Master Plotto Week Five Winner: Ethel Rohan

Masie Cochran

This week’s Plotto prompt was: “A, annoyed by a certain object, X, destroys it, but mysteriously it reappears; again and again A destroys X, but it always reappears.” We enjoyed reading about the stubborn indestructibility of white hairs, persistent ex-lovers, cellphones, and zombie coworkers.

Congratulations go out to Ethel Rohan, a three-time Plotto contest contender, whose haunting story about cleaning products, an old friend, and a childhood tragedy reminded us of Lady Macbeth, and Amelia Harnas’ skillful use of wine stains.


The red wine stain on her mother’s prized rug returned. She had tried salt, vinegar, various products, and the strongest dilution of bleach she dared, but only professional steaming worked, and only temporarily. Amazing the mess one glass of wine can make. She again studied the head, shoulders, torso, and concentration of two bright red breasts inside the stain, seeing her dead mother.

Joan—her best friend and the red wine stain culprit—arrived, armed with yet another cleaning product.

“The kamikaze of stain killers,” Joan said.

She assured Joan she’d tried everything. Only the steam clean worked, for a while.

Joan squirted and rubbed till she was sweaty and breathless.

“I told you,” she said. “It’s useless.”

Joan offered to replace the rug. She shook her head, pained, annoyed: Joan knew the rug was irreplaceable.

“Would it be ludicrous?” Joan asked, “to cut out the stain?”

Not for the first time, she wondered if she’d outgrown Joan, if maybe just because you’ve known someone your whole life it’s not enough anymore.

She and Joan had grown up on the same Dublin street, their houses directly across from one another. They’d played together every day as children and every night at bedtime had waved across to one another from their bedroom windows. When she had married, Joan had married. When she and Brendan had moved to Rialto, Joan and Denis had moved here too. When she’d had four children, Joan had four children.

She admitted to Joan she could see a woman inside the stain. Joan tilted her head like a confused dog. “I don’t see it.”

Again she felt stirrings of hate; even her husband Brendan with his bad eyes and dim imagination could see the woman inside the stain.

“A man would, though, wouldn’t he?” Joan said.

They moved into the kitchen and Joan helped herself to a cup of tea and a plate of the chocolate-covered biscuits.

“You’re sure you won’t have anything?” Joan asked, as if the kitchen was hers.

She ignored Joan and turned on the small TV on the counter, to a news segment about cars that can travel on both land and sea. Two cars filled the screen, one white and one bright red, their owners driving across a blue-blue lake in Switzerland.

“Isn’t it an awful pity,” Joan said, “I wasn’t drinking white wine that night? The sugar in the white keeps me awake, though. I don’t know how you drink it.”

Her stomach lurched at the thought of ever drinking red wine, of taking its syrup into her. Her mother’s death had started with a nosebleed in the bathroom. A lump in her dead mother’s brain had burst, her father said, trying to hold his six children against his chest. Minutes later, she had lifted her mother’s blood from the bathroom floor with her finger and sucked and swallowed every drop.

Joan’s face creased. “What’s wrong?”

She looked at her old friend through the blur of tears, said, “Let’s try again.”

Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say, PANK, 2011 and Cut Through the Bone, Dark Sky Books, 2010, the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in World Literature Today, The Irish Times, The Chattahoochee Review, The Los Angeles Review, Southeast Review Online, Potomac Review, and elsewhere. Visit her at