Healing through story

Category: storytelling (Page 1 of 20)

shortfiction24 – bridle path

Bridle Path

This week I’ll pass on my usual short story post. I’m sharing instead a tiny scrap of memoir, inspired by Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting Bridle Path. I’ve long been a fan of Hopper’s art, yet I know little of his life or the extent of his work. I came across Bridle Path by accident on social media. Commentators say the painting depicts the Park at 72nd Street. For me it elicits memories further uptown in the 90s.

This painting came to life shortly before I did. I spent my first seven years on West 95th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. For those years my life was the color and texture of brownstones. We lived in a fourth-floor walkup. By the time I reached seven, we were mom and dad and four boys in that apartment. Johnny’s Liquor Store occupied the ground floor.

Out on the street we roamed the sidewalks, climbing stoops, hanging out in lobbies and stairwells. W. 95th Street was a contiguous row of brownstones on both sides, parked cars lining the curbs bumper to bumper. We lived a cramped life. On a cramped street. In a cramped city.

Ah, but then there was the gem that Edward Hopper captured in his painting. Central Park. My mom would wrangle the four of us plus strollers and snacks, and we’d walk up to the Park. Stepping in from Central Park West was like entering a portal to a wide open world. Winding paths, open green fields, benches – space. And horses!

The bridle path circled the Park. For a little city kid it was a thrilling sight to see horses galloping along the trail and under the stone bridges. My brothers and I played cowboys on the rocks lining the path. We shot at each other with our cap guns, leaped and jumped over the rocks. And we always paused when the horses came by. I didn’t see horses running freely like that again until one college summer I worked at Aqueduct Race Track.

Hopper’s style of social realism brought all of that back for me. My earliest years – a cramped lifestyle broken by bursts of sunshine, horses and green fields.

***

In the last year and a half I’ve written a couple of short stories based on several of Hopper’s paintings. I posted Morning Sun on 5/11/22. And earlier, A Day on the Cape, posted 5/3/21. Enjoy!

***

shortfiction24 – not ready for us yet

This past May we left the spirits of Vinny and Lewis tangled together after their cremated ashes were intermingled at the crematorium. They are struggling to separate and continue their journeys to the next world. Nothing has worked so far.

Here’s the link to the original story. Enjoy their further escapades.

I should note that some of my stories have become series. I don’t plan these continuing stories; the characters simply continue to live. So – I have no pre-planning for these series.

Not Ready For Us Yet

Bob Gillen

Margie Pasquilino sat in her backyard, warmed by the sunlight of a fresh morning. A mug of coffee rested on the arm of her husband Vinny’s favorite red Adirondack chair.

Vinny and Lewis squirmed in their box of ashes, buried under the bottlebrush tree in the yard. “Morning.”

“Back atcha,” Vinny said. “Is it another day?”

“I think so. I can kinda feel warmth. A new sun.”

“Let’s go up.”

The two wiggled up out of the box into the fresh air. 

“Margie,” Vinny said, smiling in her direction. Margie did not look over. “She can’t hear me.”

“We kinda knew that, didn’t we?”

Vinny moved around, taking in the scene. Only a few days till Halloween. Margie had placed a pumpkin over the burial site. A long white skeleton hung from the tree.

“She did a little decorating, huh?” Lewis said.

Vinny was silent. He gazed at Margie, lit by the early sun. A long shadow hung across half the yard, the sun blocked by the house.

“She looks like a Hopper painting,” he said.

Lewis stared for a moment.

“Yeah. Cool. You got a good eye.”

“He was always one of my favorite artists. Solitary figures. Sunlight and shadow.”

Lewis’s spirit twirled around slowly. “Speaking of art…Listen to me, Vinny. Trust me. This is our moment.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Did you and Margie ever go to the theater? A play, a musical?””

“Long time ago. ‘Oklahoma,’ I think.”

“Okay, think back. There’s a special moment in the theater. The moment when the stage lights and the house lights go dark. The moment the audience grows silent. That wonderful moment of anticipation. For the performers, all the hours of rehearsal are behind them. For the audience, they are ready to put their daily grind behind them. They all wait in darkness. And it only lasts a moment. And then…lights, music, movement, dialogue, action. Then performers and audience become one.”

Vinny shook his head. “I don’t remember.”

