18 October 2022
“‘Beyond the cracked sidewalk, and the telephone pole with layers of flyers in a rainbow of colors, and the patch of dry brown grass, there stood a ten-foot high concrete block wall, caked with dozens of coats of paint. There was a small shrine at the foot of it, with burnt out candles and dead flowers and a few soggy teddy bears. One word of graffiti filled the wall, red letters on a gold background: Rejoice!’”
The room holds its breath as the author removes his glasses and closes the book. Nods of approval are exchanged as scattered applause fills the reading space at the back of the chain bookstore, the only bookseller left in this small Midwestern city. The bashful author smiles and runs a hand through unruly gray hair. People rise to their feet. The author shrugs his big shoulders in a too-small corduroy jacket. A few at the back shout enthusiastically.
“Poetry for the people,” they say.
“Welcome back, Dawson Moore!”
A corporate executive representing the retail chain’s head office wearing steel-rimmed glasses and shiny shoes stands to address the crowd. He strides the center of the room, quiets the exuberant audience and says with feeling, “Thank you, Dawson Moore, for a wonderful reading from your classic novel, The Streets of Sorrow. And thanks to the audience for being here tonight. Bringing Dawson’s magnum opus back into print for a new generation of readers to appreciate and enjoy has been a labor of love for our company. We’ll be posting daily to social media from Dawson’s tour starting here in his hometown.”
The executive pauses for applause then goes on energetically, “The tour finishes in New York City with a press event at our flagship store on 5th Ave. Watch the website for news and videos. Thanks again for supporting Dawson, who’s pretty shy about all this,” he motions with a chuckle to the stoic author behind him, “He’s grateful to each and every one of you.” The executive hands the mic to the store manager, JoAnn, and leans over for a word with his assistant.
JoAnn has run this chain location since it opened in 1990. She’s young to be a grandmother, gives homemade birthday gifts to the staff and can often be found smoking on the receiving dock. She’s a keen reader with a special interest in Holocaust Literature. It’s a tough subject; not everyone can handle it. Natalie, a bookseller, stands in the background, carefully out of range of the local news photographer. Her University degree in literature gives her a good knowledge of well-known titles and a snooty attitude. “Where can I find James Patterson’s latest?” a perky customer might ask.
With a bored look, Nat replies, “Bestsellers. Front of the store.” Tonight, she’s stationed near stacks of unsigned books with a box of Sharpie markers. She watches Dawson Moore with something like wonder, a celebrated author from her hometown.
“Have you read his book?” JoAnn asks quietly as she joins Nat on the sidelines.
“I tried,” Nat says in a hushed voice, “Couldn’t get into it.”
“Really, English Major?” says JoAnn winking. Nat blushes. “I didn’t make it through the first chapter,” JoAnn confides, grinning and holding a finger to her lips.
“Mum’s the word,” says Nat. Corporate Executive bustles over, Blackberry in hand, assistant trailing behind.
“Great event to kick off the summer, JoAnn,” he says briskly. “Good turnout, good boost in sales; you’ve got a lot of local interest. Keep it going.”
“Thanks, Jack,” says JoAnn. She rolls her eyes behind his back as he struts off.
In her own small apartment a few days after the night of the reading, Natalie lies on the couch and doesn’t know what to do with herself. She picks up The Streets of Sorrow and riffles through it again. 500 pages, she thinks, so many words. The introduction to the new edition, written at Corporate Head Office, describes recent events which have led to the resurrection of Dawson’s masterpiece, out-of-print since the 70s. It recounts the story of last year’s award-winning documentary film, “Street Reader,” which tracked the reclusive Dawson Moore to his (and Nat’s) humble hometown. It praises the big-hearted board of directors who have overseen the rescue of a great book from obscurity. Nat feels lonely and out of sorts. Before she gets to Chapter One, she’s had enough.
Tommy’s Coffee Shop is dim when Natalie arrives, the only late-night cafe in town. Natalie sees the cook frying bacon through the order window. She nods to a waitress who motions her inside. Sit anywhere, sweetheart, say the server’s tired eyes. Natalie goes to the booth by the window, her grandfather’s favorite spot to spend a morning with his old friends smoking cigarettes and reminiscing. He’s been dead for years, but everyone remembers him. Natalie sits down, The Streets of Sorrow and her writer’s notebook beside her. She has ambitions. Each day she scribbles a few pages, always deciding upon rereading them the next day that they’re no good at all. Even so, she writes, filling notebooks one by one.
