Month: March 2022

shortfiction24 – losing Maxine

An art teacher has done a lesson on the power of observation a hundred times…until one student opens her eyes.

What I’m Writing This Week

Today’s story is inspired by an old, old (worn out?) joke and by an interview I did years back with Georgia Packard, a cinematographer who was taught by Ansel Adams. I hope you enjoy the story.

Losing Maxine

Bob Gillen

Students slipped in the classroom door just as the bell rang down the hall. Maria Santana turned to Grace Medford. “Ready?”

Grace nodded. “I’ve done this lesson a hundred times. Let’s do it.”

The two women stepped into the classroom. Sixteen heads turned to gaze at the stranger carrying a cardboard box.

“Let’s focus, class,” Maria said. “Today’s lesson will be fun.”

The high school juniors dumped backpacks on the floor, settled into their seats.

“I want to introduce Ms. Grace Medford to you. She is a friend and a fellow creative arts professional.” Maria gestured to the class. “Grace, this is my class. Sixteen students hungry for art.”

“Good morning,” Grace addressed the class. “I’m happy to be here, happy to meet the class my friend talks so much about.”

“Any of it good?” a boy piped up from the side of the room.

Grace said, “Yes, all of it good…although I don’t recall her mentioning you.”

“Woot,” a girl behind the boy said, as his face turned red.

Grace jumped in. “I’m teasing you. What’s your name?”

The boy said, “Mark.”

Maria slipped to the back of the classroom as Grace took over. “Mark, how’s your knowledge of art history?”

Mark perked up. “Pretty good. I read a lot of it.”

“Okay. Here’s a question for you. You know of the French painter Toulouse-Lautrec?”

“Sure, the Moulin Rouge paintings.”

“Mark, do you know how he got his name?”

Mark’s brows wrinkled. He shook his head.

“Anybody?” Grace called out to the class.

Silence.

“Okay, here’s a bit of art history you won’t learn in books. When Lautrec was a young teenager…maybe your age… most of his clothes were worn and faded.”

Grace looked around the class. “Still with me?”

Lots of nods.

“Lautrec’s mother was not much of a seamstress. She took her son to a tailor. The tailor looked Lautrec up and down, pulled a pair of pants off a shelf, and had him try them on. Lautrec pulled the pants up. The tailor told him, hold out your arms. I want to see how they fit.”

The class peered at Grace.

“So…Lautrec lifted his arms…and the pants fell down around his ankles. The tailor looked at the pants, looked at Lautrec, and said, ‘What’s the matter, Lautrec, too loose?”

Silence for a second. Then a groan from a girl in the front seat. Two more groans. A few students shook their heads.

“What, you don’t believe me?” Grace said.

Mark said, “That was really bad.”

Grace smiled. “Remember, you heard it first here.”

More heads shook.

“All right, let’s get serious. Mrs. Santana invited me here to talk about art and the power of observation.” She reached down and picked up the cardboard box, set it on a small paint-stained table.

“What’s in the box…a head?” one girl asked.

Grace pointed at the girl. “As a matter of fact, yes.”

She lifted the lid and pulled out a mannequin head. She turned the box upside down, set the head on the box, a right-side profile facing the class.

“This is Maxine.”

Maxine featured a smooth alabaster complexion, subdued makeup, a couple of barettes in her curly dark hair. 

“Let’s see what kind of sketching you can do,” Grace said. “Please study Maxine’s profile and sketch her. I’m not looking for a finished sketch. Highlight any features that appeal to you. Give me a snapshot of what you see.”

The students’ pencils scratched as they put on paper what they observed. Grace walked around the room, glancing at each sketch.

Grace stopped their work. “That’s enough time to capture an impression. Anyone want to share?”

A hand went up in the back. Grace waved the boy forward. He held up his sketch, moved it around so everyone could see it. 

“You are…?” Grace asked. 

“Eric.”

“Thanks, Eric. Any comments from the class?”

One girl said, “I like the way he captured the flow of her hair against her head. What I see first is a woman with really cool curly hair.”

“Yeah,” a boy said. “It’s kind of sexy how her hair flows down.”

A couple of girls grimaced.

“No…we’re talking about observation here,” Grace said. “That’s what he sees.”

Several other students shared their sketches as well.

Grace said, “You all know the photographer Ansel Adams, right?”

Heads nodded.

“Adams was a believer in observation. When he prepared to photograph a subject, he studied it carefully. He walked around it. Peered closely at its features. Studied the light.”

More nods.

“Look at Maxine again.” She stepped aside so all the class could see the mannequin head clearly.

