Palo Alto Weekly 31st Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult


By David Pablo Cohn

About David Pablo Cohn

Palo Alto resident David Pablo Cohn left Silicon Valley's startup world four years ago to split his time between fiction writing, working part-time aboard a research icebreaker in Antarctica and restoring a farm in Port Townsend, Washington, which is where he drew the inspiration for his short story, "Petrichor."

With a background in computer science and statistics, Cohn isn't afraid to try something new; He's what you might call a lifelong learner with insatiable curiosity.

"One of my challenges is that I'm really fascinated by everything, and so I get involved in everything," said Cohn, who is currently head deep in operating the farm on the Olympic Peninsula that he and his wife "accidentally" purchased for reasons that he's "still trying to explain,"

Cohn, who is the first to say that he "knows nothing about farming," is working with local organic farmers, Washington's land trust conservation district, as well as the city and county, to restore a farm that would have otherwise been sold to developers.

"Knowing nothing about anything has rarely stopped me before," he said.

Living out this mindset, in 2010, Cohn decided to seize the opportunity to go to what he described as the "magnificent desolation" of the South Pole. Since then, he has become a self-described "lifer."

"They say people go to Antarctica the first time because they're curious, the second time for the money, the third time because you don't fit in anywhere else anymore," he said.

Cohn credits his trips to Antarctica as the catalyst for writing fiction. Prior to Antarctica, he wrote a "Travelogues" blog, and before that, he wrote songs and poetry. It was during his first trip to the South Pole that he had an idea for a story — one that he felt "someone ought to write." He started to write that story, which he said blossomed into a novel that he hasn't finished yet. In the meantime, he started writing short stories.

"I like to tell people, stories are an invitation to fall in love," he said, explaining that while sometimes you might want to grow up and grow old with characters in a novel or series, other times, "you just want to dive in, your world turned upside down and kind of find yourself before you know it, watching the tail lights go off into the morning light."

Cohn's writing can be found at

— Anna Medina


Judge's comments

A young waiter tells of a mysterious old man who comes regularly to the restaurant and places his elegant poems under the glass tabletop. The old man disappears, and to the waiter's great sense of loss, the poems are destroyed in a torrential rain. A very touching story.
— Nancy Packer

I used to be able to quote a couple of his poems pretty well, and I'd recite them to Louise back when we were courting. But now when I try, it all comes out in broken little pieces: summer sidewalk paving stones, something, something, the forgotten ghost of rain rising underfoot. Doesn't really give you the same feeling, I know. Because when you got to read it all together, you could just feel the storm coming in and smell that smell. And somehow between the words, you knew that poem wasn't about the rain, but it was really about a woman, about someone he'd lost. All of them were about her.

I'd never been into poetry, or much of any kind of reading for that matter, so maybe it was just having known him that made it special. But it's been 10 years now and still, whenever it starts to rain after a long dry spell, I catch myself waiting for that smell, and I get a little sad for him. Melancholy, I guess, is the word.

- - -

He said his name was Hadley. "As in Richardson," he said, as if that explained everything. I figured I'd just nod like I knew what he meant.

"And you are?"

"Ruben." I usually told customers once they'd sat down and settled in. You know: "Good evening, my name is Ruben. Is there anything I can get you to drink while you look over the menus?" But he asked like he really wanted to know, and put his hand out to shake mine when I told him.

"Good to know you, Ruben. It looks like my usual perch is unoccupied." He wore a sort of wool fedora, like you'd expect of some old time German, and it bobbed just a bit when he cocked his head off toward the round low-top by the window. "If you don't mind, that is." Then he cocked his head back to me to show he knew I wouldn't mind and shuffled over on his own, one corduroyed leg swinging a little wide with each step, as if there was something about his knee that wasn't right.

I imagined him an old professor, or a sea captain come to shore with some finality. He had the look of someone who'd held a station of some dignity, but who also had lived a bit and not regretted it, even if it had left him somewhat worse for the wear.

He'd been coming into the Mermaid a couple times a week since before I started. For years, they said — Tuesdays and Sundays, sometimes Thursdays too. Always right around eight, after the dinner crowd had mostly cleared out. Always took the same seat, and always ordered the same thing: chicken pot pie and a glass of cognac. But he always insisted on spending a couple of minutes with the menu first. Megan told me that once she'd tried to surprise him, told him his order was already in when she brought the water and silver to his table. Said he struggled up to his feet with that bad leg of his and started to walk out, like she'd insulted him or something. Made it as far as the door before stopping. Shook his head a couple of times, then turned around and shuffled back to his seat and asked for a menu. Ordered the house burger, she said, but didn't touch it, and spent the evening looking out the window, over the harbor.

