“Vanitas,” oil on panel, by Pieter Claesz, 1625.

by Alec Osthoff

You call the drink a Tom Collins, but it’s half lemonade and half gin. It makes you more relaxed and more alert to the knitting of your sweater dress and the thin black arm hairs of the man you’re talking to. He’s a spoken word poet—Shelly introduced you, and you haven’t had sex since last spring semester. The drink both warms and cools you. The man has many poems about growing up in a mixed household. His mother was one of the thousands of Somali refugees that came over in the late eighties. He talks a lot about the difficulty of not belonging anywhere, though that isn’t what he’s talking about now. He’s talking about baseball, specifically the Twins. But he often talks about loneliness and discrimination. And here you are: the only girl from the burbs who doesn’t have a friend that fucked their life up on heroin. You feel so small.

But he touches your hand when he laughs with his teeth. Once he asks permission, he reaches out to feel your hair. Still you lack the confidence that he throws—the poise of walking into a room like it’s a stage, like everyone is staring at you. Whenever you walk into a crowded room it feels like everyone just recently stopped talking about you, like they’re relieved you didn’t enter a moment earlier. So when he asks about the beautiful marble vase on the bookshelf, you say, “It’s an urn,” which is true. Then you say, “It’s my uncle. He passed last month. He was like a father to me.” This is not true. Not any of it.

The soundtrack for the party is a compromise between Shelly, who only listens to electronic dance music, and Jillian, who loves the Dave Matthews Band. Dave croons Don’t drink the water. No one is dancing. You rarely move when you lie. You get the feeling that any gesture will seem wooden and reveal the truth. When you are conscious of this you try to compensate for the impulse by making exaggerated movements. But you are too tipsy to stop yourself from getting stuck standing still. Those who know you can always call your bluff. This man doesn’t know you that well. “Oh God,” he says, “Katie, I am so sorry.”

He doesn’t need to apologize. How could he have known?

“I am so, so sorry.”

And yes, the sex, when it finally happens, is wonderful. You fuck like forked lightning. It both fills and devours you. It’s the kind of sex that Cosmo has, feral and acrobatic and resonant. He’s sobering up and you’re spinning drunk, but you still know this is exactly what you both hoped for. And the best part is, when he shares his American Spirit with you and you’re both cooling off on top of your sheets, you realize that you didn’t even have to lie to him. He didn’t care. He wanted you from the start. And that feels so, so good.


Of all places, you found the urn at the Goodwill off Lyndale Avenue. You and your two roommates made a trip there to stock the apartment with secondhand furniture and appliances. You’re all sophomores, first year out of the dorms. You’d hoped to be living in a sorority this year, but the rent was too high. Between you and your roommates you own two futons but no plates, three mini-fridges but only four cups. You make do.

You spot the urn in the kitchenware aisle. You can’t believe what you’re seeing. The marble bends so smoothly. It almost looks soft. But it can’t be. The stone is cool when you touch it, and you leave hot, wet fingerprints on the gloss. But it can’t be. Shelly says “Holy shit. Is that what I think it is?”

You lift the lid and the top layer of ash scatters like dust bunnies.

This Goodwill has a reputation for not being thorough in its inspections. The boy across the hall freshman year bought a coat with an eighth of weed in the pocket. The whole place was shut down for a day after a woman found a few rocks of meth in a toaster on display. But you can’t believe they could miss something like this.

Shelly says it first. “This is a fucking body.”

It’s three dollars.

Neither of you consider alerting the floor manager. The cashier doesn’t seem to register what he is ringing up. On the walk home a rough looking kid shouts, “Who died?”

Shelly shouts, “Her uncle! He was like a father to her!” But you don’t say anything. You’re struggling just to hold it, and besides, you don’t know who this is. You have no idea.

