Healing through story

Tag: grief

shortfiction24 – enough of self-pity

Sally lost her husband two years ago. She’s slipping into finding solace in a bottle of scotch.

Enjoy the story.

Enough of Self-Pity

Bob Gillen

Sally eased her Subaru into the carport and carried coffee and a bag of bagels to the house. Her headache throbbed. Too much Johnny Walker Black last night. Her mistake – watching an episode of Jesse Stone on TV. In the story Stone had settled into his worn leather chair in his secluded beach house at the end of the day, his dog at his side. Stone told himself one drink was enough. Half a bottle later he fell asleep in the chair till morning. 

Life imitates art. Sally had done the same. 

Her drinking came too easy. Easy to enjoy. Easy to excuse. It had been two years since she lost Vaughn, her husband of forty years. Since then two more years of continuing to avoid alcohol, as she and Vaughn had promised each other years back. Enough alcoholism in our families, they had both agreed.

Sitting one night in front of the TV, watching a musical movie Vaughn had loved, Sally had broken into tears. A thought wormed its way into her mind. Why go on avoiding drinking? Vaughn is gone. What does it matter any more? 

The result – two drinks every night. Until she knocked off half a bottle last night.

Sally opened the front door and put the coffee and bagels on the kitchen counter. She took a few gulps of the coffee. Cleared her head for a moment. She moved to the living room and opened the patio blinds. 

“Hi, Sally.”

“Holy shit!” She clenched her hands into fists. Whirled around to find the voice.

“Vaughn?” A whisper.

A man sitting in her chair nodded.

Sally shook her head, blinked her eyes hard.

“Not possible. You died. Two years ago.”

“I came back.”

“How? Why?”

“Move away from the window. You’re backlit. I can’t see your face.”

Sally slid over to the couch and sat.

She saw that Vaughn was wearing jeans and his usual faded polo that still hung in his closet. The closet she had not yet cleared out.

“This isn’t possible. You were cremated. You’re dead. How?”

“Sally, I had to talk to you.”

“What? I’m dreaming, right?”

“I only get to do this once, Sally. Listen carefully.”

“Vaughn, you sound so business-like. It’s me. Sally. Your wife.” She leaned forward on the couch.

“I am limited by how much emotion I can bring to this visit. It’s real, but it isn’t.”

Sally again shook her head in disbelief.

“Sally, you’ve been drinking.”

“Is that what this is all about? A few drinks?”

“Your father was a nasty drunk. So was mine. We stopped drinking to avoid that for ourselves.”

Vaughn sat still, did not move to gesture or point. His face was almost expressionless.

“Enough, Sally. Stop before you get in too deep.”

“But it’s only me now. Who am I going to hurt?”

“Yourself.”

“Come on, Vaughn. You came back only to tell me this? To stop having a couple of drinks at the end of my day?”

Vaughn gave an almost unseen nod.

Sally jumped up from the couch and stared out at the patio. She ran her hands through her hair. She laughed. “Vaughn, my coffee is getting cold. Can I warm it up while we keep talking?”

No reply. Sally turned. 

The chair was empty. No Vaughn. 

She shuddered, hugged herself. Am I hallucinating?

She approached the chair. Patted the cushions. Ran her hands over the arms. 

“Vaughn?”

Silence.

She dashed to the bedroom, looked in the closet. The polo Vaughn had worn still hung there, dust on its shoulders.

Sally edged back to the kitchen. She warmed her coffee in the microwave. Sliced and buttered a bagel.

Sitting in her chair, coffee and bagel in hand, a half-smile crept across her face. 

She set the food aside, returned to the kitchen. She pulled a half-empty bottle of scotch out of the cabinet. 

She watched the contents gurgle down the sink drain.

***

shortfiction24 – how’re you holding up?

Mary Bering could not bear to hear one more person ask her, “How’re you holding up?” She wore her smile like a veneer, covering the deep grief of losing her beloved partner.

Mary planned her own disappearance. This story is for all those who deal with a grief hidden under the surface. All those tired of fielding well-meaning questions.

Enjoy the story.

How’re You Holding Up?

Bob Gillen

They never found Mary Bering’s body. Not that they didn’t try. The authorities in the small beach town searched for a full week. They brought in a search dog that tracked her scent from the dunes to the water’s edge. They even walked the dog a half mile in each direction, thinking Mary may have come out of the water disoriented.

A young couple on an early morning beach hike had spotted a neatly folded stack of clothes in the sand up near the dunes. Shoes, pants, a top, underwear. A costume necklace. They took a photo, brought it to the local sheriff when his office opened.

At the same time Mary’s boss at the town bakery called the sheriff to request a welfare check when Mary did not show for her early morning shift. A rare event. The sheriff entered Mary’s apartment. Her phone and keys sat on the kitchen table. No note, nothing askew. That’s when he called in the search dog.

A local news producer volunteered their helicopter to search offshore. Nothing.

In the end the sheriff concluded the tides pulled Mary Bering’s body out to sea. Suicide? No evidence either way. Case closed.

