Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
Flash Fiction
998 words
SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

A Question Apart

by Nicholas Jirsa

Collecting food, collecting dust, collecting time, I stand here sweeping, sweeping well into the night. My boss informs me that I’m not doing it right; he says I need to sweep right to left and split the piles into smaller piles, and sweep it all up. I’ve told him that makes no sense and he tells me to shut up.

I stand here and sweep while my mother sits at home picking at the worn couch with a drink in hand, flushed as an overripe nectarine. She feels her arm, and picks at the places where the IVs used to be. She’s in a haze of cigarettes and drinks, and mumbles to herself about death catching up to her. When I was in grade school my mother gave me a book of illustrated stories. The first story was of Achilles and the tortoise. Achilles chased the tortoise, but with each flip of the page his head grew. He dragged his head through dirt and mud certain that he would be blind before he ever caught the tortoise. I closed the book and looked up; the light from the lamp faded, and the room grew dark.

The tiles are checkered black and white. My boss watches over me, and dictates that I split a pile into another pile and that one into another. I’m becoming lost in the floor. The tiles extend to no end and are taking over the store. The black tiles have swallowed up the dust and food, but my boss tells me that I can’t fool him. “I have a microscope and I know how to use it,” he says. I bend over, broom in hand, and examine the floor in search of something, but I see nothing. You can’t sweep nothing.

When I first read the story of Achilles and the tortoise, I asked my mother what it meant. She told me, “I’ll tell you in a bit, I’m on the phone.” The next day I asked again, and again she said, “I’ll tell you in a bit.” She brought the vacuum to life, drowned out my question, and ran away. This happened bit by bit, every day, every month, and soon every year. I’d give her a card for her birthday with the words what did it all mean? written on it. She’d answer, “I’ll tell you in a bit, I need to unwrap presents.”

If only my boss would turn around, then I could push everything in the dustbin and leave. Instead my boss hovers and chews on a piece of burnt bread. The crumbs fall from his mouth and hands, he looks at them, says, “Sweep it up.” In my dreams I look at the clock. The minute markers begin to fall in thin black strips and the numbers follow. I’m sweeping back and forth trying to get them in, but the markers and numbers pile up on the edge. I stumble over myself and try to make it to the hospital, but already I know the bed is empty and she’s gone.

I’m dividing my time between the motion of rights and lefts, and my thoughts swing with my arms. My arms swing into the air with the tick and I sweep the ground with the tock. The clock and I are circumscribed to a single motion. “The clock doesn’t seem to mind,” my boss says each time he sees me stretch and take a breath.

In memory I can clearly see her hand, and the book, but nothing else. Her doctor called, and told me she wouldn’t last much longer. Her liver was weak, and her bones were frail. She was no longer an image; just a body with tubes stuffed up her nose, and jammed into her arms. Her hands were bony and brittle. She looked at me and said, “I’m becoming the hospital, I’m afraid. We taste the same. We sound the same. My voice resonates like the sound of surgical instruments being brought together. Too bad my words can’t cut.”

Dust and hair are entangled in the broom; I stand in wonder, how are the two ever separated? My mother held to life internally through the glimmer of her eyes. She’d stare outside as puddles came and went, flowers bloomed and dried. The skin on her arms grew pale, and the hair on her head was clinging in wisps of silver strands. When the snow began to melt I’d find her at the window, struggling to get it open, saying, “My hair will blow away like stalks of dandelions, just wait.” The hospital had become overcrowded, and my mother wanted nothing more but to be home. The night before I picked her up I dreamed she fell apart at our door. I reached for her hand, and her fingers broke off in mine, bone turned to ash and I watched it sift through my fingers. I asked just once, “What did it all mean?” Her lips crumbled apart and the words slid out in a whisper, “I’ll tell you in a bit. I’m dying now.”

My boss tells me I’m done. I put my things into my backpack and sling it over my shoulders. Once outside my bus passes me by. I run to the stop, but I’m too late; I see the light turn red down the way and my feet slap the concrete. I run and wave my arms trying to get the driver’s attention. I get to the bus and go to knock on the door, but as I do the light turns green and the bus pulls away. I run knowing my mother waits; she wilts on the couch and smokes a cigarette, taps out the ashes in her drink and drinks it anyways. The driver won’t wait, and I can feel my mother turning to dust. She’s already crumbling, and so I run.


SHJ Issue 10
Fall 2014

Nicholas Jirsa

is a writer based in Chicago, and is currently attending Northeastern Illinois University.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury