I write short fiction

Category: books (Page 1 of 17)

shortfiction24 – the flatbed ford

This Week’s Story

Almost two years ago I posted a story about a girl in a flatbed Ford. Back in the day, when I called this blog Mannequin Monday. More recently I revised it to take the two characters in a different direction.

Matt Briggs is hitching from northern California to Los Angeles in search of work. On the way he meets a girl driving a flatbed Ford. Intrigue ensues.

Here’s a link to the original story – August of 2020.

The Flatbed Ford

Bob Gillen

Matt Briggs sat on a bench at the edge of a mall parking lot, a quarter mile from the freeway off ramp where his last hitch dropped him. He held a cardboard LA sign damp with his sweat, backpack and guitar case at his feet.  

A dark green flatbed Ford drove past. The girl driving slowed as she turned to have a look at him. She parked farther out where there was room for her truck. 

She walked toward Briggs. Jeans, a faded red tee, worn cowboy boots. Her sun-bleached ponytail flashed in the sunlight. She pointed to his sign. “Headed to LA?”

He nodded.

“I’m headed in your direction. If you wait, I’ll drive you part way.”

Briggs smiled. “Sounds good. How long?”

“Long enough to eat a pizza. I mobile-ordereed.”

“Tell me – gluten free, veggies, fake cheese.”

“Pepperoni.”

“Fooled me,” Briggs said.

“Not hard, I see.”

He put up his hands in surrender. “Got me.”

She said, “I can share. Hungry?” 

“Yep.”

They sat outdoors at a metal table, steel chairs squealing on the concrete.

She opened the box, grabbed a slice. “What’s in LA?” she asked.

He shrugged. “A job, I hope. I know a guy runs a food truck. He needs help. Or he can get me in at a craft services company.”

“Where you coming from?”

“The Bay area. Worked a grill for the last six months.”

“Tired of it?”

He sipped a Coke. “Tired of the place. If I see another hipster with a long beard, I’ll throw up.”

She laughed. “A bit biased, are we?”

He chewed off another bite. Waited to answer. Had none.

He shrugged.

“You think you’ll lose that vibe in LA?”

“Nah. Just different. I hope.”

“No girl left behind up north?”

He looked at her over his pizza slice. “Talk about biasses…is it always a broken down love?”

“When is it not?” she asked.

Once more he shrugged. His signature move.

“What was she like?” ponytail asked.

“Wonderful…till she cheated on me.”

“Married?”

“No.”

“Engaged?”

“No.”

“Then how did she cheat on you?”

“You saying it was my fault?” He leaned in.

“I’m saying, she’s free till she promises herself, right?”

“Not how I see it.”

She pointed a finger at him. “You’re not seeing it right.”

“Isn’t a year together enough of a promise?”

“Not in my book.” She held out her left hand. “While this finger is empty, she’s free.”

“What about you?” Briggs said. “I don’t see a ring on your hand.”

“And you never will.” 

They finished the pizza. He ordered coffees for each of them.

“Where are you actually headed?” he asked her.

“Burbank.”

He tipped his head toward her. “A guy?”

She shook her head. “A horse. Checking out a mare I might buy.”

Briggs climbed into her truck, stashed his gear under his feet.

“If traffic is good, we should be in Burbank in under an hour.” 

“So, you into horses?’

She nodded. “All my life. No one comes close.”

Briggs leaned back, stared out the window as she drove eastbound on the 101 freeway.

“Where’s your buddy live?” she asked.

“Glendale.” 

“Not that far. You might catch a ride from where I’m stopping.”

“If you get the horse, where will you keep it?”

“Her.”

“What?”

“Her. She’s a mare. She, not it.”

He shook his head slightly. “Where?”

“I work on a ranch near Santa Barbara. I can board her there. Till I can afford my own place.”

“You want a ranch?”

“Yep. Some day.”

He turned to look at her. “That’s an expensive dream.”

“You originally from the Bay area?” she asked.

“Nah. College in Iowa. Raised in Indiana. Been out here since I got out of college twelve years ago. Mostly back and forth between LA and San Francisco. That’s where the food action is.”

“You a chef or something?”

He sat up straighter. “I call myself a chef. Everyone sees me as a cook.”

She cheated on me

She smiled. “You got a signature dish?”

“I did. She cheated on me.”

“Christ, that was a stupid answer.”

Another shrug. “A Monterey Club sandwich.”

She glanced over at him. “Make me want to taste it.”

“Three crispy whole wheat tortillas, layered with fried ham, marinated chicken, bacon, Colby Jack cheese, a spicy aioli.”

“What, no lettuce and tomato?”

“Thin slice of tomato, maybe. No lettuce. Makes for a sloppy sandwich.”

“What sides?”

“Thin cut fries, crispy and salty. A big mug of beer, or Coke. Either ice cold.”

She nodded. “You got me. Call me when you get set up somewhere.”

“You want to see me again?”

She pulled off the freeway onto Burbank surface streets. “I want you to cook for me.”

***

shortfiction24 – why am I doing this?

This Week’s Short Story

A mother embraces the return of her college-age daughter, whom she had not seen in a year. They reunite on Nantucket Island, each struggling with her own mistakes.

