Author: Bob Gillen (Page 1 of 16)

shortfiction24 – half a keyboard

Credit: Hello Music Theory

Harry played in the orchestra pit for 15 years till a stroke numbed his left hand.

This Week’s Story: A Stroke Disables a Theater Musician

Harry played keyboards in the orchestra pit for dozens of Broadway shows over the years. Now his left hand lay numb on the keyboard after a debilitating stroke.

Half a Keyboard

Bob Gillen

Harry spread his fingers over the keyboard. A deep breath filled his lungs. His right hand began playing a high, delicate melody. Harry closed his eyes. Let the music flare up inside him, burn out his fingers. His left arm lay at his side as melodies danced in the air.

For Harry, the piano was life. That life was cut down with the stroke that disabled his left hand. A life cut in half. There was no bass for his melodies. No bottom. No foundation. Playing melody with his right hand felt like riding a bike with only one leg. Not just difficult. Near impossible. 

Harry continued playing. His left arm instinctively raised to the keyboard, but there was no movement, no feeling, in his hand. 

Tears seeped from his eyes. Ran unchecked down his cheeks and splattered on his shirt front. He continued to play. He felt lopsided. Off balance. He closed his eyes again, this time to offset the dizziness he felt. 

Today marked a month since his stroke. They caught it early. Limited damage, the doctors said. Limited, yeah. Maybe for them. For Harry, the joy of his life cut in half. His friends told him he could still play melody. That was better than losing his right hand. He could live without the bass, they said.

Harry knew better. Bass was the bottom. The support for melody. Without the bass he felt like he was dancing without shoes. Without feet. 

His career was over. He would never play in the pit again. Eight shows a week. Eight times a week for the last fifteen years. Pure joy. He had his favorite shows, but he would play even for the bombs. Live performance was his life.

And the beauty of it. He played unseen in the pit. His joy bloomed nightly in the cocoon of the theater pit, shared with his fellow musicians. For the audience, the music was background to the stage action. They did not feel any need to see the orchestra. They knew it was there. That was enough.

After each show a few theater goers gathered at the edge of the pit, pointing out the instruments to their kids, their nieces and nephews, their grandkids. 

Harry would make their night by waving from his piano bench. Then he’d stand and head for home.

Home. Where he sat now. Nowhere else to go. Disability insurance would cover some of his previous income. The rest? Who knows? 

Harry reached deep into his memory. The muscle memory of playing for a lifetime. He began playing “Try to Remember” from the Fantasticks. “Deep in December.” This was his December, he thought. Reaching back like some old guy to recall the good times, the Septembers of his life. The times when the embers burned brightly. When life was good.

His left arm twitched. Harry moved the arm up to position his numb hand over the keyboard. The melody continued to flow from his right hand. 

The pinkie finger on Harry’s left hand ticked. Twitched. Hit a deep C note. 

Once.

Harry took his left hand in his right. Massaged it gently. Another tic. Slight. 

He let his left arm fall to his side and resumed playing with his right. 

His pinkie finger twitched again. Twice. Harry smiled. Played on with his right hand. Played on and on…

***

An Interview with a Film Composer

Here’s a link to an interview I did a few years back with film composer Thomas VanOosting. You may enjoy reading it. And thanks for stopping by.

shortfiction24 – a visit to the zoo

A boy visits the zoo with his dad to see his favorite animals: the gorillas and the gazebos.

Welcome to my first story of the new year. A fun piece I hope you enjoy. Much more short fiction to come throughout the year.

Giraffes, Gazelles and Gazebos

Bob Gillen

The boy tugged at his dad’s hand as they passed through the gate and stepped inside the zoo. 

“I want to see the gorillas first,” the boy said.

“Let me check the directory,” the dad said. He steered them towards a large display alongside the path. 

“There’s a gorilla,” the boy pointed. “See the picture. That must be where they are.”

The dad nodded. “Right you are. It’s down this way.”

The two headed down a path crowded with people coming and going. “Lots of people here today,” the dad said.

“No worries,” the boy said. “We can deal.”

The dad smiled. That’s my kid!

