Healing through story

Tag: shortfiction24 (Page 1 of 9)

shortfiction24 – enough of self-pity

Sally lost her husband two years ago. She’s slipping into finding solace in a bottle of scotch.

Enjoy the story.

Enough of Self-Pity

Bob Gillen

Sally eased her Subaru into the carport and carried coffee and a bag of bagels to the house. Her headache throbbed. Too much Johnny Walker Black last night. Her mistake – watching an episode of Jesse Stone on TV. In the story Stone had settled into his worn leather chair in his secluded beach house at the end of the day, his dog at his side. Stone told himself one drink was enough. Half a bottle later he fell asleep in the chair till morning. 

Life imitates art. Sally had done the same. 

Her drinking came too easy. Easy to enjoy. Easy to excuse. It had been two years since she lost Vaughn, her husband of forty years. Since then two more years of continuing to avoid alcohol, as she and Vaughn had promised each other years back. Enough alcoholism in our families, they had both agreed.

Sitting one night in front of the TV, watching a musical movie Vaughn had loved, Sally had broken into tears. A thought wormed its way into her mind. Why go on avoiding drinking? Vaughn is gone. What does it matter any more? 

The result – two drinks every night. Until she knocked off half a bottle last night.

Sally opened the front door and put the coffee and bagels on the kitchen counter. She took a few gulps of the coffee. Cleared her head for a moment. She moved to the living room and opened the patio blinds. 

“Hi, Sally.”

“Holy shit!” She clenched her hands into fists. Whirled around to find the voice.

“Vaughn?” A whisper.

A man sitting in her chair nodded.

Sally shook her head, blinked her eyes hard.

“Not possible. You died. Two years ago.”

“I came back.”

“How? Why?”

“Move away from the window. You’re backlit. I can’t see your face.”

Sally slid over to the couch and sat.

She saw that Vaughn was wearing jeans and his usual faded polo that still hung in his closet. The closet she had not yet cleared out.

“This isn’t possible. You were cremated. You’re dead. How?”

“Sally, I had to talk to you.”

“What? I’m dreaming, right?”

“I only get to do this once, Sally. Listen carefully.”

“Vaughn, you sound so business-like. It’s me. Sally. Your wife.” She leaned forward on the couch.

“I am limited by how much emotion I can bring to this visit. It’s real, but it isn’t.”

Sally again shook her head in disbelief.

“Sally, you’ve been drinking.”

“Is that what this is all about? A few drinks?”

“Your father was a nasty drunk. So was mine. We stopped drinking to avoid that for ourselves.”

Vaughn sat still, did not move to gesture or point. His face was almost expressionless.

“Enough, Sally. Stop before you get in too deep.”

“But it’s only me now. Who am I going to hurt?”

“Yourself.”

“Come on, Vaughn. You came back only to tell me this? To stop having a couple of drinks at the end of my day?”

Vaughn gave an almost unseen nod.

Sally jumped up from the couch and stared out at the patio. She ran her hands through her hair. She laughed. “Vaughn, my coffee is getting cold. Can I warm it up while we keep talking?”

No reply. Sally turned. 

The chair was empty. No Vaughn. 

She shuddered, hugged herself. Am I hallucinating?

She approached the chair. Patted the cushions. Ran her hands over the arms. 

“Vaughn?”

Silence.

She dashed to the bedroom, looked in the closet. The polo Vaughn had worn still hung there, dust on its shoulders.

Sally edged back to the kitchen. She warmed her coffee in the microwave. Sliced and buttered a bagel.

Sitting in her chair, coffee and bagel in hand, a half-smile crept across her face. 

She set the food aside, returned to the kitchen. She pulled a half-empty bottle of scotch out of the cabinet. 

She watched the contents gurgle down the sink drain.

***

shortfiction24 – rare and aggressive

In story #7 of the Jack and Diane series, they face an unwanted diagnosis.

Another test of their relationship.

Enjoy the story. Previous six stories are here.

Rare and Aggressive

Bob Gillen

Jack Marin pulled his Ford F-150 into Diane Somers’s driveway, behind her Toyota Prius. He turned off the engine, sat in silence. How do I talk about this?

The clock on his dash read 6:30 p.m. An hour since he got his diagnosis. Since he lost something. Something as yet undefined.