“Vinny, look. You’ve rehearsed your whole life for this moment. You’re ready. Now you can enjoy an unending performance.”

Vinny’s spirit stopped swirling. “You really think so?”

“What else could this be? Think about it, Vinny. You die. Then there’s a moment of blackness. That’s what this is. Admit it. You can feel the anticipation. And then, bam, the lights will come on. You’re in the show. Forever.”

Vinny hesitated.

“Vinny, you know how people who have had a near-death experience talk of seeing a bright light?”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe some of us gotta do a bit of transition to see the light. First, a moment of darkness.”

Vinny’s spirit shrugged. “I’m not saying you don’t make sense.”

“Okay! Let go. Let’s go home.”

And the bright sunlight intensified, enveloped them, pulled them up out of the yard…

And dumped them back in the yard again.

Lewis was the first to speak. “They’re not ready for us yet…why? What are we missing? Didn’t we get our shot just now?”

The two spirits shifted over and sat on the pumpkin.

“You sound like a theater guy,” Vinny said.

“To the core,” Lewis said. 

“What was your favorite role?”

Without hesitation, Lewis repled, “Duvid, the missing husband, in the play A Shayna Maidel. Two sisters separated in World War II. Rosa escaped Poland to Brooklyn. Lusia survived the Holocaust, then reunited with her sister and father in Brooklyn. Duvid found them later.”

“I don’t know it.”

“What about you? What did you do?”

“Transport driver for the film industry. Drove cast and crew from staging areas to their shooting locations.”

“Union, right?”

“Yup. I did all right.”

“Meet any famous actors?”

“Lots. Like Vegas, what was said in my van stayed in my van. One actress, years back, well-known now. She was a stutterer. She struggled as a girl and teen. A speech therapist noted she did funny accents and voices. He encouraged that. It helped her get past the stutter. Got work as a voiceover artist, cartoons, animations. Landed a role in a horror movie. Took off from there.”

“I get the stutter thing. Every actor has to get out of themselves, inhabit a character.” 

Vinny and Lewis grew silent, each searching for a clue on how to separate. Margie went back inside the house. As afternoon came on, the sky darkened.

“Thunderstorm coming in,” Vinny said. “Rare for us in LA.”

“I wonder if we’ll feel the rain.”

Hours later the sky fell to black, clouds low. 

“I say we retreat to the box till this is over.”

The two slipped back down to their burial box.

Thunder boomed, lightning flashed. The yard lit up like day when a lightning bolt struck the bottlebrush tree. The tree split in half, scorched black, seared branches clawing at the sky. Fire lit the exposed center of the trunk.

An hour later the storm had passed and blue sky edged out from behind the departing clouds.

Vinny and Lewis came up.

“Holy shit,” Lewis said.

The bottlebrush tree stood unrecognizable as anything but a scarred stump. The skeleton decoration lay blackened and twisted at the base of the tree. 

Smoke seeped from the trunk, from the roots. Wisps of smoke seeped up through the skeleton.

“The roots must be burning,” Vinny said.

As they watched, the wisps of smoke grew more intense. They stared.

Spiraling smoke around the skeleton began to take shape. A spirit emerged, smoldering, shaking off bits of burnt material. 

Lewis wrapped himself tightly around Vinny.

“Back off. You’re killing me.”

“You’re already dead. Remember?”

The spirit moved toward them.

“What the fuck?” Lewis gasped.

The spirit turned to face Vinny and Lewis. “Is that any way to greet a lady? I’ve been trapped down there for going on thirty years, and the first words I hear are, what the fuck?”

“Huh?”

“Who are you? What’s going on?”

“My name is Fanny. Me and my husband lived here before you moved in. I died of natural causes…all my organs basically failed. My husband – his name was Joseph – he was a loving guy…but a cheap bastard. He would squeeze the guts out of a buffalo nickel before it left his hands.”

“Tell me about him. He wouldn’t negotiate at all when we bought the house.”

“Anyway, I died. Joseph told everyone I died in the hospital. He did a little private service here in the yard, had people in for coffee and sandwiches. He kept my body here in the house till my rigor mortis softened up. We were having yard work done. That’s when we planted this bottlebrush tree. He dug a small grave one night, folded me up and buried me here. He wrapped me in layers of burlap. I’ve been rooted to this spot all this time. Rooted. Ironic, isn’t it? The roots caught fire, ignited the burlap that had not yet rotted away, and here I am. Free of that hole in the ground.”