Why Am I Doing This?

Bob Gillen

Shit. Why am I doing this?

Riley Riggins had the text on her phone memorized by now.  

Riley: in Hyannis tomw. can I come over to see you

Mom: Yes! Yes, of course. Been so long! Will meet you at the wharf. Can’t wait!

Riley had boarded the car ferry late, sat in the last row inside the cabin, near the stern as it churned towards Nantucket Island. The glorious June sun sparkling on the sea went unnoticed. 

A blue hoodie covered her head. Ragged cutoff jeans and faded green Cons completed the outfit. Reaching into the backpack she clutched on her lap, she pulled out a book. The Silver Hammer. Author Hollis Riggins. Riley opened to the front matter. “Hollis Riggins, author of 15 thriller and adventure novels. Hollis Riggins’s characters prowl the New England seacoast, solving mysteries that elude others.”

Her mom made a comfortable living as a successful career novelist, working with a renowned publishing house. A tentative smile cracked Riley’s face as she remembered how her mom had worn out five keyboards cranking out her novels.

The last time Riley saw Hollis, she was driving away from Riley’s dorm at Syracuse University. Freshman year, with a declared major in biology and medical research. 

On the steamship wharf, Riley hung back, waiting for most of the passengers and the cars to move ahead. She stepped into the blazing sun, squinting and keeping her eyes down. Maybe she won’t see me.

“Riley! Over here.”

She looked up to see her mom waving both arms. Hollis wore a khaki skirt, a white cotton shirt, sandals. A navy bandana circled her head. Huge sunglasses hid her eyes.

“Mom.” Barely a whisper.

Hollis ran up, reached out to embrace Riley. Stopped midway. Riley stood, arms at her side, shoulders hunched. Hollis took a step back.

“Oh, Riley, it’s been too long. I’m so happy you came. What a great surprise.” Hollis looked deep into Riley’s eyes. She reached up, pushed the hoodie back off Riley’s head. “Oh.”

“I cut it.”

“And added green streaks, I see.”

Riley nodded, eyes on her feet.

“Come on back to my place. I have food in the house.”

Hollis put one arm around Riley’s shoulder. They started off.

“Did you want ice cream? Or a slice?”

Riley shook her head.

They walked in silence, dodging the hordes of passengers and island residents swarming over the wharf. Long lines of cars and cyclists waited to roll onto the departing ferry. Parents herded little kids holding ice cream cones, the drips running down their hands and arms. Dads stuffed pizza slices into their faces. Everyone had a carryon suitcase, a backpack, a tote bag…and a sunburned face. Dogs on leashes paced restlessly. 

As they walked nearer to town, Hollis stopped when Riley began sniffling. She pulled Riley aside, guided her to a sidewalk bench.

“What is it?” Hollis asked.

Tears flooded down Riley’s face. She put her head in her hands. Sobbed. Shuddered. 

I failed

Hollis sat without speaking.

“I failed.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“I fucked up. Fucked up everything.”

Hollis remained silent.

Riley looked up, stared at Hollis. “I dropped out.”

“When?”

“In April. I flunked all but one of my midterms.”

“Which one did you pass?”

“English.”

“Well, okay then.”

Riley managed a weak smile.

“I got a job in a coffee house, crashed with some students who had their own apartment.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

Riley shook her head.

“And now you’re home.”

Riley bit her lower lip. “For a few days.”

“Then what?”

“No clue.”

“Okay. One day at a time.”

Riley wiped her face on her hoodie sleeve. “You’re not mad?”

“Confused. Hurt that you didn’t tell me. But thrilled to have you here in front of me. It’s been too long.”

Riley sniffled. “I’m sorry I missed the holidays.”

Hollis said, “Yeah. Me, too.”

The conversation dropped off. 

Riley looked to her mom. “I saw your new book.” She pointed to the backpack. “I bought it.”

“You never read my books before.”

“I haven’t read this one yet. Maybe I’ll start it tonight.”

Hollis smiled.

Riley asked, “Is there any place to run here? I’ve taken up running in the last couple months.”

“Yeah, there are trails. Plenty of open space…You like running?”

“I lose myself when I run. It all melts away…for a few hours.”

“Lose yourself…or find yourself?”

Riley shrugged. “That’s a heavy question.”

Hollis nodded. “Maybe I’ll ask you another time.”

“Is it okay I stay with you?”

“Of course. I’m beyond excited you’re here.”

“I’ve never been to Nantucket before.”

“Duh. I forgot. Yeah, I took an apartment here after the holidays. To finish my current novel. I’m really struggling with it.”

A group of teens hustled past, laughing as they took selfies.

“Really?”

“I’m stuck in the middle. I know how it ends, but I can’t get it there. Not yet.” Hollis stood. “Let’s go home.”

Credit: IMG Global

Riley slung her backpack over her shoulder.

Hollis led them to the cobblestoned Main Street. “Look at them all,” she said, waving her hand at the crowds. “They’re either day trippers, or they have a ton of money. Not much in between here.”

Riley listened to the car tires battering over the cobblestones. Smelled the salt air. A white Lab sitting in the back of a parked pickup truck stared at her as they passed. She stepped over, held out her hand for the Lab to sniff. She stroked his fur. The Lab closed its eyes in delight.

