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.

Of Course, I Didn’t

13 October 2022

Photo by Chris F on

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.

Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem on

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.”

Photo by Kat Smith on

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.

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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By Jennifer Frost

5 August 2022

Photo by Temmuz Uzun on

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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Harriet and the Sparrow

Photo by Alexa Popovich on

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.”

The rain on the roof said, “Harriet, I’m at the garden gate.”

Harriet ignored the voice and passed a quarrelsome evening at home. When she asked for butter, Mother smacked her. “We have no butter, Fool. Why ask and humiliate me?”

In bed, Harriet heard the rain falling. “Meet me at the gate at dawn,” it said. Harriet left the house early, a string bag over her shoulder. On the gatepost, a sparrow stood hopping and chirping. Harriet followed it from tree to tree, winding along the lane, until they came to a marshy place.

There, a ferryman waited, a lantern on a pole behind him, mist rising from the swamp. “One coin to cross,” he said.

“I have no coin and no wish to cross.”

“Move on, then.”

The sparrow lit atop the lantern pole to groom its feathers and jerk its head to the far shore. “I shall cross after all,” said Harriet, “And instead of a coin, I will give you this lion’s tooth.” She offered a long yellow incisor hung on a leather string. “My father traded for it in the marketplace, a totem of courage and valor. One night, as he snored before the fire, I stole it. Since then, I wear it for bravery.” The ferryman accepted and stood aside as Harriet boarded.

Passing through the reeds Harriet saw, submerged in the shallows, a sleeping girl. Hair swirling in the ferryman’s wake, the maiden smiled to herself at her own sweet dreams. On the bog bottom lay another world, pond grasses swaying in a forest of roots and branches.

…a cursed kingdom

whose unjust ruler prides

himself on his cunning.

Be on your guard.

The craft bumped firm ground. The ferryman handed Harriet ashore with a stern word. “I leave you in a cursed kingdom whose unjust ruler prides himself on his cunning. Be on your guard.” The sparrow perched on the branch of an elm overlooking a path into green fields and golden meadows. Harriet thanked the ferryman and shouldered her string bag.

The path became a track, the track became a road, the road became a street, and soon Harriet found herself at the palace gates. The sparrow rested on the battlements, calling over the din of the town. “May I enter the palace?” Harriet asked.

“No one may enter whom the king has not summoned.”

The sparrow disappeared over the wall. “I am expected,” said Harriet.

“Not by His Majesty.”

“I bring a gift.”

“What gift?”

From her string bag, Harriet drew a fine prayer book bound in gilded leather. “I received this from the bishop at my First Communion. I wish to give it to His Highness for comfort in these trying times.”

The guard inspected the volume, its soft vellum pages, and intricate illuminations. “I accept this gift on behalf of the king. An attendant will prepare your room.”

Harriet crossed the courtyard to a room with rich hangings and a bright fire. The sparrow, entering the window, landed atop a lavish mirror. Harriet shook out her clothes and straightened her hair. “You are as plain as a rag doll,” said her attendant before retiring. “His Majesty will see through you; better keep your wits.”

Harriet faced the mirror, wondering how she might improve herself. From above, the sparrow shook its wings, dropping gilded feathers among the combs and brushes. Its beak was full of silver ribbons and strings of pearls. These it wove into ornaments for Harriet’s hair and adornments for her drab clothes.

In the throne room, the king admired young Harriet, as elusive and lovely as a bird. “Dear Maid, why do you come before me?” he asked.

“I bring a gift, Your Majesty.”

“A gift?”

“I left it at the gate.”

The king folded his hands and leaned forward on his throne. “I’m told your name is Harriet and that you are a maiden. Is that right?”

“Yes, Majesty.”

 “I am a king in need of a maiden to carry sons and secure my line. As such, I declare you will marry me.”

“I will not, Sire.”


“You are unknown to me, Your Highness, and I’ve heard talk of a curse in your kingdom.”

“There is a curse,” said the king, “A vile dragon who lives above us in a mountain cave where he hoards treasure and demands a maiden to devour, lest he destroy my kingdom.”

Harriet trembled but kept her composure. “I thank Your Majesty for this audience,” she said. “Let me trouble you no longer.” She bowed to leave.

You have three days

and three nights;

each morning you

must set me a riddle.

“Young woman, you may not refuse my proposal,” said the king, “But because you are fair, I grant you a chance to save yourself. You have three days and three nights; each morning you must set me a riddle. If you outwit me, you are free to go. But if I solve your riddles, you belong to the dragon and my kingdom is free from its curse.” A whisper went among the courtiers at this pronouncement. There could be no riddle clever enough to confound their sharp-witted king.

Guards whisked Harriet back to her room and left her to consider her fate. She wept, the sparrow at her pillow, knowing nothing of riddles or any way to avoid her doom. She pondered death and railed at the sparrow whom she’d followed to this cursed kingdom. When the storm of her crying passed, she was tired, but it was time to present the king with her first riddle. She missed the lion’s tooth, once worn round her neck for courage.

In the throne room, rain spattered the leaded windowpanes. The sparrow settled itself on a finial of the throne. “What riddle do you have for me, Maid Harriet? No doubt I will solve it in an instant.”

At this, the rain spoke to Harriet, tapping the roof and walls. She repeated every word it said. “Your Majesty. A murderer condemned to death must choose from among three rooms. One is full of raging fires. One harbors traps rigged with poison darts. The last is a den of lions, starved for three years. Which room should the prisoner choose?”

The king’s eyes flashed. “You must do better than that to outsmart me, dear girl. Of course, the prisoner must choose the lions’ den, since the animals died of starvation.”

Perhaps with divine

inspiration, she might

fool the shrewd king.

The sparrow flew from the room as guards led Harriet away. Sobbing into her pillows, she despaired. If the king solved the rain’s riddle with such ease, nothing she might contrive could save her. She prayed through the night, missing her First Communion prayer book, begging guidance and mercy from God. At dawn, a miracle. A riddle came to Harriet at the washbasin, an answer to her prayers. Perhaps with divine inspiration, she might fool the shrewd king.

“What is your riddle, Maid Harriet? I hope you’ve brought something worthy of my intellect.”

Harriet stepped forward. “Your Royal Highness. I am greater than God and worse than the devil. The poor have me, the rich want me, and if you eat me, you’ll die. What am I?”

