Izza scratched at the scab on her knee. “Man was a stranger here. Looked out of place, all wide-eyed and knees knocking as he walked down the rutted street in his suit and tie.”

Nora nodded, encouraging her grandmother to go on.

“Children in torn jeans played on tilting front porches. Dingy whites clung to backyard clotheslines. His father had refused us sidewalks; in a way trapping us permanently in this ramshackle development.”

“The Estates,” Nora said.

“Man sold promises and dreams.”

“But he didn’t sell houses.”

“Lord, we’d waited for years for affordable housing; for homes we could call our own; for a place we could pay off slow-like until we eventually owned it outright. Didn’t own a thing until his son came to town. I remember how he walked down the street, glancing at the addresses spray-painted on the rusted-out mailboxes. Thirty. Thirty-two. Thirty-four. Thirty-eight.”

“Our house.”



“Supposed to be yellow, but black with rot.”

“Not anymore.”

“Nope. Not anymore. He raised his fist to our door. Yet his knock was barely a whisper.”

Nora smiled and took a sip of her lemonade.

“Your granddad opened the door a tiny slit, slipped his eyes right through the crack to have a look-see.”

“You can’t do that!”

“Makes a better story. Who’re you? Your granddad wanted to know.”

Daniel Johnson. The man stood tall. He began taking shape, filling out his form a little.”

“How you know that? Were you nibbing?”

“I have been known to take a peek out my front windows from time to time. Got to know what’s going on in my neighborhood, don’t I?”

“Granddad let him in?”

“Lord no. Asked him flat out of he was the son of Mr. Johnson, the owner of this-here estate. I am, Daniel replied. Look, will you let me in? But your granddad was having none of it. Told Daniel that his parents had done enough harm here. And they had. For sure, they had.” Izzy fell silent, in the remembering.

“What happened then?”

I am not my parents, Daniel said, and I swear Nora, as that man distanced himself from his parents, defining himself as not, he took on a new dimension right before my eyes. It’s like someone had taken a flat old pillow and shaken some life back into it.” She laughed. “Course your granddad still didn’t believe his song and dance. You’ve come for the back rent, he said. As if your parents didn’t bleed enough out of us, doubling the cost of this two-bit place every four years.

I have money, Daniel said, and that upped your granddad’s interest a bit. I heard you needed grocery money. And your granddad said, Ain’t your concern.”

“Granddad was right.”

“I disagree with you there, Nora. Anyone’s troubles, serious troubles, mind, ought to be everyone’s concern. And, thank God, Daniel disagreed, too. I want to help, he said. And all a sudden, Daniel Johnson, rather than being not-something, not his parents, not selfish, not a bum of a landlord, Daniel Lawrence Johnson became a person in his own right. I swear the man birthed himself right there on my front stoop.”

A child rolled past on her shiny bicycle, her mother chasing behind, cheering her on.

“Can’t birth yourself, Grandma.”

“You can. You choose what you will become, Nora. Daniel Johnson spent his entire life trying to correct the mistake of his parents’ lives.”

“You saying my momma’s life was a mistake?” Nora stood, brushed the dirt from her shorts.

“Sit down, child. I’m saying your Momma made mistakes. Mistakes you can learn from. Mistakes that don’t have to be repeated. Lord knows, I love Janine. But sometimes,” Izza clenched her fists. “I just want to shake that child of mine. Getting messed up the wrong sorts. That’s what did her in.”

Izza sighed and scratched the scab on her leg, wondering if all children perceived the lives of their parents as a series of mistakes to be corrected, and if parents perceived the same in the lives of their children.


This was written for this week’s  Master Class. We were to use this sentence–this entire sentence!–somewhere in our piece.

He was the only one left to fulfill that contract and try to justify the labor and the harshness and the mistakes of his parents’ lives, and that responsibility was so clearly his, was so great an obligation, that it made unimportant and unreal the sight of the motley collection of pall-bearers staggering under the weight of his father’s body, and the back door of the hearse closing quietly upon the casket and the flowers.”

Whoever picked this lengthy prompt ought to have realized that it’s nigh impossible to incorporate this into a story. I picked out six words and used those instead. I hope I’m not disqualified.

As to who picked this crazy prompt?

I confess.

I did.

The prompt is the last line in a wonderfully lengthy book, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, by Wallace Stegner. I highly recommend it.


22 thoughts on “Mistakes

  1. I read Stegner’s “Angle of Repose,” a whole other level of story-telling, the flavor of which stays with me. I was just about to write that I don’t think I’m up for another of Stegner’s hard scrabble view of life when I realized I read “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” not more than four months ago! It took a moment checking it out on Amazon to remember. Bo Mason, who can forget him? You did Mr. Stegner justice with your piece here.

    • Angle of Repose was my introduction to Stegner years ago. I only found Rock Candy in a used-book store recently. Loved them both in so many different ways. I have his short stories as well, but can’t seem to get into them as easily and Crossing to Safety, which I haven’t yet read. Also have Bluebird Sings…which I’m planning on tackling next. Thanks so much for reading!

  2. I love the story you wove here, and I love the idea of dissecting the prompt as you did!

    I also will need to send you my bill for the bottle of Tylenol I had to buy in order to work through my response to your prompt! =)

  3. A fine response to your own prompt, Kelly.. beautifully written. I’ve read Angle of Repose which I loved. This exercise will get me to find a copy of Big Rock. I love Izza in your story, and Nora picking at her scab which is a worthy metaphor for the question you ask at the end..

  4. I enjoyed this story very much. As for the challenge, when I first viewed it, I thought it a behemoth to tackle. Think think think think think think think…. Eventually, an idea sparked and it was easy sailing from thereon in. I used most of the prompt – divided it, of course – but that was the best I could. In its entirety, I found I couldn’t do it either.

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  6. I’ll be honest, I was going to skip this prompt, it felt a little over my head but as I let it simmer in the back of my mind it took on a life of its own and actually helped me to flesh out a character back story I have been working on.

  7. Well I thought it was a great, fun prompt!

    And I enjoyed your tale – loved this bit especially: “And all a sudden, Daniel Johnson, rather than being not-something, not his parents, not selfish, not a bum of a landlord, Daniel Lawrence Johnson became a person in his own right. I swear the man birthed himself right there on my front stoop.”

    A child rolled past on her shiny bicycle, her mother chasing behind, cheering her on.

    “Can’t birth yourself, Grandma.”

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