You set the urn on the bookshelf in the living room. Plastic bags from IKEA and Target and Cub Foods litter the floor. The etching where the name once was is almost completely worn away from being handled, being loved. You can make out MAS etched in flaking gold paint on the stone, looks like the last three letters of his name. The birth and death dates are long gone, but the bottom of the urn was dated during production—1988. Maybe the man—you’re almost certain it was a man—died the same year. Maybe his last name was Thomas; that would fit the remaining letters.

You google the 1988 obituaries with the last name Thomas. There are thousands, tens of thousands maybe. You refine the search to Minnesota. The list narrows, but still in the hundreds, and those are only the ones listed. You resolve to call one surviving relative per week until you find the rightful owner. That’s the right thing to do. In the meantime, you will keep it safe. You place it on the bookshelf in the living room. You tell Shelly about your plan and she says, “Fuck that. Someone gave it to GoodWill. They don’t care about getting it back.”

You glance at the worn lettering. You want to argue, but Shelly is still looking when you turn back to her, and her look draws you to silence. She says, “Nobody wants that thing but us.”

You make the calls in secret. Some weeks you get caught up in classes and forget. No one claims the urn. One woman says, “Do I look like someone who would lose that?” And you’ve never seen her, so you don’t really know. But her words remind you of Shelly’s point. Someone who was careless enough to donate this must not care much about getting it back.

You consider keeping it. It comforts you to have around, and now the poet thinks it’s your uncle, and Shelly shows it to everyone that comes by the apartment, sort of a house mascot. You like how easily you can cradle it in your arms when you’re tired of being alone. More and more it starts to feel like a pet, like someone that won’t judge you, that wouldn’t even understand how. You don’t tell your parents about it. That’s probably why you suddenly feel guilty, why you feel compelled to post an ad on Craigslist’s lost and found.

You get three emails claiming it after you post. One is from the band Teenage Witch Abortion. They offer to write a song for you in exchange for your urn. You pull down the ad.


You told the poet that the urn is your uncle. But only a few months later it’s starting to feel that way, at least a little. The urn has a certain presence in the room—caring, familial. You trace patterns in the marble, leaving smudgy finger trails on the seamless rock.  You eye the careworn surface etching, but you can’t forget that someone somewhere must really want this back. Reluctantly, you keep making calls.

You get tangled up in coursework. You started freshman year in biomedical engineering, but after stern insistence from numerous professors, you’ve transferred to the school of nursing. The course load is lighter, which makes it easier to get behind. The fall semester ends in a blitz of worksheets and term papers. The poet invites you to a slam in one of those second story bars where the man pouring drinks doesn’t ask to see your fake ID. It’s sunk in Mid-City Industrial, far from any convenient bus line. You haven’t seen the poet in weeks, so you’re willing to put up with shit you normally wouldn’t. You end up walking the whole way in your too thin Northface. The stony cold settles into your toes and refuses to leave.

The bar doesn’t stock tonic, so you order a gin and soda. The walls are covered in layers of aging memorabilia. The stools are all occupied. You cozy up to the radiator between a poster of George Costanza in his boxers, and a bumper sticker saying “CIA Killed Paul Wellstone.” It’s that kind of bar—one of those places you wouldn’t want your friends to know you’ve been to, where you dream about snuggling your radiator at home, which you cover with an afghan and regularly dust.

The poets are okay. They mostly work the same topics to the same rhythm. He is no exception, but you enjoy him. Your poet talks about his white father’s hands, how they are bleached and tough as picket fencing. The poet’s hands, of course, are so unlike a picket fence. The poet’s hands, you know from experience, are not like that at all.

The winning slam compares growing up with a fluid gender to Pluto not being a planet anymore. You don’t really see the point, and you don’t like looking at them. But you clap politely anyway, even give a soft whoop when it seems rude not to.  The bartender gives you a free gin and seltzer because you’ve already had four. He says it’s lady’s night, but it isn’t. The poet tips him and wraps his arm around you. It keeps you standing. He holds you in place.