The king reclined on his throne, fingers to his beard, rings flashing in the morning light. He leaned to a golden table at his side where Harriet’s gilded prayer book lay; he took it up and thumbed its pages. “You impress me, dear girl. This is a better question. And yet you have given me the answer.” He held up the prayer book. “An apt gift for a king with perils at his doorstep. From it, I learn nothing must be the answer to your riddle. For nothing is greater than God or worse than the Devil. The poor have nothing, the rich want nothing while eating nothing leads to death.”

Guards again whisked Harriet away, the king chiding her to do a better night’s work if she hoped to live. In her room, Harriet burned candles one after another, pacing before the fireplace. A hundred ideas came and went, but nothing to save her life. The sparrow had gone and did not return while Harriet scribbled her efforts in vain. In the morning, she hadn’t slept and saw no sign of the sparrow.

“Maid Harriet, today you must save your life or go free; either way, we will be parted. Can you outwit me?”

“Your Majesty, I have no riddle.”

“No riddle? I’m disappointed. You’ve exhausted your chances.”

In a rush of air and soot, the sparrow appeared from the chimney, its feathers singed and beating as it swooped around Harriet’s head. “My Lord,” she said. “I know a riddle. Tell me, what is easy to lift but hard to throw?”

The king looked at Harriet with a furrowed brow. “A question so simple won’t do, dear Harriet.”

“Sire, what is your answer?”

The king frowned and rose to pace before his golden tapestries. First an hour, then three, then six hours, Harriet waited, the courtiers drooping as the sun shifted across the sky. At last, the king cried out. “The answer, girl! I must have the answer.”

“Does Your Majesty mean he cannot solve the riddle?”

“I have solved it. Tell me your answer and I will tell you mine.”

“Free me, Your Majesty.”

“My answer will prove correct, and you will go to the dragon.”

“You do not know the answer,” said Harriet. Guards reached for her, but Harriet felt the sparrow alight on her shoulder. Under its feet she transformed into a breeze which flowed out through the window, a feather falling to the floor in her place. The court gasped, and the king raged. He grasped the feather and threw it with all his strength, only to see it spiral and fall.

“A feather,” said the king, the answer coming too late, leaving him to search for another maiden with which to save his kingdom while Harriet found freedom and lived content for the rest of her days.

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Harriet and the Sparrow appeared first in Esoterica, 4 March 2022

A Guest on Christmas Eve

By Jennifer Frost

Photo by Jenna Hamra on

One Christmas Eve, Old Martha sat alone, her cat asleep by the fire. She remembered her grandmother’s Christmas tea and the old tales of ghosts who haunt on the eve of the most sacred day of the year. Young Martha and her sisters hung on Grandmother’s words while Mother stood back, sniffing in the half-dark. “Ghosts don’t exist,” she said.

Grandmother’s eyes sparkled in the firelight. “You won’t say that tonight when Old Nick chases you up the stairs.”


“Better wait until midnight when the Messiah has been born and the entire world is safe for a day from the evil spirits that live in the dark.”

Mother bent forward to stir the fire, saying nothing.

And every
Christmas thereafter,
they remembered
the night
when they came
so close
to a very sticky end.

Grandmother told the girls of spirits who visit wicked children on the night before Christmas to reveal futures filled with sadness and ill luck. Those naughty boys and girls shivered in their beds, weeping with fear and dread as the deep sleep of death crept in. They awoke on Christmas morning transformed, thanking God for their deliverance, and turning to their parents in love and obedience. And every Christmas thereafter, they remembered that haunted night when they came so close to a very sticky end.

Father took the Bible and read the Nativity passages, verses extolling the long ago night of the Savior’s birth. With the close of the sacred story, the hosannas of angels ringing, the clock sounded twelve, and they damped the fire for the night. The children slept snug, their arms wrapped round each other, dreaming sweetly of roasted meats and Christmas pudding. No harm could come to them on the day the Good News was told.

Old Martha held the cat in her lap, remembering the sisters she’d outlived and family far away. A gale blowing outside rattled the windows; Martha rose to fasten their frames. Outside, a black figure stood in the snow, the blizzard obscuring it with gusts of wind and ice. “A lost stranger will not survive,” thought Martha. When she opened the door, the stranger stood on the doorstep, snow melting on his shoulders.

“Could you take in a wanderer on Christmas Eve, Madam?”

“Please, Sir,” said Martha, bidding him enter.

Martha poured tea and hung his coat to dry. The man took off his hat, tall and black with a narrow brim. His hair glistened in the flickering light. He smiled as he sipped his tea. “Your name, Sir?” asked Martha.

“I am Harris,” he said.

“I’m pleased to have a guest this evening.”

“Merry Christmas, Madam Martha.” Martha searched his face, but his gaze was on the fire, the cat warming herself on the hearth. “A game of cards?” he asked. “As we wait out the storm. An old tradition from my youth on Christmas Eve.”

“I never gamble on cards, Mr. Harris.”

Each card bore
the image of
some cavorting figure
and a numbered

“Nothing untoward, dear Martha. Just this bowl of oranges which sits on your table. We will divide them, and they will be our riches for tonight.” Martha agreed and Harris drew a deck of richly decorated cards from his pocket, fanning them for Martha to see. Each card bore the image of some cavorting figure and a numbered symbol on the top right corner. “An unusual deck, I’ll admit,” said Harris, “But just right for this particular game.”

Harris shuffled the cards with lightening fast hands and spread them in an arc upon the table. Then from his pocket he drew one last card, decorated like the rest but showing the grim figure of Death, scythe in hand. Harris hid it in the deck and reshuffled, the cards dancing between his fingers. He placed them in a stack on the table. “Draw to make pairs. Draw the Death card, you lose an orange.”

Martha nodded. “Those rules are plain.” And so they played.

First Martha lost an orange, then Harris. Back and forth, until Martha grew tired. Wins and losses were even on both sides, and the cache of oranges remained equally divided. Martha yawned. “I’m afraid I must retire, Mr. Harris.”

“The storm is as wild as ever.”

“An old woman cannot have a bachelor to stay, even in the worst conditions.”

“I shall freeze.”

“The winds have slowed. You will find your way to Bly’s farm on the road to town.”

