Healing through story

Month: January 2023

shortfiction24 – boogie woogie resting place

Siblings Sarah and David are desperate to find a final resting place for their mom’s cremains. Music offers a solution.

I hope you enjoy the story. Thanks for reading.

Boogie Woogie Resting Place

Bob Gillen

Two teen siblings, backpacks slung over their shoulders, trudged the length of the St. Pancras mall in the heart of London. Shops lined both sides of the mall, a rail station anchoring one end.

Sarah said, “This wasn’t supposed to be hard. Mom loved this city. Why can’t we find a place where her cremains belong?”

David wiped a tear away from his cheek. He patted his backpack. “She deserves a proper resting place.”

He spied a small coffee shop. “How about an iced coffee? My treat.”

“Excellent idea, brother.”

The two snagged a tiny table at the front of the shop. They sipped drinks while watching a steady stream of travelers wheeling their carryon luggage down the mall. Other shoppers wandered in and out of the stores. Across from the coffee shop a piano, one of London’s public pianos, snugged up against the glass wall of an elevator shaft.

A man, black Dr. Martens, sunglasses, spiked salt and pepper hair, sat at the piano playing a soft tune. None of the pedestrians stopped to listen.

The piano man moved into an upbeat boogie woogie tune. Now a few passersby stopped, clapped along, swayed to the music. One random man stood next to the piano man and began playing the higher notes. More people stopped to listen.

“Mom would have loved this,” David said. “Live music, lots of people, shopping.”

Sarah nodded.

Piano man slowed the pace, now doing a soft boogie woogie version of ‘You are my sunshine.’

Sarah brightened. “Oh God, mom loved this song.”

“Too bad she can’t settle here.”

Sarah stood. “Why not?”


Sarah pointed to a large planter nestled under an escalator. “There.”

“Sure. Cameras everywhere. They’ll think we’re planting a bomb.”



Sarah spotted a mall cleaning lady park her cart in front of a restroom. The woman tossed her cap on the cart, disappeared inside. Sarah dashed over, pushed the cart next to the planter. She grabbed the cap and plopped it on David’s head. 

“You sit on the ledge, wipe it down like you belong here. Quickly. Dig a hole in the planter near one of those little plam trees. Let me worry about the distraction.”

Before David could register a breath of protest, Sarah put her backpack down near the planter and ran over to the piano man. He picked up the tempo. Sarah began dancing to the music. She kicked her legs, waved her arms in the air, managed to carry off a couple of cartwheels. Piano man was ecstatic for the attention. More people gathered around, clapping, stomping.

At the planter David yanked a magazine and a trowel from his backpack, and using the magazine as a screen, dug a foot-deep hole in the soft soil alongside the planter’s edge. He slipped a simple urn from the backpack, and poured the cremains into the hole he had dug. Just as quickly he covered the hole.

All eyes were on Sarah and piano man. David wiped fingerprints off the empty urn, the trowel and the magazine, shoved them deep into the trash bag on the cleaning cart. He wiped down the handles of the cart, pushed it away with his foot. The cap he crumpled up and stuffed in his pocket. Can’t leave any DNA evidence, he told himself. 

When the cleaning lady exited the restroom, she looked confused, spotted her cart, and pushed it away.

David stood slowly, stretched his limbs. He grabbed both backpacks and wandered over to the edge of the crowd. He resisted giving any obvious signal to Sarah. Piano man wound down his song, announced he was breaking for coffee. Sarah, sweating and panting, took her backpack as she walked off with David. He threw the cleaning lady’s cap in a nearby trash container.

“I didn’t know you could dance like that,” he said.

“Shut  up.”

After a few moments David said, “Mom’s at rest now.”

Sarah drew her arm through David’s as they walked away. She turned back for a moment. “Love you, mom.”


shortfiction24 – chasing freedom on a city bus

Jennifer Bailey needs a passing grade in her History course. Senior citizen Mrs. Rice drags her along on a bus ride and helps her create a moment in history.

I wrote this story a few years ago. It’s a bit longer than my usual offering. I hope you enjoy it.

Chasing Freedom on a City Bus

Bob Gillen

Jennifer Bailey stumbled up to the entrance of the Sweet Meadow Assisted Living Residence. Late afternoon in early December in Southern California. Temps hung in the low 50s. Cloudy, cold, a chill wind blowing. Her ears did not register the whine of the gardeners’ leaf blowers. The only noise she heard sat deep inside her head. A hollow echo. Her History teacher standing over her desk. You failed your American History exam.  She would need a miracle to finish her paper and pass the final in two weeks.