Diane came to the door, her face grim. She stood, waiting, giving him space.

Jack slid out of his truck, walked toward her.

“It’s bad?” she said.

He nodded. “Yeah. Bad.”

“Come in.” She held the door for him.

Jack walked to her kitchen table, sat in his usual place, back to the living room. Diane came up next to him, stood there, her arm gently around his shoulder. “Want to talk about it?”

“Do you have coffee?”

Diane poured a cup from the French press. “Just made some.”

He sipped the coffee. “Better than the ‘Bucks, any day,” he said.

Diane sat opposite him.

“I had to wait for a bit. The patient ahead of me was late. Then his assistant ushered me to the doctor’s office. I was never there before. Usually an exam room. I knew…”

She reached across the table and touched his hand.

“He said the biopsy revealed carcinoma on my prostate. The spot he was concerned about after the MRI. He said it’s a rare and aggressive carcinoma.”

Jack sipped his coffee.

“Shit,” Diane said. “What now?”

Jack shrugged. “He wants to remove the whole prostate as soon as possible.”

“Will that get the carcinoma?”

“If I’m lucky.”

Diane frowned.

“If it doesn’t spread…”

“So…we hope for the best.”

“I guess.”

“Any after effects?”

“I’ll be incontinent…at least six to twelve months, maybe longer. I have to wear a paper diaper.”

“Oh.”

“And I will have ED.”

Diane’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yup.”

Jack raised his coffee mug to his lips. 

Diane said, “I ordered pizza. Should be here soon. Are you hungry?”

Jack shook his head. “Don’t think so. Maybe.”

He shrugged. “I knew right away it was bad.”

“We’ll get through it,” she said.

“Your boyfriend, the one with big boy pants and a non-working dick.”

“My boyfriend…stop there. The rest is not important.”

Jack looked up from his coffee mug. “I won’t have much to offer.”

“You’ll be here. That’s what counts.”

The doorbell rang. “Pizza’s here.” She got up to answer the bell.

“Will you feel bad if I eat?” she asked. “I skipped lunch today.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Diane pulled a slice out of the box and grabbed a napkin.

“I feel so bitter,” Jack said.

Diane peered at him over her slice.

“Bitter. My first reaction. Not fear or even anger. Bitter.”

Jack grabbed a napkin and a slice. “Maybe I am hungry.”

“Why bitter?”

“Did I ever tell you this? I pray every night for health. Years ago I listened to the audio tapes of a couple of Pema Chödrön books. You know her? The Buddhist nun?”

“I’ve heard of her. Don’t know her work.”

“She teaches you how to pray, in an expanding kind of way. Pray for yourself first. Then open your prayer to those close to you. If you are comfortable, move your prayer out further to those you may not know. And if you are able to, if you feel the generosity, even pray for your enemies, for those who do you and the world harm.”

Diane nodded.

“It helped me when I lost my wife…Anyway, especially the last few months I have prayed for health. For freedom from illness and malignancy. I have prayed to the spirits of love, to the healing power of the universe. I believe in that. And here I am…a rare and aggressive carcinoma. Not just a malignant cell. Rare.”

Jack set his slice down on the napkin. He lowered his head in his hands. Shook his head. “I’m not ready. I have too much to do yet. It’s not my time.”

Diane said, “Okay then, it’s not your time. Believe that. Hold on to that thought as you go forward.”

Jack looked up, nodded. “Can I stay here tonight? Nothing intimate. Just be with you. I need you.”

Diane’s eyes filled with tears. She got up and came to Jack’s side. “Stay here, of course.”

In the morning Jack woke to the smell of coffee. He rolled out of bed right away, got dressed, headed for the kitchen.

“Good morning.” A cheery greeting from Diane.

“Morning.”

Jack hugged Diane. Hard. Close. “Thank you.”

Diane smiled. “We got this. Don’t know how yet, but we got this.”

Jack sat and sipped his coffee. “Any leftover pizza?”

“In the fridge,” she said.

He got up, put two slices on a paper plate in the microwave.

“I don’t know yet when surgery will be. The doc said within six weeks.”

“Okay.” Diane stirred oatmeal on a small pot, added raisins.

“How long have we known each other?” he asked. “Three months or so?”

“Three months, two weeks, four days.”

“Okay.”

The microwave beeped.

