Healing through story

Tag: Short Stories

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 – the handoff

Tracy Anders adopts a black lab from a cancer patient who can no longer care for him. The handoff is swift, tearful.

Enjoy the short story. This is the 100th free short story I have posted to my blog. More to come! Comments are always welcome.

The Handoff

Bob Gillen

Tracy Anders brought her SUV to a stop curbside behind a silver Honda sedan. She slid out and approached a park bench, where a man and his black lab sat. 


The man tried to turn, made it halfway. The lab turned, eyes glowing, tail wagging.

“Tracy? Come sit with us.”

Tracy shook hands with Edward, held her fist out for the lab to sniff.

“Tracy, this is Ollie. Ollie, meet Tracy.”

The lab wagged his tail vigourusly. Tracy rubbed Ollie’s back. 

She looked at Edward. A man rail-thin, tee shirt hanging loosely on his frame. Under a flawlessly blue sky, his pallor was the color of melted candle wax.

Tracy sat.

“Thanks for doing this,” Edward said. “Ollie is a big dog, almost 80 pounds now. I can’t keep up with him. He needs better.”

“He’ll have a good home with me. How are you feeling?”

“The big C is beating me. I’m sliding down.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It is what it is.”

Edward took a yellow tennis ball from his pocket. Ollie jumped off the bench. Edward threw the ball out into a grassy field. Ollie chased it.

Edward pushed himself up from the bench, stepped to his car. “Pop the lid on your SUV.”

Edward took a box from his trunk and slipped it into Tracy’s SUV. He sat again.

“The box has his food and water bowls, his toys, a few days worth of dog food. And the name and number for his vet. He’s up to date on all his shots.”

Tracy nodded as Ollie returned with the ball.

A tear oozed from Edward’s eye. “I need to do this fast.”

He rubbed Ollie’s back, grabbed the tennis ball, tossed it far down the field. Edward walked to his car and drove off.

Ollie came back with the ball. He looked puzzled. He sniffed the space where Edward had sat. Dropped the ball, sniffed where the car had been.

Tracy patted the seat for Ollie to join her. He jumped up on the bench.

“It’s you and me now, buddy. Edward is too sick to keep you.”

Ollie placed his head in Tracy’s lap. She scratched his ear.

The two sat on the bench for a while. A few dog walkers appeared out on the field. Tracy clipped the leash on Ollie.

She set her palms down on the bench. The paint was cracked, broken. Brittle. She shuddered. Broken. 

“I’m broken too,” she said to Ollie. “I’ve got cancer, just like Edward. Mine is not curable, just like his, but mine is treatable. Manageable. You and I, we got some good years together.”

Ollie reached his head up, licked Tracy’s cheek.

She stood. “Let’s go home, buddy.”


shortfiction24 – a first responder’s terror memory

Officer Paul Kim will live with the memory of torn and bloodied children for the rest of his life.

I responded to a prompt challenge this week to write a one-hundred word story. And always in the back of my mind, Hemingway’s advice: ‘write hard and clear about what hurts.’ This subject hurts. Deeply.

I hope you like the story.

A First Responder’s Terror Memory

Bob Gillen

Officer Paul Kim shot the active shooter as he reloaded his automatic weapon. Kim surveyed the classroom. Blood, moans, crying. 

“Children, you’re safe. We’re police. If you are not hurt, please stand and face the rear windows.”

Six third graders stood.

“Please hold hands and we’ll lead you out. Look at your feet. Don’t trip.” Another officer led them out.

EMTs rushed in, followed the sounds of whimpering. One EMT assessed five children and their teacher as unresponsive.

KIm turned away, threw up. Vomited his insides. Vomited hope, beauty, joy. Left only with a seared memory of torn, bloodied children.

shortfiction24 – boogie woogie resting place

Siblings Sarah and David are desperate to find a final resting place for their mom’s cremains. Music offers a solution.

I hope you enjoy the story. Thanks for reading.

