Healing through story

Tag: short story

shortfiction24 – chasing freedom on a city bus

Jennifer Bailey needs a passing grade in her History course. Senior citizen Mrs. Rice drags her along on a bus ride and helps her create a moment in history.

I wrote this story a few years ago. It’s a bit longer than my usual offering. I hope you enjoy it.

Chasing Freedom on a City Bus

Bob Gillen

Jennifer Bailey stumbled up to the entrance of the Sweet Meadow Assisted Living Residence. Late afternoon in early December in Southern California. Temps hung in the low 50s. Cloudy, cold, a chill wind blowing. Her ears did not register the whine of the gardeners’ leaf blowers. The only noise she heard sat deep inside her head. A hollow echo. Her History teacher standing over her desk. You failed your American History exam.  She would need a miracle to finish her paper and pass the final in two weeks.

Before she opened the door, Jennifer stopped, pulled her cell phone out of her back pocket, and texted her friend Lindsay Beckwith. Two hours at the nursing home. Without service credits I fail History for sure. But I need to be writing my paper.

Lindsay replied right away. I feel your pain. Hang in.

As soon as Jennifer opened the front door Mrs. Hannah in Administration beamed. “Jennifer!”

Jennifer managed a weak smile.

“Jennifer, Mrs. Rice has requested you for this afternoon.”

Just kill me now.

“Please report to room sixty-two. Mrs. Rice is expecting you.”

Motor Mouth Rice. She never stopped talking. You only got a break when she went to the bathroom, which was usually every hour. No chance to sit and do some homework. She demanded you listen.

Jennifer dragged herself down the hall toward room sixty-two. Several residents gave her a big hello. “Will we see you later?”

Jennifer pointed to room sixty-two. One resident grinned, said, “Sorry, dear. Good luck.”

As she approached the room, she could hear Mrs. Rice’s voice. A drone like a thousand bees. Incessant.

“Why can’t I go back to my old house?”

“Tell them about the food… today’s lunch was indigestible.”

“The nurses ignore me.”

As Jennifer turned into the doorway, she spotted a man sitting next to Mrs. Rice, a pained look on his face.

“Jennifer!” Mrs. Rice called out. Before the word was out of her mouth, the man jumped up, waved to Mrs. Rice, and ran out the door.

“That was my brother,” Mrs. Rice said. “I would have introduced you if the wimp hadn’t run away.”

“Hi, Mrs. Rice,” Jennifer said.

“Glad you’re here, dearie.”

Mrs. Rice tossed aside the blanket covering her legs, pulled herself up out of her chair and stood wobbling on her cane.

“Did you bring your video camera today?”

“It’s in my locker at school.”

“What about that video function on your phone? Every kid has one, right?”

Mrs. Rice was a lot of things, but ignorant wasn’t one.

“I can do short videos with my iPhone.”

“Perfect. I need your help with a very important task today,” she said.

Now what?

“Please get my sweater from the closet. The wool one with the purple flowers. I want to go out for a walk,” Mrs. Rice said. “A walk out back in the gardens.”

“Mrs. Rice, it’s chilly out today and you have trouble walking.”

“Never mind, child,” Mrs. Rice said. “I need to do this today.”

Before Jennifer could get the sweater, Mrs. Rice took her arm.  

“Put that backpack of yours down and walk me to the bathroom.”

Ten minutes later Jennifer helped Mrs. Rice inch down the back steps of Sweet Meadow and out to the garden. A staff member called out as they walked. “Good to see you out and about, Mrs. Rice.”

The garden stretched down away from the main buildings. A pleasant place on most days. The nearing darkness made the cold wind feel like a hand pushing them along.

“Take me down there by the back fence,” Mrs. Rice said. “It’s pretty there.”

The two made their way along the path until they came to tall shrubs lining the back fence. Mrs. Rice looked around, saw that no one seemed to be watching, and pulled Jennifer behind the shrubs.

“Mrs. Rice, what are you doing?”

“There’s a hole in the fence back here,” Mrs. Rice said. “I’ve seen the gardeners cutting through here after work.”

“A hole? In the fence? Why? Where are we going?” Jennifer protested.

“Stop your whining, girl, and help me through.”

