Month: November 2021

shortfiction24

Death By Millstone

What I’m Writing

I am a few weeks late posting here. It took longer than usual to get this story right. I hope you enjoy it.

Reader caution: possible trigger regarding abuse.

Death By Millstone

Bob Gillen

Jack Marin and Diane Somers sat in rickety aluminum beach chairs a few feet back from the water’s edge at Point Dume. Southern California at its finest. A sky that defined the word blue. An ocean that shimmered in the breeze like the sequins on a go-go dancer’s dress. 

Jack wore a pale yellow baseball cap, faded jeans and a black sweatshirt. She was in gray leggings and an oversize white Oxford shirt. Both were barefoot.

Jack reached down for his Starbucks blond Americano, the cup wedged in the sand. Diane sipped a bottled water. 

Seagulls squawked overhead. Jack breathed in the salt air. “This is nice.”

Point Dume. Credit: AllTrails.com

Diane smiled. “Blue skies and fresh air. The start of what could be a nice relationship.”

Jack choked, swallowed his coffee hard.

Diane put her hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Shit. I always put my foot in my mouth. Let me re-phrase that. This is the start of a nice morning together.”

Jack leaned back in his chair. “Better.”

“I had coffee once with a guy I met on a different dating app,” Diane said. “Not the one where you and I met. It was a decent conversation. We talked about our kids. About what airlines we used the most. About our surgeries. After twenty minutes he suddenly stood up, said, ’Thanks, but this isn’t going to work,’ and he walked out.”

“Ouch.” 

“Yeah.” She pointed her water bottle toward Jack. “I think when he realized I never had a hysterectomy, and he never had a vasectomy, he got scared and took off.”

Jack laughed. 

Diane reached over and touched his arm. “Relax. Let’s just enjoy the beach together. No expectations.”

“That works for me.”

She sipped her water. “What kind of books do you like to read?” she asked.

“Mostly mystery and thriller. Some general fiction. You?”

“Contemporary fiction. Some biographies. A few romance novels thrown in, but I need to be in the mood.”

“What mood is that?” Jack stretched his legs out in the sand.

“Well…when I’m in an optimistic frame of mind. Then happily ever after makes sense. Most days, though, I’m not terribly hopeful.”

“Been burned?”

Diane blinked, reached down for a small picnic sack. “How about a snack?”

She pulled out a few containers with fruit slices, cheese bites, pretzels.

“Hey, thanks. I’ll try a pretzel.”

She grabbed two apple slices.

Jack said, “Last night I got fifty pages into a new thriller novel – an author I never read before. And I tossed it.”

“Boring?”

“No. Same old shit. A serial killer. A guy, of course, a long distance trucker, targets women at truck stops.”

“And?”

“And I am sick of crime stories where a guy targets vulnerable women and children as victims. The concept is so played out.”

 Diane nodded slightly. “Yeah, I get that.”

The ocean breeze picked up. Jack reversed his cap to keep it from blowing off. Diane’s shirt fluttered in the breeze.

“Okay, enough on books. What about travel? Do you travel much?”

Diane brightened. “Whenever I can. I love to fly. Last month I went to Cabo again. My fourth time. My first time alone.”

“Never been there.”

“But you’ve been to Mexico, right? Other beaches?”

Jack shook his head. “I went to Tijuana once…for about an hour.”

Diane smiled. “Don’t tell me…a quick lay.”

I embarrassed you.

Jack felt his face redden. “No. Just to say I had been there.”

“I embarrassed you.”

“No…yeah, a bit, I guess.” He grinned.

“Why bother? I mean, why go only to say you were there?”

Jack grabbed a handful of pretzels.

“You say you like to fly. Well, I don’t. But I will drive anywhere. Hitting Mexico was part of a cross-country road trip I did with a couple of buddies, years back. Many years back.”

“That sounds like a cool adventure. Was one of the buddies named Charley?”

Jack looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh, I get it. Steinbeck.”

She smiled.

“It was a long time ago. We were native New Yorkers. Nick, Gene, me. The road trip was one last guy thing before we all got settled in our careers and our lives.”