They continued walking. “This is nice.”

“My landlord has a couple of Labs. She runs a catering company here. Busy as hell all summer, then all but dead in the winter…She’s always looking for staff.”

Riley nodded, pointed across the street. “Is that a farm truck selling fruit?”

Hollis nodded. “He’s here every day.”

“Be right back.” Riley dodged traffic to cross Main Street. She came back a few minutes later with two peaches. She handed one to her mom. Took a huge bite, the juice running down her arm.

“It’s getting on your hoodie.”

“No worries. It’s already covered with snot.”

At Hollis’s apartment, Riley took a quick shower while Hollis seared scallops in butter. Riley put together a green salad.

Halfway through their supper, Riley set her fork down as tears channelled down her cheeks. “Mom, I fucked up so badly. A whole year gone. The tuition money…”

“Did you fuck up…or was it a learning experience?”

“Shit, you’re doing it again.”

“What?”

“The existential questions.”

“It’s what I do. I’m a writer.” She used her knife to guide lettuce onto her fork.

Riley wiped her eyes with a paper napkin.

Hollis said, “Can I share something with you?”

Riley’s eyes widened. “I guess.”

“I fucked up, too.”

“Huh?”

“A major fuckup. I lost my publisher. After fifteen years.”

“How?”

“You know how I have always had a benign disrespect for authority…in this case, management.”

“You were hell on my teachers in high school.”

“Which I do not apologize for….well, they assigned me to a new editor. Someone with not a lot of experience. I think they thought she could break in with me. I’d be an easy writer to work with….Wrong!”

“They dumped you?”

“Well, I suppose it was mutual. She tried to turn my book into a different story. I looked her in the eye, told her ‘ESAD’.”

“Wait, what?”

“ESAD. Eat shit and die.”

“Oh.”

Hollis leaned back in her chair. “That did not go well. The new editor had connections. We parted ways.”

“Now what?”

“Finish my work-in-progress, then find a new publisher.”

“Anyone would be glad to take you on.”

“I have a good track record…but publishing is a small world. I may have burned my bridges.”

“Can you live on your royalties?”

“If they don’t take my books out of print.”

Sounds like we’re both in between

Riley reached her hand out to touch Hollis’s wrist.

Hollis said, “Sounds like we’re both in between.”

As they washed and dried the dishes, Hollis asked, ”Would you like to read my draft?”

“Really? I don’t know any of your stories.”

“A fresh eye might help. But there are a lot of gaps.”

“No worries. I can get a sense of it.”

Hollis stepped into the living room and came back with a flash drive. “This is it. Go for it.”

“Tomorrow…after a good sleep.”

“I’m going to the market to get in some breakfast food. Want anything?”

“A decent bagel, if you can find one.”

“See you in a few.”

Hollis woke to the aroma of fresh coffee. She stepped into the kitchen to find Riley working on her laptop. “You’re up early.”

“I don’t sleep in any more. Can’t when you’re crashing in someone else’s place.” She pointed to the counter. “Have a bagel. They’re not bad. Much better than upstate New York.”

Hollis poured coffee, slathered a bagel with blueberry jam. “It’s so refreshing to see you sitting at the table again.”

Credit: WeeklyGravy

Riley pointed to her screen. “I made comments on your story.”

“Comments? Did you read all of it?”

Riley smiled. “Read it… and wrote comments. I left your original document untouched.”

“You could have added comments and hit Track Changes.”

“I know, but I wanted to read it through first.”

Riley got up to refill her coffee mug. Leaning against the counter, she looked at her mom. “You know the ESAD thing you talked about last night?”

“Yeah?” Hollis bit off a chunk of bagel. 

Riley took a deep breath. “I think my fuckup caused that, too.”

Hollis cocked her head. “How so?”

“I’ve been thinking…you must have been so distressed over my not coming home for the holidays, and not texting often enough…I made you lose your publisher.”

Riley’s eyes glistened with fresh tears. “And it’s my fault you can’t pull this book together. You’ve never had trouble with that.”

Hollis pursed her lips. “You could be right.” 

Riley’s eyes widened. Hollis said, “The ESAD incident had nothing to do with you. That was strictly a work issue.” She got up to warm her coffee in the microwave. “But…you’ve been so distant since the holidays. You stepped away from me. Why?”

Riley shrugged, brushed away more tears. She sat again. “My roommate had a biology major, like me. Her family works in healthcare…well, in pharma. I met some of them in Miami. They turned my stomach. It was all about money for them. Fuck the little guy. Sell millions of pills and put it all in the bank. I spent two weeks there living off their money, off the money they got from screwing over their customers.”

Riley wiped her eyes. “When we got back to campus for second semester, I drifted away from her. And someone in our dorm OD’ed. On pills. My head got so twisted.”

She stood, side by side with her mom. “I sold my dorm stuff, got a job in the coffee shop, and crashed with a couple of older students. I paid some rent, but mostly crashed. When school closed, I knew I had to see you. I couldn’t stall any more.”

“I’m glad you came.”

Riley sat once again and pulled her laptop close. “I was thinking. Maybe this book should be a standalone from your earlier ones. New setting, even a couple of new characters.”

