Palo Alto Weekly 26th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult

About Diane Holcomb

When adult-category winner Diane Holcomb began writing her short story "When the Knock Comes," it wasn't coming together correctly and she was frustrated.
To remedy the situation Holcomb, a resident of Los Altos, began writing her sister, a lyricist, for help.

"I started to describe it to her and it all sort of fell together," she said. "It took an email to my sister to find my stride."

Her short story follows a mother who flees from the stresses of everyday life -- both minor and major -- and finds escape in the embrace of a theater that plays old movies.

Old movies have a special quality in that they make everything in life seem simple, she said.

"I'm a sucker for old movies," she said. "I was interested in a character that wanted to live in a black-and-white movie."

A major source of conflict for the main character is her worries about her son, who is deployed in the Iraq War.

"My feelings about the war are in there," she said, comparing it to World War II. "Back then the country's reaction was different -- everyone supported it even though it was horrible."
Holcomb was a drama major at Cabrillo and Foothill colleges and worked for many years as an actress. She said her experience as an actor has affected her writing.

"My stories seem to be very character-driven because I'm so used to becoming a character on stage," she said. "The voice in my stories ends up being a lot like the character's."

Holcomb, who is in the midst of the first drafts of four novellas, said escapism is a common theme in her work.

"It seems that a lot of my characters try to deny reality and escape," she said. "Reading is an escape and watching these old movies is, too."

--Eric Van Susteren

When the Knock Comes
by Diane Holcomb

Download Audio Version

When the knock comes, do not answer the door. It may be the man in the bowler hat and round glasses from the collection agency. It may be the woman two doors down who drinks too much gin and asks too many questions and smokes Virginia Slims hunched forward while her backend does a be-bop and her fish lips puff smoke. You do not want to answer the door. It may be the landlady in her housedress and slip-on shoes worn flat, clutching her tiny rat of a dog that breathes fast and stares at you with moist bulging eyes.

When the knock comes lie still on your Grandmother's chenille bedspread in your white slip on this muggy Wednesday afternoon, hands protecting your heart. Lie still behind those dark sunglasses, hiding from a Technicolor world. Wait for the footsteps to fade down the hall. If the feet stay put and the knocking gets louder, get up and get into that getup -- the one you bought from the vintage store, the one you wear every day since the army deployed your only son to Iraq; since you refused his checks, your savings ran out and you stopped paying the bills; since you started taking the stairs to avoid the neighbor lady and her endless questions about Tommy; since the longing to live in a black-and-white movie, when life was simple, became a constant ache. Slip into that black rayon dress with the wide shoulders and the hemline that brushes your knees. Clasp the white string of pearls behind your long neck. Pin the black feathered hat on an angle to your pin-curls and button the white gloves at your wrists.

When the knock comes, crawl out the window, the one where you first saw the bespectacled man six floors down standing in front of the glass doors adjusting his brown bowler, where you watched the landlady call for Fido and give him a smart spank before stopping to leaf through the mail at the box and then glare up at your window -- the one you were hiding behind -- where you heard the smoker's cough before you saw the neighbor and her long thin fingers waving her cigarette, saying I see you, I see you behind that filmy white curtain, and have you heard anything from your dear brave boy?

When the knock comes, hurry down the fire escape in your open-toed shoes, and board the bus to the renovated movie palace downtown. Buy a ticket for the matinee, "The Best Years of Our Lives," and sit through both showings. Settle into your seat, the one halfway down the aisle, and let it cradle you in red velvet. Let the air-conditioning be a lullaby against your cheeks -- the aroma of popcorn and hot melted butter a soothing balm. This is normalcy. This is a ticket to another world, a world where children beam hope and teenagers say things like gee, that's swell, and mothers are devoted to their families, and husbands work in banks, and there are no nosy neighbors. Rock from side to side as the elderly man in the navy blue suit plays the Mighty Wurlitzer, his left foot swinging end to end on the pedalboard, building to a crescendo as the organ descends into the orchestra pit, ending with a flourish as the velvet drapes rise to reveal a giant window into the past, a world where boys come home from the war -- maybe without their hands, maybe bottled up with nightmares that leave them wide-eyed and sweating and panting in a young woman's canopied bed, but they come home -- while underneath it all is the lush sound of violins.

You do not want to answer the door. You spent the morning standing in line for your allotment of day-old bread and canned vegetables from the county. When the Latino man behind you said it's easy to get a free meal at Albertsons, "jus' make the rounds of the food demos," you turned and lowered your sunglasses for an instant. "Our country is spending millions of dollars a day to bomb a foreign country into an empty lot," you said, "and we're standing in line hoping for a gray steak." What you didn't say is how it tears you up inside that nobody's saving bacon grease and scrap metal for the boys in Iraq, least of all yourself. You didn't say how you're sacrificing your only son in a war that you're against. You faced forward and thought how Myrna Loy never used food stamps to pay for all those cocktails in "The Thin Man," and if she had, violins would have played.

When the knock comes, do not heave yourself from the mattress and travel the long distance to the door.

If you do find your hand turning the knob, pray that it isn't the man you saw six floors down moments ago stepping out of a black car.

Pray that it isn't him with the polished shoes, the trousers of his dress uniform seared to a point, beret in hand, a serious pull to his brow.

Pray, when you open the door, that you hear the soundtrack of a Goldwyn world, and not the regrets his mouth will form, when the knock comes.

Judges comment

"When the Knock Comes" exquisitely captures a swooping sense of possible loss by funneling the reader's wish for a happy ending into one character's longing for the simplicity of old movies. With the drumbeat of a single phrase, well-chosen details and other stylish touches, the author takes us finally to a stunned sense of desperate hope.


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