I do not know what verb tense to use when I write about homework help, because it is happening both now and thirty-five years ago. My son is learning fractions, but where he sees our gray stone countertop, I see the brown Formica of my childhood. It is my mother’s voice that passes through me when I tell my child to erase what he has written and try again, neatly this time. It is my tears that fall from his eyes onto the page when he says that this is stupid and makes no sense. I tell him there were times his grandmother made me erase my work so many times that the paper ripped. He almost smiles at this, feasting on the image of my suffering. I tell him to label his answer and circle it. I tell him to move on to the next problem. I tell him that it will get easier, even though I know that problems on a math worksheet, like problems in life, get more complicated as you progress. I reach for a fresh pencil, one with a sharper tip, its eraser still soft. I place it in front of him. I put a hand on his back. And in this moment, when past and present intertwine, a third strand completes the braid: the future. I do not know what it will be like; I only know that there will be fractions. Maybe my son will have a child of his own. Maybe he will bend over to inspect her homework. Maybe he will think of me, and also his younger self, when he tells her: take a breath, keep going, it will get easier.
Micro Life Interview
Tell us what sparked this piece.
I have three sons and they are quite spread out in age. Sometimes it feels like there’s a revolving door to our kitchen and the kids pass through one at a time to do their homework in shifts. One evening while helping our middle child, I had the feeling described in this piece – a blurry sense of time. I was the parent, but my son’s palpable frustration pulled me back to my own childhood. Later that evening, while keeping my oldest son company as he finished working on an essay, I remembered the feeling I had earlier that night, and the first line for this piece popped into my head. I opened my laptop and began to write.
What do you like about the flash form?
As both a writer and a reader, I love how in flash every word matters. The entire piece gets polished to a shine, and if we’re lucky, at the end it all adds up to something special.
What’s something great you’ve read (or learned) lately?
I finally got around to reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. I’m not sure why I put it off for so long. It’s not every day that you read a novel that can warm your heart and make you smile.
Briana Maley’s short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Fiction Southeast, New Flash Fiction Review, Little Patuxent Review, Fictive Dream, and elsewhere. She received Lilith Magazine’s 2019 fiction prize, and was runner-up in the 2020 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival fiction contest. She lives in Maryland with her family and a dog named Ramona Quimby.
Photography by Kim Gorga