I write short fiction

Category: storytelling (Page 1 of 14)

Mannequin Monday – Find Your Light

In this week’s story bite, Milo sits waiting for his voice to return. Knowing it will not.

And I offer comments on Daniel Silva’s new book The Cellist.

What I’m Writing

Here’s a story-bite sequel to a story titled Sawdust that I first posted on this blog in February 2020. Maurice and Milo are back to entertain you. Enjoy.

Find Your Light

Bob Gillen

“I’m bored.”

The words slipped out of Milo’s mouth in a whisper. He had not spoken for weeks. Not since the night Maurice died.

Again, “I’m bored.”

Milo sat upright on his stool, back against the wall. Sat next to the urn that held Maurice’s ashes. The ashes of his partner. The man he had worked so many clubs and venues with. Milo felt himself smile. Remembering the clubs, the gigs, the audiences. 

And again, Milo heard himself say, “I’m bored.”

What the hell? Maurice is dead. Cremated. Reduced to a jar full of ashes. Milo had no more words. Not without Maurice.

“Heaven ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, buddy.” Milo shuddered. Hard to do for a ventriloquist’s dummy. But shudder he did.

Without moving his eyes, Milo took in the room. Light from a tiny window high on a north wall fell on the urn. Find your light. Maurice’s stage mantra.

Maurice’s ex-wife Darla had dismissed Milo and the urn to a corner of Maurice’s office. The office so small Maurice’s feet hit the wall if he stretched in his chair. The place where they had run all their routines. The room where Maurice’s imagination ran wild. 

Milo’s eyes rolled back and forth. Nothing. No one there. 

“I’m talking to you, Milo.” 

Milo’s jaw clattered against his upper lip. Maurice? Is that you? You’re back?

“It’s me. Maurice. Your voice. I’m still here.”

This is not real.

“Yeah, it’s real. Weird, but real.”

Can we do another gig? 

“Not gonna happen. I don’t know how long I can talk to you. Through you.”

Milo felt his head nod.

“Nothing here but white light. No one around. No one to talk to. Not even harp music. Just light.”

Milo blinked. Did Maurice do that?

“It’s peaceful. I like that. No worries. No drunks in the audience to heckle us. No hassles traveling from one club to the next.”

How can I be talking?

“Milo, buddy, listen to me…I am so bored. You know me, I like to move, to talk. I love being on stage. Love performing. You and me, we did great together, didn’t we?”

It wasn’t my call.

You left me.

 “That night I died on stage…heart attack. I hated to leave you, but it wasn’t my call.”

I’m alone.

“And that bastard club manager, I know he pocketed the cash he owed us. It was a full house. We always packed them in.” He laughed. “I guess we cleared the room pretty quick that night, huh?”

My jaw feels stiff. Haven’t moved it in weeks.

“Like I said, where I’m at is okay, but it’s dull. All those words? Joy, peace, glory, eternal life…they’re not cutting it. I’m missing something.

Milo thought, I’m missing something…you.

“Wait a minute, buddy. Something happening here. The light is brighter. Still quiet, though…Wait! I see someone. A shape…I think it’s time. Milo, take care. Thanks for the good times. Catch you.”

Milo stared straight ahead, mouth closed, jaw rigid. How do I find my light now?

***

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Mannequin Monday – Reddy is Gone!

image of wooden hand

Our mannequin this week takes the form of a teacher enduring yet another back-to-school night with her fifth graders’ parents.

And I offer comments on two mysteries I read. Welcome back.

What I’m Writing

Back to school night. Always fraught with tension, even for an experienced teacher. I hope you enjoy this story bite.

The Hard Times of a Classroom Gerbil

Bob Gillen

Dear God, I dread this night. Ms. Caroline Stott gave her fifth grade classroom a final look. Back-to-school night. From behind her came a clattering noise. She turned. Reddy, the class gerbil, was flitting around in his cage. You dread it too, huh?  She reached in, placed Reddy in his transparent exercise ball, and let him roll about on the students’ worktable.

A bell rang. Parents flooded into the classroom and crammed themselves into the kids’ desks. “Welcome, everyone!” Ms. Stott left the classroom doors open as she began her presentation. Outside the room a few students played quietly. The kids whose parents could not find a babysitter. 

Ms. Stott handed a sign-in sheet to one parent. “Please pass this around.” 

One parent raised her hand.

“Yes?”

The woman pointed. “Why is that ball on the table behind you moving?”

Ms. Stott turned. 

Credit: Lessonpix

“Oh, that’s Reddy. He’s our class gerbil. I put him in that exercise ball to work off some energy.”

