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Mannequin Monday – Half Pepperoni

This Monday our mannequin stops for pizza before catching a flight back to LA. Two surviving brothers share a moment after yet another family funeral.

What I’m Writing

Here’s a writing exercise I did for a course I’m taking with my writing group. The goal was to create a story around a memory shared by no more than three characters. Their voices should contribute to the reader’s sense of place.

Half Pepperoni

Bob Gillen

Andy and Peter drape their coats over an empty chair, sit down at a table in a deserted pizza place in Queens. The room looks out on a creek, quiet today, two p.m. on a January weekday. 

The owner steps up to the table, wiping his hands on a stained apron. 

“Hey guys. Ain’t seen you in a while.”

“Hey Pat,” Andy says.

“Hi Pat.”

“No one else coming?”

“Just us today.”

“Who died?”

Peter points to his brother Andy. “Andy’s sister-in-law. Michelle.”

“Hey, I’m sorry. Last time you was in here, it was a whole crowd.”

“Not anymore.”

“What’s your poison?”

“Large pizza,” Andy says.

“Half pepperoni,” adds Peter.

“You got it. For you, I’ll make it right away.”

Andy looks around at the empty room. “Pat, we’re the only ones here.”

“Hey, I get delivery orders too, you know.” He disappears behind the counter.

Andy fingers the faded red and white check cloth on their table.“I swear these are the same table clothes from the last time we were here.” 

Peter nods. Says, “So?”

“Yeah. Back again.”

“I know. Another in and out funeral for me.” Peter looks at his watch. “I got time to catch my flight, yeah?”

“Sure. JFK’s got security moving faster these days.”

The two turn to stare out at the creek, all the small boats covered for the winter, bobbing slightly in the chill breeze. Seagulls perch on several of the boats.

“See that white house across the creek? With the closed-in patio?” Peter points out the window. “The one with the floating dock?” 

“Yeah.”

“My eighth grade girlfriend’s house. We used to swim off the dock after school in the spring.” 

“Her name was Patricia?”

“Right. Good memory.” Peter smiles. “I never told mom I was swimming there. I would dry off as best I could, pull on my jeans over my bathing suit, and hope the wet didn’t soak through by the time I got home for supper. She never found out till Patricia’s mother met mom in the market and said it was so nice that we were all swimming every afternoon.”

“She must have been so pissed at you. Because someone knew something she didn’t.”

“Tell me about it. I had so much guilt laid on me over that. Why didn’t you trust me to tell me…”

“And have her say no, right?”

“Yeah. Trust me, but if it’s fun, no way.”

“I remember one day she was crying after she talked to you. Crying in the kitchen. She didn’t see me. Maybe that was the day.”

Peter shrugs.

“Man, that was a lot of years ago,” Andy says.

Peter gets up and walks over to a jukebox standing along the far wall. He drops a few coins in, punches a couple of buttons. As he sits, the first song comes up. For the good times.

“Shit,” Peter shakes his head as he sits. “The day after mom’s funeral, Michelle said to me, Well, Peter, with her gone, you and I are the oldest in the family now.

“I don’t remember her saying that.”

“Yeah, right here. Maybe this same table.”

“And now she’s gone.”

“You and me, man.”

Pat slides a large pizza pan down on the checkered tablecloth. “It’s hot.”

“I hope so,” Andy grins.

Pat tosses paper plates on the table. “Drinks?”

Andy asks for water. “Coke for me, Pat,” Peter says.

Peter reaches for a slice. Bubbling cheese, pepperoni crisp around the edges. Oil dripping onto the plate. “I miss this.”

Andy runs a hand through his hair. “First time we were here…right after dad’s burial. I couldn’t believe he lasted as long as he did.”

“Three years sober and the juice still got him.”

“I don’t think mom was upset at all.”

“What the hell. He used to get loaded, then throw rocks into Jack’s pool next door. She was mortified.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Sure, couple times a week. I’m surprised Jack didn’t slug him.”

Peter laughs. “For almost a year before she died, I’d call mom every week from LA and she’d say, if you can’t get in here to visit me, don’t bother coming to my funeral.”

“She said that?”

“Yup.”

“And you almost didn’t, right?”

“Yeah. It was a busy time. I think I did it just to spite her.”

“That was a big wake. Everyone showed up. In the middle of winter. Probably afraid she would haunt them otherwise.”

Peter laughs as he scarfs down a mouthful of pizza. “I was so annoyed. People kept coming up to me saying, do you remember me? Shit, I hadn’t seen those people in thirty years. One guy, Johnny, the cop from Staten Island, he says, Remember me? I say, “Sure, Richie, how are you?”

“He says, no, I’m Johnny.”

“People do that.”

“It pisses me off. Just say hello and give me your name. Come on…I do appreciate that they came for the wake, though.”

Andy and Peter chew silently for a few minutes.

Pat comes over to the table with their drinks. “You guys, I was just thinking, last time you were in, you had your wives with you.”

Andy looks at Pat over his cheese slice. “Both gone, Pat.”

“Oh shit. I didn’t know.” Pat crosses himself. He waves his hand at the pizza. “This one’s on me. You guys been through a lot of shit.”

“You got that right, man.”

“Hey Pat,” Andy says. “How you doin’? Everything okay?”

“Yeah, business is good. Little slow for the winter. Come summer this place is a gold mine.”

“Your family?”

Pat smiles. “Remember my daughter AnnMarie? Used to wait tables here?” He wipes his hands on his apron, pulls a phone out of his back pocket, thumbs through the pictures. “Here’s the whole family…at her wedding last June.”

Andy and Peter smile at the photo. “Good for you, Pat.”

“I been lucky.” He crosses himself again, walks away.

Peter hoists his Coke glass. “So, Andy, like Michelle said to me, you and me, we’re the oldest in the family now.”

“I still got some good years left in me. You?”

“The same.”

“From our lips…”

***

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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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