Spring 2016, Volume 20

Fiction by Jon Simmons

Down Scalawag Street

My reader will be young or old. The age of my reader doesn’t matter to me. Another reader is another reader. They’re all the same.

My reader might live in Washington, or Michigan, or an island off Spain, and I will have to email my story.

My reader will have brown hair or orange, or maybe dyed blue—antifreeze blue. My story might be too tame for the antifreeze reader, who will live in Boston, near me. I’ll hand it over anyway, smile, and say, “Go ahead,” as if I need to coax her to read it.

She’ll knock on my apartment door later that night and thank me for letting her read the story, while the orange-haired and brown-haired readers still won’t have gotten back to me. I’ll ask her how she knew where I lived, and she’ll point to my address on the header.

I’ll invite her in—maybe she’d like a cup of coffee? Or some toast? A burrito? These are the things I’ll have to offer her, but she’ll want none of them. Still, she’ll walk into the apartment and nod and comment how it smells like dog. “I don’t have a dog,” I’ll tell her. I wish I had a dog.

Next week she’ll have read another story of mine, about a fireman whose house burns down. She’ll sit next to me on my worn love seat and tell me to stick to realistic subjects.

“Surgeons sometimes need surgery,” I’ll say.

She’ll think for a moment and then say, “Yes, but they rarely operate on themselves.”

When she leaves my apartment she’ll offer me a high five on the front stoop. She’ll tell me that my hands are small, but she’ll be smiling when she says it. Then she’ll hop on her magenta mountain bike and peddle down the hill. I’ll look at my hands and feel like operating on myself.

I’ll see my reader in the community garden crouching next to her tomato seedlings, spritzing them with a spray bottle.

“It’s going to rain tonight” I’ll say. “You shouldn’t water them.”

She’ll stand up, turn the spray bottle on me, and spritz me in the face a few times. “There,” she’ll say. “That’s better.”

“Thanks, that felt good,” I’ll say.

I’ll pick up the garden hose and hold the nozzle to my hip as if I had a holster. “Don’t you dare,” she’ll say.

I’ll point the nozzle straight into the air and shoot a stream of water upward. My reader will gasp dramatically and put both hands to her mouth. The water will rain down on the grass beside us.

Later, when it pours and I’m in bed rereading The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book she’ll text me, “I don’t even want to hear about it.”

A few weeks later in my closet-sized apartment I’ll wonder why I didn’t study engineering and make a ton of money. I was good at math in fifth grade. What happened?

“You got interested in other things,” my reader will say, her head on my lap. Around a finger I’ll twirl and untwirl her hair, which will now be teal. She’ll have spent the night at my apartment by now, but still won’t have eaten any toast, or burritos. “Like stories,” she’ll say. “Now you write stories.”

I’ll thank her again for reading my story.

“It was only ten pages,” she’ll say. “You could make it longer.”

“Yes,” I’ll say. “It could be longer. It could always be longer.”

My reader will make line edits exclusively in red ink, and draw hearts around the words and phrases that she loves most, pirate ships around the ones she doesn’t. The pirate ships will have sharks swimming beside the paragraphs. Little fins poking out of jagged waves.

Having now read four of my stories, my reader will ask me what I’m going to do for her. “Besides predict the weather,” she’ll say. “You got lucky.”

I’ll ask her what she’s working on, and add that since there was a one hundred percent chance of rain that day, it wasn’t luck.

“Maps,” she’ll say, and then, “I don’t believe in one hundred percent. Especially with the weather.”

My reader will bring over maps of neighborhoods that she’s created for her urban planning senior thesis, and ask me to tell her what I think. “That’s the deal,” she’ll say. “I read your stories, you look at my maps.”

I’ll take her maps and hold them in my hands, tracing the streets with my fingers. “No one will go to this library,” I will say to her, pointing to the big block on the map marked library. “It’s near the sewage treatment plant, down Scalawag Street.”

“No one goes to libraries anyway,” she’ll say.

My reader will sometimes forget to take the Pill, even though her iPhone alarm bleeps at her to take it at the same time each night. “The Pink One is calling again,” I’ll tell her, glancing at her phone. “Should I be worried?” I’ll ask. “How did you two meet, anyway?”