The poet introduces you to the winner like they’re a celebrity, but you can’t even look at them. You can’t look at anything. You rushed Lambda Delta Phi last year, but it cost too much to live in house. You want to ask, “What are you?” but instead say, “Nice poem.”

Everyone else is embarrassed for you. You roll your head back onto his arm and it holds you up. You didn’t mean to get this drunk. The poet finishes his whiskey-7 and walks you down the stairs you had no problem climbing earlier. You’re still holding your glass of gin, but the cups here are plastic, so you let it tumble down the steps. You lean on the wall for support, and rip a corner off a vintage Prince poster. He stares back at you, all eyeliner and scraggly moustache. You keep your mouth shut so you won’t vomit.

The cold hits like it was waiting for you. It cuts and seeps. Your body screams for warmth and shelter. The cold pushes the drink down inside you where you use it for fuel. You aren’t sober, but it’s as close as you’ll be until morning. You lean on the poet for support. This is about survival. You drag your Uggs through the road salt.

A woman is hustling from the bus shelter on the corner, so wrapped in parkas it’s hard to see her at all. The group in front of you doesn’t spare a glance. It’s too cold to give a shit. This is the weather that kills people. You limp past her and lock eyes a moment. She has the look of someone used to not getting what she wants, one of the transplants to Minnesota that likely weren’t told about the weather and Midwestern standoffishness until she got here. She asks your poet, “Y’all got a buck or two put me on the bus? I’m trying to get to the shelter before it closes.”

The poet shakes his head, says something back to her in Somali, probably something encouraging and dismissive.

The woman yells, “You cut that shit. I ain’t Somali. I’m just some broke-ass nigger.”

And it’s an easy mistake. It’s a mistake you’ve seen a hundred times before in this city of Somali immigrants. That mistake so frequently dismissed with a shake of the head or a wave of the hand, and the apology—the vehement apology of I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to assume. I am so, so sorry. It’s a mistake you could have made. But you didn’t. He did, and he doesn’t say anything. He just stiffens for a moment and keeps walking. You open your mouth to apologize, but everything comes out—gin and seltzer and Annie’s Macaroni shells pirouetting on the ice. The woman says, “Jesus. Y’all can fucking keep each other.” And this hurts so much. The mistake was his. She just caught you at a vulnerable moment.

Tears. You heard a story once about a boy that went blind from crying in the cold like this. The tears froze in his eyes. The sockets filled with stone. You don’t go blind. You’re shutting the car door. The poet had more than one whiskey-7, but he gets you home. You don’t say anything, parked by the dumpster behind your building. You step out of the car and he says, “How was I supposed to know?”

You open your mouth and it all comes back up again.


You make it through winter break with your parents. You don’t tell them about the urn. You stop making calls so they won’t overhear and wonder what mess their daughter has gotten herself into. You’re relieved to make the long drive up from Iowa and settle back into the Minneapolis apartment, to get back to making the calls. You’ve burned through your summer savings, so you get a part-time waitressing gig at the American Girl Doll Bistro in the Mall of America. You spend your tips on handles of gin and the occasional spliff you’ve recently taken to buying off Shelly. The two of you blow the smoke into paper towel rolls stuffed with drier sheets to mask the smell from Jillian, but she knows. The bistro has dolls the girls can borrow in case they don’t have one of their own. Each doll gets its own seat and cup of black Lipton tea that the store buys in bulk. You’re required to talk to the dolls like they’re people, and it’s surprisingly easy for you.

The mall has that chlorinated smell all malls seem to have, but the restaurant smells permanently like chicken tenders, even when the fryer is switched off for the night. You get used to this. The restaurant is above a hair salon where the girls can get their hair teased to look like their dolls. The salon also functions as a doll hospital. Girls will bring in dolls they colored on or maimed and the manager will take the doll back and swap out its head or arms for fresh parts.  They save the disfigured heads for six months in case the girls notice and want them back. Your manager, Jason, once had a girl come up to him, shouting, “I need my doll back! My old doll has all my secrets in her head!”