Before she opened the door, Jennifer stopped, pulled her cell phone out of her back pocket, and texted her friend Lindsay Beckwith. Two hours at the nursing home. Without service credits I fail History for sure. But I need to be writing my paper.

Lindsay replied right away. I feel your pain. Hang in.

As soon as Jennifer opened the front door Mrs. Hannah in Administration beamed. “Jennifer!”

Jennifer managed a weak smile.

“Jennifer, Mrs. Rice has requested you for this afternoon.”

Just kill me now.

“Please report to room sixty-two. Mrs. Rice is expecting you.”

Motor Mouth Rice. She never stopped talking. You only got a break when she went to the bathroom, which was usually every hour. No chance to sit and do some homework. She demanded you listen.

Jennifer dragged herself down the hall toward room sixty-two. Several residents gave her a big hello. “Will we see you later?”

Jennifer pointed to room sixty-two. One resident grinned, said, “Sorry, dear. Good luck.”

As she approached the room, she could hear Mrs. Rice’s voice. A drone like a thousand bees. Incessant.

“Why can’t I go back to my old house?”

“Tell them about the food… today’s lunch was indigestible.”

“The nurses ignore me.”

As Jennifer turned into the doorway, she spotted a man sitting next to Mrs. Rice, a pained look on his face.

“Jennifer!” Mrs. Rice called out. Before the word was out of her mouth, the man jumped up, waved to Mrs. Rice, and ran out the door.

“That was my brother,” Mrs. Rice said. “I would have introduced you if the wimp hadn’t run away.”

“Hi, Mrs. Rice,” Jennifer said.

“Glad you’re here, dearie.”

Mrs. Rice tossed aside the blanket covering her legs, pulled herself up out of her chair and stood wobbling on her cane.

“Did you bring your video camera today?”

“It’s in my locker at school.”

“What about that video function on your phone? Every kid has one, right?”

Mrs. Rice was a lot of things, but ignorant wasn’t one.

“I can do short videos with my iPhone.”

“Perfect. I need your help with a very important task today,” she said.

Now what?

“Please get my sweater from the closet. The wool one with the purple flowers. I want to go out for a walk,” Mrs. Rice said. “A walk out back in the gardens.”

“Mrs. Rice, it’s chilly out today and you have trouble walking.”

“Never mind, child,” Mrs. Rice said. “I need to do this today.”

Before Jennifer could get the sweater, Mrs. Rice took her arm.  

“Put that backpack of yours down and walk me to the bathroom.”

Ten minutes later Jennifer helped Mrs. Rice inch down the back steps of Sweet Meadow and out to the garden. A staff member called out as they walked. “Good to see you out and about, Mrs. Rice.”

The garden stretched down away from the main buildings. A pleasant place on most days. The nearing darkness made the cold wind feel like a hand pushing them along.

“Take me down there by the back fence,” Mrs. Rice said. “It’s pretty there.”

The two made their way along the path until they came to tall shrubs lining the back fence. Mrs. Rice looked around, saw that no one seemed to be watching, and pulled Jennifer behind the shrubs.

“Mrs. Rice, what are you doing?”

“There’s a hole in the fence back here,” Mrs. Rice said. “I’ve seen the gardeners cutting through here after work.”

“A hole? In the fence? Why? Where are we going?” Jennifer protested.

“Stop your whining, girl, and help me through.”

Jennifer held the old woman’s arm while she stooped and stepped sideways through a big gap in the chain link fence. Jennifer followed. Pedestrians passing on the sidewalk paid no attention to them.

“Do you know what today is?” Mrs. Rice asked.

“Tuesday,” Jennifer replied.  “December first.”

“Yes, and do you know the significance of today?”

“Uh, it’s the day you escape from the nursing home?”

“Don’t be fresh, young lady.” Mrs. Rice paused as the two walked along the sidewalk behind Sweet Meadow. “Today is indeed December first. It’s the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955.”

Not history. Please, not today.

“Do you know who Rosa Parks is?” Mrs. Rice asked. Her eyes bored a hole in Jennifer’s.

“Uh, she was, like, part of the Civil Rights movement, I think.”

“Part of it?”  Mrs. Rice said.  “Jennifer, her action started the Civil Rights movement!”


The two continued along the sidewalk toward Ventura Blvd. and a bus stop.

“She refused to give up her seat on the bus and move to the rear,” Mrs. Rice said. “They arrested her. That prompted the Montgomery bus boycott by the black community.”

“Okay.” Jennifer eyed her surroundings.

