SHADES • by Randall Brown

The formula for measuring and cutting the awning fabric involved something of Pythagoras, a fact that made the job feel like what the ancients might’ve done. The owner Mr. Watts had a terrible temper, and he yelled at me the way coaches had when, three times in a row, I forgot to snap the ball to the quarterback or, in succession, threw the baseball from third base into the stands behind the first baseman. I’d been blamed that week for a rash of awnings that didn’t fit.

Mr. Watts kept a whiskey bottle in his office or the tool shed, so I never knew if it was sun, anger, or whiskey that fueled his burnt-red face. Not another one, I thought, as he approached, the awning in hand. A tiny squat man with hidden power, a wrestler, hairless arms and legs and chest.

A pathway connected me to the seamstresses, two of them, one who sewed the pieces I cut, the other to add the hardware and whatever else awnings needed. Mr. Watts kicked against the door and burst his smallness and hard self into my tiny shed: a bench, an overhead light, chalk, a ruler, scissors, awning fabric behind me in rolls, an air-conditioner running continuously in the one window.

“It defies logic,” he said. He grabbed one of the awnings I’d recently cut and put aside for him to take to the seamstresses. He laid the pieces on the bench, measured, re-measured, scribbled in chalk, erased, scribbled again. “It adds up.” He noticed me then. “Stop your shaking. Jesus. You don’t come from hearty stock, do you?”

I didn’t. We all trembled, centuries and eons back to some infinitely-great-grandfather in a cave corner, scribbling sabertooth tigers and tiny figures fleeing in all directions.

He told me to follow him, and I did, out the door, around the shed, to the seamstresses. I’d never been inside, had never met them that entire summer. I’d imagined all kinds of people in that building, some of them fantastical, like shoe-elves.

He held the door open for me, then grabbed my shirt as I passed. “You ever take any philosophy classes at that school of yours?”

“The Modern Mind.” I hesitated, but he kept hold. “Freud, Nietzsche, Marx.”

“Learn anything?”

I had gotten an A, but I always had. I thought about the final essay but nothing came to mind, and it had only been a few months ago. “The alienation of labor,” I said. “People selling their lives. Something about being removed from a natural state and then being forced to trample nature.”

“So bullshit,” he said, and I couldn’t argue. Just slivers of ideas left.

He let go and pushed me inside. Pitch black. A flashlight turned on next to me, and Mr. Watts shone it upon two old women, blind. I looked for the eye-on-a-stick passed back and forth to each other, but no, nothing.

“Ladies,” he announced. “We have a visitor. The awning-cutter. It seems we have been too harsh in our assessment of his skills. His measurements all add up but the awnings—” He put the flashlight under his chin, so he appeared inside out. “Well, the awnings don’t add up, do they?”

The old women were mostly hair and wrinkles, white eyes. They sat perfectly still behind their machines.

“Sabotage,” Mr. Watts said. “I was going to fire this young lad. And now — ” He put his arm around me, drew me closer. “I think I’ll keep him.”

I trembled against him and he squeezed me tighter. He felt like shade turned to rock. He moved away, searching in the dark with the flashlight so I couldn’t see the women. But I heard them, or thought I did. Hard, rushed voices, like the kind of wind that wants to blow things down. We hid them where he’ll never find them.

He searched the corners, under and inside boxes, rummaged through bags, but whatever he wanted to find wasn’t there. He kicked at a trashcan. A phone rang in an office. He handed me the flashlight, told me to wait, don’t move, not even a step.

I think we’ll keep him, he’d said. The job paid okay, but no one wanted awnings until summer. It was early August. They’d be shutting down soon and I’d have to figure things out, what to do with my degree, begin life alone. He had asked me about philosophy of all things, as if that mattered here.

The woman who installed things into the stitched-together fabric beckoned me over with a stubby finger, yellowed. She reached into her shirt, dug into her bra, and pulled out strips of awning I’d given them earlier. I heard her again in that way that felt as if she were inside. Give these to him. Say they’re yours. Fired. That’s what you want.

What did I care? I’d be gone. They had shortened the awning purposely, as if to save me. A senseless thing to do. They were crazed.

Well, what is it you want?

I wanted the life after college, the thing promised for all those As since kindergarten, all the honor rolls. I wanted the future I’d been prepared for.

She held out the strips. Take them. A door banged shut. Take them. He had told me not to move, not even a step. Take them. I moved back into place, those strips dangling from her hand like tentacles.


He would change the sign to read Watts & Son, and there would be plenty of things to do in the winter for an awning company. Storage, cleaning, repairs, replacements. Businesses, especially. It wouldn’t even feel odd, after a few years, how the shed would feel like home and the work would get to be easy, so easy, in fact, that I would be able to do it with my eyes closed.

