Exploring the art of prose


Empty Nester by Jennifer Lewis

Image is a color photograph of a small teddy bear left on a cement stoop in front of a weathered door; title card for the new short story, "Empty Nester," by Jennifer Lewis.

Sometimes the need for memory is so strong that it overwhelms us, like hunger, and must be satiated at all costs. No clearer is this need shown by Jennifer Lewis in “Empty Nester” than when the unnamed main character, in a practically feral state due to her sadness at her daughter leaving home for college, almost rips open a bag of diapers just so that she can once again smell the scent of baby powder. Lewis shows us a brief but powerful glimpse of desperation, grief, and need in a San Francisco Walgreens that is closing due to rampant shoplifting.

Lewis depicts the main character’s emotional state not only through her actions, but also through her interactions with other mothers as the main character simultaneously encounters a new mom who has recently given birth and an old friend who has already experienced the joy and heartbreak of a child growing up and moving out. The new mom is impatient, continually pressing the customer service button to buy more baby formula. The old friend, wearing trendy running clothes, declares how happy she is to be done with the day-to-day of early parenthood. Our main character, stuck in the middle of the before and after, cannot relate to either of them, so caught up in her grief that she gathers baby items she no longer needs. As Lewis notes, “This story helped me express the transitional time when an extra chair at dinner, a clean bedroom, or that first glimpse of an empty laundry basket can make you cry.”

Another way Lewis portrays the main character’s grief is through narrative structure. The repeated phrase, “Customer service associate needed…,” written in italics and given standalone paragraphs, is woven throughout the story like an incantation. At first, the phrase sounds like a standard call for service that blares through the store, but it quickly shifts into rendering the character’s emotional and mental state—forcing memories, both good and bad, to the forefront, just as it forces the wealthier characters to contend with the poverty they would otherwise never acknowledge.

“They won’t stop stealing,” says the Walgreens associate to a customer shouldering an expensive designer bag, who wonders, “Why would anyone think it’s okay to steal?” We, of course, know who “they” refers to: the poorest among us, the ones in such a desperate situation that they would break all the rules of law and etiquette to chug milk in the middle of the aisle, or to walk out without paying for the items they need. Our unnamed main character is not driven by financial or situational desperation, but rather an emotional extreme; yet, as Jennifer Lewis demonstrates in “Empty Nester,” ultimately, readers must reckon with the poignant parallels in the desperate behavior of desperate people.  —CRAFT


I hold the things I need in my arms. Since the pandemic, I don’t use a basket. Today, I’m cradling a bottle of Advil gel caps, blue mascara, and a ginger lemon kombucha.

Customer service associate needed in the beauty department.

As I wait for the associate to get my dandruff shampoo, I stare at a box of multicolored stuffed animals named Mr. Bear Bear. I remember the time I bought one for my daughter, Lucy, when she slipped coming out of a hot tub and fractured her ankle. We were at a BBQ in San Rafael. I had a glass of chardonnay in my hand. I had sat down for the first time in seven years, and I said something to the other parents like, Isn’t it nice that we don’t have to watch them every second anymore?

Then I heard her scream. My husband picked her up, and we took her to the emergency room for X-rays and a boot. Afterward, when I went to Walgreens to get some bubble gum-flavored Motrin and an ice pack, I grabbed a Mr. Bear Bear.

Customer service associate needed in the first aid department.

This is the last day the Walgreens is open and I’ve just returned from dropping Lucy off at college. The outside windows are already boarded up. Dust covers the empty shelves. The products haven’t been restocked in weeks. I feel a tear burn from the corner of my eye as the associate unlocks the cage and hands me the dandruff shampoo.

“Thank you,” I say. “What will you do next?”

“Transfer to another store,” the associate replies. “I don’t know which one yet.”

Customer service associate needed in the grief department.

I used to call Lucy “Bird” because of the way her mouth opened and closed when she lay on my chest. I’d exaggerate the rise and fall of my breath so she could drift asleep to the same ocean-pulse outside of me as she did inside the womb. Her arrival activated a deep stillness I’d never known. An effortless kind of love coursed through my veins. She was forever in my lap. A tiny giant who stood between the tree trunks of my legs. Always holding onto me, I carried her longer than I should’ve. My right hip, permanently higher than the left.

Customer service associate needed in the family planning department.

When we first moved near the Clement Street Walgreens, the only items under lock and key were condoms, pregnancy tests, and the real Sudafed. Twenty years later, even the floss sticks and Q-tips need to be guarded.

“It’s a shame you’re closing,” a woman says to the man behind the beauty counter. My glossy eyes read the green embroidered initials on her Louis Vuitton Neverfull tote bag. 

“They won’t stop stealing,” the man says as he scans her items. “We’re too understaffed to stop them.” He places his readers on his bald head and speaks to the cash register. “People just take what they need.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” the woman says. “Why would anyone think it’s okay to steal?” 