The heads are kept in a back room. Some are missing lashes, some have been melted by radiators, some have been Sharpie tattooed by cruel siblings. They are the warped ones. You take your evening breaks with the dolls. They have so much emotion, these things that were so loved then thrown away.

The poet doesn’t call. You want him to do something dramatic to show you he’s sorry—sorry for embarrassing you, and sorry for not calling for so long. You tell the urn about it and that helps, but doesn’t make the situation any clearer. Shelly has moved on past the urn—she’s shown it to all her friends, and now she mostly ignores it on the shelf. You start calling the urn Thomas. After two weeks back in Minneapolis you stop looking for a home for him. You spent the fall semester making calls to whoever you could get to pick up the phone, to entertain for the briefest of moments that you could be connecting them with their lost loved one—that you could be fixing their lives, restoring the balance in some small but important way. But it’s stopped feeling that way. The last call you make is over when the man shouts, “I swear to god, we get one god damn night a week to eat our fucking dinner together like we’re a normal god damn family, and you fucking people keep harassing us.” The phone receiver slams the cradle. You give up on restoring the balance. And in the long nights that the poet doesn’t bother bridging that gap and coming back to you, you let Thomas in. You move him from the living room to a permanent home on your desk. He begins to feel more present in the room. When you talk, he listens, and never corrects you. He starts restoring your balance.

Sometimes after a particularly strong joint you cradle him and feel like you’re pulling him inside of you, like the cold marble is running through your guts and getting tangled up in your muscles. But that only lasts a few seconds, and has only happened a few times.

Mostly the urn sits on your desk. Mostly your roommates ignore it.

You sit in the warped doll room, pushing chicken fingers and french fries in lazy circles round your plate. You feel like a child again at this job. You’ve been spending too much time as an adult lately—too much gin, and smoke, and term sheets, and counting down the months until your twenty-first. It’s easy to shut off and pretend for a while. It’s easier when you’re the tiniest bit lit up. You pour Lipton out of stout pink teapots, some for the girls and some for the dolls. Sometimes the girls don’t want to share what their dolls are thinking, but it’s polite to ask. And it’s policy to ask the parents if there is a birthday coming up. It’s easier to talk to the parents if you aren’t high, particularly the fathers. A little gin helps though, particularly with the fathers.

But in the doll ward you don’t need any substances. The ward helps pass the time, and it comforts you in a subdued way.  Jason, your manager, has learned to look for you there when you disappear from the floor. He finds you stirring the food around your plate, not even eating.

“Katie, we don’t take breaks when we have open tables.”

Luckily it’s a gin day. It’s impossible to be around Jason when you’re lit. You straighten your tie, fasten your pink apron that droops past your knees.

“You’ve got to stop this crap. Your food’s cold in the window.”

That night you spoon Thomas on top of the covers where the marble will keep its cool. Shelly comes in without knocking and asks if you’re busy. You tell her you are. She stands over you for a while anyway. “In my time,” she says, “I’ve seen some weird ass shit.”


Shelly wears glasses but doesn’t need them. She wears flannels when she drinks beer, even in the summer. She runs every morning and pretends she doesn’t. Shelly goes to punk shows at Club Medusa and hates all the bands, but digs the scene. Shelly also rushed Lambda Delta Phi, but decided she didn’t need to pay an annual to have friends. Shelly is rarely nervous. Shelly doesn’t get high when Shelly doesn’t want to. Shelly fakes putting mickeys in her own drinks. Shelly is smoke and mirrors, but has no secrets. Everything works out for her. And so you can’t understand why she would put up these fliers, why someone with so much going for them, so much confidence, would feel the need to take this one thing from you, this thing that matters so much.

You spot a flier fastened to one of the bulletin columns spaced throughout the snowy campus. Found: Urn. Please call with a description, and then your number, your name. Fucking Shelly.

