Tag: shortfiction24 (Page 1 of 2)

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.”

***

shortfiction24 – the goat movie

What I’m Writing This Week

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

Bob Gillen

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?”

“Vaguely.”

“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.”

“Jack, don’t.”

“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.

***

shortfiction24 – our last downhill run

What I’m Writing This Week

Jared Clark is a teacher, a man of his word. He promised a student he would drop off a gift she handed him for her long-distance boyfriend while Jared attended an out-of-town conference in New York City. It cost him.

Our Last Downhill Run

Bob Gillen

Jared Clark high-fived his buddy Larry. “It’s over!”

The two men huddled in a corner of the hotel lobby as conference participants streamed out of the ballroom. 

“Yup. Continuing ed credits done, and on the school district’s dime.” Larry stuffed his course notes into his briefcase. “And now, a night out in New York before we fly home.”

Jared fumbled in his own briefcase.

Larry said, “A guy in my discussion group told me about a cool jazz club. Only a few blocks from here. We can walk it easy.”

“Yeah?”

“It’s called Reedy’s. All kinds of musicians jam there. This guy swears he saw Sonny Rollins sit in on one set last week.”

“Food?”

“Yeah. Steaks and burgers.”

“I’m in.” Jared cocked his head. “But I have to meet you there later.”

“The conference is over.” Larry brushed his hands together. “We’re free.”

“I have to drop something off. It’s about 20 minutes from here.”

Larry grinned. “Jared, get real. You can’t afford a New York hooker.”

Jared grew red in the face. “No, no. Seriously.”

“Spill,” Larry said. 

“Okay. One of my students asked me to drop off a gift for some guy she met while skiing last winter break.” He pulled a small package out of his briefcase.

“You can’t be serious. Winter break was three months ago. We’re a thousand miles away from our school.”

Jared shrugged. “I said I would try.”

“They couldn’t mail it?”

“Personal touch…I guess.”

Larry lifted his chin. “Who asked you to do this?”

“Ashley Peters.”

“Yeah, she can be persistent.”

Jared repeated, “I said I’d try.”

“Does the guy know you’re coming?”

“Nope. I don’t have a number. Just an address.”

“You’re crazy, you know that, right?”

“Yeah. But I don’t want to let her down.”

Larry shrugged on his jacket. “I don’t want to go to Reedy’s alone. Come on, let’s hail a cab.”

“You don’t have to do this, Larry.”

“No worries. Let’s double-team this guy, then go party.”

They hustled out of the hotel lobby and grabbed a cab.

“Friday night, mister. Traffic will be bad.”

An hour later, the cab pulled up in front of a modest home on a quiet street. Larry pointed to the meter. “I said I’d ride with you, but the fare is on you.”

Jared nodded. He told the cab driver to wait. “I’ll only be a minute.” 

A young man in jeans and a black hoodie answered the bell.

“Hi. I’m a teacher. My name is Jared. I’m looking for Wayne.”

The young man stared at Jared.

“Ashley Peters is a student of mine. She asked me to drop off a package for Wayne while I was in New York.”

Jared held out the package.

The young man didn’t move. “I’m Wayne.”

“Oh good. Then this is for you, and I’ll be on my way.”

Wayne did not extend his hand. “She broke up with me.”

“Wait, what?”

“She broke up with me, man. Yesterday. I got a text. She’s seeing another guy.”

Jared stood frozen, hand holding the package out.

The cab driver honked the horn.

You got played.

“I gotta go,” Jared said. “Do you want this?”

Wayne shook his head again. “No way. You got played…we both got played.”

He closed the door.

The horn honked again.

Jared climbed back in the cab. “Back to the hotel, please.”

“How did it go?” Larry asked.

Jared held out the package. “He didn’t want it. She broke up with him.”

“No way. You got played.”

“No shit. That’s what he just said.”

Larry grabbed the package, tore the tissue wrapping off to reveal a book. Magic on the Lifts. Inside, the inscription: I’ll never forget our last downhill run.

Larry laughed. “Okay, you tried. Let’s go party.”

Back at the hotel, Jared paid the driver.

“You need to send Ashley a delivery bill for the cab.”

“Right? Come on. The club is my treat!”

“Now you’re talking!”

Jared crumbled the tissue wrapping into a tight ball and tossed it in a trash can on the sidewalk.

“Should I return the book?” Jared asked. Larry shrugged.

Jared said, “I tried.” He flipped the book sideways under a passing crosstown bus.

***

shortfiction24 – skeletons in a snowbank

Credit: brownstonedetectives.com

What I’m Writing This Week

A frustrated writer takes a night walk on the beach to make sense of his own story. Having fun with a mix of memory and imagination.

