Healing through story

Tag: cross country

shortfiction24 – she called me bobby mcgee

I let my imagination run for this week’s story. “Me and Bobby McGee” is one of my favorite songs. Lyrics that tell a touching story, a lost love.

I don’t usually write in first person POV. I find it challenging. I hope you enjoy it. And don’t forget you can sign for my weekly newsletter here.

She Called Me Bobby McGee

Bob Gillen

Hey, all. My name is Robert McGee. I am a writer, a husband, a dad to two girls. My wife and I live in Carmel on California’s Central Coast. Our two girls attended Stanford and now work in high tech in the Bay Area.

Oh, and yeah, you may be wondering. Yes, I’m also that Bobby McGee. I hate the name Bobby. She labelled me with it when we met in the summer of ’69. A lot of water under the bridge since then. Let me tell you about it.

I met her in West Virginia. We were both aimless. Searching. Ready for something. Anything. She was hell bent on going to Woodstock that summer. I talked her out of it. Thousands of people just like us, I told her.  Who needs that? We need to see something new. Move. Grow.

I had read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. I got the travel bug. I wanted to do what he did. Drive cross country, meeting different people, seeing things I had never seen before. My dream was to get to the Pacific Ocean. I grew up in Appalachia. Never got near an ocean. 

She gave in after a lot of arguing. Cars, buses, trains were beyond our budget. We hitched a ride on a big rig heading west. We grabbed rides from any trucker who would take us. It took a while. Trucks go where the work is. Not necessarily where we wanted to go. 

It took us over two weeks to get to California. Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico. I have to tell you, she was a kick. She sang and played the harmonica every minute she wasn’t sleeping. The drivers welcomed the music. It kept them entertained on the long trips without having to engage in conversations. 

The first three days of our trip we cruised through a slate-gray rain. Finally saw sunshine somewhere in Arkansas. I spent a lot of hours looking out at the passing scenery. We moved from forests and piney woods through arid grassland to desert and finally tall palms. 

Somewhere in Texas we got to a huge truck stop. She and I got work washing dishes and clearing tables for a few days. Long enough to put a few bucks in our pockets. Long enough to find a shower. By the time we reached California we had been wearing the same clothes for the entire trip, with only the one shower. Man, were we ripe. But the truckers didn’t mind. Made them feel clean, compared to us. 

She sang and she slept. She would lean her head on my shoulder and be asleep instantly. Those were good moments. The most intimate we got on the trip. We were always with a trucker in his cab, or always looking for our next ride. No chance for anything more.

We hit California outside of LA, and then rode north. On the way she and I had decided we would go to San Francisco. Not so much to catch the hippie scene. Mostly to see if we could get some decent jobs. 

We reached the central farmlands. The Salinas Valley. Steinbeck country. Lettuce everywhere. Spinach and tomatoes. Trucks and trains loaded with crates of produce headed for all corners of the US.

We hung out in Salinas for a few days. You know, for all the singing and good times we had driving with the truckers, for all the plans we shared, I think she was lonely. Alone. Before we reached Salinas, she spent her last few dollars on a fifth of bourbon. Passed the bottle to the trucker but he said no. He would lose his job if he got busted for booze. Up until then she and I had only smoked grass. If I think about it now, she had grown up in the country while yearning for the city. For crowds. For density. For excitement.

We parted ways in Salinas. I never said goodbye. We separated for a day to find work. I met a guy who said he knew a guy who ran a diner in Monterey. I hitched a ride there with him. Steinbeck had only died the year before, at his home in Sag Harbor, New York. I could feel his presence, though, in Monterey. I felt like I was walking alongside him. Talking to Ed Ricketts. Seeing the characters from Cannery Row. Lee Chong. Mack, Dora. 

The guy who drove me dropped me at the ocean’s edge. It was glorious. I will never forget that day. The smell of salt air. The wind tousling my long ponytail. The sun warm on my face. The sound of sea lions barking from the rocks. I found a sandy beach. Dug my bare feet into the hot sand. Cooled them at the water’s edge. Picked up a shell for the first time.

I felt at home. This was where I wanted to be.  

