Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2014    poetry    all issues


Cover Mia Funk

Bill Pippin

Chris Belden
The Finger

Amberle L. Husbands
Only Whistle Stops

Kyle A. Valenta
The Narrows

Robert Martin

Eileen Arthurs
Portrait of an Artist, After All

Gibson Monk
The Tenth Part of Desire

J. S. Simmons
Bodies In Motion and At Rest

Nancy Nguyen
Truck Stop

Melissa Ragsly
The Pigeons of Apartment 9C

KC Kirkley

B. Yvette Yun
Fire in the Sky

Katharine O’Flynn
The Island

Brent DeLanoy

Daniel C. Bryant
Out County Road

John Mort
Red Rock Valley

Zac Hill
Conversations With Dakota Fanning

Haley Norris
The Last Day

Writer's Site

Brent DeLanoy


Edna Harper bakes for ghosts. She goes about her business—the same business which she has gone about for most of her life—as though all the members of her family are with her, napkins in laps, knives and forks placed Sunday-style beside the good plates, window open for the afternoon breeze. Her husband, Lucas, and their children, Sarah and Eleanor, gathered at Lucas’s table. Lucas’s table, his sudden mid-life need to make something, manifest in mahogany and oak. He harassed the lumberyard and worked through a winter to finish it.

Edna gives up a step today and uses a store-bought crust. She gives in to her dimming eyesight and her tired hands. She prepares the blueberries, adds a teaspoon of cinnamon, a squeeze of lemon juice. She places it all into the crust and then into the oven. Forty-five minutes of the scent of blueberry pie, Edna sitting alone at the table, her fingers tracing the history of family meals.

Ari Henderson makes a point of being home on Sunday afternoons, though he hardly has anywhere else to be. Especially in the summers, college instructor Ari, off for the season to research and write the same book he has been working on for the better part of a decade. He sits in his living room, in his recliner, a glass of water on his coffee table, and waits for the smell of whatever is cooking to make its way through the vent above his bookshelf. It is the only thing keeping him there, the occasional sniff of dessert. Anyway, since the settlement, the rent is just about the only thing he can afford.

He has worked up the courage several times to knock on his neighbor Edna’s door, to ask if perhaps she could spare a slice of pie, to offer her a beer and some company in exchange for home cooking. She hasn’t answered the door yet, so he contents himself with the smell of it, with the memory of his wife, Lena—when she had been his wife—baking cookies or brownies while he lounged on his back deck—when he had a deck—and watched his daughter, Abigail, crawl through the grass after a beetle.

After Lucas passed, after Eleanor moved across the country, after Sarah took a position in Paris, Edna sold the house where she had raised her children and moved across town to the Royal Point Apartments, where she could reside on the ground floor and bid farewell her stairs and basement laundry. Where her knees might find respite and her oven, new and shiny and electric, would be fixed at the dialing of a telephone, should it ever require fixing. The rental agent looked incredulous, an octogenarian intending to live by herself outside of a nursing home. How she regretted her decision, those first few weeks, the manager on duty sometimes stopping by to check on her. Announcing for all to hear, “It’s Eric the manager, Mrs. Harper. How are you settling in?”

Edna misses the house on Whistler Ave., where she lived with Lucas for nearly six decades, where her daughters did most of their growing up. Lucas took great pride in his lawn, Edna in her house. They sat on their porch in the evenings, he watching his sprinklers on the grass, little rainbows playing in the water as the sun set. Once a decade or so, he’d accept her desire to redecorate. Out with the old wallpaper, in with the new. Remove a wall here. Add a closet there. Such is the prerogative of a homeowner that watched the stick frame rise where once stood nothing, that drywall and trim are impermanent and in want of change. Though Lucas disliked change, Edna knew.

Ari, on occasion, looks up a recipe online and pre-heats the oven, inspired by Edna next door to try his own hand at baking, though he has never been a talented cook. He mimics the movements he attributes to talented chefs, to Edna, a general Hail Mary to the patisserie. This leads, as often as not, to a full trash can and his swearing off kitchens forever.

This is his life, he tells himself, air-cooking in a rented kitchen, wearing sweat pants and a dress shirt—his only clean shirt—like some Gap Outlet refugee. Living and feeling somehow less than alive. Trying in vain to feel anything, really. Too lazy to do laundry, too shiftless to sleep his life away, though he tries. He makes resolutions to get out the door, to do something, and delights in breaking every one. Reminders that he is his own man, doesn’t have to do anything, especially now, for better or worse.

