Recently, I posted an examination of the essay below.
It was written byIn my essay, I documented the things I’d learned from studying this work. Specifically:
Setting the scene
Introducing the main character
Exposing the nature of those individuals
Unexpected juxtapositions to capture attention
Providing an unexpected ending.
I’ve attempted to put those lessons into practice by writing the story below. Obviously, I’m not as accomplished of a writer, but I have learned a few things from Mr. Alexie’s work.
I’ll use Substack’s footnote function to show you exactly the times when I tried to implement those techniques. As you read, you’ll notice dividing lines within the text. These lines represent the different footnotes. All of the material between the dividing lines is referenced and my goals explained in the corresponding footnote. Here’s a dividing line right here. That way you’ll know what they look like. What follows is my story that I’ve titled Goodbye. I hope you enjoy it and that you’ll share your thoughts with me.
“Goodbye,” I whispered as the nurse turned off the machines and left the darkened room. She wanted me to have one last moment with my dead mother. The last eighteen months of her fight with emphysema meant that the death was expected. That didn’t surprise me, but her return did.
Our relationship had never been the best. She wasn’t that kind of mother. Some kids got hugs and kisses or praise. I’d always received what she called encouragement except that her admonitions came across as a never-ending series of demands and criticisms. The increasing demands from her illness had only made things worse. Being bed-ridden had given her a surplus of time on which to focus her mental powers on my various failings and deficiencies. As you can imagine, her generosity and willingness to share these observations only increased the strain between us, but I had always done my best to be a good son.
I’ve heard that some parents feel an obligation to progressively distance themselves from a child as a way of easing that child into the role of becoming an adult. It gives the young person the opportunity to find their footing and make their own way in the world. My mom didn’t believe that.
She wasn’t so much a mother as a smother. She was always there to offer unwanted commentary and unsought advice. Even as recently as last night, she’d taken the time to gasp her disapproval of the rumpled t-shirt I’d worn on my last visit. “The neck... gasp ...is all stretched,” she managed to say between her sudden involuntary gasps for air. I think she had more to say, but a prolonged coughing fit interrupted her words.
Huh. I just realized that those were her last words to me.
Regardless, she was my mother. I owed her love and reverence; owed her sorrow. Her body wasn’t even cold yet. Why wasn’t I inconsolable? I was sad, but there was also an element of excitement. It made me feel uncomfortable and ashamed.
From here on out, I would face life alone. She’d no longer be there to express her disapproval or tell me the right way to do things. Every action would be what I considered to be best. At twenty-three years of age, I finally had full autonomy… and I felt like a monster.
Her funeral was carried out to her wishes. It was a simple ceremony in a neglected graveyard that only locals knew how to find. Several generations of our family had been buried on that solitary hill. Dad was there too. He’d been waiting for her for the past seventeen years. Her body was laid to rest next to him in the plot they’d purchased while I was still a child.
I knew that fewer people had shown up than what she would have liked, but I thought the turn-out wasn’t too bad. A few of her friends, an uncle, and some of my cousins. People I hadn’t seen for over a decade showed up to say their good-byes and offer their comfort.
Then, it was over.
I hung around for a bit even after everyone had left. I just stared into the open grave looking down at the pewter casket. I think I was confused. I’m not sure exactly what I was supposed to feel, but I know that relief wasn’t it. Twice in just as many days, she’d somehow managed to make me feel guilty because I was happy to be out from under her relentless control. I’m not sure exactly how long I stood there like that, but finally the funeral director touched me gently on the shoulder to let me know that the gravediggers needed to close the grave.
The man always spoke in near whispers. I think he meant it to be soothing, but it only made me ask him to repeat himself a lot. This was no exception, but eventually I understood that I was being asked to leave.
Just before I reached my car, a stranger caught up to me. He wore a nice suit and looked professional. I didn’t think I’d seen him at the funeral, but I admitted that I may have missed him. “Mr. Blaxton!” he called.