“How’s your grandma these days?” asks Doris, one of Tommy’s most senior servers.
“Fine,” says Natalie.
Doris smiles. “Your grandpa sure was a kick when he was still around,” she says. “We all miss him. He was stingy with the tips, but he sure made us laugh.” Her smile widens at the thought. “’Why do fish live in salt water?’ he asked me once,” she recounts, “‘Why?’ I said. ‘Because pepper makes them sneeze!’ he said.” She laughs and laughs, then sighs.
“That was Grandpa,” Natalie says.
“Yeah,” says the waitress, “Well, what’ll you have?”
“The usual,” Natalie replies.
“Coming up,” says Doris.
Some time passes quietly. Nat nibbles her pancakes and sips her hot chocolate. “You like that book?” a man’s voice asks and Natalie looks up.
“I’m sorry?” she says, coming slowly back from the thoughts and images of The Streets of Sorrow.
“I said, do you like that book?”
It’s Dawson Moore, Natalie thinks bewildered, Standing at my table. She stammers, “I like it.”
He looks skeptical. “I’m not sure I follow it,” she says. He turns smug. “I’ve re-read your first chapter twice,” she says as she would to a professor, “But I can’t make sense of it.”
“You mind if I sit down?” he asks.
“Why?” says Natalie.
“I’m here alone,” he says, “And you’re at my favorite table.” She nods, and he sits in Grandpa’s seat by the window, the one superimposed over the other.
“Were you at my reading last week?” Dawson asks.
“Yes,” says Natalie, “I work at the store. What about you? Your tour?”
“I took a break from the tour,” he says, “It’s boring reading out the same pages again and again.”
“What about New York?” Natalie asks.
“We’ll see,” he says.
“It must be nice having people come out and tell you they love the book,” she says.
“People always say the same things,” he says. “They’ve seen the film; they think they know everything.”
Doris comes by. “Hey, Dawson,” she says brightly, “Didn’t see you come in. You want some biscuits & gravy?”
“Yeah,” he says casually, “Thanks, Doris.”
“I thought the film was fine,” says Natalie. “It showed your work and what you’re doing now.” But more than that, too, Nat thinks if she’s honest, They filmed the horde of boxes in your attic holding the old drafts of Streets. They talked to beer buddies at the local watering hole who didn’t even know you were a writer until they had cameras in their faces. They followed your crappy car to work at the machine shop and called you ‘a Walt Whitman in work boots.’ They showed a genius the world forgot, an obstinate auteur who wouldn’t give a straight answer about whether he’d kept writing or not, a loveable eccentric still living at home with his elderly mother. They made everyone desperate to read your amazing book.
“It’s fine,” he agrees, “If it’s not about you.” Natalie nods.
The booksellers’ break room is cramped, depressing and filled with old furniture retired from use on the sales floor. The employees eat their lunches at scarred tables while sitting on wobbly chairs. “What are you reading, Nat?” asks Cara, a seasonal bookseller with a bright smile and smartly styled hair.
“David Copperfield,” Nat says, “For my book group.”
“Oh, wow,” says Cara, “That must be fascinating.”
“It’s very long,” Nat says.
“Sure, sure,” says Cara, “I guess it tells all about his childhood and how he first started doing magic. I saw his show in Vegas once. Amazing!”
A snicker goes around the room. Nat smirks. “Not that David Copperfield,” she says and goes back to her reading. The rest of the booksellers embarrass Cara until she blushes and excuses herself to the bathroom. Summer hires never last.
After work, Natalie finds her way to Tommy’s Coffee Shop, waves to Doris and joins Dawson Moore at the table by the window. He glances up from the beat-up paperback he’s reading. Raymond Chandler, Natalie notices. She drops into the booth, opening her notebook. She jots down the date and the words, ‘The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler.’ Dawson puts a page marker in his book. Doris comes by.
“Extra whipped cream on your hot chocolate, Nat?”