“And we have both been playing this very cautiously. Friendship, with a touch of affection. An occasional PDA.”

Diane nodded. “It’s what we both needed to do.”

“Right. So…six weeks or so and I will never be able to be intimate with you…no matter how slow we want to go.”

“And…”

“I don’t know if I want to be intimate now…before the surgery.”

Diane poured the hot oatmeal into a bowl. “We don’t need to decide that today.”

“No. I mean, if we were intimate now, it would be wonderful, but then we would never be able to do that again.”

“What exactly are we talking about here? You will not be able to have an erection? No orgasm?”

“I think so. The doc was not too specific.”

“But my parts would still work.”

He smiled. “A one way street.”

“One orgasm, two intimate partners.”

Jack waved his hand. “Enough on this. How about we hit the beach later today?”

“I could do that, if you go home to shower and change first. You may be sick, but you’re not throwing in the towel.”

He smiled. “Any more pizza in the fridge?”

Later, on the beach at Point Dume, they walked back and forth along the water’s edge. 

“I like you, Jack Marin.”

“Back atcha, Diane Somers.”

She reached out to hold his hand. “I feel like I might be moving towards loving you. Not sure yet.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.”

They stood still and listened to the surf crash on the sand.

***

shortfiction24 – a broken leg, a broken heart

Sister Grace has prepared her class for this moment for the past year. Their First Communion. The Gospel reading of the Good Shepherd. An old man turns it all upside down.

Enjoy the story.

And see more of my stories on my blog.

A Broken Leg, A Broken Heart

Bob Gillen

Sister Grace radiated with joy on this April Saturday morning. She beamed looking at her second-grade class lined up at the rear of the church. First Communion day for the children at St. Maurice School. The girls looked like little angels in their white dresses and gauzy veils. The boys – well, maybe not angels so much as fish out of water. Uncomfortable in navy blue suits, ties to match, hair slicked and combed.

From above them, in the choir loft, voices chanted the glory of the moment. Sister Grace nodded to the altar servers, who began the procession down the aisle. From the pews parents and relatives craned to get pictures of the children. Sister Grace had chosen the time for the ceremony with great care. Mid morning. As the children walked down to their pews in the front, the sun burst through the stained glass window behind the altar, spraying the aisle with color. Reds, blues, yellows, golds dappled the white dresses of the girls as they passed. A breathtaking display.

Sister Grace simply bubbled with pride as the children took their places. They would now know the joy she feels being close to her Lord.

Bringing up the rear of the procession came Father Francis. A shock of white hair, bushy white eyebrows, hands gnarled with age, a network of creases webbed on his face. He reached the altar, greeted the children and their families, and began the ceremony. Several well-rehearsed children read selected passages from the Bible. 

Father Francis climbed the steps to the pulpit for the Gospel reading. The story of the Good Shepherd. A favorite of Christians everywhere. Sister Grace had learned a week ago that  Father Francis would be performing the ceremony today. She had sent him a note explaining what she had taught the children about the Good Shepherd. How he persisted out of love to search for and retrieve the lost sheep. How he had cradled it in his arms and returned it to the safety of the flock. How he reflected the love Jesus has for the lost, for all of us. Her first note had been typed, but she thought better of that and sent a penned note instead. More personal, she felt.

Father Francis finished the Gospel reading and directed all to sit. He smiled at the children, welcomed their families once again, and opened his sermon. The raspy lilt of an Irish brogue hung on his words. 

“I want to welcome all of you to this wonderful occasion.” He gestured to the children in front of him. “These beautiful spirits will, in just a few moments, join with our Savior in a most wonderful way as they are united with Jesus himself. A spiritual union, a source of nourishment, that begins today and will continue with them for the rest of their lives.”

Father Francis directed his next comments to the children. “I know you are familiar with the story of the Good Shepherd. How he searched diligently until he found the lost sheep. But do you know what the Good Shepherd did when he brought that sheep back to the herd?”

There was a dramatic pause. Father Francis stared down at the children. A few of them shook their heads, no. 

He pointed at them. “Let me tell you. There is a lesson here for you…indeed for all of us. Straying from the flock brings with it a consequence, an accountability.”

Sister Grace felt coldness blooming inside her.