By the time the sheriff shut down his news conference, Mary Bering was miles to the south in her twenty-four foot boat, berthed at a marina several towns away. Mary had planned well.

What triggered her planned disappearance was a well-meaning question from her local preacher. She had run into him on her way home from work one day. “How’re you holding up?” The question punched Mary right in the chest. It was a question Mary had fielded dozens of times in the three months since her beloved partner Melody had died. Suddenly. Unexpected. Mary always responded to the question with, “Okay, thanks.”

The preacher’s question slammed her hard. You of all people. Can’t you see? No, I am not holding up. This is all a veneer. I am devasted without Melody.

Mary began assembling her plan that night over a dinner of chicken noodle soup and a white wine. The boat was the key. Mary had bought the boat, an older-model twenty-four foot cabin cruiser, from a guy whose job was relocating him to the midwest. The Salty Lady. She was berthed at the end of the marina. The guy had paid the monthly rental by cash, slipped into the office mail slot. Mary continued the practice. She never informed the office of the change in ownership. That was before Melody died. Mary had planned to refurbish the boat, present it to Melody on her July fourth birthday. The boat slept two, tightly. A tiny galley. A fair range with a large fuel tank and a one-hundred horsepower outboard engine.

After the preacher’s question Mary began stocking the boat with bottled water, Spam, tuna packets and canned vegetables. Several changes of clothes. A few items at a time, to avoid suspicion and questions.

She bought charts of the coastline. South was the obvious way to go. More options.

On the morning of her disappearance she left for the beach before dawn. She picked a spot where her clothes would be found without too much difficulty. She stripped, folded everything neatly, pulled on the wet suit she had carried. She walked into the water, swam south, parallel to the beach for about two miles till she reached the rock jetty and the harbor inlet. She left the water, stripped off the wetsuit, found the bag of clothes she had stashed in the dunes the day before. She dried off, stuffed the wetsuit in a bag, and walked to the marina. Once there she left a note in the office mail slot. “Moving on.” She signed the former owner’s name.

The sun was breaking the horizon when Mary fired up the outboard engine. She eased the boat out through the inlet, turned south parallel to the beach. The boat moved smoothly on the early morning flat calm. Twenty miles down the coast she found another inlet. She turned in, located the marina she had come upon in a Google search, pulled into a guest berth. She crawled into the bunk, slept for a few hours.

Around noon that first day Mary sat on the side of her bunk, a small makeup mirror in front of her. She cut her hair short in a style reminiscent of Andy Warhol. She added a few blond streaks. Nothing too obvious. She bagged up the cut hair, planning to dump it in a trash bin later.

She removed the jar with Melody’s cremains from the bunk storage bin. “What do you think, Mel? You would probably hate this.”

In the town near the marina, Mary visited a thrift store, bought some clothes that Melody would have worn, more colorful than her own style. 

She found a coffee shop. A turkey sandwich and a black coffee satisfied her hunger. She ordered a second sandwich, a chocolate muffin and a vanilla shake to go.

Back at the boat, Mary studied the charts. Another ten miles to the next inlet. The wind had picked up in the afternoon. She chose to avoid what would be a choppy ride running parallel to the coast. Tomorrow morning would be fine.

Mary studied the notebook with her plan. Had she overlooked anything yet? Nothing obvious. Her credit cards would remain unused in her wallet for at least several months. Nothing to trace, if they did a deep-dive search. She had plenty of cash, accumulated over a month from ATMs. She had also transferred much of her savings to an out-of-state bank. She retained her original ID. No reason to change that, not unless someone became suspicious. She had left just enough of a trail for them to conclude this was a probable suicide. She knew the local sheriff well enough to know he would not likely search further. 

She felt a twinge of guilt over leaving her job. She always showed up early to bake bread and rolls for the morning customers. Her boss would be stressed for a time, but Mary knew someone else would take her place.

Leaving her apartment behind was more painful. A cozy little space Melody and she had shared for almost ten years. She left behind treasured furniture, a quilt gifted from a friend, a collection of antique bottles.

Now what? Tomorrow morning another marina, more miles away from her old life. Mary stowed the thrift store clothes under her bunk. One item she had brought from home jumped out at her. She held up a white linen top. Tears ran down her face. Remember this, Mel? I wore this the night you proposed to me. She blotted her tears onto the top.

She continued, Where to, Melody? I don’t have a long-term plan. Only enough to get away from my…our…old life. No more well-meaning questions to field. No more masking how I feel. I miss you terribly. My heart aches for you. I am truly alone now, in every way. 

Mary ate her carryout food, again crawled into the bunk. Sleep came easily.

In the morning Mary hit a different coffee shop for croissants and coffee, picked up the local newspaper. A story below the fold told of a disappearance. Her disappearance. Search underway. No picture, no details. Good, at least they’re aware I’m gone.

She powered up the boat and set off for the next marina. Once there she again found a guest berth. Mary cooked up an early dinner of Spam and canned corn on her little gas stove. 

She held the jar of cremains close to her. She whispered, “This boat was my birthday surprise for you, Mel. When I get further down the coast I’ll find a painter and change the name to My Melody.”