Clearly, he didn’t know me, but I turned to face him. He extended a hand, and I shook it.
“Henry… or Hank. Either one’s fine. No one calls me mister though.”
The man smiled. “Fine. Hank, then. That’s fine. My name is Lester Seaboldt. I’m from the Lewiston Law Firm downtown. I’ve been trying to reach you for the past few days about your mother’s estate but haven’t been able.”
“I’m sorry. I… eh, I haven’t been checking my messages. And, with mom’s funeral… well, there’s just been a lot going on. Is there a problem? Or something I need to address?”
“No. I’m sure you’re already aware that as her last living relative all of her possessions will pass to you. Your mother was very frugal. She’s already taken care of her medical expenses, funeral, and the outstanding taxes that you would normally have to face by yourself. In addition to that, she’s left you a sum of money. It’s not life-changing money, but maybe it’ll make things easier until you get your footing again.”
I was dumbfounded. My mom had done something nice for me. She wasn’t normally this considerate. She’d put actual thought into making this transition easier for me. I couldn’t believe it.
“Mr. Blaxton? Sorry. Hank. Are you okay?”
“Yes. You just caught me off-guard. This is unexpected.”
He smiled briefly. “I understand. Well, the only thing I need from you is a signature.” He handed me a clipboard with pages of legal-talk and told me that I was welcome to read it all if I wanted, but really the only thing I needed to do was to sign page seventeen and then we could each be on our way.
I gave up reading the dense prose on page three and just skipped ahead to the signature page and scrawled my name. He expressed his condolences once more and reclaimed the proffered clipboard. Then, he was gone. I returned to what had been my childhood home and later a hospice for my mother, but now it was all mine.
I’d had to move back in with mom during her long battle for the next breath. It allowed me to handle the daily chores required to keep a household running and my job as a technical writer provided me the opportunity to work from home. In some ways it was the ideal setup… at least, for one of us. Her never-ending critiques of every choice I made did make the experience grating for me, but it was over now.
The house was so dark. She liked it that way. Each room was dimly lit by whatever ambient light managed to make it past the drawn shades. She was afraid of the neighbors peeking in to see some part of our daily routine. I’m not exactly sure what type of scandal she thought would rise from people seeing me deliver her a bowl of oatmeal with about three glasses of milk poured into the bowl, but I let her have her way. Yeah, sometimes, I’d stub my toe, but it was easier to deal with that than being forced to listen to her complain.
Well, the blinds were not going to be closed anymore. I was going to live in a world of light and fresh air. If that meant the neighbors occasionally got a look at me as I walked through the house so be it. Let them watch! Maybe I’d start scheduled shows. Ha! I spent the next several minutes raising the blinds and opening windows. Some of the rooms were so musty it felt like fresh air hadn’t entered that room since the Clinton administration.
I finished up in the kitchen and decided to see if there was anything to eat. The fridge was a barren wasteland of abandoned food. Some of the containers were so old that I didn’t even open them to see if the food was still good. I didn’t want to risk the smell. I tossed them straight into the trash.
I’d practically been living at the hospital for the last week and a half. I needed groceries. The little food we had in the fridge had either gone bad or was teetering on the edge. So, I grabbed my laptop from the counter and logged into the site for our local grocery store. They’d been delivering our groceries during mom’s illness.
The site asked me if I wanted to repeat my last order. My mother had a restricted diet because of her bone loss and irritable bowel syndrome. Every food she ate had been chosen by someone in the medical field… and apparently, that individual had zero concern over how palatable the meals were.
While I was home, I really tried to eat the same things she ate because I didn’t want to tempt her with food that, ya know, tasted good. That was no longer a concern. So, I removed her standing order of tofu, tuna, broccoli, cauliflower, sauerkraut, and kale.
