Paulie didn’t claim his dad’s body. Told the hospital to do whatever they wanted with it. Hung up and remained still in his kitchenette, like he might become one of the appliances. Went back to his small table and continued writing in his small notebook.

Didn’t take off work the next day, didn’t say anything to anyone at the warehouse. At lunch he did what he always did: sat in his car writing.

A cop Paulie knew came by his apartment with keys, said he could take anything he wanted from the old man’s house before the bank brought the dumpsters. Paulie thanked him and closed the door, stood there with keys in hand beside the small walnut bookcase that held other notebooks he had filled.

The next day he pulled up to a shack of mossy cedar shakes in a sea of tall grass. A downspout leaned away from the house onto a lilac bush. He climbed broken brick steps.

Inside he could smell dry lumber in the stale air.

In the kitchen, greasy pans sat on the crusty stove. He touched a painted-over horseshoe above the doorway to the basement, a souvenir from a second-grade field trip. A maple-stained rack on the wall held a clutch of pens. He pulled out a red Sharpie marker and next to the horseshoe wrote Don’t go down there, it’s dark. ~ Bugs Bunny. He laughed.

Above his parents’ bedroom door he wrote All you need is love. ~ The Beatles. Laughed again.

The bathroom had surrendered to mildew. On that door he wrote Safer to shit in the yard.

His old bedroom still had the light switch with a silhouette of a child, head bowed and hands clasped, with the words Did you think to pray? on it. Next to that he wrote You cannot petition the Lord with prayer. ~ Jim Morrison.

The last room was the smallest. Paulie took two deep breaths and opened the door. It was empty except for an old cast-iron radiator — heavy fins with caked dust in the spaces between, the kind that hissed and pinged on cold nights. Paulie gave it a kick. Then a harder one. Peeled off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, exposing a runic history of radiator burns. Tried to wrench the thing from the floor but it wouldn’t give. He turned and put his foot through the hollow door. Picked up his jacket and his notebook fell out. Snatched it up, then wrote over the doorway to that room Abandon all hope… Didn’t finish the quote. Tossed the marker on the floor.

Paulie shuffled to the kitchen table, took pen in hand, stared at blank paper. His heart raced. His pen stayed still. He got up to wash his hands. Through the grime-frosted window above the sink the other houses were half-remembered dreams on the brink of dissolving. The words would come. They had to, like a next breath. The faucet sputtered what little it had left. He grabbed a filthy sponge and scrubbed, digging in like he meant to reach bone.

7 Comments

  1. Bud Smith

    This story really touched me. I loved what happened here to this man who has lost his family and who has lost his childhood home and who we know as a writer, who’s only joy in life (or at least greatest joy in life) seems to be writing. He does it everyday on his lunch break in his car and in his house there are bookcases full of his full notebooks … so sending him to this old house and having him write those words above the doorways that lead into the different rooms — so poignant. the Bugs Bunny one especially really killed me. The only suggestion I had for this story was to maybe make the Beatles and Jim Morrison quotes a little cooler, they are nice how they are but I bet you could think of something even more poignant. But other than that, this really rang a bell for me. When he beats the shit out of his old childhood room — wow. Thank you for this. By the way have you ever read the book So Long Se You Tomorrow by William Maxwell, I think you might like it. It’s one of my favorites

    • Bill Merklee

      Bud — Thank you for everything. It’s been all I can do to keep up with commenting on all the great work, I haven’t had a chance to respond to the comments. Thanks, too, for the book and film recommendations. A great workshop.

  2. Benjamin Niespodziany

    “…like he might become one of the appliances” is so nice as an early descriptor. Nice descriptive way of going through the old house, and the notes are a nice touch. Ripping up the childhood bedroom. I’d like to see more and hear more destruction and noises and ‘climax’ here. The ending is great and hits in the right spots. Nicely done!

  3. Traci Mullins

    This is another powerful piece, Bill. The “small” table and notebooks say to me that even though this man escaped the house of his childhood, he never really escaped that smallest room and lives a small life, his own words his only companions. I may be reading too much into it, but it left me feeling so sad for this man, who seems trapped in the past and lonely in the present. I wonder if the scrubbing will ultimately set him free.

  4. Kara Vernor

    Wow, this is really something. All of it was so vivid and laden with emotion–without ever overdoing it. It is gut-wrenching to walk back through that home with him. We see a whole lifetime in a page or so. To me, this is perfection up until the final paragraph, which feels like it tries to do too much a bit too quickly, though I like and believe the direction it takes. Thanks for this.

  5. Rachel Pollon Williams

    Oh, this is very moving. Trying so hard to dig ones self out of something and then have to revisit it. And ultimately doing what we can to write our stories (life and otherwise.) A lovely piece.

  6. Saxon Baird

    This is really cool, Bill. The story has depth and layers in such a short amount of space, always impressed with that. And it reads out like one of those anecdotes that straddles the line of reality close enough that while it seems kind of strange and weird, it’s totally believable, especially because the way we mourn is often manifested in such strange ways. I wanted to the quotes to be a hole into the personal…as the first one by Bugs Bunny suggested. I kept seeing them as these sort of tools of expression, hints almost, of expressing and revealing what maybe the character can’t say himself or bringing to write in his notebook — but it would make sense, right? Because he’s a writer and we can assume thats his main form of expressing the deep and sublime.

    So one specific, actionable idea, was what if the story started out with Bugs Bunny quote, then The Beatles, then like a quote from the characters favorite book, then a quote from his father, then a quote from himself. Or some succession like that?

    Also, I really wanted him to actually rip the radiator out. I see you are hinting at some sort of abuse around the radiator? And I think that him ripping it out and throwing it through a window could be a cathartic gesture but of course, only so much, because the scars are still there and the emotional baggage. And what if the story denotes the scars when the character is washing his hands after to hint at the traumas we can’t escape. I think you are hinting at this already with the obsessive scrubbing, but maybe just a slight gesture revealing this suppressed history a little more would benefit the story.

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