“I asked you to sketch what you saw – a side profile. I did not give you an opportunity to study her completely.”

Grace turned the pedestal, box and mannequin to face the window.

“I want you now to stand up and walk around Maxine. Study her fully. Observe light and shadow. Look for features you did not see before. Bring your paper and pencil if you wish.”

Grace gestured and the students got up to walk around their subject.

“Please observe in silence. I would prefer you see what you see, not what someone else may notice.”

Students studied, sketched, wrote notes.

“Go back to your seats now and sketch a fuller impression of Maxine. I’ll give you fifteen minutes.”

After Grace wandered around observing their work, she asked them to stop.

“Anyone want to share?”

A girl came forward. Held up her paper. She had captured a forward profile of Maxine, the flow of hair to one side, a high fade on the other, a single earring to the left side. In her sketch the earring caught the light from the window.

“Good detail. Anyone else?”

Another student displayed a close-up sketch of Maxine’s left side, where three tiny butterfly tattoos could be seen behind her ear.

More students shared their sketches. Grace smiled. “You all get it. I can see that from your sketches. If you had limited yourself to your initial view of Maxine, her right-side profile, you would have done a decent study. But by walking around, studying all angles and lighting, you produced work with greater depth. Greater interest.”

A hand went up. Grace acknowledged the student. “You are?”

“I’m Morgan.”

We’re all missing something.

“Okay, Morgan.”

“You’re talking to us about observation, but I think we’re all missing something.”

Grace nodded. “Talk to me.”

“I see Maxine’s pain.”

Grace turned to look at the mannequin head. “How so?”

“You keep referring to Maxine as she and her…”

Grace squinted.

“Maxine could be they/them. Maxine could be different from what we see on the surface.”

Grace looked at the student. “Morgan, what are you seeing here?”

Morgan stood, hesitated, stepped up to the mannequin. Lifted it to face the class. “I see someone with one earring. Not usual for a girl. I see butterfly tattoos tucked behind the ear. Visible…but not obvious.”

“Yes. We see that too,” Grace said.

“But they speak to me of pain…and of courage. The earring and tattoos are on the side of their head with the fade. They can easily be seen. There’s no earring or tattoos on the side with all the curly hair.” 

Grace stared at Maxine. 

Morgan set the head back on the table. A girl from a side seat stepped forward, her smartphone extended. “Cool. I want a picture of Maxine.”

 Grace continued to stare at Maxine. “I started the lecture with a weak attempt at humor, but I did not anticipate closing here. Observing difference in our subject.” 

Grace spoke to Maria. “I applaud your class. If Maxine could speak, she…they… would thank you for truly seeing them.”

Grace placed the mannequin head back in the box, closed the lid. She turned to Morgan, smiled. “From here forward Maxine’s name will be Morgan.”

***

shortfiction24 – the goat movie

What I’m Writing This Week

Jack and Diane are back. Jack reaches out, tries his humor on a distraught Diane. This is the pair’s fifth appearance on shortfiction24. The characters continue to talk to me.

The Goat Movie

Bob Gillen

Tears ran down Diane Somers’s face as she sipped the last of her breakfast coffee. A single photo lay unframed on the kitchen table. A picture of her late husband, Frank, a huge grin spread across his face, poised to blow out birthday candles. Their daughter Margaret sat at his side. A memorable occasion, only six weeks before Frank’s deadly heart attack. 

Diane pushed the photo aside. Three years gone. Frank…and Margaret. Frank dead, Margaret estranged from her mother. 

Her phone chirped. A text from Jack Marin. Want to see a movie tonight?

Diane hesitated, then replied, What’s playing?

A text came back. A star-studded feature: Billy Idol, Billie Eilish, Billie Holiday, Billy Elliot and Billy Porter starring in the barnyard classic ‘What’s Got Your Goat’? 

Diane stared at the phone. What the hell? She dialed Jack, rather than deal with typing on the phone.

“Hi,” Jack said. “The goat movie sound interesting?”

“I don’t get it.”

“Goats? Billy goats?”

She smiled in spite of herself. “Okay. Sorry, you caught me at a bad time.”

“Should I call later?”

“No, no. It’s fine. Did you stay up all night thinking of that?”

“Nope. I have a notebook filled with these. Been writing them for years. Did you ever watch the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?”

“Some. He was not a favorite of mine.”

“Yeah…well I always loved his character Art Fern. Remember? Art Fern and the Tea Time Movie?”

“Vaguely.”

“Girl, your education has sadly been lacking.”

“A matter of opinion…boy.”