“Every year on this date I ride a bus to honor her. My brother usually takes me. As you saw, he took the coward’s way out today.”

Mrs. Rice tugged Jennifer’s arm. “Let’s not miss the bus.”

“Is this a good idea?” Jennifer asked.

“You’re here to offer community service, are you not?”

Jennifer felt in her pocket for her iPhone. This escape was going to need an intervention. She slipped the phone out of her pocket and began keying in the phone number for Sweet Meadow.

Mrs. Rice spotted the movement. “Put that phone back in your pocket, Jennifer. When I want you to take video, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, I want to see your hands at all times.”

This was not going well.

They got to Ventura Blvd. just as a bus pulled up. Good timing. For Mrs. Rice. Jennifer looked around, hoping someone from the nursing home was running after them. No luck.

Mrs. Rice whipped out a senior-fare bus pass. Jennifer scrambled to find exact change in her pocket.

Mrs. Rice teetered as she boarded the bus. The driver motioned her to a couple of seats near the front of the bus.

They sat. Mrs. Rice said, “Jennifer, I want you to take a video of me right now, with enough background so people can see I’m riding a bus.”

Jennifer pulled out her phone. 

“Can you get audio on that thing?” Mrs. Rice asked. 

Jennifer nodded. As she hit Record, Mrs. Rice began speaking. “Today is the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s famous bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama. I am honoring her memory by riding a bus today.”

Several passengers looked up, decided she was crazy, and looked away. One older woman across the aisle from Mrs. Rice smiled.

“Thank you for reminding me about the date,” the woman said. 

“Does it mean something to you?” Mrs. Rice said.

Jennifer panned her phone to capture the woman.

“Indeed, it does.” The woman smiled. “My name is Barbara.”

“I’m Mary, and this is my friend Jennifer.”

Mary? Jennifer had never heard Mrs. Rice’s first name before. And my friend?

Barbara said, “I was a Freedom Rider. Mississippi, in 1961.”

Mrs. Rice nudged Jennifer. “Record this on your phone.”

“I’m getting it.”

“I admire your courage,” Mrs. Rice said to Barbara. “I almost did that, but I was too scared.”

“It had its frightening moments,” Barbara said.

“I wanted to spend a summer with the Freedom Riders,” Mrs. Rice said. “I thought voting rights were so important. I requested a registration form from Snick—.“ 

“What’s Snick?” Jennifer interrupted, as she panned back and forth between the two women.

“SNCC. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was a civil rights organization formed in the 1960s in the South.”

Barbara nodded.

“When my registration papers came,” Mrs. Rice said, “I got as far as the part about waiving my rights in case of injury or death… I did something else that summer.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Barbara said. “It was a difficult experience. I lasted three weeks, and came home. After I left, one of my companions was hurt when their bus was burned. It was horrible.”

Jennifer interrupted, “Why did you do that?”

“I believed in equality. We are not a country unless we are all treated as equal.”

“Were you scared?”

“Terrified, at times.”

The bus driver’s voice squawked on the PA system. “Folks, there’s an accident up ahead. The street is closed. I have to divert up to Victory Blvd. to bypass it. It shouldn’t take us too long. Thank you for your patience.” 

Barbara jumped up. “I need to get off here. I’ll be late.” She pulled the cord and headed for the door. “Thanks for our little talk.”

Jennifer turned off her phone’s recording. “We should head back, Mrs. Rice.”

“Nonsense, girl. A few more minutes won’t be a problem.”

The bus turned north with all the other traffic. Jennifer glanced at the time on her phone. At this rate she would never get to her paper.

The two sat quietly for a few minutes. The bus moved slowly along the detour, stuck in a lot of traffic. Jennifer noticed that Mrs. Rice began to wriggle in her seat.

“I think I will need a bathroom stop very soon,” she said. 

The bus finally turned onto Victory Blvd. Mrs. Rice pulled the stop cord.

“Wait,” Jennifer said. “Where are we?”

“We just passed a fast food place. I can go there. Then we’ll get a bus back to the home.”

They exited the bus and trudged to the fast food restaurant. While Mrs. Rice was in the restroom, Jennifer texted Lindsay. Nightmare. Stuck in a fast food place on Victory Blvd. with a resident from the nursing home. Help. Do you have your car?

Lindsay answered: No car today. Sorry.

Jennifer whipped the phone back in her pocket as Mrs. Rice returned. “I need a snack.” She rooted around in her pockets, found a few singles, and bought fries for her and Jennifer. She insisted they sit to eat.