You tear down the flier, move to the next column and tear one down there too. You run home, though you really can’t afford to miss your macrobiology lab in half an hour. Shelly is at class, so you sit on her bed and you wait. You want to turn the room inside out, but you aren’t that kind of person. So you wait.

Your phone rings. It isn’t Shelly. It’s an unknown number. You flick the phone on silent. You put it screen down on the bed so you don’t have to watch the light flash with each new call. You get a dozen calls in an hour. They keep pouring in. They all want what you have. You’ll have to get your number changed.

Shelly is gone for hours. You scroll through the texts that have been piling up.

Our grandfather needs to come home
hi u have my urn?
I am offering a fifty dollar reward
Is this some kind of joke?

You’re glad you have unlimited texting. Still no sign of Shelly. You pull a small, unlikely to be noticed nug from Shelly’s stash. You grind it, roll it, and smoke it on your bed with Thomas and your drier sheets. Shelly can’t take this away from you.

Jillian shows around three, asks if you want her to pick anything up from Target while she’s there. You don’t say anything, and she doesn’t ask again.

Shelly finally shows long after dark. You’ve snuck more than one nug by this point. You leave Thomas on the bed. You stand in your doorway facing her. You say, “I know what you did.”

She says, “What are you talking about?”

But you don’t really hear her. You don’t really want to. “I know what you are.”

Shelly tells you to go to bed and pulls her door shut. You don’t know how long you stand there.


Jason has the balls to fire you on the same night Jillian throws a party. It’s one of those disastrous affairs most people stop hosting freshman year where everyone brings a half empty bottle and pours it into a communal bowl. You’ve started keeping Thomas in your room at all times, only handling him with the door closed. You’ve gotten your number changed. You’ve taken a break from smoking, even quit drinking at work, though it’s much more boring now. You haven’t talked to Shelly. You’ve gone out of your way to avoid her, to avoid confrontation, to maintain that household balance. You’ve been doing everything right, and, well, just look at this mess you’re in. You ride the blue line home in the dark.

You were given a birthday table, a nine top, big check and coming in with automatic gratuity. You poured the tea for the children, then the dolls, then the adults—just like you were trained. You asked who the birthday girl was, and who you thought was just someone’s brother brought along for the ride raised his hand. Nine years old, blonde bangs, hazel eyes with glasses pushed up on his bridge. You asked him if he liked Legos. Then you told him there is a Lego restaurant in the mall that does birthdays too.

Stupid. Stupid. His mother asked why you would bring that up. You said, “Wouldn’t he rather play with Legos? This isn’t a good restaurant for boys.” The boy’s mother went ballistic, said that it wasn’t your place to make judgments like that, that you could go fuck yourself and stay away from her son. She said fuck, right in front of the kids like that. Unbelievable. Jason let you go before the appetizers hit the table. He said he’ll have to comp half their meal.

A man on the train asks if he can buy you a drink. You pretend you don’t speak English. You’ve already had enough of tonight. He asks if you’re deaf or something. He waves a hand in front of your eyes, then throws both hands in the air. “Fine, bitch.”

You transfer to the green line and walk home through the spring slush. You see the line of parked cars before you hear the EDM. The poet’s car is on your block. You brace for coming in from the cold.

The poet that hasn’t called in months and is obviously no longer your poet is chatting up Shelly. They’re both smoking American Spirits in your non-smoking apartment. Jillian is debating whether or not the punch would be improved by the mostly full pinot noir in her hand. You walk past the poet towards Jillian without letting him see you looking. You ask Jillian, “What’s in it?”

Jillian says, “Damned if I know. Mostly blueberry vodka I think. Cranberry juice?”

She ladles you a cup. It tastes like Kool-Aid and antiseptic. “Is there mouthwash in this?”

“Shouldn’t be,” Jillian says, giving the bowl a quick sniff. “I think it got left out.”