Up till that moment I had only had the travel urge. Now that I was in Monterey, where Steinbeck did much of his writing, I realized I wanted to write. Funny, because up till then I had done very little with my life. Met relatively few people. Had limited experiences.

And here I was, walking away from a girl I had shared life and dreams with, if only for less than a month. I gave little thought to her after that day. I know the song says she let me drift away. It was more like, I walked away and never looked back.

I did not learn till a few years later than she had died the year following our separation, 1970. A heroine overdose. In New York. The big city she yearned for. I also learned that she had written that song about us. “Me and Bobby McGee.” The song was a big hit for her, but only after she was dead.

I don’t know how she ended up back on the east coast. I left her in the middle of nowhere. Ranches and farms. Beautiful country, but hard for a stranger. 

I wasn’t surprised she had performed a hit song. All the way across country she sang along with the truck drivers. Sang their music. Sang stuff they didn’t know. Played a mean harmonica too. Maybe she was the stereotypical Southern kid growing up playing music on the front porch.

If I had to guess, I’d say she made it to San Francisco from Salinas. Maybe sang backup for groups at the Fillmore West. Got noticed, and someone whisked her back to New York to record. Only a guess.

She’s long gone now. I have no idea if the two of us would have made a life together. Not likely. Too much shit going on in each of our lives to know where we were headed.

In Monterey I got a job washing dishes in a small diner. Found a cheap place to live. I bought pencils and pads, and started writing. Like Ray Bradbury, I wrote dozens of short stories. Sent them off to publishers. After two years of rejections, I got a story in one small publication. Paid me ten dollars. But I was king of the world for months.

Now, over fifty years later, I live in Carmel, near Monterey. I walk the beach barefoot every morning, rain or shine. I have twenty-eight novels to my name, mostly mysteries, all with reputable publishers. I go by Robert McGee now. No one calls me Bobby. Few connect me with the song. With her.

There’s one story I have never written. Her story. Where she came from. Where she went when I left her. How she ended up dead. 

Others have put her story to words. I haven’t read any of it. 

But, I have to tell you, I have never forgotten her.


shortfiction24 – death by millstone

Death By Millstone

What I’m Writing

I am a few weeks late posting here. It took longer than usual to get this story right. I hope you enjoy it.

Reader caution: possible trigger regarding abuse.

Death By Millstone

Bob Gillen

Jack Marin and Diane Somers sat in rickety aluminum beach chairs a few feet back from the water’s edge at Point Dume. Southern California at its finest. A sky that defined the word blue. An ocean that shimmered in the breeze like the sequins on a go-go dancer’s dress. 

Jack wore a pale yellow baseball cap, faded jeans and a black sweatshirt. She was in gray leggings and an oversize white Oxford shirt. Both were barefoot.

Jack reached down for his Starbucks blond Americano, the cup wedged in the sand. Diane sipped a bottled water. 

Seagulls squawked overhead. Jack breathed in the salt air. “This is nice.”

Point Dume. Credit: AllTrails.com

Diane smiled. “Blue skies and fresh air. The start of what could be a nice relationship.”

Jack choked, swallowed his coffee hard.

Diane put her hand to her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Shit. I always put my foot in my mouth. Let me re-phrase that. This is the start of a nice morning together.”

Jack leaned back in his chair. “Better.”

“I had coffee once with a guy I met on a different dating app,” Diane said. “Not the one where you and I met. It was a decent conversation. We talked about our kids. About what airlines we used the most. About our surgeries. After twenty minutes he suddenly stood up, said, ’Thanks, but this isn’t going to work,’ and he walked out.”


“Yeah.” She pointed her water bottle toward Jack. “I think when he realized I never had a hysterectomy, and he never had a vasectomy, he got scared and took off.”

Jack laughed. 

Diane reached over and touched his arm. “Relax. Let’s just enjoy the beach together. No expectations.”

“That works for me.”

She sipped her water. “What kind of books do you like to read?” she asked.

“Mostly mystery and thriller. Some general fiction. You?”

“Contemporary fiction. Some biographies. A few romance novels thrown in, but I need to be in the mood.”

“What mood is that?” Jack stretched his legs out in the sand.

“Well…when I’m in an optimistic frame of mind. Then happily ever after makes sense. Most days, though, I’m not terribly hopeful.”

