My daughter built a wall across the basement with an overturned couch, cushions, blankets, a table on its side. A peace line, she called it.
It had taken Missy an entire afternoon, but finally she allowed her brother and me to visit. Enchanted, Dell asked if he could move in with his collection of stuffed monkeys, and I, less enchanted, said that her peace line would make doing the laundry a chore, something I’d had to learn since the kids’ mother moved out two months ago.
The point of the peace line, Missy explained, was not to bring people—or enchanted monkeys—in but to keep them out. No brother, no cry.
What if your mother calls and tells us she wants to move in I ask Missy, as if we might hear from her at any moment, though I think the kids know she’s only called once since her VW bug rolled down the drive. When the phone rings, we are all startled: Missy behind her peace line, Dell trying to push his monkeys though a crack in the line, and me folding damp sheets.
It’s Missy who answers it. I’ve got the Dick Van Dyke show on my mind, Rob’s and Laura’s beds separated by a table, a tall silver-based lamp, the two of them perpetually in love.
“Mom?” she says, a question in her voice. I hope her “question” cuts Loretta deep, and then I’m ashamed of thinking that. She tells Loretta about the divided basement—her own private Idaho—then hands the phone to me.
“Do you think that’s such a great idea,” Loretta says, “letting her chop the basement in half?”
“Where are you,” I say. There’s silence now, as if she’s looking around to see where it is she’s ended up.
A monkey stands on the peace line, engaged an entrance dance that is so far going ignored. “You know,” Loretta answers, “same old same old.”
That was when the kids were too young to know, I want to say. I can tell there’s someone in the background waiting for this call to end, not knowing he’s only got about a week or two before Loretta cuts out and maybe wants to cut back in, see Missy’s peace line for herself.
Back to the laundry, the folds pre-ordained by the dozens of times before. Dell’s monkey has given up its dance, and now Missy peeks over the upturned couch, wondering when he’ll return.
I’m wondering about Loretta’s return. This time I’m keeping laundry as one of my chores because I think it’s going to take a while for Missy’s wall to come down. The monkeys don’t seem to mind; at least they have something to do.
Pamela Painter’s third story collection is all Flash Fiction, titled WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO KNOW. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Narrative, New World Writing, Ploughshares, SmokelongQuarterly, among others, and reprinted in numerous anthologies. She is also the co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Painter lives in Boston and teaches in the Emerson College MFA Program.
Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning collection Mad to Live (Flume Press, 2008), his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field, and he appears in the Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2010). He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print.