Jack snorted. “Okay, I’ll drop it for now…but you may hear more where that came from.”

“Save it, Jack.”

“Listen, if you’re not up to a movie, we could spend a few hours at the zoo. I have a friend who works there. I can get free tickets.”

“Probably not…not today, Jack.” Diane reached for a paper napkin as tears began to flow again.

Jack pushed on. “Yeah, okay. My friend’s a vet. Does a lot of work with the LA Zoo.”

A pause while Diane hesitated to react. 

“He treats mostly the elephants. They seem prone to some kind of skin condition.”

“Jack, don’t.”

“Honest. His business card reads, Pachydermatologist.”

Diane moaned. “I see what you did there…and it hurt.”

“Hey, you throw enough on the wall, some of it will stick.”

Diane took a deep breath, dabbed at stray tears. “Was there a real reason you texted?”

“Actually…yeah. Thinking of you and reaching out.”

“Thanks, Jack. That’s nice.”

“How about dinner tonight? I’d offer to cook for you, but I know you’re skittish about moving too fast.”

“Dinner would be great. How about something light? Maybe a sandwich and salad somewhere.”

“Done. Can I pick you up…or would you rather meet there?”

“Let’s meet there. Wherever ‘there’ is.”

“How about that bistro place at the promenade? They make a good sandwich. Lots of outdoor seating too.”

“See you there at six.”

Diane put her phone down. Her gaze returned to Frank’s photo. You’ve been gone for three years now…please help me understand why Margaret refuses to talk to me. She won’t take any calls from me. It’s killing me, Frank. She’s all I have left.

She reached for a Post-It pad from the counter, pulled off a tab and stuck it over Margaret’s face on the photo. This comes off when you call me.

***

shortfiction24 – our last downhill run

What I’m Writing This Week

Jared Clark is a teacher, a man of his word. He promised a student he would drop off a gift she handed him for her long-distance boyfriend while Jared attended an out-of-town conference in New York City. It cost him.

Our Last Downhill Run

Bob Gillen

Jared Clark high-fived his buddy Larry. “It’s over!”

The two men huddled in a corner of the hotel lobby as conference participants streamed out of the ballroom. 

“Yup. Continuing ed credits done, and on the school district’s dime.” Larry stuffed his course notes into his briefcase. “And now, a night out in New York before we fly home.”

Jared fumbled in his own briefcase.

Larry said, “A guy in my discussion group told me about a cool jazz club. Only a few blocks from here. We can walk it easy.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s called Reedy’s. All kinds of musicians jam there. This guy swears he saw Sonny Rollins sit in on one set last week.”

“Food?”

“Yeah. Steaks and burgers.”

“I’m in.” Jared cocked his head. “But I have to meet you there later.”

“The conference is over.” Larry brushed his hands together. “We’re free.”

“I have to drop something off. It’s about 20 minutes from here.”

Larry grinned. “Jared, get real. You can’t afford a New York hooker.”

Jared grew red in the face. “No, no. Seriously.”

“Spill,” Larry said. 

“Okay. One of my students asked me to drop off a gift for some guy she met while skiing last winter break.” He pulled a small package out of his briefcase.

“You can’t be serious. Winter break was three months ago. We’re a thousand miles away from our school.”

Jared shrugged. “I said I would try.”

“They couldn’t mail it?”

“Personal touch…I guess.”

Larry lifted his chin. “Who asked you to do this?”

“Ashley Peters.”

“Yeah, she can be persistent.”

Jared repeated, “I said I’d try.”

“Does the guy know you’re coming?”

“Nope. I don’t have a number. Just an address.”

“You’re crazy, you know that, right?”

“Yeah. But I don’t want to let her down.”

Larry shrugged on his jacket. “I don’t want to go to Reedy’s alone. Come on, let’s hail a cab.”

“You don’t have to do this, Larry.”

“No worries. Let’s double-team this guy, then go party.”

They hustled out of the hotel lobby and grabbed a cab.

“Friday night, mister. Traffic will be bad.”

An hour later, the cab pulled up in front of a modest home on a quiet street. Larry pointed to the meter. “I said I’d ride with you, but the fare is on you.”

Jared nodded. He told the cab driver to wait. “I’ll only be a minute.” 

A young man in jeans and a black hoodie answered the bell.

“Hi. I’m a teacher. My name is Jared. I’m looking for Wayne.”

The young man stared at Jared.

“Ashley Peters is a student of mine. She asked me to drop off a package for Wayne while I was in New York.”

Jared held out the package.

The young man didn’t move. “I’m Wayne.”

