Unread 1920 1280 Lisa Mottolo

Ronald scratched unreadable words into the wood of the school desk in his basement. His letters hidden within the grooves drawn by years of sloppy storage. He figured his poems were only to be discovered and ignored by the feet of flies. He worked in the light that shone shyly through the hand towel covering the half-window before him.

He imagined a pretty woman with holes in her shoes and knots in her hair, tenderly handling the pages of a poetry book as though they were love letters addressed to herself.

Dear pretty woman with holes in your shoes, knots in your hair…

What I wouldn’t do to fill your holes, pull the knots out of your hair…

She would encounter a poem of his and feel his hands grab her heart with hot, dying fingers. Or it is possible that he would already be dead, but his energy would find her and leave his aching and evolving ectoplasm on her breast.

He quietly dug through a pile of miscellaneous metal bits that sat in a yellowing light bulb box. “Yellowing…” he said under his breath, the color expressing itself on his teeth as the word slid through them. He located an enticingly sharp metal fragment and selected a new desk groove for his words to hide in.

Yellowing…like eyes after decades of alcoholism.


Yellowing… gradually and telling of sickness, like a smoker’s nails.


Ronald climbed the stairs, his feet pleading, don’t creak.

He opened the plywood door to the upstairs, and the resulting squeak caused his wife Maggie’s head to turn in his direction. He stopped and looked at her on their faded, third hand loveseat. He could see in her face that her carefully selected words were coming to a boil and about to whistle through the gap in her teeth, like a human kettle.

“Ronald,” she said, removing her turquoise tinted glasses to tease him with her cloudy eyes, “please tell me what you were doing in the basement.”

“I was looking for a nut that could be used on the kitchen table.”
“A nut?”
“Yeah it’s missing a nut, underneath, in the corner.”
“The corner? The table is round.”
“I mean it’s square underneath.”
“And that was important? Is the table about to fall apart? Because it’s missing one nut?”
“No, Maggie.”
She stood and walked towards him, her stained clothing stumbling over her large limbs.
“Are you masturbating down there?”
“No, what would I masturbate to?”
“Your disgusting thoughts.”
“Even still. I have nothing to think about.”
She snorted.

He always had an excuse for going to the basement, or for going to the attic, and Maggie’s mind was unable to expand past accusing him of masturbation, cheating, drug use, or hiding money. He once was homeless and it caused her to make associations.

She went to the kitchen and began pounding hamburger meat with a tenderizer. The meat was pink like the lips of a young woman, Ronald thought, or an old girl.

He went to the upstairs bathroom and ignored the mirror but his peripheral vision acknowledged the reflection of his unshaven face. He clipped a toenail, unevenly, so that one end would be large enough to hold on to, and the other would be sharp enough to scratch with. The cold linoleum pushed into his spine as he lay down and situated himself beside the sink cabinet. He began to carve his illegible words in the flimsy wood.

The swing crumbled beneath her weight
and its pieces hid in the air
the old girl’s lipswere still pink
like hamburger meat, but her
mind was not there

He laid the toenail clipping underneath the cabinet towards the wall. It was thick and a strong white like a fresh envelope.


Next to the lamp Maggie had broken (“if I can’t see clearly than neither should you,”) Ronald held a pen he could not write with. The streetlights beside his window lit not only the street, but also the rumpled sheets on which he laid. Maggie was in her own bed in the next room, her body heavy as cement andfoul as a rotting goat corpse.

He ran his capped pen along his sheets, drawing letters that left slight imprints.

If I ever write a poem about the moon
Its chalky skin and choking coldness
the forever distance from a petunia’s petun-
If I ever write about the nightly interruption of the night
its overbearing size and its inability to recognize
my need to wax poetic about a balloon’s balloo-
a flower’s flow and a horizon’s horize-
if I ever write a readable poem about the moon
it’s because Maggie has finally lost her eyes

Maggie sighed through the walls. She fumbled with the tubes of her breathing machine, the plastic pieces rubbing together with a squeak. The claws of rats climbed the nails holding the home together and Ronald enjoyed their scratching as one would the rain. If it weren’t for his size and his need to collect his social security checks he would, for as long as he could, hide inside the walls with them.


