Bob Gillen

I write short fiction

Mannequin Monday – Half Pepperoni

This Monday our mannequin stops for pizza before catching a flight back to LA. Two surviving brothers share a moment after yet another family funeral.

What I’m Writing

Here’s a writing exercise I did for a course I’m taking with my writing group. The goal was to create a story around a memory shared by no more than three characters. Their voices should contribute to the reader’s sense of place.

Half Pepperoni

Bob Gillen

Andy and Peter drape their coats over an empty chair, sit down at a table in a deserted pizza place in Queens. The room looks out on a creek, quiet today, two p.m. on a January weekday. 

The owner steps up to the table, wiping his hands on a stained apron. 

“Hey guys. Ain’t seen you in a while.”

“Hey Pat,” Andy says.

“Hi Pat.”

“No one else coming?”

“Just us today.”

“Who died?”

Peter points to his brother Andy. “Andy’s sister-in-law. Michelle.”

“Hey, I’m sorry. Last time you was in here, it was a whole crowd.”

“Not anymore.”

“What’s your poison?”

“Large pizza,” Andy says.

“Half pepperoni,” adds Peter.

“You got it. For you, I’ll make it right away.”

Andy looks around at the empty room. “Pat, we’re the only ones here.”

“Hey, I get delivery orders too, you know.” He disappears behind the counter.

Andy fingers the faded red and white check cloth on their table.“I swear these are the same table clothes from the last time we were here.” 

Peter nods. Says, “So?”

“Yeah. Back again.”

“I know. Another in and out funeral for me.” Peter looks at his watch. “I got time to catch my flight, yeah?”

“Sure. JFK’s got security moving faster these days.”

The two turn to stare out at the creek, all the small boats covered for the winter, bobbing slightly in the chill breeze. Seagulls perch on several of the boats.

“See that white house across the creek? With the closed-in patio?” Peter points out the window. “The one with the floating dock?” 

“Yeah.”

“My eighth grade girlfriend’s house. We used to swim off the dock after school in the spring.” 

“Her name was Patricia?”

“Right. Good memory.” Peter smiles. “I never told mom I was swimming there. I would dry off as best I could, pull on my jeans over my bathing suit, and hope the wet didn’t soak through by the time I got home for supper. She never found out till Patricia’s mother met mom in the market and said it was so nice that we were all swimming every afternoon.”

“She must have been so pissed at you. Because someone knew something she didn’t.”

“Tell me about it. I had so much guilt laid on me over that. Why didn’t you trust me to tell me…”

“And have her say no, right?”

“Yeah. Trust me, but if it’s fun, no way.”

“I remember one day she was crying after she talked to you. Crying in the kitchen. She didn’t see me. Maybe that was the day.”

Peter shrugs.

“Man, that was a lot of years ago,” Andy says.

Peter gets up and walks over to a jukebox standing along the far wall. He drops a few coins in, punches a couple of buttons. As he sits, the first song comes up. For the good times.

“Shit,” Peter shakes his head as he sits. “The day after mom’s funeral, Michelle said to me, Well, Peter, with her gone, you and I are the oldest in the family now.

“I don’t remember her saying that.”

“Yeah, right here. Maybe this same table.”

“And now she’s gone.”

“You and me, man.”

Pat slides a large pizza pan down on the checkered tablecloth. “It’s hot.”

“I hope so,” Andy grins.

Pat tosses paper plates on the table. “Drinks?”

Andy asks for water. “Coke for me, Pat,” Peter says.

Peter reaches for a slice. Bubbling cheese, pepperoni crisp around the edges. Oil dripping onto the plate. “I miss this.”

Andy runs a hand through his hair. “First time we were here…right after dad’s burial. I couldn’t believe he lasted as long as he did.”

“Three years sober and the juice still got him.”

“I don’t think mom was upset at all.”

“What the hell. He used to get loaded, then throw rocks into Jack’s pool next door. She was mortified.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Sure, couple times a week. I’m surprised Jack didn’t slug him.”

Peter laughs. “For almost a year before she died, I’d call mom every week from LA and she’d say, if you can’t get in here to visit me, don’t bother coming to my funeral.”