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning flash fiction collection Mad to Live (Flume Press 2008), a collection that has been recently republished by PS Books in Philadelphia as a Deluxe Edition with “bonus tracks” (PS Books 2011). He directs and teaches at Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing program. He’s been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.

Rate this story:
 average 4.4 stars • 12 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Victoria Silverwolf

    Very unusual and interesting.

  • I got a bit lost towards the end, I have to admit, and some of the vocabulary used felt a bit awkward – both choice and placement in sentences.

    However, as #1 Victoria says, an unusual and interesting read, especially with the references to Greek mythology and seamstresses set against a modern background.

  • merlin

    I gave it the thumbs up. Well done!

  • I liked this very much. Yes, it’s convoluted and a little confusing at times, but for me it’s also extremely compelling and captivating — surprisingly, the sense of disorientation seems to work very well in this piece and somehow strengthens the haunting nature of the story.

    Unique and quirky yet deftly literate, humorous yet haunting, mundanely familiar and yet enjoyably alien.

    Well done, Randall!

  • Mary Ann Back

    Randall, this story works on multiple levels and leaves the reader queasy about the character’s settling into “life in the shed”. Very nice.

  • ajcap

    So, are the two seamstresses the Fates? Or am I reading too much into this?

    Lots of layers; a good story to study. The flow was not good in a couple of places, I had to stop and re-read but it was worth it. Excellent foreshadowing, you weren’t surprised when the lad turned down the option of being fired because he was of a timid turn of mind; but you couldn’t be entirely sure. And the suggestions of blindness, mixed with the philosphy thread (pardon the pun)was interesting.

    Feel like I’m back in college myself, speaking of ancients.

  • Len Joy

    Nice work, Randall.

  • I love the ‘no exit’ feel of this. Cloth awnings will reconstitute this story for years to come.

  • PD Warner

    Wonderful! Language and sentence structure really supported the mythological feel. The simple story was also more interesting and timeless with this treatment – well done!

  • Liked this quite a lot. Very creative. I know how the character feels. All through school, they tell you the future is wide open, you can be anything, etc. And then you are confronted with life after college, and you lose sight of that sense of possibility.

  • Rob

    I liked this one. Very creative. I did notice
    ‘I’d never been inside, had never met them that entire summer.’
    -followed by
    ‘She reached into her shirt, dug into her bra, and pulled out strips of awning I’d given them earlier.’

    Other than that, it was very good.

  • Nina

    “He felt like shade turned to rock”
    My favorite line.
    Good story.

  • Interesting. Definitely had the feel of a Homeric story set in modern times with a sidebar of generation lost philosophy. Enough to make the reader think about what was meant other than what was said.

    So interesting. For me a big four-star read.

  • Cezarija Abartis

    Funny: “We all trembled, centuries and eons back to some infinitely-great-grandfather in a cave corner, scribbling sabertooth tigers and tiny figures fleeing in all directions.”

    Lovely! The Fates try to save the narrator from the easy life.

  • Love it!! I see this as a real cautionary tale, one which should be given to every young person as they step out into the world!

  • JenM

    It took me a little while to understand the setting, but once I did I really enjoyed the world this was set in. Four big ones.

  • Douglas Campbell

    Fantastic, Randall! Funny, frightening and mythic all in one superb package. Well done!

  • Jenny

    Loved this! It was haunting and just drew me in. I’ll be remembering this one for a while.

  • Nice one Randall. Compression at its best.

  • Creepy! I love the blind women.

  • vondrakker

    No opening hook
    Read it…re read it
    Wasn’t really moved!!!!
    Nice complacent closing hook.
    Would like to see something in a different Genre’
    from you , Randall.
    three stars………..

  • What a treat, Randall! I love it! The feeling of longing encores as the story ends is like a short of breath! Great story!

    Peace & Plot

  • Congratulations, this is amazing.

  • Very competent, clear, smart… and expected. It felt safe to me. Like the sort of story that is applauded because there’s no major faults, but at the same time, for me personally, is pretty forgettable. Just a taste, thing, I suppose, as I like stories that grab me by the throat and make me face some new insight. The ‘oh, I get it’ I experienced by the end just wasn’t enough for me. It’s all subjective, though, and maybe I’m just too used to this sort of story (it felt like dozens of others I’ve read in college workshops).

    Was a lot of things that didn’t match up. As mentioned, the seeming inconsistency with how it seems implied he’s had interaction with the seamstresses, but then hasn’t ever met them (we’re told all this, but it never felt as if they were the mystery we were told they were).