How silly Edna feels with four place settings and the smell of baking pie—ancient habits that delight her. Though she would never entertain here, her one bedroom placeholder for the knickknacks and baubles she chose to keep after selling the house. How her habits of housekeeping have dwindled, dust in the corners and a basket of dirty laundry in plain sight in front of the wash machine. She has not had company since Eleanor helped with the move eight months ago. On occasion there have been knocks at the door, though she stopped answering after the manager’s inquiries early in her stay. The recent knocks are from her neighbor, a sullen man who always has a book beneath his arm, who nods whenever they pass each other in the hall. She watches him through her peephole as he rocks back and forth on his heels before returning to his apartment.

She would be embarrassed for him to see her home. Embarrassed if her daughters saw it too, or for Lucas—even the ghost of Lucas she fancies now sits across from her shakes his head. She might ask the ghost what he thought of the place. He would lie and say it was lovely. He always lied about such things in life; she saw no reason for his shade to change habits.

She tried to involve Lucas in her decisions about the house, which wallpaper for what room, which color fabric he’d like for the living room curtains. He lived there too, she’d tell him, he should be happy with it. He’d reply that he had his lawn, his garage. He was happy. Such was her lonely lot: never knowing what he truly thought of the new paint or window dressings, if they were the right color, if they looked as nice as she thought, or if she was mistaken. Embarrassed in advance whenever they had company, embarrassed again when Lucas told jokes and slapped his knee.

On one wall in his apartment is the only thing Ari kept from the marriage, the one material thing—so much became immaterial when Lena asked for the divorce—he fought for. A bookcase of truly mighty proportions, six feet tall and eight feet long, one end tucked into a corner of the living room, the other end over hanging the kitchen door by six inches. The top edge engraved with leaves, little crenellations around the perimeter. It had to be taken apart, ever so carefully, with a molding bar before being moved into the apartment and reassembled. Though he tried to explain the significance of the object to the movers it still managed to be scuffed on the corners, the finish scarred slightly where it was pried apart. A tactical error, he thought, to have brought it in after the thirty banker’s boxes of books that filled it, when muscles were weak and tempers short.

Ari has no TV. His recliner faces the bookshelf. He sits for hours, reading spines, trying and failing to choose a book, for, though he never admits it, he has only read a tenth of his own library. He spent the first month of his time there sorting and categorizing books, by author, subject, date, title, and weight (both physical and metaphorical). All that handling, the learned-by-osmosis feeling he got from it, left him impotent. He buys more and more books, and more and more books collect on the shelves. Books on other books. Paperbacks bent out of shape. Ari sits in his chair for a good part of the afternoon, reading authors’ names, his neatly pressed shirt no longer neatly pressed. Then he smells the pie.

Edna opens the oven door, a balmy three hundred and fifty degrees wafting out. The pie looks perfect, she is glad to note. The store-bought crust has ruined nothing, though it smells a little sweeter than she might have liked. Hands into oven mitts, the cooling rack already placed in the center of Lucas’s table. Each time she makes the traverse from oven to table is a little slower, she thinks, each time the pan, even through her mitts, comes closer to burning her. The pie on the rack, the table set, she returns to her chair to let the filling cool a bit before serving. How her husband came running toward that smell, all their Sundays together.

Lucas passed peacefully, in his sleep, while Edna slept beside him. Edna had no idea he was gone when she rose in the morning, a Monday, being as quiet as she could down the stairs to start the coffee and eggs. Her morning rituals went by—minutes of normal before normal changed for good. Coffee on, the morning paper collected, a new package of bacon from the refrigerator.

When Lucas didn’t come down after repeated—and increasingly distressed—calls, Edna came to the sudden realization that her husband was gone. A startling moment of clarity as her morning radio played. How strange it was to know the truth of the matter before she investigated it for herself. She dialed the ambulance as she ascended the stairs. The paramedics found her sitting on the edge of the bed, as though she had just woken up.

She hasn’t forgiven Lucas that transgression, leaving her alone. Though on her Sundays meant for baking, she likes to remember that he departed on a Monday, after one last slice of pie. It isn’t until this Sunday that she thinks to comment on it. Edna is not the sort of person that makes a habit of speaking to the dead, yet she tells her husband now, as she divides the pie and serves the slices, that she appreciates his having stuck around as long as he did.