“Don’t even think about reaching for your phone,” she said to Jennifer. “We have plenty of time.”

“If they discover you missing,” Jennifer said, “I’ll never be allowed to do community service there again. And I’ll lose my extra credits. I need them.”

They picked at the fries. Outside, it was now full dark. Jennifer kept her eye on Mrs. Rice. So far she seemed okay.

“How are your grades?”

“I’m failing history.”

“Did you record our conversation on the bus?”


“You know, history is all about people. Not events or plans or movements. People.”


“So…” Mrs. Rice pointed a fry at Jennifer. “You can write a paper about your experience today. That should get you extra credit.”

“There’s not enough to work with.”

“Young lady, use your head. Research Rosa Parks. Research the Freedom Riders. And use today as anecdotes. Real people who were part of history. Well, Barbara anyway.”

“You were too scared to go?”

“Honestly, yes. I believed in rights for all, but I’m afraid it was not at the threat of injury or death.”

Jennifer’s phone chirped. She pulled it out. Glanced at the screen. A text from Lindsay. 

“Who is it?” Mrs. Rice asked.

“My friend Lindsay.”

“You can reply.”

Jennifer texted back and forth with Lindsay for a few moments. She looked up intently at Mrs. Rice.


“It seems that Sweet Meadow is trying to locate us. They called Lindsay because they couldn’t find my number.”

“Oh dear. I guess we should be heading back.”

Jennifer peered out at the street. Traffic crawled along Victory Blvd.

“It’s going to take us forever to get a bus back home.”

Mrs. Rice laughed. “And I will surely have to pee again before we get home.”

Jennifer smiled. Okay, now what?

“I surrender. You better call the home. Let them figure it out.”

Jennifer made the call. Gave Mrs. Hannah in Administration their location. Told her the streets were tied up due to the accident. Mrs. Hannah said they would have a van get as close as the driver could. They’d bring a wheelchair for Mrs. Rice.

While Mrs. Rice went to the restroom again, Jennifer texted Lindsay with an update.

An hour later they had Mrs. Rice settled in her room. Jennifer grabbed her backpack and hurried for the door.

“Jennifer,” Mrs. Rice said. “We made history today.”


Mrs. Rice tucked her blanket around her legs. “Very minor, of course, but a moment of history. A bit of interaction between generations. I hope you enjoyed it.”

Jennifer nodded.

“And thank you for having the courage to go along with me. It meant a lot.”

Jennifer smiled and stepped out into the hall. Now for making history over my failing grade.


shortfiction24 – stuck in a sunbaked rut

In Shelly Francis’s recent newsletter, I found a quote from poet David Whyte: Poetry is often the art of overhearing yourself say things you didn’t know you knew. It is a learned skill to force yourself to articulate your life, your present world or your possibilities for the future.

The quote reminded me of The Rut, a poem I wrote in 1993 and unearthed from old, paper-based files. I could not have imagined how the poem reflects much of I am now learning about my life.

Here’s the poem, exactly as I wrote it in 1993:

The Rut

Bob Gillen

For too many days,

Like a wheel rolling onward,

I am stuck in my unyielding,

Sunbaked rut.

Hard edges hemming me in, holding me

To where someone else has gone.

A gentle rain comes, frees me

To roll away from softened

Walls, broken down to mud.

My new track is uncharted.

Will anyone else follow?


I had a script written for the third act of my life. Actually, for the last scenes of the third act. Events of the last four months have forced me to toss the script for a series of ad-libs. As I wrote many years ago, my new track is uncharted. Exciting, and a bit terrifying. All I can say with certainty is that my writing will see me through the ad-libs. My hope is that, as David Whyte says, “Poetry (I would add writing) is a learned skill to force yourself to articulate your life…”


shortfiction24 – two strikes

I used Edward Hopper’s well-known painting ‘Nighthawks’ as inspiration for this story.

WWII Army vet Dan nurses the pain of rejection in an all-night diner, where he meets an intriguing woman ship welder.

Two Strikes

Bob Gillen

Three nights after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, Dan sat at an empty stretch of counter in an all-night diner not far from his old neighborhood. On the counter next to his coffee cup an engagement ring glinted in the neon light, a tiny diamond set in a gold band. Tonight had been the moment he dreamed of since he was drafted. 

She said no.

The counter man stepped over to refill Dan’s black coffee, remove the empty plate once graced by a hefty slice of apple pie. 

“Bad night, huh?” the counter man said.

Dan nodded.

The counter man grabbed the bill lying on the counter, balled it up in his fist. “On the house tonight. You come back again, you pay.”