Skeletons in a Snowbank

Bob Gillen

Alden pushed his chair away from the table. The screen on his laptop read, Working Title: My Memoir. 

On top of a manila folder next to the laptop sat a faded black and white photo, a picture of himself as a toddler standing on an icy sidewalk surrounded by towering snowbanks. Alden flipped the photo over. Written on the back in neat penmanship, “Young Alden, the Great Blizzard of 1947.”

His family had called him Young Alden, to distinguish him from his grandfather. And no one in the family dared call him or his grandfather Al.

Alden tossed the photo down, slammed the laptop closed, turned off the desk lamp.

“Shit,” he said to an empty room. “This manuscript is garbage.”

He grabbed a cold beer from the kitchen, pulled on an oversized hoodie and stepped out from his bungalow into the blackness of a damp night. 

The sound of crashing surf drew him to the beach, where he turned into the wind and walked west. Mid May. No summer people yet. Another two weeks and the town would be crawling with them. He now prided himself on being a year-round resident, a retired would-be writer.

The chill wind prickled his face. Alden took a few steps away from the damp sand at the water’s edge and sat. He pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around his legs. The first swig of beer went down cold. He shivered.

Clouds obscured the moon and stars. The white crests of the breaking waves flashed out of the dark sea, only to disappear, one after another. The wind carried the rank smell of seaweed, the sweetness of seagrass, a hint of chimney smoke.

Alden’s mind drifted to the photo. He had a vivid memory of being dwarfed by the snowbanks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, snowbanks no doubt monstrous because people had shoveled it in piles to clear the sidewalks.

A gust of wind sprayed sand over his shoes. Sand stuck to the neck of his beer bottle. He stood, dumped the remaining beer into the sand, hurled the bottle into the sea beyond the surf. Still got my arm, he thought. 

“Sorry there’s no message in the bottle,” he said to the sea. “Only an empty container.” Empty, like my memoir.

No emotion

For the past three weeks Alden had sat at his laptop, six hours a day, seven days a week. If volume was any indicator, he had half a book on paper. No, he thought. Forty thousand words, but not a book. Only a jumble of isolated memories. There was no story there. No adventure. No journey. No lifetime of struggle and victory. No emotion.

Alden walked again, leaning into the wind. Jeez, I can’t make sense of the memoir. How will any reader give a shit?

Paris Catacombs

The darkness brought his mind back to a novel he had read last month. A story set in and around the catacombs of Paris. Miles of tunnels under Paris, walls lined with thousands of skeletons, many thousands of skulls and bones. He laughed aloud. I wonder if there were any skeletons in the snowbanks back in New York. Bodies buried in the snow, appearing after the thaw. A hand sticking out of the melting snow.

Alden stopped, turned his back to the wind. His mind raced. Snowbanks in my memory…skeletons in my imagination. Fuck the memoir. I’ll write stories triggered by my memories. Maybe readers would actually care about that.

He let the wind propel him back to the cottage. Back to the laptop. Back to create something a reader might actually read.

shortfiction24 – the trap door

Haillie’s dreams of becoming a fearless firefighter take an early turn when she discovers the secret behind a hidden trap door.

What I’m Writing

This week I followed a writing exercise from Ray Bradbury. He calls it Nouns and Titles. He suggests making a list of words, then using those words to trigger a story idea. I started with “trap door” and here’s the story that resulted. I hope you enjoy it.

The Trap Door

Bob Gillen

The trap door lay flush with the wide-plank floor boards, hidden under an enormous oriental rug. Furniture anchored the rug around the perimeter of the room. The trap door would be almost impossible to find. Almost.

Haillie ran her toy firetruck back and forth in the center of the room. “Vroom, vroom.” She dreamed of the day she would be a firefighter, driving a powerful truck to an emergency, roaring down the streets with siren screaming and horn blaring. “Vroom, vroom.” I’m a brave firefighter, she imagined, climbing a ladder to save a child from a burning building.

“Haillie, can you keep the noise down? Please?” her mother pleaded from the kitchen. “I’m on an important call.”

Haillie cut the volume on her voice, continued pushing the firetruck across the rug. The toy truck hiccuped over a slight depression, a tiny blip under the plastic tires. She rolled the truck back and forth over the indentation. Weird, she thought. Never felt this before. She probed the tiny ridge with her finger, pressing hard to feel it. A few feet along the ridge, the indentation made a right angle. Haillie followed it, meeting two more right angles till she came back to the original spot.

She peered into the kitchen. Her mother was blabbing away on her phone.