Father Francis spread his arms wide. “When the shepherd reunited the stray sheep with the flock,” he made a snapping gesture with both hands, “he broke one of its legs to prevent it from wandering away again.”

The children’s eyes popped wide open. There were audible groans from many of the parents and relatives.

“Yes, the lost sheep needed to be disciplined for wandering away, for its sinful behavior. And limping about, it now stood out among the other sheep as a sign of what happens when you stray from the flock. From the community.”

Sister Grace felt tears running down her face. One of the boys sitting in front of her turned and said to her, “Is that true?”

She patted his shoulder.

Father Francis concluded, “Let us not grow weary of being united in the fold of Jesus.”

Sister Grace’s tears continued to flow as the ceremony continued. She told herself, I think I am allowed a crude thought. One whole year’s worth of teaching, now gone down the toilet. All because of a couple of words from this clueless old man.

At the altar Father Francis intoned, “Let all God’s people say Amen.”

***

shortfiction24 – hot wings, hot words

Trust is everything. Brian’s lack of trust (read, stupidity) threatens to destroy his relationship with Erin.

This story started as a prompt almost a year ago. It has evolved a long way from my first draft. Please enjoy the story. I hope you like the characters.

Hot Wings, Hot Words

Bob Gillen

Brian tossed his phone face up on the bar table. “Shit! She’s still not picking up.”

Coming up on midnight on a Monday. Brian slid off his stool. “Who wants to go in on a double order of Nashville wings?” He pointed at Dina and Scott as they sipped their beers.

“I’m in, my man,” Scott said, hoisting his longneck.

“Not me,” Dina said. “Morning will come too soon. I need to leave in a few.”

Brian stepped away to put his order in with the bartender.

Dina turned to Scott. “He’s getting desperate, isn’t he?”

Scott nodded. “He wants her to be the one.”

Brian returned to the table. “Food’s up in a few.” He glanced at his phone. “I don’t get it. Erin isn’t answering my texts. Nothing. She said she’d be here tonight.”

A long moment of silence. 

‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ came up on the bar’s blues sound track.

A server set a plate of Nashville wings, a bowl of white sauce and a stack of napkins on the table.

“Pure heaven,” Scott said, grabbing three wings. “Hot wings, hot company.”

Dina grimaced.

Brian glanced again at his phone. A frown creased his face. “Is she dumping me?”

Dina said, “Brian, come on. Maybe Erin got caught up in a family emergency.”

“Huh?”

“Stop looking at your phone. She’ll answer when she can.”

Scott motioned to Dina. “Try the wings.”

Dina rubbed a finger on a crispy wing, touched it to her lips. She shook her head. “Too hot for me.”

“More for me,” Scott said with a smile. He began piling bones on a napkin.

Brian stared at his phone.

“We have plans to go to Venice tomorrow. Walk the beach. Get some tacos.”

He took one bite of a wing, smearing sauce on his face. Carrying the wing, he got up, strode to the front door. He stepped outside, looked up and down the sidewalk.

“Man, I’ve never seen him so manic,” Scott said. “Someone has to talk him down.”

“Leave me out of this,” Dina said. 

Brian came back to the table, still holding the wing. “This sucks. Where is she that she won’t answer me?” He took a long pull on his beer with his free hand. 

The bar’s sound system thumped out ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine.’

“Love this song,” Scott said as he wiped grease off his fingers. “Got an awesome bottom to it.”

“Dude, you’re a bottom feeder,” Dina said.

“Proud of it,” Scott replied, taking a swig of his beer.

Brian’s phone chirped. He dropped the half-eaten wing on the table and wiped his hand on his jeans as he snatched up the phone. 

“Yeah?”

Brian listened for a moment. “Thanks, buddy.”

He set the phone down.

“That was Josh. He’s walking home past the new club over on Melrose.”

Brian stood, shoved the plate of wings aside. 

“He spotted Erin coming out of there with a tall guy in a dark suit. He said she’s all dressed up.”

B. B. King’s ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ came up on the sound system.

“She lied to me,” Brian said. He flipped a middle finger at the phone. “She lied. She said she’d be here tonight.”

Scott and Dina exchanged worried glances.

“Enough with her bullshit,” Brian said.

He pounded out a text message on his phone, hit Send.

Dina put her hand on Brian’s arm. “What did you just do?”

“I told her off.” He slammed his phone down on the table.