“She said that?”

“Yup.”

“And you almost didn’t, right?”

“Yeah. It was a busy time. I think I did it just to spite her.”

“That was a big wake. Everyone showed up. In the middle of winter. Probably afraid she would haunt them otherwise.”

Peter laughs as he scarfs down a mouthful of pizza. “I was so annoyed. People kept coming up to me saying, do you remember me? Shit, I hadn’t seen those people in thirty years. One guy, Johnny, the cop from Staten Island, he says, Remember me? I say, “Sure, Richie, how are you?”

“He says, no, I’m Johnny.”

“People do that.”

“It pisses me off. Just say hello and give me your name. Come on…I do appreciate that they came for the wake, though.”

Andy and Peter chew silently for a few minutes.

Pat comes over to the table with their drinks. “You guys, I was just thinking, last time you were in, you had your wives with you.”

Andy looks at Pat over his cheese slice. “Both gone, Pat.”

“Oh shit. I didn’t know.” Pat crosses himself. He waves his hand at the pizza. “This one’s on me. You guys been through a lot of shit.”

“You got that right, man.”

“Hey Pat,” Andy says. “How you doin’? Everything okay?”

“Yeah, business is good. Little slow for the winter. Come summer this place is a gold mine.”

“Your family?”

Pat smiles. “Remember my daughter AnnMarie? Used to wait tables here?” He wipes his hands on his apron, pulls a phone out of his back pocket, thumbs through the pictures. “Here’s the whole family…at her wedding last June.”

Andy and Peter smile at the photo. “Good for you, Pat.”

“I been lucky.” He crosses himself again, walks away.

Peter hoists his Coke glass. “So, Andy, like Michelle said to me, you and me, we’re the oldest in the family now.”

“I still got some good years left in me. You?”

“The same.”

“From our lips…”

***

Continue reading

Mannequin Monday – First Words

We kick off another week. Our bare mannequin is draped with the story of a parrot’s first words. A New York parrot. Yes, language!

What I’m Writing

Today I’m sharing a fun story. I hope it gives you a smile as you start your week.

A Parrot’s First Words

Bob Gillen

I’ve heard longtime residents tell the story of a parrot that rode the NYC subway system. Rode back and forth, only on the elevated lines. Never underground. The bird was first spotted at the Howard Beach station in Queens, near the  transfer point to JFK airport. 

New Yorkers with a long memory recall a man who rode the train with his parrot sitting on his left shoulder. Mostly rode south to Rockaway Beach. Got off at Beach 116th Street and walked the boardwalk. The man spent hours sitting on a bench watching the older men play handball. Men with deep tans on their legs and arms, milk white torsos if a shirt lifted in the breeze. 

One New Yorker, a man who rented a beach bungalow every summer, told me that the bird liked lemon ice. His owner let it eat from his cone. The bird’s owner always wore khakis and a Hawaiian shirt, sometimes with birds on it, sometimes flowers. A tan porkpie hat sat on the back of his head.

The handball players would yell to him, Hey, where’s my margherita? The man smiled, the bird ignored them. 

Credit: NY Daily News

Someone claimed to have once spotted the man and bird riding north from Rockaway on the A train, then transferring back to the Lefferts Blvd. station. The two got off near the public library. The man was seen a few hours later riding back towards Rockaway with a handful of books. No one recalls hearing where the man lived.

The subway bird sported a beautiful array of colors. A largely red head and chest, with blue and green plumage. A big bird. Almost the size of a child’s head. One day, in late summer, a few days before Labor Day, the bird rode the train alone. His owner was never seen again. The bird rode the train to the last stop in Rockaway, flew about for a few minutes, and perched in the returning train.

A proud, cocky bird, he knew his place and would yield to no one. He preferred the ledge between two opposing seat backs, and no one would sit near him. Everyone said him. I have no idea how you tell a parrot’s sex. One know-it-all was quoted saying he was a Macaw, and both male and female were colored similarly. The bird would occasionally poop on the seat back. Once a guy sat down in it. He never knew. At least not till he got home.

