Denise Tolan

Spotlight: Because You are Dead


You don’t know I have a picture of you, because you are dead.

Before you were dead, I wondered what it would be like to be trapped in your mouth for eternity, like a wedded Jonah. Whenever you said honey or Leeza or, more likely, Lisa, I would feel the rib cage constrict.

I have some regrets from before you died.


Once you wanted a burger from Sonic. You were working and I was not, so I went to get one for you.

Pickles, onions, cheese, but no mustard, you said.

Pickles, onions, cheese, but no mustard, I repeated into the speaker.

When I handed you the burger you opened it, then looked at me as if I’d broken your crayon.

Mustard, you said, pointing to the offending yellow.

I stood in front of you, wondering what had gone wrong.

I wish I’d done a better job with the burger order but only because, somehow, you are dead.


Once, after a late dinner with your co-workers, we sat in your car while you decided what to do. You were tired, but there was a possibility of sex in the air; distant, like the sound of wind or waves.

Tell me a fantasy, you finally said.

Tell you a fantasy, I repeated as a question, as if I was giving it thought.

I needed sleep too, but I told you what you wanted to hear – the girl who lived downstairs from me – you, sticky with new moisture – three mouths, taking in, spilling out.

I’d unbuttoned my shirt and lazily played with one nipple as I spoke.

Let’s go inside, you said. I knocked on her door as we passed by.

I wonder if, for the dead, that makes up for the mustard.


You held out your hand once revealing a single green disk the size of a tear.

Beach glass, I asked?

You brought the glass closer to my face, as if it might be some kind of ancient tell, like when children hold buttercups to their throats as a predictor of their affinity for butter.

You saw me in that glass, beautiful and valuable and different. I wanted to believe you were not wrong.

It was me. Is me.

But in the end it was common glass. Washed ashore. Held in the mouth of the sea until it was spit out, edges smoothed by the force of its current disdain.

The dead, most likely, let go of regret and beach glass.


The picture you don’t know I have is from your obituary. Before you were dead someone you loved must have taken it because you forgot to guard your eyes when you looked into the lens. The photograph is in Sepia, which makes so much sense, since you were always the color of an ancient map; never really accurate, but promising adventure nonetheless.


Denise Tolan Denise Tolan teaches amazing students at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. She is a graduate of the Red Earth MFA in Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma City University. Denise has been published in places such as Reed, Southern Lit Review, The Great American Literary Magazine, The Tishman Review, and Gravel. Denise’s creative nonfiction won the grand prize in SunStruck magazine and she was a finalist in the 2017 Saturday Evening Post fiction contest.

“Because You are Dead” is a Best Small Fictions 2018 winner, selected by Aimee Bender. Congratulations to Denise Tolan!