“Been burned?”

Diane blinked, reached down for a small picnic sack. “How about a snack?”

She pulled out a few containers with fruit slices, cheese bites, pretzels.

“Hey, thanks. I’ll try a pretzel.”

She grabbed two apple slices.

Jack said, “Last night I got fifty pages into a new thriller novel – an author I never read before. And I tossed it.”


“No. Same old shit. A serial killer. A guy, of course, a long distance trucker, targets women at truck stops.”


“And I am sick of crime stories where a guy targets vulnerable women and children as victims. The concept is so played out.”

 Diane nodded slightly. “Yeah, I get that.”

The ocean breeze picked up. Jack reversed his cap to keep it from blowing off. Diane’s shirt fluttered in the breeze.

“Okay, enough on books. What about travel? Do you travel much?”

Diane brightened. “Whenever I can. I love to fly. Last month I went to Cabo again. My fourth time. My first time alone.”

“Never been there.”

“But you’ve been to Mexico, right? Other beaches?”

Jack shook his head. “I went to Tijuana once…for about an hour.”

Diane smiled. “Don’t tell me…a quick lay.”

I embarrassed you.

Jack felt his face redden. “No. Just to say I had been there.”

“I embarrassed you.”

“No…yeah, a bit, I guess.” He grinned.

“Why bother? I mean, why go only to say you were there?”

Jack grabbed a handful of pretzels.

“You say you like to fly. Well, I don’t. But I will drive anywhere. Hitting Mexico was part of a cross-country road trip I did with a couple of buddies, years back. Many years back.”

“That sounds like a cool adventure. Was one of the buddies named Charley?”

Jack looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh, I get it. Steinbeck.”

She smiled.

“It was a long time ago. We were native New Yorkers. Nick, Gene, me. The road trip was one last guy thing before we all got settled in our careers and our lives.”

Diane stood up. “Leave the chairs and snacks here. Let’s walk. Tell me your road trip story.”

Jack stood, wrapped his hands around his coffee cup. “This comes with me.”

The two walked east along the beach, the surf slapping gently on the sand to their right, the breeze playing on their faces.

Jack sipped his coffee. “I haven’t thought about this in a long time.”

“A good memory, though?”

“Mostly. We left from New York, drove west on I-80, hit Reno, down through Tahoe to San Francisco. Then down the California coast to San Diego…man, was Tahoe beautiful!”

“And Tijuana,” Diane quipped.

Jack nodded. “Return trip past the Grand Canyon, then I-70 through the midwest to home.”

Jack chuckled. “You’re not from the mid-west, are you?”

“Born and bred right here.”

“Okay, good. On the drive home we stopped at an upscale restaurant in Kansas City for dinner. Looking for a good mid-west steak. I told the waitress, in my lousy French accent, we wanted a bottle of red wine, Saint-Émilion. She stared at me, said they didn’t stock that. Then her eyes widened. ‘Oh, you mean,’ and she said in her best flat mid-western accent, ‘St. Emilion.’”

New York snobs.

“New York snobs,” Diane said.

“You got it.”

“It sounds like a trip you’d never forget.”

“Yeah, well…”

The shadow of a lone seagull crossed the sand in front of Jack as it passed in front of the sun. 


Jack kicked at the damp sand. “The trip was fine. It’s only after…”

“Do you not want to talk about it?”

“It’s okay.”

He sipped the last of his Americano as they walked.

“The other guys made their lives in New York. My wife and I moved out here. We lost touch. They’re both dead now. Nick a heart attack maybe fifteen years ago, I heard. The other guy, Gene…also a heart attack…shortly after he was arrested.”

“Arrested?” Diane stopped walking. Looked at Jack.

“Yeah. He was a predator. A child abuser.”

“Oh shit.”

“Yeah, shit is right. I only found out about him recently. When there was so much press about the abusers in the Catholic church, in the Scouts, other organizations. I was reading an article and saw his name.”

Diane turned to stare out at the ocean. “Was he…?”

“Was he an abuser when we took the road trip?”


“I think so. I’ll never know, of course, but the paper said his crimes went way back. He often took the kids – his victims – camping.”