Hollis squinted. “So you agree with the editor I dumped. I need to turn it into a different book.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I’m guessing it’s already different from your others. That’s why it won’t come together for you. You’re forcing it to be like the others.”

Hollis ran her tongue over her upper lip.

Rileys words came out slowly, hesitantly. “If you think I might be right…I can help you…if you want.”

Hollis crossed her arms. “That’s a lot of change to consider.”

“I just thought…” She closed her laptop.

Hollis stared out the window. Turned back to Riley.

“If I do this…if I ask you to help…no more bullshit.”

Riley met Hollis’s eyes. “I can take a gap year. And you can talk to the caterer for me…about summer work.”

She took Riley’s hands, stood her up, hugged her hard. Then set her at arm’s length. “Don’t expect a co-author credit on the book.”

“Ghost writers don’t usually get attribution, do they?”

“You were a ghost the past year. You’re real now. And no, no attribution.”

Riley smiled. “Deal.”

***

See the Nantucket Steamboat Authority for pictures of the Nantucket wharf.

shortfiction24 – shaping a story

I offer a collage, a convergence, of past work for this week’s post. On LinkedIn yesterday I saw a reference to a sculptor named Michelle Millay, who works in the film industry. I interviewed Michelle in May of 2013 for my website on filmmaking. Her sculpting work is featured on movies like Batman and Robin and Pirates of the Caribbean.

What I’ve Written

Thinking of Michelle reminded me of two stories I’ve posted here in the last few years that have sculpting as a theme.

One story is titled “The Hand”. I used an image of several Rodin sculpture as inspiration for the story. I first posted it in February of 2021.

The Hand

A man’s left hand reaches forward, bent at the wrist. Three fingers curl inward. Thumb and index fingers extending. Poised. Expectant. Ready to grasp. 

His love lies dying. Ravaged by disease. Poised to let go. In a moment of mindfulness, she comes through the pain. She slides her wedding ring off her left hand and holds it out to him. A gesture of giving, of surrender. I won’t need this. I want you to keep it. Her eyes speak. Remember me when you hold it. Touch it. Feel its smoothness, worn by years of  love. Years of twisting and turning. Of sliding off at night, back on every morning. 

He reaches for the ring. Index finger and thumb extend. Moving in hesitation, in reluctance…in acceptance. He grips the ring lightly. Feels the warmth of her finger as it fades slowly from the ring’s surface.

He has no words. He slides the ring partially over his forefinger. Enough to maintain a grip on it. He knows that to accept the ring is to accept her leaving. 

His eyes meet hers. She smiles weakly. Closes her eyes. A shallow breath. Another. And a last one.

He rubs his thumb hard against the ring. I will remember.

***

More on a Convergence of Theme

I add another converging element on the theme of carving and sculpting. Check out a song of loss and remembrance from The Subdudes: Carved in Stone.

And read on for the second story about a woman with cancer scars.

Continue reading

shortfiction24 – state property

Credit: John DeVore

What I’m Writing This Week

Kate Skelton waits till Spring to scatter her husband’s ashes at his favorite park pond. A park ranger faces off against the feisty Kate.

This story started as a man spotting a blue-beaked duck on a pond. It didn’t work. He morphed into she, and the duck went away, maybe for another story.

Please enjoy.

State Property

Bob Gillen

Kate Skelton looked east into a morning Spring sun that warmed her face, made it feel hotter than the air temperature. She ran a finger along the wooden bench sitting six feet back from the edge of Oak Pond. The smell of new grass and budding shrubs tickled her nose. This had been Harry’s favorite outdoor place. For two years after he had retired, he came here three or four times a week, to this secluded spot near the state’s largest reservoir. Came here because no one else did. Came here to forget. Forget the years he put in as homicide detective. Forget the evil that man inflicted on man. 

Kate set her tote bag in the grass next to the faded bench. Okay, Harry. This is it. She pulled out a can of paint, a brush, a couple of rags, and a small screwdriver to pry off the can lid. She left a pewter urn in the tote. With one rag she dusted off the surface of the bench. Fifteen minutes later she was midway through painting the bench a deep hunter green when she heard a scuffling in the brush behind her. She turned to see a state park ranger staring at her.

“Mind if I ask what you’re doing?” the ranger said.

Kate pointed to the bench with her brush. “Painting.”

“That’s state property.”

“So are you,” she replied.

“Ah, I see we have a wiseass here.”

Kate looked around. “I don’t see one.”

The ranger shook his head. 

“Why are you doing this?”

“The bench needed fresh paint.”

The ranger blew out his breath. “Why here?”

“Oh. That’s easy. This was my husband’s favorite spot — she waved her arm around — in the entire park. This bench and this forgotten little pond in the corner of the park.”

“And where is your husband now?”

Kate hesitated. Pointed out over the pond. “Out there.”

The ranger peered over Kate’s shoulder. He shook his head.

Kate set the paint brush across the top of the can. “My husband is dead. His ashes are out on the pond.”

The ranger nodded. “His ashes are in the pond.”

Kate smiled.

“That’s illegal, spreading human remains on public property.”

She held her hands out. “I didn’t know that.”

