Exploring the art of prose


The Ghost of Amy Winehouse by Clara Otto

Image is a color photograph of red wine on a tree stump in the middle of a field; title card for the fiction story "The Ghost of Amy Winehouse" by Clara Otto.

In “The Ghost of Amy Winehouse,” Claire Otto ingeniously utilizes a grocery store aptitude test as the framework to depict a story about the main character, Rachel, who spends her day in denial about what might have happened to a once-close friend named Imogene who struggles with alcoholism. This piece exemplifies the symbiosis between form and story, where the form not only propels the narrative forward, but also becomes an integral part of revealing character.

Though the numbered test questions guide the reader toward the next question in the sequence and thereby unfold the story, it’s actually the titular ghost that creates tension and gives the narrative its momentum. Rachel’s workday begins when Amy Winehouse’s ghost appears and disrupts her normal routine, not unlike the way in which Imogene intrudes into Rachel’s thoughts. The ghost acts not just as a catalyst, but also as an unpredictable element that hinders Rachel’s productivity. At the same time, the test leaves cryptic clues about Rachel’s state of mind such as how “a damp cotton dress broke her heart” and “it’s important to have something to remember a tragedy by.” However, despite Rachel’s internal struggles, she is required to be productive and act like a model “Dreamer,” the incongruous name for the grocery store clerks. As Otto notes, “I wanted the structure of this story to mirror the claustrophobia I had felt while working as a server. In public-facing jobs, you always have to be ‘on’—no matter what is happening around you.”

The form is not just an effective and unusual framework to convey this story, but also an integral part of revealing character by mirroring the character’s anxiety and emotional suppression. Rachel suppresses thoughts of Imogene in favor of performing her tasks at the grocery store in the same way that the test suppresses Rachel’s thoughts of Imogene with multiple-choice questions and answers. For example, one test question states that “the lights flickering on and off to a ghost so clearly mean go to your friend,” but this thought is interrupted with: “How should Rachel prioritize the time she has left before the store opens its doors?” Also, as Rachel grows more anxious about the time she spends at the grocery store instead of checking on Imogene, the test question numbers begin to feel like a countdown of the hours slipping past with phrases in the test like “the sun has disappeared behind the clouds” and how Rachel is “paged to the front to help with the midday rush.”

As the story progresses, readers can’t ignore the possibility that Rachel may have created a sort of mental camouflage in the form of an employee test to distract herself from the truth about Imogene. In fact, even Rachel is a construct and pseudonym for Ruth, the real name of the main character. But unlike the choices Rachel/Ruth offers herself in the test, she does not have the option to choose her preferred version of reality. As Amy Winehouse’s ghost becomes more unruly, Rachel/Ruth can no longer suppress her memories: she begins to perceive the grocery store aisles as stocking not tangible goods, but the ephemeral such as “a memory,” “a vision,” “a delusion,” “a hope,” and “a dream.”

In this scintillating short story by Clara Otto, not only do story and form work interdependently to create a riveting and unique narrative regarding denial, but this piece also appears to invert what’s real, where the seemingly tangible construct of a test may be what’s false, and the ephemeral, like ghosts and memories, are what’s concrete and true. But then again, this illusion could just be part of the test.  —CRAFT


Content Warnings—alcohol overdose, death


Welcome to the Grocery Supreme Aptitude Test™. This test is divided into the following five sections: Commuting and Tardiness, Opening Duties, Product Management, Customer Service, and Long Answer Questions.

A few important notes:

  • You will have ten minutes to complete each section.
  • Our team members are called Dreamers.
  • This test will follow Rachel1, a model Dreamer, through a typical shift at Grocery Supreme™.