Boogie Woogie Resting Place

Bob Gillen

Two teen siblings, backpacks slung over their shoulders, trudged the length of the St. Pancras mall in the heart of London. Shops lined both sides of the mall, a rail station anchoring one end.

Sarah said, “This wasn’t supposed to be hard. Mom loved this city. Why can’t we find a place where her cremains belong?”

David wiped a tear away from his cheek. He patted his backpack. “She deserves a proper resting place.”

He spied a small coffee shop. “How about an iced coffee? My treat.”

“Excellent idea, brother.”

The two snagged a tiny table at the front of the shop. They sipped drinks while watching a steady stream of travelers wheeling their carryon luggage down the mall. Other shoppers wandered in and out of the stores. Across from the coffee shop a piano, one of London’s public pianos, snugged up against the glass wall of an elevator shaft.

A man, black Dr. Martens, sunglasses, spiked salt and pepper hair, sat at the piano playing a soft tune. None of the pedestrians stopped to listen.

The piano man moved into an upbeat boogie woogie tune. Now a few passersby stopped, clapped along, swayed to the music. One random man stood next to the piano man and began playing the higher notes. More people stopped to listen.

“Mom would have loved this,” David said. “Live music, lots of people, shopping.”

Sarah nodded.

Piano man slowed the pace, now doing a soft boogie woogie version of ‘You are my sunshine.’

Sarah brightened. “Oh God, mom loved this song.”

“Too bad she can’t settle here.”

Sarah stood. “Why not?”


Sarah pointed to a large planter nestled under an escalator. “There.”

“Sure. Cameras everywhere. They’ll think we’re planting a bomb.”



Sarah spotted a mall cleaning lady park her cart in front of a restroom. The woman tossed her cap on the cart, disappeared inside. Sarah dashed over, pushed the cart next to the planter. She grabbed the cap and plopped it on David’s head. 

“You sit on the ledge, wipe it down like you belong here. Quickly. Dig a hole in the planter near one of those little plam trees. Let me worry about the distraction.”

Before David could register a breath of protest, Sarah put her backpack down near the planter and ran over to the piano man. He picked up the tempo. Sarah began dancing to the music. She kicked her legs, waved her arms in the air, managed to carry off a couple of cartwheels. Piano man was ecstatic for the attention. More people gathered around, clapping, stomping.

At the planter David yanked a magazine and a trowel from his backpack, and using the magazine as a screen, dug a foot-deep hole in the soft soil alongside the planter’s edge. He slipped a simple urn from the backpack, and poured the cremains into the hole he had dug. Just as quickly he covered the hole.

All eyes were on Sarah and piano man. David wiped fingerprints off the empty urn, the trowel and the magazine, shoved them deep into the trash bag on the cleaning cart. He wiped down the handles of the cart, pushed it away with his foot. The cap he crumpled up and stuffed in his pocket. Can’t leave any DNA evidence, he told himself. 

When the cleaning lady exited the restroom, she looked confused, spotted her cart, and pushed it away.

David stood slowly, stretched his limbs. He grabbed both backpacks and wandered over to the edge of the crowd. He resisted giving any obvious signal to Sarah. Piano man wound down his song, announced he was breaking for coffee. Sarah, sweating and panting, took her backpack as she walked off with David. He threw the cleaning lady’s cap in a nearby trash container.

“I didn’t know you could dance like that,” he said.

“Shut  up.”

After a few moments David said, “Mom’s at rest now.”

Sarah drew her arm through David’s as they walked away. She turned back for a moment. “Love you, mom.”


Mannequin Monday – Let His Characters Speak

Mannequin Monday – Let His Characters Speak

Two mannequins behind a store window
Credit: Sempere Mannequins

A defining characteristic of Ernest Hemingway’s writing style: “His decision to let his characters speak.” So says writer Justin Rice on Hemingway’s use of dialogue.

This week I also look at Elmore Leonard. He writes dialogue rich in action and light on description.

And I offer another sample of my own writing, my own attempt at writing decent dialogue.

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