“Oh good. Then this is for you, and I’ll be on my way.”

Wayne did not extend his hand. “She broke up with me.”

“Wait, what?”

“She broke up with me, man. Yesterday. I got a text. She’s seeing another guy.”

Jared stood frozen, hand holding the package out.

The cab driver honked the horn.

You got played.

“I gotta go,” Jared said. “Do you want this?”

Wayne shook his head again. “No way. You got played…we both got played.”

He closed the door.

The horn honked again.

Jared climbed back in the cab. “Back to the hotel, please.”

“How did it go?” Larry asked.

Jared held out the package. “He didn’t want it. She broke up with him.”

“No way. You got played.”

“No shit. That’s what he just said.”

Larry grabbed the package, tore the tissue wrapping off to reveal a book. Magic on the Lifts. Inside, the inscription: I’ll never forget our last downhill run.

Larry laughed. “Okay, you tried. Let’s go party.”

Back at the hotel, Jared paid the driver.

“You need to send Ashley a delivery bill for the cab.”

“Right? Come on. The club is my treat!”

“Now you’re talking!”

Jared crumbled the tissue wrapping into a tight ball and tossed it in a trash can on the sidewalk.

“Should I return the book?” Jared asked. Larry shrugged.

Jared said, “I tried.” He flipped the book sideways under a passing crosstown bus.

***

shortfiction24 – skeletons in a snowbank

Credit: brownstonedetectives.com

What I’m Writing This Week

A frustrated writer takes a night walk on the beach to make sense of his own story. Having fun with a mix of memory and imagination.

Skeletons in a Snowbank

Bob Gillen

Alden pushed his chair away from the table. The screen on his laptop read, Working Title: My Memoir. 

On top of a manila folder next to the laptop sat a faded black and white photo, a picture of himself as a toddler standing on an icy sidewalk surrounded by towering snowbanks. Alden flipped the photo over. Written on the back in neat penmanship, “Young Alden, the Great Blizzard of 1947.”

His family had called him Young Alden, to distinguish him from his grandfather. And no one in the family dared call him or his grandfather Al.

Alden tossed the photo down, slammed the laptop closed, turned off the desk lamp.

“Shit,” he said to an empty room. “This manuscript is garbage.”

He grabbed a cold beer from the kitchen, pulled on an oversized hoodie and stepped out from his bungalow into the blackness of a damp night. 

The sound of crashing surf drew him to the beach, where he turned into the wind and walked west. Mid May. No summer people yet. Another two weeks and the town would be crawling with them. He now prided himself on being a year-round resident, a retired would-be writer.

The chill wind prickled his face. Alden took a few steps away from the damp sand at the water’s edge and sat. He pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around his legs. The first swig of beer went down cold. He shivered.

Clouds obscured the moon and stars. The white crests of the breaking waves flashed out of the dark sea, only to disappear, one after another. The wind carried the rank smell of seaweed, the sweetness of seagrass, a hint of chimney smoke.

Alden’s mind drifted to the photo. He had a vivid memory of being dwarfed by the snowbanks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, snowbanks no doubt monstrous because people had shoveled it in piles to clear the sidewalks.

A gust of wind sprayed sand over his shoes. Sand stuck to the neck of his beer bottle. He stood, dumped the remaining beer into the sand, hurled the bottle into the sea beyond the surf. Still got my arm, he thought. 

“Sorry there’s no message in the bottle,” he said to the sea. “Only an empty container.” Empty, like my memoir.

No emotion

For the past three weeks Alden had sat at his laptop, six hours a day, seven days a week. If volume was any indicator, he had half a book on paper. No, he thought. Forty thousand words, but not a book. Only a jumble of isolated memories. There was no story there. No adventure. No journey. No lifetime of struggle and victory. No emotion.

Alden walked again, leaning into the wind. Jeez, I can’t make sense of the memoir. How will any reader give a shit?

Paris Catacombs

The darkness brought his mind back to a novel he had read last month. A story set in and around the catacombs of Paris. Miles of tunnels under Paris, walls lined with thousands of skeletons, many thousands of skulls and bones. He laughed aloud. I wonder if there were any skeletons in the snowbanks back in New York. Bodies buried in the snow, appearing after the thaw. A hand sticking out of the melting snow.

Alden stopped, turned his back to the wind. His mind raced. Snowbanks in my memory…skeletons in my imagination. Fuck the memoir. I’ll write stories triggered by my memories. Maybe readers would actually care about that.

He let the wind propel him back to the cottage. Back to the laptop. Back to create something a reader might actually read.

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