“One last game, Madam Martha. This time, if I am left with the Death card, I will go. If you hold it your hand, you will come with me, and we will see if we make it to Bly’s farm.”

As she bent over
the cat, Martha
slipped the Death
card into the
animal’s collar.

The wind howled louder than ever, slamming shutters and sending an icy draft. Martha realized she was making a pact with the Devil. She agreed to the game. The cards were played, and pairs were made, lying face up on the table. When Martha drew the fateful card, her heart raced, but she stayed calm before the Devil. A log popped in the fire and Martha reached in with the poker to shift it. As she bent over the cat, Martha slipped the Death card into the animal’s collar, straightening before Harris noticed her movements.

At last, all the pairs were made, and both players had matched all their cards. “And where is the Death card, dear Martha? Play it now, for the one who holds it comes with me.”

“I do not have it, Sir, and if you say you do not, then let’s see if my little cat will find it.” With this, Martha took from her pocket a golden bell and shook it above the table. The cat, hearing this, jumped up from the hearth, showing Harris the Death card in her collar. “I suppose it is the cat who will go with you tonight,” said Martha, the clock striking twelve from the mantle. “You can leave me now.”

The devil had been outwitted, and he was furious. He rose to his full height and filled the room with a wind so strong it put out the fire. And then he was gone, the door left open in his wake, snow flying in and covering the floor. Martha rushed to close it, leaning back in relief to find the cat asleep by the blazing fire. No sign of the now departed visitor.

Martha damped the fire for the night and retired to bed, wrapping herself in woolen blankets. She slept well and dreamt sweetly of her sisters’ arms around her. At dawn, she awoke to the peal of bells and the mewing of the cat wanting milk on Christmas morning.

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Real Writer

Photo by Plato Terentev on

Meg rented office #10a where she worked most weekdays, her desk facing the door, the window raised behind her. No drapes. No blinds. Office #10, adjacent, had once connected to #10a through a door to Meg’s right long ago painted shut. On the left stood Meg’s couch, an ashtray on the floor beside it, an e-reader on the charger. Lazy afternoons, she lay there examining the water-stains on the ceiling in which she imagined faces, figures, and sometimes, mathematical equations. Meg looked up from her keyboard when the outer door opened and a smart young woman entered. The girl smiled as she hung her hat on a coat-hook Meg had never noticed. 

“He in yet?” the girl asked.

Meg returned a blank look.

The young lady giggled. “See you at lunch.”

Meg glanced at the clock.  9:45am. When she turned back, the inter-office door was closing as the girl disappeared into the adjoining room. “Morning, Mr. Linney,” the girl was saying. Meg heard a man’s deep voice rumble in reply.

Meg went to the door and ran a finger over its surface and hinges coated in layers of thick paint, applied one over another for decades. The knob held firm. The lock stuck fast. This door hasn’t opened for years. Laying her ear to the wood, she heard the clack of a typewriter. 

Meg peered at the girl’s hat. Soft and black. Smelling of lavender. A diesel engine roared in the alley beyond the open window. Meg closed the sash and sat at the desk. Any sounds from next-door lost out to the din. She stared at her screen, typed something, deleted it. She lay on the couch. Droning sounds enveloped her, and soon she dozed.

When later she woke to deep quiet, Meg sensed that someone had just left the room, that if she’d opened her eyes a moment sooner, she’d have seen someone there. On her keyboard lay a handwritten note:

Missed you at lunch, Sleepyhead. Catch ya next time!


Meg looked at the sealed door, noticed a wisp of lavender hanging in the air. “If she is real,” Meg said to herself, “She couldn’t have gone through the door. If she is a ghost, she can’t have left me this note.”Meg put the paper in a drawer and called it a day.

“I think my office is haunted,” Meg told her husband, Mark, at dinner that night.

Mark grinned. “Is the ghost going to split the rent?”

“Oh, ha-ha,” said Meg, wishing she sold enough stories to keep him from making that joke.

“More wine?” the server popped in to ask.

“Not for me,” said Meg.

Mark’s phone rang, and a grimace crossed his face. “Sorry, Meg. This’ll just take a minute.”

“I’ll go for a smoke.”

“Of course.”

If Jean had come in,
she might have asked
for romance.

They left the table in opposite directions, Meg heading outside, Mark to a quiet corner on the restaurant’s dining terrace. Meg lit a cigarette and surveyed the cracked parking lot that stretched for acres, edged on three sides by retail. A furniture store here, a supermarket there, a space where the bookstore used to be. Meg had worked in a bookstore once. If Jean had come in, she might have asked for ‘Romance.’ 

Meg’s phone buzzed in her pocket: You coming back? She stubbed out the cigarette and returned to the table.

Meg worked at the office, though she could’ve stayed home if she liked. She didn’t have deadlines. No editors or agents to meet. She had no reason to write except the passion for it. She sold a story now and then, by accident, it seemed. When her eyes drooped during afternoons with no air conditioner, she read books on the couch and smoked cigarettes until the ashtray was full. She napped and dreamt of knights on The Crusades or Vikings in Canada.

Jean appeared again one day as Meg tinkered with her query letter, rewriting it, guessing what an editor might want to hear from a writer who hadn’t much to say. “Hello?” said Meg as the outer door opened and Jean entered, a paper cup of coffee in each hand.

Jean didn’t reply. As she reached the inner door, she tapped it with the toe of her simple black shoe. “It’s me, Mr. Linney,” she called out.

“It doesn’t open,” Meg said.

The door swung inward, obscuring Meg’s view. A gruff voice greeted Jean as she stepped out of sight. “Hello?” Meg said again to no one. The door closed and Meg jumped up to examine it. In a moment she was there, but thick paint sealed the door, as it always had. When she scanned the wall where Jean had hung her hat, a patched hole lay where the hook had been. She opened a desk drawer and found the note Jean had left. Catch ya later, she’d written. 

Photo by Skylar Kang on

Meg was dreaming, she realized, as she opened her eyes and sat up on the couch. She couldn’t remember falling asleep, but here she was waking, feeling disoriented, not discerning dream from reality. As she gathered her belongings to go home, Meg looked around for Jean’s note but couldn’t find it.

“You wouldn’t believe the dream I had this afternoon,” Meg said to Mark as he stood at the stove stirring sauce.

“Tough day at the office, eh?”

Meg sipped a diet soda. “You know how it goes.” He knew.