1 We changed Ruth’s name for privacy.


Section 1: Commuting and Tardiness

  1. The ghost of Amy Winehouse makes her first appearance in Rachel’s shower. Something scratchy brushes against Rachel’s leg. It’s a tulle skirt. Gonna give me a turn under the hot water? the ghost of Amy Winehouse asks, but before Rachel has a chance to answer, the ghost belts out the opening lines of “Valerie.” Her voice echoes off the tile. “Valerie” is a song Rachel always sings with Imogene—a childhood friend. She thinks this haunting is strange, but her life has been filled with unusual occurrences: an imaginary friend she was so convinced was real that her mother contracted an exorcist; her father’s death from an aneurysm which burst while he watched Hockey Night in Canada; a tarot reading that predicted the near-fatal car accident Rachel was in at eighteen; and, after her mother died (making Rachel an orphan at twenty-two) how lights flickered, doors opened, and taps, that she was certain she had turned off, were turned on. So she accepts this haunting as her lot and applies her makeup.
    The ghost of Amy Winehouse follows Rachel to work and complains the whole way about the men in pickup trucks and their sorry attempts at catcalling. Put some dick into it at least, she grumbles. What excuse should Rachel give for her tardiness? Dreamer Hint: Do not mention ghosts—this won’t serve you well.

a. Rachel should mention how as she passed a family’s front lawn, she saw laundry drying on the line and how a damp cotton dress broke her heart.

b. She should tell them that as she stepped out into the street a car sped towards her, blasting music from her childhood. She had to rest her palm on the rough wood of a telephone pole to prove to herself she was still alive.

c. Rachel must explain that as she walked to work the wind stung her eyes and made her makeup run, how when her watering eyes made the world blurry, she had to slow down to remember the route she usually walked on autopilot.

  1. After clocking in and changing into her smock2 Rachel is ready to get on the floor. As she’s about to push open the heavy staff room doors, Rachel sees a penny. It’s bright and shining. She picks it up. The coin is from 1991. Pennies have been out of circulation for years. Rachel slips it into her pocket without another thought. The ghost of Amy Winehouse rolls her eyes. When Rachel thinks about pennies, what comes to her mind? Dreamer Hint: Imogene was born in 1991.

a. The penny-candy bins she and Imogene loved as children. At Grocery Supreme™, we have forty-five different varieties of penny-candy3!

b. Hand-rolling coins at the kitchen table with her grandmother and the way Rachel’s grandmother kept the window open when she smoked.

c. How, as children, when Rachel and Imogene found pennies on hot summer sidewalks, they sang, Find a penny, pick it up and all day long, you’ll have good luck.

2 It’s every Dreamer’s responsibility to keep their smock Grocery Supreme™ ready. ☺

3 Due to inflation our penny-candy now costs fifteen cents per piece.


Section 2: Opening Duties

  1. Each morning at Grocery Supreme™, Good-Morning Dreamers sweep and mop the floor. It’s important that the floor shine so the customers can see their choices reflected in them. When Rachel sees her reflection, she sees someone far older than twenty-five. As Rachel is late, she rushes through her morning duties. She doesn’t do a great job sweeping and, to make matters worse, the ghost of Amy Winehouse follows her around and spits out seeds from the grapes she stole4. What should Rachel prioritize? Dreamer Hint: It’s important to have something to remember a tragedy by.

a. Rachel should collect the grape seeds—if Rachel plants them then, in a few weeks, she might be able to press her fingertips to the sprouts’ tender heads as they reach toward the sun on the staff room windowsill.

b. Rachel should focus on mopping—on pushing the dirt and debris to the edges of the floor so the store can retain some semblance of order. Rachel should gauge whether anyone else can see the ghost of Amy Winehouse. If they can, Rachel can set up a stage—take two stepladders from the back and drape a few hasty pieces of tinfoil5 between them—and have the ghost distract customers so Rachel can steal a few more minutes to sweep.


  1. In addition to sweeping and mopping, Dreamers must turn on all lights, shine the windows, and ensure there is a cash float in every register. The ghost of Amy Winehouse is making it nearly impossible for Rachel to finish her tasks. Rachel wants to banish her, but what she doesn’t know is there is a purpose to this haunting. The ghost of Amy Winehouse is trying to spare Imogene’s mother the heartbreak of finding her only child dead. The lights flickering on and off to a ghost so clearly mean go to your friend, find her body, hold her dead hand so her spirit can leave this world feeling loved, but to the living the flickering means that a summer storm is rolling into town. How should Rachel prioritize the time she has left before the store opens its doors? Dreamer Hint: If it had been a summer storm, Rachel would have known by the smell of ozone downdrafts. Rachel thinks they smell like apple cider vinegar.

a. Rachel must turn the lights on so the customers can find the products which will sustain them through carpools, meetings, and soccer games.

b. Rachel must shine the windows so the customers can see the bounty in stock.

c. Rachel must make sure the registers have an adequate cash float because many of the senior citizens who shop early in the morning prefer cash over card.