Diane stood up. “Leave the chairs and snacks here. Let’s walk. Tell me your road trip story.”

Jack stood, wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. “This comes with me.”

The two walked east along the beach, the surf slapping gently on the sand to their right, the breeze playing on their faces.

Jack sipped his coffee. “I haven’t thought about this in a long time.”

“A good memory, though?”

“Mostly. We left from New York, drove west on I-80, hit Reno, down through Tahoe to San Francisco. Then down the California coast to San Diego…man, was Tahoe beautiful!”

“And Tijuana,” Diane quipped.

Jack nodded. “Return trip past the Grand Canyon, then I-70 through the midwest to home.”

Jack chuckled. “You’re not from the mid-west, are you?”

“Born and bred right here.”

“Okay, good. On the drive home we stopped at an upscale restaurant in Kansas City for dinner. Looking for a good mid-west steak. I told the waitress, in my lousy French accent, we wanted a bottle of red wine, Saint-Émilion. She stared at me, said they didn’t stock that. Then her eyes widened. ‘Oh, you mean,’ and she said in her best flat mid-western accent, ‘St. Emilion.’”

New York snobs.

“New York snobs,” Diane said.

“You got it.”

“It sounds like a trip you’d never forget.”

“Yeah, well…”

The shadow of a lone seagull crossed the sand in front of Jack as it passed in front of the sun. 

“What?”

Jack kicked at the damp sand. “The trip was fine. It’s only after…”

“Do you not want to talk about it?”

“It’s okay.”

He sipped the last of his Americano as they walked.

“The other guys made their lives in New York. My wife and I moved out here. We lost touch. They’re both dead now. Nick a heart attack maybe fifteen years ago, I heard. The other guy, Gene…also a heart attack…shortly after he was arrested.”

“Arrested?” Diane stopped walking. Looked at Jack.

“Yeah. He was a predator. A child abuser.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah, shit is right. I only found out about him recently. When there was so much press about the abusers in the Catholic church, in the Scouts, other organizations. I was reading an article and saw his name.”

Diane turned to stare out at the ocean. “Was he…?”

“Was he an abuser when we took the road trip?”

“Yes.”

“I think so. I’ll never know, of course, but the paper said his crimes went way back. He often took the kids – his victims – camping.”

Diane gripped her water bottle hard.

“We did the trip in Gene’s car, an enormous Chevy Impala. And we carried camping gear. We camped maybe half the nights on the trip.”

Jack shuddered. “Fuck, I never thought of this before. We could have been sleeping in the same tent he used with the kids.” He stopped, sat down in the sand. Stared out at the ocean.

Diane sat next to him.

Jack took the lid off his empty coffee cup, scooped sand into the cup, dumped it out. He did this for a while, scooping, dumping, scooping. 

Diane sat in silence.

“Jesus,” Jack said. “He should burn in hell for what he did to those children.” He crushed the cup in his hand, jammed the lid into the cup.

Diane whispered, “Speaking of Jesus, maybe all the guy can hope for now is forgiveness.”

Jack turned to Diane, shook his head violently. “No! I’m not much of a religious guy any more, but I do remember Jesus saying, if you hurt the children, you should have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown in the sea.”

Diane nodded. “Yeah, he did say that. He also talked about loving everyone…”

“No. There’s no wiggle room there. You hurt kids, you die.”

“Do you think he was a tortured soul?”

“Seriously?” Jack pulled his ankles up to sit cross-legged. “A tortured soul? What about the tortured souls he left in his wake?”

They fell into a long silence. Both stared out at the ocean. They watched sandpipers run back and forth at the water’s edge, dodging each wave. Wave after wave hit the shore, disappeared in the sand, made way for the next one. 

Finally, “How did I not see it?”

Diane said nothing.

Jack ran sand through his fingers. 

“Was I blind? I mean, we knew each other. We were already in the jobs that marked our careers. Nick was studying for the bar in New York. Gene got his degree and was teaching elementary school in an underserved neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was engaged, planned to get married six months later. Shit, I was so naive.”