My reader’s hair will start turning from teal to mud brown because it wasn’t permanent dye. “Nothing’s permanent,” she’ll say, and sigh.

I’ll say, “How poetic.”

She’ll say, “You’re the writer.”

More maps will start piling up on my desk. There will be ones for real places, Woonsocket, and Wichita, and ones of places that don’t yet exist. I will have more mock neighborhoods than stories in progress.

 “Isn’t there software for this?” I’ll ask. “How can you draw so many maps in so little time?”

“Get writing,” is all she’ll say.

I’ll start writing a story about a man who lives on Scalawag Street, between the sewage treatment plant and the town library. His name will be Harvey, and he will be a librarian. He’ll walk to work every day in a grey tweed jacket and bow tie. He’ll have terminal cancer. He’ll be writing a novel, but he’ll run out of time.

“I’ve moved the library,” she’ll tell me, after reading my draft. “I took your advice,” she’ll say. “It’s on the other side of town now, near the high school. Harvey won’t be able to walk to work.”

My reader and I will take walks downtown in the city, me with my notebook where I keep story ideas, my reader with her disdainful attitude toward Brutalist architecture. “The crate that Quincy Market came in,” she’ll say, pointing up at City Hall, and I’ll jot that down.

We’ll sit on a bench along the Harborwalk. I’ll write in my notebook as my reader claps her hands at seagulls. She’ll ask me what I’m writing.

“More Harvey,” I’ll say. “I’ve changed his disease.”

“Dysentery?” she’ll ask hopefully.

“MS,” I’ll say.

My reader will rest her head on my shoulder. Her hair will smell like peaches, just picked. “Poor Harvey,” she’ll say, and almost mean it.

My reader will demand we go on a fancy date. We will eat at a place that serves only three menu items, and we’ll both pretend to be food critics. We’ll ask the waiter questions like, is our tabbouleh locally sourced, and just how fresh are these leeks? We’ll scribble nonsense in the notepads we’ve brought along as our waiter walks away scratching his head.

After our white-tablecloth meal we’ll walk to my reader’s apartment, and I will see it for the first time. It will be cleaner than my apartment but just as small. Maps will be stacked on her coffee table, and I’ll wonder if I should stack my stories in my living room.

“A tidy mess,” my reader will say, surveying the room. I’ll write that in the notepad under “tabbouleh definitely not local” as a possible story title.

We’ll share a cheap bottle of merlot on her patio and listen to the squeal of the train one block over. It will be a warm, humid night for early spring, the air sticking to my skin like scales. I’ll start to tell a joke about a rabbit that hops into a bar, but I’ll forget the punchline. Instead, I’ll take my reader’s hand and kiss her knuckles one by one, and she’ll start laughing and tell me that I’m drunk.

I’ll be drunk.

I’ll ask my reader why she decided to pursue cartography anyway.

“Johannes Jansson,” she’ll say. “Vespucci, Jean Baptiste.”

The names she’ll list will sound nice, and I’ll say them back to her. “Jansson. Baptiste.”

“I guess I just have a thing for explorers,” she’ll say, and wink at me. I’ll tell her that the world has never been flat to writers.

She’ll hold my hand and lead me to her bedroom. She’ll tell me that she’s never been with a guy like me before. I’ll fall asleep wondering exactly what that means.

When it rains my reader will still ride her bike over to my apartment, even though she could take the subway. We’ll make pizza with rosemary and dill, and afterward leave the oven door open to let the heat waft out and fill the room. She will tell me that I could open a restaurant if my stories don’t end up cutting it.

“What about Harvey?” I’ll ask. “I can’t leave Harvey. Not now.”

“I’d never think of putting dill on pizza,” she’ll say.

My reader will tell me the origin story of ZIP codes, and teach me how to drink backwards out of a cup to cure hiccups. At first I’ll spill all over myself, but she’ll reassure me that it’s okay. “Everyone does the first couple of times,” she’ll say, which will make me wonder who else she has taught to drink backward out of a cup to cure hiccups.

I’ll finally complete the draft of Harvey’s story. My reader will flip to the end when I hand it to her and read the part about Harvey dying from heart disease.