He went back to chatting with the only other customers in the diner at the two a.m. hour, a man and woman about Dan’s age. The three laughed quietly while the counter man rinsed glasses.

Looking over his coffee cup, Dan saw the man across the counter get up, kiss the woman on the cheek, and head for the exit. The woman waved to him. As the counter man cleared dishes, the woman put money on the counter and also headed towards the exit. Moments later Dan heard the juke box begin playing, ‘I don’t want to walk without you.’

“Lonesome, soldier?”

Dan started. Without waiting for an answer, the woman sat down next to Dan.

Dan felt a blush rage up his cheeks. Who is this dame?

The woman signaled the counter man for fresh coffee. She pointed to the engagement ring. “You need someone to wear that ring?”

Dan turned to look at the woman. “You proposing to me? After your boyfriend walks away?”

“Not my boyfriend. Cousin. First time I’ve seen him since he was drafted.”


“She dumped you, right?”

Dan shrugged.

The woman sipped her coffee. 

“You deserve better than her.”

“My family, my whole neighborhood, had us married right after the war. I guess she thought different.”

“It’s over. Move on.”

“Not so easy.”

The woman gestured to the diner’s interior. “I come in here almost every night. Have been since the war started. I get off work at 10 p.m., come straight here. Beats a bar. I can’t deal with drunks.”

Dan asked, “Where do you work?”

“Brooklyn Navy Yard. Half hour by subway. I’m a ship welder.”

Dan reached over, took her hands in his. “Pretty smooth hands for a welder.”

“Gloves, honey. You gotta take care of yourself. This job ain’t gonna last forever.”

Dan eyed the woman’s outfit, a dark dress accented with a bright scarf. 

“You clean up pretty good.”

“I’m at the shipyard six days a week, nine to ten hours a day. That shit stays behind when I walk out the gate.”

Dan turned to stare at the ring.

“When did you get home?” the woman asked.

“Three days ago.”

“No surprise there. I can smell the mothballs on your suit.”

Dan held up his sleeve to his nose. Grimaced.

“Were you overseas?”

“No. I did logistics. Worked at a couple of bases across the states. I was lucky.”

“Sounds boring.”

“Not for me. I could find anything.”

The woman cocked her head. “Really?”

“That’s how I got the ring.”

“Tell me,” she said.

Dan sipped his lukewarm coffee. Wiped his sweaty hands on his pants leg.

“I once shipped a pallet of toilet paper to a tiny base in Greenland. Had to disguise the carton as winter coats.”

Dan sat up straighter.

“That base sent me a new jeep they had no use for. Still in its factory carton, some assembly required. I sent it to Montana, to a general I knew. His son had been wounded, and the general wanted something to occupy his son’s time, help him get past the trauma.”


“Yeah, so, the general sent me a box of fresh-cut steaks. I shipped them to a supply officer for a submarine crew ready to ship out to patrol the Atlantic coast. The supply officer sent me the ring.” Dan pointed to the counter. “He said he had no need for it.”

“I’m guessing he had the same luck you did.”

Dan nodded.

“So the ring’s got two strikes against it.”

Dan stared at the ring for a few moments. He grabbed it, stuffed it deep in his pants pocket.

“You can pawn it, use the cash for a new suit. You’ll need it.”

“You’re probably right.”

“What’s your name, soldier?”

“Dan…You always this forward?”

“No. I told you, I come here rather than a bar because I can’t deal with the scum. Three years without a decent man to talk to. Ray here,” she nodded in the counter man’s direction, “is a jewel. Keeps this place a safe haven. The baseball bat under the counter helps. Six nights a week I come here for a burger and coffee. So…when I see a man like you, I know the real goods.”

Once again Dan felt his cheeks blaze.

“I gotta go. Morning comes too soon.” She stood. “My name is Betty. I’ll be here tomorrow, and for a few more months, till all the men are back and I lose my job.’

“What will you do then?”

“No idea. I’ll land on my feet somewhere. A paycheck makes this woman feel good.”

She waved goodnight to Ray.

“You okay walking home?” Dan asked.

“Sure. No one messes with a woman ship welder.”

“Maybe I’ll stop in again tomorrow night.”

Betty smiled. “You do that, Dan. Without the mothball suit.”

She extended her arm, shook his hand. “Soft hands for an Army guy.”

“Maybe I wore gloves.” He laughed. “Gotta look good for the ladies.”

“I look forward to seeing you tomorrow night.”

Betty turned as she headed for the exit. She pointed to Dan, winked. “Be careful out there. It’s a tough neighborhood.”


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