Behind you the poet has stopped talking. You turn to see the two focused on you. Jillian says, “Sober perspective: add the wine or leave it out?”

By this point, Jillian is used to you ignoring her. “Katie,” the poet says, “It’s been a long time.”

“Hi.” You flash him a smile, showing off your perfect teeth.

The poet says, “Shelly was just telling me about your uncle.”

“Oh? Which one?”

“The one that works at the Goodwill. I was sorry to hear about him.”

He’s thinks he can let you down gently, and normally you would take the most convenient exit from this conversation. You aren’t usually a confrontational person, but you’ve had enough. And he’s not as fucking tactful as he thinks he is. “I don’t have an uncle that works at Goodwill. You must be thinking of someone else.”

“I could have sworn you mentioned him at Shelly’s party a couple months back.”

Shelly says, “She knows what you’re talking about. We all know what you’re talking about.”

You say, “My uncle died after a yearlong struggle with Lou Gehrig’s. He used his tongue to wheel his chair in front of a train.”

The poet picks up his spoken word voice, all syncopated and with that strange inflection. He always projects spit when he uses this voice, and flecks of it land on your cheek and arm “Jesus, Katie, why can’t you just act like a fucking adult for once? Just admit it.”

“That’s the truth. I should know. It happened to me,” you say, refusing to raise your voice. “You must have me confused with someone you think speaks Somali.”

He shouts, “Fuck off, Katie. That’s got nothing to do with this. Just admit you fucked up.” But you’re already walking away. Jillian decided not to add the wine. It’s still sitting by the bowl, uncorked and full. You shove to the front of the line, hold your hair back with your left hand, and upend the wine into the bowl with your right. You shove your face in and suck. When you come back up the whole room is cheering for you, pumping their fists into the air. Shouts of chug and wolf whistles fill the room. Purple blue droplets sprinkle your pink work shirt and drip onto the carpet as you make your way towards your room. You drop the empty bottle on the floor, but it doesn’t break. You close the door behind you.

Your eyes sting from the vodka. You bite down on a pillow to keep from screaming, but you can feel your teeth grinding through the cotton. You throw it across the room and bite your macrobiology text book.  When you pull the book from your mouth you feel the imprinted grooves from your perfect teeth on the cover. You keep the lights off. It’s barely after ten; you should just be getting off work. The EDM crashes into the ska playing next door where the party is full of people you don’t know. You say, “Not me. No, you fucked up. You fucked up. Not me.” You want the parties to stop. You want it all, everything, to empty out. You heft Thomas into your bed, and you try to make the world silent.


You wake to water falling on your face. For a moment you’re lost. Then Shelly flicks on the light and when your eyes adjust you see she’s holding an empty mug. You’re still wrapped around Thomas. A thin streak of ash spilled onto your sheet while you were sleeping. You scoop as much of it back into the urn as you can. It’s still dark out. There’s an occasional shout from the street below as the partygoers shuffle out of your apartment complex looking for the night’s last dive.

Shelly says, “You know, I had a long list of people that I could have lived with this year. A long fucking list. And I picked you because I didn’t think you’d go all Exorcism of Emily Rose on me.”

Your eyebrows are sticky with blueberry vodka. You’re slow to sit up, but you feel more awake when you do. You say, “What time is it?”

Shelly points at Thomas and says, “Seriously, man. What is your god damn problem? It was funny at first, but you’ve been mooning over that thing for months. When’s it going back?”

“Back where?” It sounds like the party guests have all left. Shelly’s is the only voice you hear in the apartment.

She says, “Anywhere. Back where it belongs, with whoever it belongs to. Or in the fucking trash. I don’t care anymore.”

The urn by this point belongs to you and you alone, but you don’t tell Shelly that. You don’t want to fight with her. You really want to keep the household balanced.

“It isn’t yours.” Shelly rubs her eyes. “And it’s fuckin with your head. You used to be chill, well, not chill maybe, but you were cool.” Shelly rubs her eyes again, and you can see they’re misting up.

