Streets of Sorrow

18 October 2022

Photo by Igor Starkov on

“‘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.

Natalie, a book-
seller, stands in the
carefully out of range
of the local news

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.

Before she gets to
Chapter One,
she’s had enough.

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.

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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.”

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“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.

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“’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.”

“How else?”

“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.”

The loose pages are
coded with draft
numbers and rid-
dled with spidery,
penciled corrections
in red, green and

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.

Dear Natalie,

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.


is here and

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.

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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.”

“Thanks, JoAnn.”

“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?

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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.

There is a sense
that Tommy’s has
vanished to make
room for
Daw’s words.

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.”

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Streets of Sorrow appeared first in Evening Street Review #35, Autumn 2022.

Streets of Sorrow Finds A Home at Evening Street Review

18 October 2022

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Evening Street Press of Sacramento, CA is an independent press with a philosophy. Dedicated to the equality of all people, Evening Street publishes an anthology twice a year featuring poetry and prose of “clarity and depth.”

Evening Street Review #35, Autumn 2022 includes my newest story, Streets of Sorrow. A fictional tale inspired by events that took place in my hometown of Cedar Rapids Iowa, Streets of Sorrow is about a young writer meeting an old writer. As their friendship deepens, young Natalie’s new mentor teaches her to translate life into art.

Read Streets of Sorrow in the online edition of Evening Street Review.

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Of Course, I Didn’t

13 October 2022

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The night my parents reported me missing, the police came over and searched the house. Missing kids can turn up in closets where they’ve dozed off playing hide-and-seek. The heating ducts in the old house conducted sound between floors, so I heard the doorbell, my father giving orders, my mother’s mousey squeak.

“We’ll search from top to bottom,” said an officer, heavy shoes on the staircase. Up, up, up to the attic. Their sounds faded, then grew closer as the party descended through the house. The men moved furniture, opened doors, pushed coats aside in the hall closet. They rummaged in the laundry room, looked behind the TV and shined flashlights around Dad’s dark office, its shadowy shelves heaped with his army gear.

I was there behind the furnace, holding my breath as lights swept over rucksacks, spare boots, camo fatigues, and MREs, the room reeking of army camps, dried sweat and worn leather. Officers shifted the desk and filing cabinet where Dad kept his red pens, teacher’s gradebook, past papers, and drafts of his letters to the editor. His draft notice, dated 1970, lay among the leaves of a faded photo album in the bottom drawer. Police beams directed at the furnace, and even behind it didn’t illuminate every corner. With my feet tucked in, I was invisible.

“We’ll search the neighborhood,” said the officer.

“The neighbors will be asleep, won’t they?” said Mom, “We can’t go knocking on people’s doors at this hour.” But off they went, up the stairs, convincing Mom that the neighbors would want to help. The front door opened and closed. Mom stayed home in case I returned.

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In the morning, I overslept, so I missed them going out. Dad’s staff meetings started at 7:30am. Mom’s boss was a real jerk. The house was quiet from top to bottom. I used the bathroom and ate from the fridge. The phone kept ringing throughout the day. Of course, I didn’t answer. I watched TV until I heard Mom’s car. I was in hiding again before she got inside. Dad came home later, after a cheerful stint in the bar where he arrived around four o’clock most afternoons. He liked to share a pitcher of Miller Lite before the evening grind of correcting papers and grading tests. Maybe two or three pitchers.

“Did you hear from the police?”

“They left a message with the receptionist. No news.”

“I didn’t give them my work number. I can’t take personal calls during office hours.”

That night, I slept in my own bed. It was too dusty behind the furnace, even with a pillow and blanket. In the morning, I woke to the sound of the shower, footsteps passing my bedroom door, and bickering.

“I’m going to be late.”

“You’re late every day.”                                                       

“You sound like my boss.”

“Didn’t see you
in class today.”

Down the stairs and out the door, they rushed. Their cars pulled away, one after the other. I slept another hour, then got up and washed the cobwebs out of my hair. Around lunchtime, I walked over to the school and from there; I went to the park. If I’d had 50 cents, I’d have ridden the bus somewhere, but my pockets were empty. I returned to school in time to hear the last bell ring, falling in step with the kids from my neighborhood.

“Didn’t see you in class today.”

“I came in late. Doctor appointment.”

I let myself in with my house-key, turned on the TV and sat down to finish a tub of chocolate ice cream. I rinsed it and buried it in the trash when I was done. The phone rang. Later, it rang again. I was on the couch when Mom came in from work smelling of copy paper, printer ink, and fading perfume. “Meatloaf for dinner tonight and no complaining,” she said as she passed. I hate meatloaf.

