It had been a month since any of us had heard from Melanie. Her sister was ill, cancer at 42, but she had been dying all year, and we were sure nothing had changed. We knew she was struggling at work, but then she always was. Melanie disappeared a lot, and so it was difficult to parse out when she was in real serious trouble or the everyday muck of her life. Sometimes she wouldn’t reply to a message for weeks, and finally, she would with a non-sequitur or she’d just ask if we wanted to go drink or do a crushed up yellowy pill she found in one of her jewelry boxes. We always took what she offered, whatever it was, as if her sporadic offerings were what we were craving all along, and not the deep down shine to her.

We reminded each other it was a quirk of her personality, an uncontrollable, immutable fact, and it had always been this way, regardless of her life circumstances. But It was tiresome honestly and we were all already tired from our own miserable lives.

Perhaps she wanted us to forget her for a while, to let her simple be, but we couldn’t forget her. It ate at us, her self-imposed isolation.

On the fifth of December we rapped on her window. There had been a deep freeze the night before and little ice crystals fused on the glass in delicate little patterns. We wanted to remind her that the rent was past due. We reminded her on the fifth of every month so she wouldn’t be evicted. Sometimes we’d take her check, put it in an envelope, and walk it over to the landlord’s house down the street just to make sure. Sometimes we’d help her into her wool socks and galoshes and parka, and give her a nip from our flask, and tell her it would do the dog good to go out for a walk. We’d brought the flask on this day in particular. We rapped again, thinking she was probably in the bathroom dying her hair raspberry or lying on the floor in her dark room with a migraine. It was customary for her to not hear us the first time.

It was strange that the dog didn’t bark. The dog always barked. He barked so much and so loudly it made us think we would never want a dog if that’s all a dog would do. One of us, Susan I think, slipped the spare key from around her neck into the lock, wiggled it just so, and pushed on the handle as she turned. It was a finicky door to a finicky apartment—once a bank with a large vault between the bedroom and kitchen. She had never been inside the vault, only her landlord had the key. We all wanted to see what was in there, but whenever we asked, she demurred. She said whatever was in there was of no use to her.

Once inside the apartment, we were met by a jungle of her plants. Hundreds more than she’d had in November, huge tropical ones with paper-thin feathery leaves and burly trees with heavy, drooping leaves and ferns jutting from every corner and philodendrons raining from the ceiling. We pushed our way through the forest inside of her flat, where the greenery had taken over every surface. We called for her, using her special nickname and then her regular name and finally, we called for the dog, picking up a bag of biscuits and shaking vigorously but nothing stirred. We had been there an hour and had watched the sky tinge dark purple. It was getting late, it was time for supper, time to feed the cats. Time to settle in. So we propped the envelope for her landlord in the arms of a cactus and left the flask by her kitchen sink and hoped, like always, that it would be enough.

11 Comments

  1. Samantha Mitchell

    Taylor,
    You did it again! I wish I had something more constructive to say here other than I think this is really tight and good to go as-is. I’m instantly drawn to Melanie as a character by her absence – but not only her absence… the fact that her absences are quite commonplace, so much so that her friends have, if not accepted her behavior, at least are willing to enable it. It really brings into question what caring is, if not a mild form of enabling. Maybe enabling is an extreme form of caring. Regardless, this piece is making think about these bigger questions – like, what are we willing to let our friends get away with? And how do we love someone as they are, instead of who we want them to be?

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Janelle Greco

    What a haunting, impactful piece, Taylor. I love stories that really dig deep into a character and this definitely does it for me with Melanie. It’s so fascinating how you can make someone who doesn’t physically appear in the story have such a presence. I really really want to know where Melanie has gone to in the end but I think that’s just me and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t leave the reader wondering (since I think that works well here). I feel a tinge of frustration from the narrator with Melanie and her isolation and I’m really liking it. The tone stays steady throughout which I think helps a reader and I love the images of Melanie dying her hair raspberry or lying on the floor with a migraine. I don’t have much to critique here and I’m sorry about that. I just think it’s so great the way you’ve really dug into a character here. Really lovely work!

  3. Bud Smith

    Holy smokes. You really made me feel something in this piece. Such a skillful work of definition around a friendship. I feel like I really know Melanie now and you’ve made me worry for her too and hope just like her friends that everything is going to be all right, or at least, enough. There are so many vivid details in this piece I feel like I could have copy pasted much of the story here into this box and quoted it back to you. These lines are especially incredible to define who the person is … they live in a bank vault for god’s sake, you have to be a thief to be her friend. “It was a finicky door to a finicky apartment—once a bank with a large vault between the bedroom and kitchen. She had never been inside the vault, only her landlord had the key.” And once the break in does happen and they enter the apartment, the surprise of all the plants, the new jungle of it, the missing dog and the absent corpse (that one would assume from a lesser story would be there) wow — you just floored me. I’m glad I discovered your writing through this class and am excited to read more of it. You’ve gained a fan.

    How to improve the story? Hmmm, I don’t know if it needs anything. I think you really nailed the feel and the dread that is alleviated. All I can recommend for revision is to read this a few times and then sit down in a new direction, perhaps if you like to write your first drafts on the laptop you can rewrite from memory in longhand or you can rewrite from memory on a typewriter. Then I recommend looking at the two drafts side by side and considering what new information and detail work could be combined into Melanie in a third draft, which I bet by then would be ready to send a really wonderful place for publication … I’m thinking NOON or Fence

  4. Lisa Moore

    Taylor, what an impactful piece. I as I read REALLY wanted to know what happened to Melanie, but the ambiguity of her fate is haunting. Images that stand out to me include the jungle of plants, the propping of the envelope in the arms of the cactus and the flask. I don’t think there is much here to change. It works for me!