Maggie only needed to find his poetry once. It actually wasn’t even a poem but a rhythmical rambling that served to clear to his head. It was hidden in a small notebook inside his car. He wasn’t sure why she went into his car in the first place. She mocked him at dinner and pinged her fork tines into her plate to emphasize her words. He later ripped up the pages and buried them within wet food scraps of their kitchen garbage can. He looked at the words as they were overcome with tomato sauce and himself overcome with a different type of red.

One day it appeared that Maggie could no longer squint through her fogged corneas. She began using her hands to navigate around the house. “I hope you’re happy,” she said. “Now you can masturbate right in front of me and I won’t even know it unless you’re enjoying it too much.”

He didn’t know if this was an act. Perhaps she could see better than she was letting on. He continued to lightly carve his poems under furniture and in the cracks of the floorboards.

She showed off her growing ability to discern between different objects by feel. “I can tell this is the plastic packaging of tortilla chips, and this is the aluminum packaging of potato chips. I bet you can’t do that. Do it. Do it now. Close your eyes.”

Ronald had impatiently closed his eyes and conceded that he could not tell the difference.
She smirked, “you’re a real jackass.”Her fingers ran along the walls as she walked away with the chips.


Ronald sat in the dust balls beside the attic window and felt a fist digging its nails into his stomach as he thought how lovely life would be outside his house. He viewed those with access to that blindingly bold and penetrable world as sick with excessive prosperity. He sometimes considered living on the streets again in a half-assed kind of way, but nothing ever pushed him to take that leap.

Maggie’s increasing weight sat like a boulder on her legs and delicate lungs. She would likely never see the attic again. She often shrieked in pain when lifting her leg over the porcelain wall of the bathtub, and when bending to retrieve the newspaper from the porch.

Ronald’s words wailed silently as they were worked into the musty wood of the attic floor and support beams with a screw. He imagined his words running along the thin blue bands of loose leaf like squirrels following power lines, but it was too risky. In the off chance that Maggie did make it up to the attic, he thought it more likely for her to recognize used paper than the shy wounds of the walls.


Ronald fried slug-looking onion strips in a pan as Maggie’s eyes watched without seeing. He had begun preparing their meals every day. He started to believe that her sight had deteriorated as much as she claimed but feared that she felt his thoughts and energy more than ever, like how you can feel and see the sunlight without seeing the sun itself. He shook the onion strips onto their turkey sandwiches and served one to her. He looked down and saw her leg rubbing milky pus from her skin onto the chair leg. She was quieter than she had ever been.

He took a dish cloth and wiped up her shin’s pus. His fingers accidentally brushed along her skin. It had been so long since he last felt her skin that it felt inappropriate. It overwhelmed him to remember that this woman once had the pink lips of an old girl.

Maggie wiped her mouth with her wrist.“I know what you’re doing upstairs, in the attic.” She lost her breath just from speaking and chewing.

“I’ve just been relaxing.”

“Yeah I know what you do to relax.” She forced out a snort.

It was one of her old suspicions again. He looked at her eyes that reminded him of a dead fish.


Pus falls like rain


Pus rains like the fall
conjures the odor of decay

He hears a light sound outside the attic door. It must have been a rat or the house settling. He forced letters into the wood with a nail.

Rain falls like pus

Another noise and a moving shadow underneath the door. His heart pumps faster and he places the nail upon the window sill.

Finger tips poke out below the door. “Maggie?”

He opens the door and she is laying on the stairs, her hair like a net upon her cranberry red face. She gasps for air. “I just want to know what the fuck you are doing.”

“Why are you on the stairs? I’m just relaxing.”

She begins to crawl into the attic and she snorts. “I bet you thought I’d never make it up here… What is this?” She pushes her fingers into a small section a floor board.

“Those are trails from termites.”

“These are words.”

He shook his head. “No, they’re not. You can hardly breathe. You need to go back downstairs.”

“I can read them.” she stared into the darkness of her dead corneas and smiled. “I can read them,” she said again, more quietly.

Ron held his head in his hands and tugged on his hair. He momentarily paced in the dust filled light.
             “If I ever write a readable poem about the moon,” she whispered slowly as she worked her index finder into the wood.

“Maggie, please! Stop!” He pulled her shoulders up to remove her hands from the floor.
            “it’s because Maggie has finally… “ she said with sharpness. She held her palm to her chest and choked on the old air. “It hurts.”