She came back a moment later, her face dark with emotion. “What are you doing?”

“Watching TV.”

“Where have you been?”

“In the basement.”

“The basement? For two days? God damn you. We’ve been looking for you. The police came.”

“I know.”

“What is wrong with you? I’m going to have to call the police station and tell them you wasted their time. I’ll have to tell them they spent all that taxpayer money for no reason. That might be a crime, you know. You might go to jail for this.”

“They don’t put kids in jail.”

“Juvenile detention, then. Your father wants to send you to military school. But it’s too expensive.”

“I’m going to my room.”

“Stay up there.”

On the stairs, I met my brother. “Where were you hiding?” he asked.

“Crawl space behind the furnace.”

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He grinned. “I knew it.”

“You didn’t tell.”

“You never tell on me.”

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Of Course, I Didn’t appeared first in Rock Salt Journal, October 2022.

Meet Rock Salt Journal

13 October 2022

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Rock Salt Journal is a start-up online literary journal published from the coast of Maine. The project of passionate volunteers, the work featured in Rock Salt Journal, reflects the rugged beauty of New England shores and the folkloric traditions of its rich storytelling history.

My newest story, Of Course, I Didn’t, appears in the Fall 2022 issue, NOW LIVE at Check out this fresh take on the tall tales and sea stories of days gone by to support the emerging writers and artists featured in Rock Salt Journal.

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Story Archive

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Just 101 words long, this piece takes less than a minute to read. Micro fiction challenges prose writers to be as succinct as poets, who craft full narratives with powerful precise language.

Read my very short story.

First published here, 5 August 2022

Harriet and the Sparrow

Published first on Esoterica, March 2022

Rain fell on the roof of the cottage where Harriet lived with her parents. She sat at the window while they bickered in the kitchen. “Thin soup again,” said Father.

“Earn more; we’ll eat better.”

“A good wife makes the smallest sum suffice, stupid woman.” Keep reading.

A Guest on Christmas Eve

Published first here, December 2021

One Christmas Eve, Old Martha sat alone, her cat asleep by the fire.

Read A Guest on Christmas Eve.

Real Writer

Published first on East of the Web, 30 September 2021

Meg rented office #10a where she worked most weekdays, her desk facing the door, the window raised behind her. No drapes. No blinds.

Read Real Writer.

Mr. Harris

Published first in Deracine, Summer 2020

I close all the windows. The wind is picking up & the dust will blow in. In the streaming sunshine, a man walks alone on the dirt road.

Read Mr. Harris.

A Place to Get Away

Published first in Backchannels, Issue 4 March 2020

Before the wildfire some years back, Grandpa George’s summer place was an ageing cabin, a relic from a time when the mountain resort was a novelty to city dwellers, a picturesque place to get away an hour’s drive from downtown.

Read A Place to Get Away.

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Meet Me at the Corner of Paper Street and Pixel Avenue

12 September 2022

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In 2012, I was working as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble, the year they launched the first Nook e-reader. The Nook was the company’s effort to compete with Amazon’s market-changing Kindle. My fellow booksellers took an interest, learned the features, and celebrated with every unit sold. I flinched at the prizes awarded to the top Nook sellers. “Why the long face?” the assistant manager asked.

“This is going to put us out of business. They’re asking us to sign our own pink slips.” Fourteen months later, Barnes and Noble closed our location. It seems we didn’t sell enough Nooks. Or maybe we sold too many.

They’re asking
us to sign our
own pink slips.

But I bought a Nook of my own before the year was out. I can count on one hand the number of paper books I’ve bought since then. Even with the employee discount. Over time, I upgrade as new models come out. If you have the Kindle app on your iPad, that’s cool, too. As digital formatting improves and the vast catalogue of book titles increases year by year, e-readers and tablets save space on our bookshelves and give access to millions of books, newspapers, and magazines in seconds. If it cost me a boring job I’d had for too long anyway, the Nook also became my new library; the one with hundreds of titles that I can throw in my bag and pull out at will. I’m Hermione Granger with her magic camping sack.

Young people buy more e-books than their parents and grandparents. Earlier this month, reported that 62% of e-book sales come from readers 18-45. College students and 20-something’s account for the largest share, 26% of total E-book sales. Maybe it’s too predictable. Is it any surprise that the young are quicker to embrace a digital alternative to the paper volumes of old? Weekend garage sales abound in my neighborhood, overflowing with the unwanted possessions of a by-gone generation. The days of dining tables for ten and home libraries with thousands of titles are passing. Surviving relatives pile them up for sale, clearing the clutter. Their own favorite novels, textbooks, histories, and gossip rags live on devices the size of steno pads. No dusty shelves or cardboard boxes required.