“So what dreams, then?” Mark asked.

“The ghost again.”

“That’s the story you should write,” he said, dipping a spoon in the pot for a cook’s taste.


“What was she up to, anyway?”

“Just ghosting around.”

Mark smiled across the kitchen, a husband who knew his wife’s ways. He’d have her telling the whole story by the time he served her dessert. He threw a handful of noodles into boiling water.

Jean’s Ghost

By Meg Lewis,

This modest office building was once a gem tucked between a dress shop and a cheerful grocery with a lunch counter at the back. The fresh suburban main street came in with the post-war boom, the upswing transforming the valley’s orange groves into just the places that downtown poets railed against, drunk and self-righteous in damp city basements and vegetarian restaurants. Now, the rent here is low, the neighborhood seedy, the building rundown. When I sell a story, I jump to take a lease; my first office. A real writer. I’m upstairs at the back.

My husband, Paul, buys me a couch to put under the window, but I move it to the side wall because I have no blinds. He offers to buy those, too, but I decline. I say, “I’ll buy them myself when I sell another story.” So, it may be awhile before I can move the couch back.

I’m a writer. I live in my imagination. The walls are blank on purpose. The water stains on the ceiling are what I need. I don’t feel guilty if I take a nap. Paul doesn’t like the teenage boys congregating in the alley at dusk. I tell him, “There’s nothing wrong with those boys.” He tells me I see the world through rose-colored glasses.

Someone strolls in as I’m working busily, typing my first 500 words of the day. I’m startled, and I turn to the door. She’s hanging her hat on a coat rack I haven’t noticed. “Hello?” I say with a frown.

“Good morning,” she says, carrying donuts in a bag as she crosses the room, her plain dress, timeless style, swishing around her hips. I’m bewildered. She smiles like a lifelong friend. “See you at lunch,” she says and opens the door, which connects us to the neighboring office. That door is out of use. A chill passes through me.

I inspect the door. They’ve applied layer after layer of thick white paint from top to bottom. When I try to open it, it’s stuck fast. I can hear the girl’s voice in the next office. “Yes, Mr. Linney.” I can’t make out Linney’s muffled reply. I cross the room to inspect the hat. Made of soft felt. Scented with lavender. I lie on the couch and listen to the voices in the next office, Linney’s voice dictating, the girl’s voice saying, “Yes, Mr. Linney.” I don’t realize I’m dropping to sleep. At 1:30, I come around and find a note on my keyboard. “Missed you at lunch, Sleepyhead. Getcha next time, Jean” And that’s how I learn her name.

…sleeping without dreams
and waking in a semi-
weightless state as if
she’d been off the planet
without realizing it

Meg held her head in her hands, rubbed her temples, and stretched. She flopped on the couch and lit a cigarette. For a few minutes she lay with her eyes closed, unwinding. As her cigarette burned, she reached for a recent collection of prize-winning stories. My stuff is so amateur, Meg thought, but read on, hoping to absorb the genius. Next, she was rubbing her eyes with the book beside her where it had slipped as she’d dozed off, this time sleeping without dreams and waking in a semi-weightless state as if she’d been off the planet without realizing it.

Some days, Meg worked, some days not. Some days, she walked up to a nearby row of antique shops to pick through old times. She noticed a rhinestone brooch and imagined Jean wearing it. On the next shelf was a saint carved in black soapstone.

“Something catch your eye, Miss?” asked a man in flannel and denim.

Meg picked up the figure.

“Little St. Columba,” said the man, “Whose prayers converted the Picts of ancient Scotland.”

Meg was charmed and bought the figure.

Back at the office, Meg made tea and sat in her chair to drink it. She tapped the keyboard for an hour in a meandering way, feeling in the dark. Again and again, she considered what had happened with Jean, if it had happened. She expected to write it and make sense of it. Instead, it felt banal and derivative. 

A bang came from Linney’s office. Someone cried out. A door slammed. Meg froze. Is this another dream? The sealed door opened. For a moment, she could see nothing; then someone stepped out. A rush of air through the room blew open the outer door as Meg raised her arm to shield her eyes. When she recovered, she flew to the hall where a woman with a cleaning cart stood stricken. Clutching her apron, she crossed herself and fled. Meg ducked back inside and sank onto the couch, leaning her head back and closing her eyes. When she opened them again, several hours had passed, and the sun was sinking over the alley. Call 911, came the frantic thought.

But what, Meg asked herself, could she report to the authorities? I was working; a gun fired. This sealed door opened. Someone came through, but a wind came up from somewhere and I couldn’t see who it was. There was a woman in the hall; maybe she knows more? Meg decided a sane person could not call emergency services to say that. Another dream, that’s it. But they were getting worse.

Meg took breaks from the office at the coffee shop on street level. When she’d first considered renting upstairs, the landlord had used the shop as a selling point for an otherwise tired building.

               “Harry’s has been here for decades,” he assured her, “A neighborhood place. Great coffee; not the overpriced swill from Starbuck’s.”

Meg soon befriended the servers and stopped in whenever, walking past the window on her way upstairs, she noticed her favorite table was free. These past few weeks, she’d been too busy to visit much. Jean’s story had unlocked something. Everywhere Meg went, she imagined Jean there looking demure, her plain skirt sophisticated and understated. She could sit at Harry’s with a mug of coffee and a jelly donut. Maybe browsing dresses in the second-hand store. Or raising a polite hand to the cars waiting for her at the crosswalk. When Meg hurried upstairs to write, Jean was there to give inspiration. She came in every morning at 9:45am, often bringing something for Mr. Linney: a paper cup of coffee from Harry’s, a donut in a bag.

               “He in yet?”

               “Never a peep until you arrive.”

               She giggled. “See you at lunch.”

               “See you.”

               The mornings passed in a whirl. The rewrites were not a chore. A rhythm she’d lost months ago resurfaced. The pages increased. Jean’s Ghost revealed a noir tragedy set in the building’s glory days.  

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Jean and Linney, a down-on-his-luck attorney, are the ghosts of a couple who worked together in this office in the 1930s and carried on a torrid affair. Their passion ignites in the close confines of the office but is thwarted by his conventional wife and stifling middle class life. He pulls Jean into a dark corner. She resists but is overcome. In Act Two, Linney is forced to take on a gang of disreputable clients to shore up his failing practice and divorce his wife. Jean’s angst keeps her at home nights waiting for him to call while intimidating office visits from the new clients leave her shaken. 