“Not a good move, Bri,” she said.

Brian slammed his hand on the tabletop. “She lied.”

Dina raised her eyes to the bar’s door. Squinted. “I think I need to go.”

She slipped off her stool. Took a last gulp of her beer.

Scott continued chewing the wings, adding to the pile of bones in front of him. Dina caught his eye, directed his glance to the door.

His eyes popped wide. He jumped up, fisted two more wings, and followed Dina to the door. “See ya, buddy.”

“Where are you guys going?”

They were gone.

Brian sagged, grabbed for a wing, dropped it on the floor.

He stooped to pick  up the stray wing. A pair of white sneakers spattered with red moved in front of the wing, blocking Brian’s grip. He looked up.

Erin glowered down at Brian. She stepped up next to him, waving her phone in his face. “I just got your text!”

“Wait, I thought you were clubbing with some guy.” He stood quickly, bumping his shoulder on the table’s edge.

“Where did you hear that?”

“Josh saw you.”

She pointed to his phone. “You took the word of your drunken buddy over mine?”

“He said he saw you.”

“Whoever he saw, it wasn’t me.”

Brian’s shoulders sagged with relief.  “Oh.” He attempted a smile. “I guess you can ignore my text, then. Sorry.”

Sorry? Ignore your lack of trust?”

Panic flashed in his eyes. He combed his fingers through his hair. “Where’ve you been all night?”

 “I got called in to the ER. They had five gunshot victims and they needed more trauma nurses.”

“Oh.”

“I didn’t have time to text you. It was a nightmare. We lost two. The other three will probably wish they didn’t make it.” A single tear inched down her cheek. “After what I saw tonight, I hoped for a warm hug.”

Brian looked over toward the bar.

“Can I get you a beer?”

Her head shook. “Are you serious?”

Brian shrugged. Reached for a wing. Dropped it back on the plate.

Erin shoved her phone in her jeans pocket. “You expect me to sit here and drink with you?”

Brian nodded weakly. His eyes could not meet hers.

She lifted one foot. “Did you not see the blood on my sneakers? I spent the last six hours piecing people back together. I am damn good at it. The ER docs and the trauma surgeons trust me. The patients trust me…But you? Zero trust.”

A quiet fury flamed in her eyes. She gritted her teeth to hold back tears.

“You…after a year of seeing each other…you don’t trust me.”

Brian’s cheeks burned red.

Erin pointed to her chin. “Take a good look. This is the last time you’ll see my face. Asshole.”

She turned to walk out. Stopped and pivoted.

“Wait. This is my bar. I introduced you to this place. I want you to leave.”

She waved to the bartender. “Joe, vodka rocks…please.”

Brian stood motionless. 

“I’m serious, Brian. Move your ass.” She waved her thumb towards the door.

She pulled over a stool. “And leave the wings.”

***

shortfiction24 – peter’s heavenly holiday

Peter enjoys a brief break from his gatekeeper duties. But long lines of souls pile up at the gates.

I enjoyed an exercise of “what if” speculation for this story. I hope you enjoy it as well.

Peter’s Heavenly Holiday

Bob Gillen

It’s a known fact that St. Peter guards the gates of Heaven. Well, perhaps guard isn’t the right word. More like monitors or oversees. No one is ever turned away.

What is little known is Peter has a crew that helps him admit souls to Heaven. On a normal day Peter can handle the admissions well enough. But normal days are relatively rare these days. The earth’s population has grown exponentially, and the world continually suffers with death-dealing events.

Peter’s crew are individual souls who are earning their way into full joy and eternal bliss. Despite common belief, there is no Purgatory or Hell. The afterlife is only Heaven. But within Heaven there are levels of bliss. Most souls need to atone for something to earn higher levels of joy.

Peter has been at the gates for two thousand years, in earthly time. Ever since shortly after Jesus told him he was the rock on which Jesus’s church would be set. While there’s no measurement for time in the spirit world, Peter would tell you he’s been on the job for a long time. He doesn’t remember who had the job before him. Not important, anyway.

So, here’s Peter, standing at the gates 24/7. For two thousand years. Even spirits get tired. Peter’s second in command, Calvin, is earning his way to full bliss in Heaven. Calvin approached Peter.