Jennifer held the old woman’s arm while she stooped and stepped sideways through a big gap in the chain link fence. Jennifer followed. Pedestrians passing on the sidewalk paid no attention to them.

“Do you know what today is?” Mrs. Rice asked.

“Tuesday,” Jennifer replied.  “December first.”

“Yes, and do you know the significance of today?”

“Uh, it’s the day you escape from the nursing home?”

“Don’t be fresh, young lady.” Mrs. Rice paused as the two walked along the sidewalk behind Sweet Meadow. “Today is indeed December first. It’s the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus in 1955.”

Not history. Please, not today.

“Do you know who Rosa Parks is?” Mrs. Rice asked. Her eyes bored a hole in Jennifer’s.

“Uh, she was, like, part of the Civil Rights movement, I think.”

“Part of it?”  Mrs. Rice said.  “Jennifer, her action started the Civil Rights movement!”

“Oh.”

The two continued along the sidewalk toward Ventura Blvd. and a bus stop.

“She refused to give up her seat on the bus and move to the rear,” Mrs. Rice said. “They arrested her. That prompted the Montgomery bus boycott by the black community.”

“Okay.” Jennifer eyed her surroundings.

“Every year on this date I ride a bus to honor her. My brother usually takes me. As you saw, he took the coward’s way out today.”

Mrs. Rice tugged Jennifer’s arm. “Let’s not miss the bus.”

“Is this a good idea?” Jennifer asked.

“You’re here to offer community service, are you not?”

Jennifer felt in her pocket for her iPhone. This escape was going to need an intervention. She slipped the phone out of her pocket and began keying in the phone number for Sweet Meadow.

Mrs. Rice spotted the movement. “Put that phone back in your pocket, Jennifer. When I want you to take video, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, I want to see your hands at all times.”

This was not going well.

They got to Ventura Blvd. just as a bus pulled up. Good timing. For Mrs. Rice. Jennifer looked around, hoping someone from the nursing home was running after them. No luck.

Mrs. Rice whipped out a senior-fare bus pass. Jennifer scrambled to find exact change in her pocket.

Mrs. Rice teetered as she boarded the bus. The driver motioned her to a couple of seats near the front of the bus.

They sat. Mrs. Rice said, “Jennifer, I want you to take a video of me right now, with enough background so people can see I’m riding a bus.”

Jennifer pulled out her phone. 

“Can you get audio on that thing?” Mrs. Rice asked. 

Jennifer nodded. As she hit Record, Mrs. Rice began speaking. “Today is the anniversary of Rosa Parks’s famous bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama. I am honoring her memory by riding a bus today.”

Several passengers looked up, decided she was crazy, and looked away. One older woman across the aisle from Mrs. Rice smiled.

“Thank you for reminding me about the date,” the woman said. 

“Does it mean something to you?” Mrs. Rice said.

Jennifer panned her phone to capture the woman.

“Indeed, it does.” The woman smiled. “My name is Barbara.”

“I’m Mary, and this is my friend Jennifer.”

Mary? Jennifer had never heard Mrs. Rice’s first name before. And my friend?

Barbara said, “I was a Freedom Rider. Mississippi, in 1961.”

Mrs. Rice nudged Jennifer. “Record this on your phone.”

“I’m getting it.”

“I admire your courage,” Mrs. Rice said to Barbara. “I almost did that, but I was too scared.”

“It had its frightening moments,” Barbara said.

“I wanted to spend a summer with the Freedom Riders,” Mrs. Rice said. “I thought voting rights were so important. I requested a registration form from Snick—.“ 

“What’s Snick?” Jennifer interrupted, as she panned back and forth between the two women.

“SNCC. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. It was a civil rights organization formed in the 1960s in the South.”

Barbara nodded.

“When my registration papers came,” Mrs. Rice said, “I got as far as the part about waiving my rights in case of injury or death… I did something else that summer.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Barbara said. “It was a difficult experience. I lasted three weeks, and came home. After I left, one of my companions was hurt when their bus was burned. It was horrible.”

Jennifer interrupted, “Why did you do that?”

“I believed in equality. We are not a country unless we are all treated as equal.”

“Were you scared?”

“Terrified, at times.”

