The House on Willow Street

WINNER OF THE 2021 GREAT AMERICAN FICTION CONTEST: After losing the family business, Alan finds a way to express his grief that simultaneously divides his community and brings them together.

A window on an old house

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Alan leaned the ladder against the outside of his house. He unlatched the metal hooks on the side and extended the ladder as far as it could go. As Alan climbed, he knew there wasn’t much time. The town meeting was tonight. It didn’t matter if he showed up or not. They were still going to talk about him and discuss “the problem.”

It all started last fall as he was packing up what remained of the Watson Family Hardware Store. The Going-Out-of-Business sale was over. The headline in the New Hampshire Branton Times confirmed his descent, “Third Generation Fails.”

He looked around the abandoned store scattered with cardboard boxes half full of unwanted inventory, empty shelves, and broken legacies. His grandfather prided himself on being organized. He meticulously straightened paint cans and hung curve claw hammers in perfect rows. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” he always said. His grandfather had other Watson words of wisdom: Give the customer what they need, when they need it.

His father seemed to naturally follow the same pattern, and his mother enjoyed running the store with him. Alan grew up learning the family business: mixing paint, working the cash register, and filling orders. His father had trusted him with the store. Before he left this world, he held tight to Alan’s hand. “It’s yours now, take care of it.”

Alan had tried, but it was too easy for his customers to get a socket wrench online or pick up a cheaper lawn mower at the big box hardware store fifteen miles away. His accountant had warned him many times. “Cut your losses, sell the building, pay off your debts, and get a new start.” Alan couldn’t give up on the store. It was all that he knew. He was forced to decrease the hours of his employees until they had to find other jobs. Even his wife, who worked with him for years, had given up on the business, taking a bookkeeping job with their accountant. When his vendors would only accept payment in cash that he didn’t have, Alan had to let go.

As he walked home that day, he still held the black marker from labeling boxes, along with the shame and the guilt of losing his legacy and the promise of giving the business to the children that he might have some day. It was all gone. He had just wanted to have a few beers, take a nap, and forget. But instead of opening the front door, Alan pushed aside the rhododendron bushes and wrote his first words on the weathered cedar of his inherited house.

Alan continued to write along the first row of clapboard all around the house until he reached the front door again, and then he went inside and took a nap.

“What happened to our house?” Jan asked when she came home from work. She ran into the house and returned with a bucket full of soap and hot water. Alan was relieved that the advertised claims were really true: The black marker was waterproof and permanent. She dulled them a bit, but his words stayed. It was the gallons of murky green paint that Jan brought home the following week that drew the battle lines. He promised to look for a new job, rake the damned leaves, anything as long as he could keep his words.

All winter long Alan tried to keep busy. He went on a few job interviews, did the grocery shopping, cooked dinners, but when there were five consecutive days above fifty degrees, the manufacturer’s recommended minimum temperature for optimal application, Alan started writing on another row of clapboard.

He tried to make a joke of it to Jan. “I could be doing worse things, sleeping all day or drinking at Lou’s.”

“You’re better off drinking than this,” Jan said as she threw his markers in the garbage and forbade him from buying any more.

Fortunately for Alan, he had a few packages hidden in his car. He tried to show her the love poem that began on the tenth board by their bedroom window and ended on the twelfth, but Jan just shook her head and walked away. She left him not long after that, moving her things to the small apartment above the accounting office.

By now, Alan was used to the comments and smirks when he walked into town and the jokes when he bought packs of markers at the pharmacy. It was his neighbor who tipped the scales. Frank had been over several times shouting at him while he wrote. “What the hell are you doing? What would your grandfather say? Your father? You let their business go down the drain and now you are writing on the house. I’m going to town hall about this. …”

And Frank did, along with many others.

 

Alan stood in the back of the crowded high school gymnasium. The bleachers were already at capacity, along with the rows of folding chairs set up for the meeting. The Select Board members sat at a table beneath Branton’s abundant championship sports pennants. A discussion on replacing the sewer pipes had already been in progress when Alan arrived. The microphone set up in the middle of the room for questions or concerns had a long line. Lewis, the manager of the Waste Management Department, looked worn out as he dutifully answered the usual town meeting questions.

“Will my taxes go up?”

“Yes.”

“Is this really necessary?”

“Yes.”

“Will it take as long as replacing the water pipes?”

“Probably,” Lewis answered.

The vote passed with resounding approval from the crowd. Next, Select Board Member Pete spoke. He ran an insurance agency and still found time to coach the high school lacrosse team. His scrabbly voice was loud enough to reach all corners of the room. “Next item on the agenda: 24 Willow Street.”