“You know me, Doris,” says Nat. Dawson looks at his watch. “I lost track of time.”
“Fair enough,” he says, “Fair enough.”
Later, when Doris has cleared the table, Dawson leans forward and asks, “How long do you think you’ve wanted to be a writer?”
“All my life,” Natalie says.
“When did you start your first journal?” he asks.
“I was ten,” says Nat.
“Anybody tell you you were any good?”
“A few people,” says Natalie.
“Teachers? Parents? Friends, maybe?”
“Yeah,” she says.
“You ever been in print?”
Natalie feels flustered. “No,” she says, “Just my high school magazine.”
“But they printed it? People read it?”
“No one who matters.”
“You are a writer, Natalie,” he says, indicating her notebook beside her on the table, “If you believe it.”
I don’t, she thinks, I don’t believe it.
At the bookstore in the fall, the time comes to discount unsold copies of The Streets of Sorrow. Nat slaps bargain stickers over the tags, which read “Autographed Copy.” She heaves large stacks onto a library cart and wheels them out to the sales floor. That evening at Tommy’s, she tells Dawson, “We put your book on clearance today.” He smiles and sips his coffee. “I wish they still allowed smoking in here,” he says.
“You sorry the book didn’t sell out?” Natalie asks.
“I got paid,” says Dawson.
He’s pretending it doesn’t matter, Natalie thinks, But how could it not matter? “People were so crazy about it,” she says reflectively.
“It was never everybody’s cup of tea, was it?” says Dawson.
There’s a pause. “Did you ever write anything else?” Natalie asks.
Dawson laughs. “You saw the film,” he says magnanimously.
Natalie sighs. “You wouldn’t show me even if you had, would you?” she says.
Winking, he puts his finger alongside his nose. Doris comes and goes. “So, what does it take to write a great novel?” Natalie suddenly demands.
Dawson holds out his empty hands, smiling. “Wish I knew,” he says.
“Then why can’t I?” she asks. “Why doesn’t anybody want me for a press event in New York City?”
“Be glad they don’t,” he says with a wave, “They’re a pack of wolves looking for innocent authors to eat.” Dawson sips his coffee and asks, “You ever finish reading Streets?”
“No,” says Natalie.
“You think you ever will?”
“I want to,” she says. “It’s a great book; I just have to connect with it.”
“How do you know it’s a great book?” Dawson asks.
“Everyone says so,” Natalie says.
“Who?” Dawson asks, “Critics? Executives? A bunch of self-important guys with cameras in their hands? I want to know how you know it’s great when you haven’t read it because you can’t connect.” Natalie looks at him, searching for words. Dawson opens his wallet and takes out a folded sheet of notebook paper. He puts on his glasses and reads.
“’When the ride ended, she was lifted again. The kid slid her body onto a soft pile of clothing among the boxes in the garage. He pulled an old coat over the top, creating a cave that emanated the sweetness of old ladies who frequently powdered themselves—a light rose motif that played ironically well in the deep recesses of Rainbow’s ancestral brain. The pizza kid lifted her head to help her lap water from a hubcap. He broke bits of pepperoni and crust into bite-sized pieces and left them where her tongue could reach them. Much later, she heard him practicing his orations like songs. Like monks chanting in the distance, they were a comfort.’”
Natalie gives it a few seconds, then asks frankly, “Is it the start of your next novel?”
Dawson shakes his head. “It’s about my dog,” he says. Natalie nods (of course) and waits for him to elaborate. He doesn’t. A long moment passes, Natalie avoiding Dawson’s eye, Dawson with the paper still in his hand.
“Is it a book about you and your dog?” she asks finally. People write books about that, right? she thinks, Good books, successful books. But she’s doubtful.
“It doesn’t matter,” Dawson says, “It could be about the dog, if that’s how you see it.”
“However it speaks to you. However it resonates.”
“What if it doesn’t?” Natalie asks.
“How could it from just one paragraph?” Dawson replies.
“Is that all there is?” she asks.
“No,” he says, “No, it’s not.”
In an hour, they’re in Dawson’s living room drinking thick black coffee. Dawson’s mother, Shirley, is more than eighty years old and spry as ever. She listens to a blaring AM radio and bangs the pots in the kitchen. This is so strange, Natalie thinks, looking around at the room, familiar from “Street Reader,” as if the house were only ever a movie set, as if a sound man and a lighting guy might come through the door at any moment.