One night, Jean can’t stand it any longer. She knows Linney is at the office for an after-hours meeting. She goes there intending to wait unnoticed and catch Linney after the thugs have left, before he can disappear home to his wife. Listening at the inter-office door, she overhears a terrifying exchange, Linney pleading for more time, the gang leader threatening him with a gun. In a moment of fright, Jean gasps and gives herself away. They drag her into Linney’s office, where she kneels before the aggressors. “We’re in love,” she cries, “Won’t you give us a chance?”

“Love won’t pay the bills, lady,” says the killer.

Meg sat back. She stretched her shoulders and reached for her cigarettes. In a haze of smoke and afternoon sunlight, she reclined on the couch, studying the water-marked ceiling. She saw a killer’s face with a scar and the long shadow lines cast by half-closed blinds. Her eyes drooped. A fly buzzed in the window casement.

The next moment, Meg was being shaken awake by a rough hand. “Get up, Sister,” growled a harsh voice. Meg rubbed her eyes in astonishment. A man in a fedora hat and trench coat stood before her, a pistol in his hand. “I said, GET UP.”

Meg rose, this dream world suddenly black and white, shadows lurking just beyond the light. She knew, this time, that it couldn’t be real. “You got something of mine, don’t ya?”


“Hand over what belongs to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look, lady, you think I’m an idiot? I know what you’re up to in here.” He turned to Meg’s desk. “Search the place, Boys,” he said as the shadows in the background took on form and mass. 

A henchman silhouetted in the window spoke up. “It ain’t here, Boss.”

The man turned hard eyes on Meg. “That so?”

“What are you looking for?” asked Meg. She marvelled at her office, now lit like a movie set, her own story unfolding around her, the dream writing the next chapter.

“I’m looking for them stories you’ve been writing, the ones you expect to sell to the papers.”


“Don’t play dumb.”

Meg stood stunned. “I don’t write for the paper.”

The man sneered. “You think I’m going to let you take me down? You think I’m going to let you put the cops on me? I’ve been watching you. My guys have heard you from Linney’s office, typing every morning, bragging to the waitresses downstairs how this is the story that’ll get you noticed by The Times.”

“I haven’t written
about you. I’ve barely
published. I don’t even
have an agent!”

“I’ve said nothing to anyone.” The man was close. Unlike her earlier dreams, this one didn’t come with a rush of air and a sense of not quite seeing. Instead, it pressed in from everywhere.

“Ain’t ya?’”

Meg stood frozen as he raised his pistol.

“You’ve got it wrong,” she said, “I swear.”

He pulled back the hammer. The mechanism, as it clicked, tripped her mind into a panic.

“Please!” she cried, “I haven’t written about you. I’ve barely published. I don’t even have an agent!”

“Too bad,” said the man with a sinister laugh. “I guess now you never will.”

“Oh, don’t,” said Meg, “There’s no need. I’m not a real writer. I’m not a writer!”

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Real Writer appeared first on East of the Web, September 2021

Mr. Harris

Photo by Matt Hardy on

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.  From the kitchen, Mother calls, “Opal, have you got those windows closed up?” 

“Yes, Ma,” I call back. 

“Go tell the boys to get washed for dinner,” she says, coming in & drawing the curtain aside.  Seeing the stranger in the road, Mother leans forward for a closer look.  Could it be? she’s thinking.  But no, she realizes. It isn’t him.  Her eyes are gentle when she says, “Another one blowing in hopeless & hungry.  Set an extra place before you fetch the boys.”

Everybody jostles around the long kitchen table, getting seated, keeping their hands in their laps with Mother’s pork stew & dumplings before them.  Father is on the back porch with the stranger who holds his cap in his hands.  Mother & my oldest sister, Nessa, bring the food.  I sit on a bench between the little girls, Martha & Clara.  Our brothers, George & Merle, are across the table ribbing each other.  There’s Baby sitting up in his cradle.  He holds his hands out & cries as Nessa goes by with a bowl of potatoes but he’s okay.  I try to hear what Father is saying to the stranger, but there’s too much noise.  I see their mouths moving.  Hate to ask you, the man is saying.  Welcome, Stranger, say Father’s lips.

Father leads us in prayer.  Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest.  Let these, thy gifts to us, be blest.  “Amen,” replies the table.  We wait until Father has taken a ladleful & served the stranger before we move.  As the plates go around, I help the little girls.  Baby is on Mother’s lap while Nessa spoons out their stew. 

Mother speaks first.  “Tell us your name, Stranger,” she says with a smile. 

“Name’s Harris, Ma’am,” he says, “And I’m pleased to meet you all.  Thank you for the meal.  Been a long time since I’ve seen a spread like this.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Harris,” says Mother, “Where do you hail from?” 

“I guess you’d say I come & go as I please.”  As the stranger heaps his plate with seconds & then thirds, George & Merle throw him resentful gazes.  Nessa never looks his way at all.  She helps Mother with Baby, brings more bread, & fills our glasses with creamy fresh milk.

She crosses the room

to close our window

which faces the barn,

lamplight glowing

in the hayloft.

Harris sleeps in the hayloft on a sprung mattress under an old quilt.  It’s clean if worn.  Mother gives him a towel to wash his face & a pillow for his head.  Father gives him an oil lamp & a Bible to read.  “Hayloft’s near empty this time of the year or I couldn’t let you take a light up there.  Even so, you’ll be careful with this.”  The boys scowl after Harris as he disappears into the dark.  I am nestled in bed between Martha & Clara, both asleep, when Nessa looks in. 

“Time to put out your light,” she says & I obey.  She crosses the room to close our window which faces the barn, lamplight glowing in the hayloft. 

“Leave the curtains,” I say, “I like to watch the moon go by.” 

“There’s no moon tonight,” says Nessa leaving a gap in the curtains anyway.  “Good night, Opal,” she says. 

“Good night.” 

In the barnyard next morning collecting eggs, I know right away that something is wrong.  The dogs are nowhere in sight.  Approaching the chicken coop, I find blood & feathers around the little doorway.  “Get in here with those eggs, Opal,” Mother shouts from the kitchen window but I don’t move. 