“We got advanced notice. There’s going to be a massive earthquake tomorrow on earth. Many thousands of souls will be lining up at the gates. All at once.”

Peter groaned. “It never stops, does it?”

“Billions of people down there. Earth’s population keeps growing.”

“I’m tired,” Peter said.

“Want a break? I can take over while it’s quiet.”

Peter nodded. “See you in a few.”

Peter smiled, moved off.

He wandered through sections of Heaven. First he passed the many souls enjoying full eternal bliss. Everyone entering Heaven got to see these souls first. Kind of a teaser. This is what you will enjoy when you have grown into it, earned a path to it.

Farther, deeper, into the folds of Heaven, he came upon the area reserved for those who have a long way to go before experiencing full joy. This was Heaven’s back forty. A dark aura pervaded. In earthly terms one would experience dark purple clouds, even an occasional flash of lightning. An area Peter took no joy in visiting. Hitler’s spirit resided here. So did the spirits of the clergy who had abused children. In one small corner were the spirits of several deceased American politicians, people who had boldly displayed willful ignorance in their years allegedly serving their constituents.

Peter moved on quickly. He found himself in a part of Heaven he wished he could spend all his time in. He enjoyed music. There wasn’t much one could call music when he was working on earth so many years ago. He had seen many musicians pass through the gates in his time as gatekeeper. He marveled at what they could do with instruments and voice. Here, too, were the spirits of children. School children. Children murdered by shooters in their own classrooms.

Peter smiled. Freddy Mercury, Janis Joplin, Loretta Lynn and Charlie Watts entertained this group of children. Actually, referring to them as children was a point of discussion. Was there any age distinction in Heaven? Were all spirits the same level of spirit regardless of their ages on earth? 

Peter has had this discussion with Calvin many times. With no definitive answer. Peter believed all souls would be equal when the last of times occurred.

The four musicians Peter knew well. They were in various stages of their own personal transitions into full joy. They provided joy for the children’s spirits until their parents and friends passed and joined them in Heaven. Peter lingered for a time, watching the musician spirits bring joy to the younger souls.

Peter had recently yearned to go back to earth for a visit, to attend a Springsteen concert. “Hungry Heart” was a favorite. But Peter had no time for that kind of activity.

He crossed to the section where well-known authors tended to gather. Hemingway, Sontag, Steinbeck, Seuss, Bradbury, Silverstein. Here, too, the creative process amazed him. Making scenes come to life with words. Many children’s souls lingered here, as the authors told stories of adventure and drama.

“Peter!”

The voice of Calvin.

“It’s time. Incoming.”

Peter sighed. Back to the gates.

There would be a day, he knew not when, when life on earth came to an end. Then no more souls would cross through the gates. His duties would be done. For the moment, however, souls kept coming.

Peter glanced at the children. Sighed. “I’ll be right back, Calvin.” 

***

shortfiction24 – small-town betty

The local shortline railroad that ran through Betty’s town made a sharp curve within inches of her house. For over sixty years, Betty lived with this oddity. Even with offers to relocate her home, Betty refused to leave.

Enjoy the story.

You can subscribe to my weekly newsletter here.

Small-town Betty

Bob Gillen

Betty Thorndyke has lived in her quaint, gingerbread-edged home for over sixty years. Her husband Charley, gone nine years, had built the house as soon as Betty accepted his proposal. Charley worked at Jaxon Industries, the local factory at the west end of their town. He loved the work, and thrived on having no land to cultivate, not even a lawn to cut or a shrub to trim. When Charley was not working, he was on the front porch with a can of beer in his hand.

Main Street in their little town spanned a mile-long stretch extending from Jaxon Industries at the town’s west end to Charley and Betty’s home, the last house on the east end. A short-line railroad served the factory and half a dozen other factories in the area.

Unlike many other rural main streets, this one had every shop occupied. Occupied and thriving. A hardware store, two grocery stores, a barber and a hair stylist, a diner. A strong local economy, thanks to the town’s factory, Jaxon Industries, which employed a number of residents from the town and the surrounding county. 

Every morning, Monday through Friday, a diesel locomotive pushed two empty box cars down the track in the middle of Main Street to the factory’s loading dock. The engine then coupled to one or two box cars loaded with Jaxon product to ship out. The engine pulled the cars back up Main Street, turned north around Betty’s house, and headed for the other factories. Twenty miles up the line the engine set out the loaded cars to be picked up by a mainline railroad.

