Healing through story

Category: books (Page 1 of 25)

shortfiction24 condoms underfoot, stars overhead

A grieving man meets a distraught dad on a starlit night. Each struggles to make sense of their losses.

This story began as a dream I had about starry nights. Enjoy!

Condoms Underfoot, Stars Overhead

Bob Gillen

My name is Frank. At the moment I am sitting in my four-wheel drive Jeep in the parking lot at the top of Lump Rock. One a.m. on a Wednesday in mid December. A night that would be pitch black if it were not for the universe of stars blazing above me. Why I’m here isn’t important. I have nowhere else to be.

I live in a town that has as its motto: Where Boredom Goes to Die. We try to imitate other places. Never works. Vegas can build an entire city with imitations of other cities. Paris. London. New York. Right in the middle of a friggin’ desert. Not us. We never get it right. 

TV and movies will tell you that when you want to get laid, you drive up to Inspiration Point. Beautiful. Quiet. Get the job done. We have Lump Rock. Yeah, it’s a magnificent vantage point once you get here. But getting here, that takes a lot out of you.

Lump Rock lies twenty miles north of my town. One lane winding road, unlit, badly maintained, all the way up. No passing lanes. Ever have that nightmare about driving a Porsche and getting stuck behind a VW micro bus? That dream would be set here.

In the dead of winter it’s near impossible to get here. The crews rarely salt and plow. Why bother? The town horn dogs could just get a room in town or out on the interstate.

Early winter is, in my mind, the best time to be on Lump Rock. No people. No north winds. They come later. If you dare to get out of your car, the soiled condoms on the ground are frozen and the empty beer cans could be kicked aside without splashing beer on your shoe.

So here I am, early winter on Lump Rock. It’s been a year since I lost my wife. We ran a bed and breakfast in town. Did so for twenty of the twenty-five years we were married. We called it The Hi and Bye Inn. We knew our clientele. Travelers passing through on their way to somewhere else. We gave them a clean bed, coffee, a hearty breakfast, and a wave goodbye. We had no rack of sightseeing brochures. No point. No one wanted them. 

She’s gone now. I sold the B&B right away. Couldn’t bear to run it without her. Got a good price for it. Haven’t figured out what I want to do yet. Maybe move someplace far less boring. But for now I find myself on Lump Rock in the middle of the night. Alone. Not even pondering what to do. Just sitting. Alone. 

The view is spectacular. Nothing but a blanket of stars spread across the night sky. Immense. Powerful. Planets. Galaxies. Millions of years of energy and light.

I get out of my car to better see the stars. I step carefully. State maintenance crews only come up here to clean a few times a year. They keep a chart behind the supervisor’s door. When complaints reach fifteen, the supervisor begins to eye the junior staff, or the ones who piss him off. At twenty complaints he sends two guys in a pickup truck to clean the parking lot. Brooms. The only way to do it. Sweep and dump in a barrel. Back at the garage, the rest of the crew would gather and cheer as the two toss the barrel’s contents into trash dumpsters. 

Headlights surprise me as they pierce the black parking lot. A nondescript sedan pulls to a stop on the side opposite where I am parked. I wait. No need to interrupt the deed. But there is no movement.  

My curiosity gets the better of me. I dodge condoms to walk over and peer in the passenger window of the other car. I see a man, maybe late thirties, sitting at the wheel, hugging a backpack to his chest. His head slumps forward on the steering wheel. I can see his chest rise and fall. He seems okay.

Something prompts me to tap on the window. The man startles, looks around.

“Are you okay?” I ask through the glass. He nods. After a moment he rolls the window down. 

“Who are you?”

“My name is Frank. I saw you pull in. You looked slumped over. Just checking.”

The man pops the lock. “Get in. It’s too cold out there.”

I slip into the passenger seat. Take a deep breath.

“I can sit here with you if that’s what you need.”

The man shrugs. “I don’t know what I need.”

I sit in silence. Stare out at the star-studded sky. Try to breathe easily. 

After maybe ten minutes, the man grasps the backpack on his chest, holds it out to me. It’s pale blue. The word Cheerio is printed across the front. I do a double take.

There’s an enormous dark red stain across the front. In the center is a jagged hole.

“My kid’s backpack,” he says. “A bullet hole. Her blood.”

“Shit.” I say. “Is she…?” 

“Dead? Yeah.”

“The school shooting over in the next town? Three months ago?”

He nods.

I can’t find the words to even say Sorry.

“It was a seventeen-year old kid with an assault rifle. What world of pain does a kid have to be in to do something like this to children?”

I remain silent. 

“He tried to kill himself. The gun jammed. He will now spend his entire lifetime in prison. In a whole other world of pain.”