“Mother makes miserable coffee,” says Dawson. Natalie lets out a strained laugh. She winces as she sips and wishes for Tommy’s hot chocolate. This is so strange, she thinks again. I shouldn’t have come here.
“I’m glad you came,” says Dawson.
“Thanks for asking me,” says Nat.
Once the coffee is finished, it gets easier. Dawson shows Natalie up to the second floor where a claustrophobic former guest room is stacked with boxes tall and close. A folding card table sits under a window bearing a typewriter and an ashtray beside sheaves of typed pages sorted into manuscript boxes and file folders. There’s a chair and an empty wastepaper basket. Natalie has seen it all before via the lens of a handheld camera peeping through the door. It’s even stranger than déjà vu, she thinks, Because I know I’m not imagining it.
“I write in here,” Dawson says, repeating the words captured by the filmmakers when they were here.
Of course you do, Natalie thinks. Where else?
For the film, Dawson had stood just inside the door and motioned to the piles of boxes. “Old drafts of Streets,” he’d said carelessly.
“All of this?” the off-camera producer had marveled.
“More in the attic,” Dawson had said as he closed the door on their lenses and led them away. To Natalie, from the same doorway, he makes a similar gesture and says, “This is the book I’ve been working on since Streets.”
“All of it?” Natalie asks.
“Yes.” He steps back and motions her inside.
There’s nowhere for a visitor to sit down. “Take my chair,” says Dawson. “What I want to show you is over here.”
Natalie considers the worn office chair, its upholstery seams split. As she sits, she thinks, This is an amazingly comfortable chair. Dawson finds a file and opens it before her on the folding table. It’s labelled R.R. (Ch. 18). The loose pages are coded with draft numbers and riddled with spidery, penciled corrections in red, green and blue. Dawson leans over Natalie’s shoulder and flips through them in order until he reaches the one he’s looking for. “Here,” he says.
Looking closer, Natalie realizes the page contains three versions of the same paragraph. The first draft begins. ‘The kid found her lying on the sand near the reservoir, half-dead, abandoned. “Johnny, get over here!” called the kid.’ Going on to the next, Natalie reads, ‘She knew she was dying when they found her on the sandy bank of the reservoir, her eyes glazed and helpless.’ Then, in a third iteration, ‘To save her, they had to get her off the sand and into the car. The kid lifted her gently into the backseat, her tongue lolling from her mouth, her eyes glazed and helpless.’ All three end with, ‘The drizzle stopped soundlessly, and a rainbow appeared above the trees as Johnny drove carefully, avoiding every ridge and pothole in the long gravel road.’
“Why are you showing me this?” Natalie asks, looking up.
“Because you didn’t ask to see it,” says Dawson.
“Has anyone read it?”
“Just Mother,” he says, smiling, “I read her my new pages as I work them out and she tells me I’m brilliant. It keeps me going.”
“Are you trying to publish it?” Natalie asks, “Surely everyone’s asking you for something new?”
“It’s not finished,” Dawson says.
Natalie looks around the cluttered room, mentally counting the boxes piled around them. He’s got fifty boxes in here, she thinks, maybe more. “How could it not be finished?” she asks in wonder.
“I’ll never finish it,” he says with satisfaction. “I won’t live long enough.”
“Why show me this page?” Natalie asks, returning her focus to the table in front of her.
Dawson smiles. “The paragraph I read to you at Tommy’s is the heart of this book,” he says, bringing out the sheet of notebook paper and laying it beside the typed pages spread on the table. “Everything else is built around it. These are drafts of the paragraph that will appear immediately before it.” He leans over and flips the page as Natalie struggles to keep up. “So are these,” he says, running his finger down. Before Natalie can notice the changes, he goes on. “Here are some more,” he says, flips again, “And some more.”
Natalie stares at the words swimming before her, gapes at Dawson. What does it mean? she wonders, Is he a genius or a lunatic?
“This paragraph,” says Dawson, “When it’s finished, will set up the emotional center of the story so it has to be right. It might take a hundred drafts to get it perfect. It might take a thousand.”