So yeah, he was an odd one, but seemed right enough on his own terms. Kept to himself, mostly. And what with him always wanting that table, everybody just assumed that he was the one who'd written all the poems.

- - -

It was Ashley who found them. Some kids who came over on the ferry looking for something different on a Saturday night got wild and knocked a couple pints of Newcastle off the old, lacquered baby grand that Lydia kept in the corner. They got sent home, of course, but there was beer everywhere: walls, windows, floor. You know how people slide business cards and the like under the glass at tables in a bar, right? Gives them something to read while waiting for their food. A bunch of the cards around the edge on Hadley's table got soaked, so Ashley figured she'd better clean them out before it dried and they all got stuck.

She was just going to throw the cards away — no point in saving an old coupon for the Belmont Car Wash, or J. P. Giles, C.P.A., For All Your Accounting Needs. But a couple of the cards had writing on the back. And not just scribbled notes; they were lines of poetry, neat and even, drawn lengthwise across in blue ink.

She found close to fifty poems on the table, all written on the back of different peoples' business cards in the same even hand. Some were only a couple of lines; others seemed to continue from one card to the next. Ashley put a rubber band around the ones with poems and returned the rest to the table; she figured she'd tell Lydia about them when she opened on Monday.

I had the harborside tables that Sunday. Hadley shuffled in on schedule and slid into his table sideways, the way he always did, bracing himself against the corner to ease the weight on his bum leg. Seemed cheerful enough at first when I brought water and the menu.

"Need a few minutes to decide?"

"Yes, please." He clearly appreciated that I understood the ritual. "But I'd be obliged if you'd bring me a glass of your worst cognac in the meantime."

"Certainly. I'll see what I can scrape out of the sink." That got a smile.

But something had changed by the time I returned with the Courvoisier. Of course, I didn't know anything about the poems yet. But there was a hollow look in his eyes, and his voice seemed far away when he spoke, like he was trying very hard to remember something that was enormously important.

I asked if everything was alright.

"Yes, yes... no." His eyes flitted down to the table, out the window, then back up to meet mine. "Yes, everything is...fine."

I checked on him more than usual that evening but tried not to hover. I just assumed he'd gotten a phone call — some bad news, or something. Maybe a death in the family. He picked tentatively at his pot pie, and held the snifter to the light of the table's lamp, swirling it and peering into its amber eddy as if it were a crystal ball.

He was still at his table near closing, the pot pie long finished, but a full inch of cognac remaining in his glass. The rain had begun, a fresh spring drizzle, and he looked out on it through the obscured dusk with a sort of melancholy.

"Is there anything else I can get you?" That was usually just the polite way to ask someone if they're ready for their check. But I was worried for him and meant it as a real question. He seemed to take it as such and thought a while, his eyes again tracing an arc from the table to the window and then, slowly, back to me.

"No, no thank you." There was a gentle finality in his voice. "I think I'm done here." And with that, he lifted his glass underhand, cupped in his palm, and drained it in one slow, almost ceremonial draw.

He stopped again on the way out and placed a hand on my shoulder.

"Ruben," he said. "Please tell everyone thank you. It has been lovely."

- - -

"Hey, Ruben — you see these?" Lydia had the cards laid out face down on the tally desk when I got in Monday afternoon. I hadn't, of course.

"Ashley found them, cleaning up on Saturday. Thinks they're from your friend Hadley."

"The old guy?"

She nodded.

"What are they?"

"Looks like poetry." And she picked one up and read a few lines. Like I said, I'm not one of those guys who's into poetry, but even with Lydia's Boston gravel, there was something in those words, something that painted a picture, made it feel like I was remembering something I'd seen and felt a long time ago.

"Have you asked him about them?"

"Haven't seen him yet. Sunday and Tuesday, right?"

"Also Thursday sometimes."

"I'm not in on Sundays. Was he here? Yesterday?"

I told her he was. And how something felt different about him.

"Do you think he knew?"

"Knew what?"

"That Ashley found his poems. I guess he'd have to notice, wouldn't he? The cards would have been all moved around. You spend that much time in one place, you'd have to notice something like that."