When they reached the gorilla exhibit, there was a line to get in. A long line. “Do you want to wait?” the dad asked. “This could be a while.”

“It’s the only thing I want to see.” The boy looked around. “Gorillas…and the gazebos.”

“The what?”

“The gazebos. Mommy said be sure to visit the gazebos.”

“That’s not an animal.”

“Yes, it is. Mommy said. She told me you would know where they were.”

The dad peered at his son.

“Do you mean giraffes? Or gazelles?”

“She said gazebos.”

“Am I missing something?”

The line moved ahead just a bit.

“We were reading my gorilla book last night when I went to bed. She said there were wonderful gazebos here. We should visit them.”

The dad crouched down eye to eye with his son. “Gazebos are not animals.”

“Yes they are. Mommy said.”

“Do you remember the last time we went to the park…for the Fourth of July picnic?”

Credit: HGTV

“Sure.”

“Remember there was a band that played music before the fireworks?”

The boy nodded.

“The band sat in a white covered platform…like an open shelter.”

The boy squinted. “I think I remember.”

“That was a gazebo. There are lots of them in parks all around our city.”

The boy shook his head. “Mommy said the gazebos at the zoo were special. She said you would know.”

The line moved forward. They were close to the entrance now.

The dad pulled out his phone and began texting. 

“Who are you texting?” the boy asked.

“Your mom. I’m confused.”

“She said you would know.”

What’s this about gazebos? He wants to see one.

A reply came though right away. The gazebo at the zoo’s picnic area. Remember, the one where you proposed to me?

Oh shit. Yeah, just checking.

Liar.

Gotta go. We’re entering the gorrilla enclosure. He stuffed his phone back in his pocket.

“What did mommy say?”

“The gazebo here is the place where I asked her to marry me.”

“Oh.”

“It’s a special place. That’s why mom talked about it.”

The boy looked at his dad. “But it’s not an animal?”

“Nope.”

“Okay.” He tugged at his dad’s arm. “Then we can spend more time with the gorillas.”

shortfiction24 – the second date

What I’m Writing

Jack and Diane are back. They caught my interest in my last story. This week I’m following them on their second date. Will it work for them? No guarantees.

See my post for the first Jack and Diane story, Death by Millstone, here.

The Second Date

Bob Gillen

Jack Marin stepped into the hair salon. A young man greeted him from the reception counter.

“Who are you here to see?”

Jack glanced around, taking in the slick ambience of the salon. “I’m meeting a client of Krystal. Her name is—“

The receptionist grabbed a microphone. “Krystal, someone to see you.” He turned away to take a phone call.

Jack stood a moment till he realized he had been dismissed. He sat in a beige faux leather chair. In a room directly ahead of him a stylist dressed in black was blow-drying a client’s hair. The two chatted freely as she worked.

“You must be Jack. I’m Krystal.” 

A woman in a black apron waved him over. “We’re back here.”

Jack followed her around a corner to find Diane Somers sitting in a salon chair, draped in a black apron. Diane pulled an arm out from under the apron, waved, smiled at Jack in the mirror without turning.

“Hey.” 

“Sit here.” Krystal pointed to the empty chair in the next station. 

“Jack, this is Krystal,” Diane said. “My stylist and friend for more than ten years.”

“Welcome, Jack.” Krystal picked up scissors and a comb.

Jack nodded. Talking to Diane and Krystal in the mirror made Jack uncomfortable. 

“Thanks for meeting me here,” Diane said. “I’ve been running late all morning.”

Jack nodded to the mirror.

“So,” Krystal said, “I hear you guys just met last week.”

“We did,” Jack said. “At the beach.”

“Good beach weather,” Krystal said. “Almost too warm for this time of year.”

“Thanks to our fucked up climate,” Jack said.

“Tell me about it,” Krystal said. “My kids are so into climate change projects at school.”

“Krystal’s kids are adorable,” Diane said. 

“Yeah?” 

“Do you have kids, Jack?” Krystal asked.

“Two. Both back east, one in New York, the other Rhode Island.”

“Get to see them often?”