  1. Rachel returns to the staff room to deposit the mop. She glances at the TV. It’s always on. It’s always muted. It’s always The Weather Channel. A woman with neat hair and nails is gesturing at a weather map. Suddenly the sound comes on. The woman says there is a ten percent chance of precipitation—but then the ghost of Amy Winehouse hops into the frame. She hip checks the meteorologist and tears down the weather map. She looks out of the screen and winks. Rachel stumbles into the mop she forgot to put away. The ghost of Amy Winehouse talks about the rain in London, how she remembers the light being grey. What would you surmise about the weather for the rest of the day and how might it impact business at Grocery Supreme™? Dreamer Hint: Two things can be true at once.

a. A nice day means that people will be outside riding bikes and sitting in parks. This means Rachel will have time to remember—remember how each year on her birthday when her friends sang to her how their voices would gradually fade away because everyone wanted to hear Imogene sing.

b. On the contrary—people will need libations and snacks for their outdoor activities. Rachel should make sure that the plastic bags in the produce aisle are well stocked. This will keep Rachel busy. She won’t have time to remember how Imogene looked in the candlelight from the birthday cake.

c. It will rain and people will come to Grocery Supreme™ in droves, desperate for fresh peaches, bulk candy, and dry pasta. The droves will stop Rachel from remembering how after Imogene finished singing, she was always self-conscious about drawing attention to herself on Rachel’s birthday, but Rachel never minded.

4 All shoplifters earn a photo on the Wall of Shame. Say “cheese,” ghost of Amy Winehouse! ☺

5 Our store-brand tinfoil was voted the best of the best by a nonanonymous survey of our Dreamers. It can be found in aisle 2.


Section 3: Product Management

  1. Stocking shelves is Rachel’s favourite part of her job. It allows her to get lost in memories, daydreams, and stillness. But the ghost of Amy Winehouse will not have that. The ghost is trying to get Rachel to leave work, she says it’s urgent, but Rachel knows better than to listen to pop-star poltergeists—even the friendly ones. When her mother first began haunting her, Rachel thought the turning on and off of taps meant danger, so she barely left her house. Now, she knows that the running water is just her mother’s way of saying hello. What is the best method to drown out a pesky ghost? Dreamer Hint: Rachel’s Dreamer discount could come in useful here!

a. She must gather the necessary supplies—salt, spring water (Grocery Supreme™ doesn’t sell Holy Water6), and a shortbread cookie in the shape of a cross—and perform an impromptu exorcism in aisle 3.

b. The only way to deal with such a haunting is to turn and face it directly. The more you resist, the more glasses it will smash, the more mirrors it will break, the more loaves of bread it will rip apart.

c. Rachel must simply walk out of the store, into the brisk fall air, and not return. Walk the seven blocks to Imogene’s house. Knock on Imogene’s door. Steel herself against what she doesn’t want to admit she knows.


  1. Rachel is paged to aisle 5 because there has been a spill. When she arrives, with the ghost of Amy Winehouse in tow, she finds that a single bag of sugar has been overturned. The sugar is still trickling out—a lazy river onto the gleaming off-white tile. At this moment, Rachel remembers how earlier in the summer she and Imogene drank iced tea on her back porch. How Imogene wore a white cotton dress, how Imogene said things were changing for her. In a good way, Rach, she said. There had been talk of AA meetings. How should Rachel proceed? Dreamer Hint: When in doubt, Dreamers should remember their three Ds: Dream, Dare, Deliver!

a. By burying her hands in the sugar, rubbing them together, and letting it slough off her dry and dead skin.

b. By knocking all the sugar off the shelves. Tearing the sides of the bags open and spilling their contents all up and down the aisle. And then lying in the sugar with the ghost of Amy Winehouse, making sugar angels.

c. By retrieving the broom and dustbin from the back and saying a small prayer under her breath—even if at that moment she doesn’t know what deity she’s praying to.