The bus driver’s voice squawked on the PA system. “Folks, there’s an accident up ahead. The street is closed. I have to divert up to Victory Blvd. to bypass it. It shouldn’t take us too long. Thank you for your patience.” 

Barbara jumped up. “I need to get off here. I’ll be late.” She pulled the cord and headed for the door. “Thanks for our little talk.”

Jennifer turned off her phone’s recording. “We should head back, Mrs. Rice.”

“Nonsense, girl. A few more minutes won’t be a problem.”

The bus turned north with all the other traffic. Jennifer glanced at the time on her phone. At this rate she would never get to her paper.

The two sat quietly for a few minutes. The bus moved slowly along the detour, stuck in a lot of traffic. Jennifer noticed that Mrs. Rice began to wriggle in her seat.

“I think I will need a bathroom stop very soon,” she said. 

The bus finally turned onto Victory Blvd. Mrs. Rice pulled the stop cord.

“Wait,” Jennifer said. “Where are we?”

“We just passed a fast food place. I can go there. Then we’ll get a bus back to the home.”

They exited the bus and trudged to the fast food restaurant. While Mrs. Rice was in the restroom, Jennifer texted Lindsay. Nightmare. Stuck in a fast food place on Victory Blvd. with a resident from the nursing home. Help. Do you have your car?

Lindsay answered: No car today. Sorry.

Jennifer whipped the phone back in her pocket as Mrs. Rice returned. “I need a snack.” She rooted around in her pockets, found a few singles, and bought fries for her and Jennifer. She insisted they sit to eat.

“Don’t even think about reaching for your phone,” she said to Jennifer. “We have plenty of time.”

“If they discover you missing,” Jennifer said, “I’ll never be allowed to do community service there again. And I’ll lose my extra credits. I need them.”

They picked at the fries. Outside, it was now full dark. Jennifer kept her eye on Mrs. Rice. So far she seemed okay.

“How are your grades?”

“I’m failing history.”

“Did you record our conversation on the bus?”

“Yes.”

“You know, history is all about people. Not events or plans or movements. People.”

“So?”

“So…” Mrs. Rice pointed a fry at Jennifer. “You can write a paper about your experience today. That should get you extra credit.”

“There’s not enough to work with.”

“Young lady, use your head. Research Rosa Parks. Research the Freedom Riders. And use today as anecdotes. Real people who were part of history. Well, Barbara anyway.”

“You were too scared to go?”

“Honestly, yes. I believed in rights for all, but I’m afraid it was not at the threat of injury or death.”

Jennifer’s phone chirped. She pulled it out. Glanced at the screen. A text from Lindsay. 

“Who is it?” Mrs. Rice asked.

“My friend Lindsay.”

“You can reply.”

Jennifer texted back and forth with Lindsay for a few moments. She looked up intently at Mrs. Rice.

“Well?”

“It seems that Sweet Meadow is trying to locate us. They called Lindsay because they couldn’t find my number.”

“Oh dear. I guess we should be heading back.”

Jennifer peered out at the street. Traffic crawled along Victory Blvd.

“It’s going to take us forever to get a bus back home.”

Mrs. Rice laughed. “And I will surely have to pee again before we get home.”

Jennifer smiled. Okay, now what?

“I surrender. You better call the home. Let them figure it out.”

Jennifer made the call. Gave Mrs. Hannah in Administration their location. Told her the streets were tied up due to the accident. Mrs. Hannah said they would have a van get as close as the driver could. They’d bring a wheelchair for Mrs. Rice.

While Mrs. Rice went to the restroom again, Jennifer texted Lindsay with an update.

An hour later they had Mrs. Rice settled in her room. Jennifer grabbed her backpack and hurried for the door.

“Jennifer,” Mrs. Rice said. “We made history today.”

“Huh?”

Mrs. Rice tucked her blanket around her legs. “Very minor, of course, but a moment of history. A bit of interaction between generations. I hope you enjoyed it.”

Jennifer nodded.

“And thank you for having the courage to go along with me. It meant a lot.”

Jennifer smiled and stepped out into the hall. Now for making history over my failing grade.

***

shortfiction24 – two strikes

I used Edward Hopper’s well-known painting ‘Nighthawks’ as inspiration for this story.