“What if you knew? What would you have done?”

“I would have turned him in.”

“He was your friend.”

“A buddy, yeah, but not a real friend. No friend does things like that.”

Jack brushed sand off the leg of his pants. “You know what’s ironic? Nick was a lawyer. I heard he worked for a firm that specialized in getting justice for abused children.”

“He represented the victims,” Diane said.

Jack nodded. “I wonder if that’s what got him. What caused his heart attack. Knowing what he knew.”

Diane drew up her knees, wrapped her arms around her legs.

Jack dug his heels into the warm sand. “Nick tolerated no bullshit. I’m guessing he would have thought, like me, predators should all burn in hell. These bastards preyed on vulnerable children. Stole their youth, ruined their lives for all their remaining years. And Nick would have known that these were not crimes of passion.”

Jack began tearing pieces off the crushed cup in his hand. “The bastards planned everything. Selected victims. Worked them and their families. Calculated all the abuse. Premeditated. Over and over.”

so many times there’s no happily ever after

Diane said, “Like I said earlier, so many times there’s no happily ever after.”

Jack picked up the pieces of his mangled coffee cup. “Let’s head back.”

They stood. Diane said, “Shit, I can sure clear a room on a first date, huh?”

Jack shrugged. “The last few years, it has always bugged me that I did that road trip with a guy who turned out to be a predator. How could I have done that?”

As they walked back to their beach chairs, Jack said, “Before the road trip I had bought a whole box of cigars. Garcia y Vega Bravuras. We smoked them at every campsite after supper. One night we were smoking at our campfire. Gene walked off to take our trash to a dumpster. On the way back, he stopped at the neighboring campsite to chat with a family that had two boys. Nick had to yell over to him to come back and leave them alone.”

“You think Nick knew?”

“Nick was smart. Street smart… If he did suspect something, he never let on.”

“And here you are, so many years later, walking a beach, trying to make sense of it.”

“Yeah. No offense, but with a woman I just met an hour ago.” He turned to Diane. “You’re a good listener.”

She smiled, nodded.

They reached their chairs. Jack tossed his crushed and torn cup down in the sand. 

Gulls screeched high overhead. Diane caught Jack’s eyes. “I could listen more if you wish.”

“Let’s sit and enjoy the ocean for a while,” he said. “Maybe happy can be one moment without worrying about ever after.”

***

shortfiction24

A Hard Frost

A reminder that my Mannequin Monday blog is now reborn as shortfiction24. I explain it all here.

What I’m Writing

This week’s story is inspired by a photo my brother Jim posted to his Facebook page last week. He titled it “Hard Frost on the Hydrangea.” It sparked the following story. I share it for your enjoyment. A short bite to read on the bus or subway, before bedtime, even on the toilet.

A Hard Frost

Bob Gillen

Christine sucked in the chill morning air as she ran her daily five miles. First day with the temps slipping below the freeze mark. The rising sun smeared the eastern sky with color, pushing away the stars, promising a warmer day. 

Christine ran hard this morning. Fueled by anger. An anger that made her sweat pants and hoodie almost too warm. She pounded along the asphalt road, dodging a few raccoons still picking over the trash cans at the curb.

Her thoughts would not let last night go. She and her husband had watched their favorite football team lose a critical game. The defense collapsed. The quarterback had been sacked. Twice. They carried him off the field with a probable sprained ankle. Christine had said, “They can put ice on the ankle.”

Gavin, her husband, had snorted. “He needs to keep playing. The team needs him.”

Christine had retorted, “You’re an ER doc. You know he needs treatment.”

And Gavin had said through clenched teeth, “Real players play hurt.”

“You can’t believe that.”

“Do you know how many people I treat who just need to suck it up and keep going? A few stitches or a taped up wrist and they go out on medical leave.”

Both had gone to bed pissed. Gavin left early for his shift. Christine ran.

As her mind rehashed last night’s fight, she failed to see the handful of broken stones in the street. Her left foot slammed down on a chunk of stone, dropping her to her knees. She stood, brushed at the road dirt on her knees, attempted to run. Pain shot through her left foot. She limped across the sidewalk to a park bench.