Fanny’s spirit darted up high over the yard, flew in circles over the scene. “I’m free.”

She settled back down in front of Vinny and Lewis. “So, what’s your story?”

***

shortfiction24 – fire on ice

Stacy is nursing a grudge against Marie when a brushfire traps them deep in an ice skating pond.

I recently found this story in my older files. I wrote it 30 years ago, in 1992, for a writing class I was taking. The story needs revising, but I share it with you as an example of my earlier work. Enjoy.

Fire on Ice

Bob Gillen

Shivering in the early January cold, Stacey gave her skate laces a final tug. She settled her Walkman headphones down over her dark hair, then pulled on her hat and gloves. She clapped her hands together to get the feeling back in her fingers.

What I don’t need is frostbite, she thought. Not with three more games left to the basketball season. She sighed. Not that it matters much after last night’s game.

A whack on her shoulder knocked her back to the present. Spinning around, she saw the grinning face of her friend Billy.

“You scared me, man,” Stacey said. “How about a little warning next time?”

“If you didn’t have those headphones implanted in your skull, you would have heard me calling you,” Billy said. “Come on, everyone is ready to skate.”

Stacey turned up her collar against the stiff wind. Looking up, she saw a group of kids warming themselves around a fire burning in a battered steel barrel at the side of the pond. One girl stood out from the crowd. Or rather, was encircled by the crowd.

“Marie is there,” Stacey said.

“Yeah, why?” Billy asked. “You still mad at her?”

“Wouldn’t you be?” Stacey siad sharply. “Coach told me to go in the game for her, but she wouldn’t leave the court. She kept pretending she didn’t hear me calling her out.”

“Come on, Stacey,” Billy said. “You don’t know that for sure. Maybe she really didn’t hear you.”

“We only lost by three points. I could have blocked those shots and maybe scored a few if I were in the game. We could have won that game.”

“Stacey, give it up,” Billy said. “Let’s skate and have some fun.”

Stacey watched Billy step out onto the ice and glide over to the group of kids. Stacey followed slowly, working to control her skates. I’d rather be on the basketball court, she thought.

When Stacey got closer to the other kids, Marie called, “Ah, it is Stacey at last. With those things covering your ears, it is no surprise to us that you did not hear us call you.”

I can’t stand the way she talks, Stacey told herself.

“You’re the one with the hearing problem, Marie,” Stacey said hotly. “You sure went deaf when it was time to come out of the game last night.”

“You are angry with me still, oui?” Marie said. Turning to Billy, she continued. “Many times I have said to her that I did not hear her, but she does not believe my words.”

“You heard me,” Stacey said. “I know you did.”

Marie did not answer. Feeling her face get red, Stacey skated out unsteadily onto the pond. Marie sped after her, swerved, and stopped abruptly, showering Stacey’s legs with shaved ice.

“Would you desire to race?” Marie asked.

“Just leave me alone,” Stacey said, skating away again. She made a wide circle on the pond and came back around to where Billy was standing.

“I can’t take her at all,” Stacey said, nodding in Marie’s direction. “She thinks she’s so great.”

“She’s a good skater,” Billy said. “She figure-skated in Montreal before she moved here.”

“She should have stayed there,” Stacey sniffed. Again, she skated off alone.

For an hour or so, she skated up and down the pond, pretending she was sprinting up and down the basketball court. The sun was sliding down behind the woods on the far side of the pond when she skated over to rejoin the other kids. They were watching Marie skate figure eights backwards.

“Anyone want to get warm?” Stacey said. “I’ll build up the fire.”

No one answered. She stepped off the ice and over to the barrel. Throwing a handful of dead braches into the fire, she extended her hands out over the barrel. She wanted the deep chill she felt to melt away. A gust of wind sent embers off into the air like tiny runaway balloons.

“This fire is not big enough to warm us.”

Stacey turned to see Marie dragging over two discarded Christmas trees.

“Marie, what are you doing?” Stacey questioned. “It’s too windy and dry. Those trees will shower sparks all over the field.”