WWII Army vet Dan nurses the pain of rejection in an all-night diner, where he meets an intriguing woman ship welder.

Two Strikes

Bob Gillen

Three nights after his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, Dan sat at an empty stretch of counter in an all-night diner not far from his old neighborhood. On the counter next to his coffee cup an engagement ring glinted in the neon light, a tiny diamond set in a gold band. Tonight had been the moment he dreamed of since he was drafted. 

She said no.

The counter man stepped over to refill Dan’s black coffee, remove the empty plate once graced by a hefty slice of apple pie. 

“Bad night, huh?” the counter man said.

Dan nodded.

The counter man grabbed the bill lying on the counter, balled it up in his fist. “On the house tonight. You come back again, you pay.”

He went back to chatting with the only other customers in the diner at the two a.m. hour, a man and woman about Dan’s age. The three laughed quietly while the counter man rinsed glasses.

Looking over his coffee cup, Dan saw the man across the counter get up, kiss the woman on the cheek, and head for the exit. The woman waved to him. As the counter man cleared dishes, the woman put money on the counter and also headed towards the exit. Moments later Dan heard the juke box begin playing, ‘I don’t want to walk without you.’

“Lonesome, soldier?”

Dan started. Without waiting for an answer, the woman sat down next to Dan.

Dan felt a blush rage up his cheeks. Who is this dame?

The woman signaled the counter man for fresh coffee. She pointed to the engagement ring. “You need someone to wear that ring?”

Dan turned to look at the woman. “You proposing to me? After your boyfriend walks away?”

“Not my boyfriend. Cousin. First time I’ve seen him since he was drafted.”

“Oh.”

“She dumped you, right?”

Dan shrugged.

The woman sipped her coffee. 

“You deserve better than her.”

“My family, my whole neighborhood, had us married right after the war. I guess she thought different.”

“It’s over. Move on.”

“Not so easy.”

The woman gestured to the diner’s interior. “I come in here almost every night. Have been since the war started. I get off work at 10 p.m., come straight here. Beats a bar. I can’t deal with drunks.”

Dan asked, “Where do you work?”

“Brooklyn Navy Yard. Half hour by subway. I’m a ship welder.”

Dan reached over, took her hands in his. “Pretty smooth hands for a welder.”

“Gloves, honey. You gotta take care of yourself. This job ain’t gonna last forever.”

Dan eyed the woman’s outfit, a dark dress accented with a bright scarf. 

“You clean up pretty good.”

“I’m at the shipyard six days a week, nine to ten hours a day. That shit stays behind when I walk out the gate.”

Dan turned to stare at the ring.

“When did you get home?” the woman asked.

“Three days ago.”

“No surprise there. I can smell the mothballs on your suit.”

Dan held up his sleeve to his nose. Grimaced.

“Were you overseas?”

“No. I did logistics. Worked at a couple of bases across the states. I was lucky.”

“Sounds boring.”

“Not for me. I could find anything.”

The woman cocked her head. “Really?”

“That’s how I got the ring.”

“Tell me,” she said.

Dan sipped his lukewarm coffee. Wiped his sweaty hands on his pants leg.

“I once shipped a pallet of toilet paper to a tiny base in Greenland. Had to disguise the carton as winter coats.”

Dan sat up straighter.

“That base sent me a new jeep they had no use for. Still in its factory carton, some assembly required. I sent it to Montana, to a general I knew. His son had been wounded, and the general wanted something to occupy his son’s time, help him get past the trauma.”

“Impressive.”

“Yeah, so, the general sent me a box of fresh-cut steaks. I shipped them to a supply officer for a submarine crew ready to ship out to patrol the Atlantic coast. The supply officer sent me the ring.” Dan pointed to the counter. “He said he had no need for it.”

“I’m guessing he had the same luck you did.”

Dan nodded.

“So the ring’s got two strikes against it.”

Dan stared at the ring for a few moments. He grabbed it, stuffed it deep in his pants pocket.

“You can pawn it, use the cash for a new suit. You’ll need it.”

“You’re probably right.”

“What’s your name, soldier?”

“Dan…You always this forward?”

