The hemlocks

Forty years on,

she follows the path of his ghost,

a slender and thorned road

that leads to a ruined ecstasy.

Above the carpeted dirt,

she remembers the boy’s twitching mouth,

so unaccustomed to casual pleasure,

and the slow burn of tobacco between them.

The last of the afternoon light

dripped between the hemlocks

and fell upon bare shoulders.

And she, alone, still wonders

if he ever smelled the gunpowder.



Dawn came in muddy, like coffee that’s been in the pot too long. There was no traffic. Folks in Handsome didn’t rise to greet the morning unless they had to, and there was no reason to today. The weather was going to turn foul and there was nothing to do but wait it out. Waiting for something better wasn’t a new thing, except it never seemed to happen. Continue reading

The apartment

Why are you here?

I hear the trunk of a car slam down, and then the shuffle of hard-soled shoes on gravel.

It is a bare apartment, a place I have never been.

The walls are bland, a kind of soap-sudsy white. There are no pictures hanging on the walls. The floors are polished and smell lemony. The place is impeccably clean, but empty. No, not empty; there’s a gun rack fastened to the wall above the fireplace mantel. The rack holds a Mossberg 510, and it’s coated with oily dust. It hasn’t been handled in years.

It’s a small apartment, and the smell of fresh paint and turpentine fills the rooms. The windows are large and closed shut. This place, wherever it is, is brand new. No one has ever lived here.

Floor-to-ceiling windows look out over Texas Street, showing a dull, antiseptic skyline. The windows are the main feature of the living room, offering an aerial view of downtown Handsome. The main street is intricately drawn, like an unfinished Currier & Ives. There’s loneliness here, an emptiness that stretches the length of the main street, a terrible abandonment. Handsome is dead, and I am its only ghost.

I can hear distant rumble. Not quite thunder: the sound of a groaning engine. Then I see the source: an old pickup truck approaching from the east. It’s an old Dodge, a ’31. It hitches up the road, chassis vibrating like a washing machine. It was black when new, but now it’s the color of rusty rainwater, the hood stained with deep splashes of raw metal.

It’s my father’s Dodge.

I don’t remember his truck being this badly out of shape, but years and years have passed since the last time I saw it. Even the imagination gathers rust.

In the imprecise light of the day, I can see the shape of a man inside the cab. He’s looking at both sides of the street, glancing only occasionally at the road in front of him. I know that gesture; it’s the same one Archie Dollar made when he was working out the logistics for a job. But this man – my father? – had a more restless nature.

The shape of the driver is little more than a silhouette; featureless and obscure. It could be anyone. But a boy remembers his father. The hunch of his shoulders, the restless curiosity, the way he grips the steering wheel as if it would get away from him; his shy, distracted smile, the lost look in his eyes. Of course, I can’t see those details, but I can, if I look hard enough, if I pulled away all the shadows. The Dodge rumbles past the Handsome Apartments and slowly rounds the corner of Elm Street. I shouldn’t be able to see the full length of Texas Street, but I can. The engine noise slowly faces into nothing and the street is empty again.


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Ordinary Handsome: Fifty-seven years

He sat for almost fifteen minutes, eyes shut, a few tears squeezed out. Fifty-seven years.

He shut down the Jeep. It was time.

When he stepped outside, the heat felt combative and he felt nauseous. But it wasn’t the heat, it was the…

He opened up the backseat door and pulled out the flowers. Yellow chrysanthemums, the boy’s favorites. Simple little yellow things, so round and complete. He liked the color.

He bought a flat of them every year before coming back to Handsome. The were cheaper than roses, but you couldn’t just drop them on the ground. You had to plant them carefully so that they’d last for more than a day or two.

This year he bought two flats.

steven book

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Ordinary Handsome: Birthright

You were yelling at Mr. O’Keefe, she said. You said he didn’t have any idea about secrets. You were yelling at everyone. I couldn’t understand most of it. You were crying and hollering and rolling up your pant legs to show them your leg. I tried to calm you down, but you were… it was like you didn’t even see or hear me. I was afraid, Mr. Wasson, and I didn’t know what to do. You said something about a boy sitting at the bar, and he was really a ghost. Mr. O’Keefe tried to calm you down. You pushed him away and came upstairs because you said something about Euart’s birthright, you wanted to tell him what his birthright really was, but then you came in here and fell asleep. You just closed your eyes and you’ve been sleeping for the past hour or so. I went back down and got Mr. O’Keefe to help me close. I didn’t know what else to do.

I’m sorry, I said, only nothing came out of my mouth. My throat felt like moist sand, and my eyes were sticky and throbbing.

You need to stop drinking, Mr. Wasson, said Arlene.


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Ordinary Handsome: Edwin

Edwin Kowalski down the hall passed three nights ago. There was no fanfare, no surprise. He was The Lady of Autumn’s oldest resident, almost 97. He kept to himself most days. He predeceased his wife by sixty-one years and never remarried. I admired him for that. It takes a lot of discipline to be alone. Edwin rarely had visitors, but there was a great-niece who dropped by two or three times a year. She was habitually bored, but he never noticed. He was as attentive to her as he was to anyone else. She had big, Southern hair and her face looked like an old-fashioned doll. Pretty, I suppose, but I wondered what she really looked like if you could scrub away the paint. The face a person wears in public is rarely the same when they’re alone.

I wanted to ask Edwin why he never remarried, but never did. Continue reading

Ordinary Handsome: A long time

Been a long time,” said the man. “Guess this is the last time for both of us. But that’s okay. I don’t mind if you don’t mind.”

His arms and legs were shaking from the exertion and heat. In another hour, the sun would be setting and this place would be cold and dark again. For now, weak sunlight poured through the branches, smothering the ground with shadows. The old mums, the ones from last year, were withered brown fibers that were drained of any real color. He brushed them away and the remnants scattered like old dust.

He hummed an old song while he planted the new mums. He wasn’t aware he was humming, but the silence was overwhelming, and the solemness of his act felt crushing.

Once planted, the man smiled. “I don’t mind if you don’t mind, old son.”


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