Haillie lifted the front two legs of an easy chair from one edge of the rug, pulled the rug away, and peeled it back to where she had felt the indentation. She came upon a brass ring, set flush into what looked like a door or lid of some sort. It was the same wood as the floor, with two edges lined up along the floorboard seams. Only the other two sides intersected the floor seams.

Again, Haillie peered toward the kitchen. Her mom had retreated to the back porch to continue her conversation.

Haillie lifted the ring on the trap door. It came up easily, without a squeak. She tugged at the ring. The trap door rose a few inches above the floor. A chill rush of air puffed out from the opening. A dark smell, musty, old. Haillie pried the door up further. She spied a ladder leading down into a dark void.

I am a firefighter, she told herself. I go where I need to go, to rescue people in danger. Setting her feet on the ladder, Haillie lowered the trap door a few inches above her head, and shoved at the rug to push it away from the opening, enough to hide the door. She let the door close. 

Credit: Pixy.org

Total darkness. Oh no. I need a flashlight. She peered down into the void. There was a sliver of light far down into the void. She thought to go back for a flashlight, but she heard footsteps above her.

“Haillie? Where are you?” Her mother’s voice. “I almost tripped on your toy truck…Oh dear, you moved the rug. Why do you always make it harder for me?”

Haillie heard the rug dragged, the chair lifted and set down again. Only one way to go now. Down.

Haillie descended into the dark, one rung at a time. Dust coated her hands as she grabbed each rung. She rubbed them on her jeans, one hand at a time. She looked up and could see nothing. The trap door was invisible in the dark.

“Someone is in trouble,” she said in a whisper. “I need to reach them.” She moved down and down. 

Her left foot hit bottom. Hard bottom. Cement? Dirt? There was a faint glow of light here at the bottom. Coming from somewhere away from the ladder.

She wiped the last of the dust from her hands. Her nose wrinkled at the musty odor. She turned towards the light. The fire! They need me.

Haillie walked slowly, feeling her way with her feet, touching her fingertips to walls on either side of her. Must be a tunnel, she thought.

A tiny voice. You found me. 

Haillie froze. Listened.

You found me.

She peered into the darkness. No one visible. No shape, no silhouette. Only a voice. She moved ahead a few steps.

Her right hand felt a break in the wall. An alcove of some sort.

Here I am.

Haillie jumped back. She could make out a dark shape in the alcove, lying prone. Not moving. She took a step toward it.

I’m here. Don’t be afraid.

Did I find someone in need? Now what?

Haillie extended her hand toward the shape. She touched something round, hard, dry.

That’s my head.

Haillie jumped back again.

Don’t be afraid. You came.

Haillie shook her head. What?

I’ve been waiting a long time. I kept count. More than twenty years.

Wait, what? A voice is talking to me but there’s no one there.

I’m here. Reach out your hand. Move it around.

Haillie hesitated, groped with her fingers. Two holes on top of the round object. Teeth lower down. Teeth?

Keep going, the voice said.

Haillie took a step forward, ran her hand further along, felt ribs, arm bones.

Are you a skeleton?

“Are you a skeleton?” she asked aloud.

I am now. I didn’t start out that way.

“You’ve been here twenty years? How did you get here?” Her voice echoed in the dark tunnel.

I was eight years old. I died from a fall. Off the old oak tree in the yard.

“But why are you in here?”

My father was afraid everyone would blame him. He always left me alone while he went to work.

“That’s crazy.”

He was scared. He put me in here, and told everyone I ran away. I don’t know if they believed him.

“Where is he now?”

No idea…He never came back.

“My mom bought the house a year ago. It’s just me and her. I don’t know who she bought it from.”

What’s your name?

“Haillie.”

I’m Molly. Hi.

“Hi, Molly.” Haillie looked up and down the tunnel. “What do we do now?”

I think you can go now. Tell people I’m here. Then I can move on.

“How do I get out of here?”

Follow the tunnel to the end. It opens into the woods behind a big rock, at the edge of the property.

“My mother is going to be so pissed at me for coming in  here…She won’t like what I tell her.”

It’s the only way, Haillie. I can’t move on till they find me. 

Haillie detected a quiver to Molly’s faint voice.

“I found you. Isn’t that enough?”

No. People need to know my story. The truth. I didn’t run away. My dad didn’t hurt me.

Haillie reached out, probing for Molly’s hand. She gripped the bones. Shuddered. “I’m afraid.”

If a skeleton could cry, Molly was weeping. Haillie felt it. Felt the sadness, the desperation.

Take my ring. On my right hand.

Haillie probed in the near darkness till she felt a plain band. She tugged at it. 

“It’s stuck.”