“And you do that for every paragraph,” Natalie murmurs. The piled boxes take on new meaning.
“I do it for every paragraph, every page, every word.”
“Is that what authors do? Is this what it takes to be great?”
“I don’t know what authors do,” says Dawson. “I’m telling you what I do. Each word matters, Natalie. Every phrase, every comma, every semicolon. Not one word is wasted. You read just one paragraph, just one chapter, you’re eating the crust of the bread. Even if you like it, you’re missing the point. Equally, the heart loses flavor out of context.” Natalie hears a car pass by on the street and thinks, Why am I noticing that right now? I’m not paying attention.
Dawson’s fatal accident a few weeks later is, of course, headline news for the local Gazette. At the bookstore, Natalie’s co-workers are abuzz with gossip and feigned grief while JoAnn gets on the phone to request copies of The Streets of Sorrow from the bargain warehouse. The newspaper lies on the break room table announcing ‘Local Author Dawson Moore Dies in Freak Electrocution.’ Natalie feels numb when she reads it and thinks, ‘Tragic Accident’ would have been kinder. But there aren’t many banner headlines to write in this town. Make hay while the sun shines.
“You ever get around to reading his book?” someone asks, entering the break room.
“No,” says Nat, “No, I didn’t.”
A few weeks later, a letter arrives in the mail, addressed in a penciled scrawl Natalie recognizes from Dawson’s manuscript pages. She sits down heavily. It happens in the movies, she thinks, but you never expect to receive a letter from a dead man, do you? Her head feels light, her heart burning hot. She opens the letter and reads.
In this envelope, you’ll find a few papers I’ve prepared giving you full copyright and publishing rights to my unfinished book. Sign them and return them to my lawyer’s office. He’ll take care of the rest.
It’s yours, Natalie, to read or not. Don’t be burdened by it, instead be set free. Don’t dig for connections; they form on their own when you’re not thinking too hard. You have everything you need. Everything is here and now.
Natalie rises from her chair, looking for a tissue to blow her nose. As she moves through her tiny apartment, she thinks, Where will I put the boxes? There’s nothing to do but lie down on the bed and re-read the letter. Once, twice, three times. Her mind drifts. He hasn’t told me anything, she thinks ruefully. This letter is meaningless. There’s a sheer curtain over the old sash window, softening the ugliness of the house next door. Natalie listens to the hollow shouting of kids playing in the yard. Why don’t you repaint that ugly house, she thinks as if scolding the neighbors, Why don’t you get up and do something? She dozes fitfully and wakes several hours later with a headache.
Natalie parks her car a few doors down from Dawson’s house. Tommy’s is so close, she thinks, noticing the café’s tall sign above the rooftops a block away. Walking around the car, she steps onto the cracked sidewalk, which passes a high wall, its concrete blocks crumbling under many layers of paint, standing over a bit of patchy grass. There’s a telephone pole, its splintering wood studded with rusted staples and bent nails. Climbing the steps to Dawson’s front door, Natalie sees that his mother, Shirley, has come out to meet her. They smile at one another rather formally on the occasion of this second meeting. “Come in,” says Shirley, “I’ve made some coffee.”
The living room is exactly the same, the coffee thick, the chairs deep. Natalie’s eyes come to rest on the place where Dawson sat during her first visit to this room. He’s there in a pair of old jeans, his work boots heavy on the bare wood floor. He’s there and then he’s gone. Shirley follows Natalie’s gaze and laughs. “I feel like he could come in and sit down any minute,” she says. “I sometimes think I hear him still typing in the room upstairs.” Natalie smiles. “I guess it’s too soon to miss him,” Shirley says. “He hasn’t been gone long enough.” Natalie nods and sips her coffee to be polite. “Miserable coffee,” she hears Dawson saying. But he’s not there.
Shirley leads Natalie through the kitchen to the back door. “I’ve had your boxes moved down here to the garage,” she says as she motions Natalie through. “You’ve got someone coming to help you, I hope.”
“Yes,” says Natalie, “My brother is meeting me here. We may have to make two trips, but I don’t live far.”