The man says, “My name is Jerry, by the way.”

“Hi, Jerry.” I slip the backpack to the floor of the car where I cannot see it.

Jerry turns to look at me. “What’re you doing up here?”

“Just hanging. No where else to go. My house is empty.”

Jerry nods. “Who did you lose?”

“My wife. A year ago. After twenty-five years together.”

“Kids?”

“Nope. Not a conscious decision. Somehow we just never got to it.”

“Saved yourself a lot of pain, let me tell you.”

“It hurts bad enough losing my wife. I can’t imagine losing a kid.”

“No one can imagine it. Talk about a world of pain.”

We stop talking for a while. Sit under the spread of stars. I think, What words could possibly change the course of this universe?

I think I may have nodded off for a while. I wake to find Jerry gone from the car. I peer out into the darkness. I spy his silhouette over near the edge of the hill. Something tells me to sit tight. I wait. I try to recall what I had seen in the news about the school shooting. Four kids and a teacher dead. Lots of kids wounded. Like Jerry said, a world of pain. Created by one shooter. 

I find myself crying. I haven’t cried since my wife’s funeral.

After I wipe away the tears, I look again for Jerry. 

Do not see him.

I jump out of the car. Dash to the edge, dodging the frozen condoms and cans on the ground. He’s nowhere to be seen.

“Over here, buddy,” a voice says out of the darkness.

Jerry steps towards me.

“Did I scare you?”

I nod.

“No worries.”

He takes another step closer. He waves up at the sky. “My world of pain is about that big,” he says. “But it’s my world of pain to deal with. I won’t add to the pain already in existence.”

Here we are, side by side, in the darkness and the cold, under a sky pierced with countless lights. “My baby’s light is up there somewhere,” Jerry says. “She will shine on forever.”

Two strangers, standing together. Two broken, empty hearts. 

Frozen soiled condoms at our feet. A universe of stars above us.

***

shortfiction24 inking ignites a spark

Brad and Jordan shop for a tattoo to seal their love. The tattoo artist is a speed bump on their road to ink. Are they ready for “permanent?”

Enjoy the story.

Inking Ignites a Spark

Bob Gillen

On the sidewalk outside the tattoo parlor, Brad and Jordan studied the samples in the window.

“I love that you’re doing this for me,” Jordan said, squeezing his arm.

Brad nodded, smiled. “Yeah, pretty cool.”

They stepped into the parlor.

“Hey, dudes,” a heavily inked man in a sleeveless shirt greeted them.

“Hi,” Jordan said. “My boyfriend wants a tattoo.”

“Welcome to my shop.” He gestured to the room. “This is all my work.”

Brad looked around at the samples lining the walls and counters.

“Any thoughts on what design or style you want?”

“He’s thinking of my name…Jordan. Right?” She turned to Brad.

Brad nodded.

“What about color? Black only, black and gray, full color?”

“I guess it depends on what I see,” Brad said.

“Are you guys in high school?”

“Seniors,” Jordan said.

“You have to be eighteen to get inked in this state,” the artist said.

“I turned eighteen a month ago.”

“Okay. We can check ID when we finalize this…Any issues with your folks over getting inked?” the tattoo artist asked Brad.

“I didn’t ask them,” Brad said in a low voice.

The artist nodded, paused, rubbed his tongue across his teeth. “Where do you want the tattoo?”

“My right arm, I guess.”

“Everyone will see it there, okay?” The artist walked them to a display of names and fonts.

Jordan said, “On your bicep. That will work.”

“Will the name run up and down, or across, your bicep?”

Brad frowned.

“Let’s experiment.” The artist reached for a chiseled marker. “I can wipe this off with alcohol when we’re done.”

Brad shoved the sleeve up on his tee.

“The name?”

“Jordan.”

The artist drew Jordan in simple block letters up and down on Brad’s bicep.

Brad slipped his sleeve back down.

Jordan squinted. “Oh.”

“What?” Brad asked.

The artist held up a mirror for Brad to see the image clearly.

What they all saw was dan. The Jor was covered by Brad’s sleeve.

“Everyone will think you’re in love with a Dan,” Jordan said.

“All right then, we go with your name across the bicep,” the artist said.

He wiped the image off with a tissue and alcohol. He then drew Jordan’s name across Brad’s bicep, below his sleeve.

“I like that,” Jordan said.

“How much do you charge?” Brad asked.

“My prices run from a bottom of about eighty dollars upwards through the hundreds.”

“I saved one hundred.”

The artist nodded. “That would eliminate color.”

Jordan made a face. “No color?”

Brad shrugged. “That’s all I have.”

The artist cleared his throat, said, “I don’t want to throw shade at your project here. I have to ask, How serious are you guys?”