“No. I told you, I come here rather than a bar because I can’t deal with the scum. Three years without a decent man to talk to. Ray here,” she nodded in the counter man’s direction, “is a jewel. Keeps this place a safe haven. The baseball bat under the counter helps. Six nights a week I come here for a burger and coffee. So…when I see a man like you, I know the real goods.”

Once again Dan felt his cheeks blaze.

“I gotta go. Morning comes too soon.” She stood. “My name is Betty. I’ll be here tomorrow, and for a few more months, till all the men are back and I lose my job.’

“What will you do then?”

“No idea. I’ll land on my feet somewhere. A paycheck makes this woman feel good.”

She waved goodnight to Ray.

“You okay walking home?” Dan asked.

“Sure. No one messes with a woman ship welder.”

“Maybe I’ll stop in again tomorrow night.”

Betty smiled. “You do that, Dan. Without the mothball suit.”

She extended her arm, shook his hand. “Soft hands for an Army guy.”

“Maybe I wore gloves.” He laughed. “Gotta look good for the ladies.”

“I look forward to seeing you tomorrow night.”

Betty turned as she headed for the exit. She pointed to Dan, winked. “Be careful out there. It’s a tough neighborhood.”

***

shortfiction24 – morning sun

What I’m Writing This Week

Morning Sun, Edward Hopper

I find Edward Hopper’s paintings thought- provoking. This week I used Morning Sun as inspiration for a short story. Lori Hines finds freedom in the warmth of a morning sun.

Back in May of 2021, I had used another Hopper painting, A Day on the Cape, for inspiration. Here’s the link.

Please enjoy my stories. And comments are always welcome.

Morning Sun

Bob Gillen

The phone woke Lori Hines at just shy of two on a Sunday morning, the incoming number an Arizona area code she knew too well. “Ms. Hines, I regret to say that your mother passed a short time ago. She left us in her sleep. I’m so very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you,” Lori replied.

The caller hesitated. “We will comply with your final wishes. An undertaker will cremate her remains…and dispose of the ashes as they deem appropriate.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“And we will donate her belongings to a local thrift shop.”

Lori’s nod went unseen.

“Is there anything else you wish us to do? If not, I am again very sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.” Lori cut off the call.

She opened the window curtains, staring out at the city’s dark. Only a month before, in their last phone call, her mother had told Lori, ‘If you can’t find it in your heart to visit me, don’t bother coming to my funeral.’

Well, mom, you got your wish.

Lori sat on her bed, her legs drawn up, the sounds of the nighttime city drifting in the window. Voices rose from the street as drinkers spilled out of a bar at closing time. 

Several hours later the dawn’s faint light illuminated blocks-long brownstone buildings, facades punctuated by rows and rows of windows.

The dawn offered light, a promise of warmth. 

Lori continued to sit on the bed as the warm morning sun inched over her feet, her legs, her arms. Her face. Lori felt her body ease with the heat. The blond hairs on her arms stood out in the sun. She picked at her bare fingernails. Licked her lips, dry without lipstick or balm. Rubbed her unshaven legs. Specks of blue toenail polish glinted in the sun. 

The stink of her own sweat wafted up in the flood of sunlight. 

Lori closed her eyes. A memory rose, like a sea monster rising out of the water, dripping menace and slime. She saw herself sitting on a wooden dock, drenched in sunlight reflected up from a still lake. Her feet dangled in the cool water. A canoe sat tied to the dock. In the canoe a picnic basket and two paddles. Tied to the front of the canoe a silver balloon. Happy 10th Birthday, it read.

In the memory Lori’s mother padded up behind her. “Your father will not be coming up from the city for your picnic…today…or ever. When we return from our vacation he will be gone.”

Lori had continued to face out over the lake. Her mother reached for the picnic basket. “Let me put this back in the cottage. Come up when you’re hungry.”

Lori had sat on the dock till her legs, her arms, her face were sunburned. At the cottage her mother rubbed lotion on the burned skin…and never again mentioned her father. 

Ever.

For twenty years Lori and her mother had gone about their lives. Her father had not died. He simply had ceased to exist. Lori did not know if her parents had divorced. She had had no word about him. Living or dead, who knew?

And now, twenty years after her mother’s lakeside announcement, Lori sat again in the bright sun. Basked in it like a house cat that had prowled for hours seeking the one spot of sunlight on the carpet.