Father passes with a pail of fresh milk.  “What is it, Opal?” 

“There’s a dead chicken,” I say, pointing to the mess. 

Father looks stricken.  “Where are the dogs?” he asks. 


He groans.  “Don’t touch it,” he says, “Get the eggs; the boys & I will clean up after breakfast.”  I nod & make my way in.  My stomach heaves as I step around the gore.  I swallow hard hearing Mother’s voice in my head, Don’t be a ninny, Opal.  You’ll cut the heads off dozens of chickens when you’re a farmer’s wife.  I get the eggs fast & go back to the house.

Harris sits beside Father at the head of the table.  Come, Lord Jesus, be thou our guest.  Let these, thy gifts to us, be blest.  “Amen.”  We pass platters of eggs, bread & sausage. 

When they come his way, Harris says, “Not so much for me this morning.” 

George & Merle exchange satisfied glances hearing that the newcomer is learning his place.  Meanwhile they heap their plates until Mother says, “Leave some for the rest of us.”  

“Well, Harris,” says Father, wiping his chin, “We got a fence needs mending down by the creek.  Could use an extra hand if you’ll be around a while.  Can’t pay you, of course, but you’re welcome to stay & board with us if you like.” 

“Thank you,” says Harris, “I believe I will.”

At night, I lay in bed between the girls & watch the moon.  Night by night, it grows from a sliver rising over the barn until it reaches full bloom, a great yellow circle glowing behind the corn silo, lighting up the barnyard.  In the black dark barn, the oil lamp flickers in the hayloft.  It’s late when I hear something in the yard.  I get up to close the window.  In the bright moonlight, nothing moves.  The animals are restless in the barn.  The dogs are whining, penned up to keep them out of the henhouse.  I hurry back to bed.  For a long time, nothing happens.  It’s a struggle to stay awake but I keep watch, shadows changing shape as the moon drifts overhead.  The flame flickers in the hayloft.  In the morning, there’s another dead chicken.

“Why do you let him stay,” I ask Mother as we’re kneading bread dough at the floured work table.  We’ve rolled up our sleeves, our dresses covered by long aprons. 

“Why shouldn’t he stay?” Mother asks, “Father says he’s a good hand.  He does the chores Bill used to do.  Before he went away.” 


Nessa is knitting new

sweaters for winter

while eavesdropping

on the party-line phone

out in the hall.

We put the bread dough in loaf pans & cover them with flour sacks to rise.  I fetch a pail of water.  Mother is feeding Baby when I return.  Nessa is knitting new sweaters for winter while eavesdropping on the party-line phone out in the hall.  “You shouldn’t listen in,” I exclaim.  She shushes me & waves me away.  I wander out to the barn & give a dish of cream to the cats.  I visit the dairy cows whose milk Father sells to the grocer in town.  I look up to the hayloft & wonder.

From the top of the ladder, I can see Mother’s quilt folded on the mattress, the oil lamp on an upturned milk crate under the window.  I note the Bible with a red satin marker tucked into its pages.  His knapsack lies in the corner near an old pitchfork.  I wonder if I’m brave enough to open it.  I step forward looking around, searching for signs.  There’s nothing.  I pick up the Bible & read from the marked page.  …a generation that curseth their father, and doth not bless their mother.  There is a generation, O how lofty are their eyes! And their eyelids are lifted up.  There is a generation, whose teeth are as swords, and their jaw teeth as knives, to devour…

“Opal, I’m surprised to find you here,” says Harris.  My heart leaps as I turn to find him standing at the top of the ladder, his face obscure in the dim light.

“Mr. Harris,” I say stammering, “I’m sorry to intrude. I don’t know why I came up here.” 

“In search of something to read?” he suggests motioning to the Bible in my hands. 

“No, no,” I say & put the book down, “I’m so sorry.” 

“Please don’t apologize,” says Harris, “Will you be going?” 

“Yes, yes,” I say aware now that I’m frozen in place.  I’m clumsy getting to the ladder. 

“Careful now,” says Harris.  He watches me all the way down, sees me disappear around the cow stalls.  His eyes are on me from the hayloft as I cross the yard but when I reach the kitchen door & turn to face him, there’s only an empty window.

Baby has come down with a fever & Nessa is tending him when it’s time to put the light out.  “The Baumbach twins are down, too,” she says when she comes in to check on us, “I heard Lyddie call the doctor this afternoon.” 

“Mother says it’s wrong to use the party-line to snoop on people.” 

“It’s not snooping,” says Nessa going back to Baby. 

Photo by Irina Iriser on

A breeze comes through the open window.  There’s no moon.  The lamp lights the hayloft as always but tonight Harris is there, too, reading beside the window with his back to me.  His eyeglasses glint in the light from the lamp.  He never stretches, never turns, never moves at all.  What are you? I think to myself.  Baby cries out from his fever & I’m startled awake.  The window in the hayloft is light but empty.  Harris is gone.  The animals stir & a wind picks up in the yard.  I rush to close the window & see Harris there in the dark, disappearing around the back of the chicken coop.  He turns & looks up at me as I slam down the sash.

At breakfast, Nessa does all the cooking.  Mother is upstairs with Baby, swabbing his brow as he sweats & fusses.  I steal glances at Harris sitting next to Father.  Each time I do, he turns to meet my gaze.  I look away.  Still, I notice that his plate is full & at the next glimpse, empty though he seems to have eaten nothing.  Then Clara spills her milk & before we finish mopping up Father, Harris & the boys have all left for morning chores. 

“What do you think of Mr. Harris?” I ask Nessa as we clear the table. 

“Why should I think anything about him?” she asks, “He’s nobody to me.” 


“I don’t care for the way he looks at me,” Nessa says, “As if he would eat me up.” 

“He seems to know my thoughts.” 

“Men always act that way,” says Nessa.

Mother is watching over Baby while he tries to sleep, mending a pair of Harris’ work pants.  “Men never mind their clothes,” she says.  I’m putting a button back on Father’s Sunday shirt.  Nessa is working the foot pedal on the Singer sewing machine, taking in one of my old dresses for Martha.  “Maybe some of Bill’s old work clothes would fit Mr. Harris,” says Mother reflectively, “Bill wouldn’t mind.  He’d be glad to help.  Of course, he would.”  I finish the button & pick up a sock to darn.  “Maybe Mr. Harris will stay through haymaking this fall,” says Mother, “Of course, he can’t sleep out in the barn when winter sets in.  By then, he’ll have to go.”  Through with her mending, she looks up & says, “Do you suppose some family is looking after Bill like we take care of Mr. Harris?  I hope so.  Wherever he is, I pray someone is feeding him & giving him work.  Do you think so, Girls?  I think so.” 