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Am I suggesting you donate all your books to charity? Good luck. Goodwill, Salvation Army, and other local organizations are so inundated in my neighborhood, they turn me away from the donation point. “No room for those. Too many books already.” Should we save trees by eschewing wasteful paper books in favor of digital versions? Well, maybe. But I consider the environmental consequences of e-waste, too. At least trees can grow back.

So, meet me at the corner of Paper Street and Pixel Avenue. Bring as many books as you can fit into your backpack.

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Not Another Book List

7 September 2022

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Anyone can create a list of outstanding books to read. If you want bestsellers, promising new writers, or classics to revisit, there’s a list for that. If I throw together another one, is anyone even looking? With that in mind, the following is not a list. These are not suggestions. You’ve heard enough of those. Read on if book recommendations bore you.

The Prize-Winning Novel makes every literary list. When they come out, publishers promote them as the latest gift from a living god. That’s what they are. They are worth revisiting, revealing more of themselves on a second or third read. Google Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, or Toni Morrison (sadly deceased).

The Debut Novel has a special buzz. The publisher loads the cover with rave reviews from notable writers and critics. “… best debut this year,” they might say, or “… destined to join To Kill A Mockingbird as a modern classic.” The products of aggressive searches for the next big thing, they may feel a little forced. But they are inclusive, reflecting the Own Voices and young talents whose bold fresh stories move the conversation forward. Read Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, reviewed here. Look for Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang and Zadie Smith’s debut from 2000, White Teeth.

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The Old Standby is like Saturday jeans. These books are worth their inch on the bookshelf. When it’s time to take stock, face facts, and lighten the load for the moving truck, these old friends always make the cut. Have you read John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces? Try Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

A Bestseller moves a gazillion copies, gets made into a massive movie franchise, making the writer rich and famous. These things are fun. They are called “un-put-down-able.” Other euphemisms include “beach reads,” “lighter fare,” and “guilty pleasures.” Good ones don’t come along often, and the inevitable sequels are nearly always second rate. Not much staying power, either. The top titles of 2012 were Fifty Shades of Gray and The Hunger Games. Thoughtful reads to return to for deeper insight? Or (maybe more than) slightly embarrassing?

Vintage Children’s Books are a minefield. Old titles often contain language and images that reflect the norms and assumptions of earlier generations. Feared for stirring up charged memories and reinforcing negative stereotypes, they are also a reservoir of our history and heritage. We can now show ugly attitudes for what they are (destructive, short-sighted, and immoral) and further the important progress underway in our children’s generation. I don’t recommend these books, but when you find one, be brave. See if there’s more to learn from having a tough talk with a young person than lobbying the library to remove it from the shelves.

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Most readers have a to-read list long enough to roll right out the front door. If you’re a glutton for punishment, check back here from time to time for more thoughts on books to read (or avoid). Follow my blog for updates on recent stories, book reviews, and articles. And enjoy your day.

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Hitting the Press

The Streets of Sorrow, a short story inspired by true events, will appear in print in the coming weeks. Accepted for publication in Evening Street Review‘s fall edition, my piece tells the story of an old writer and a young writer. Not nearly as hopeless as its dire title, The Streets of Sorrow tackles the mysteries of memory, art, and shared human experience.

Print editions are for sale at

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Coming Soon

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My newest story, Of Course, I Didn’t, has been accepted for publication this fall in the online literary magazine, Rock Salt Journal. Told in the first person and weighing in at just 800 words, it’s a quick, thoughtful read. Themes of isolation resolve into the quiet comradery of kindred spirits.

Look for Of Course, I Didn’t in the October 2022 edition of Rock Salt journal at While you’re there, you’ll find a curated selection of short fiction, creative nonfiction, and photography.

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By Jennifer Frost

5 August 2022

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Oak trees shade the windows of the room, filling it with green light like water in a still pond. I can’t take a nap on this sofa, its awkward cushions sliding, its antique headrest brooding. Gran looks in and says, “Be still.” The mantle clock is ticking. Three hundred seconds equals five minutes. Then three hundred more. Not a whisper. Not a dripping tap. Pop’s ghost asks Gran for a dance in the kitchen to an old tune on the AM radio. The oak trees drop their leaves one by one, the mantle clock keeping time with the dance steps.

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