The Hands of Strangers


a novella by

Michael F. Smith

130 pages, $9.95 cover price (collectible, FIRST PRINTING, limited print run, price adjusted as quantities decrease, the only place you can buy NEW copies–all others are USED)

ISBN: 978-1-59948-287-3

Release date: 2011


Jon and Estelle walk the picturesque Paris streets, but are living through the cruelest of realties–the disappearance of Jennifer, their nine-year old daughter. Jennifer is abducted from the Musee D’Orsay during a class field trip, leaving no trace, and Jon and Estelle are left to deal with the literal unknown, trying, and often failing, to stand up to the emotional and psychological challenges of the everyday. Their relationship and faith falls into question as the passing time chips away at the hope of Jennifer’s return. The once beautiful city, and its eccentric characters, has become cold and apathetic as each of them drift in different directions, looking for answers in the wrong places.


*The First Printing of this title consists of less than 1100 copies. The rights to publish it have been sold, but Main Street Rag owns the only remaining First Print copies. As a result, we will increase the price we charge for this book as our inventory shrinks on the basis of collectability and demand until they are gone.  


MFSmith_PxMichael F. Smith has been awarded the Mississippi Arts Commission Fellowship Award for Literary Arts, the Transatlantic Review Award for Fiction, the Alabama Arts Council Fellowship Award for Literature, and the Brick Streets Press Short Story Award. He served a creative writing fellowship with the Eur-Am Center for International Education in Pontlevoy, France, and his fiction has appeared in numerous literary reviews and anthologies. He is a native Mississippian, but has lived all over the country and spent extensive time in France and Switzerland. He now lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife and two daughters, in a turn-of-the-century Victorian home.

The Hands of Strangers is a beautiful novel about the worst nightmare a parent can experience. When Jon and Estelle’s daughter vanishes in Paris, they try to survive the days, weeks, and months in their own ways, dealing with their own secrets and questions, both wondering: Can hope alone change anything? Michael F. Smith has captured what happens when a lovely and familiar city becomes terrible and strange, and when a relationship is tested by devastating uncertainty. This is a page-turner that will make you want to slow down to savor the writing and stay with these characters longer.

–Becky Hagenston

Michael F. Smith’s The Hands of Strangers is a remarkable achievement, a tortured novel that combines a delicately drawn Paris in winter with a too-common event these days, the vanished child. Here the loss is striking and potent, filling the reader with fear and making the impossible-to-imagine wrenchingly clear and present. The writing is first rate, the story is chilling, a warning for us all, maybe even a threat reminding us how far off our game we can get without really knowing it, and how hard it might be to get back to where we started. A remarkable first novel from a truly gifted young writer.

–Frederick Barthelme

Michael F. Smith uses language like brushstrokes, building layers of rich textures and smooth contours in The Hands of StrangersHis characters navigate the familiar and the new, along Paris streets as well as the ever-changing emotional landscape. Smith achieves a finely wrought mix of momentum and weight that fuels the desire of the characters to search for answers and the desire of his readers will surely feel to follow the journey.

–Ravi Howard

From Publishers Weekly

In Smith’s fantastic debut novella, an American-born French citizen named Jon, and his French wife, Estelle, find their world ripped apart when their nine-year-old daughter Jennifer goes missing. Jon turns Paris upside down in an attempt to locate her; days turn to weeks, weeks to months. He covers the city with missing person fliers and largely avoids interacting with his wife Estelle, who is as emotionally distraught as he is and spends her days waiting by the phone. They each imagine the worst and do their best to avoid the elephant in the room while eating dinner or trying to get to sleep at night. Jon meets a free-spirited artist named Iris, and she enters his life as quickly and quietly as his daughter has left it. She paints an affecting portrait of Jennifer, a simple act that has great impact on both Jon and Estelle. Smith eloquently captures the damaged souls of two people crumbling under the weight of uncertainty and waning hope. In this anxiety-ridden little gem, Smith captures the essence of the helpless, making more of an impact than most novels three times its size.

The Hands of Strangers
Le rayon d’en haut does not always shine upon us and may well be hidden behind
clouds, but without that light a man cannot live and is worth nothing and can do no
good, and those who claim that man can live without faith in that higher light and
need not trouble to acquire it, are sure to have their hopes dashed.
–Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother Theo van Gogh


When it comes you will know it, when it comes you will know it, Jon repeated to himself. It came and went and he didn’t know it until two stops past. He had counted before he got on the metro. Eight stops. And he counted because he wasn’t able to see the signs on the wall in the metro halls, the bodies crammed together, a mob of Parisian heads surrounding him and crowding the door in the evening’s busiest hour. So he counted and stood in the middle and subtracted one at each stop. He had three to go and that’s when he began repeating, when it comes you will know it. And then he started thinking about Estelle at home in the apartment, sitting next to the telephone, organizing their flyer campaign for high-traffic street corners and bus stops and metro lines and now he realizes he’s two stops past.