  5. Amy Barnes

    “It had been a month since any of us had heard from Melanie.”

    What a way to start a story! Love the vivid lines that follow and slowly build up this character even as she is isolated and disappearing. What works so well here is that we also get how how others see/react to Melanie even as she is kind of not seen. That’s a hard thing to do and you skillfully give us those perceptions of how this character lives and presumably dies — without coming out and saying it. As readers, you give us just enough information to take us along on the journey of this character but then to also think about people in our own lives — how do we perceive/miss people when they aren’t around?

    “do a crushed up yellowy pill she found in one of her jewelry boxes.”
    “We always took what she offered, whatever it was, as if her sporadic offerings were what we were craving all along, and not the deep down shine to her.”
    “dying her hair raspberry”
    “finicky door to a finicky apartment—once a bank with a large vault between the bedroom and kitchen.”
    “She had never been inside the vault, only her landlord had the key. We all wanted to see what was in there, but whenever we asked, she demurred. She said whatever was in there was of no use to her.”
    “jungle of her plants. Hundreds more than she’d had in November, huge tropical ones with paper-thin feathery leaves and burly trees with heavy, drooping leaves and ferns jutting from every corner and philodendrons raining from the ceiling.”
    “had watched the sky tinge dark purple.”
    “time for supper, time to feed the cats. Time to settle in.”
    “propped the envelope for her landlord in the arms of a cactus and left the flask by her kitchen sink and hoped, like always, that it would be enough.”

    I do kind of want to know if she’s dead in the bank vault. 🙂

  6. Kevin Sterne

    Wow. This sings. I love the imagery, the movement, the sense of unease and anticipation you build. These character’s are so alive. How you build this woman but keep her off the page the whole time, the story outside of the story, reader filling in all the gaps. The jungle inside the house—i felt rain in my heart. this piece is so good. I don’t have a lot of advice to give. I’m kind of late to the party here. What Bud said about finding a new cardinal direction is cool. Write it from memory. This is one I’ll be thinking about for a while. Those ferns, damn.

  7. Neil Clark

    Wow, this is so beautifully done, Taylor. So skilful to make me think of a character so much, despite her not physically featuring in the story.

    This piece made me think of my own friendship and how my actions or inactions impact on them without me realising it.

    I was expecting the worst for most of the story, but I much prefer the direction you took it, ending on an ellipsis. I’ll be thinking of Melanie for a long time after this course.

  8. Cheryl Pappas

    Jesus, Taylor, this is stunningly good. I love how you show who Melanie is without Melanie. I know firsthand of people who “disappear” for a while, but you’ve added so much intrigue here, as well, with the jungle of plants contrasting with the lack of life (no barking dog, no Melanie). Her friends care for her but this is double-edged, as you show in that line “We always took what she offered, whatever it was, as if her sporadic offerings were what we were craving all along, and not the deep down shine to her.”

    The deep down shine to her!

    I do want to know where Melanie is, though, just a hint. I was getting a Bluebeard vibe with the mention of the vault and the key, and I wonder if you might play with that a little more. I don’t want to see Melanie’s body, but I’m craving just the entrance to something deeper for my mind to make a leap.

    Absolutely great writing.

  9. David O'Connor

    Sorry for being late to the party, which means most of the comments have been eaten, all I can say is; much tighter, perhaps ready for the world–send it out!

  10. K Chiucarello

    Well….I guess I could read about Melanie endlessly. This was so well-done and painted such a devastating portrait of a lost but perhaps now roaming soul.

    Here are some particular lines I’m drawn to: “On the fifth of December we rapped on her window. There had been a deep freeze the night before and little ice crystals fused on the glass in delicate little patterns.” “Sometimes we’d help her into her wool socks and galoshes and parka…” “He barked so much and so loudly it made us think we would never want a dog if that’s all a dog would do.” “We had been there an hour and had watched the sky tinge dark purple.” “she would with a non-sequitur or she’d just ask if we wanted to go drink or do a crushed up yellowy pill she found in one of her jewelry boxes.” —– I’ll stop there in fear of pasting the entire thing. Point is, that there’s just so much to love in here. All the sentences really bend in the wildly unexpected way and it really keeps the piece moving at this slow and daunting and purposeful speed, an unwrapping of sorts.

    What I admire most in this piece though is the way you build out Melanie’s home. It felt so fantastical with all of the plants and the missing dog and it left envelope. I also love that there is no resolve to this piece and that the reader can do with it as they will (in my mind Melanie has escaped and is living out her best life traveling across from space to space across the country and has forgotten all of her responsibilities and cares). Would love to see this published as many others have stated!

  11. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Taylor, I had a long comment that I wrote last night and just as I started to post, my internet connection was lost, power outage with a storm ongoing here. Most of what I commented has now been said. So, the essence was about the mystery at the end, the mystery of Melanie’s absence and her dog’s as well, and the replacement by plants. I would like a little more, maybe some speculations by her friends about that? Otherwise, love this narrative on absence. Thank you.

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