Jack and Diane are back. Jack reaches out, tries his humor on a distraught Diane. This is the pair’s fifth appearance on shortfiction24. The characters continue to talk to me.
The Goat Movie
Tears ran down Diane Somers’s face as she sipped the last of her breakfast coffee. A single photo lay unframed on the kitchen table. A picture of her late husband, Frank, a huge grin spread across his face, poised to blow out birthday candles. Their daughter Margaret sat at his side. A memorable occasion, only six weeks before Frank’s deadly heart attack.
Diane pushed the photo aside. Three years gone. Frank…and Margaret. Frank dead, Margaret estranged from her mother.
Her phone chirped. A text from Jack Marin. Want to see a movie tonight?
Diane hesitated, then replied, What’s playing?
A text came back. A star-studded feature: Billy Idol, Billie Eilish, Billie Holiday, Billy Elliot and Billy Porter starring in the barnyard classic ‘What’s Got Your Goat’?
Diane stared at the phone. What the hell? She dialed Jack, rather than deal with typing on the phone.
“Hi,” Jack said. “The goat movie sound interesting?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Goats? Billy goats?”
She smiled in spite of herself. “Okay. Sorry, you caught me at a bad time.”
“Should I call later?”
“No, no. It’s fine. Did you stay up all night thinking of that?”
“Nope. I have a notebook filled with these. Been writing them for years. Did you ever watch the old Tonight Show with Johnny Carson?”
“Some. He was not a favorite of mine.”
“Yeah…well I always loved his character Art Fern. Remember? Art Fern and the Tea Time Movie?”
“Girl, your education has sadly been lacking.”
“A matter of opinion…boy.”
Jack snorted. “Okay, I’ll drop it for now…but you may hear more where that came from.”
“Save it, Jack.”
“Listen, if you’re not up to a movie, we could spend a few hours at the zoo. I have a friend who works there. I can get free tickets.”
“Probably not…not today, Jack.” Diane reached for a paper napkin as tears began to flow again.
Jack pushed on. “Yeah, okay. My friend’s a vet. Does a lot of work with the LA Zoo.”
A pause while Diane hesitated to react.
“He treats mostly the elephants. They seem prone to some kind of skin condition.”
“Honest. His business card reads, Pachydermatologist.”
Diane moaned. “I see what you did there…and it hurt.”
“Hey, you throw enough on the wall, some of it will stick.”
Diane took a deep breath, dabbed at stray tears. “Was there a real reason you texted?”
“Actually…yeah. Thinking of you and reaching out.”
“Thanks, Jack. That’s nice.”
“How about dinner tonight? I’d offer to cook for you, but I know you’re skittish about moving too fast.”
“Dinner would be great. How about something light? Maybe a sandwich and salad somewhere.”
“Done. Can I pick you up…or would you rather meet there?”
“Let’s meet there. Wherever ‘there’ is.”
“How about that bistro place at the promenade? They make a good sandwich. Lots of outdoor seating too.”
“See you there at six.”
Diane put her phone down. Her gaze returned to Frank’s photo. You’ve been gone for three years now…please help me understand why Margaret refuses to talk to me. She won’t take any calls from me. It’s killing me, Frank. She’s all I have left.
She reached for a Post-It pad from the counter, pulled off a tab and stuck it over Margaret’s face on the photo. This comes off when you call me.
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
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.
Diane agrees to a third date with Jack, even after he messed up the second one so miserably. Will this 50+ dating app relationship go anywhere? Read on.
To catch up on the first two stories about Jack and Diane, check out the first, Death by Millstone, and the second, The Second Date. I am writing these stories one at a time, with no idea or plan where it will go. The two characters interest me more than I expected them to. Who knows? We’ll find out together.
And now, enjoy their third date, a day trip to Santa Barbara.
A Third Date
Jack Marin backed his white Ford F-150 effortlessly into the parking spot half a block from Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara.
“We’re here,” he whispered to Diane Somers sleeping in the passenger seat. Diane opened her eyes. She took in Jack’s face, turned to see the beach across from the sidewalk.
“That was fast,” she croaked. “Oh, I was really out, huh?”
“Since we got on the 101.”
“Wow. Hardly sleeping for two nights makes a girl sleepy.”
“Take your time waking up,” Jack said. He pressed the slider to open Diane’s window. The cool ocean breeze drifted in.
“Oh that smells good.”
Diane straightened up, pulled down the visor mirror. “I need a bit of makeup.”
“If you say so. Looks good from where I sit.”
She freshened her lipstick, ran hands through her hair.
“How’d you score a spot so close to the wharf?”
“I lived in New York City for five years. Finding a parking spot is a learned skill.”