Shirley switches on the lights. Things are stacked everywhere, mismatched hubcaps hanging above the workbench, a row of ladies’ coats in storage under plastic sheets. “Daw used to read aloud to himself out here when he was a kid,” says Shirley, “Before he got brave enough to share.” She approaches a large pile of neatly labeled boxes. “These are yours now,” she says and throws open the garage door.
Natalie’s brother, Joe, does the loading when he arrives and gets most of the boxes into the bed of his truck. The rest, packs into the backseat of Nat’s car. “Meet you at your place,” he says, giving her a hug and climbing into his truck. Natalie sees Shirley lingering in the garage.
“I won’t be long,” she tells Joe.
Joe gives his sister a grin and fires up the diesel engine. “See you when you get there,” he says with a wave. She blows a kiss as he drives away and turns to the garage where Shirley is watching from the shadows.
“You want a glass of lemonade before you go?” Shirley asks.
Natalie starts towards her. “No,” she says, “I don’t think I can stay that long. Joe will be waiting for me at my place.”
Shirley nods. “Daw liked you,” she says, “Said you were as honest as anyone he ever met. Said honesty is all a writer has to go on. I guess he saw something in you.”
“I hardly knew him.”
“Me neither,” says Shirley with a glimmer in her eye. Natalie smiles at her and notices she’s holding a paper-clipped stack of photos.
“I’m giving you these,” Shirley says, handing the pictures to Natalie. “He kept them in his writing room. They show people and things he put into his books, things he wanted to remember. Maybe when you come to reading all those pages, you’ll want to see some of what he saw. Will you take them?”
“I’ll take them.” Nat thumbs the stack as she takes them, noticing spidery handwritten notes on the backs as she tucks them into her jacket. “Thank you.”
“Well,” says Shirley, her eyes warm and wise.
“Well,” says Natalie, “I’d better be going.”
“Yes,” Shirley replies.
To fit them into Natalie’s apartment, the boxes must be stacked to the ceiling, blocking a window, leaving the place dim and suffocating. When she watches TV, the boxes tower over her. When she’s lying on the couch with a book, the boxes loom. In a week, she’s stopped using the living room completely. She moves the TV into her tiny bedroom and feels trapped with a view of nothing but the neighbors’ ugly house. At night she dreams the boxes have toppled over and burst open, thousands of white pages blowing through the rooms, the floor dropping away, nothing left in the universe except the pages and Natalie catching a word here, a word there, until she wakes and thinks, I’ve got to get out of here.
“JoAnn?” Natalie says into the phone.
“Yeah, Nat,” JoAnn answers from her office at the bookstore, “How’re you doing?”
“Not so good,” says Nat, trying to sound convincingly ill without overdoing it, “I’m exhausted & sick. I don’t think I can make it in this morning.”
“No problem, sweetie,” JoAnn replies, “Get some rest and see your doctor if you need to.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” says Nat. “I’m sure I can make it in tomorrow.”
“Alright. Feel better.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Natalie lays back and closes her eyes. After a few minutes, she sits up, swallows a couple of migraine tablets, then falls into a deep sleep that lasts until noon. She awakens hungry and wanders from her bedroom to her tiny kitchen, where she eats slices of plain bread and drinks a glass of milk. Daw’s book stares at her from the living room, brooding from within its mountain of untouched boxes. Natalie dresses and washes her face. She rinses out her long brown hair and twists it into a towel. Where would I go? she thinks idly as she surveys Daw’s boxes once more, her toothbrush in her mouth. Could I go somewhere & never come back?
A short drive in any direction takes Natalie out into the countryside; all roads lead away from town. She turns off the radio and opens the windows. A few minutes beyond city limits, there are no cars left on the road. The farmhouses perch on gentle rises between plowed fields and watch silently as she passes by. A sign directing travelers down a side road reads, ‘Lake McDowell Reservoir & Recreation Area.’ Natalie turns the car.
She rolls along over a ridge and down into the river valley where the route gives way to a gravel track winding through the trees of the green, green woods. She comes to a mown clearing with picnic tables overlooking the reservoir and an unpaved parking lot. Even one car parked there would’ve kept Natalie from stopping. But there’s no one around. Natalie sits on a table, her feet on the bench and waits. What am I waiting for, she asks herself, He’s not coming back. There are all the sounds of the woods and the water. Natalie wishes for something, but she doesn’t know what it is. She lays herself down on the picnic table and looks up at the sky, but it has no answers.