“Do not worry yourself,” Marie said. Turning to the other kids, she called out, “Come, let us get more trees for a larger fire.”

Stacey spun around, got back on the ice, and skated across the pond. Anger burned inside her. She saw a narrow ice path, a frozen drainage ditch, that cut into the woods. She followed the path and came out into a tiny back pond half hidden in the trees. It was only about fifty feet across. Sitting down on a stump at the edge of the ice, she turned her back to the main pond.

Pulling off a glove, she reached into her pocket, switched on the Walkman, and pulled the headphones back down over her ears. The setting sun sank slowly behind the bare trees, sending the braches’ tangled shadows reaching across the ice.

Why is this happening to me? She thought. She scratched at the ice with the heel of one blade. No one likes me any more.

The shadows, like twisted tentacles, began inching up her legs. She imagined them wrapping around her and dragging her down under the ice.

Just as one willowy wisp of shadow crept up her jacket and groped for her neck, a spray of shaved ice stung her face. Jolted, she looked up to see Marie moving her mouth and pointing frantically back towards the main pond.

“Get lost,” Stacey said. “Whatever you’re saying, I’m not interested.”

Marie grabbed at Stacey’s headphones, pulling them off her head. “Feu, feu!” Marie shouted.

“Take your French and get out of here,” Stacey shouted.

Marie took Stacey’s head in her hands and turned her around.

“Fire!” Stacey gasped. A fury of burning trees and brush stretched across her vision.

“Oui, oui,” Marie nodded. “The wind has spread our fire. The fault, it is mine. Come quickly.”

But as Marie started back out to the ice path, the wind drove the flames across the path ahead of her. They flared into the brush and trees on the other side.

Stacey spun in a quick circle looking for a way out. She saw snarled woods ringing the other edges of the pond. Trying to push through the trees ahead of the flames on ice skates would be madness.

Wind-driven sparks showered around them. Stacey slapped at several that landed on Marie’s sweater.

“We are trapped,” Marie said.

The flames began circling the pond.

Marie pointed toward the flames arching over the ice path. “If we remain low, perhaps we can pass,” she yelled, and took a step toward the path.

Stacey grabbed for her to hold her back. She managed to grip Marie’s left sleeve, but Marie yanked it away. Stacey lost her balance and fell, rolling close to the flames. She came to a stop face down on the ice.

The cold against her face reminded her of something. Ice on a bruised leg. Ice cubes. Water.

“Marie, get back here,” Stacey screamed. She scrambled to her feet, moved out to the middle of the ice, and began chipping and hacking at the surface with her skate blades. Marie, turned back by the flames, hurried over.

“Break the ice,” Stacey shouted. “Splash the water on yourself.”

Stacey’s right foot broke through the frozen crust. She cringed as the icy water seeped into her skate. Marie helped her widen the hole in the thick ice. Both girls plunged their hands into the water and sloshed the frigid liquid on their clothing and their exposed faces.

Stacey told Marie to turn around, and she threw water on Marie’s back. Sparks rained down, hissing on the wet clothing and sizzling on the ice.

“Pull your sweater up over your head and get down,” Stacey yelled.

Thick smoke blew across the exposed ice patch, assaulting their nostrils. Marie crouched close to Stacey. Stacey saw her hands and knees shaking violently.

“My friend,” Marie said. “I am so scared.”

“It’s okay,” Stacey said, putting her hand on Marie’s arm. She felt her own knees shaking. 

They clung to one another for an eternity. Finally, Stacey felt a puff of clear, cold air on her face. She raised her head to look around. The fire had now burned its way around the little pond, leaving blackened trees and charred earth behind. Only a few stubborn flames, standing out against the growing darkness, still burned in the thicker clumps of brush.

“Marie, let’s go,” Stacey said. “We can make it now.”

Still shaking, the two struggled stiffly to their feet and moved towards the path.

Stacey caught her foot on a fire-blackened branch and fell. She felt Marie pull her back up.

“Hold on to my waist,” Marie said. “I am the better skater.”

Holding Marie for support, Stacey half-walked, half-skated down the soot-covered ice path. As they reached the main pond, Stacey saw the red lights of fire trucks flashing across the pond.

“I guess we made it,” Stacey said.

“Thank you, my friend,” Marie said. “You have saved us.”