She slipped off her sneaker, rubbed at the bruise on the bottom of her foot. Nothing broken, nothing bleeding. But it sure hurt like hell. She put the sneaker back on immediately and laced it tight.

Let me rest it for a minute, she thought. No need to push it. She heard her husband’s voice in her head. Real players play hurt. Fuck that, she thought. 

Christine shivered on the cold bench. She stretched her limbs to keep from freezing up. As she rotated her neck, she spied a bouquet of flowers lying next to the bench. Hydrangeas. A pale purple, tinged with darker edges. And frost laced across the flowers. She picked up a card laying in the grass next to the bouquet. I love you forever, it read in green ink. She dropped the card back in its place.

Credit: Jim Gillen

“You can keep the flowers if you want.” The voice startled her. Where was the situational awareness her dad the cop had drilled into her since she was a tiny kid. She looked up to see a young man approaching, trailing footprints on the frost-covered grass. He wore wrinkled tan chinos, grass stains on the knees. A dress shirt with an open cardigan sweater, shoes coated with dirt. The man had stubble, disheveled dark hair, a haunted look in his eyes.

Christine stood, ready to run despite her injured foot. 

“Relax, I’m cool.” The man drew nearer. She saw his eyes were red and swollen.

“I gave that bouquet to my girlfriend last night.” He pointed. “Right here on this bench. Hydrangeas. Her favorite flower. She always talked about having them for her wedding bouquet.”

“Oh.” Christine sat down again as the man sagged down near her on the bench.

“I proposed last night.” The man pulled a ring box out of his pocket, opened it to show Christine a one carat oval stone in a simple setting. 

“That’s a lovely ring,” she told him. 

“She laughed last night when I opened the box. She wouldn’t even try it on. Is that the best you can do? she told me.”

“Wow. Cruel.”

“Yeah. I’ve been pacing around the park all night. She actually walked home by herself.” He shrugged. “I guess I should have seen it coming. She was champagne to my beer budget.”

Christine leaned over and picked up the bouquet. She twirled it in her fingers. Frost covered the petals, sparkled in the rising sun.

The man laughed. “Fitting, isn’t it? Frost on her bouquet?”

“I can’t say anything to console you,” Christine said, “but look at it this way. You saved a lot of money on a pricey wedding.”

The man laughed, nodded. “She would have run me into the ground with her tastes.”

He gestured to the flowers. “I’m serious. Take them home. The sun will melt the frost off them. They’ll be good as new.”

Christine stood, tilting to favor the bruise on her foot.

“You okay?” the man asked.

“Bruised my foot on a stone in the road.”

“I didn’t realize you were hurt. Thought you were just resting.”

The man noted the rings on Christine’s left hand. “I see you said yes to your guy.”

Christine snorted. “After last night I’m not so sure.”

The man nodded. “But you cared enough to say yes.”

She shrugged. “Yeah. We both said yes.” 

 He stood. “My car is there at the curb. Let me drive you home.”

“No, no. I’ll be fine.”

“I insist. You cheered me up a bit. I’m grateful.”

Christine hesitated.

“It’s okay. I’m no perv.”

Christine limped to a green Toyota Prius. 

As they settled into the car, the man said, “I’m a copywriter. But I write novels on the side.”

“That’s cool.”

“I think I found my next title. A Hard Frost on the Hydrangea.”

Christine laughed. “I’ll watch for it. I love a good romance.”

The man said, “No happy ever after in my story.”

Christine paused. “You know what? Can you drive me to the ER?”

“Sure. It’s actually on my way.”

“My husband works there. I need to see him.”

“You want to give that foot some attention?”

“Just the opposite. Give him and me some attention… Real players play hurt.”

***

What I’m Reading

I am about a hundred words into Kathleen Glasgow’s new book, You’d Be Home Now. I am a huge fan of her first two, especially Girl in Pieces. All her books are classed as Young Adult but read well for adults too. Her characters come alive on the pages. More comments next week when I finish the book.

What I’m NOT Listening To

Christmas music!