Customer service associate needed in the memory department.

I walk down the aisles and think about how many infant droppers of Motrin we went through. Or bottles of Benadryl. All those nights we spent hours steaming Lucy in the shower to clear her lungs from one viral cough or another. The menthol scent of Vicks VapoRub fools your senses into believing your nose is open and clear. Or picking up steroids at the pharmacy when her croup cough was so bad that we finally had to put her on a nebulizer. We’ve bought all her school supplies here. Valentine’s cards. Easter bunnies and yellow marshmallow chicks. Not too long ago, she and I walked here when she got her period so she could pick out the items that were most comfortable for her body. Just recently, we got our booster shots right there in that chair. I sit down in front of the closed pharmacy; the red button says, “Need Help?”

Customer service associate needed in the mental health department.    

“You need sunscreen,” I said before I drove away.

“I’ll just get some at Walgreens,” Lucy replied.

“No,” I dug through my canvas tote, “take mine. This one doesn’t burn your eyes.”

I slammed the trunk. The tilted sandstone slabs of the Flatirons glowed a reddish brown behind her. The intense sun increased the sweat on my upper lip. Lucy towered over me. I hugged her sturdy body; my head rested on her chest. I shook like a leaf.

“Bye, Bird,” I said, forcing the sunscreen into her hands.

“Bye, Mom.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll call you later.”

Customer service associate needed in the contraception department.

Two teenage boys roll magazines and shove them into the pockets of their hooded sweatshirts. They look like kids Lucy went to grade school with. They must recognize me, because when I stand up, they run down the aisle and out the automatic doors. I walk over to the baby department, looking at the Similac formula, remembering the foggy day when I decided to switch from breast milk. I remember wanting my body chemistry back so badly, but I didn’t want to put anything unnatural into Lucy’s body. I felt that same way when I held her hand when she got her COVID vaccine here, and when I stood outside the doctor’s office after I encouraged her to get an IUD. I hoped I knew what was best for her.

I pick up a package of Pampers Swaddlers and I try to smell the baby powder through the plastic. One diaper is the size of my iPhone. She’s now four inches taller than me. I’m about to tear the package open with my teeth, just to smell the chemical baby powder. I want the fragrance to take me back to a time when I was needed, but a woman in a paisley dress stands right next to me.

“I know I’m never supposed to ask this,” she says, “but…I can’t help it. Are you expecting?”

I touch my soft, empty belly to remember what it feels like to have all that importance inside me. After I had Lucy, people would ask me if I were pregnant and usually, I’d say something snarky like, Nope, just finished a burrito, because, most of the times, I had! Or I’d say something sharp like, You know you shouldn’t ask me that! Not because I’m hurt that my belly kept its round shape, but for the other folks who might have had a hard time conceiving. What if I’d just had a miscarriage? It’s a sensitive subject.

But today, I say, “How can you tell?”

“I’m still emotional too,” she replies.

Huh. I touch my wet cheek. She’s the only person who’s called me on my public crying.

“It has to be your first,” she continues.

“How’d you know?”

“I’m a new mom,” she replies. “I’m in the fourth trimester and I’m as sleep-deprived as everyone says!”

She presses the button:

Customer service associate needed in the baby department.

And like a new mom, she starts giving me unsolicited advice about which pacifiers work best, which products have the fewest chemicals, and which brands to avoid altogether. The whole time she keeps jamming the red button.

“You don’t have to press that again,” I say. “It keeps repeating until someone comes. They’ve been understaffed for months. You just have to wait.”

“Oh.” She smiles and places a green pacifier that looks like a nipple on top of the pile in my arms. “My son loves this one. Are you sure you don’t want a basket?”

I look down and somehow, I’ve dropped all the items that I came here for, and with my arms, I’m swaddling infant diapers, unisex bibs, and a box of Pedialyte Freezer Pops.

“I’m good,” I say. That is, until I see Susan Penbroke waving at me. She’s walking down the aisle and is going to blow my cover.

Customer service associate needed in the socially awkward department.

“Are you going to a baby shower?” Susan says. Her short hair is spiky with sweat. I’d always see her speed walking with a BabyBjörn, pushing a double stroller uphill. Today, she looks like she’s in a scuba suit: shiny black leggings and a tight long-sleeved running shirt. “What’s with the baby stuff?”

I look at The New Mom as if to say, Don’t tell her my secret. She winks at me like an intimate friend, and I forgive her for breaking the cardinal rule.

“Yeah,” I say. “A baby shower.”     

“Do you remember those days?” Susan says. “So happy to be done with them.”

The New Mom looks confused. Luckily, the Walgreens associate stands in between us and opens the formula cage.

“Obviously, I’m still breastfeeding,” The New Mom says to Susan and me. “But we are going to Napa this weekend and I thought I should have some formula, just in case. You know, if I have to pump and dump.”