As a murmur went through the crowd, Alan took a step back and leaned against the gymnasium wall for support. He knew that this was the reason most of them were here tonight.

Pete continued, “We have received numerous complaints regarding the writing on the house at this location. The board has asked Alan Watson many times to stop this behavior, which he has ignored.”

Select Board Member Haley, who owned the largest real estate office in town, turned to Pete. “Get to the point.”

Pete took a deep breath and said, “The problem is that he isn’t technically breaking any current code restrictions. There isn’t a direct disturbance to the public, although there is an increase in traffic complaints in that part of town. The substandard structure code doesn’t apply either because the house is structurally sound, in good repair, and serves its intended purpose.”

Alan smiled with relief, hoping that it was all over, but Haley interrupted again. “Except for the fact that he is writing all over the ‘said structure,’ turning our town into a cheap billboard of his ramblings.”

“The only way to stop him,” Pete said to the crowd, “and believe me, we have spent a lot of time on this, is to add a new zoning code to the Main Street area which would include Willow Street. If the majority of the homeowners voluntarily consent, we can mandate paint colors in this area of town.”

Pete leaned back in his chair and let his words soak in for a few moments. “And now we will open it up for public comments.”

Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t be stopped. “Alan, honey, you keep writing,” she said boldly.

An extensive line quickly formed at the microphone stand. Jake, one of Alan’s classmates who had stayed in town after graduation too, was the first in line. Before he spoke, Jake scanned the room until he found Alan. “Come on, Alan,” he pleaded. “You’re bringing down our property values. This is getting embarrassing, for all of us.”

His wife, Lilly, leaned over his shoulder and shouted into the microphone, “Can’t you have a normal midlife crisis and buy a sports car like Jake?”

The crowd responded with bursts of laughter. There was nowhere for Alan to hide.

Next in line was Keri. “I’ll paint my house orange if it means an end to this.”

Pete pointed at Alan. “Do you have anything to say?”

Alan looked around at his neighbors, old customers, and friends. Did Jake forget how many times he’d helped him find the right screw to fix his screen door because he slammed it too hard? Keri was certainly happy when he had all the pieces for her kid’s school projects at the store. How could they all forget, Alan thought, that he always had snow shovels for them even when the big box stores had sold out.

How could they turn against me? It’s my house. I’m not hurting anyone. But the words stuck in Alan’s head.

“He doesn’t have anything left to say,” someone shouted from the bleachers. “He wrote it all down on his house.”

He saw Jan in the front row with her arms folded across her chest, nodding vigorously at every comment. And then Alan heard the whispers crawl across the room. The town meeting had turned into an opportunity to judge his life.

“Remember when he stole that money from Eric when we were in third grade? Maybe that is why the store folded … mismanagement.”

Alan wanted to tell them that Eric had stolen Rachel’s lunch money and that he was returning it to her. He heard another side conversation. “Didn’t he get hit in the head a few times playing football?” And they made the crazy sign, swirling their finger on the side of their head. “No wonder Jan left him.”

Then it was old Mrs. Cooper’s, his seventh-grade English teacher, turn at the microphone. She stood on her tiptoes, and her crinkly voice echoed throughout the room. “Alan, I always knew that you would make something of yourself.” She took a step back and smiled at him.

The laughter erupted in the room and someone shouted, “He made something of himself, all right.”

But Mrs. Cooper wouldn’t be stopped. “Alan, honey, you keep writing,” she said boldly.

Alan had always considered Mrs. Cooper one of his favorite teachers, but now she was at the top of the list. He knew this town and its people too well. Even with Mrs. Cooper’s words, this was going to last a long time. The only way to salvage the night was to get a slice of pie at Branton Diner before he went home. He walked out of the school toward the center of town.

Mason was working her usual closing shift. “Sorry I couldn’t go to the meeting. How did it go?” she said, looking up from clearing a table. Mason had worked at the diner when she was in high school, and now she owned the place. The difference between them was that she chose her business.

“It’s still going,” Alan said. “I wanted to get dessert before the rush arrives.”

“That many people?”

“Yes, and they all had something to say.”

“Oh, no,” Mason said, shaking her head. “Well, your favorite booth is waiting for you. I’ll be there in a minute to get your order.”

“Thanks,” he said and walked toward the back of the diner. But before he could get to his seat, some high school kids waved him over to their table.

“Hey, Mr. Watson.” They excitedly pointed to the table of their booth. It was covered with words written in thick black marker. They were smiling at him, looking for his approval, but Alan gasped and looked back toward Mason. She hurried toward them with her order pad in one hand and a cup of coffee for him in the other.