“Did you do it?”

Kate shrugged. “Maybe.”

The ranger reached for a notepad and pen. “Do you have ID?”

“Yes.”

He blew out another breath. “May I see it?”

“It’s in my bag…in my car…in the parking lot.”

“Name?”

“Kate Skelton.”

The ranger wrote on his pad. 

“Address?”

Kate smiled. “Are you writing a ticket?”

The ranger nodded.

“Wow.”

“What?”

“You left your heart at home today.”

The ranger bit his lower lip.

Kate pointed at the ranger’s chest. “Your heart. It’s not there. You must have left it home.”

“Address!”

“I wonder where you put it. Left it on the bathroom sink. Or on the kitchen table…No, no. I got it. You tucked your heart away in your sock drawer. Where you keep all your personal stuff.”

The ranger flipped his notebook closed. “Lady, I can see I’m wasting my time with you. I’ll get a photo of your plate number off your car. What do you drive?” He held up a hand. “Don’t tell me. A Toyota Prius.”

Kate snickered.

Not even close.

“Yeah, that’s it, lady. A Prius, the model that comes without a gas pedal.”

Kate laughed, shook her head. “Not even close.”

She pointed to the can of paint. “Do I finish painting the bench? Or leave the can for a state employee to finish the job?”

The ranger said nothing.

“I could leave it half painted. It will become a state park legend. A curiosity. Who is the mysterious artist who painted half a bench? I can see the headline: What is the meaning behind the half-painted bench?”

The ranger’s Sat phone squawked. He listened, grunted.

“I gotta go. Finish the job, and don’t let me ever see you here again.”

“Yes, sir,” Kate said as she saluted the ranger. “Mission will be completed.”

The ranger spit to the side, turned and left.

Kate waited to be sure he was gone. She grabbed the brush and finished painting the bench. The can, the brush, the rags went into a plastic trash bag.

She took the  pewter-colored metal urn out of the tote bag. Unscrewed the lid.

“Okay, Harry,” she whispered. “Now it’s time.” She stepped to the edge of the pond, took a final look around, scattered Harry’s ashes over the pond. She rinsed out the urn, filled it with water, and threw it out to the middle of the pond.

“Bye, Harry.” 

All her memories welled up, turned to tears, dripped down into the pond.

Kate sobbed. Shook head to toe.

She backed away from the pond, sat down on the bench.

“Shit!”

***

shortfiction24 – out of the game

What I’m Writing This Week

Mike Santiago is forced to take time off from his ER shifts to care for his own kidney injury. Being out of the game is not an option for him.

For all those who have to deal…

Out of the Game

Bob Gillen

Mike Santiago took a deep breath, settled back in the treatment chair. “Sorry to be late,” he said to the dialysis tech. “We were slammed with patients on my ER shift.”

“No worries, Mike.” The tech pierced Mike’s non-dominant arm with two needles and started the blood cleansing process. Blood out to the machine, back into his arm.

Mike leaned his head back. 

“Hey,” the man in the chair to Mike’s left said. “My name is Al. I’m here every Monday, Wednesday, Friday at this time. Looks like we’ll be neighbors.”

“I’m Mike. Yeah, this is my first treatment. New to this whole thing.”

“There was a woman in your chair for the last couple of months. Her name was Ellie. She fell down the stairs at her home. She’ll be in the hospital for a while.”

Mike nodded. “I hope I won’t be here too long. Blunt trauma to my kidneys in a car crash. This should be temporary till my kidneys get a rest.”

“Good for you, man. I’m in this for the long haul. Kidneys are shot. My diabetes went undetected for too long. Screwed me up.”

Mike squirmed in his chair. “Three hours of this.”

“What do you do?”

“ER nurse. Dealing with COVID patients all day.” 

“Shit. Hope you stay healthy. We need guys like you.”

Mike closed his eyes. His phone buzzed.

“Mike here…no, I can’t cover anyone. I’m getting dialyzed.”

He hung up. 

“Won’t let you rest, huh?” Al said.

Mike licked his lips. “Haven’t had a day off in four months.” Mike pointed to his abdomen. “That’s how I messed up my kidneys. I fell asleep at the wheel.”

“You need to chill.” Al held up his iPad. “I’m watching TV. I can turn it up if you want to watch with me.”

“I left my tablet home. Sure. What’s on?”

“The Mandalorian. Know it?”

“Heard of it.”

“Sit back. Enjoy.”

Mike turned his head to watch the iPad Al held out for him to see. Al turned up the volume.

I know that voice, Mike thought after a time. The Mandalorian character. That voice? 

Half an hour into the episode it came to him. He said to Al, “That’s the same voice as the The Lone Ranger. Not the Johnny Depp film. The original TV series with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.”

“You’re too young to know that show.”

“My dad watched the reruns all the time.”

 “You’re right, it’s the same vocal tone. Firm yet soft-spoken.”

“If I close my eyes, I see the Lone Ranger.”

Al smiled. “I’m guessing it’s deliberate on the part of the Mandalorian creators. He’s supposed to be a kind of lone ranger, roaming the universe looking for his people. Righting wrongs along the way. Both have their faces masked.”

“You sound like you’re in the business,” Mike said.