“Thank you,” I say to the associate. 

“Of course,” Susan says to The New Mom.

“Good luck,” The New Mom says to me.

Susan Penbroke looks me up and down. Her oldest daughter is a sophomore at Duke. She wants to commiserate. She has already told me when she dropped her daughter off last fall that she flew home, slept in her bed, smelled her pillow, and wept. She had no idea it would be that hard. Plus, she has two other kids still at home. She couldn’t imagine how I must be feeling right now, being an empty nester. I always hated that term, and I decided I wouldn’t be friends with anyone who used it. Why does society always want to make us feel like there is nothing left?

“What are you going to do with all your free time?” she says.

“Start scuba diving?” I say.

Susan looks as confused as I do. Behind her, I see an older woman stuff two blush compacts into her bra. A barefoot man with dirty jeans grabs a gallon of milk and starts chugging. White liquid dribbles down his chin. I don’t know what I’m going to do. But, I think it’s time I leave San Francisco. I need to find a new nest.

“Where’s the shower?”

“It’s virtual,” I reply. “But I’m dropping off a gift basket.”

“It’s so sad that they’re closing this place.”

“People take what they need,” I reply.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she says, walking with me to the register.

The New Mom is last in line, and I can’t stand with the two of them. I pretend to need more things, but no one stands in line behind them. They start showing each other pictures of their children on their phones. I’m stuck. I don’t want to be here anymore, but I can’t let go of the baby items in my hands. There’s this voice inside me that keeps saying, Nothing will ever fill you up again. I’m like the damn Louis Vuitton bag! The box of Mr. Bear Bears is looking at me. Take me, they say. You need something to love. I walk over, pick one up with my teeth like one of those toy claw machines where no one wins, and I stroll out the automatic doors, hoping someone will tackle me. But the alarm sensor doesn’t go off. The associate doesn’t even lift his head. The other moms are so engrossed in their children’s photos that they’ve forgotten all about me. Outside, I pass the older woman with enough rouge on her cheeks that she looks like a clown. I nod at the man with the gallon of milk between his legs. And I walk home with everything I no longer need pressed to my heart.

JENNIFER LEWIS is a writer, editor, and publisher of Red Light Lit. Her debut short story collection, The New Low, was published by Black Lawrence Press. Her stories have won the Nomadic Press Bindle Award and The Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction Award. Her fiction has been published in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Los Angeles Press, and Midnight Breakfast. Her nonfiction has been published in Alta Journal, Joshua Tree Voice, and The Rumpus. She received her MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Jennifer teaches at The Writing Salon in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram @jenniferlewiswrites.


Featured image by Marina Shatskih, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

In August of 2023, my oldest daughter left for college and immediately I received many forlorn looks with the same question from intelligent people: “What are you going to do when you’re an empty nester?” Huh? I wanted to say, That term is as outdated as spinster. Why do we still use it? Doesn’t it perpetuate stereotypes that family status defines a woman’s worth or happiness? Empty nester implies loss, suggesting that life diminishes after kids leave. My single or childless friends don’t have a counterpart to this phrase. Their lives keep thriving! Meanwhile, empty nester promotes this idea of a mother’s life being centered around sacrifice, and then there is a void. I didn’t want either of those statements to be true.

Maintaining my individuality has been a conscious choice. I love my children as much as any mom, and I’ve also retained the multifaceted identities I’ve had since before motherhood. Most of my friends don’t have children and my relationships revolve around creative projects. Because I attempted to compartmentalize motherhood, I thought my creative life would shield me from the grief of my children leaving. It didn’t.

When my daughter left for school, I recognized the paradox, and I tried, through this story, to subvert the narrative. I disliked the social stigma or pity associated with the term empty nester, yet I walked around the neighborhood carrying inconsolable sadness. This story helped me express the transitional time when an extra chair at dinner, a clean bedroom, or that first glimpse of an empty laundry basket can make you cry.

Before this story got accepted to CRAFT, I received a rejection letter from an unnamed editor that read, “The theme of loss is introduced right from the outset. However, when delving deeper into the narrative, it becomes clear that death is not the reason for the narrator losing her daughter—she has simply grown up.” I wanted to respond to this editor, Yes! That’s exactly it.


JENNIFER LEWIS is a writer, editor, and publisher of Red Light Lit. Her debut short story collection, The New Low, was published by Black Lawrence Press. Her stories have won the Nomadic Press Bindle Award and The Los Angeles Review Flash Fiction Award. Her fiction has been published in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Los Angeles Press, and Midnight Breakfast. Her nonfiction has been published in Alta Journal, Joshua Tree Voice, and The Rumpus. She received her MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University. Jennifer teaches at The Writing Salon in San Francisco. Find her on Instagram @jenniferlewiswrites.