Ron backed away with a scrunched brow.

“Help,” she said, “it hurts.”

He ran down the stairs and called an ambulance.

He returned to Maggie with someone still on the line. Her breath caused jerking as though she were repeatedly hiccupping. Her dress hiked up to her upper thighs and the pus from her shins smeared onto the floor.


Maggie remained in a nursing home following her heart attack. Her daughters came to the house to sort through her things. They brought Ronald a large raspberry cheese pastry and did things like putting their hands on his shoulder and frowning sympathetically whenever they caught his eye.

“There’s nothing of hers in the attic,” he told them when they finished with the rest of the house. But they went up anyway, making the stairs creak and the dust swirl.

They came back down shortly afterwards, empty handed. He began eating the pastry to distract himself from their eyes.

“Was there ever a child living upstairs?” one of them asked.

“No,” he responded, thinking maybe they saw a ghost.

“Really? Because someone carved nonsense into the walls and floors.”

His limbs immediately felt stuffed with rage. “Nope, no kids,” he said standing up. “Did you find everything you needed? What else do you need?”

The women looked at each other. “I think this is everything,” the previously quiet one said. “We just need help bringing this table out to the truck.”

He grabbed one end and they slowly carried it out through the garage and down the driveway. He could feel his words indented underneath the table. His words, which were apparently juvenile nonsense, would be read should anyone happen to glance under the table. His face flushed red. He contemplated throwing the table into the road, hard enough to break it. But he didn’t.

They left with the truck, and with the table.


Ronald raked his lawn and cut the grass short. He used a shovel to remove a two-foot wide strip of grass around his entire house. His neighbor drove by with her face consumed by expression and he waved using two fingers. He mixed chemical fire retardants into a large wheel barrow of water and the smell made his nostrils flare. He poured a wide line along the perimeter of his lawn, refilled the wheel barrow, and did a second loop.

He went into the house and packed a few necessities and a change of clothes. Maggie’s smell, once perceived as putrid, hung in the halls like licorice, dark but slightly sweet. The lack of her body lying on the stained couch make him feel something in his stomach. Not a hole, not a rock, but something.

He poured gasoline straight down the middle of the stairs and past the spot in the kitchen where Maggie’s feet would hit when she sat at the table. He trailed the liquid through the dining room, the porch, and the garage.

As he left the house, he lit a match and tossed it into the hall. He got into his car and drove for hours into the country.


He returned to the woodsy town in which he was born and in which he once lived a decent life without shelter. He thought he passed his childhood home but couldn’t be certain as the landscaping was changed drastically and all those houses looked the same to begin with. He parked his car beside a bike trail and wandered between oak trees, seeking inspiration from the polluted ground.  His dad told him when he was young to watch out for the homeless in this area. Years later he was accepted by these people he was warned of. He felt comforted by the fact that he was a person one advises others to avoid.


He looked left and there sat on a lawn chair a woman he was acquainted with long ago. She closed a book that was cradled between her legs. “You probably don’t remember me.”

“No, I do.” He pointed at her. “You were friends with a guy named Mark. We all spent nights here, in little tents.”

She smiled. “Yes! You do remember. Do you still write those silly poems?”


They sat and twisted on swings at an abandoned play gym. The rusty chains crackled above them as they described the past three decades. The woman’s cheeks were lined but held a strawberry hue, like an old girl. She was unimpressed with what he described himself as doing earlier in the day and he was unimpressed with himself. It was getting late. She was to return to her sleeping area and he had to find a better place to park his car for the night. She walked into darker woods with her book and he was tempted to follow her, to find a reason to touch her.

He stared into the bark of the oak trees, paralyzed by the sense of an immense void in his chest. He grieved for his written words, incinerated, unread.

Those silly poems.

The words repeated in an unpleasant area of his mind. He wondered why anyone can publish their spoken words into the air, and all around must hear. Shouldn’t there be just as strong of a filter for the spoken word as for the printed? He suddenly ran after her. “Wait!” His voice was louder than ever. He caught up with her. A ray of moonshine slithered through the trees and revealed a hint of fright in her eyes. He touched her arm. “I need to tell you something. Because my words burned down. And I can’t stand it.”


“Just listen-

Dear pretty woman with holes in your shoes, knots in your hair…”

Header photograph © Emry Trantham.

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