Jordan piped up. “We’re going to the same college. Serious all the way.”

Brad smiled. Weakly.

“And if your parents are not fully on board, you may want to ink yourself where they can’t see it. At least, not till much later.”

“Yeah?” Brad felt unsure. “Where would they not see it? I’m on the swim team. They come to all my meets.”

“Some people get their ink on their butts,” the artist said with a grin.

“Oh, sure,” Jordan squeaked, waving her arms. The artist took a step backwards. “Ink my name on your ass. I don’t think so.”

Jordan continued, “Brad, be more confident. I’m sure they’ll be okay with this.”

The artist watched Brad’s face, hesitation written all over it.

“Let me toss out another question,” the artist said. He stared directly at Brad. “Four years from now, when you’re both college seniors, will you still be together? If not, you’re stuck with Jordan’s name inked somewhere on your body.”

“He won’t be stuck with my name,” Jordan flared. “We’re never breaking up. This is forever.” She hugged Brad’s arm.

Brad closed his eyes. Breathed in the smell of ink. Forever.

The artist sighed. ”Look, guys, I don’t want to turn away any business. But I am proud of my work. I don’t want to see you trying to hide it, or even remove it, in a few years.”

“Brad, you want this, right? Speak up.” She cozied up to his arm.

“I am worried about my parents’ reaction. I didn’t think of that before now.”

“Even if they’re surprised, they’ll get over it quickly. They like me. A tattoo will be so cool.”

Brad stared at the marking on his bicep.

Sensing Brad’s hesitation, the artist suggested, “Why don’t you guys take a week to think this over. I’ll still be here. And to show you my sincerity, when you come back I’ll offer you a 10 percent discount.”

“We don’t need time to think about this,” Jordan said, her voice squeaking. She raised her eyebrows. “Brad, tell him what you want. Let’s pick out a style.”

“I think maybe we should wait, like he says. We can look over some designs before we come back.”

Jordan grew red in the face. “Brad, you’re letting this guy talk you out of the tattoo. We agreed to do this.” She glared at the artist.

“I’m not saying no, Jordan. Let’s just come back. Maybe I should try out the idea on my parents.”

Jordan gave the artist the finger. “You ruined this, you fuck!” She turned and stormed out the door. Brad froze in place.

The artist reached to wipe Jordan’s name off Brad’s arm. He whispered, “Trust me. You’ll thank me in a couple of years. If not sooner.”

***

shortfiction24 hiding in the light

Millie Haver loves her new life in the lights of the big city. Darkness lurks over her shoulder.

This story is inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1927 painting Automat. Enjoy!

Hiding in the Light

Bob Gillen

Friday night in the city. Coming up on midnight. On the street a taxi’s blaring horn shatters the stillness. Millie Haver sits alone at her usual corner table in the all-night Automat. Rows of ceiling lights in the cafeteria hold back the outside darkness. From the corner of her eye Millie can see pedestrians passing on the surrounding sidewalk. A few pause to stare in for a moment. Several couples walk past arm in arm. Most pass on by, even as they steal a glance at the lone woman in the cafeteria. 

Millie maintains a deadpan expression on her face. She knows what most of the passersby think. A young woman, dumped by her boyfriend. Or an office worker laid off from her job. A woman at odds with the world. Or rather, a world at odds with this one woman.

Millie smiles to herself. 

Only four months ago she sat crosslegged on the beach near her childhood home as the sun rose over the ocean. The day the sun infused her with courage. The day she decided to leave for the city. Life in her home town was over. She had performed in all the area shows. Tap danced till her feet bled. Taken home a shelf full of trophies and ribbons. And now, time to move on.

Millie is a dancer on the big stage. A Broadway dolly. Performing eight shows a week. Getting paid enough to eke out a life in the city. Tonight she had spent three nickels on an egg salad sandwich. Another nickel on a cup of coffee she would nurse for hours.

Millie loves life in the light. She glories in seeing her face in the light of a makeup mirror. Tapping under the hot stage lights. Looking out night after night into the blackness where her audience sits. She is a creature of light, that special theater light that separates performer from audience.

Tonight had been a good house. Standing ovation at the finale. One of the usual, posh, potbellied men had come backstage with roses. For any one of the dancers who smiled at him. Millie had turned away. He only wanted one thing. And she was not about to give it. Not to him. 

Millie shares a tiny apartment with Maxine, another dancer from the show. Every night after their performance, Maxine headed straight for the apartment and bed. Not Millie. The apartment is dimly lit even on the brightest of days. Going home now would mean stumbling in the dark to avoid waking her roommate. Tripping over shoes and clothes. Rubbing her aching feet. Staring at the ceiling, waiting for dawn. For light.