In the silence of the afternoon, Ari hears Edna speaking, or he thinks he does. The Royal Point Apartments are not so luxurious as to include much in the way of soundproofing, and he thinks the voice, however faint it is, comes through the vent alongside the smell. He’s had eight months since Edna moved in to investigate the mechanics of their connection, the vent above his bookshelf, a sensory pipeline to the apartment next door. Who she is speaking to comes as a delicious mystery to Ari. He hasn’t seen her with company since her daughter helped her move. With the exception of their initial neighborly introduction, the trivial hallway conversation thereafter, he has never heard her speak. She has no visitors that he is aware of. He rises from his chair and walks to the bookcase, his hands steady on the spines of Grimm and Greene. He tilts his ear toward the vent to see what else he might hear. Edna speaking to herself, perhaps, or to figments.

He can’t decide why, but he likes this idea. That as he ages it will become acceptable for him to talk to no one, to engage in discussion with the authors on his shelf. To ask the ghosts of friends that went before what life is like when life ends.

He imagines himself as a ghost, in his old home, his ex-wife and the conversations they might have as she baked her cookies. What sorts of things might be said with the absence of a body to impede their progress. How he, Ari the poltergeist, might sit in his old spot at the dining table and lift a cookie from the tray. The same dining table where Lena asked for a trial separation, laid out her case for the failing relationship, told him of the other man she wanted to begin seeing. She didn’t want to be unfaithful, she said, though she felt increasingly as though there was little to be faithful to.

How great it might be, to sit at that table as a punitive ghost. To see his daughter’s face as the cookie floated by and landed on a plate meant obviously for Daddy—because that was where Daddy used to sit. Perhaps his wife would faint. His spectral self might then carry on a conversation with Abigail—the one person in this life and the next he might wish to carry on a conversation with—because she would not be frightened. Such things do not frighten five-year-olds. He would let her have three cookies before his wife came to.

He might stick around to watch Lena in the shower. To see her get dressed in the morning, watch her try three or four outfits before making a decision. To see her undress at night and slide between the sheets; perhaps he might lie down next to her. Perhaps. His ghost self thinks of these possibilities because these things still hold some interest, but he would be happy with cookies and his daughter. Cookies and a stunned-silent wife. Cookies and the possibility of a shadowy, happy life.

Edna feels silly, speaking to her husband as if he is there, though there is solace in the discussion. She even laughs a bit, the first laughter in some time, her slice of pie finished, the slices around her cold. Imagining what Lucas might say as a ghost, how he might finally apologize for his lack of involvement with the house, how he might apologize for leaving so abruptly, let her know he’s waiting for her now. She rises to clear the table, still chuckling. She needs to scrape off the plates and place them in the dishwasher. Wrap the cooled pie and place it in the refrigerator. All this as much a ritual as the baking.

Until she thinks better of it. She will leave the tray out, for once. For once the kitchen will not be cleaned. She will sit in her armchair and turn on the radio, listen until she falls asleep. She feels a sort of pride in the modest chaos, as though speaking to her absent husband has finally convinced her that he is not there, that there is no one else to care for, only herself to answer to. Then, she smells something burning and curses herself for leaving the oven on. Pie drippings, probably, burnt to the bottom of the oven, as good as glue and hard to clean. She sets her dishes aside and opens the oven to find instead a black cloud issuing forth, the smoke detector above Lucas’s table immediately sounding its warning. Through tears Edna sees a dish towel at the bottom of the oven, on fire, smoking terribly. Coughing horribly, she backs away from the smoke, from the burning towel. As she tries to catch her breath, she turns her attention to the smoke alarm above Lucas’s table.

Ari hears her laughter, a few snippets of conversation. He wants to hear more, his feet instinctively using the shelves of his bookcase as a ladder. He pulls himself up, craning his head closer to the vent. His hands grip the top of the bookcase, fingers in between the crenellations, pulling him higher, until he has positioned his face right in front of the vent, the rest of his body hanging awkwardly from the front of the bookshelf. He finds this position extremely difficult to hold and realizes, with some delight, that he might lie on top of the bookshelf, face directly in front of the vent. He climbs up another shelf, swings one leg up on the top of his favorite piece of furniture and hauls himself on top of his library, ear pressed to vent. He finds that it is nearly impossible to move. He wonders, on the wrong side of impulse, how he might get back down without injury, how much pain he will suffer for a minor prurient delight. Until, through the vent, he smells smoke.

