So the ENTIRE book I’m currently writing is in second person…so I forced myself not to share any of that. Instead I found an abandoned story from years ago and brushed it off. Not sure about the title but I like the idea. Thanks!

This is How it Ends
You spend a lifetime learning stuff. Not average stuff but cool stuff like astronomy and English poetry because you are smart. You read books in French and write notes in the margins, bookshelves in every room. You have a glass barometer, wood sander, and an assortment of Chinese and Native herbs— how to heal cancer naturally. You travel the world and collect trinkets to remember it all—carved camels from Egypt, Lakota prayer wheels, shells from every ocean placed around the house like tiny altars. Holy water from Mecca and Lourdes. Rare books of fairy tales from Romania and Russia, their tissue pages like the crumbling wings of a moth. You learned to sand wood, melt down stained glass into tiny little angels and wolves howling at the moon. A high-powered telescope for star gazing in your backyard.
It ends with your memorial in that same backyard, your dog wondering where you went, the people marveling over your handmade stained glass and elaborate birdfeeders. Then the relatives come through—take the telescopes, the Bose stereo, the televisions and computers, the jewelry with obvious value. Then the extended relatives, the cousins, friends of cousins, the husbands take the tools in the garage, remarking on their pristine condition, the wives pick through the books, take the ones without too much underlining, pass on the French. The ones with a sentimental flair take the vintage records and record player, the kids claim the Christmas ornaments, finally someone takes the Arabic tapestry, no one knows what the holy water from Mecca is, shaking it and shrugging. Then the friends of friends of friends come, take the spare bedroom furniture for their son who is growing out of his bed, the couch for their sister who’s getting a divorce, more of the books go as well as a few bookshelves, shit, I needed these, everyone looking in desk drawers, kitchen drawers, remarking how neat your file cabinet is, a drawer full of unused greeting cards for every occasion, Georgia O Keefe watercolors and space nebulas and handmade cards collected in Egypt and France. A secret compartment in the jewelry box reveals nothing but it goes too, along with the lamps and the end tables, picture frames off the wall, new chairs for someone else’s dining room table, the old vacuum and the 3-month supply of toilet paper under the bathroom sink. And finally it ends with a guy off Craigslist who shows up with a truck and takes everything that is left.

10 Comments

  1. Traci Mullins

    Wow, Nancy, this is so poignant and rings of truth. I was so delighted with all her magical, carefully collected treasures and felt heartache soon after as I watched everyone miss the whole point of her. This feels universal—how perhaps not even those closest to us, much less distant, “get” what we’re about and treasure us accordingly. Whether that’s in death or during our lifetime, you’ve captured the sadness here so well.

  2. Mikki Aronoff

    Hi, Nancy! I love this evocative (and unfortunately relatable) piece, how the person’s life is told directly through the objects she collects. Then the vultures come after her death — first those who know her, and then the relationships get more and more diffuse. Just as her body does! It’s like the Craigslist truck guy is the hearse. Great story! mikki

  3. Sarah Freligh

    Nancy, this is just light’s out amazeballs, its two-paragraph structure of life and after-life, and how the narrative trajectory moves from tight focus of the you and their curated objects and spins out to the dog, the relatives, the friends of friends and finally the strangers, There’s so much poignancy and irony too, in the objects that have so much meaning to the narrator during their lifetime and mean little or nothing to those left behind.

    The second person is such a good choice for this one for how it implicates us in the various characters. We’re all you, but we’re also the people who are left behind to pick through the objects of you’s life.

    The Craig’s list guy just made me weep.

  4. Kathryn Silver-Hajo

    So fun to be in workshop with you, Nancy!

    This story makes brilliant use of the 2nd person–allowing the story to be told intimately and yet with enough narrative distance to zoom around in time and space. This sentence really hit me in the heart: “…more of the books go as well as a few bookshelves, shit, I needed these” Yes! (Note, though, the POV change to “I” here.)