Earlier today Millie and Maxine had taken a long walk to explore the Hudson River. Strolled out on an abandoned pier. Smelled rotten fish, garbage, sewage. Watched the currents carry the dirty water south to the ocean. It was chilly out on the river, with winter closing in. Glove weather. Maxine came up from Florida. She doesn’t know winter. Not yet.

Millie sees the Hudson as movement. Flow. A journey. Of course the river is filthy. But it’s part of the city. The city where stage lights can make even filth disappear. At least for a moment. 

Sitting in the brightly lit cafeteria is a silent role Millie plays for herself, an attempt to continue her performance. This is her second stage. She can feel the audience behind her. Passing on the sidewalk. Illuminated briefly as they pass the large cafeteria windows.

Every night Millie is the lone woman in the window. The mysterious woman. Sitting at a table facing an empty chair. She does not throw her coat or purse on the empty chair. Leave it bare for people to wonder. Casting a shadow of curiosity to the outside world. Tonight she longs to take off her shoes, rub her sore feet. But that would not suit the image she cultivates. 

Millie hears a shout from the front door. A man, hat and coat askew, staggers as he tries to enter the cafeteria. The cafeteria manager blocks his path.

The man turns and vomits on the sidewalk. He slips to the ground, clinging to a bottle in a brown bag.

The manager waves to an assistant. They lift the drunk and push him away. He screams at the manager as he sways down the sidewalk, grabbing for the support of a light pole.

Millie shudders. Trembles. Looks around for someplace to hide. Coffee sloshes from her cup. She squeezes her eyes shut. 

Images flash in her mind. Her drunken father, raging in the dark, swinging a kitchen knife at her mother. Millie hiding behind a living room chair, hands over her ears. Her mother waiting for her husband’s rage to peter out. Taking the knife away from him. Steering him to bed. Millie falling asleep behind the chair.

She blinks. Looks up at the ceiling lights. Glances around the room. Quiet again. She hears nickels dropping in a slot. A small door clicking open to reveal a midnight snack. A few diners eating pie and sipping coffee.

She takes in a deep breath. Opens her eyes wide.

Light. 

And with the light, peace. 

***

shortfiction24 the coffin on the ferry

Two teens, Meg and Ivy, chase down a van carrying a coffin that they spied on a ferry. They find unexpected answers.

Enjoy the story.

The Coffin on the Ferry

Bob Gillen

Meg stood next to her friend Ivy at the front of the car deck on the steamship heading for Nantucket Island. A strong breeze carried the scent of ocean and beach as it tossed her hair into knots.

Ivy wore faded red shorts and a yellow polo. Meg had a white tee over tan shorts.

“This is awesome,” she said to Ivy. “You do this every summer?”

“Yup. My parents have a standing reservation, the last week in June, the first in July.”

“Thanks for bringing me along.” She brushed her hair back out of her face. “Can we do a selfie?”

“Sure.” Ivy pulled her sunglasses off.

Meg held her camera phone at arm’s length. 

“Last year I was alone with my folks. So boring.”

“Do you know any kids here?”

“A few. Most of them change from year to year.”

The steamship began its turn around Brant Point and edged toward Steamship Wharf.

“When we leave,” Ivy said, “we toss a penny overboard at Brant Point to make sure we come back again.”

They saw crowds mobbing the wharf. Some lined up for the return trip to Hyannis. Others eagerly awaited incoming family and guests.

“Look,” Meg said. “A bunch of people are wearing shorts like yours.”

“Nantucket reds,” Ivy said. “We need to get you a pair.”

Passengers from the upper deck of the ferry began descending to the car deck and getting into their cars. Ivy and Meg moved towards Ivy’s parents’ SUV. Meg stopped. “Check this out.”

She took a picture of a decal in the rear window of a white van. How’s my driving? Call 1-800-EAT SHIT. “This is seriously cool. I need one for my dad’s car.” 

Ivy peeked closely. The window tinting peeled back at bit.

“Look,” she said, pointing Meg to the window.

“That’s a coffin,” Meg said.

“Looks like it.”

Meg shivered. “Let’s go.”

Before they climbed into their SUV, Meg said, “My grandma died last fall. Before Thanksgiving. I went with my parents to the service. It was an open casket. I freaked out. Went back to the car and sat there till it was over.”

“I would have done the same.”

 As they drove off the ferry and into the town’s streets, Ivy pointed. “There goes your decal.” The white van had turned away from town. Her parents were too preoccupied with avoiding pedestrians to take note of her comment.

They found their rental house and unloaded their luggage.  Ivy’s mom walked to the town’s only market for supper fixings. Cold cuts and salads for the first night. She bought steaks and fresh corn to grill the next night.

After dinner Ivy and Meg walked back to the wharf to get ice cream cones. 