She picked up the ball and extended it to the woman. “Would you like to pass him around? Take a closer look?”

The mom peered through the clear plastic ball. The gerbil retreated from her close-up face.

“He’s kind of shy,” Ms. Stott said. “I got him last week. He’s still getting used to the students.”

The woman passed the ball to another parent. Ms. Stott continued with her presentation, talking about the curriculum and what she expected from the students.

Reddy and his exercise ball got passed to the back of the aisle. A dad put the ball down on the floor. He watched as the gerbil rolled the ball around, bumping the wall, bouncing off a couple of chair legs. 

Ms. Stott said, “Thank you for coming this evening. Why don’t you walk around and look at your children’s displays before you leave?”

The parents stood. One woman, who had been keying into her phone through the entire presentation, spied the ball rolling on the floor. She looked up, spotted two kids near the door outside, and kicked the exercise ball through the doorway in their direction. “They don’t call me soccer mom for nothing.”

After the parents had cleared out and moved on to another classroom, two students approached Ms. Stott. They handed the exercise ball to her. Ms. Stott gasped.

“We think he’s hurt,” one kid said. “He doesn’t look right.” 

Ms. Stott opened the ball and placed Reddy back in his cage. The gerbil limped across the cage and burrowed into his nest.

Reddy is gone!

The following morning Ms. Stott greeted her students as usual. The pair of students responsible for feeding Reddy today peered into his cage. “Ms. Stott, Reddy is gone!”

Ms. Stott attempted a smile. “Reddy had an accident last night.” 

One student pointed to another. “Derek, your mother killed him. She kicked him out the door. My father saw the whole thing.”

“That’s not true!” Derek burst into tears.

Ms. Stott said, “It was a misunderstanding, James. Your mom thought it was a soccer ball. She didn’t realize.” 

Score another one for back-to-school night.

***

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Mannequin Monday – From the Inside Out

I have a spirit that walks with me outdoors. This week’s mannequin takes on spirit form.

What I’m Writing

I’ve been experimenting with writing exercises and prompts this week. I am one week into a four-week program that uses prompts to kick start writing. It’s not journaling, as such. More like pulling up “raw material,” as they call it. Looking for themes to emerge over time. Anyway, here’s a prompted piece I did for the program. Enjoy. And thanks for stopping by every week.

From the Inside Out

Bob Gillen

Hey, good to see you today. Have I told you, I have a spirit that walks with me outdoors. On real walks, not the steps to the mailbox or the trash bin. She began walking with me a week ago. Oh, sorry, I should say they. She prefers the pronoun they/them. I can’t explain why. They did not elucidate.

As I said, I was walking down the street last week, set on going up into the park that overlooks our little town. Halfway down the street I became aware of someone alongside me. Keeping pace. Not hard to do. I am not an assertive walker. First I heard the footfalls. Heavy, thumpy. I looked to my side to see a woman in a long coat, a kind of steampunk outfit, oversize collar and lapels. Big boots on her feet. No cap. Hair in a long ponytail. Light brown. 

They didn’t speak. Simply kept pace. I passed several neighbors who gave me the obligatory hello, how are you? The neighbors looked only at me, apparently not seeing my companion. My new companion never offered me a name. I will refer to them as my spirit from here on.

And spirit they are. No one else can see them. Even I cannot hear them. We don’t speak. I suppose that would be awkward, me walking along talking out loud to myself. Although most would no doubt assume I was on a mobile call.

I did not know I had a spirit.

No, we communicate by thought. I found myself on that first day wondering, who is this person only I can see? And a thought came, as in a reply. I am your spirit. I wondered further, I did not know I had a spirit. The answer, ah, now you do.

I have been out walking three times since that first encounter. Each time I had my shadow with me. I am convinced they have a sense of humor. The second day they dressed as Wonder Woman. Another day they looked like Doris Day. Yesterday they resembled Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, slacks and top in flowing white, fluid movement.

They simply make their presence known, walk alongside, share thoughts, and fade away till next time.

I have to admit, this bit of magic is encouraging me to walk more. If nothing else, that’s a benefit. 

When I reflect on what’s happening, I get an inkling of awareness. Nothing more, as yet. You see, there is presently an emptiness in my life. A vast gap, needing to be filled. I have gone from a doer, a caregiver, someone needed by another, to a person with nothing to do. Nothing. Finding time, making time for tasks, for creative work, for relaxation, was always a challenge, but always possible.

Now, with no obstacles, only a wide expanse of time, I find myself frightened by the challenge. What to do? How to fill the hours? 