In all of his travels back and forth the bird never spoke. Not even a squawk or a screech. On days when the train was pretty empty, no women and kids around, there was always a guy who tried to teach the bird to curse. He cocked his head but remained mute. Not a word.

One day a subway conductor spotted the bird riding between the rail cars. He perched on a platform and let the breezes rush through his feathers.

Funny how the bird never had a name. No one ever christened him with an identity. Always just the bird or the parrot.

No one knew how or what he ate. People would offer him a piece of a donut or a snack bar, but he never touched them. And he never, ever let anyone hold him. He perched only on the train seats.

One day in late fall Animal Control showed up with a big net. Someone must have thought the bird would not survive the coming winter. They went home empty handed. The net man waited till the doors closed on the car to move against the bird. But a passenger opened the door at the end of the car and the bird flew out and lit on a handrail. 

The bird got to be well known. A reporter from The New York Times, one of those guys like Meyer Berger who hunted down all the quirky stuff in the city, wrote up the bird in a story. Photo and all. Lots of people called the paper, said he was their bird. No one showed up to actually claim him.

One day in racing season the parrot was sitting on the northbound train as it pulled into the Aqueduct station around the time the race track closed. Men and women dragged themselves on the train after losing at the track. Threw torn-up betting stubs on the car floor. The bird was annoyed at the crowd. Not much space for him to perch. 

Anyway, one guy who looked especially despondent sat where the bird liked to perch. The bird even fluttered his feathers but the guy paid no attention.

After tearing up his last betting stub, the guy looked up. He let a thin smile cross his lips. “Dinner,” he said aloud. “Can’t afford anything else tonight.” He reached for the bird.

Credit: Pinterest

The bird flew off a few feet. The guy got up to reach for him again. The bird flew around him and perched on the seat where the guy had been.

The guy lunged for the bird. It flew down the car a few feet. Out of reach. But it left poop where the guy had been sitting.

“Damn bird. Now I can’t sit.”

The guy stepped closer to the bird, and in his frustration spat at the bird. He missed. Much to his later chagrin, his spit landed on the neck of an off-duty cop. An off-duty cop leaving the track after betting and losing a lot of money. 

Now, New York has a lot of laws. One is, you don’t spit in the subway. An unwritten law is, you don’t spit on a cop. Especially an off-duty cop who now has an incident to deal with. After losing at the track.

The cop turned. “You.” 

The guy glared at him.

“You spit on me?”

The guy said, “Maybe I did, mac. I was aiming at the bird.”

The cop swiped the spit off his neck with his left hand, wiped his hand on the guy’s shirt. 

“Fuck you, mac.” The guy shoved the cop. Not knowing, of course, that he shoved a cop. The cop spun the guy around, pushed him down against an empty seat. Empty because another man was smart enough to get out of the way.

“You just shoved a cop,” the cop said to the guy.

“Fuck you, mac,” the guy said again. Not smart.

“You’re under arrest,” the cop said.

The bird had been watching this action closely. He hopped down on the seat next to the guy. Got right up in his face.

The bird squawked. Then it said its first words.

 “Fuck you, mac!”

***

What I’m Reading

I’ve done a lot of reading on my three-week hiatus from the blog. Next week I’ll offer comments, after I organize my thoughts. I especially enjoyed re-reading The Old Man and the Sea and Hatchet.

More next week. Thanks as always for stopping by.

***

Find my stories on Amazon.

Mannequin Monday – Help me. Please!

Distance runner Maggie Murano spends her first night in rehab after knee surgery.

And quotes from a book I finished reading this week. Welcome back to Mannequin Monday. Draping the blank form with the beauty of words.

What I’m Writing

Another story bite, this one a first night in a rehab facility. Enjoy a moment with Maggie.

Help Me

Bob Gillen

“Help me, please….someone help me.” A man’s voice.  Loud. Wailing. 

Maggie Murano startled awake. Lying on her back in the lumpy bed, only a dim lamp lighting the room, she could barely twist to see the door. Her first night in a skilled nursing facility, rehabbing after knee surgery. Maggie was a distance runner. Mobile. Agile. Flexible. The surgeon told her she needed rehab for a week before she could go home. “I want you to get physical therapy. More than you can get from a home health agency.” She had fought him. Hard. Finally gave up and picked a facility near home. 

