Finding Fame on Cautionary Billboards

by Tommy Dean

I’m leaving these cigarettes here, because my dad said I can’t have them in the house anymore. I used to leave this kind of stuff with you, but now that you’re gone, I guess I’ll just leave them here. People have been leaving you all kind of shit. Teddy bears, beer bottles, a retainer, and even a flashlight. I guess your parents have been making some kind of list, though your mother tends to cry when she sees the bad stuff. The half a joint left last week made her pretty whacko. Your dad had to carry her away, promising he’d get rid of it. He looked right at me while he was telling her.

Do you think he meant he’d get rid of me too? I hope not, because no other place feels right anymore. What good is the beach down by the lake if I don’t have to worry about you trying to tackle me or take down my shorts in front of those fat chicks that are always there? Kenny’s basement ain’t any fun either now that you can’t get us laughing while we’re high, doing that Gorilla impersonation.

Candy, won’t talk to me anymore. Says I remind her too much of you and her insufferable heartache. I heard she’s been riding the backroads with Frankie. Give me a sign if you want me to piss on his car or torch his jacket or something.

So I lied about Candy. Thought it might make you feel better. We found this place, an abandoned playground, and when she isn’t crying, we get drunk, and play chicken on the monkey bars. I kissed her the other day, and she pulled my hair, made me promise to get rid of the phone. She said she couldn’t handle losing me too.

I lied to Candy too. I couldn’t get rid of the phone. I keep staring at that last text you sent me: “Watch, I’ll end up on a billboard.” You would too, I bet, if I showed that to your mom. But nobody wants to be famous like that, even you.

I’ve decided to keep all your secrets, even though it’s hard to look at your mom when she screams. It’s even harder when she brings me some of your old stuff, asking me if I want it. I tell her to set them next to your stone. To be honest, I can’t keep any of your stuff. It all feels like bad luck. My whole life is starting to feel that way. Like every time I drive into this place I take on the aura of someone else’s shitty decisions. No offense man, but I’m tired of taking all of this on by myself. You always wondered what would happen if one of us died. Too bad you can’t see what this is doing to all of us.

It’s been a year, the freaking anniversary. I’m still in town, working at the Citgo, on 30. Everyone that comes in for gas keeps asking me if you did it on purpose. I’m so tempted to show everyone that text. Make it official. But it’s our last secret. The only thing keeping me alive.

Tommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak, and Gravel. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Finding Fame on Cautionary Billboards”?

My story, “Find Fame on Cautionary Billboards,” came from a contest picture prompt from another literary journal. This is quiet rare for my stories to come from prompts and not my own imagination offering up an image or a voice. The main thrust of the story came rather easy until I came to the end. So the story sat for a few months, in which I missed the deadline of the contest. I needed more time to think about how this narrator could, effectively, say goodbye. That’s the problem I created with the story: the narrator doesn’t want to say goodbye, ever, and I had to kind of force this catharsis upon him. I imagine that if he could, this narrator, would have hidden himself away at the foot of this gravestone, telling his now dead best friend all of the things he was still doing in town. I had to make this narrator, if not grow up, to at least move on to have his own life. So I played around with the idea of adding dates as headers for each section, but this felt too clunky, and not “compressed.” The headings would have denoted time passing, but they would have got in the way of the voice of the story. The direct address of the narrator to the gravestone of the dead friend demanded immediacy, and so I had to rely on the white space between sections as a note of time passing. This was one of those stories that you write, and never forget.


Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.

Matter Press recently released titles from Meg Boscov, Abby Frucht, Robert McBrearty, Tori Bond, Kathy Fish, and Christopher Allen. Click here.

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Poetry, creative nonfiction, and fiction/prose poetry submissions are now open. The reading period for standard submissions closes again June 15, 2023. Submit here.


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10/09 • Deborah Thompson
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