Douglas Light is the author of Girls in Trouble and East Fifth Bliss. Girls in Trouble received the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for short fiction. East Fifth Bliss won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Fiction. He co-wrote the screen adaptation of East Fifth Bliss, which stars Michael C. Hall, Peter Fonda, and Lucy Liu and will hit theaters in March 2012. For more information, please visit his website.

We’ve published two more stories by Light: “Break Up” and “Matters of Breeding.”


posted Dec 6, 2011

I never liked my uncle. When I was a girl, he’d touch me in a way that felt both good and bad. It confused me, and I had enough confusion already.

My parents were killed when I was nineteen. The propane tank on the trailer home somehow exploded, chewed them up in a bright blue flame. “Poor girl,” people said. I was sad, but everyone else seemed sadder, which I didn’t understand. People die. That’s what they do.

Still, the way they died hassles me.  I lie awake at night wondering what they were doing in that trailer home. It’s not like we lived there; we had a nice house across town.


I receive a certified letter: Beverly Orville Randruff named me as the sole beneficiary of his estate. I can’t figure out who he is.

Then I figure.

It’s my Uncle Randy, the uncle who touched me.

My birthday is soon, in a handful of days. I’ll be twenty-five. It’s been at least ten years since I last saw Uncle Randy, since he last touched me.

I’d always thought he was my father’s brother, but Randruff isn’t my father’s family name. It isn’t my last name.

I search for Uncle Randy in the Bible. It’s where my mother wrote the names of all our family, all the phone numbers. Her family is listed in Genesis, my father’s in Revelations. I’m not close with either side.  Birthdays and Christmases don’t require gifts or a card.

Uncle Randy’s not in the Bible.

I find the number for Gram’s, my mother’s mother. I call. She answers with a larynx of steel wool. “Speak.” We haven’t talked since my parent’s funeral six years ago, since I became an orphan. I offer her my condolence. I’m sorry to hear about Beverly Orville Randruff, Uncle Randy.

There’s a clatter on her end of the line, a bout of coughing. “Who?” she asks, catching her breath.


The leaves have turned; they litter the street and yards.

The reading of the will is in Krotchersville, Indiana, some two hours from my place. The Eden of Indiana the town sign reads.

Sixteen hundred dollars and a plywood crate. That’s what I inherit. “All his writing,” the executor of the estate tells me, knocking on the top of the crate. It’s twice the size of a footlocker, padlocked shut.

The executor is somewhere in his fifties. His head is shaved clean. His eyes, their color, remind me of picnics and cold-water ponds. I’m tempted to say he’s handsome.

I touch the heavy lock, run my hand over the rough wood. The crate seems homemade, like Uncle Randy hammered it together one lonely night. “He was a writer?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” the executor says. “He put words on paper.” He nods at the crate. “I could get rid of it for you, if you like. Take it to the dump so you don’t have to deal with it.”

I tell him I want it, want to see what’s inside.

He offers to have it shipped.

“I’m taking it with me,” I say.

The crate is heavy. The executor borrows a dolly from the janitor, rolls it to my car. He struggles to get it into the trunk. It’s too big to fit. “We’ll have to ship it,” he says.

I say to put it in the back.

He rams it into the back seat, tearing the upholstery. “Sorry,” he says, his smooth head speckled with sweat. He holds out his hand. Goodbye. I shake it. It’s strong and damp and holds me firm. I find myself drawn toward him, a planet collapsing into a sun. “I best get your phone number,” he says, his breath sweet with anisette.

“Why?” His closeness confuses me.

He lets go of my hand. “Just in case.”

I give him a number; it’s not mine.

Ready to drive off, I roll down the window. “Is there a key for the crate’s padlock?” I ask.

He taps on the back window, pointing to the crate. “Don’t feel obligated to keep any of that. If I were you, I’d toss it all, burn it,” he says. “Inheritance makes people miserable.”

“But it’s just paper.”