Pull harder.

The ring came loose, along with a finger bone. Haillie shivered. 

Take the bone, too. People will believe you.

“Molly, this is so weird.” Haillie rubbed the ring, slipped it on her own finger.

Keep the ring. It will be our secret. Show everyone the bone.

“I’ll try, Molly.” She touched Molly’s skull, stroked it for a moment.

I hear you when you run your firetruck on the floor above.

“You do?”

Sure. I hear you pretend you’re a brave firefighter. You’re saving me now.

Haillie stood tall. “Okay, Molly. I’ll do it for you.” She squeezed the bone tightly in her fist.

Thanks. When you come back, I won’t be here… I won’t forget you.

Haillie nodded, turned toward the light.

“Bye, Molly.”

***

shortfiction24 – a third date

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

Bob Gillen

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.”

“Never disappoints.”

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.”

Credit: CheshireCat.com

“More than that.”

“Yeah?”

“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.”

“You didn’t?”

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.”

“Trouble sleeping?”

“I think aliens have invaded my cat’s brain. He now paces around the house all night.”

“That’s weird.”

“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.”

“Odd name.”

“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.

Santa Barbara City freshly painted bike lane on State St. and Figueroa St. RAFAEL MALDONADO/NEWS-PRESS

“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?”

“Right?”

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?”

“Chicken parmesan.”

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?”

“None yet.”

“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.”

Jack nodded.

“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.”

“Deal.”

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.

***

shortfiction24 – half a keyboard

Credit: Hello Music Theory

Harry played in the orchestra pit for 15 years till a stroke numbed his left hand.

This Week’s Story: A Stroke Disables a Theater Musician

Harry played keyboards in the orchestra pit for dozens of Broadway shows over the years. Now his left hand lay numb on the keyboard after a debilitating stroke.

Half a Keyboard

Bob Gillen

Harry spread his fingers over the keyboard. A deep breath filled his lungs. His right hand began playing a high, delicate melody. Harry closed his eyes. Let the music flare up inside him, burn out his fingers. His left arm lay at his side as melodies danced in the air.

For Harry, the piano was life. That life was cut down with the stroke that disabled his left hand. A life cut in half. There was no bass for his melodies. No bottom. No foundation. Playing melody with his right hand felt like riding a bike with only one leg. Not just difficult. Near impossible. 

Harry continued playing. His left arm instinctively raised to the keyboard, but there was no movement, no feeling, in his hand. 

Tears seeped from his eyes. Ran unchecked down his cheeks and splattered on his shirt front. He continued to play. He felt lopsided. Off balance. He closed his eyes again, this time to offset the dizziness he felt. 

Today marked a month since his stroke. They caught it early. Limited damage, the doctors said. Limited, yeah. Maybe for them. For Harry, the joy of his life cut in half. His friends told him he could still play melody. That was better than losing his right hand. He could live without the bass, they said.

Harry knew better. Bass was the bottom. The support for melody. Without the bass he felt like he was dancing without shoes. Without feet. 

His career was over. He would never play in the pit again. Eight shows a week. Eight times a week for the last fifteen years. Pure joy. He had his favorite shows, but he would play even for the bombs. Live performance was his life.

And the beauty of it. He played unseen in the pit. His joy bloomed nightly in the cocoon of the theater pit, shared with his fellow musicians. For the audience, the music was background to the stage action. They did not feel any need to see the orchestra. They knew it was there. That was enough.

After each show a few theater goers gathered at the edge of the pit, pointing out the instruments to their kids, their nieces and nephews, their grandkids. 

Harry would make their night by waving from his piano bench. Then he’d stand and head for home.

Home. Where he sat now. Nowhere else to go. Disability insurance would cover some of his previous income. The rest? Who knows? 

Harry reached deep into his memory. The muscle memory of playing for a lifetime. He began playing “Try to Remember” from the Fantasticks. “Deep in December.” This was his December, he thought. Reaching back like some old guy to recall the good times, the Septembers of his life. The times when the embers burned brightly. When life was good.

His left arm twitched. Harry moved the arm up to position his numb hand over the keyboard. The melody continued to flow from his right hand. 

The pinkie finger on Harry’s left hand ticked. Twitched. Hit a deep C note. 

Once.

Harry took his left hand in his right. Massaged it gently. Another tic. Slight. 

He let his left arm fall to his side and resumed playing with his right. 

His pinkie finger twitched again. Twice. Harry smiled. Played on with his right hand. Played on and on…

***

An Interview with a Film Composer

Here’s a link to an interview I did a few years back with film composer Thomas VanOosting. You may enjoy reading it. And thanks for stopping by.

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