“I love vanilla bean,” Ivy said. Meg’s cone had peanut butter and marshmallow piled on top of chocolate.

They wandered the streets, dodging tourists and what seemed like thousands of children.

“We can hit Mitchell’s to browse books tomorrow,” Ivy said. “Let’s find a bench and watch the tourists go by.”

They sat near a parked pickup with two golden retrievers sitting in the back, staring at their cones.

Later, as the sun dropped in the west, they strolled through a few quiet streets off Main Street. Ivy directed Mag’s attention to several historic sites.

She gestured to a large white house across the street. “That looks like the van you spotted on the ferry. See? Up the driveway.”

“It’s dark. Let’s get closer.” Meg dashed over and started up the driveway before Ivy could object.

The girls walked over a bed of crushed clam shells, stepping quietly up to the van. Sure enough, it was the one with the decal.

Meg peered in through the gap in the tinting material. “The light is bad, but I can’t see a coffin.”

“The coffin is in the house.”

Meg and Ivy jumped at the voice. They whirled around to see an old woman holding on to a railing at the foot of a stairway. She wore a faded floral housecoat, flipflops, her white hair up in a knot.

“You scared us,” Ivy said.

“The feeling is mutual,” the woman said. “I saw you from my window as you crept up my driveway.”

“We’re sorry to bother you. I saw the decal. I think it’s really cool.”

“Ah, yes. The van belongs to my son. He has a clear penchant for the crude.”

“We should go,” Ivy said, nudging Meg.

“Since your curiosity has carried you this far, why don’t you come in and see why I have the coffin?” Without waiting for a reply, the woman started up the stairs.

“Well, come on,” the woman said, as the girls hesitated. “I’m not an old witch.”

Meg followed the woman. Ivy held back. Meg waved her on.

Inside, the woman passed through a large kitchen, an enormous bowl of purple hydrangeas on a worn table. They passed through into a dining room. Only a single lamp cast a yellow light over the room. Meg peered into the dim space. “Oh.”

Next to a long mahogany dining table a pine coffin lay spread across two chairs.

A man, shaved head and a long beard, was screwing the lid down on the coffin. He looked up.

“I see our two nosy friends found us.”

“I would prefer to call them curious,” the woman said.

“I saw them nosing around the back of my van on the ferry.”

Meg spoke up, trying to avoid looking at the coffin. “The decal. I thought it was cool. I want to get one for my dad.”

The woman shook her head. “Now, there’s no point in continuing the crudity, is there?”

Meg shrugged.

“Why do you have a coffin?” Ivy asked.

“Tell them, Mom,” the man said.

“Come in the kitchen,” she said. “More pleasant than this room.”

In the kitchen the woman and the two girls sat at the scarred table. “I would offer you iced tea or lemonade – it’s what an old lady does, right?”

The girls nodded. 

“However, my routine has been disrupted of late. Please forgive me.”

“It’s okay,” Meg said. She shivered as she glanced back towards the dining room. 

A tear worked its way down the woman’s cheek.

“My sister is in the box.”

Meg glanced at Ivy. “We need to go.”

“Please wait a moment,” the woman said. “You see, my sister, her name is Abigail, she came to visit me last week. Two mornings ago she died in her sleep. She would have been ninety-one in August.”

“Sorry,” Meg said.

“It was her time.”

The woman held up a hand. “Please forgive me. I have not introduced myself. My name is Martha Lou. I have lived here for over thirty years. Abigail spent summers with me for the last ten years, since her husband passed.”

Meg managed a weak smile. “I’m Meg. This is my friend Ivy.”

“A pleasure to meet you. My two Nancy Drew friends.”

The man entered the kitchen. “Finished, Mom.”

Martha Lou said, “This is my son Richard. He built the coffin for me.”

“I’m a carpenter,” he said. “I live off island outside of Boston. Near aunt Abigail. Mom asked me to help.”

Meg frowned. “Why not bury Abigail here?”

“Ah. Excellent question. The island’s undertaker – Frank Clancy – is a prig…and a crook. He would charge me quite a bit of money for an island funeral and burial.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Richard brought a body bag with the coffin. Abigail is now sealed in the coffin. He’ll drive her back to her home tomorrow. I’ll ride in with him.”

“But how will you do a burial there?”

“The local funeral director is an old family friend. I already called him to be ready for Abigail.”

Richard said, “I have a standby reservation for tomorrow to get the van on the ferry. It’s a busy time for them.”

“I can call my friend at the ferry office.”

“No, Mom. Let’s not call attention to what we’re doing.”

Meg nudged Ivy. “We should go.”

Martha Lou stood. “I need your word that you will keep our secret.”