“It’s a ton of paper. A ton of someone else’spaper,” he says. “The dead have a way of doing that, foisting their life on you, burdening you with things you never wanted.”

I ask about the key again.

He leans into the open window; he’s close enough to kiss. I feel his heat.  “I’m curious,” he says. “How did you know the deceased? What was your relationship to him?”

The sun is ending the day’s tour. I have a two-hour trip home and hate driving in the dark, hate the thought of speeding past things I can’t see. I drop the car in gear. The key to the padlock doesn’t matter. “He used to touch me,” I say, edging the car forward. “He’s the only man who’s ever touched me.”


A long ton of paper weighs 2240 pound. A short ton weighs about eleven percent less.


The crate is wedged tight in the back of the car. It won’t come free. Under the jaundiced glow of the streetlamp out front of my apartment, I take a hammer to the side of the crate. The plywood breaks. A small hole tears open. The split in the wood is just large enough for me to coax out fifteen, twenty delicate pages.

Unnumbered, the pages are neatly typed on thin, onionskin paper. In capital letters, single-spaced. There must be thousands of pages packed in the crate, fragile like a peel of sunburnt skin.

This is my inheritance. This is what I’ve been bequeathed.


The morning brings rain, downing the last leaves.

I deposit the inheritance check at the bank then buy three stalks of celery and a case of wine at Kroger’s. I’ve taken the week off, told my boss that there’d been a family death, though I didn’t clarify that it might not be my family.

I need to keep busy. If not, worries slip over me. My weight, my rent, my spending the rest of my life alone.

Tomorrow is my birthday.

At home, I open a bottle of wine. It’s South African and cheap. The cork is made of rubber. Real cork is made from the bark of a Cork Oak.  Twenty-five years it takes for the tree to mature. Then it’s stripped naked of its bark, and stripped once every nine years after that.

The thought terrifies me.


I pick up the stack of Uncle Randy’s pages and read the first line:

All orphans start the same; they’re born of two parents. Massi Coors is an orphan.

I stop reading, can’t read anymore. I vomit strings of celery and bile-tinged wine into the kitchen sink.

The odor of the pages is overpowering, makes me ill. They reek of cigarettes and sour milk. They reek of damp talcum powder and small, trapped spaces. They reek of craving and frustration.

They reek the way I reeked after an Uncle Randy visit.


The executor calls. It’s near midnight. He says, “Did you cash the check?”

I tell him I did. I say, “All the stuff he wrote is real, isn’t it?” I’d sprayed a scarf with Lysol, tied it across my face, and I forced my way through the pages. They were all about Massi. “Massi Coors is a real person,” I say.

He says nothing. Then he says, “What are you doing right now?”

“Talking to you.”

“I mean on a life level,” he says. “What are you doing with your life?”

I look the empty wine bottles. I look at the half eaten celery. “My birthday is in twenty minutes,” I say.

An electric hums runs the phone line. Silence. Then he says, “I’ll be there,” and rings off.


The difference between a boy and a man: a man will call even after you give them the wrong number.


MASSI COORS IS NOT AN UGLY GIRL. Over and again in capital letters for three pages straight. MASSI COORS IS NOT AN UGLY GIRL.

Uncle Randy used to say that to me. Sweaty and stripped and out of breath, he’d say, “You’re not an ugly girl.”


There’s a knocks. It’s just after midnight. It’s the executor. I let him in.

There’s a smug of ash over his eyebrow. His hands are sooty black. He smells of earthy smoke, of soft forests and sun-baked crags. It’s a comforting smell, secure. A smell I could grow used to. I say, “You know who Massi Coors is, don’t you? You know what he did to her.”

I say, “How’d you get here so fast from Krotchersville?” The town is two hours away.

He helps himself to a mug of wine, takes a deep drink, then refills the mug. “Krotchersville,” he says. “The Eden of Indiana. It’s Eden all right. Eden after the apple.” He turns to me. “Do you have insurance?”