Al cocked his head. “Was in the business. A character actor. Retired a few years ago. Had to. Can’t do dialysis and be available for roles.”

“Enjoying your retirement?”

“As much as I can.” Al paused the iPad screen. “I got a small farm up in Ojai. Raise goats.”

“Any money in that?”

“I rent out the goats for brush clearance before fire season. They’ll eat through a whole hillside in a few days.”

I needed to be out of the game.

Mike nodded.

Al continued. “I got the farm early on in my career. I learned that I needed to be out of the game when I wasn’t working. Refreshing myself in nature. If you don’t have boundaries, you’re screwed in the entertainment industry.”

Mike leaned his head back. Without boundaries you’re screwed in any industry.

The tech came over to check Mike’s machine. “Want a blanket? It’s chilly in here today.”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

Al gestured around the expanse of the treatment room. Twenty-five treatment chairs, all occupied. “Look at this. See those faces. How many of them look healthy?”

Mike sat forward, studied the room. “Not too many.”

“Right.”

“You’re talking about quality of life.”

“Yes, I am. I feel pretty good. But man, three days a week, three hours each time, sitting here hooked up to a machine. For the rest of my life.”

“And…”

“And if I stop, I’ll be dead in a week.”

Mike closed his eyes again, leaned back in the chair.

A beeper went off at Al’s machine. The tech stepped over, tweaked a few settings. 

Al kept talking. “You know what I fear the most?”

“I’ll bite. What?”

“When I’m gone, all my memories are gone too.”

Mike sat up and turned to Al. “Don’t you have kids to pass them on to?”

“Yeah, I got kids. Grandkids too. And boxes full of old photos, old family films. That’s just stuff.”

Mike shook his head. “I don’t follow.”

“I got all these memories stuck in my head. Bits and pieces of my life. Stuff that means something only to me. It all goes when I go.”

“Can’t you talk it all into a recorder? Save it for your family.”

“Mike, you don’t get it. It don’t mean anything to anyone else.”

“Like what?”

 Al hesitated. “Here’s one. Years back I was living on the east coast while I auditioned for roles. One night, it was frigid out, almost below zero. I went out to meet a few guys at a bar. Just ahead of me a guy gets hit by a car. He’s lying in the street, his head bleeding. From his clothes, he was probably a homeless guy.”

Mike nodded.

“I go over to see if I can help. I see blood pooling around the guy’s head on the street…but he was lucky. It was so cold his blood was freezing. It stopped some of the bleeding. An ambulance pulled up in a few minutes. They took him away.”

Mike looked at Al. “And…?”

“That’s it. A scrap of memory. I got lots of these scraps. But they got no meaning. See? I spot a guy bleeding in the street one night. That’s it. Nothing more. When I’m gone, so is the memory.”

“Thanks for cheering me up, Al.”

“Just keepin’ it real.”

Mike smiled. “I think I get it, though. Maybe I’ll end up with lots of memory scraps too. Jeez, all the COVID patients who died on my shifts. I’ve already forgotten most of their names, but I see their faces. Their eyes, in their last moments. Dying alone…”

Al gestured to Mike in the treatment chair. “Like I said about myself, buddy, you need to be out of the game when you’re not working.”

Mike tilted his chair back, closed his eyes, took a long breath.

Out of the game when I’m not working…

***

shortfiction24 – morning sun

What I’m Writing This Week

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper

I find Edward Hopper’s paintings thought- provoking. This week I used Morning Sun as inspiration for a short story. Lori Hines finds freedom in the warmth of a morning sun.

Back in May of 2021, I had used another Hopper painting, A Day on the Cape, for inspiration. Here’s the link.

Please enjoy my stories. And comments are always welcome.

Morning Sun

Bob Gillen

The phone woke Lori Hines at just shy of two on a Sunday morning, the incoming number an Arizona area code she knew too well. “Ms. Hines, I regret to say that your mother passed a short time ago. She left us in her sleep. I’m so very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Lori replied.

The caller hesitated. “We will comply with your final wishes. An undertaker will cremate her remains…and dispose of the ashes as they deem appropriate.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And we will donate her belongings to a local thrift shop.”

Lori’s nod went unseen.

“Is there anything else you wish us to do? If not, I am again very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Lori cut off the call.

She opened the window curtains, staring out at the city’s dark. Only a month before, in their last phone call, her mother had told Lori, ‘If you can’t find it in your heart to visit me, don’t bother coming to my funeral.’

Well, mom, you got your wish.

Lori sat on her bed, her legs drawn up, the sounds of the nighttime city drifting in the window. Voices rose from the street as drinkers spilled out of a bar at closing time. 

Several hours later the dawn’s faint light illuminated blocks-long brownstone buildings, facades punctuated by rows and rows of windows.

The dawn offered light, a promise of warmth. 

Lori continued to sit on the bed as the warm morning sun inched over her feet, her legs, her arms. Her face. Lori felt her body ease with the heat. The blond hairs on her arms stood out in the sun. She picked at her bare fingernails. Licked her lips, dry without lipstick or balm. Rubbed her unshaven legs. Specks of blue toenail polish glinted in the sun. 

The stink of her own sweat wafted up in the flood of sunlight. 