“Didn’t even get a chance to sit down yet,” Mason said and smiled. Then she saw the marked tabletop. She took a deep breath and glared at Alan. “What is this mess?”

“Sorry,” Luke and Gina said and scrambled away from the booth and out the door.

“Really, Alan, this has to stop,” Mason said. “Writing on your house is one thing, but this is my business!”

“I’m sorry, Mason, I’ll pay for it. I’ll get you a new table.”

“Just go,” she ordered, pointing to the exit.

The next day, the Select Board members stood at the base of his ladder. “The vote passed,” Pete shouted. “Friday at noon, the painting begins. If you don’t comply, an eviction notice will be processed.”

“If you don’t comply, an eviction notice will be processed,” Haley said, shaking her finger at him.

She took a deep breath and glared at Alan. “What is this mess?”

Alan felt a deep ache in his chest. He had only a few days. He worked late into the night and woke up before sunrise. He found that his fear, pain, and confusion were dissolving and the words flowed out of him like a swift-moving river. It was all making sense now, but Friday arrived before he was ready.

That morning he heard a commotion behind him as he wrote. Alan turned and saw people sitting on folding chairs and blankets on his lawn, even his neighbor Frank was there. It looked as if there was either some kind of warped marker festival or an impending riot. His driveway was full of cars. All three of the Branton police vehicles were parked along Willow Street, and the officers were busy directing traffic.

He panicked. They were going to stop him. He still had one more row of clapboard to go. Alan pulled another marker from his back pocket and kept writing as fast as he could.

“Hey, are you going to take a break?” a familiar voice asked. Alan looked down and saw Mason. In her outstretched hand she held a cup of coffee.

“Thank you,” Alan said and climbed down the ladder.

“You’ve got quite an audience,” she said, looking back at the growing crowd.

Alan shrugged and took the cup of coffee. “You’re not mad at me anymore?”

“No, it turns out that table is the most popular place to sit in the diner. Some folks think that they can just come in just to see it, but, of course, I make them order at least a coffee.”

They laughed together. “You’ve got good business sense,” Alan said between sips of coffee. “You always have. I never had that. It’s my fault that I lost the store.”

“Well, look at what you’ve done now,” Mason said, pointing to the growing crowd. “You have inspired them. There’s even a House Writer’s Club at the high school. They’ve been getting into all sorts of trouble trying to write on their houses, so now they have taken to writing on banners and who knows what else.”

“Oh,” Alan said. “Everyone in this town must really hate me.”

“They have a lot to say. You’ve shown them there is room for it all.”

Alan took another gulp of the coffee and handed the cup back to Mason. “I’ve got to keep going. Pete and Haley will be here soon.”

Mason held onto his hand for a moment. “You might want to at least give your fans a little recognition.”

When Alan reluctantly gave a slight wave, Luke came running over. “Hey, Mr. Watson, don’t freak out when the drones arrive.”

“What are you talking about?” Alan stammered.

“A group from the university is coming to map your house. They’re going to take pictures of your work.”

“Luke, I don’t have much time,” he said and climbed back up the ladder. With each step, he heard cheers and applause. Alan wiped away the tears from his eyes, hoping that the salt water would not jeopardize the integrity of the ink.

But soon he heard the rumble of the town truck arriving with the thick gray paint and the loud honking of a horn. Alan stopped writing and turned toward the crowd.

Pete was yelling, “Twelve o’clock, Alan. That’s it. You’re done!”

“He has more to do,” Mason yelled back.

“I have the authorization to stop this,” Pete said, holding up a piece of paper for all to see.

“We want to know what he has to say,” Gina shouted. Soon a chant erupted. “Let him stay! Let him stay!”

Mrs. Cooper soon took charge of the Select Board situation. With her sun hat in hand, she swatted Pete away. “Leave him alone.”

Frank yelled to Haley, “Let him finish. Honestly, I never thought he would make it this far. Does anyone want a bottle of water? I’ve got water. Two dollars a bottle.”

Alan continued writing to the highest peak.

 

The Post would like to extend special thanks to its staffers who helped with the selection of finalists, and to its distinguished panel of guest judges who shared their time and talents: Peter Bloch, Michael Knight, Holly Miller, Estelle Slon, Jesika St Clair, and previous Great American Fiction Contest winners Linda Davis, Jon Gingerich, Celeste McMaster, N. West Moss, and Michael Tasker.

This story is featured in the January/February 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. This story is an interesting microcosm of the divide this country currently has on so many fronts, and the destructive affects large corporations are having on long established family-owned businesses nationwide.

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