“I didn’t know you lived there.”
“Long time ago, after graduation. Before I came back out to LA.”
Jack closed the window. “Let’s head out on the wharf.”
The two walked along the wharf as cars passed back and forth next to them.
“I have to say, Jack, I really hesitated when you called and asked me to come here.”
“Yeah, I really messed up our last date… I’m a shitty listener.”
“More than that.”
“I was flattered you called. But after our second date didn’t go well, I did not want to be miles from home, depending on you to drive me back if it went south again.”
Jack stopped, stepped aside to the railing. “I know I really messed up both dates, but I wanted to see you again so badly. I thought some ocean air and a good dinner would help.”
Diane smiled. “I missed you too. I am still concerned that this won’t work out, but I’m game to try again.”
The passing cars caused the wooden beams of the wharf to clatter as they drove over them. Jack smiled. “Have I told you I’ve done and said some incredibly stupid things in my lifetime. Almost always around a girl.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
Jack pointed to the passing cars. “All the clattering of the wharf reminds me…when I was in the eighth grade, I had a girlfriend.”
“Wow, this is ancient history.”
“Cute.” Jack smiled. “Her name was Patti. One chilly spring day we rode our bikes to the park at the end of our town. A wooden car bridge crossed a large creek near the park. Patti and I, and another couple we were tight with, we climbed up under the bridge, right under where the cars drove across. We heard all of that clattering of the wooden beams. Anyway, we were kissing. It was a nice moment. Secluded under there. The other couple kept on kissing. I kissed Patti for a bit, then said, “Okay, I’m done. We can go now.”
Jack extended his palms in surrender. “I was an idiot. Alone with my girlfriend. And I cut it short. So stupid!”
“Yeah, Jack. That was stupid.”
Seagulls screeched alongside the wharf. Jack shrugged. “Let’s get some ice cream.”
They walked to the end of the wharf. Jack got a vanilla cone, Diane Rocky Road in a cup.
“My friends tease me. Call me plain vanilla. I love the flavor, and I hate bits of stuff in my ice cream.”
Diane waved her index finger. “I won’t offer you a taste of mine.”
They found an empty bench facing out at the harbor.
“Do you feel rested after sleeping in the car?”
“I do. Thanks. I hope it wasn’t rude of me, but I was so tired.”
“I think aliens have invaded my cat’s brain. He now paces around the house all night.”
“I adopted him two years ago. Hoping for company around the house. They told me his name was Pepper. After a week I started calling him Zero. Still do.”
“He sleeps all day. Wakes up to eat and pee. Does not meow or purr. Will not snuggle or let me pet him. So I call him Zero…as in, I give zero fucks about this cat.”
Jack almost dropped his cone. “That’s harsh.”
“After the last two nights, I mean it even more. He’s insane.”
“So, not only is he not good company, he now keeps you awake at night.”
Diane nodded, finished her Rocky Road. She stood to find a trash can. “Let’s walk a bit. I need to stretch my legs.”
They walked back along the wharf to the street, turned towards the harbor where hundreds of boats were docked. Both enjoyed the sea air. Neither felt the need to talk.
When they reached the end of the sidewalk, Diane said, “I’m hungry. Got any ideas for restaurants?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. There’s a great Italian place up State Street. We can walk there, or get the truck and drive up.”
“I don’t mind walking.”
“Okay, let’s go.”
They walked back along the beach, headed up State Street. The street was still closed to auto traffic, since the beginning of the COVID lockdowns. Bicycles whizzed past, tourists and residents wandered the street. Jack moved to hold Diane’s hand, but a surge of tourists forced them to walk single file. When they reached the restaurant. Jack and Diane got seated in a quiet outdoor section.
“So, I promised myself I would not dominate the conversation. Tell me something about your last job, Diane. The one you retired from.”
The server brought a plate with a baguette and olive oil with pepper. Diane wolfed down a piece.
“God, I was hungry.”
Jack placed his napkin on his lap. “This is nice. I can’t remember when I last ate someplace that had cloth napkins.”
Diane laughed. “I hear you.”
“So, tell me about your job…”
Diane said, “I had no plans to retire then, but I couldn’t take the company anymore.”
“They forced you out?”
“In a way. I was in tech sales support, covering retail clients on the west coast. We had some management changes, they reorganized the company structure. Some bright light decided that all sales and sales support people should be based out of Indianapolis. They wanted all of us to relocate.”
“Relocate from LA to Indianapolis?”
The server stepped up. “Any questions about our menu?”
“I think we’re ready to order. Diane?”
“I’ll have the salmon piccata.”
“Excellent choice. And you, sir?”
The server took their menus and walked away.
“I see why your friends tease you.”