“You were pretty cool yourself,” Stacey said. “Thanks for coming after me. After the way I’ve been acting…”

“Is that not what a teammate is about?” Marie said.

“Yeah, Marie,” Stacey grinned. “That’s what a teammate is about.”

***

shortfiction24 – James, still invisible

Today I am re-running a story that received positive comments a year ago. Halloween, and James is trying hard to catch the eye of a curly-haired redhead from his high school class.

James the Invisible

Bob Gillen

James the Invisible sat in Science lab, partnered with Dawn, the curly haired redhead. Dawn, the only person he would shed his invisibility for. Dawn, who looked right through him. Dawn, who was currently crushing on Ian, at the lab station next to them.

James dubbed himself The Invisible. No one knew him. No one saw him. And he was fine with that. Until now.

Ian passed Dawn a note. James peered over Dawn’s shoulder at the note. Meet me in the pumpkin patch after school. I’ll buy you the biggest one they have.  Pumpkins. She likes pumpkins. 

That night James the Invisible waited quietly for his parents to fall asleep. His little brother snored blissfully. James pulled on a pair of jeans, a black hooded sweatshirt, and sneakers. Marker pens in several sizes and colors. A pocket knife with a four-finger blade. Ready. James slipped downstairs and out the kitchen door. 

A chill breeze ruffled his hair, the bit that hung out from under his hoodie. A harvest moon hung up there somewhere, hiding behind clouds. James walked briskly to Randall’s Farm, the town pumpkin patch. 

She had been here, he thought. Only a few hours ago. With that clown Ian. Ian wasn’t strong enough to lift a large pumpkin, much less carry it home to Dawn’s house. James thought himself smarter than Ian. He would not pick the largest pumpkin. Nope, he would go for beauty. For symmetry. The pumpkin with the best shape. Like Dawn. Graceful. Cool. A radiant kind of beauty.

James slipped into the pumpkin field at the far end of the property. Away from the barn and the dogs. Away from the lights. He treaded his way down rows and rows of pumpkins. All so-so. None stood out. A bad crop, he thought. Fit only for carving up. But no carving tool would touch James’s pumpkin. No, its beauty would stand out of its own accord.

A dog barked off in the distance. James froze. Waited. The moon remained behind clouds. Not much chance of it showing itself tonight.

James spied the pumpkin. Dawn’s pumpkin. Round, no blemishes or scratches on the surface. He pulled out his pocket knife and sliced off the vine, preserving a three-inch stem. A gentle curve to the stem. Like Dawn, he thought. All gentle curves. No blemishes, like some of the other girls at school. Perfect. 

James pulled a rag from his pocket, wiped the field dust off the pumpkin. It was a beauty. Perfectly round. Smooth. 

James pulled markers from his pocket. Began writing Dawn’s name on the pumpkin. On her pumpkin. DAWN, in a graceful script. Red letters with several green leaves for a flourish. The letters wrapped around half the pumpkin. James smiled.

He waited a few minutes for the marker ink to dry. He could not dare smudge this beauty. He checked his phone. After midnight. Time to move. He lifted the pumpkin carefully. Admired his work. Walked away from the field.

One last thing. Leave the pumpkin in front of Dawn’s door. He knew where she lived. He had spotted her address on a form she had at her desk last week. Easy. Drop it and run. Mission accomplished.

James slipped along the sidewalks in the dark. Not a sound anywhere. No one walking their dogs. No cats prowling about. James found Dawn’s house easily. Number 1215 on Broad Street. He looked right and left, satisfied no one was around. 

As he stepped up to the porch, lights flashed on. Damn. Motion detectors. James put the pumpkin down in front of the door, turned to run, and smacked face-on into a rock pile of a man. The man pushed James back. James landed on his rear on the porch step.

“What are you doing, you little shit?” the voice boomed. “Ready to TP my house again?”

James could not find his voice. He squeaked. Pathetic. But no longer invisible. Nope, quite visible to this huge man.

The man stepped around James and peered at the pumpkin. He picked it up, gazed at the writing on its surface. Looked over at James. The man looked back and forth between the pumpkin and James’s face. Back and forth. And a grin cracked the man’s face. Just a slit at first. Then wider. And wider. Now, almost a laugh.

“You crushing on my Dawn?” the man asked James.

