Walkable City by Miriam Gershow
Miriam Gershow’s remarkable nonfiction flash “Walkable City” opens on a street corner and news of the death of John Denver. Country roads intersect with city streets and bridges and rivers and the narrator’s recognition: “I was not at home here, but also wasn’t homesick. I was not at home at home either.” In the coming years she would live in many apartments “for a variety of unremarkable reasons: rent increase, remodeling, mold”; the city would become the site of protests; and she would discover an art project based on walking every block of a city. But this is now, and they’re in a city where he’s always lived, but she has not, and she’s surprised that he’s mourning John Denver and singing “Country Roads.” “‘Walkable City’ is the first time I wrote about this scalding relationship from my late twenties, nearly half a lifetime ago,” Gershow writes in her author’s note. “Some relationships need lots of words in their aftermath; this one did not.” The language in her flash is notably spare, her tone outwardly unemotional, matter of fact. “We sometimes slept together,” the narrator says, gesturing toward deeper backstory in the cracks between unfinished sentences, their terse exchange of Okays, their habitual misunderstandings, and the “bisecting river [that] churned beneath” them. As Grant Faulkner points out in The Art of Brevity, the flash writer doesn’t “have to excavate all of [the story’s] layers or provide connective tissue and explanation”: “‘more’ isn’t necessarily the direction to go in to tell the full story.” In this layered flash, Gershow demonstrates the possibilities of “less.” —CRAFT
He was standing at the corner where we met every morning to walk to work because we were young and carless. I had gotten on a train and moved 2,000 miles for a walkable city. He had always lived here.
“John Denver died,” he said. I thought he was joking. Not about John Denver dying. About how sad he looked.
I made a joke. I can’t remember the joke. We sometimes slept together. We sometimes drank him out of sobriety and then slept together. I was young enough to hope for the entirely wrong things, mostly without knowing, and then when I did know, it turned out not to matter. Want turned out to be everything.
“I loved John Denver,” he said. He looked like he might cry. He had a nose that broke up his face different from how my nose broke up my face. I loved the way his nose broke up his face.
We crossed a bridge. It was a city of many bridges, a broad river splitting it down the middle. I was not at home here, but also wasn’t homesick. I was not at home at home either.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I’d hurt his feelings. This was how it always went, me the one apologizing, everything backward. He would want me to get up after, put on my bra, my underpants. He would want me to leave. His apartment smelled slightly pickled, his sheets like they might be damp. We were so close to feral. You can’t stay, he said every time. Okay?
Okay, I said mostly to avoid the speech about a mistake I shouldn’t get the wrong we can’t keep he didn’t feel that—
The bisecting river churned beneath us. I don’t remember it churning. I hardly remember the river at all. I am not one for rivers. I would end up moving from one small apartment to the next for six years, apartment to apartment to apartment for a variety of unremarkable reasons: rent increase, remodeling, mold. I lived in that city before television shows mocked it. Before people protested for 100 days while the rest of us sat in our living rooms with our husband and kid and tweeted angry tweets.
“Country Roads,” he said, at home in his heartbreak. Many years later, I met an artist who walked every block of a city and made art from it—intricate, painstaking collages, a whole career. At some point, you make a choice, she said, her face kind, always layering her strappy dress with cool sweaters that made me wish. You decide: this is home.
He sang the chorus as the bridge gave way to downtown buildings and their long shadows. I had sung this song as a child in summer camp. I knew the words, but could not carry a tune. Neither could he, but he didn’t care. He was always unashamed.
MIRIAM GERSHOW is the author of The Local News: A Novel. Her short stories appear in The Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, and Black Warrior Review, among other journals. Her flash fiction and nonfiction pieces appear in Pithead Chapel, Heavy Feather Review, and Variant Lit, where “Lines of Communication” won their 1st Annual Pizza Prize. Miriam’s next book, Survival Tips: Stories, will publish with Propeller Books in March 2024. Find her on Twitter at @miriamgershow.
Featured image by Edgar, courtesy of Unsplash.