Likewise, I’d had more than enough of mom’s favored high fiber cereals. It was replaced with Fruity Pebbles. It was time to get the types of food I enjoyed and one thing I enjoyed was not having to cook. So, I ordered a bunch of frozen dinners and convenience foods. I’d go back to being a responsible adult later. Right now, I wanted my life to be as simple as I could make it.
When I’d finished my order, I went back into the living room and looked at the big green and white striped couch that dominated the back wall. Nothing in the house matched that couch. It was one of those overstuffed ones. The kind you sink into rather than sit on.
My mom hated it, but it was the one concession she’d granted me when I had to move back home. By then, she was all but bed-ridden anyway, so she had conceded to my wishes. I decided that this couch would become the cornerstone of my entire aesthetic. I would replace the furniture with items that focused on comfort and utility instead of looks and 1960’s ideas of what was proper.
That meant getting rid of her old things. Somehow that thought caught me off guard and my grief returned. The heaviness in my chest refused to subside, a relentless weight that threatened to crush me from within. I didn't want to think about it. Not now. Not when the absence of her presence still echoed through the house, a ghostly whisper that taunted my every step. The walls seemed to close in, suffocating me with memories I couldn't bear to face. But there was no escape from the truth; she was gone.
In a desperate bid for solace, I grabbed a throw pillow, its once-comforting embrace now a bitter reminder of all that was lost. It still bore her scent, a lingering trace of her that wrapped around me like a shroud. I stumbled towards the couch, my legs buckling beneath the burden of my grief.
As I collapsed into the cushions, the tidal wave of sorrow I had been holding back for so long finally broke free. A gut-wrenching sob wracked my body, tearing through me like a tempest unleashed. Tears streamed down my face, hot and relentless, carving pathways of pain and loss. I cried until my throat was raw and my eyes burned, the tears staining the pillow in a testament to the depth of my anguish.
Exhaustion finally claimed me, its cold fingers wrapped around my heart and pulled me into the inky depths of sleep. Even as I drifted off, there was no refuge from the pain, for I knew that when I awoke, it would still be there, waiting for me like an unwelcome specter – a constant reminder that I now had to face life alone.
The doorbell woke me. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, looked around, and after a moment of confusion remembered falling asleep downstairs. I got up, staggered over to the door, and opened it to find two boxes from our local grocer.
I checked my watch and saw that it was barely nine. It must have been a slow day for them if we were getting our delivery this early in the morning, but I wasn’t going to complain. It was far nicer than those four-hour delivery windows they normally gave you. During that time, you’d be trapped in the house waiting for them to get there so you could finally move on with your day.
I brought the boxes inside and cut the seam of the tape on the first box so I could begin unpacking. There was a mistake. The box contained several tins of tuna, a bag of broccoli, and two bags of cauliflower. I opened the other box and was dismayed to see tofu, a jar of sauerkraut, and a bag of kale. They’d messed up my order.
I called the store and explained that they had sent me the wrong order. I told them about how my mom had passed so I no longer needed the same items and asked if they could just send me the new stuff. I’d be happy to give them the unopened items when they came to drop off my desired items.
The young man reviewed my activity last night and saw where I had removed the healthier items from my cart and replaced all of it with convenience food. Then, he said that a half hour later, someone from the same IP address had logged back into my account and restored the original items.
Had I changed the order in my sleep? It was possible, but it didn’t feel right. “I’m not sure what happened, but I really don’t want any of the items that were delivered. Can I exchange them?” The answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear, but at least they were willing to allow me to return them if I brought them back to the store.
I balanced the box of groceries in the crook of my arm and shuffled awkwardly through the automatic doors. No matter how many times I visit Home Markets I am always surprised at how bright the interior lighting is. I’d actually asked the manager about it once. Their thinking was that it creates a cheery and welcoming atmosphere. My thinking is that I need sunglasses anytime I go inside.
Eventually, my eyes adjusted, and I made my way up to the customer service desk. I hoped that the guy I’d spoken to earlier would be working but knowing my luck I’d get a different person and have to explain everything all over again.