Lori closed her eyes. A memory rose, like a sea monster rising out of the water, dripping menace and slime. She saw herself sitting on a wooden dock, drenched in sunlight reflected up from a still lake. Her feet dangled in the cool water. A canoe sat tied to the dock. In the canoe a picnic basket and two paddles. Tied to the front of the canoe a silver balloon. Happy 10th Birthday, it read.

In the memory Lori’s mother padded up behind her. “Your father will not be coming up from the city for your picnic…today…or ever. When we return from our vacation he will be gone.”

Lori had continued to face out over the lake. Her mother reached for the picnic basket. “Let me put this back in the cottage. Come up when you’re hungry.”

Lori had sat on the dock till her legs, her arms, her face were sunburned. At the cottage her mother rubbed lotion on the burned skin…and never again mentioned her father. 

Ever.

For twenty years Lori and her mother had gone about their lives. Her father had not died. He simply had ceased to exist. Lori did not know if her parents had divorced. She had had no word about him. Living or dead, who knew?

And now, twenty years after her mother’s lakeside announcement, Lori sat again in the bright sun. Basked in it like a house cat that had prowled for hours seeking the one spot of sunlight on the carpet.

Outside, the city braced for another hot day. Noise slashed at her senses. Sirens, honking, yelling, grinding gears.

Come up when you’re hungry. Lori shifted off the bed, pulled on yesterday’s clothes, stepped into the kitchen. Her faithful French press charged her with fresh coffee.

At least a rut leads somewhere

Lori sipped the coffee, grabbed a Mason jar from the kitchen counter. Paper strips filled the jar, strips saved from fortune cookies after years of eating Chinese take-out. Every morning she pulled one to start her day. Today’s message, Only difference between a rut and a grave is depth.

She shrugged. At least a rut leads somewhere. The strip fluttered into the trash.

She went to the bedroom, returned with a bottle of red nail polish. She tugged her foot up onto the edge of the chair, began painting her toenails.

Her phone chirped with a spam call. She ignored it, then thumbed in a number.

“Hey, Maya. Just wanted to let you know my mother died last night…”

Lori listened to Maya’s response. 

“Yeah, you’re right. It is a relief…Hey, are you up for a late lunch? My treat.”

***

shortfiction24 – my dance space

This week’s short story

Not all spirits move on right away. I offer you a story of two spirits intermingled after death. It’s quite loosely inspired by George Saunders’s book Lincoln in the Bardo.

Having some fun with Vinny and Lewis, a couple of dead guys whose spirits are stuck together in the transition. Can they move on?

My Dance Space

Bob Gillen

Margie Pasqualino slipped out into her small backyard after dark, pulling her sweater tight around her torso. The moonless night wrapped the neighborhood in silence. 

A ten-foot tall bottlebrush tree graced the rear of the yard, a handful of rocks circling the base. Margie knelt in the grass near the tree, next to the hole she had asked the gardener to dig for her. About a foot square, eighteen inches deep. A square of sod and the excavated soil sat on a flat piece of cardboard to the side of the hole.

Margie held her dead husband Vinny’s ashes in her hands, in a box made of thick biodegradable paper. She kissed the box gently, lowered it into the hole. With a garden trowel she scooped dirt over the box. When it was level with the rest of the lawn, she patted the soil firm. “Rest in peace, my love.” Tears fell, soaking into the soil. 

Eighteen inches below the surface, Vinny Pasqualino’s spirit moaned, stretched, wriggled into his new home. “Sure beats sitting on the bookcase,” he told himself. “I love my yard.”

“Move back. Gimme some room here.” A voice squeaked in the space.

Vinny’s spirit swirled around. “Who’re you? What are you doing here?”

“My name is Lewis. Lewis Bomer. Most of me is somewhere else, but a bit of me is here.”

Vinny stared at the wisp of a figure. “What the hell are you talking about?”

 “I got cremated before you. Some of my ashes got left behind as they cremated you…so here I am.”

You want a piece of me?

“Shit, this is my space.”

“You know the old line? ‘You want a piece of me?’ Well, you got a piece of me.”

“This is my yard.”

“Yeah, I get it. This is your dance space.”

“Dance space?”

“Yeah, you know, dancers don’t like to be crowded.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s start over. You’re Lewis. I’m Vinny.”

“Hi, Vinny. Was that your wife put us in here tonight?”

“Yeah. Margie. We were married fifty years when I bought the farm. Heart.”

“Good for you. I was single, still playing the field. Drunk driver got me.”

Vinny shivered. “Okay, so what the hell? You stuck here with me?”

“Beats me. My first time doing this.”

“Cramped in here. Can we move out of this box?”

The two spirits scrunched and wiggled, and found themselves up in the yard in the fresh air.

“Hey, this feels good,” Vinny said.

“Quiet here. Peaceful.”

“It would be more peaceful without you attached to me.”

“No worries. We’ll figure this out.”

Vinny nodded toward a faded red Adirondack chair. “I spent lots of hours after dinner in that chair. Margie would fall asleep watching her TV shows, and I would grab a cold longneck and sit out here.”

Lewis smiled. “The yard feels right for that kind of sitting.”