“You changed the disease again,” she’ll say. “I would have liked it better if he’d survived.”

“That’s not what my other readers said,” I’ll tell her.

“You’re seeing other readers?” she’ll ask, taking a step back.

A week will pass and everything will be in bloom and my sinuses won’t know what the hell is happening to them. I’ll think about stomping the daffodils that are peeking up on the side of my apartment. I won’t stomp the daffodils.

 I won’t have seen my reader this week, even though I’ll have called and texted. I’ll be worried that it was something I said, or wrote. I won’t be able to get any writing done.

I’ll read other stories and imagine my reader’s towns as the settings for each one. I won’t be able to get her maps off my mind, and I’ll pick them up off my desk, hold them up to my lamp, as if the light will reveal a hidden code between the buildings, shed light on my reader’s most inner thoughts.

I’ll notice a fenced-in area on one of her maps. There will be hoops and tubes and tires and little dogs running around. I’ll think about the first time my reader stepped into my apartment and told me it smelled like dog. I’ll decide then that I’ll get a dog when I move to a bigger place. A mastiff, or a Bernese Mountain Dog.

A few more days will pass, and I still won’t have seen my reader. I’ll decide one night to walk to her apartment in Back Bay, show up unplanned. I’ll snip one of the daffodils growing by my apartment to bring to her. It will make my eyes water the entire way.

 Her roommate will answer the door and shrug when I ask where she is. She’ll ask me who I am, and I’ll say that I’m her boyfriend, which will be the first time I’ve ever said that, and will be a statement I won’t entirely know to be true. She’ll look at the daffodil that I’m holding and fake a smile. She won’t invite me in.

I’ll toss the flower into a dumpster on the walk home.

Finally, my reader will call me back and tell me how busy she’s been. “Last semester senior year,” she’ll say. “You know how it is.”

“I know,” I’ll say. “I remember it well.”

She’ll tell me that she has something to show me. I’ll ask what, but my reader won’t say. “Are you free this afternoon?” she’ll ask.

“Of course,” I’ll say. “Bike over any time.”

“I’ll have to take the subway this time,” she’ll say, and hang up, the soft buzz of dead air lingering like an unfunny joke.

My reader will bring me a big map, the biggest map yet, which is almost as tall as she is. I’ll have to move my love seat into the kitchen to make room. We’ll both crouch down and unroll her map onto my bedroom’s hardwood floor. It will just barely fit. All I’ll want to do is hold my reader by the waist and kiss her.

“Wait,” she’ll say.

She’ll take my hand with hers and trace the streets, smooth and cold. “Here’s where Harvey sits and thinks and writes his novel,” she’ll say, stopping our hands at a park, oval and asparagus green. “Here’s where he almost completes it,” she’ll say.

“Almost,” I’ll say, hypnotized by her hand over mine, having forgotten her touch, the feeling new again.

We’ll continue down the road, our hands entwined on the map like a miniature game of Twister. We’ll stop at a river as wide as our hands that runs along the top of the map. There will be tiny people wading into the river. I’ll ask her what river it is.

“I made it up,” she’ll say. “It’s a made-up river.”

“You can’t just make up rivers,” I’ll say.

She’ll say, “Tell that to the Dutch,” and will pull her hand away from mine.

“Canals,” I’ll say. “Not rivers.”

“Whatever,” she’ll say, and push me over.

I’ll wonder what it would be like to live in my reader’s world, to swim in the river that she’s created.

In the morning we won’t get out of bed for a while. I’ll trace my fingers along the ridge of her spine, like the streets of her map. We’ll lie together, awake, listening to each other’s breath. Sun stripes slanting through the blinds will pattern the bed, and I’ll notice that my reader’s hair is now a little lighter brown, a little less muddy. There will only be one streak of blue left in her hair, like a stream trying to find its river.

I’ll wish my stories could come alive like my reader’s maps. I’ll start writing poetry because I can do that quickly and not care about it so much.

 I’ll write a hundred bad love poems and call the collection, One Hundred Bad Love Poems. My reader’s favorite will be the last one:

You hold my belated birthday balloon,
and it sags, wrinkly, like rotten fruit.
It has just enough air
to keep afloat.
You let go,
it goes nowhere.