And, as by a miracle, along comes this spirit. My spirit. They do not offer answers, advice, admonitions. Nor ammunition. Nothing to chew on, to think about. They are simply a presence. A presence that fills in the emptiness just a bit. Takes the edge off the anxiety. Yesterday, for example, as we walked, I passed a woman pushing a man in one of those complex wheelchairs. I thought, that woman was me, in a way. A caregiver. And my spirit simply sighed, not any more. Not any more. No longer a caregiver. I take a breath, realizing I do not now have the burden of care. The fear of not being able to do it properly. Of failing.

Now my fear has come full face. I can now fail by doing nothing. I can fail by stagnation. I can fail without moving a muscle, or having a thought.

On my walks, on our walks, thoughts drift through my mind, I suspect prompted by my spirit companion. You’re okay. Stronger than you think. You are graced. Be gracious to yourself.

If I may use a medical metaphor, I suppose this situation is similar to a deep, open wound. You can’t stitch it closed till it begins to heal from the inside out. 

From the inside out.

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Mannequin Monday – Neither Immortal Nor Infertile

“The truth of things can only be expressed…in story, picture, film, dance, music.” Thomas Moore.

A summer intern hits a few speed bumps on her path to a business career. Our mannequin is dressed for success this week.

What I’m Writing

I’m sharing another story bite. Bits and pieces of memory in a fictional framework. Enjoy.

The Summer Intern

Bob Gillen

Isla Reid stood tall as she stepped into the human resources manager’s office for her summer intern orientation. In a navy pencil skirt, matching jacket, ivory blouse, she felt strong. The manager, Stephanie Lennon, gestured for Isla to sit. Lennon took her own chair across an expansive wood desk. Isla could not keep her eyes off the view from the office window. Mid afternoon, a stunning early summer day, twenty-three floors up in an office tower on Water Street at the tip of Manhattan Island, looking west over New York Harbor.

“You must be very important to have this awesome office,” Isla said.

“Hah,” Lennon said. “Your being impressed is exactly why I have this office. We are a prestigious financial services firm, and every job applicant sees me first…and this view. It’s all about the visuals.”

“Well, it’s really impressive.”

Lennon turned to look at the view. “Looks like we have a thunderstorm rolling in. I hope you brought an umbrella.”

Isla shrugged. “We don’t use them much in LA.” She thought, my outfit will get soaked.

“You have an advantage over the other interns,” Lennon said. “They don’t start till next week.”

“My school got out early this year.”

“I’ll walk you through the basics of our orientation. You can get the details with the rest of the group next Monday.”

Isla nodded. She looked at the view again as Lennon interrupted to take a phone call. The view was already obscured by storm clouds that covered the western horizon.

Lennon completed her call. “Isla, you made a strong impression on your Zoom interview over spring break. I like your experience and your skill set. I’m going to assign you to the marketing department. More specifically, to the group that maintains the firm’s social media pages. The group manages our social media accounts and monitors what’s being posted about the firm online.”

“That sounds wonderful. As I told you, I do that for our college newspaper’s social media presence.”

Lennon held up a finger while she fielded another phone call. Isla glanced at the window. All of the western horizon was now black. She could no longer see the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge or Staten Island. Far below a yellow ferry plowed through the Harbor directly towards the storm.

That storm is huge.

Isla took her gaze away from the window. Lennon was staring at her.

“Are you okay?” Lennon asked.

“That storm is huge.”

Again Lennon turned to look. “Yes. It looks now like a line squall. We get them occasionally. A fast-moving rain storm. Over and gone in a few minutes…Is this your first trip to New York?”

Credit: SIGMA blog

“My first time outside California.”

“By end of summer you’ll be a veteran at this.”

The storm began to darken the sky around the building. Isla’s eyes grew wide at the force of the storm. She felt drops of sweat running down her back.

“Would you be more comfortable if we went to the break room for a few minutes?”

“Uh…I guess so…Yes.”

Lennon took Isla to a windowless room in the center of the floor.

“Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” Isla said.

The two took a table in the far corner of the room. In the distance Isla heard the deep rumble of thunder. She wrapped her fingers around the coffee cup.

“Isla, in our orientation session, there is something I tell every intern we take on.” She smiled. “We pride ourselves on providing a challenging as well as secure work environment for all our employees, and especially for our interns.”

“Okay.” More thunder rumbled, closer now.

“You may take this any way you wish…You young interns are neither immortal nor infertile.”

***

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Mannequin Monday – “Next!”

Popular TV personalities aren’t always what they seem. I share my story bite “Hold It Down” about an encounter gone awry.

And I write about two actual encounters I’ve had with celebrity. Thanks for stopping by. Enjoy!