“I barbecued every weekend. Mostly burgers. My last year even some vegan burgers. Docs were all over me about my heart.”

“I had a studio apartment in the city. Cooked ramen noodles in a microwave.”

“Ouch.”

“I wasn’t home much. Ate a lot of snacks and happy hour food in bars.”

Dragging Lewis, Vinny’s spirit drifted around the yard. He hit a wall a few yards in each direction. “Looks like we got some restraints here.”

“Won’t last long, if we’re lucky.”

“How does this whole thing work?” Vinny asked. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be floating here forever.”

“Yeah, you know, shouldn’t we be part of that whole spirit world now? Back in touch with everyone we knew?”

“Sounds right.”

“This is truly weird.” Lewis shook his head. “Maybe some kind of transition.”

Vinny tested the boundaries again. No change. He said, “I feel like I should be standing in a rowboat paddling with one oar down a long dark tunnel with mist swirling around my feet, Phantom of the Opera music wafting around me.”

“Hah,” Lewis said. “More like going through Disneyland’s It’s a Small World ride.”

Vinny held up his hand. “Don’t make that song the last I ever hear.”

Lewis peered around the space. “I wonder where the rest of me is. I have no idea what my mom would have done with my ashes.”

“Maybe in her living room.”

“I don’t know…she would be too sad looking at me all the time. She’s kinda the move-on type.”

“My ashes will be here for a long time…my spirit, that’s another issue.”

Lewis laughed. “You know what would be cool?” 

He paused.

“You gonna finish that thought?”

“I would like my ashes to be stuffed into a giant fireworks canister and shot off on the Fourth of July.”

He gestured to the sky. “Spread everywhere… in a blaze of glory.”

Vinny shook his head. “Who’s going to do that for you?”

“I know a guy, who knows a guy, who works on the fireworks barges for the Macy’s celebration every year.”

“Yeah, but does he actually fill the canisters?”

“He could just tape my ashes to one of the canisters.”

Vinny shook his head.

“No, really. Think about it. My ashes would explode high over the East River in New York, then drift down all over the city.” He laughed again. “Picture this. Some tourist is walking down Fifth Avenue looking in all the store windows. He takes in a deep breath. Says to his wife, ‘What a beautiful night’… while he breathes in a speck of my ashes. Don’t you love it?”

“I gotta hand it to you, Lewis. You got a big imagination.”

“I’m feeling kind of diminutive right now, if I may use a big vocabulary word. I wish I knew where the rest of me was.”

“So do I.”

“Hey, not my choice to be here.”

Scraps of night fog began drifting into the yard. 

“Am I missing the obvious?” Vinny said. “Are we expected to let go…somehow? Are we keeping ourselves here?”

“Like I said, it’s my first time. And I’m not all here.”

“No argument there.”

“You won’t let this go, will you?”

Vinny shrugged.

“I should consider myself lucky, you know? My ashes could have mingled so much with yours that we became one spirit.”

Vinny pointed at Lewis. “Maybe you got a point there. If I can figure out how to move on, you can just come along with me. Find the rest of you at the next stop…wherever that is.”

“What are you saying? We swirl together and float out of here? Like the fog?”

“Yeah,” Vinny said. “We twirl around, mingle our spirits, drift up and out of here.”

“Sounds too easy.”

“Got a better idea?”

Lewis whirled his spirit around Vinny’s. The two mingled. Spun together. Shaped themselves into a single wisp. 

Nothing happened. 

“This is bullshit.”

“Damn, I can’t find the rest of me till we move on. We’re stuck together.”

Can’t stay here forever.

“Yeah, I’m not happy with the situation either, but it’s the best we got.”

“Can’t stay here forever.”

“Maybe I can stay here. I like my yard.” 

Lewis shook his scrap of a spirit. “Think of moving on in this way, Vinny. You can have an endless longneck. Ice cold, condensation running down the bottle, every sip crisp and cold.”

Vinny shrugged. “If I go, I would have to spend time with my dead in-laws, right? They hated my guts…”

Lewis wrapped himself around Vinny’s spirit. “What would you love to do, Vinny? Something you never got to do in your lifetime?”

Vinny did not hesitate. “I always wished I could play the guitar. Just one song. The delicate guitar melody Jerry Garcia played on ‘Ripple.’ You know, the Grateful Dead. That is one fantastic line.”

“Yeah. The song had such cosmic wisdom.”

“Don’t get sappy on me. It’s just a good song.”

“Ironic, though,” Lewis said.

“Huh?”

“Ironic you would want to do a song by the Dead.”

“I get it. Yeah, ironic.”

“Wouldn’t that make you want to move on? Spend forever playing ‘Ripple’ with a cold longneck at your side.”

“You’re starting to make sense, Lewis. Scary if all of you was here. You’d have me running to hug my in-laws.”

“Come on, Vinny. This life is over. Time to move on.”

Vinny smiled. “Maybe you’re right. Let’s try again.” He floated around the yard one more time.

“Bye, Margie. I’ll play guitar for you when you join me.”

Vinny and Lewis faded into the night fog.

Silence.

“Shit!”

“Yeah.”

“We’re still here.”

***

Let’s see what happens with Vinny and Lewis. More story to come.

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