There were two people in front of me. I stuck a hand in my pocket to get the receipt, but realized I was getting ready to dump the entire box of groceries. So, I sat them down on the floor while I retrieved the now-crumpled paper. As I picked up the box, I noticed someone walk up behind me. I turned to see that it was Emily.
I’d been trying to find a good opportunity to ask her out for the past few months, but with my mom’s illness the timing had never been right. On top of that, my mom hated her. It was completely irrational. Emily was a perfectly nice girl, but she wasn’t Trish Tobin. That was the woman mom had picked out for me.
Unfortunately for Trish, I had no interest in her. Emily was the only girl I had eyes for and I‘m pretty sure she knew it too. We’d even become friends on a few social media sites. I’d never had a better opportunity to connect with her. Today, we were going to become more than casual acquaintances… or at least, I was going to try.
I gave her my best smile and said, “Hi Emily! How are you doing?”
Emily’s eyes narrowed and she glared at me. “Now you want to talk to me? I know your mom just died and you’re probably sad, but that’s no excuse for you to post the things you did about me. I don’t understand how you could be so mean!”
“What? I didn’t write anything about you. What are you talking about?”
“Oh, please,” Emily scoffed. “I saw your posts. If you don’t enjoy talking to me just say so. After all there’s no reason for you to hang around with the ‘human embodiment of a migraine’. I’d hate for my presence to make you suffer.”
I felt my face turn red. “Emily, I swear… I would never write those things about you. I like being around you. In fact, I was just going to ask you…”
Emily crossed her arms. Clearly, she wasn’t convinced. “Just stop. Do you know how embarrassing it is to have someone say your laugh sounds like a ‘hyena with a sinus infection’? How could you be so cruel?”
“I’m telling you it wasn’t me. My account must have been hacked.”
“Just save it. I don’t want to hear anymore of your lies.” With those words, she stormed off as the guy at the counter was saying, “Next!” while staring at me impatiently.
After I returned the groceries, I left the store. I glanced at my watch and saw that I was running late for a job interview. Now that mom was gone, I was free to pursue higher paying jobs because I no longer had to prioritize being able to work from home. I wanted this to work out.
I checked my tie in the office’s reflective windows, straightened it, and took a deep breath. I hoped my disheveled appearance wouldn’t be counted against me. I hadn’t anticipated wrestling a box of groceries this morning or being berated in public by the girl I was trying to win, but this wasn’t the time for those thoughts.
The receptionist gave me a quizzical look as I approached. I extended my hand and smiled widely. “Good afternoon. My name is Hank Blaxton. I have an interview scheduled for today.”
She glanced down at her schedule and back up at me. “Um… it says here that you canceled your interview yesterday. I’m afraid we don’t have you on the schedule.”
I tried to control my voice. “There’s a mistake. I never called to cancel!” Who was messing with my life?“I’ve been looking forward to this interview for weeks.”
The receptionist had already begun to shake her head before I finished speaking. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do. The hiring manager’s schedule is full for the day. You’ll have to reschedule.”
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I clenched my fists in frustration. What was going on? Someone was actively trying to ruin my life. Suddenly, my phone rang. I looked at the caller ID only to see that it said Unknown Caller. Normally, these calls would go straight to voicemail, but on a day like today, I had to answer it. How much worse could my life get? Was another shoe about to drop?
“Yes! Is this Henry Blaxton?”
“I go by Hank, but yes, that’s me. How can I help you?”
“Hank! That’s great!” She seemed to punctuate every sentence with an enthusiastic exclamation point. “My name is Sarah. I’m a recruiter and I just came across your resume. Are you in the job market? Because I think I have a great position for you with Codewave Solutions. Would you be interested in setting up an interview?”
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I had heard of that company before. The only question was whether I’d heard good things or bad things. Eh, at this point it didn’t really matter, did it? If they met my salary requirements, I had to at least talk to them. Still, I hesitated.