“Not enough. Damn pandemic. I haven’t seen them in almost two years.”

“I didn’t know you had kids,” Diane said.

Jack smiled. “Our first meetup kinda went down the toilet, huh?”

“No, no. I’m glad you had a chance to talk.”

“What about you, Diane. Kids?”

“One. A daughter here in LA. She’s an event planner, works mostly with a private high school.”

“Cool. She’s close.”

Diane shrugged. “I haven’t seen her since my husband died three years ago.”

Krystal had been listening intently. She returned to cutting and shaping Diane’s hair. She tipped Diane’s head forward to get at the back of her neck.

“My wife has been gone two years next month,” Jack said.

“You’ve both been through a lot, huh?” Krystal said.

“I still miss her like crazy,” Jack said. “The only comfort I have is knowing she’s in a better place.”

Krystal smiled. “She’s at peace.”

Jack laughed. “Funny. I believe in an afterlife. I know our spirits live on somehow. But I’m in no rush to get there myself.”

“It’s not your time yet,” Krystal said.

Forever, with nothing to do.

“It’s not that. I’m a doer,” Jack said. “I have trouble being idle. When I think of being in heaven, or in some spirit world, I shudder. It must be so boring. Sitting around feeling joyful. The joyful part is okay. It’s the sitting around. For eternity. Forever, with nothing to do.”

Diane peered at Jack in the mirror. “I think it would be wonderful.”

“Not so much for me.”

Krystal set her scissors on the counter. “Let me tell you a story.”

Jack turned to face Krystal, trying to keep one eye on Diane in the mirror.

“I went to a medium last year. We talked about this.”

Jack squinted at the thought of a medium.

“I felt something like you do, Jack. She told me the spirits aren’t just sitting around.”

“Oh.”

“She said they keep growing and learning.”

Jack leaned closer.

“The medium believes we go through a transition when we first die. We have to learn how to be in the new spirit world. In heaven. It takes some adjusting.”

“Do they join up with all the people who have died ahead of them?” Jack asked.

“Oh sure. They interact, learning from one another. Experiencing how they all were good, how they made mistakes, what they learned from that.”

“That’s fascinating,” Jack said. “So my wife is still growing…”

“Oh yeah. The medium even believes we all come back to live multiple lives. But we don’t remember our previous lives. Each one is fresh. We keep growing. Keep trying to get it better.”

Jack stared at his own reflection in the mirror. He murmured, “We keep growing.”

Diane looked at Jack, then caught Krystal’s eye in the mirror. Krystal winked.

“Jack, that means something to you.” Diane smiled.

Jack shrugged. “I think so. I need to think about this.” He turned to Krystal. “Your medium says we never stop growing, right?”

Krystal nodded.

“That’s cool. It makes sense. Why has no one ever said this before?”

Diane opened her mouth to speak. Jack cut her off. “This is why I gave up on religion.”

The conversation died for a few moments while Krystal blew-dried Diane’s hair. Jack stared at the mirror.

A half hour later Jack and Diane sat over hot drinks in a nearby coffee shop. 

“Krystal is amazing,” Jack said. “You’re lucky to have her as a friend.”

“She has helped me almost more than my therapist. Since my husband died.”

“I can’t stop thinking about what she said…about her medium. That’s life-changing. I mean, I never thought of the next life as a time of growing. Really cool.”

Diane sipped her coffee. “Were you and your wife close?”

“Oh yeah,” Jack said. “My best friend.”

“My husband and I were the same,” Diane said. 

Jack nodded. 

“Have you talked to a counselor since your wife died?” Diane asked.

“You mean, a therapist? Nah. No need. I’m dealing okay.”

Diane stared at her cup. “Are you?”

“What?”

She looked at Jack. “I said, are you? Are you dealing okay?”

“Yeah. It gets better as I move along.”

She looked into his eyes.

“Does it?”

“What is this, a therapy session?” He leaned back in his chair.

“No, but I wonder if that’s what you need.”

“You hardly know me. This is only our second date. What are you talking about?”

“You told me I was a good listener.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you even listen at all?”