“What kind?”

“Auto,” he says. He empties the bottle into the mug then empties the mug. “I borrowed your car.”

I look out my window. My car is gone, not parked where I parked it. The crate was in the back seat. “What’d you do with my car?”

He moves about my small living room, touching the table, the TV, the couch, touching everything like he’s verifying its existence, verifying it’s real.

He pauses at the coffee table and touches the stack of Uncle Randy’s pages. “Beverly Orville Randruff.” He glances up, his eyes trapping mine. “It’s a Chinese foot binding, that name,” he says. “The older he got, the more broken and contorted his life became.”

He makes his way to me, stops a breath’s distance away. Reaching out, he gently fingers my lips. He works his touch over my mouth.

A feeling both good and bad lightnings through my lungs, cracking my rib cage; he is handsome. He is touching me. “Please,” I tell him, fighting to fill my lungs, “wash your hands.”

He breaks from me, holds out his sooty hands. “My God,” he says, studying them, “how did I get so filthy?”


President Gerald R. Ford was born Leslie Lynch King, Jr., a name that could never have carried him to the White House.


Once, when I was a child, I got poison ivy. It covered nearly every inch of my body, even my eyelids. My mother took me to the hospital.

The hospital sent us home; there was nothing they could do.

Painted in calamine lotion, I was instructed not to scratch. It’ll spread if you scratch it, my mother told me. Don’t scratch, she said.

I didn’t scratch. Not during the day.

But at night, when my parents where thick in slept, I’d sit in the bathtub and spigot scalding water over the rash.

Beneath the burning pain, there was a pureness of pleasure. I’d scratch and scratch until I bled.


He washes his hands then opens another bottle of wine, hits it hard. “Massi is an unlucky name. It’s a family name. Her grandmother, her great-grandmother didn’t fare well with it either. I only wish--” He breaks off, unable to hold his voice firm.

He wipes his face with a damp dishcloth, then picks up my Bible, the one with my family’s names and phone numbers. He flips through it. “Tales, lies and rumors,” he says. “It’s funny how when you put them in print they become true.” He tears out a handful of pages from the old testament. Then taking a lighter, he sets flame to them, drops them in the sink. The pages curl and blacken, turn to ash.

“I think you need to go,” I say.

He tears out more pages, adds them to the fire. “I think,” he says, his back to me, “you need to change into something pretty.”


The apartment fills with the smoke. I escape to my bedroom, lock the door.

Growing up, I was in the same class as the town sheriff’s daughter. I would sometimes go to her house after school. Her father was often home. He’d tell me stories about arrests, chases, and fights. He’d tell me about the two men he’d killed. He recommended I get a gun. I was in junior high. He said, “I’ve always wanted to believe in man, believe he was basically good. I always wanted to believe there was a God and that He had higher calling for us. But after I killed those two, I realized there was no such thing. We’re just fancy animals running on violent urge,” he said. “Take my word: get a gun. Protect yourself.”

I search my closet. Bathed in the frail glow of the small space’s florescent bulb, I dig through my shelves, dig through blouses and skirts.

I know I have something pretty.


Contrary to popular belief, scratching poison ivy doesn’t cause it to spread.


The fire in the sink is exhausted, the flames tamped. The front door is propped open. The smoke pushes out. The cold night air edges in. He sits on the couch, his shoes off. Uncle Randy’s pages gone, no longer sit on the coffee table.

I’m confused, my mind muddied like the air of the room. I say, “He’s wrong about orphans, you know. What he wrote is wrong. We don’t all start the same.”

He notes my silk skirt, my outfit, my high heels. He says, “That’s something pretty.” He says, “Come sit.”

I sit next to him on the couch, our bodies nearly touching.

Today is my birthday. I’m twenty-five.

Our bodies touch and I fight back the bad feeling. The something pretty I’ve changed into won’t stay pretty long.