in the pile she has just constructed, as if she had constructed for me. I almost stop walking entirely. I squeeze the inside of my coat pockets. I squeeze the inside of my coat pockets. I squeeze the inside of my coat pockets. Her son jumps in the pile. I keep walking, past the boy and his mother.

My younger brother and I used to play in the leaves too. Although, I did much more raking than playing. We had to wait until I was strong enough to handle a rake because Dad didn’t play with us much, and I suppose I got to grow up first. Dad would watch us from the window and give excuses about coats and scarred skin.

I think again of bad dreams. I think of how monsters are mystical. I think of them hanging above our heads like smoke and twisting happy memories into choking coughs. I think about their scent lingering until it is forgotten, until one’s voice is hoarse, and their skin is like bark, but that has become their voice and their skin. I think of old fire stations and fire trucks and lonely old men in lonely old diners, scattered from here to wherever I might go. I think I smell wood smoke again.

Dad was grown when it happened, so perhaps he will never get used to how coats feel against skin like that. Perhaps he will never get used to how it feels being in skin like that. Perhaps he remembers a comfort my brother and I had not grown used to, something more we were unaware we had lost. Perhaps life is miserable, and only he has realized it.

I think he blames me for his misery because, when I was younger, he would tell me to take care of my things and I would not listen. I used to have a bad habit of leaving big toys in places they shouldn’t be. I was young. I would always explain to him that fire trucks put out fires, and they can’t put out fires from far away. He would explain to me that wooden fire trucks could start fires too, but he was confused about that; that’s not what fire trucks did back then. My speeches made no difference to him, and his made no difference to me. I think he blames me. I’m thinking of things again.

I think I’ll call my brother when I get back to the new place. He always makes it easier to unpack. I used to make us dinner after school. He used to ask about Mom, and I used to try to answer. Once, his pants ripped at the knee, and he was crying because they were his favorite pants and he didn’t like holes because the other kids pointed at his funny skin. I learned how to patch holes and did my best to fix things, and he stopped crying. He kept wearing those pants until he grew out of them, and then holes didn’t matter so much.

I remember the autumn when he got married. I gave a speech and bought a special bowtie to go with a suit I never wear. I still have both, packed away in that new apartment. I hugged my new sister and told her she was beautiful, and I hugged my brother and told him he was lucky in a voice that was too animated. But I do think he is lucky. I think she is lucky too, and I think they both know it. I think, when I call, I’ll make sure they still know it.

I sometimes think about my own parents’ wedding. If I had to give a speech and put on a suit, I wonder what I would say. I’d probably talk about the old diner where they met, people love how-they-met stories. It’s the same diner I see scattered about in every small town I visit, so I could describe it well. I could talk about how we would go there as a family so my parents could reminisce and play old songs. I could talk about how we would all be happy and full before returning to a home that was also happy and full, a home I see scattered about in small towns as well. I’d probably leave out the ending, the part where Dad visits the diner to drink bitter black coffee and watch, through the mutilating grimace of undying commitment to misery, leaves blow in a wind that once carried heavy ashes from his shoulders to mine. But I don’t know much else about their marriage, and I don’t think Dad likes me, so I probably wouldn’t have been asked to give a speech at their wedding anyway.

I turn and begin walking back to the new apartment. I have things I had better unpack.

August Miller

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

10 thoughts on “Leaves by August Miller”

  1. Hi August,
    The details are brilliantly subtle, you leave so much but there is a complete clarity in your words.
    I’m not sure if this is tragically lyrical or lyrically tragic?
    But no matter what it is a stunning piece of writing that is beautifully balanced.
    This is as fine a first story as we have had.
    All the very best my friend.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for the feedback! I was worried about twisting so much together, so I’m very glad to hear you found the end result balanced.


  2. August

    The opening foreshadows, not a specific event, but the unwinding emotions that flow through the work. It’s a good thing no one lives forever–few could stand constantly doing battle with the past for endless centuries, let alone eternity. Death has a way of sending your baggage to Newark while your plane plunges toward Nirvana.


    Liked by 2 people

  3. As Hugh says the details are perfect – your numerous and wonderfully crafted descriptions of leaves are excellent. I love how these descriptions then ‘wrap around’ darker memories and anecdotes from the narrator’s life giving the whole piece a real depth.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Meandering thoughts while walking in autumn …. sums up in the lonely introspective mood, following the consciousness of a man, his thoughts and feelings while walking within his waking dreams of past and present. There’s a sense of always changing identity, towards a new place or a new opening.

    Liked by 2 people

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