Jack ran his hands through his hair.

Diane pointed to his gesture. “You just watched me get my hair done. You have not said anything about how it looks.”

“It looks good.”

“Thanks. Too late.”

Jack shook his head in confusion.

“The day at the beach you gushed on about yourself. I listened. You never noticed that I dodged talking about what bothers me.”

Jack shook his head again.

“And just now you were up to your eyeballs talking to Krystal about your wife. You never asked me if I wanted to talk about my daughter. About our estrangement.”

“Sorry. I didn’t realize.”

“That’s my point.” Diane shook her head. “When we were just leaving the salon, Krystal whispered to me, “That man would melt the polish off your toenails.”

Jack squinted.

“She thought you were hot. Me, I feel like this will be too hard to make it work.”

Diane stood. “Thanks, Jack.”

Diane picked up her coffee cup and headed for the door.

Jack stared after her.

***

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!

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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.

***

Mannequin Monday – Pink Lady

What I’m Writing

I offer you another Halloween-themed story. Desmond dodges trick-or-treaters, and encounters a woman in scrubs at Harry’s Bar and Grill. A note of caution: mature content. Enjoy.

Pink Lady

Bob Gillen

Desmond flipped on his TV to a live ball game. A cold sixpack waited for him in the fridge. Pure heaven. With Frida out of town at a company sales meeting, there’d be no yapping about how she couldn’t find enough buyers to meet her quota. No whining about the terrible economy. 

The doorbell rang.

Who ever comes to our door? He raised himself off the recliner and opened the door. Four kids in a mix of store-bought costumes yelled, Trick or treat!

Aw shit. Halloween. He pulled loose change out of his pocket and divvied it up among the four. As soon as they left, he turned off the porch light, grabbed the remote and killed the TV, then blacked out the living room.

I can’t deal with this shit. They’ll be ringing the bell all night.

Desmond slipped out the back door into the chill night. His destination, Harry’s Bar and Grill. Actually, just Bar. The Grill menu consisted of a grilled cheese sandwich on white bread. For an extra buck you could get the Special, grilled cheese with pickle and mustard.

Harry snugged his collar around his neck. He decided to walk. Too many kids out tonight for him to risk driving while high. Even though he had no plan to come home till every kid was off the street.

Four blocks down and around the corner, he stepped into Harry’s. One glance told him this was a mistake. All the patrons wore costumes. The bartender spied Desmond, said, “Costumes required tonight, buddy.”

Desmond looked around the dim interior. A few open seats at the bar, most of the patrons sitting or standing in the center of the room. Everyone talking loudly. A few couples danced off to the side. His sports channel played on the TV over the bar. 

He turned to leave.

The bartender handed Desmond a faded pink baseball jacket with a monogramed L and a Red Sox cap. “Here, wear this. From lost and found. You got a costume now.”

Desmond slipped into the jacket. A size too small. The cap, a size too big. He looked around again. No one was looking at him. Dark enough in here. This might work, he thought.

He found a seat at the bar where he could see the TV without staring at neon beer signs. The bartender put a longneck in front of him. Ice cold. Okay, this is working.

Three innings later, bored to death by a scoreless game, Desmond ordered his sixth beer. A woman sat down on the stool to his right, partially blocking his view of the game. The woman wore blue hospital scrubs and a surgical mask, the mask pulled down under her chin. 

“I like your costume,” the woman said to Desmond. “You must have put a lot of work into it.” 

The bartender stepped in front of her. “What’ll it be tonight, Liz?”

“Scotch,” she answered, holding up three fingers horizontally.

“You got it.” The bartender pointed his index finger at her, stepped away.

Desmond looked at the woman. Reflection from the neon beer signs gave her eyes a sickly green color. He said, “What are you, a nurse?”

“Nurse? I detect a note of sexism there. No, I am a surgeon.”

“Coulda fooled me,” he said.

“Wouldn’t be hard, I’m guessing.”

Shit, who is this dame?

“Okay, Scrubs, you’re a surgeon. Big whoop.”