“Goddamn it,” he mumbles and a man holding a bag of groceries looks at him blankly.

The plan was for Jon to be in prime position to hand out the flyers in the Gare du Nord metro station before the six o’clock crowd, but he stopped for a drink that became three. He knows Estelle won’t know. She won’t leave that phone in case the police call and she trusts him to do this right but he had to have a drink. He can’t help but have a drink before he goes into the metro with a stack of orange flyers that have a picture of his nine-year old daughter in the middle, surrounded with AIDEZ-NOUS a RETROUVER JENNIFER written in bold black letters. He simply can’t help it.

The metro stops and he bumps out of the door with a pack of others. He moves with the crowd along the passageways of the rue Montmarte stop. It takes going up and down stairs and through a rounded hallway to get to the other side of the tracks. People are everywhere and in a steady shuffle, ready to get home, put up their feet, have their dinner, read their paper. The train arrives and this time he concentrates, gets on late so he can stand near the door, see out of the window. Back two stops to Gare du Nord where five metro lines and half of Paris collide and there is every kind of face-old, pretty, tired, laughing, cynical, white, brown, round, thin, childish, hollow. No matches for Jennifer. No little girl with thin, wavy hair and brown eyes, wearing jeans and a pink backpack and her heavy coat. Two months and nothing. Two months of her dancing in his head in this outfit. He stops at the foot of the escalator where people cluster in an impatient pack and passes out the orange flyers. Some take, some ignore. The ones that take fold and stuff it without looking, maybe will find it later when they reach into their pockets or purses as they pay for bread on the walk home, will say to themselves, “Where did this come from?” And he wonders the same. This day, this moment, this getting here, this standing at the escalator. Where did this come from? This slow, slow ticking of the clock. The crowd thins as the time between trains expands and out of a stack of two hundred flyers, he keeps five to post on the exits that lead up into the streets.

He gets onto the escalator and the woman on the step in front of him sees what he’s holding and says, “I have seen this. On the news. You haven’t found her yet?”

Jon shakes his head and says, “Not yet.”

“You should go on television again,” she says and turns away. He feels confident that if universal law allowed it, he could put his hands around her neck and choke her until her mouth was dry.

The walkways’ and intersections’ exits and entrances are organized chaos and he is nearly knocked down over and over working his way through the traffic. When he’s done sticking up the last one, he looks at his watch and times for thirty seconds, then counts how many people look at their flyer.

Two. Which is up one from last week when he posted at Gare de L’Est.

He gets on the metro and heads back home. At the café on the end of his street Monsieur Conrer serves him another drink and when he goes into the apartment Estelle is perched on a stool next to the phone in the kitchen, cigarette in one hand and red marker in the other. She looks up, smokes, then says, “How’d it go?”

They have stopped sleeping in the same room because they don’t sleep. Estelle takes the couch and Jon lies in the bedroom. He hears her all hours of the night-pacing, opening the refrigerator door, changing channels. Jon tries to trick himself into sleeping by imagining they’re on a long vacation and Jennifer is left behind with friends. Sometimes Estelle will come into the bedroom and crawl over close to him, rest her head on his chest, curl herself into a ball. She is a combination of smells-of perfume, of cigarettes, of coffee. But she doesn’t ever stay curled next to him for long.

On empty afternoons, when alone in the apartment, each of them has tried to go into Jennifer’s room and make her bed, put her shoes away in the closet, close the teen fashion magazine lying open on her nightstand. Jon had laughed when she held it to him in the bookstore and said she needed it. “Need? Nine is a single digit number. That information is for girls with double-digit birthdays.” She looked down at it, ran her hand across the glossy cover, as if she could feel herself in the perfect face staring back at her. “Let’s just pretend I’m twelve,” she said. He took it and made her promise not to tell her mother. Which she did the moment they walked in the apartment. Later that night, with Jennifer asleep between them on the couch, Estelle had reached over and playfully smacked the back of Jon’s head and said, “Don’t rush her.”

So they go into the room, but tiptoe around the way it is. Careful not to disrupt her life. They keep the door half-open, giving themselves a glimpse of the life that was as they walk down the hallway.

Even life upside down has its routine. Estelle stays at home on high alert but Jon has to go to work because the earth keeps spinning. So he shows up at L’Ecole Des Langues at nine a.m. every weekday morning, goes to his desk, assorts his tasks for the day, and then the knocks and bumps of an office distract him until he walks back into the street in the evening. His co-workers can’t figure out how to treat him. Too normal and they risk apathy. Too sympathetic and they become patronizing. What he gets are overly cautious smiles when he’s handed a fax or offered a smoke or asked about something he should have done already. Hidden sympathy in tiny gestures that he appreciates but he would rather them kick a hole in the side of his desk and scream, “What the fuck is the world coming to!”

If you’d like to read the rest of the story, order The Hands of Strangers by Michael F. Smith today.

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