James felt redness flaring up his neck, his face. He could not lift his eyes to meet the man’s stare.

The man put the pumpkin down in front of the door. “What’s your name, kid?” 

A whisper. “James.”

“Okay, James. Here’s the deal. I will leave the pumpkin there for Dawn to find in the morning. I will not tell her who left it. How she finds out, if ever, that’s for you to figure out. Deal?”

James nodded. 

“Now go home before I kick your ass down the street.”

James jumped up and ran off. Mission accomplished. 

And still invisible.

***

shortfiction24 – too small for the backhoe

Ray and Manny are cemetery workers, digging graves by hand today. The aftermath of yet another school shooting.

A short, short story that helps me deal with the horrors we inflict on one another in our country. I hope it speaks to you too.

Too Small for the Backhoe

Bob Gillen

Ray tossed a couple of shovels in the back of the dark green pickup while Manny lit up a smoke.

They both leaned back against the truck.

“We shouldn’t have to do this,” Ray said.

Manny inhaled deeply. “Someone should burn in hell for what they did.”

The two men gazed at their work. Four small grave sites lined up alongside the cemetery road. Small, not the usual three feet by eight feet. At each site lay panels of plywood. Some held neat stacks of sod. Others were piled high with loose dirt.

The graves were cut precisely, clean rectangular lines on all sides.

Ray turned to walk away. “Would you mind taking the truck back to the maintenance shed? I need to get out of here.”

“You got it. See you tomorrow, man.”

Ray came in the back door of his home, unlaced his dirt-caked work boots, left them at the door. His wife Rosa was setting out a couple of pizzas. She looked at his dirty clothes, his grim face. “You don’t look good.”

“Manny and I dug four graves today…by hand.”

“Oh. Too small for the backhoe.”

Ray nodded. He pulled up a chair at the table.

“Want coffee?”

“Stronger.”

Rosa reached up to a tall cabinet, pulled down a bottle of scotch. She poured him two fingers and handed him the glass.

She sat. “Children’s graves.”

Ray dipped his head, gazed into his glass.

“The ones from the school shooting?”

His eyes came up, held hers for a long moment.

“That was the next county over. Why your cemetery?”

Ray sipped his drink. “The guy who owns our cemetery donated the four plots…and the coffins.”

Their fourth grader, Gracie, stepped into the room. She kissed her dad. “You look tired, daddy.”

She reached for a slice of mushroom pizza.

“Your dad had to dig graves by hand today.”

“That means kids’ graves, right?”

Ray nodded, grabbed a pizza slice. “How was your day?”

Gracie shrugged. “Pretty boring. We had a sub today, and he repeated everything we did yesterday.”

After supper Gracie went to her room to do homework. Ray skipped his usual after-dinner shower, nestled next to Rosa on the sofa. They both stared at the TV, saw nothing. An hour later, Gracie came downstairs in her pajamas, her hair brushed back in a tight ponytail.

“Did you brush your teeth?” her mom asked. 

“Yup.”

“Okay. Sleep well.”

Gracie opened her hand, offered Ray four lengths of red ribbon.

“What’s this?”

“Would you put one ribbon in each grave, please, daddy? Tomorrow, before the people get there for the services.”

Ray squinted. “I don’t know…”

“A ribbon for each kid. They can tie it around their arm when they get up to heaven. That way everybody up there will know, these kids were shot in their classroom. They’ll get treated special.”

A tear crawled down Ray’s cheek. “I can do that. I’ll carve a little groove in each hole and hide the ribbon there.”

Her mom said, “Gracie, that’s beautiful.”

Gracie turned to leave the room. She hesitated, turned back. She opened her palm to reveal another piece of red ribbon, crushed in her fist. She handed it to her dad. 

“Save this one for me. Just in case.”

***

shortfiction24 – jam the axle

Do you ever dream of being a hero? Tommy Trafficone did. Every day. And then he got his chance.

Enjoy a lighthearted story.

Jam the Axle

Bob Gillen

Tommy Trafficone was born to serve. From his earliest moments, he saw family, friends, others like him, protecting the public. With pride.

Young Tommy grew restless, itching to be called into service. Tommy’s dream came true when someone plucked him up, wrapped silver reflective tape around his neck. This is it, he thought.