    I loved the specificity of certain items:
    You learned [should be learn?] to sand wood, melt down stained glass into tiny little angels and wolves howling at the moon. 
    “No one knows what the holy water from Mecca is, shaking it and shrugging.” So poignant and so her and kinda funny too. Also, the 3-month supply of toilet paper under the bathroom sink. Hah!

    In a few places, I found myself longing for more of that specificity—which vintage records? What kind of tools? What type of jewelry? I somehow expected her to have dramatic Berber jewelry instead of jewelry with “obvious value” (though maybe those were wedding gifts she never wore or something.)

    I agree that the Craigslist guy is the perfect final insult but somehow I craved one last reflective sentence or phrase to ramp up the mc’s feeling of desolation–their feeling of wow—so that’s it? It might be only me though, since others felt that the ending nailed it.

    This story so beautifully captures the mundaneness of death and how much of our life is relegated to piles of objects to be carted off in the end. Well done!

  5. Sarah Freligh

    Kathryn, I had the same thought on first read, about the specificity, but on re-read, it felt like the LACK of specificity was exactly the point in the second graf, the shift in the narrative where those possessions cease to have significance once the possessor has passed on. So “jewelry with obvious value” is exactly how someone with no attachment — other than the potential financial windfall– would see it.

  6. MaxieJane Frazier

    Hi Nancy,
    I ended up focusing on the “shit I needed these” making me think more of just “who” this first-person narrator is. If the relatives, extended relatives, friends, and it’s the “friends of friends” who take the bookshelves the narrator need then who IS this narrator? Does this person end up leaving with the Craig’s list guy? Is the first-person and their memories all that is left?

  7. Chelsea Stickle

    Ouch, this one hurts. The Craigslist guy? What a cruel end.

    I like how we learn about the types of people that take things. I would’ve gone for the records, too. Maybe the tapestry. It’s fascinating seeing what’s left at the end of someone’s life.

  8. Suzanne van de Velde

    Nancy — Yikes, cue immediate urge to accelerate downsizing, if for no other reason than to leave less for the carrion to pick over. This is so beautifully observed: the relatives who aren’t interested in the objects that express the spirit of the person they know; no, they stick to stuff with the highest ka-ching.
    I love the kids taking the Christmas ornaments, that seems so honest and right…Suggest perhaps adding some weird archaic measuring tools? It would also be fun to see someone nerdy but prescient scoop up some niche category that’s on-the-cusp of trendiness, something the greedy ones had dismissed.

  9. Kathryn Kulpa

    I also read this and said “Wow”–or maybe “Whew.” It felt like such an emotional rollercoaster, although the protagonist’s death (and much of her life) happens off screen and we, like the scavengers who come after her death, only really know her through what’s left behind. I agree that the Craigslist guy feels like the end of the line, in so many ways, and I was left sadly wondering about that dog, did someone take him, is he all right–I’m still wondering about that dog!

    Since the focus is on physical objects, I wonder if you’d want to start with “You spend a lifetime collecting stuff” instead of “learning stuff,” because knowledge isn’t a tangible thing the way objects are. Maybe learning could come in a later sentence, because I get the impression that the main character is not some Citizen Kane buying up “stuff” just to own it–instead, that all these things surrounding her are important, memories of travels and meaningful experiences.

    I also wonder, just for sequencing, if you’d consider moving the “herbs to heal cancer” to the end of the first paragraph, as a natural segue into the second half, after the herbs clearly didn’t heal the MC.

    So much about this is wonderful, but I just have to give a special shout-out to the three-month supply of toilet paper under the sink. Dates it so perfectly as post-Covid!

  10. Catherine Parnell

    Nancy. The reduction of life to items that must be disposed of one way or another — fabulous. Maybe use a few of the items to evoke something specific. For example, Lakota prayer wheels have multiple associations (medicine wheels, tobacco ties and so on). At the same time, the anonymity of the voice has to stand solid. But this is so great!

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