Edna is sure that half the apartment complex is alerted to her now, the decibels of the smoke alarm calling down all manner of emergency response. The dish towel, burning though it is, heat still issuing from the oven as well, poses no real threat. She is shocked at her own carelessness, baffled at how a dish towel might wind up in the oven. Still, she wants desperately to be left alone, to sit and listen to music, to fall asleep to music.

From the cupboard she pulls a broom and walks to Lucas’s table. The smoke alarm is positioned directly above it, too high for her to reach the reset button. She uses a chair to climb on the tabletop. Standing carefully, she pokes at the reset button with the broom handle and, when that fails, attempts to wave the smoke away as though she were shooing a cat. This does no good and she feels foolish for attempting it, especially as the sprinklers in the ceiling activate. She is soaked. The tabletop is slick. Edna tries to climb down and falls. Her left foot slips and she twists awkwardly, coming down hard on her left elbow and hip. The sudden sharp pain from her hip to her shoulder takes her breath away. The broom clatters to the floor and she is left gasping on the table, wondering what sort of damage she has done to herself. She lies flat, the cool jets continuing their drenching rain. She closes her eyes and tries to control her breathing. There will be no getting off this table without help, she knows. The pain recedes slightly, enough for her to imagine the water as a summer shower, perhaps with Lucas by her side.

From his vantage point, Ari thinks that his living room doesn’t look the same. He is worried about the woman next door, about the fire alarm going off, but he is also distracted by this new view of his home. He is looking at someone else’s stuff now. He doesn’t pity the guy like he thought he would. He might even think it homey, the comfortable recliner draped with a quilt, a glass of water sweating on the coffee table in front of it.

The smoke alarm keeps a steady tempo, just ahead of a ticking clock. He has a vision of himself kicking down Edna’s door and rescuing her from the fire. He imagines giving an interview to the five o’clock news. First, though, he must get down. He kicks his left leg out only to find the bookcase groaning, threatening to tip over. He returns his leg to the shelf. Now he imagines tumbling from his perch, the bookshelf toppling soon thereafter on top of him. Edna in her apartment, ears burning from the sound, lungs burning from the smoke. Himself pinned on the floor, waiting for help to arrive. He shouts her name through the vent, Edna; get out Edna. He curses and screams again.

At best he can drop his left hand, try to steady a lower shelf before swinging both his legs over and hopping down, hopefully missing his coffee table in the process. He prepares for what will almost certainly hurt, curses himself for his strange climb. He thinks of his books. He thinks of Edna. He begins his descent. He loses his grip and topples. The shelf he is holding slides from its place, dragging the books from three other shelves with it, his precious freighted furniture, spilling books. Ari, amidst his literature, in pain on the floor, drags himself nearly shy of the bookcase as it falls. The top shelf, only recently his strange perch, lands on his left ankle, before the whole thing breaks in half where it had been pried apart by that molding bar. Broken or sprained, he can’t tell, though he continues to crawl, hands and knees, to his front door, which he opens for the first time all day, calling Edna’s name.

Edna Harper is drenched, lying atop Lucas’s table, his grand old oak of a table. She might have heard Lucas calling her name, calling her to safety, though his voice falls away amidst the clamor of the alarm, the rush of water. She takes a momentary interest in the sprinkler’s beauty, the way the sun shining through her living room window creates colors in the mist. Sirens already in the distance, her plans for music ruined.

Ruined, her photos and furniture, the still unpacked boxes in her bedroom. Her hands fall to the surface of the table, fingers again tracing the familiar pattern of years—the gouges of careless knives, the nicked corners. Here, where Lucas placed a pan still hot from the oven; there, where Sarah dropped her backpack every day after school. Eleanor’s science projects and Edna’s entertaining, Lucas’s poker nights. History’s promise to stand by long after its authors.

Brent DeLanoy received his MFA from New Mexico State University in 2006. He’s currently teaching at Hartwick College in upstate New York. His stories have appeared in Thieves Jargon, decomP, and Chrysalis, and his novella, Benediction, won the A.E. Coppard Prize in 2008. His book of nonfiction, Airhead, about a 10,000 mile, 30-day motorcycle trip, is currently looking for a publisher. He can be found on Twitter @brentdelanoy, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Dotted Line