Mary rooted through the bag of clothes she had purchased at the thrift shop. She picked a tie-dyed shirt with a yellow center. More whispers: “Tomorrow, Mel, I’ll dress more to your style, your liking. You always wanted me to be more daring with my outfits.”

Mary pointed to the coastal chart. “And tomorrow, on to another harbor, another marina, another town. Another step towards a new life. ‘How’re you holding up?’ Not too badly, if I say so myself. Not too badly.”

***

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 – a new morning

Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, Columbus Museum of Art

In today’s micro story Diane Somers feels relief after returning her berserk cat Zero to the animal shelter. Relief…and emptiness.

More short fiction in the Jack and Diane series. Enjoy.

What I’m Writing Today

Today I’m exploring a lonely moment as Diane sits at home after returning her cat to the shelter. This is #4 in the Jack and Diane series of stories. As I have said before, I did not expect to continue the story line, and I have no plan as to where it is going. The characters interest me. I’ll see where it goes as we proceed.

Catch up on previous stories with Jack and Diane on this blog: A Third Date, The Second Date, Death by Millstone.

A New Morning

Bob Gillen

Diane Somers woke at 7:30 without an alarm. She stretched, slid out from under her covers. The east-facing window filled the room with light. 

Diane smiled. I slept through the night, she told herself. First time in a month. She stepped into her fuzzy slippers, pulled on a well-worn blue chennile robe, and padded to the kitchen. In under ten minutes she had her French-press coffee in hand. She settled in her chair and gazed out at the trees moving in the brisk Santa Ana winds. 

She sighed as she sipped her coffee. 

Sleep was good. After a month of near-sleepless nights she had finally surrendered and returned her cat Zero to the rescue shelter. As a retiree, she had the option of afternoon naps. But nothing replaced a good night’s sleep. Zero had been with her for close to two years. In that time the cat had never once purred or meowed. Never snuggled with Diane in her chair or in bed. The cat did nothing but eat, pee and sleep. Hence the cat’s name. Diane gave zero fucks about him.

But Zero had taken to roaming the house every night for the last month. Running from room to room. Hissing. Knocking books off tables. The last straw, two nights ago he swept her favorite mug off the kitchen table and shattered it. 

The guy at the shelter had accepted Zero back. “Didn’t work for you, huh?” he asked.

“Not your normal cuddly cat.”

The clerk had nodded. “Thanks for trying. Not always a match.”

“Thanks for understanding,” Diane had called out as she left.

She sipped her coffee. A couple of dry leaves scratched across the concrete patio in the wind. For some weird reason, the moving leaves reminded her of the black and white movie with Peter Lorre, where a severed hand crawled around the house causing mayhem and murder. That’s what Zero had been, a hand detached from anything that would give it life, creeping about in the darkness. Diane shuddered. He’s gone now.

After a second cup of coffee, she continued to stare out the window at the wind-blown trees. All the movement was outside. Inside, only stillness. Diane felt alone, empty. Her mind drifted back over the three years since her second husband had died. She lost him quite suddenly of a massive heart attack. And she had lost her only daughter in a maelstrom of anger and bitterness. Margaret had not spoken to Diane since Mark’s death. Diane had still to reason why, exactly. 

Her thoughts were interrupted by sirens from the nearby fire station, as a crew went out on call. Her neighbor’s German shepherd howled. Howled mightily. It always brought a smile to her face. The dog was normally rather stoic, but the sirens gave him voice every time.

The feeling of emptiness fell over her again. She was utterly alone in the house once again. No husband, no connection to her daughter, no cat. Only her.

She returned to the kitchen for more coffee. Zero’s food and water dishes were still on the floor under the counter. She picked them up and tossed them in the trash. That was the last trace of him. Gone.

Diane settled in the chair with a third cup of coffee. She opened her iPad to read emails. On top was the monthly newsletter from one of her favorite mystery authors. As she read the newsletter, she teared up. The author talked about losing her spouse in the previous year. She spoke of herself recovering from a mild bout of Omicron, spoke of the almost two years of pandemic lockdown and restrictions. The author described her current life as a scaled-back life. A scaled-back life, yet nurtured by gratitude and appreciation for what she does have.

A scaled-back life

Diane thought, that’s it exactly. That’s my life. Scaled back. Not the same. Maybe never to be the same again. But clearly scaled back. Full of limitations and restrictions. Filled with absence and emptiness. Tears flowed.

Her phone chirped. She glanced at the screen. Jack. The guy she met on an online dating app for the over-fifty crowd. She let the call go to voicemail. Later, dude. I need some me time right now.

She wiped away her tears, smiled, recalling the day she and Jack had spent in Santa Barbara a few days ago. Appreciation. Gratitude.

Outside a single dry leaf continued to scratch across the patio in the wind. Diane got up, opened the slider, and stepped on the leaf. Crushed it to small pieces. She closed the slider, settled back in her chair.

She reached for the phone. Took a deep breath, hit Jack’s number. 

***

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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