“Someone help me. Please.” 

The voice seemed to come from a room across the hall. 

Maggie felt pain from the surgery kicking in. She pressed the call button. Waited. And waited. 

Credit: Forbes

“Help me. Help me, please. I need to get up. Please help.”

No one responded to the voice. The staff must be busy with other patients, she thought.

Twenty minutes later no one had responded to her call button. And the man was still calling out, “Help me. Please, someone help me.”

“Shit, I’ll never get any sleep here. How is this therapy?” Maggie muttered aloud.

“He never stops.” A voice from the doorway.

Maggie turned as best she could. A woman in a wheelchair rolled into the room. She pointed a gnarled finger toward the hall.

“Every night. He does this every night. When his son is here wheeling him around in the daytime, he never says a word. As soon as it’s bedtime, he starts shouting.”

“Can’t they quiet him?” Maggie wondered why the woman was still up and roaming the halls.

“Nothing works. If they fuss over him, they’re neglecting other patients who need their attention.”

The woman wheeled closer to Maggie’s bed.

“Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. Everyone here calls me grandma. Mostly because I know everybody’s business.”

“Hi. I’m Maggie.”

“Yes. I saw you come in this afternoon. I was too busy to say hello till now.”

Again the voice, “Someone help me. Please.”

Maggie nodded toward the hall. “What about meds? A sedative?”

“They say they can only give it for pain.”

“He’s a pain!” Maggie said.

The woman huffed. “At least you’re only here for rehab. Most of us are never going home.” 

Maggie tried to shift in the bed. Ended up wincing from pain. 

“I saw your call light on. You need meds. Let me find a nurse for you.”

“Can you close the door on your way out?”

“Sorry, honey. Rules are, door stays open if you’re alone in the room.” Grandma wheeled out into the hall.

“Help me. Please help me.”

Maggie let her head fall back on the thin pillow. I go home in a week. Grandma’s here till she dies.

***

Continue reading

Mannequin Monday – Find Your Light

In this week’s story bite, Milo sits waiting for his voice to return. Knowing it will not.

And I offer comments on Daniel Silva’s new book The Cellist.

What I’m Writing

Here’s a story-bite sequel to a story titled Sawdust that I first posted on this blog in February 2020. Maurice and Milo are back to entertain you. Enjoy.

Find Your Light

Bob Gillen

“I’m bored.”

The words slipped out of Milo’s mouth in a whisper. He had not spoken for weeks. Not since the night Maurice died.

Again, “I’m bored.”

Milo sat upright on his stool, back against the wall. Sat next to the urn that held Maurice’s ashes. The ashes of his partner. The man he had worked so many clubs and venues with. Milo felt himself smile. Remembering the clubs, the gigs, the audiences. 

And again, Milo heard himself say, “I’m bored.”

What the hell? Maurice is dead. Cremated. Reduced to a jar full of ashes. Milo had no more words. Not without Maurice.

“Heaven ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, buddy.” Milo shuddered. Hard to do for a ventriloquist’s dummy. But shudder he did.

Without moving his eyes, Milo took in the room. Light from a tiny window high on a north wall fell on the urn. Find your light. Maurice’s stage mantra.

Maurice’s ex-wife Darla had dismissed Milo and the urn to a corner of Maurice’s office. The office so small Maurice’s feet hit the wall if he stretched in his chair. The place where they had run all their routines. The room where Maurice’s imagination ran wild. 

Milo’s eyes rolled back and forth. Nothing. No one there. 

“I’m talking to you, Milo.” 

Milo’s jaw clattered against his upper lip. Maurice? Is that you? You’re back?

“It’s me. Maurice. Your voice. I’m still here.”

This is not real.

“Yeah, it’s real. Weird, but real.”

Can we do another gig? 

“Not gonna happen. I don’t know how long I can talk to you. Through you.”

Milo felt his head nod.

“Nothing here but white light. No one around. No one to talk to. Not even harp music. Just light.”