Outside, the city braced for another hot day. Noise slashed at her senses. Sirens, honking, yelling, grinding gears.

Come up when you’re hungry. Lori shifted off the bed, pulled on yesterday’s clothes, stepped into the kitchen. Her faithful French press charged her with fresh coffee.

At least a rut leads somewhere

Lori sipped the coffee, grabbed a Mason jar from the kitchen counter. Paper strips filled the jar, strips saved from fortune cookies after years of eating Chinese take-out. Every morning she pulled one to start her day. Today’s message, Only difference between a rut and a grave is depth.

She shrugged. At least a rut leads somewhere. The strip fluttered into the trash.

She went to the bedroom, returned with a bottle of red nail polish. She tugged her foot up onto the edge of the chair, began painting her toenails.

Her phone chirped with a spam call. She ignored it, then thumbed in a number.

“Hey, Maya. Just wanted to let you know my mother died last night…”

Lori listened to Maya’s response. 

“Yeah, you’re right. It is a relief…Hey, are you up for a late lunch? My treat.”

***

A Card on Mother’s Day

Here’s another short story I wrote for my online writing course through the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. The program offers excellent feedback from other participants. So worth it!

I hope you enjoy it.

A Card on Mother’s Day

You shouldn’t have wasted your money on flowers. They’ll only die

Mom tells me that every Mother’s Day. This year I want to say, So will dad.

I hesitated at their front door. I don’t want to do this.

I fingered the bouquet of red carnations and the bag in my hands. Rang the bell. Turned the knob. Always unlocked. I stepped in. Mom came down the hall. “He’s not good.”

I nodded. “These are for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” I handed her the carnations. She offered a thin smile. “I’ll find a vase.”

I followed her to the kitchen. 

“Go say hello. Your dad’s awake.”

I walked to their bedroom. Dad lay in a hospital bed. Shrunken. Pale. Eyes closed. 

“Hi, dad.”

He opened his eyes. Nodded slightly.

I took a corsage and a card out of the bag. “I got these for you to give mom. Can you sign the card?”

Dad shook his head. His eyes glazed over.

“Okay, I’ll sign for you.” I pulled a pen from my shirt pocket, opened the card. 

To My Wife on Mother’s Day. 

I signed the card, Love, Bill. I had already written Dear Mary across the top of the card.

I stuffed the card in the matching yellow envelope. Left the card and the corsage on the side of the bed, next to dad. “I’ll get mom.”

I returned to the kitchen. “Dad needs you for a minute.”

Mom wiped her hands on a dishtowel and went back to the bedroom.

I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat at the table. Stared out the window. Took in a deep breath. Not good.

A while later mom came back to the kitchen, her eyes wet. “Thank you for doing that for him.”

She busied herself preparing supper. A light meal. Shrimp cocktail, potato salad, deviled eggs. “I doubt he’ll eat anything.”

After we ate, mom’s close friend Angela stopped by. With a crumb cake from the local deli. My favorite. We sat in silence eating the cake and drinking coffee.

Afterwards, I told mom I’d be back in a little while. I went out for a walk. A long walk. All the way to the edge of town, to the park that bordered the bay. I circled the park till well after dark.

When I got back to the house, Angela met me at the front door. “Your dad is gone.”

I nodded. “How’s mom?”

“Having coffee. Do you want to see your dad?”

“Yes.”

I walked back to the bedroom again. The Mother’s Day card stood on the night table. The corsage was on her pillow. 

I stood looking down at my dad. My dad’s body. His empty eyes. With an index finger I gently closed his eyes. 

The doorbell rang. Moments later two undertakers stepped into the bedroom. They said nothing. I moved aside, walked back to the kitchen. Mom sat at the table, Angela next to her, holding her hand.

Mom looked up at me. “He’s at peace now. No more pain.”

I nodded.

“See if the undertakers need anything.”

As I approached the bedroom, I heard the zip of the body bag. I stopped. They came out of the room. I met their eyes. Nodded.

I walked ahead of them to the front door. Held it open for them. Stood in the doorway. A dark moonless night. 

I watched them carry the body bag to their van. I felt a single tear ooze out as they drove off.

I stared into the darkness.

© 2023 Bob Gillen

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