You blink, trying to shake off the sleep. You say, “Why’d you tell him?”

“Because I thought then you might get rid of the fucking thing, but that obviously didn’t work. So if it isn’t about the lie, why the fuck are you so obsessed with it?”

It was awful of her to tell the poet about Thomas, but it’s what you’d expect her to do. You can’t stay mad at her for that. But you can’t give up Thomas either—Thomas who listens, Thomas who is always right where you left him. So you don’t say anything. You just sit there. Your face is still damp from the water she threw on you. You use the moisture to rub off some of the sugar sticking in your eyebrows.

Shelly says, “Here, let’s get that shit cleaned off.”

She pulls you by the hand into the common room.  The room is a shipwreck. Brown beer glass is scattered across the counter and kitchen linoleum. The white living room carpet is speckled with blue pools and wine stains. The door to your unit is open. You smell vomit coming from the sink. Shelly leaves you there in the mess, brings a dripping rag from the bathroom and rubs it over your face, waking you up the rest of the way. The towel comes away blue. The clock on the microwave says it’s almost four a.m.

Shelly says, “Your bangs’re gonna stay a little blue for a while.” Then she throws the rag into the corner for the morning. Says, “Sorry.”

“Yeah, well.”

Shelly says, “We cool?”

“Yeah, we’ll be alright.”

“Cool. So what’re you going to do with it?”

You say, “I’ll call it in to Radio K, maybe put up a classified. I’ll give it to the first person that calls.” But you won’t. You know that’s not how this ends.

Shelly waits there for a moment with her hands at her sides and you feel that electric certainty that you both want to reach out and touch the other, to embrace, and let the fights and troubles of the last few months fade out. But then she says goodnight and walks to her room. You wait for her door to latch, then grab Thomas and put on your coat and boots, slip out of the apartment as quietly as you can.

The buses have all shut down for the night, so you take the long walk to Uptown, taking the pedestrian tunnels and suspended bridges, moving over and under the street like a suture. By the time you arrive, the parties are over. The sun has risen. It’s almost six a.m. You stop at a public bench along the blusteriest stretch of Hennepin Avenue. You’re two blocks from the lake, only a few more from the cemetery. It feels like as good a place as any. You lean against the back of the bench outside the Uptown L.A. Fitness. There is only one woman running laps on the indoor track. You count her laps through the porthole windows, tracking the number of times her face skips by. She catches a glimpse of you and Thomas as she runs past. A question forms on her face.  On her next lap around she stops. She is struggling to catch her breath. She puts her hands on either side of the glass. You lock eyes briefly. Then she stares at the urn. You give a small wave. Your hands are freezing. You didn’t put on enough warm clothes. You’re standing in the spring wind in your T-shirt and flannel coat.

You drop the lid and upend Thomas onto the sidewalk. The wind catches the ash and cyclones it into your face before carrying it into the lake or the cemetery or further into the city. You don’t want to look at Thomas, so you keep watching the woman. You know that in a minute you’re going to have to walk away, leave Thomas’s husk by the bench for someone to scoop up and take home. You don’t want to think about it. And the woman keeps watching you. She presses her face close to the glass like she wants to reach out and hold you, to take you home and feed you, bathe you, bring you up better so you don’t end up standing on some corner in the cold with an urn. You smile, like you don’t know how you got here, like this isn’t even that bad. You want her to know that you’re okay, that everything, you’re sure, is going to work out just fine for you, but you just stand there, and slowly her breathing fogs everything up.

“A Midwestern Gothic” originally appeared in Blue Mesa Review, Issue 34, as winner of their annual fiction contest.


Alec Osthoff received his MFA in fiction from the University of Wyoming. His work has appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Western Confluence, and Atticus Review. He lives in Wyoming with his partner and two cats, but is a Midwesterner at heart.