Lying on our backs
we wait for the moon.

I think about saying I love you.

I’ll ask my reader why this one is her favorite, and she will just shrug and say “I like balloons.” But why do you like this poem, I’ll want to ask, but won’t.

Instead, I’ll ask my reader what she thinks happens after the moon appears. She’ll tell me, “That’s why it’s a good ending. It’s unclear. The moon never comes by the end of the poem.”

“What about outside of the poem?” I’ll ask. “Just say what you think happens.”

“I think they’ve fallen asleep by then,” she’ll say. “It seems warm and summery. They’d have fallen asleep.”

Harvey will make a comeback in draft two, and die in draft three. When my reader reads draft four she’ll hug me so hard I’ll have to tickle her to make her let go.

“I knew he would survive,” she’ll say.

“It’s only draft four,” I’ll say, cautiously.

She’ll glare at me and whisper, “Don’t you dare.”

That night we’ll name all the constellations we can from my front stoop, for a total of three. I’ll hold my reader close as the air cools. I will lay my head on her shoulder and notice her hair is completely hazel-colored now. I’ll fall asleep with my head resting on her shoulder.

When my reader gets a call from Pittsburgh’s Department of City Planning about the design position she’d applied for, she’ll nod vigorously, one hand smushing the phone against her ear, the other gripping my shoulder for support. She’ll tell them uh-huh and then definitely, and then hang up. She will ohmygod herself into dizziness, and I’ll guide her onto my love seat, which is still in the kitchen.

I won’t be listening to her as she says a million things—I’ll be thinking about my reader, who will be moving to Pittsburgh. I’ll wonder if she’ll find someone else to show her maps to. A painter, or a photographer, or a cake decorator. Red velvet layer cakes for maps. How could she turn that down?

When my reader gets that call I’ll be thinking about our deal—maps for stories.

“You’ll have to send me your maps,” I’ll say.

“You’ll have to visit them,” she’ll say. “Pittsburgh.”

It’s okay, I’ll tell myself, my palms starting to sweat. Another reader is another reader, but I won’t be able to stop thinking about my reader, who soon will be biting red velvet layer cake off a fork, fed to her by the cake decorator.

The week before she’s set to leave, pack up a moving van and head to Pittsburgh, we’ll take walks down on the Esplanade by the Charles River. “A real river,” I’ll say, pointing to the water.

As we snake back into the city and up Newbury Street we’ll pass various bakeries, and I’ll feel an undeserved loathing toward their employees. I’ll picture the cake decorator again, feeding my reader, smearing the carmine frosting on her lips, smothering her with the weight of his body.

“You’re hurting my hand,” she’ll say, looking at me, and I’ll realize that I’ve been squeezing it too hard.

That week I’ll decide enough is enough with Harvey, and I’ll kill him off again. This time he’ll die by falling off a ladder while cleaning out the second floor gutter. His neighbor will find him three days later.

I won’t tell my reader.

My reader’s maps will stop coming and I’ll move the love seat back into the living room. I’ll think about how big the next installment would have been. I would have had to rent a bigger apartment just to see it all. Just to trace my fingers from one street to another.

My reader will pack the rental van full of everything she owns. Her record player, two boxes of plates and pans, her miniature grandfather clock, maps, maps, maps.

She’ll kiss me on the cheek before getting into the driver’s seat and I’ll panic and come up with, “Don’t get lost.” 

“I’ve never gotten lost,” she’ll say.

I’ll stand there on the sidewalk staring at my shoes as she looks at me. Then she’ll climb into the van and drive away.

Later that year when the chill of fall is setting in, I’ll rewrite the ending of Harvey’s story one more time. He’ll be dying, but will have fallen in love. The woman he has fallen in love with will be sitting on the edge of the mattress, holding his hand. Crisp night air will be coming through the open window. The moon will be rising over the dark pines. "I love you," he'll say.


—Originally appeared in Volume 18, Spring 2015


BIO: Jon Simmons is a Boston-based writer, marketer, and musician. Currently he's an editor for the Content Standard, a digital marketing publication, as well as the director of operations at Sound of Boston, WGBH’s Boston A-List winner for Best Local Blog two years running. He is also a contributing writer for Monster and Trill.