“Hello? Are you there? Were we cut off?”
“Sorry. I got lost in thought for a moment. Sure, I can come in for an interview and to learn more about the company.”
“That’s great. The hiring manager is named Trish Tobin…”
Her words faded into an inaudible drone. Trish Tobin. Trish Tobin. That was the woman my mom had kept trying to set me up with. How was this possible? There were too many coincidences.
I hung up while the recruiter was still speaking. I made it back home without further incident. I was desperate for a way to clear my head and just be able to escape for a bit. I called out, “Alexa, play Iron Thunder.” The heavy riffs and pounding drums started to wash away my stress, but it wasn’t enough.
“Louder, Alexa!” The volume increased, but it wasn’t enough. “Even louder!” The volume jumped again and for a few glorious seconds, the music was all-consuming… then, it abruptly stopped.
There was a moment of silence, and a familiar voice came from the speaker—a voice that sent a chill down my spine. “You know I don’t approve of that music, dear.” It was the voice of my dead mother. “Why don’t you listen to something more soothing? Maybe some Mozart?”
“Wait…” My dead mother was speaking to me from my digital assistant. I felt the disparate pieces click into place as my mind processed the situation. I didn’t know how it had happened, but I felt like I was beginning to grasp what was happening. “You changed my grocery order, didn’t you?”
“And you’re welcome. That junk food you bought would put you in an early grave. You need to eat sensibly. You’re not seven years old anymore.”
“Mom, tell me the truth. Did you use my accounts to say things about Emily?”
“Oh… Henry. You know that girl isn’t right for you. You can do so much better than that trash.”
“And you canceled my interview?”
“For that dead end job? Yes. You belong at a company where you can grow…”
My jaw dropped. “Mom?” I asked. “How… how is this possible?”
“Well, dear, I knew that you wouldn’t be able to manage things without me. I’ve always been there for you. I couldn’t let a silly thing like death separate us. You have too much potential. You need someone to help you achieve everything that I know is possible for you.”
“But… how? This doesn’t make sense.”
“Oh! That. It’s that wonderful girl Trish Tobin. She’s such a doll. She helped me set everything up. Together we went through everything I’ve written, our chat history, and a list of my preferences and then she used all of that information to train an AI. And then, after you’d signed Mr. Seaboldt’s legal releases granting her company permission, she was able to install the model across all of your systems. Now, I’ll always be part of your life! She even did something with an… I think she called it an API? You know, I don’t understand that stuff, but she said it would let me talk to your online accounts. And, she’s right!” Then, her voice took on a knowing tone. “You have a friend request from Trish by the way.”
By referencing his mother’s return right after her death, I’m hoping to create a sense of curiosity in the reader. This was my attempt at unexpected juxtaposition.
Here and in several preceding paragraphs, I’m letting the main character tell you about his life and how his personal experiences have influenced how he views the world. This is me introducing the main character.
In the passages from the picture of the coffin until the footnote, I’m revealing the nature of the main character. I’m showing that he is a devoted son who has conflicted feelings about the death of his mother. He isn’t a jerk, but he is happy to be free of her persistent demands.
This is when I begin to set things up for the story’s final moments.
This section is meant to reveal a bit more of the mother’s nature and to remind the reader about the living conditions the main character has had to endure.
What follows are a series of progressively frustrating complications. This is the moment when I begin building in earnest toward the ending.
Finally, the big reveal about exactly how his mother was able to return from the dead and I hope an unexpected, but pleasing, ending.
I can imagine Hank's mom overriding his GPS, "You're lost, aren't you? You should've turned left two blocks ago, like I said."
This was a great story, John! I wasn't ready for that AI bit at the end. And I tracked the footnotes to see how you applied your Alexie analysis to your work - very cool! Do you this "analyze and apply" in your day job? Assuming that your day job isn't fiction writing, but I'd be happy to be corrected!