“What do you mean?” Jack asked.
“Chicken parm. Doesn’t get any more vanilla than that.”
Jack raised his palms in protest. “I go for what I like.”
Diane smiled. “Whatever.”
“So, back to you. Relo to Indianapolis.”
“Most of our customers were based in the east. The company figured they might as well put all of us nearer to them.”
“With more travel for you, for the west coast.”
“Yeah, plus summer humidity, winter snow and ice, and further away from my daughter.”
“Last time you mentioned you and she were estranged.”
“A topic for another time,” she said.
“Okay. Do you have grandkids?”
“Yeah, me too…okay, so you quit and took early retirement.”
“Not exactly. I stalled. Finally, they offered me a severance package, and I jumped at it.”
Jack dipped a piece of bread into the olive oil and pepper. “Do you miss the work?”
“I miss the travel. Discovering new cities. Every trip staying in a good hotel. Great restaurants. Spa at night. Most of it on the company dime…and I miss fixing issues for my customers. The best feeling…”
“Yeah, I get that.”
Diane laughed. “One of the best fixes…I would show up at a retail location. Their point of sale equipment was acting erratically. I’d spot right away that they had tied the electrical cables alongside the data cables. Electrical interfered with the data transmission. I would fuss over it for a while, simply separate the cables, and voila, problem fixed. The customers loved me.”
“And here you are, cruising, no worries.”
“Eating a lovely Italian dinner with a man I hardly know yet. Who knew?”
After dinner and coffee, Jack and Diane walked back down State Street to Jack’s truck.
“Would you be interested in adopting a cat?” Diane asked.
“No way. Animals are okay, but I am not a pet person.”
“I may have to give him up. I can’t live like this. I need my sleep.”
“And please, Jack. No suggestions about me spending a night at your place.”
“It never entered my mind.”
Diane turned to him. “Am I not attractive enough?”
Jack laughed. “Between a rock and a hard place… yes, you are attractive. And yes, I am a slow mover. Very slow.”
“Sounds fair,” Diane said. “Just kidding you. I will give up Zero, and then we can take it as it comes.”
Jack reached over, took Diane’s hand, and kissed it gently. She blinked, smiled.
Jack drove his truck onto the 101 South. He turned on one of his playlists. Art Tatum on the Pablo Group Masterpieces albums. He chose the session with Ben Webster on sax. “Chill. If you need to, take another nap. I’m cool with that.”
“I had coffee, but I may just do that. Walking and ocean air did me in.”
‘Call you when we get to your place.”
Jack smiled, steered south. Said to himself, Look at me, spending a day with Diane and not fucking it up. Go, me.
Jack and Diane are back. They caught my interest in my last story. This week I’m following them on their second date. Will it work for them? No guarantees.
See my post for the first Jack and Diane story, Death by Millstone, here.
The Second Date
Jack Marin stepped into the hair salon. A young man greeted him from the reception counter.
“Who are you here to see?”
Jack glanced around, taking in the slick ambience of the salon. “I’m meeting a client of Krystal. Her name is—“
The receptionist grabbed a microphone. “Krystal, someone to see you.” He turned away to take a phone call.
Jack stood a moment till he realized he had been dismissed. He sat in a beige faux leather chair. In a room directly ahead of him a stylist dressed in black was blow-drying a client’s hair. The two chatted freely as she worked.
“You must be Jack. I’m Krystal.”
A woman in a black apron waved him over. “We’re back here.”
Jack followed her around a corner to find Diane Somers sitting in a salon chair, draped in a black apron. Diane pulled an arm out from under the apron, waved, smiled at Jack in the mirror without turning.
“Sit here.” Krystal pointed to the empty chair in the next station.
“Jack, this is Krystal,” Diane said. “My stylist and friend for more than ten years.”
“Welcome, Jack.” Krystal picked up scissors and a comb.
Jack nodded. Talking to Diane and Krystal in the mirror made Jack uncomfortable.
“Thanks for meeting me here,” Diane said. “I’ve been running late all morning.”
Jack nodded to the mirror.
“So,” Krystal said, “I hear you guys just met last week.”
“We did,” Jack said. “At the beach.”
“Good beach weather,” Krystal said. “Almost too warm for this time of year.”
“Thanks to our fucked up climate,” Jack said.
“Tell me about it,” Krystal said. “My kids are so into climate change projects at school.”
“Krystal’s kids are adorable,” Diane said.
“Do you have kids, Jack?” Krystal asked.
“Two. Both back east, one in New York, the other Rhode Island.”
“Get to see them often?”
“Not enough. Damn pandemic. I haven’t seen them in almost two years.”
“I didn’t know you had kids,” Diane said.