By the end of the summer, we’ve lost Baby.  His fever never breaks.  Mother neither sleeps nor eats, keeping watch night after night.  After weeks of nursing him, Baby slips away in her arms.  Nessa stands in the doorway her eyes soaked with tears.  There’s a graveyard outside the country church.  We lay Baby in the ground next to an infant brother & the stillborn who came between me & Martha.  We mourn with solemn faces while the pastor says the words.  Wind sweeps over the ripe fields.  Harris comes down from the hayloft as we rumble into the yard in Father’s pickup truck.  “My condolences,” he says, joining us in the kitchen where we find that our neighbors have been round to drop off casseroles & stews, salads & desserts.  We collapse onto the benches.  Baby’s cradle is empty by the window.

Photo by John-Mark Smith on

After a day of quiet mourning, Father & Harris take their axes out to the back acreage to clear tree stumps.  George & Merle go along planning mischief & hoping for a chance to sneak away.  Mother is resting in bed with the door closed.  Nessa won’t come away from the party-line phone.  I climb up to the hayloft & thumb the pages of the old Bible to mark the page which begins, We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.  When the men come in, I’m at the worktable under the window cleaning the oil lamp.

“Opal, that’s Mr. Harris’ lamp,” says Father.

“Yes,” I say, my voice level, my eyes on Harris “And it was kind of you to bring it down, Mr. Harris, with all your things now you’ve decided to leave.” 

“Are you leaving, Harris?” Father asks surprised.  I take Father’s arm saying, “He’s brought all his things here to the kitchen & the hayloft is swept clean.” 

“Hope it’s nothing we’ve done,” says Father.  Harris’ dark eyes follow me. 

“Don’t worry, Father,” I say, “I’m sure Mr. Harris knows how we’re missing Baby & feels it’s time to move on.”  Harris’ gaze hardens.  I lift his knapsack from the table & offer it up.  Harris takes the bag with Father looking on. 

“Hate to see you go,” says Father, reaching out to shake his hand. 

“Perhaps Mr. Harris will find his way back sometime,” I say, “Isn’t that so, Mr. Harris?” 

“I come & go as I please,” says Harris. 

Yes.  “You’ll be wanting to take this with you, too, won’t you,” I say, handing him the old Bible with the newly placed page marker.  As he takes it, his eyes grow wide & he shrinks from me. 

“Yes, yes,” he says hurriedly, “I wouldn’t like to go without it.” 

“Wise words,” says Father.

In a moment, Harris is gone.  Father & the boys are settling down around the table.  I serve them cold meats & brown bread.  I pour out glasses of our own good milk cool from the icebox.  Nessa comes in listlessly & sits in her place beside Mother’s empty chair.  She is pale, but she eats.  I help the little girls with their meals & bring out more food to fill my brothers’ plates.  I clear the table & wash the dishes while Nessa dries.  “Are you glad he’s gone?” I ask. 

“Opal,” cries Nessa, “How could I be glad?  Baby’s dead.  How can you even ask me?” 

“Not Baby,” I say, “Harris.” 

“Oh, him,” says Nessa with disdain, “Well, if he wouldn’t take me with him, he may just as well be gone.”  She sighs & looks disgusted.  With the dishes done, I go around & close all the windows.  When the wind picks up, the dust blows in.

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Mr. Harris appeared first in Deracine, Summer 2020

A Place to Get Away

Photo credit: Nick Kenrick.. on Visualhunt

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.  The cabin could sleep only 4, had no air conditioning & no washing machine.  There was 1 tiny shower stall, 1 lonely electrical socket in the whole place.  When the fire ripped through the valley, its savage winds taking down power lines, sparks bursting into flames, the little cabin was devoured along with all the rest on Red Rose Drive, a gravel road overlooking a vast pine forest believed until modern times to be sacred.  The forest has renewed itself since the fire.  Red Rose Drive has been improved & rebuilt.  

Deciding whether to sell Grandpa’s land after the fire & divide the profits or use the insurance payout to put things back together, Anne’s family had been split.  

“Grandpa would have wanted us to keep the old place,” Uncle John had pointed out.

“Grandpa is dead,” Anne’s mother, Carol, had said, “What does it matter to him?”  After a family vote that could have gone either way, a contractor & architect had been hired.  The house had been remade, not as a rustic cabin but as a proper summer home with 3 bedrooms, a modern kitchen & several bathrooms.  Neighboring plots were similarly improved; nobody wanted a cabin anymore.  It had taken considerably more than the insurance money for Anne’s family to finish the project.  

“I told you,” Carol had said, bills & bank statements in hand.  

Scaffolding surrounds the place rising on the neighboring plot.  Mrs. Taylor, a resident on Red Rose Drive for 35 years & the 1st to rebuild, has met the new residents out with their building firm, blueprints rustling in the breeze.  

“That place will have 5 bedrooms,” Mrs. Taylor tells Carol when they arrive for 4th of July weekend, “Can you believe that?  It was Bob Graham’s fishing cabin.  It had an outhouse!”  

“I know,” says Carol, holding her nose.  

Many of the closest neighbors, most of them family friends for decades, haven’t kept their places.  “It’s not the same without the Harrisons up here,” Uncle John remarks, coming in with his 2 boys, “No one made a better cherry pie than Mrs. Harrison.”  

“We should have sold

the place before we sank

so much money into it,”

Carol gripes from the kitchen

table which she is dusting.

“We should have sold the place before we sank so much money into it,” Carol gripes from the kitchen table which she is dusting.  

Anne winces as she sweeps cobwebs down from the light fixtures, dust falling in her eyes.  “Come on, Mom,” she says.  

“It sits empty all year,” Carol answers, “And it takes 3 hours to get up here these days.  It’s not worth it anymore.”  Uncle John shakes his head & takes the suitcases downstairs.

