A journal of narrative writing.
Prince of Fools
by Julie Stielstra


His head felt like a blown-out light bulb, hollow and thinly ringing. He moved it carefully on the pillow, but it didn’t hurt, so he sat up. She was gone, had kissed his ear with a flicker of tongue and slipped out. Why was it he felt such a thrill when she stood there smiling in his doorway, blowing her long bangs out of her eyelashes, hitching that bulging bag up on her shoulder, and then this exhausted relief when he woke up alone? After they’d tongued the little pills into each other’s mouths, the beer was sharper and colder, the steaks bloodier and chewier, the music soaking into his brain almost without passing through his ears… and then those silky tubular boneless arms and legs that twined and coiled around him, hooked over his shoulders, drawing him deeper. When she didn’t touch him it was worse, when she made him sit naked in a chair as she smoothed her damp curling private hair with an old silver hairbrush and watched him watching her till he fountained all over his thighs, groaning. They ate, they drank, they barely spoke except for her whispered directions and his pleas. They chained themselves into random hours of dozing and sex, until she left, when he drew up the reeking sheet, turned the pillow to a cool spot, and tanked into the first deep sleep in two days, thank god.

He needed coffee and didn’t have any. He hooked his toes through flip-flops, found his wallet and scuttled out the back door. Will was spraying ants in the parking lot. They did not wave.

He slapped up the sidewalk toward the convenience store on the corner. The landscape center next door breathed a cool, earthy air. The young woman who ran the place was tugging and heaving at bags of mulch, yanking them off one stack and slinging them onto another a few yards away. He lifted a hand to her. She wiped her forehead backhanded, saying “Good morning,” friendly enough, then bent to haul up another bag.

“You need some help?” he said suddenly. She looked startled.

“It’s Jake, right? From the vacuum shop?” she said.

“Uh-huh. You moving those or what?”

“I’ve got a bunch of rosebushes coming in and need to move the mulch to make room,” she said. Jake picked up a sack. It was heavy. She pointed. He added it to the pile. She fell in beside him and they hoisted and heaved. She showed him how to cross-stack them so the piles wouldn’t slip. It didn’t take all that long, but he was panting. She laughed, ducking her head into the sleeve of her t-shirt.

“Sorry!” she said. “Oh man, look at you!”

His sweaty legs were smeared, golden hairs clotted with sepia dust and crusts of soil and bark. She picked up the hose she used to mist the begonias and triggered it at him. He yipped and danced in the cold spray, kicking off his sandals as she played it up and down his sticky shins. He bent into it and rinsed his arms and hands and splashed his face. He laughed and squeaked back his hair till the water ran down the back of his neck. He followed her across a footbridge all of five feet long over a little burbling dish of a pond glimmering with goldfish. There was a tiny office under a pergola hung with wind chimes. She gave him iced tea with mint in it and thanked him for his help. He went up the street and bought his coffee, and brought her back a cup too, and a glazed donut.

“Do you know that woman at the garden center?” he asked Will.

“Diane? I’ve met her a few times at chamber of commerce meetings,” he answered.

“She seems nice,” said Jake.


Will wondered why he had never asked if she’d go for coffee or anything. He’d thought of it once or twice. About his age, small and trim and plain with straight brown hair and a bumped nose, she worked hard running that garden center, the Palace Gardens, she called it, from early vegetable sets in the spring through fall perennials and Christmas trees. He didn’t even know her last name. They just waved when they passed, coming and going, and once she brought him her big shop vac to fix, and he’d felt generous and told her it would be cheaper for her to buy a new one rather than charge her a fortune to fix it. She always told him to help himself to the potting soil they threw on the carpets to demonstrate the sweepers.

She probably was a nice woman. He’d have to talk to her about that diseased ash tree. It was actually on her lot. She knew about trees and plants and stuff, she should know she needed to get that tree out of there before it fell over into his parking lot.

“I don’t really know her,” he said to Jake. “She seems nice, yeah.”

Maybe he’d take her somewhere for coffee and they could talk about the tree. Maybe he should offer to pay for part of it or something. Well, he’d have to see what she said.


I can’t fucking believe it. What was the matter with him? Everything was cool, everything was fine. Then all of a sudden he tells me, I swear to god, that “he needs some space,” he was “tired,” he needed to get serious about looking for a job (so okay, it’s about time for that – I’ve been working my butt off at fucking Target all summer), and so maybe I shouldn’t come up next weekend. What, he doesn’t have time for me now? He hasn’t exactly been offering to cough up for any of the stuff I’ve been bringing either. Oh no, it’s all on me so he can lay around and just wait for me to show up with the goodies. It’s not like he didn’t get anything out of it. You know what, I bet that creep of a brother of his got to him. I could tell that asshole didn’t want me around – probably jealous. Probably not getting any on his own and didn’t want his little brother to have any either. Sonofabitch. Okay. Maybe he’s just having a bad crash. Trust me, come Friday he’ll start feeling the lack. He’s used to it now, he’ll miss it, I’m telling you. I’ve had him begging me, begging me to do exactly what I want him to do. He won’t cut me off for long. But he’ll start paying for it now.


He stood at the window, watching the storm boil up to the west. God, it had been ugly, ugly, ugly. She ranted and swore and called him everything she could think of, then sobbed and cried “How could you do this to me?” When she got to the point of looking like she was going to start throwing things, he told her she needed to leave, like right now. And she did, thank god. He heard her holler up from the parking lot behind, but all he caught were the words “sonofabitch” and “sorry” and he was sure it wasn’t an apology. He’d slept a little, but felt like there was something hot and sour fizzing in his veins instead of blood. He caught sight of a lightning fork as it blazed to the ground, and compulsively counted out the seconds till the thunder followed. Six seconds. He liked thunderstorms, as he had loved fireworks as a kid. All those fourth of July outings, he’d tear around with sparklers until the show started. Will, he remembered, would sit hunched on the blanket on the grass with his fingers in his ears. Will loved the starry spray and fall of colors, but Jake loved the crashing noise, bellowing “BOOOM!” at the top of his lungs with each explosion as Will winced and screwed up his face. Somehow, though, now that he thought about it, those nights always seemed to end with him led off to bed in howling tears while Will looked disgusted and grown up.