I supposed she was right.

"You okay asking him, tomorrow? If he comes in?"

"He always comes in on Tuesdays."

She shook her head a little and gave me that look, the one older folks give you when they're sure they know better.

- - -

She was right, though. He didn't come Tuesday, Thursday, or even Sunday the next week. He'd missed a day here and there in the past, but only one at a time, and always apologized for the absence, explaining it away as bit of a cold or a fall he'd taken. "Doctor told me that if I didn't keep my weight off that foot, he'd make sure it was broken next time." And he'd scrunch up the side of his smile as if to say "You know how doctors are."

But July was getting up to speed, and with it came all the weekend festivals on the waterfront. By the time things slowed in October, we hadn't seen him in over four months.

Lydia kept the cards in her desk. Said she'd tried Googling a few of the poems to see if he'd just copied them down from somewhere but found nothing.

"I think he just wrote 'em and left them here."

It didn't make any sense to me, either.

"You just going to keep them in your desk?"

"What else am I gonna do?"

"Find him? Let him know we've got his poems?"

"I think he knows that already. And I've tried. You know who Hadley Richardson is?"

"Isn't that him?"

"Hemingway's first wife."

"No shit?"

She nodded.

"Why would he...?"

"You tell me." She grunted out a little laugh and gave me that older-and-wiser look again. "But yeah, Google's got nothing on any Hadleys around here. And don't think I didn't ask around town."

Everyone seemed to know who she was talking about, but no one knew anything more about him than we did. Katie out at Hudson Point said he ate breakfast there on Sundays — didn't talk much, and always got the boatyard hash with white cheddar and black coffee. Paid cash and tipped well.

"She find any poetry?"

"They've got nothing to write on there, do they? Unless you pull a chart off the wall and use the back of that. But no, she looked when I told her."

Lydia let me take them out and look at them whenever I wanted. Eventually hung them up on a bit of foam board, first against the filing cabinet, then on the back wall behind the bar, because people kept asking. There was talk around town of putting them all in a book and publishing it but Anna, at the bookstore across the street, said no one would touch something like that without a clear copyright. So we just read them where they were; sometimes we'd call out a line to each other when it seemed to fit.

- - -

The poems were about all sorts of things — city streets and the open road, or sunrise over the ocean. Fresh coffee, or a bumblebee resting on the window sill. But in each one there was a shadow of something else: the empty space left by someone he'd lost. Maybe she left him. Or maybe he'd left her and regretted it — there was really no way to tell.

Everyone had their favorite, of course, and the one that always got to me was about the rain. Maybe that's the thing about a poem — maybe the right one says something you recognize, something you've felt, but never found the words to make real. And by finding the words, even if they're someone else's, you finally really understand the feelings and can make them your own. At least that's the way it felt to me.

The irony of it all, of course, was that it was the rain that did everything in. We had a big pour that January — a lot of wind, too. I guess there was enough loose debris to clog the downspouts, and everything just pooled up there on the roof until one of the seams gave way. We came in to a full inch of water on the floor in the morning, with the drywall soaked clean through on three sides. Had to throw out damned near everything that got wet, and there wasn't much to save from the cards. Hindsight would've been to at least put a sheet of plastic over the board, but hindsight's always been worth jack shit, hasn't it?

Some folks had a poem or two they'd memorized or written down — Anna started collecting them once it came out that they'd been ruined. And we all got a good scolding for not having made any copies, just in case. It was all we could do to hang our heads.

- - -

The Mermaid's still out there, and I keep promising Louise I'll take her up to see where it all happened. I kind of owe her that — I mean, he's the reason we met in the first place. I was pulling cards out from under the glass at the airport diner in Burlington, and Lou spent half her lunch watching before wandering over to ask what the hell I was doing. I told her the story, like I've told you, and next thing I know we're going table to table, looking together. Gave her my number, and she promised she'd give a call if she ever found any. Never did — find any poems that is, but we've been married five years now and have a Hadley of our own to chase around. Yeah, I know. I'd wanted to name her Katherine, after my mother, but Louise insisted, and who was I to argue? Even if it does sound like a boy's name.

And I still do think about him whenever it rains. I wait for that smell and let myself feel a little sad, and I get to wondering about all those other things that we don't notice we've got until they're gone. Maybe it makes me a better person, maybe it makes me a fool. Maybe both; I'm not convinced there's much difference either way. n

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