There’s a shout and Natalie sees two teenage boys on the sand at the edge of the water. A car has appeared in the parking lot a few feet from her own.
“Jeremy, get over here!” she hears a boy call out and notices he’s found something on the sand. They stand with their backs to Natalie, studying their find with grave concern. Natalie watches. The boys break and Jeremy rushes past Natalie on his way to start the car. The second boy comes too, but slower, an injured dog cradled in his arms. Neither of them notices Natalie.
“I’ve got a blanket in the back, Dan,” Jeremy calls from the car.
“She’s hurt real bad,” shouts Dan from the grass. In a moment, they’ve gone and Natalie is alone again.
The paper-clipped photos are lying on the table where they’ve been since Natalie brought in Daw’s boxes. She sits in a kitchen chair, holding them for a moment before she removes the clip. On top, there’s a photo of Daw as a boy on the steps of his mother’s house. Next, a fuzzy snapshot with college friends, their hair long, cigarettes hanging from their fingers. A black-and-white picture shows a group of children sitting in a row atop a high concrete wall, their feet hanging down, a telephone pole bearing a few hand-painted posters in the foreground. The last shows a pair of teenagers and a 3-legged dog, the boys smiling with their arms around her neck. Natalie flips it over to read: ‘Johnny, Rainbow & Daw at the reservoir, 1966.
Tommy’s is dim when Natalie arrives to see the familiar sight of Doris leaning at the end of the lunch counter. Bacon sizzles on the flat-grill in the kitchen. Doris waves her inside. Natalie is grateful to find the table by the window unoccupied. She lays her things on the bench and sits down, her notebook and The Streets of Sorrow beside her. She looks up and sees Daw sitting across the table, her grandfather smiling beside him. She flushes as they beam at her. Her heart races. Doris leans in to set down her hot chocolate piled high with whipped cream. “The usual?” asks Doris.
“Biscuits & gravy today, please,” says Natalie.
“You got it,” says Doris, bustling off.
Natalie looks across the table and sees she is alone.
She opens The Streets of Sorrow to the middle this time, skipping the wordy introduction, the opening chapters she’s already waded through, anyway. She picks up at a funeral scene, a child’s funeral she soon realizes. She feels the ache of the mourners’ tragic loss, a desperate longing, a knowing how it feels when everything changes forever for the worse. The opening paragraph of the following chapter describes a street, a wall, a telephone pole. Natalie sees the wall from Dawson’s neighborhood, the children’s feet hanging down. The word ‘rejoice,’ when it comes, hits her like a punch in the stomach.
Natalie reads and reads. Time passes by in the outside world, but she doesn’t feel it. She feels everything else instead. Daw’s words are like a river meandering down the valley. There are all the sounds of the woods and the water, there are the shouts of boys in a grassy field, there is a sense that Tommy’s has vanished to make room for Daw’s words. Around page 400, she has to stop. Her heart is full.
“You ever been up to visit his mother?” asks Doris as she stops by with the check. Natalie stares. “I see you reading his book, is all,” says Doris, “And I guess you knew him pretty well by the end.”
“I didn’t, Doris. He was still writing all the time. He never told anyone. And he gave his new book to me. Left it to me in his will. Can you believe that?”
“Nice inheritance, I’d say,” replies Doris.
“Yeah,” says Natalie.
Natalie pays her bill and leaves the café, looking up the hill toward Dawson’s place. Instead of going to her car, she steps onto the sidewalk. You can almost see his house from here, she thinks and begins to walk in that direction. The concrete wall looms into view and Natalie crosses the street to pass below it. It’s too late for a visit, she thinks, too late to drop in on Shirley. I’ll just walk up there and back; no harm in that. She’s soon standing before the house, the steps tempting her up to the door, lamps burning behind the curtains of the ground-floor rooms, the doorbell shining in the dark. It’s too late, she thinks, but lingers. As she waits, the door swings open.
“Come on up, Natalie,” Shirley calls out, “I’ve got coffee on the boil.”
Streets of Sorrow appeared first in Evening Street Review #35, Autumn 2022.