Both girls nodded. “No worries,” Meg said. “Again, we’re sorry for your loss.”

They stood and headed for the door. Richard said, “I’d be more comfortable if you would delete those photos from your phone.”

Meg opened her phone and deleted the pictures. She held it up for Richard to see.

“Thanks.”

“And, since you’re here, I could use help getting the coffin to my van. It’s dark enough that no one should see us.”

“Oh, my folks will be expecting us,” Ivy said.

Meg wrapped her arms around her body. Shivered.

“It will only take a minute,” Richard said.

“You would be doing a kindness for our Abigail,” Martha Lou said.

Richard picked up the head end of the coffin while Ivy and Meg grabbed the foot end. Martha Lou held the back door open. Meg stared at the box. There’s a dead body in there

“I’ve never been this close to a dead body,” Meg said.

Martha Lou touched Meg’s shoulder. “There’s a time for everything.”

They hauled the coffin down the steps and slid it into the van. The darkness veiled their activity.

As Richard closed the van doors, Ivy said, “We really should be going.”

“Wait one moment,” Martha Lou said. She reached into the pocket of her housecoat and took out a silver bangle bracelet.

“This belonged to Abigail. She had trouble wearing it lately. Her wrists were too thin. I want you two to take it. You can share the bangles. There are six in all.”

She handed the bracelet to Meg.

“We shouldn’t.” 

“Oh, but I insist. You will be carrying Abigail’s memory farther than I or Richard can.”

Meg took the bangles. She handed three to Ivy.

“I will be off island for several days for Abigail’s burial. But I would be pleased if you rang my bell before you finish your vacation. We can share a proper lemonade and homemade cookies.”

Richard nodded to the girls. Martha Lou leaned forward and touched her cheek to Meg and to Ivy’s faces. “Thank you.”

As Ivy and Meg walked back towards Main Street, Meg slipped the bangles on her wrist. She wiggled them at Ivy. “Don’t tell me this stuff happens to you every summer.”

Ivy laughed, shook her head. “Only since you arrived, Nancy Drew.”

***

shortfiction24 – enough of self-pity

Sally lost her husband two years ago. She’s slipping into finding solace in a bottle of scotch.

Enjoy the story.

Enough of Self-Pity

Bob Gillen

Sally eased her Subaru into the carport and carried coffee and a bag of bagels to the house. Her headache throbbed. Too much Johnny Walker Black last night. Her mistake – watching an episode of Jesse Stone on TV. In the story Stone had settled into his worn leather chair in his secluded beach house at the end of the day, his dog at his side. Stone told himself one drink was enough. Half a bottle later he fell asleep in the chair till morning. 

Life imitates art. Sally had done the same. 

Her drinking came too easy. Easy to enjoy. Easy to excuse. It had been two years since she lost Vaughn, her husband of forty years. Since then two more years of continuing to avoid alcohol, as she and Vaughn had promised each other years back. Enough alcoholism in our families, they had both agreed.

Sitting one night in front of the TV, watching a musical movie Vaughn had loved, Sally had broken into tears. A thought wormed its way into her mind. Why go on avoiding drinking? Vaughn is gone. What does it matter any more? 

The result – two drinks every night. Until she knocked off half a bottle last night.

Sally opened the front door and put the coffee and bagels on the kitchen counter. She took a few gulps of the coffee. Cleared her head for a moment. She moved to the living room and opened the patio blinds. 

“Hi, Sally.”

“Holy shit!” She clenched her hands into fists. Whirled around to find the voice.

“Vaughn?” A whisper.

A man sitting in her chair nodded.

Sally shook her head, blinked her eyes hard.

“Not possible. You died. Two years ago.”

“I came back.”

“How? Why?”

“Move away from the window. You’re backlit. I can’t see your face.”

Sally slid over to the couch and sat.

She saw that Vaughn was wearing jeans and his usual faded polo that still hung in his closet. The closet she had not yet cleared out.

“This isn’t possible. You were cremated. You’re dead. How?”

“Sally, I had to talk to you.”

“What? I’m dreaming, right?”

“I only get to do this once, Sally. Listen carefully.”

“Vaughn, you sound so business-like. It’s me. Sally. Your wife.” She leaned forward on the couch.

“I am limited by how much emotion I can bring to this visit. It’s real, but it isn’t.”

Sally again shook her head in disbelief.

“Sally, you’ve been drinking.”

“Is that what this is all about? A few drinks?”

“Your father was a nasty drunk. So was mine. We stopped drinking to avoid that for ourselves.”

Vaughn sat still, did not move to gesture or point. His face was almost expressionless.

“Enough, Sally. Stop before you get in too deep.”

“But it’s only me now. Who am I going to hurt?”

“Yourself.”

