Tag: John Steinbeck

shortfiction24

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.”

“Ouch.” 

“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.”

“Boring?”

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

“And?”

“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. 

“What?”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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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