I write short fiction

Month: September 2021

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…”

***

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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.

***

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