What I’m Writing

Hold It Down

After two hours, Sam finally reached the head of the line for the book signing. A wildly popular TV chef, Railene Duncan, known for serving up tasty meals in a short time, sat at a table smiling at customers and signing book after book. Sam had rehearsed for hours on what he would say to her. Thanks for your great recipes. I’ve lost ten pounds and feel great. No. Don’t emphasize his weight. I love your show. The recipes are so easy to follow. Nah, just say thank you.

Credit: TaskRabbit.com

The woman who had stood in front of him for the whole two hours stepped up to the table, book held out for signing. Railene gave her a huge smile. Sam heard the woman say, “Can we take a picture together?” The chef nodded.

It will flash.

The woman immediately swung around to Sam, handed him a point and shoot camera, and said, “Please take our picture.” Sam hesitated. He didn’t use cameras, hated to take pictures. He held the camera up, looking for the shutter release. “Press here,” she said, pointing to a red button. “It will flash.” He framed the shot, pressed the button. Nothing happened. He tried again. Same result. Nothing.

Sam heard people muttering behind him. The woman rushed at Sam. “Hold the shutter release down after you focus.” Sam looked at the camera. The woman shrieked. “Hold it down!”

The TV chef stood, a snarl wiping away the smile that had been on her face. “Come on, keep it moving. People are waiting.”

The woman posed again with the chef. Both plastered on a smile. This time Sam held the shutter release down, the camera flashed. The woman grabbed the camera and dashed off without a thank you.

Railene yanked Sam’s copy of the book from his hand, signed it while she was still standing, and handed it to him without even looking at him. She sat, looked to the next person in line, a huge smile on her face. “Next.”

***

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Mannequin Monday – This can’t be fixed.

Our mannequin carries a heavy burden this week, clothed in grief, little consolation from words of wisdom. Only a couple of sentences to light the way: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

What I’m Writing This Week

I offer you another story bite, “The Talk of People in the Sea.” This one is inspired by two sources. One, a quote posted by my friend Caroline Farrell. The quote comes from Tim Lawrence, from his blog The Adversity Within. The quote: “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”

The second inspiration is the book I’m currently reading, Henry Beston’s The Outermost House. All about his year-long stay in a beach shack on Cape Cod. I hope you enjoy my story.

The Talk of People in the Sea

Bob Gillen

A friend let Dylan borrow his beach shack. Isolated. Miles of sand in either direction. Dunes that changed shape almost daily. Grasses moving with the wind. A surf that was never silent. Long past Labor Day, when all the tourists have gone home. When only the stoic year-rounders hung on. Most had a purpose. Fishing, boat repair, construction, retail. And him. With no purpose. Just here.

Dylan had lost his love. Gone, passed on. Died, his word of choice. Now he lived in a cloud of grief. Not so much grieving, as a verb. Grief, the noun. Not a fluid kind of thing. No, this held a man in its grip. Tangled him in roots. Held him like quicksand. Held him but did not pull him under. Too easy that way. Kept him half buried. Hard to breath. Vision limited to the muck in front of him.

Tonight was Dylan’s third at the beach shack. The night air brought shivers, the fireplace down to embers at one a.m. The inside of the shack felt like the inside of an urn, holding the ashes of his memories. He crawled out of his sleeping bag, warmed leftover coffee in the microwave, sat out on the tiny porch, wrapped in a faded blanket.

Above him, stars. A cliché to say “countless stars,” he thought. Looking at them on this moonless night he wondered, the stars are perhaps the only changeless thing in this universe. Changeless, from his perspective. Of course, a scientist would say that the universe was in constant flux. But he could not see that from his spot on this beach, on this night, his time of emptiness.

He set his cup down on the porch floor, rose, pulled the blanket over his shoulders, walked to the beach. At the water’s edge he stood, listening, seeing only the white slashes of the crashing waves. With his bare feet he probed for a dry spot to sit down. He cocooned himself in the blanket, closed his eyes, marveled at the unique sound of each wave.

Credit: Mary Spears

He sat for an hour, listening, hoping the crashing waves would wash away his grief. Purge it from his soul.

Dylan caught a new sound coming through the surf’s roar. A whisper, a voice. He opened his eyes. There was no one. Of course, there was no one. Not here. Not at this hour. Again, the whisper. He strained his eyes to see out beyond the surf. For a boat passing off shore. For fishermen calling out.

Too dark without a moon to see beyond the surf. There were no silhouettes on the horizon. No shape that could be a ship.

Another whisper. In between the crashes of the surf. Two words. He strained to make them out. A woman’s voice? Soft, calm, at peace. Two words. You…? Carry…? 

He shuddered in the night’s deep chill. Tossed the blanket aside and stood. What was this voice? He kept his eyes open, looking for a source. There was nothing to see.

