All things family

by | Dec 21, 2020 | December 2020 Writing | 5 comments

‘Can’t say what happened between conception and five’ Koll jokes. ‘Six, they send me off to school, and eight, it all blows up.’ Koll’s attributes are negative from here out. Small town. Everybody knows. Hellos of relatives push through like ice. Happy Holidays.

‘Not everyone intends you evil’, whispers, Morti . Koll looks up and Morti nods toward him: ‘I see how you feel.’ Koll’s pupils dilate as he drifts toward trance.


‘I can’t handle Holidays’ Koll nudges, ‘I know. Something’s wrong with me.’ Koll’s eyes scatter as his banter turns to anguish.

‘Number five of eleven’, Koll notes later. Morti’s all but an only child, as his brother’s much older. Father is a priest and Mother, a lesbian. Cagey, Koll asks ‘Was he trying to save her?’

Morti’s head twists sharply, and in flat affect: ‘He’s a pretty good guy, actually. My mother can be a little strange.’ There’s a long silence, then Morti, solemnly: ‘You’re family now. You can stay here anytime.’ Morti stuns Koll with this inexpectancy.


In the cavernous, cathedral loft Koll settles and watches light move across the Toronto skyline. One of Morti’s cats visits. ‘He’s incredibly standoffish, don’t look at him’ Koll recalls. Koll daydreams, writes, reads, naps, sketches, walks the streets and is is off to museums and parks. Morti’s home when Bach resounds from the piano. The sound of the grand sends Koll soaring.



Family winter holidays: Mum preps three floors for activity. Crowding is a norm when family gathers. Koll is the tree decorator. He places, backs off, places…on and on andn on, perfect and different everytime. ‘Leave him alone. He’s quiet’ is whispered. ‘Where did he find those nice dried seedpods?’ The boy is a tease target and trouble follows him. Most don’t know what to do with him.


Aer whil, families arrives. Silent onlookers watch Koll skirt the hall, then bolt out the door. Off to the wood.

Wind sheer, rustle through trees, heaven. A human intrusion impossible. Birds surprise. Deer standing silently and still, 40 feet away surprise. When Koll spots them it’s pure magic.


Dusk coming on. Koll heads back. Dinner’s started. ‘Say your prayers before you eat’, directs Daddy. Everyone hears him lay down the laws and that seems the point.


Koll eats in the music room, door half closed. A few bites between soft organ pedal pumps. The sonorous effect sooths. Koll’s chord sequences aren’t recognizable. Mum comes to sit briefly. Koll’s godmother may join to chat. If others run in Koll’s out of there, likely off to hide in the back of a dark closet.

Koll tell’s Morti: ‘This is one of my best memories: The piano is waiting. One, then another tune their guitar. A mandolin is brought down. Heads are raised in harmonious glory. Easy for me to walk into that scene. I hide cross-legged in a corner.’


  1. Rogan

    Koll is such an unusual name that it smacks me funny off beat, which isn’t a bad thing. Just interesting. “Hellos of relatives” needs something. Should there be an apostrophe somewhere? Would italics work? You’re working with some unusual diction and I’m really all about that. But your reader still needs a footing in. “Greetings of relatives push through like ice.” is a great line and cleaner. In that second block, you don’t want to capitalize “holidays,” and “inexpectancy” ought to be unexpectancy. It’s a rare word, archaic, which is really cool. And I wouldn’t typically speak to grammar, but because of some of the unusual diction and the way you bury the “I” in this, I kept tripping on these things on in an otherwise elegant dialogue/narrative.

    “In the cavernous, cathedral loft Koll settles and watches light move across the Toronto skyline.” This is a gorgeous sentence, John. But again, cut the comma after cavernous and place it, instead, after loft, and you have perfection. I love all these snapshots and observations and how you let the dialogue be your movement or do your telling. Great work off Robert’s prompt, John.

  2. David O'Connor

    John, I really like the start, right into the media rez, and just enough of a pace for the reader to catch up and be hooked. Love the names, they add another subtle layer of subtext without going over the top. This little bit–eyes scatter as his banter turns to anguish–is gold. Such a great turn of phrasing. About 2/3 in, I noticed the piece slowed the pace a bit, which is good, time for settling in, which made me think this is a much longer story, which I’d enjoy. Great work, dropped into a slice of life, and a story I want to follow, thanks for sharing!

  3. Sara Comito

    John, you capture a more universal truth than your characters may realize. The territory is so fertile and vast. I would dare you to print out the paragraphs and cut them into pieces and experiment with putting them in different orders. You have real potent material here. It might be fun to find different starting points into the story or different flashpoints of memory or interpersonal dynamics. You have a gift for cutting through motivations and desires. I think you dug deep for this one.

  4. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    John, You have caught so much human complexity here. I love your use of language, turns of phrase in the dialogue, really artful language in addition to strong insight. I would echo Rogan’s suggestions for grammar and spelling, but otherwise, everything works for me. I love the insight here: ‘Not everyone intends you evil’, whispers, Morti . Koll looks up and Morti nods toward him: ‘I see how you feel.’ Koll’s pupils dilate as he drifts toward trance.” I love the way music pulls through the narrative, the hesitancy of Koll when he’s crowded, all the simultaneously intense and ordinary moments of holiday get-togethers in this interesting family. Your writing just gets better and better and better. Thanks for this one— Happy New Year and stay healthy. When this moment in time passes, still would like coffee and a chat in person with you. Hope to see you next year in roundtable too.

  5. Robert Vaughan

    Hi John, what I love most about this piece is its inventiveness, uniquely yours and yet so strangely everyone’s (Universally themed). I also feel so engaged by the OLDE ENGLISH, and the use of words I had to look up! And how, through a ton of imaginative dialogue, the story thrusts ahead. I truly feel as if your writing is, as this piece does, leaping and bounding off the page. Your dedication is admirable, and it’s truly been an honor charting your progression. I’ve also enjoyed our ZOOM chats, too. Perhaps we can continue them in the New Year, although Meg will become your coach again? HNY, friend!

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