***

Mannequin Monday: Reborn

shortfiction24

Only Dead Fish Swim with the Current

An apt quote from Ernest Hemingway. When I focused my blog on short fiction well over a year ago, I had thought the title “Mannequin Monday” was a clever takeoff on “Manic Monday.” Every week words would drape the bare mannequin, clothing it in story. I added quirky mannequin photos to supplement each post. I have certainly enjoyed posting to it weekly. But “Mannequin Monday” has evolved into an ill-fitting name.

I have re-designed my blog to reflect more accurately my writing interests, my author identity. I now term it shortfiction24

I’ve been a presence on the internet for 12 years. I started with my filmmaker site in late 2009, added a blog about storytelling (now merged into the filmmaker site), then developed my current blog, this one my author site. I’ve also written a handful of non-fiction and fiction books in that time.

In those 12 years I have seen many of my original internet interviewees and connections change their online identities, their site logos, their purposes. Some simply moved from one social media outlet to another. Others have changed careers or even disappeared from the internet. 

For a time I found it puzzling how they all changed, thinking it displayed inconsistency. But recently I am realizing how normal this is. Change is normal. Stuck in a time warp is not.

Maria Popova has re-titled her popular Brain Pickings newsletter, now calling it Marginalian. “Becoming the Marginalian: after 15 years, Brain Pickings reborn.” Popova says that many things in life are beyond our control. “But amid our slender repertoire of agency are the labels we choose for our labors of love — the works of thought and tenderness we make with the whole of who we are.”

an ill-fitting name

She further says, “As we evolve — as we add experiences, impressions, memories, deepening knowledge and self-knowledge to the combinatorial pool from which all creative work springs — what we make evolves accordingly; it must, if we are living widely and wisely enough.” Her realization: Brain Pickings had evolved into “an ill-fitting name.” Time for change, for growth.

I once interviewed a Dutch video journalist named Ruud Elmendorp, who has covered Africa for various news services for many years. Ruud is now beginning a new journey filming from a large ship as it roams the Mediterranean Sea searching for immigrants in need of rescue. He has been posting video and his personal thoughts as he begins this journey, seeking a new purpose.

book cover for Keep It Moving, by Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp, in her book Keep It Moving, talks of growing and changing as we age. Of not being stuck in the past. She says, “Your objective is to free yourself to be whatever and whoever you need to be right now.”

I am seeing changes in my own identity and purpose. For years I wrote non-fiction. The move to writing fiction was difficult. Still is. I have now further evolved (at least for the moment!) from writing full length novels to focusing on short fiction. Writing a novel, and then trying to market said novel, is quite difficult. And time-consuming.

I have come to enjoy writing short fiction. Hence the change in my blog from “Mannequin Monday” to shortfiction24. The 24 honors my wife Lynn, born on the 24th of one month, years ago, died on the 24th of another month, in 2020. The image of a cupcake is one of Lynn’s creations, drawn digitally to create a simple greeting card. The cupcake represents a small story bite.

Writing short fiction is, for me, perhaps an outgrowth of writing exercises for the writing courses I have taken in recent years. I’ve worked through three online MOOC courses with the International Writing Program (IWP) of the University of Iowa. Each course involved writing exercises. And I currently belong to a small writing group which is an offshoot of IWP alums. I have also taken a short course in journaling, again with short writing pieces as a daily requirement. 

just keep swimming…

I have evolved through many iterations in my lifetime, yet I believe I have remained rooted in who I am. None of my changes have been total disconnects. As Tharp says, “When making big choices in our lives, the best course is to recognize continuity in our intention. Thus we are neither repudiating nor repeating the past but, rather, respecting it as we move on.”

As Hemingway says, “Only dead fish swim with the current.” And as Disney’s Dory says, “Just keep swimming…swimming.” We keep moving. Always upstream, if we are alive.

My blog shortfiction24 will remain true to its core, storytelling. A new story will appear next week, and every week. And more discussion on storytelling.

I hope you continue to celebrate story with me. Thanks for loving story as I do. Storytelling makes the world go round.

***

© 2021 Bob Gillen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