The bartender put Liz’s drink down. She sipped it slowly. Smiled. “Mother’s milk.”

Desmond pointed his longneck at Scrubs. “I get it. You’re a tough broad doctor from one of those old noir movies. The ones with cliché dialogue.”

“You got me there, buddy. A tough broad doctor.  Why don’t you drop your pants and cough for me?”

Desmond tried to swallow, gagged, his eyes tearing up.

“Wow, most guys would have their pants around their ankles by now,” she said.

Desmond wiped his face with a bar napkin. He felt redness creeping up from his neck to his forehead.

“You like this, don’t you?” she said, waving towards the crowded room. “You came here to ogle the girls.”

“Lady, I came here to dodge trick or treaters and watch a ball game.” 

Scrubs hoisted her glass in his direction, slid off the barstool and melted into the crowd. Desmond went back to watching the game.

The ball game dragged on into extra innings. Many extra innings. A single run finally ended the misery. 

Desmond signaled for another longneck. Too early to go home. Shrieks and laughs from the crowd pierced the room.

“Hey, pink lady.”

Desmond turned to the voice. He needed a second to focus. The surgeon in blue scrubs. 

Desmond fingered his borrowed jacket. Forgot I was wearing this. “Hey Scrubs. You still here?”

“Afraid so. Nobody to go home to.” She signaled for a refill.

“Yeah, me too. But that’s okay.”

“Oh?”

“You wouldn’t believe the yapping and yimmering I put up with.”

“The only whining I hear comes from my vacuum cleaner…when I use it. Doesn’t happen often.”

Getting near to closing time.

Scrubs lifted herself onto the empty seat next to Desmond. She gestured back towards the crowd. “Getting near to closing time. Desperation is rearing its ugly head.”

“Wait,” Desmond said. “If I took a drink for every cliché you came out with tonight, I’d be passed out by now.”

“Buddy, if you even recognized all my clichés, you’d have brain overload.”

Geez, she’s got a mouth. Change the topic.

Desmond said, “Looks like you come here often.”

“Score one cliché for the man in the pink jacket.”

Desmond shrugged. As the crowd screeched loudly, he managed a weak smile, “You’re not the only one with wit.”

The woman blinked, shook her head slowly. “You just call me a twit?”

Desmond laughed. “Wit. I said, wit.”

“Oh. Awful loud in here.” She waved the bartender over for another refill.

The bartender set the glass down. “You’re not driving tonight, are you, Liz?”

“I walked. I plan on getting home alive.”

She turned to Desmond, gestured to the crowd. “Closing time soon. Have you picked out who you’ll ask home yet?”

“Lady, I told you before. I came here to watch a game and dodge kids ringing my bell.”

“So you don’t want anyone ringing your bell?”

“Scrubs, your cliché score must be over a hundred by now.”

“Seriously, look at the women there on the dance floor. Who would you ask?”

“Them? Pathetic. One night a year they dress slutty and get away with it.”

“Yeah, so?”

“Most of those women are too old or too big to look sexy in those costumes.”

Scrubs smirked. “We all look the same when we’re standing on our heads.”

Desmond choked on his drink. He wiped beer off his mouth. “You got all the clever lines tonight, don’t you?”

“I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your server.”

Desmond took a last slug of his longneck, slid off the stool. He peeled off the pink jacket and hat, piled them on the bar.

“Another time, Scrubs. I hope you’re happy tonight with whoever picks the doc with all the lines.”

He stepped out into the night. Scrubs had it right. Nobody rings my bell.

What I’m Reading

I finished reading Drift, by L. T. Ryan , the first in a series of eight thrillers with main character Rachel Hatch. An enjoyable read. Refreshing – not quite the usual (trite) “gory serial killer preys on women or children” premise.

Hatch is ex-military, a wanderer after serving for 15 years on a slew of difficult and classified assignments. In Drift she works to find her twin sister’s killer. The author presents a compelling and authentic character, different enough from many other novel protagonists to be quite readable. I look forward to reading the next in the series.

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And coming soon, a new format for this blog. Mannequin Monday will yield to a new title and logo. Sneak previews soon!

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