  1. A customer approaches Rachel and asks her where to find vinegar. Rachel knows, but she can’t say it. In her mind she sees the following chart:
Aisle 1 Aisle 2 Aisle 3 Aisle 4 Aisle 5
A memory: morning glory hangs off a chain-link fence, its white flowers in full bloom. A vision: a floating candle in a glass bowl filled with water and forget-me-nots. A delusion: two white dresses, cans tied to the back of a car, laughter that echoes down the street. A hope: Imogene passes a bronze coin7 to Rachel. I told you I could do it. A dream: a tree sparkling after a sudden rain, a house big enough for four, fresh peaches in the fruit bowl.

Where should Rachel tell the customer to go? Dreamer Hint: In a pinch you can make vinegar from peaches.

a. Aisle 1

b. Aisle 2

c. Aisle 4


6 Grocery Supreme™ is proud to offer Sparkling, Spring, Distilled, and Coconut Water. All of which can be found in aisle 1.

7 A bronze coin given at AA meetings indicates one has been sober for a year. Sobriety coins aren’t used at all meetings and the AA logo hasn’t been approved for use on such coins. The Grocery Supreme™ management had declined to comment on how they know this information.


Section 4: Customer service

  1. Rachel leads a customer toward the cereal aisle when the ghost of Amy Winehouse approaches her with the store’s phone. The customer can’t see the ghost, they can only see a floating phone. They scream and run. The ghost of Amy Winehouse laughs and presses the phone to Rachel’s ear. It rings once and then goes to Imogene’s voicemail. Leave, the ghost of Amy Winehouse says. Now. Rachel rolls her eyes. Clicks the phone’s off button and returns it to its rightful place in the back. What does Rachel notice as she walks through the store? Dreamer Hint: Dreamers don’t judge, but they do chide.

a. That the sun has disappeared behind the clouds.

b. The way the green apples sparkle under the fluorescent lights after a misting.

c. The practiced way the baker slices bread, and how the baker’s knife sounds like it’s passing through cardboard as it cuts the crust.


  1. Once in the back, Rachel lets herself feel it. Her knees weaken. She knows something is off. She has a thick skin—a haunting like this wouldn’t usually get to her. Now she has realized something has happened, but she doesn’t know what. She will cry. Where is the best place to cry at Grocery Supreme™? Dreamer Hint: The world has hardened the Grocery Supreme™ clientele—don’t trust them.

a. The supply closet—the brooms and mops are only used in the mornings so this room, unless there is a spill, will likely be empty.

b. Behind the dairy aisle. The cool air is comforting. The customers normally don’t detect the shadows that pass behind cartons of milk and cream.

c. In the produce section—her tears will not rehydrate the fruit, but the image of a woman crying over strawberries and grapes may recall the image of Cordelia crying over barren land, how her tears caused flowers to bloom. Customers who see Rachel crying will know something of gravity is happening and will give her a wide berth.


  1. Rachel is still crying when she gets paged to the front to help with the midday rush. She wipes her tears on her sleeve—it’s made of a rough fabric and irritates her eyes. The ghost of Amy Winehouse says, That won’t do. She puts her cigarette in her mouth and wipes Rachel’s face. Her fingers smell of tobacco. Rachel slips her cell phone into the front pocket of her Grocery Supreme™ smock8. As soon as Rachel’s tears have dried the ghost is gone. Rachel walks across the once-shining floors and the music overhead stops. A ringing fills the store. It rings five times and then goes to voicemail. Hey, it’s Imogene, I can’t come to the phone right now. Leave me a message! Rachel stops breathing. The ringing starts again. Hey, it’s Imogene, I can’t come to the phone right now. Leave me a message! And again. And again. Amy Winehouse’s body was found by her live-in security guard. To be found by someone you love is a gentler way for your spirit to leave this world. What does Rachel remember at this moment? Dreamer Hint: It’s not what you would expect.

a. How Imogene always says, Dykes in small towns have to stick together. As if they hadn’t been friends since childhood, as if Rachel wanted anything other than to spend her life by Imogene’s side.

b. How Imogene eats mushrooms raw as Rachel prepares the marinade. It’s a simple marinade but Imogene loves it and would drink it raw if Rachel let her—balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, fresh rosemary, garlic, and black pepper.

c. How Imogene lines her windowsills with sea glass. The way the sunlight creates blue, green, and brown shadows.