    As well, he gets straight A’s, but can barely remember anything from a class a few months back? I really liked the characterization of a trembling family and him seemingly cracking under pressure and failing at sports (though forgetting to snap the ball again seemed less trembly, and an intellectual block, that made me doubt the good grades). And granted, college isn’t exactly hard, but still.

    The talk of philosophy didn’t feel at all like something the boss and MC would ever naturally discuss, and seemed only added for the sake of the reader (a writerly nudge of the elbow, cluing us into the things we should know for the story to understand the story). I’m not saying what happened was the writer was trying to show off some knowledge he’d just learned in a class, but again, it felt like a college fiction class story, where this happens all the time: some student writes some ‘profound’ story and you realize it’s all to show off what they learned last semester, heh.

    And typos. I know they happen, but “a senseless thing to to” being particularly bad, the kind of thing you think some editor, at some point in the process, would catch before publishing a piece.

    Still don’t understand the fact the boss says “I think I’ll keep him” and then, later, “I think we’ll keep him, he’d said.” That’s either a narrator with a terrible memory, or again we’re supposed to think this straight A student is again confusingly intellectually retarded. Perhaps it was one of the points this piece was so forcefully trying to make, but to me was beside the point, as compelling is a story about someone capable intellectually who has a family history of being from trembling, cowardly people, so balks under pressure and knows he should get out of a situation but stays. That’s compelling. A character and/or narrator confused about the intellectual capacity of a character isn’t as interesting.

    Felt to me the potential for a story rife with powerful subtext, but that didn’t work out so well by being over intellectualized by the writer, as if he were afraid people wouldn’t understand without dropping in tons of hints and holding our hands, but then some of that hand holding was then just confusing and felt ill conceived, leading me to an ironically over intellectualized reaction/response to the piece instead of the emotional/visceral reaction I hope for from writers of award winning flash fiction.

    But, yeah, no major faults I suppose, highly competent writing, 5 stars.

  • I enjoyed this. Vaguely reminiscent of “O Brother, Where Art Though” in some ways. I read it once and felt it went over my head, then again and felt it clicked the second time. Perhaps like Popsicle my initial reaction was over-intellectualized. Very satisfying ending in any event.

    Congrats on your collection being republished, Randall!

  • Thanks all for reading “Shades,” for the comments and interesting insights into the piece. All of it is very much appreciated!

  • derangedmilk

    Calling this “competent” is a crime. Mr. Brown, this piece is superb! I dug it, beginning to end.

  • Jeanne Holtzman


  • LizHaigh

    Five stars!

  • Brooke Hoffman


  • Steve Litten

    Well done.

  • it’s well written in many places with good descriptions and feels as though it was true
    I’m afraid I didn’t quite get it. how can women do a job when they are blind? why do they want him to go? does he want to go?
    a bit perlexed by it

  • Ben Grossman

    Interesting story. Really liked the ending. Love the parts about philosophy.

  • This is great. As is true of other things I’ve read of Randall’s this piece veers into strange directions but I always feel as if it’s leading somewhere even if I can’t figure out where. The sentences show the self-confidence of the writer which I really like even though in some cases I felt the wording could have been more concrete (“something of Pythagoras,” “whatever else awnings needed,” etc.) As good a piece as I’ve read on this site.

  • Christopher James

    @Thomas Rush – it’s interesting that you think ‘something of Pythagoras’ needs concretion, since that was probably one of my favourite bits. I thought it was the first sign that this was written with an eye to a bigger story than the one it described. My other favourite bit, of course, was the response to the hearty stock line. Great stuff, 5 stars.

  • Gretchen Bassier

    A fascinating story, and very well-written. Great job!

  • Pingback: EDF’s Top Story for July: An Interview with Author Randall Brown « Flash Fiction Chronicles()

  • I began to read this with trepidation. Oh, no, Maths! I thought. Should I carry on reading? Well, I did, with reluctance. And then I came to the part that said:

    “Mr. Watts kept a whiskey bottle in his office or the tool shed, so I never knew if it was sun, anger, or whiskey that fueled his burnt-red face.”

    Oh, what a tremendous line. And from there on in, I was hooked – Not sinking – oh, no – my mind was soaring at the thought of that well-crafted description of Mr Watts.

    ‘Hook, line and sinker’ you might say.

    Amazing writing. Amazing story. Oh, yes indeed!

  • derangedmilk

    This was my favorite EDF story of 2011 without a doubt.

  • Pingback: Podcast EDF109: Shades • by Randall Brown • read by Folly Blaine | Every Day Fiction - The once a day flash fiction magazine.()