By dinner time, Uncle John’s wife, Molly, has called to say she will not drive up after all; a problem with the car, it seems.  That means Anne’s brother, Jake, & his girlfriend will also be absent, having planned to carpool.  Carol has made a fresh green salad.  Uncle John has grilled burgers & hot dogs.  His teenage sons, Will & Joshua, devour a mountain of food then disappear to play video games in their bedroom downstairs.  

“Sure is different up here than it used to be,” Carol remarks as she loads the dishwasher.  Anne takes a pack of cigarettes from her purse & opens the sliding glass doors onto the deck.  “You still smoking?” Carol says with a reproving look.  Anne stops & turns to her mother.  “You smoked when you were my age,” she says.  

“But I quit,” says Carol, “And you should, too.”  

“Yeah,” says Anne & goes out.  

She looks out at the black, black mountainsides, the sky above with its field of stars.  It’s just us, she thinks.  She imagines her dad as he was in her childhood, long before the divorce, out on the back-porch smoking with Grandpa George before he died.  Now they’re both dead, she thinks.  She remembers Dad & Grandpa talking baseball through the afternoon & into the night.  

“You think your boys from Chicago can beat the Home Team this year?” Dad asks.  “Home Team, my foot,” Grandpa answers back, “I don’t know how you can root for those bums.  I’m a Chicagoan ‘til the day I die.”  They lament the surrounding mountains which block out the radio broadcast.  “But it’s paradise up here,” Grandpa says, “Simply paradise.  

“Yeah,” Anne’s dad agrees.  They fall silent.  Anne is alone again on the deck, her cigarette burning.  Before it’s quite finished, she uses it to light another.

Is that a million trees?

she thinks gazing through

a plate-glass window,

Does anybody count trees?

Uncle John takes the boys down to the lake for a day of fishing off the boat.  They invite Anne to join but she declines.  Carol says she wants to spend the day reading.  She has an inspirational guide to spirituality waiting on the coffee table.  Anne sits on a barstool at the counter which divides the open-plan kitchen from the living room.  Is that a million trees? she thinks gazing through a plate-glass window, Does anybody count trees?  

“You planning to sit there the rest of the day staring out the window?” asks Carol, bustling in, “I’m taking my book out to the deck.”  

“I’ll come out,” says Anne.  She smokes a cigarette using Grandpa George’s favorite ashtray.  It’s one of the few things to survive the fire.  

“We are not keeping that,” Carol had said with disgust.

“But everything else burned up,” John had insisted, “How can we throw out the only thing that’s left?”  

“Fine,” Carol had grudgingly conceded, “Have it your way.”


“Why don’t you take a walk up the trail behind the Thompson’s place,” Carol suggests with a sideways look, “It’s beautiful.  I went up before breakfast.  If you’d been awake, you could’ve come with me.”  

I hate walks, Anne thinks not knowing what to say, Just the word ‘walk’ & already I’m tired.  

“It’s better than sitting here smoking ½ a pack of cigarettes,” her mother says, turning back to her book, “I came up here for the fresh air, you know.”    

“I’ll go,” Anne says.  

“Good,” says Carol, “And if you’re not too worn out, you can come with me after dinner tonight, too.  Gotta’ get my steps in.”  Anne nods & goes inside to put on walking shoes.

Photo by Anand Dandekar on

Anne comes into the meadow at the top of the trail.  There’s a stream that comes down along the far side with shade trees.  Who was the 1st human to walk in this meadow, she wonders, 10,000 years ago?  Longer?  Anne knows which tree she likes.  She finds it waiting for her.  The dirt is hard & dry; the tree roots decide what shape the ground will be.  Anne settles herself in. The branches above are in full leaf.  The birds & insects go about their business.  Anne leans her head back & hears a nearby radio playing.  She looks around but sees nothing.  The wind blows & she thinks, They must be playing music down at the Thompson place.  Her eyelids are heavy.  The mountain air is fresh & cool.

“I thought you’d never wake up,” says a voice.  

Anne finds she’s opening her eyes & turning to look.  Dad? she thinks.  

“You must’ve been asleep awhile,” he says.  

It’s not Dad, she thinks though she’s not sure.  He’s sitting in a folding chair with a cooler & a portable radio playing static beside him.  He smokes a cigarette casually.  She notices a pile of butts on the bare ground stacked as neatly as firewood.  He’ll take those with him when he goes, Anne thinks,  just like Dad.  

“You okay?” the man asks.  

“I didn’t realize I’d gone to sleep,” Anne says, rubbing her eyes. “You look like my dad,” she says wonderingly.  “But, of course, he’s dead.” 

The man gives her a wry grin.  “I’m not your dad,” he says, “And I’m not dead.”

The breeze changes, the radio static clears & Anne can hear it’s tuned to a ballgame.  “My dad used to listen to games up here sometimes,” Anne says, “He claimed you could get a signal if you tuned in the AM radio just right.”  

“It gets patchy,” says the man, shrugging his shoulders, “Some days, I can’t hear a thing.  But look at the view.”  

“Yeah,” says Anne.  She feels dizzy.  “Did you buy the old Thompson place?”  

“Who’s your team?” she

asks idly. “I always root

for the Home Team,” he says.  

Of course, she thinks,

her mind drifting.

“No,” says the man, reaching toward the cooler, “Can I offer a lady an ice-cold beer?”

“No, thanks,” says Anne.  

“Suit yourself,” he says.  

“You up here for the 4th?” Anne asks.  

“Looks like it,” he says.  She waits for him to say more but he’s listening for the baseball scores.  Anne hears the woods & the meadow, a mix static & baseball commentary coming through on the radio.  

“Who’s your team?” she asks idly.  

“I always root for the Home Team,” he says.  

Of course, she thinks, her mind drifting.

“I have a daughter,” the man says after a while.  

Anne nods, feigning interest.  “That’s nice,” she says.  

“My daughter is something else,” the man says.  

“Yeah?” says Anne.  

“Yeah,” he says, nodding, “Just like me when I was young.”  He’s the spitting image of Dad, biting his lip & looking far into the distance.  “It all goes by so fast,” he says.  

A loud bang comes from the somewhere beyond the meadow in the direction of Red Rose Drive.  Anne wakes, her heart racing as the popping of firecrackers & smell of BBQ take her by surprise.  She’s alone on the bank of the stream, the rippling of leaves above her sounding like quiet static on a small radio.

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First published in Backchannels, Issue 4 March 2020