8 Tsk, tsk, Rachel! No phones on the floor, please and thank you! ☺


Section 5: Long Answer Questions

This is the final section. This section will determine if you have the appropriate amount of empathy and drive to work at Grocery Supreme™. Please answer in full sentences. You will not be penalized for small spelling and grammatical errors unless they impede the adjudicator’s comprehension.

  1. Rachel decides she can’t fix the PA system. She tells herself that someone else will do it. As Rachel rings customers through, they comment on the weird music. Rachel laughs. They laugh. She doesn’t always like making small talk with the customers but today it feels like a life raft. Do you have a best friend? If so, describe them. If not, use this time to brainstorm how you might acquire a best friend. Reflect on your personal failings which have led you to not having a best friend. The Grocery Supreme™ Team believes friendship is necessary for good mental health. Studies show that employees who have good mental health call in sick less frequently than those who don’t. Dreamer Hint: If you don’t have a best friend, it may be in your best interest to lie.
  2. As Rachel swipes the barcode on a package of grapes, her cell phone vibrates. She ignores it, continues her work. As she punches in the total, her cell phone vibrates again. She reaches into her smock and mashes her fingers over the buttons until it stops. When Rachel leaves Grocery Supreme™ the air is cold on her face. The ghost of Amy Winehouse sings about losing games. Her voice echoes off the asphalt. The street is empty. Rachel sees that she has missed seven calls from Imogene’s mother. For years, Rachel will try and piece together what happened the night prior, after she left Imogene’s apartment. Pieces emerge: Imogene’s blood alcohol content was 415 ml per 100 ml—15 ml above what is fatal for most people, there were several outgoing missed calls to Imogene’s ex-girlfriend, Imogene’s YouTube watch history shows that she watched the official video for “Back to Black” on repeat from 3 a.m. to 3:36 a.m. As Rachel calls Imogene’s mother, the ghost of Amy Winehouse takes her hand. What does Rachel regret? Dreamer Hint: It’s not just one thing.


Thank you for your interest in becoming a Dreamer. The Grocery Supreme™ team will review your application. If you are deemed a suitable candidate, you will hear from us within nine business days. If you don’t hear from us, it’s likely because we have deemed you:

  • Too soft-hearted
  • Too cold-hearted
  • Unlikely to clean up sugar in a satisfactory manner


CLARA OTTO is a queer writer living on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. She is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia. Her work has been published in The Ex-Puritan, just femme and dandy, and elsewhere. When not writing, you can find her scouring thrift stores for pottery and drinking bubble tea. Find her on Twitter or Instagram at @claraotto411.


Featured image by Jamie Street, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

For several years I have been interested in taking everyday forms—grocery lists, posters, tests—and making stories out of them. In part, the inspiration for “The Ghost of Amy Winehouse” came from helping a student study for and take job aptitude tests for entry-level service industry jobs. The questions were absurd and seemed deeply unrelated to the work. I wondered about the people who wrote these tests and who, if anyone, reviewed them.

I am not someone who makes outlines. I have to muddle my way through. Over the course of a few drafts, the point of view, the format of the test, and the way the characters related to each other changed. Amid all these changes, the ghost was always the ghost of Amy Winehouse. I can’t put my finger on why—it just seemed right.

I wanted the structure of this story to mirror the claustrophobia I had felt while working as a server. In public-facing jobs, you always have to be “on”—no matter what is happening around you. Sometimes I look back on the years I spent working in restaurants and am amazed I held out for so long. Of all the fields I have worked in—publishing, teaching, and development—customer service was the most challenging. However, I didn’t want to solely focus on the misery and hardship of the characters in this story. I wanted to include moments of humour and tenderness because when I was a server my life was just as complex as it is now—with just as many joys and heartbreaks. The only difference is now when I tell people what I do for work they don’t ask me when I’ll get “a real job.”


CLARA OTTO is a queer writer living on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. She is an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia. Her work has been published in The Ex-Puritan, just femme and dandy, and elsewhere. When not writing, you can find her scouring thrift stores for pottery and drinking bubble tea. Find her on Twitter or Instagram at @claraotto411.