Again, you…carry. This time a male voice. Deep, booming under the roiling surf. 

More words spilled into the air. Several voices together. Tumbling. Can’t fix…only…

He dug the heels of his hands deep into his eyes. Rubbed hard. Stared at the surf. Looked up into the infinite spray of stars above him. He searched for a constellation. Found none. He was never good at spotting them anyway.

With no warning, no hint, grief welled up as from the bottom of his soul. Tears poured down his face. Disappeared into the sand at his feet.

And the voices rolled out of the surf. Softly, over the roar. Deeply, under the roar. The words clear now.

This can’t be fixed, my love. You can only carry it.

***

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Mannequin Monday – Ah, forgive me

An elegant restaurant, a special date…and it all goes downhill after meeting the chef. A tale of aversions. My current story bite.

This week I’m re-reading a book I first discovered almost 40 years ago: The Outermost House, by Henry Beston. He spent a full year on a Cape Cod beach over 90 years ago.

What I’m Writing This Week

Another story bite I’d like to share with you. Thanks for reading.

Inked

Bob Gillen

After six months of waiting for the right moment, Raymond Martin had finally asked Rose Malloy from the marketing department out on a date. She said yes. He made reservations at the posh Owl Tree restaurant, offering fine dining and live music. 

Raymond and Rose stood at the hosting station at Owl Tree as a maitre’d in a one-size-too-small black suit confirmed their reservation while simultaneously giving them the elevator glance to determine if they were worthy of eating there. He found them worthy. Barely, by the pinched smile on his face. He led them to a booth near the kitchen. Raymond was about to object to the kitchen proximity when Rose said she loved the plush seating. 

Their table featured tented white napkins and a flickering tea light. A server took drink orders immediately, then brought a tiny tray of even tinier rolls and butter.

“This is delightful, Raymond.” Rose smiled, glancing around at the dimly lit dining room. Crystal chandeliers graced the large room. At the far side of the room a jazz trio played quietly over the hushed conversations of the patrons.

Raymond lit up. “I’m so happy you like it. I’ve never been here before. It’s actually a bit elegant for my tastes.”

Oh god, did he just say that?

“You seem pretty elegant to me,” Rose said, as she sipped her white wine.

Raymond felt his face redden. He hoped she couldn’t see it in the dark.

The server returned to their table. Rose chose a seafood pasta. “Does the accompanying salad use only organic greens?” she asked the server. 

“Only the best, miss.”

Excellent choice.

Raymond said, “I’ll try the oven-braised chicken meatballs.”

“Excellent choice.”

Halfway through the meal, the chef, resplendent in white jacket and toque, approached their table. 

“I am Maurice, the chef here at the Owl Tree. I hope you are pleased with your meal?”

Raymond waited a second for Rose to reply. She did not. He said, “The chicken meatballs are cooked perfectly. Very tasty. Thank you.”

“And you, madame?” The chef looked to Rose.

Rose was staring wide-eyed at a stain on the chef’s sleeve, something a deep red and quite obvious.

The chef followed her gaze. “Ah, forgive me. I splashed sauce on myself. It is quite impossible to remain spotless in a busy kitchen.”

He promptly rolled up the offending sleeve, then the other. Rose stared wide-eyed at the chef’s two arms, covered in tattoos, black ink from his wrists to above his elbows.

Rose looked away. She covered her mouth with her napkin. She was trying not to wretch. The chef glared at Rose. He stepped back, turned and hurried off to the kitchen. The server dashed over.

“Is everything all right, miss?”

Raymond attempted to hand his napkin to Rose. She brushed his hand away.

In a weak voice she said, “I can’t stand tattoos. They disgust me. I can’t eat any more. Raymond, take me home.”

She rose, grabbed her purse, and headed for the door.

The maitre’d now approached. “Are you all right, sir?”

“Apparently not,” Raymond said to no one in particular. “A couple of tattoos just ruined my dream date.”

The server said, “May I box up your meals?”

“Yes, please,” Raymond said. 

He gave his credit card to the server and looked for Rose. She was sitting in the lobby.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“No, I am not okay. I hate tattoos. I find it disgusting that someone would be covered in ink and cook for the public.” She was still holding the napkin to her face.

“I have to get out of here,” she said.

“Okay. I’m waiting to get my credit card back…and the takeout containers.”

“Takeout? Seriously? Do you want me to throw up in the car?”

Raymond sighed. “I paid a lot for this food. I’m taking it home.”

Rose stared at him. She reached for her phone. “I’ll call Uber.”

He nodded. Sat down next to her. Why do I do this to myself?

***

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