Stacks of cones joined Tommy in a truck. The buzz was, an assignment on a local street being repaved. Tommy was set out in a line with other cones. A long line guiding traffic through the construction zone. Tommy stood for days in the blazing summer sun, dust settling on him as construction equipment stripped the old asphalt off the street’s surface. 

Then a day of rain. Fresh again. Feeling proud. Heavy dump trucks rolled in with steaming hot asphalt. As the asphalt was layered onto the street’s surface, a construction compressor rolled rover it, passing up and down the street.

Tommy watched as a young yellow retriever ran out from a nearby house. The dog sniffed around a bit, looked up and down the street, Stay away, Tommy said to himself. as the dog ran out onto the hot asphalt. The dog’s paws got sticky. It could not lift its feet after a few minutes. 

The dog’s owner, a boy of about eight, spotted the dog’s dilemma. He tried waving to the construction workers. Everyone was focused on the street ahead where fresh aphalt was being spread. No one heard the boy or realized the dog’s predicament.

The compressor reversed to pass over the asphalt once again. The operator was looking at the edges of the roadway, ensuring he did not hit the curbing with his roller. Tommy saw that the dog was stuck. The compressor drew closer. The dog was in danger, directly in the path of the roller. Tommy watched from his position along the roadside. 

“I need to save him,” Tommy told himself. He wiggled and nudged toward the dog. One of the other traffic cones pushed him ahead. “Jam the axle,” he said.

Tommy did tiny hops across the hot asphalt, nearing the roller. The driver was still preoccupied watching the curb. Tommy heard the dog whimper.

With an enormous effort, he leaped out alongside the roller. Tommy heaved himself up, jamming himself between the roller axle and the vehicle frame.

Crushing pain! Squealing noise! The compressor jolted to a stop. The operator turned to see Tommy stuck in the roller. Then looked ahead to see the dog frozen in fright in the asphalt. He yelled. The crew ran to rescue the dog. They wiped his paws with oily rags, then used a solvent to rinse off the tarry substance. They told the boy to soak his dog’s paws in cool water for a while. The boy squeezed his dog in a huge hug. 

One of the crew yanked Tommy off the roller, tossed him to the side of the street. A crew supervisor yelled, keep that compressor moving. The roller moved off right away, the operator fearful of compressing the street too much if the roller stayed parked in one spot.

Before the boy took his dog into the house, he waved to one of the paving crew. He pointed to Tommy, mangled in the grass. “The cone saved my dog.” The crew picked up Tommy, wiped him with rags, and set him down on the sidewalk. He was blackened with scrapes, several gouges along his side. The boy ran to his garage, rummaged around, grabbed a strip of blue fabric from his kite, and tied it around Tommy’s neck. “He’s my hero.”

One of the paving crew set Tommy back in his position along the street. He stood  with pride, his blue ribbon fluttering in the breeze, as the other cones whispered, “Welcome to service.”

***

shortfiction24 – mi volvo es muy mal

This story marks #6 in the Jack and Diane series. The two met on a 50+ dating app a few months before this story occurs. I did not set out to create a series for these two characters, but they continue to live in my writing mind. Enjoy!

You can read the first five stories here:

Jack and Diane: the Series

Mi Volvo Es Muy Mal

Bob Gillen

Jack Marin parked his Ford F-150 at the curb in front of Diane Somer’s house. The double garage door was open. Her Prius sedan sat in one bay. As Jack walked up, he realized the second car was an old dark blue Volvo, its hood open.

“Hello?” he called.

Diane’s head appeared from under the hood.

“Hi. Right on time.”

Jack nodded. “A very old Volvo.”

“A 142-S. Frank kept it for all these years.”

On the wall facing the Volvo was a faded wooden sign. Mi Volvo es muy mal.

Jack pointed to the sign. 

“Frank got it from an abandoned garage somewhere up north, years back,” Diane said. “The old girl is fading, though. I only use it three times a year.”

“Why three?”

“Visits to the cemetery. His birthday, my birthday…and today, Margaret’s birthday.”

Diane ran a pair of battery cables from the Volvo to her Toyota.

“Can I help?” Jack asked.

“I got this.” She started the Toyota, hopped out and got in the Volvo. In a minute or so the Volvo kicked over. It coughed and sputtered, then smoothed out. She disconnected the cables and turned off her Toyota.