“Come on, Vaughn. You came back only to tell me this? To stop having a couple of drinks at the end of my day?”

Vaughn gave an almost unseen nod.

Sally jumped up from the couch and stared out at the patio. She ran her hands through her hair. She laughed. “Vaughn, my coffee is getting cold. Can I warm it up while we keep talking?”

No reply. Sally turned. 

The chair was empty. No Vaughn. 

She shuddered, hugged herself. Am I hallucinating?

She approached the chair. Patted the cushions. Ran her hands over the arms. 

“Vaughn?”

Silence.

She dashed to the bedroom, looked in the closet. The polo Vaughn had worn still hung there, dust on its shoulders.

Sally edged back to the kitchen. She warmed her coffee in the microwave. Sliced and buttered a bagel.

Sitting in her chair, coffee and bagel in hand, a half-smile crept across her face. 

She set the food aside, returned to the kitchen. She pulled a half-empty bottle of scotch out of the cabinet. 

She watched the contents gurgle down the sink drain.

***

shortfiction24 – rare and aggressive

In story #7 of the Jack and Diane series, they face an unwanted diagnosis.

Another test of their relationship.

Enjoy the story. Previous six stories are here.

Rare and Aggressive

Bob Gillen

Jack Marin pulled his Ford F-150 into Diane Somers’s driveway, behind her Toyota Prius. He turned off the engine, sat in silence. How do I talk about this?

The clock on his dash read 6:30 p.m. An hour since he got his diagnosis. Since he lost something. Something as yet undefined.

Diane came to the door, her face grim. She stood, waiting, giving him space.

Jack slid out of his truck, walked toward her.

“It’s bad?” she said.

He nodded. “Yeah. Bad.”

“Come in.” She held the door for him.

Jack walked to her kitchen table, sat in his usual place, back to the living room. Diane came up next to him, stood there, her arm gently around his shoulder. “Want to talk about it?”

“Do you have coffee?”

Diane poured a cup from the French press. “Just made some.”

He sipped the coffee. “Better than the ‘Bucks, any day,” he said.

Diane sat opposite him.

“I had to wait for a bit. The patient ahead of me was late. Then his assistant ushered me to the doctor’s office. I was never there before. Usually an exam room. I knew…”

She reached across the table and touched his hand.

“He said the biopsy revealed carcinoma on my prostate. The spot he was concerned about after the MRI. He said it’s a rare and aggressive carcinoma.”

Jack sipped his coffee.

“Shit,” Diane said. “What now?”

Jack shrugged. “He wants to remove the whole prostate as soon as possible.”

“Will that get the carcinoma?”

“If I’m lucky.”

Diane frowned.

“If it doesn’t spread…”

“So…we hope for the best.”

“I guess.”

“Any after effects?”

“I’ll be incontinent…at least six to twelve months, maybe longer. I have to wear a paper diaper.”

“Oh.”

“And I will have ED.”

Diane’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yup.”

Jack raised his coffee mug to his lips. 

Diane said, “I ordered pizza. Should be here soon. Are you hungry?”

Jack shook his head. “Don’t think so. Maybe.”

He shrugged. “I knew right away it was bad.”

“We’ll get through it,” she said.

“Your boyfriend, the one with big boy pants and a non-working dick.”

“My boyfriend…stop there. The rest is not important.”

Jack looked up from his coffee mug. “I won’t have much to offer.”

“You’ll be here. That’s what counts.”

The doorbell rang. “Pizza’s here.” She got up to answer the bell.

“Will you feel bad if I eat?” she asked. “I skipped lunch today.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Diane pulled a slice out of the box and grabbed a napkin.

“I feel so bitter,” Jack said.

Diane peered at him over her slice.

“Bitter. My first reaction. Not fear or even anger. Bitter.”

Jack grabbed a napkin and a slice. “Maybe I am hungry.”

“Why bitter?”

“Did I ever tell you this? I pray every night for health. Years ago I listened to the audio tapes of a couple of Pema Chödrön books. You know her? The Buddhist nun?”

“I’ve heard of her. Don’t know her work.”

“She teaches you how to pray, in an expanding kind of way. Pray for yourself first. Then open your prayer to those close to you. If you are comfortable, move your prayer out further to those you may not know. And if you are able to, if you feel the generosity, even pray for your enemies, for those who do you and the world harm.”

Diane nodded.

“It helped me when I lost my wife…Anyway, especially the last few months I have prayed for health. For freedom from illness and malignancy. I have prayed to the spirits of love, to the healing power of the universe. I believe in that. And here I am…a rare and aggressive carcinoma. Not just a malignant cell. Rare.”

Jack set his slice down on the napkin. He lowered his head in his hands. Shook his head. “I’m not ready. I have too much to do yet. It’s not my time.”

