October 31, 2018

“An Indeterminate Hour” by Joseph Hernandez

He is home from work nearly an hour later than usual. She has dinner waiting for him on the table. Her food is untouched. When he walks in, the plates are still steaming, and he doesn’t say hello. He looks at the clock that hangs above her, the second hand falling, like an axe, to the next minute.

She doesn’t ask many questions, only, Is this okay? He answers by taking a forkful in his mouth. He nods to her as he chews.

He tells her there was a lot of traffic, that he left work a little late and as a result had been stuck on the freeway for longer than expected. She nods. She stands up and walks to the window behind the table. He doesn’t ask what’s wrong. She only wanted him home on time; she had been lonely all day and she is realizing, just now, that it is company she wants on the long days, where she notes the approach of his arrival by the position of the sun in the sky. When it is high in the morning, he is far from her, and when it has pressed its full weight upon the yellowing horizon, he is almost home. But today the sky is pink when he walks through the door.

He is asking her where she got the dinner bread. It was soft, he says, I liked that. She leaves the kitchen to turn on the light in the living room as the remainder of sunlight outside dissipates. When she returns, she tells him, there is a market down the street. She points her thumb over her back, to the window. Remember that one? I think we went there together a few years ago.

His answer is, no, I don’t think I’ve ever gone.

She remembers a time when they would go to a market together. One of them would push the cart and one would grab the items off the shelf. She remembers a dispute over coffee beans, a question of dark or light roast. He had heard that one—she can’t remember which—provided health benefits. She just liked the taste of the other. Maybe the one she wanted was supposed to lower blood pressure, or maybe heighten energy. In any case, his blood pressure remained high, and his energy low.

She asks if she remembers the coffee beans, and he says, what coffee beans? I don’t really like coffee.

After dinner the sun goes down in full. They are sitting on the couch and she is looking out the window. The TV is on, but neither of them is paying any attention. The ticking of the clock that hangs above them punctuates the moment. He is beginning to work on a word puzzle from that day’s paper when she asks him, Will you ever spend the whole day with me? He looks up at her, the pen in his hand creating a word she does not recognize.

She says that they are married, that they don’t spend as much time together as they should be spending. As much time as we used to, she says.

What do you expect of me? he asks. I work hard for us. For this. He waves his hand above his head. I don’t have enough time.

Instead of replying, she turns her face to the TV. The man on the evening news is talking about missiles in a voice that sounds like missiles.

Tomorrow, she tells him later, it might rain. I heard somewhere that a storm is coming this way from the mountains.

It won’t rain. He is still confining letters to the small boxes of the word puzzle. He doesn’t look at her. There weren’t any clouds in the sky today. A storm never comes out of nowhere like that, without any premonition. If it were to rain, I think you would know it beforehand, without anyone telling you. One of us would, at least.

When he says this, she hopes it will rain tomorrow.

There was a time when she thought she could tell when something was about to happen. Usually these intuitions would manifest themselves to her as she slept at night. She once dreamt that her bedroom was flooding. The water level rose gradually until her mattress was soaked, and her back was cold and wet. Through this, she could not move. The next day, there were severe flash floods and he called her as he was stranded on top of his car at an intersection. He was waiting to be rescued, he had told her. No one else was outside.

On a different night, she dreamed that she was on the roof of their house, overlooking the neighborhood, when an unseen force had pushed her. The next day he fell off a ladder and broke his arm. He was trying to remove a wasps’ nest that hung above the front door of their house. She hadn’t asked him to do this, but it had been bothering her; she was terrified of flying insects. She watched him from inside, and when he reached the topmost rung of the ladder, it wobbled violently, and in a moment he had fallen to the ground.

She never told him about these dreams. She knew he would laugh at her. And anyway, these were never direct forecasts of what was to come. The dreams never involved him. She was always alone in them. But over time, they stopped. Almost as soon as she had realized her minimal foresight, the dreams became less clear, and she could no longer remember what she had seen when she awoke in the morning.

At an indeterminate hour, the clock on the high wall bursts open. The glass face cracks, spewing shriveled digits in every direction. As they fly, the numbers resemble a swarm of wasps abandoning their hive. They stick to her dress and neck and decorate her arms. She says ‘What is happening’ with a concern in her voice he’s never heard. He doesn’t answer. She is moving around the room, shaking her arms violently, as if to scare the numbers off, but they cling to her like leeches. As she screams and twists and shakes she appears to be dancing. She’s always wanted to dance like this, he will think. He wants to ask her, now, is this what you wanted? But before saying it he realizes that she is not dancing.

When he tries to speak, his words are integers, his sentences an arithmetical equation. There is a calculus to his movement as he doubles over. He wants to say that he doesn’t feel well. He thinks he is in pain. But in an inadjacent plane of existence she is trying to peel the numbers from her skin, and she will hear nothing. When he slumps over he resembles the minute hand, stuck on an hour of the day he does not spend with her. And she becomes a math equation that he will not put the effort in to solve.

© Joseph Hernandez

About the Author: Joseph Hernandez holds an MFA degree from California State University, Long Beach. He enjoys reading and writing strange stories that explore human relationships, often with a surreal twist. He currently resides in Southern California, where he teaches critical thinking and writing classes at the college level.

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