Milo blinked. Did Maurice do that?

“It’s peaceful. I like that. No worries. No drunks in the audience to heckle us. No hassles traveling from one club to the next.”

How can I be talking?

“Milo, buddy, listen to me…I am so bored. You know me, I like to move, to talk. I love being on stage. Love performing. You and me, we did great together, didn’t we?”

It wasn’t my call.

You left me.

 “That night I died on stage…heart attack. I hated to leave you, but it wasn’t my call.”

I’m alone.

“And that bastard club manager, I know he pocketed the cash he owed us. It was a full house. We always packed them in.” He laughed. “I guess we cleared the room pretty quick that night, huh?”

My jaw feels stiff. Haven’t moved it in weeks.

“Like I said, where I’m at is okay, but it’s dull. All those words? Joy, peace, glory, eternal life…they’re not cutting it. I’m missing something.

Milo thought, I’m missing something…you.

“Wait a minute, buddy. Something happening here. The light is brighter. Still quiet, though…Wait! I see someone. A shape…I think it’s time. Milo, take care. Thanks for the good times. Catch you.”

Milo stared straight ahead, mouth closed, jaw rigid. How do I find my light now?

***

Continue reading

Mannequin Monday – Reddy is Gone!

image of wooden hand

Our mannequin this week takes the form of a teacher enduring yet another back-to-school night with her fifth graders’ parents.

And I offer comments on two mysteries I read. Welcome back.

What I’m Writing

Back to school night. Always fraught with tension, even for an experienced teacher. I hope you enjoy this story bite.

The Hard Times of a Classroom Gerbil

Bob Gillen

Dear God, I dread this night. Ms. Caroline Stott gave her fifth grade classroom a final look. Back-to-school night. From behind her came a clattering noise. She turned. Reddy, the class gerbil, was flitting around in his cage. You dread it too, huh?  She reached in, placed Reddy in his transparent exercise ball, and let him roll about on the students’ worktable.

A bell rang. Parents flooded into the classroom and crammed themselves into the kids’ desks. “Welcome, everyone!” Ms. Stott left the classroom doors open as she began her presentation. Outside the room a few students played quietly. The kids whose parents could not find a babysitter. 

Ms. Stott handed a sign-in sheet to one parent. “Please pass this around.” 

One parent raised her hand.

“Yes?”

The woman pointed. “Why is that ball on the table behind you moving?”

Ms. Stott turned. 

Credit: Lessonpix

“Oh, that’s Reddy. He’s our class gerbil. I put him in that exercise ball to work off some energy.”

She picked up the ball and extended it to the woman. “Would you like to pass him around? Take a closer look?”

The mom peered through the clear plastic ball. The gerbil retreated from her close-up face.

“He’s kind of shy,” Ms. Stott said. “I got him last week. He’s still getting used to the students.”

The woman passed the ball to another parent. Ms. Stott continued with her presentation, talking about the curriculum and what she expected from the students.

Reddy and his exercise ball got passed to the back of the aisle. A dad put the ball down on the floor. He watched as the gerbil rolled the ball around, bumping the wall, bouncing off a couple of chair legs. 

Ms. Stott said, “Thank you for coming this evening. Why don’t you walk around and look at your children’s displays before you leave?”

The parents stood. One woman, who had been keying into her phone through the entire presentation, spied the ball rolling on the floor. She looked up, spotted two kids near the door outside, and kicked the exercise ball through the doorway in their direction. “They don’t call me soccer mom for nothing.”

After the parents had cleared out and moved on to another classroom, two students approached Ms. Stott. They handed the exercise ball to her. Ms. Stott gasped.

“We think he’s hurt,” one kid said. “He doesn’t look right.” 

Ms. Stott opened the ball and placed Reddy back in his cage. The gerbil limped across the cage and burrowed into his nest.

Reddy is gone!

The following morning Ms. Stott greeted her students as usual. The pair of students responsible for feeding Reddy today peered into his cage. “Ms. Stott, Reddy is gone!”

Ms. Stott attempted a smile. “Reddy had an accident last night.” 