Diane said, “Okay then, it’s not your time. Believe that. Hold on to that thought as you go forward.”

Jack looked up, nodded. “Can I stay here tonight? Nothing intimate. Just be with you. I need you.”

Diane’s eyes filled with tears. She got up and came to Jack’s side. “Stay here, of course.”

In the morning Jack woke to the smell of coffee. He rolled out of bed right away, got dressed, headed for the kitchen.

“Good morning.” A cheery greeting from Diane.

“Morning.”

Jack hugged Diane. Hard. Close. “Thank you.”

Diane smiled. “We got this. Don’t know how yet, but we got this.”

Jack sat and sipped his coffee. “Any leftover pizza?”

“In the fridge,” she said.

He got up, put two slices on a paper plate in the microwave.

“I don’t know yet when surgery will be. The doc said within six weeks.”

“Okay.” Diane stirred oatmeal on a small pot, added raisins.

“How long have we known each other?” he asked. “Three months or so?”

“Three months, two weeks, four days.”

“Okay.”

The microwave beeped.

“And we have both been playing this very cautiously. Friendship, with a touch of affection. An occasional PDA.”

Diane nodded. “It’s what we both needed to do.”

“Right. So…six weeks or so and I will never be able to be intimate with you…no matter how slow we want to go.”

“And…”

“I don’t know if I want to be intimate now…before the surgery.”

Diane poured the hot oatmeal into a bowl. “We don’t need to decide that today.”

“No. I mean, if we were intimate now, it would be wonderful, but then we would never be able to do that again.”

“What exactly are we talking about here? You will not be able to have an erection? No orgasm?”

“I think so. The doc was not too specific.”

“But my parts would still work.”

He smiled. “A one way street.”

“One orgasm, two intimate partners.”

Jack waved his hand. “Enough on this. How about we hit the beach later today?”

“I could do that, if you go home to shower and change first. You may be sick, but you’re not throwing in the towel.”

He smiled. “Any more pizza in the fridge?”

Later, on the beach at Point Dume, they walked back and forth along the water’s edge. 

“I like you, Jack Marin.”

“Back atcha, Diane Somers.”

She reached out to hold his hand. “I feel like I might be moving towards loving you. Not sure yet.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

They stood still and listened to the surf crash on the sand.

***

shortfiction24 – tag, you’re it

Matthew’s spirit passes the baton before he leaves this world for the next. Baby Ethan will grow into his mission.

Enjoy the short story.

Tag, You’re It

Bob Gillen

Matthew lay in his hospital bed, the cancer claiming his life a breath at a time. His wife and two daughters lingered, knowing his last moment was imminent. IV tubes fed Matthew with pain killers, leaving him unconscious. A white beanie sat on his head. He had complained of being cold. His wife thought he was also self-conscious of his sudden and total hair loss.

At nine p.m. on Christmas Eve Matthew flatlined. His family sobbed, hugged one another, and said goodbye. The oncology nurse began removing the IV tubes. His hospital gown slipped off his shoulder, revealing a tattoo of a heart. She touched the tattoo gently, covered his body and left the room.

Matthew’s spirit lingered in the room. Not quite ready to pass over. He had one more task to perform. His spirit drifted off the Oncology unit and through the halls. Sadly quiet on a Christmas Eve. He moved until he found the Maternity unit. The room he was looking for was at the end of the hall. A few hours passed. At one a.m. on Christmas morning little Ethan burst onto the scene. His mother lay back exhausted. The nurse soothed the baby’s squawks, washed him, then laid his naked body on his mother’s bare chest. Skin to skin. Warmth to warmth. Bonding at the start of life.

Matthew hovered unseen in the background. “Hey, little buddy. Welcome.” Ethan blinked.

Ethan’s dad hurried into the room. “I go down for coffee and you have the baby!”

He rushed to see Ethan. A tear wound its way down his cheek. 

“He surprised us,” his mom said.

The dad sat at bedside, holding his wife’s hand. 

The nurse pointed to Ethan’s shoulder. “He has a tiny birthmark. Almost in the shape of a heart. It will probably fade as he gets older.”

The nurse slipped a white knitted cap on Ethan’s head. A precious gift from his grandma. “They lose some of their body heat through the top of their heads,” the nurse said.

Matthew’s spirit spoke to Ethan. “Little man, I know you can’t communicate yet. That will take time. I’m here to tell you, I’ve got your back. I’m leaving now. Turning it over to you. I’ve done what I needed to do. It’s your turn now.”

Matthew lingered for a few minutes. Christmas Day. New life. The baton passing to another. It was time for Matthew to leave. Matthew’s spirit brushed Ethan’s birthmark. “Tag, you’re it.”

***

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