Jack smiled. “Our first meetup kinda went down the toilet, huh?”
“No, no. I’m glad you had a chance to talk.”
“What about you, Diane. Kids?”
“One. A daughter here in LA. She’s an event planner, works mostly with a private high school.”
“Cool. She’s close.”
Diane shrugged. “I haven’t seen her since my husband died three years ago.”
Krystal had been listening intently. She returned to cutting and shaping Diane’s hair. She tipped Diane’s head forward to get at the back of her neck.
“My wife has been gone two years next month,” Jack said.
“You’ve both been through a lot, huh?” Krystal said.
“I still miss her like crazy,” Jack said. “The only comfort I have is knowing she’s in a better place.”
Krystal smiled. “She’s at peace.”
Jack laughed. “Funny. I believe in an afterlife. I know our spirits live on somehow. But I’m in no rush to get there myself.”
“It’s not your time yet,” Krystal said.
Forever, with nothing to do.
“It’s not that. I’m a doer,” Jack said. “I have trouble being idle. When I think of being in heaven, or in some spirit world, I shudder. It must be so boring. Sitting around feeling joyful. The joyful part is okay. It’s the sitting around. For eternity. Forever, with nothing to do.”
Diane peered at Jack in the mirror. “I think it would be wonderful.”
“Not so much for me.”
Krystal set her scissors on the counter. “Let me tell you a story.”
Jack turned to face Krystal, trying to keep one eye on Diane in the mirror.
“I went to a medium last year. We talked about this.”
Jack squinted at the thought of a medium.
“I felt something like you do, Jack. She told me the spirits aren’t just sitting around.”
“She said they keep growing and learning.”
Jack leaned closer.
“The medium believes we go through a transition when we first die. We have to learn how to be in the new spirit world. In heaven. It takes some adjusting.”
“Do they join up with all the people who have died ahead of them?” Jack asked.
“Oh sure. They interact, learning from one another. Experiencing how they all were good, how they made mistakes, what they learned from that.”
“That’s fascinating,” Jack said. “So my wife is still growing…”
“Oh yeah. The medium even believes we all come back to live multiple lives. But we don’t remember our previous lives. Each one is fresh. We keep growing. Keep trying to get it better.”
Jack stared at his own reflection in the mirror. He murmured, “We keep growing.”
Diane looked at Jack, then caught Krystal’s eye in the mirror. Krystal winked.
“Jack, that means something to you.” Diane smiled.
Jack shrugged. “I think so. I need to think about this.” He turned to Krystal. “Your medium says we never stop growing, right?”
“That’s cool. It makes sense. Why has no one ever said this before?”
Diane opened her mouth to speak. Jack cut her off. “This is why I gave up on religion.”
The conversation died for a few moments while Krystal blew-dried Diane’s hair. Jack stared at the mirror.
A half hour later Jack and Diane sat over hot drinks in a nearby coffee shop.
“Krystal is amazing,” Jack said. “You’re lucky to have her as a friend.”
“She has helped me almost more than my therapist. Since my husband died.”
“I can’t stop thinking about what she said…about her medium. That’s life-changing. I mean, I never thought of the next life as a time of growing. Really cool.”
Diane sipped her coffee. “Were you and your wife close?”
“Oh yeah,” Jack said. “My best friend.”
“My husband and I were the same,” Diane said.
“Have you talked to a counselor since your wife died?” Diane asked.
“You mean, a therapist? Nah. No need. I’m dealing okay.”
Diane stared at her cup. “Are you?”
She looked at Jack. “I said, are you? Are you dealing okay?”
“Yeah. It gets better as I move along.”
She looked into his eyes.
“What is this, a therapy session?” He leaned back in his chair.
“No, but I wonder if that’s what you need.”
“You hardly know me. This is only our second date. What are you talking about?”
“You told me I was a good listener.”
“Do you even listen at all?”
Jack ran his hands through his hair.
Diane pointed to his gesture. “You just watched me get my hair done. You have not said anything about how it looks.”
“It looks good.”
“Thanks. Too late.”
Jack shook his head in confusion.
“The day at the beach you gushed on about yourself. I listened. You never noticed that I dodged talking about what bothers me.”
Jack shook his head again.
“And just now you were up to your eyeballs talking to Krystal about your wife. You never asked me if I wanted to talk about my daughter. About our estrangement.”
“Sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“That’s my point.” Diane shook her head. “When we were just leaving the salon, Krystal whispered to me, “That man would melt the polish off your toenails.”
“She thought you were hot. Me, I feel like this will be too hard to make it work.”
Diane stood. “Thanks, Jack.”
Diane picked up her coffee cup and headed for the door.