One student pointed to another. “Derek, your mother killed him. She kicked him out the door. My father saw the whole thing.”

“That’s not true!” Derek burst into tears.

Ms. Stott said, “It was a misunderstanding, James. Your mom thought it was a soccer ball. She didn’t realize.” 

Score another one for back-to-school night.

***

Continue reading

Mannequin Monday – From the Inside Out

I have a spirit that walks with me outdoors. This week’s mannequin takes on spirit form.

What I’m Writing

I’ve been experimenting with writing exercises and prompts this week. I am one week into a four-week program that uses prompts to kick start writing. It’s not journaling, as such. More like pulling up “raw material,” as they call it. Looking for themes to emerge over time. Anyway, here’s a prompted piece I did for the program. Enjoy. And thanks for stopping by every week.

From the Inside Out

Bob Gillen

Hey, good to see you today. Have I told you, I have a spirit that walks with me outdoors. On real walks, not the steps to the mailbox or the trash bin. She began walking with me a week ago. Oh, sorry, I should say they. She prefers the pronoun they/them. I can’t explain why. They did not elucidate.

As I said, I was walking down the street last week, set on going up into the park that overlooks our little town. Halfway down the street I became aware of someone alongside me. Keeping pace. Not hard to do. I am not an assertive walker. First I heard the footfalls. Heavy, thumpy. I looked to my side to see a woman in a long coat, a kind of steampunk outfit, oversize collar and lapels. Big boots on her feet. No cap. Hair in a long ponytail. Light brown. 

They didn’t speak. Simply kept pace. I passed several neighbors who gave me the obligatory hello, how are you? The neighbors looked only at me, apparently not seeing my companion. My new companion never offered me a name. I will refer to them as my spirit from here on.

And spirit they are. No one else can see them. Even I cannot hear them. We don’t speak. I suppose that would be awkward, me walking along talking out loud to myself. Although most would no doubt assume I was on a mobile call.

I did not know I had a spirit.

No, we communicate by thought. I found myself on that first day wondering, who is this person only I can see? And a thought came, as in a reply. I am your spirit. I wondered further, I did not know I had a spirit. The answer, ah, now you do.

I have been out walking three times since that first encounter. Each time I had my shadow with me. I am convinced they have a sense of humor. The second day they dressed as Wonder Woman. Another day they looked like Doris Day. Yesterday they resembled Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, slacks and top in flowing white, fluid movement.

They simply make their presence known, walk alongside, share thoughts, and fade away till next time.

I have to admit, this bit of magic is encouraging me to walk more. If nothing else, that’s a benefit. 

When I reflect on what’s happening, I get an inkling of awareness. Nothing more, as yet. You see, there is presently an emptiness in my life. A vast gap, needing to be filled. I have gone from a doer, a caregiver, someone needed by another, to a person with nothing to do. Nothing. Finding time, making time for tasks, for creative work, for relaxation, was always a challenge, but always possible.

Now, with no obstacles, only a wide expanse of time, I find myself frightened by the challenge. What to do? How to fill the hours? 

And, as by a miracle, along comes this spirit. My spirit. They do not offer answers, advice, admonitions. Nor ammunition. Nothing to chew on, to think about. They are simply a presence. A presence that fills in the emptiness just a bit. Takes the edge off the anxiety. Yesterday, for example, as we walked, I passed a woman pushing a man in one of those complex wheelchairs. I thought, that woman was me, in a way. A caregiver. And my spirit simply sighed, not any more. Not any more. No longer a caregiver. I take a breath, realizing I do not now have the burden of care. The fear of not being able to do it properly. Of failing.

Now my fear has come full face. I can now fail by doing nothing. I can fail by stagnation. I can fail without moving a muscle, or having a thought.

On my walks, on our walks, thoughts drift through my mind, I suspect prompted by my spirit companion. You’re okay. Stronger than you think. You are graced. Be gracious to yourself.

If I may use a medical metaphor, I suppose this situation is similar to a deep, open wound. You can’t stitch it closed till it begins to heal from the inside out. 

From the inside out.

Continue reading
« Older posts

© 2021 Bob Gillen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