Ten minutes later Diane was driving them to the cemetery in the Volvo. She pulled up under a large tree. Opening the trunk, she took out two faded aluminum beach chairs and placed them at Frank’s grave. Then she set out a small cooler.

“Have a seat,” she said. “There’s water and soda in the cooler, and a few snacks.”

“I’ll wait,” Jack said. He sat.

“I usually stay for an hour or two,” Diane said. “If you get restless, feel free to walk around. And there’s a restroom in the office near the front gate.”

“Good to know.”

“Jack, I appreciate your being here with me.”

“Sure.”

“I sometimes sit in silence. Once in a while I will talk quietly to Frank. Today I’ll introduce you.”

Jack shifted in his chair.

Diane sat upright. She closed her eyes, arms resting in her lap. Jack leaned back, tried to relax. His own wife had been gone for two years now, but he had never once visited her cemetery. 

Diane whispered. “Frank, I drove over in the Volvo today. She’s still running.” She gestured to Jack. “I brought a friend with me today. His name is Jack. You’d like him. We met on a fifty-plus dating app a couple of months ago. Not really dating. More like hanging out together. Developing a friendship.”

Diane drifted back to silence.

Jack looked around the cemetery. Many of the graves had flowers or flags. Several other visitors stood around graves, or sat in the grass. He got up quietly and walked to the road. He walked the perimeter of the cemetery. Near the top was a section for cremated remains, graced by a small fountain. He circled and walked down near the office building.

A white BMW SUV sat in the office parking lot. Jack walked past without a glance. As he went by, a woman’s voice called out. “Sir?”

Jack turned. A woman slipped out of the BMW. “May I ask you a question?”

Jack pointed to himself. “Me?”

The woman nodded. “I’ve been sitting here for a while. Are you with that woman up the road, the one with the old Volvo?”

Jack hesitated.

“Her name is Diane?”

Jack took a step back. Held his palms out. “I don’t know you.”

“No, you don’t. But I was watching you sitting with her.” The woman pointed up the road. “That’s my mother.”

“Oh.”

A hawk screed in the distance. Jack looked up. A half dozen crows were chasing the hawk away from a stand of trees at the edge of the cemetery. The hawk flew calmly away while the crows squawked after it.

He turned his attention back to the woman.

“You must be Margaret.”

The woman leaned back against her car. “I’m guessing my mother told you about me.”

Jack shook his head. “I only know she’s troubled the two of you are not communicating.”

“Today is my birthday.”

“That’s why she’s here.”

Silence hung between them for a few moments.

“She didn’t tell me how sick my dad was…till he was gone.”

Jack nodded.

Margaret took a step toward Jack. “What has she told you about me?”

Jack held his palms up. “Please…don’t put me in the middle. I like your mother. I don’t want to be carrying a secret around. Reach out to her, but don’t pull me in. It’s none of my business.”

A tear slid down Margaret’s cheek. She looked out at Diane up in front of her dad’s grave. “I don’t know how to do this.”

Jack turned to walk away. Margaret slipped back into her car, fired up the engine, and drove off.

Damn! Don’t do this to me. 

Jack walked back up to the grave site. Sat down again without a word.

Diane looked up at Jack. “You were talking to Margaret.”

Shit!

“Yeah. You saw her?”

“I know her car. I spotted it as soon as we got here.”

“This is awkward.”

“What did she say?”

Jack shook his head. “I told her I didn’t want to get in the middle of this.”

Diane stood. “We should get back.” She folded her chair and packed up the cooler.

Jack remained seated. “I don’t belong in the middle of this.”

“Jack, we’ve been seeing each other for several months now. Like it or not, you are in the middle of it. My estrangement from Margaret is part of my life. Jump in the pool, or walk away.”

“Ouch.”

She stood over him. “Your ouch is nothing compared to my pain. You can help me with this, or I will go back to dealing with it alone. Your choice.”

Jack stood, folded his chair, put it in the Volvo.

They drove back to the house in silence. 

Diane nudged the Volvo back into the garage. “Want to come in for coffee?”

Jack shrugged. “This is getting complicated.”

“You’re in or you’re out…in, I hope.”

Jack smiled. “Got any cookies to go with the coffee?”

***

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