Diane gripped her water bottle hard.

“We did the trip in Gene’s car, an enormous Chevy Impala. And we carried camping gear. We camped maybe half the nights on the trip.”

Jack shuddered. “Fuck, I never thought of this before. We could have been sleeping in the same tent he used with the kids.” He stopped, sat down in the sand. Stared out at the ocean.

Diane sat next to him.

Jack took the lid off his empty coffee cup, scooped sand into the cup, dumped it out. He did this for a while, scooping, dumping, scooping. 

Diane sat in silence.

“Jesus,” Jack said. “He should burn in hell for what he did to those children.” He crushed the cup in his hand, jammed the lid into the cup.

Diane whispered, “Speaking of Jesus, maybe all the guy can hope for now is forgiveness.”

Jack turned to Diane, shook his head violently. “No! I’m not much of a religious guy any more, but I do remember Jesus saying, if you hurt the children, you should have a millstone tied around your neck and be thrown in the sea.”

Diane nodded. “Yeah, he did say that. He also talked about loving everyone…”

“No. There’s no wiggle room there. You hurt kids, you die.”

“Do you think he was a tortured soul?”

“Seriously?” Jack pulled his ankles up to sit cross-legged. “A tortured soul? What about the tortured souls he left in his wake?”

They fell into a long silence. Both stared out at the ocean. They watched sandpipers run back and forth at the water’s edge, dodging each wave. Wave after wave hit the shore, disappeared in the sand, made way for the next one. 

Finally, “How did I not see it?”

Diane said nothing.

Jack ran sand through his fingers. 

“Was I blind? I mean, we knew each other. We were already in the jobs that marked our careers. Nick was studying for the bar in New York. Gene got his degree and was teaching elementary school in an underserved neighborhood in Brooklyn. I was engaged, planned to get married six months later. Shit, I was so naive.”

“What if you knew? What would you have done?”

“I would have turned him in.”

“He was your friend.”

“A buddy, yeah, but not a real friend. No friend does things like that.”

Jack brushed sand off the leg of his pants. “You know what’s ironic? Nick was a lawyer. I heard he worked for a firm that specialized in getting justice for abused children.”

“He represented the victims,” Diane said.

Jack nodded. “I wonder if that’s what got him. What caused his heart attack. Knowing what he knew.”

Diane drew up her knees, wrapped her arms around her legs.

Jack dug his heels into the warm sand. “Nick tolerated no bullshit. I’m guessing he would have thought, like me, predators should all burn in hell. These bastards preyed on vulnerable children. Stole their youth, ruined their lives for all their remaining years. And Nick would have known that these were not crimes of passion.”

Jack began tearing pieces off the crushed cup in his hand. “The bastards planned everything. Selected victims. Worked them and their families. Calculated all the abuse. Premeditated. Over and over.”

so many times there’s no happily ever after

Diane said, “Like I said earlier, so many times there’s no happily ever after.”

Jack picked up the pieces of his mangled coffee cup. “Let’s head back.”

They stood. Diane said, “Shit, I can sure clear a room on a first date, huh?”

Jack shrugged. “The last few years, it has always bugged me that I did that road trip with a guy who turned out to be a predator. How could I have done that?”

As they walked back to their beach chairs, Jack said, “Before the road trip I had bought a whole box of cigars. Garcia y Vega Bravuras. We smoked them at every campsite after supper. One night we were smoking at our campfire. Gene walked off to take our trash to a dumpster. On the way back, he stopped at the neighboring campsite to chat with a family that had two boys. Nick had to yell over to him to come back and leave them alone.”

“You think Nick knew?”

“Nick was smart. Street smart… If he did suspect something, he never let on.”

“And here you are, so many years later, walking a beach, trying to make sense of it.”

“Yeah. No offense, but with a woman I just met an hour ago.” He turned to Diane. “You’re a good listener.”

She smiled, nodded.

They reached their chairs. Jack tossed his crushed and torn cup down in the sand. 

Gulls screeched high overhead. Diane caught Jack’s eyes. “I could listen more if you wish.”

“Let’s sit and enjoy the ocean for a while,” he said. “Maybe happy can be one moment without worrying about ever after.”


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