The rail curve from Main Street around Betty’s home was sharp, the trains passing within a foot of the house. Any stranger to the town stood in amazement watching the train navigate the curve.

Betty and her husband Charley had lived in the house since they were married sixty years ago. The railroad track was there first. Charley bought the property because it was so cheap. Who would want a house so close to a railroad track? For Charley and his new bride it was not an issue. The train passed only in the morning, only Monday to Friday, only moving at slow speeds. 

Now long retired from her earlier career as a nurse, with Charley gone nine years ago, Betty sat on her front porch and waved to Benny the engineer each time he passed. Benny drove a re-built SW1200 diesel belonging to Forward Rail, the shortline servicing the area. It was a small diesel by railroad standards, but a monster when passing within a foot of someone’s front porch. The diesel’s shorter wheelbase and minimum turning radius made it an ideal choice for the town and the curve around Betty’s house. 

In the summer months, with schools closed, Forward Rail had two men, one on each side, walk Main Street with the train to keep the local kids from climbing on the box cars. That, after one boy slipped and lost a foot under the train.

David Bauer, CEO of Jaxon Industries, was a decent employer. He paid his people well enough, considering he was the only game in town. But Bauer was a business owner interested in making profits. And additional profits were proving elusive. Bauer’s business had grown strong enough that he could ship more product. And in turn he could offer more jobs for the town. But that would require larger, longer box cars. And those cars would not tolerate the sharp curve around Betty’s house. Not without tearing the corner off her building. Bauer had first approached Betty three years ago. He offered to pay to relocate her house fifty feet back from the railroad track. The cost would be incurred equally by his company and by Forward Rail.

Betty refused the offer. The house was precious to her. The view of the countryside south of her front porch was magnificent. And having to move to a motel during her home’s relocation was in no way attractive to her.

Bauer came back with his offer yearly. 

Betty’s answer was always the same. 

No.

The cost of moving the rail track away from Betty’s house would not be exorbitant, Bauer knew, but the down time would be prohibitive. Product had to move out daily.

Last year someone had proposed using trucks to move the product out to the mainline railroad. Bauer considered it. But he would have to build more loading docks. And the town would have to tolerate trucks moving up and down Main Street. Not to mention cutting seriously into Forward Rail’s business.

 Both Bauer and the head of Forward Rail had also approached the town’s mayor several times to pursue eminent domain for Betty’s house. The mayor always backed down. Too harsh a solution, he said.

What the mayor did not say, not out loud – the town could not afford to offend Betty. For over thirty years, with her nursing background, Betty had run a free clinic for new mothers out of the church meeting room. Every Monday and Thursday morning she sat in the clinic, offering help and advice to the new and older mothers of the town. Rashes, scrapes and bruises, coughs, fevers – Betty got the moms through it all. Anything more serious, of course, had to be referred to the county hospital. After all, Betty was a nurse but no doctor. 

So Forward Rail added an extra boxcar when needed to accommodate added product shipments. Not ideal, but workable. An impasse, but not a nasty one. All the factory workers and railway people still greeted Betty in a friendly fashion on the street and in the market.

Each Christmas Betty’s two sons and their families showed up to celebrate the holiday. The grandkids were fascinated by the huge train passing within inches of grandma’s house. They loved waving to Benny the engineer. Betty kept a jar of pennies in the house, and her two sons showed the children how to place the pennies on the rail before the train passed. The huge train wheels flattened the pennies, which delighted the kids.

Betty lost her Charley almost nine years ago. A tragic disappearance. Charley left home one evening to go fishing and never returned. He was never found. After seven years the courts declared Charley dead and Betty collected five thousand dollars on his life insurance policy.

Charley’s disappearance and assumed death had upset the town. There was a large turnout at his church service. More casseroles than Betty could eat in her lifetime. And Betty had soldiered on. Every morning, on all but the bitterest winter days, Betty sat on her front porch. Her failing eyesight would not allow her to create the beautiful quilts she once made. Now it was mostly knitting. Easier on the eyes.

Nine years ago, Charley and Betty had driven to a hospital two counties over. Looking for anonymity. Within two days Charley got his diagnosis. Terminal cancer. Less than a year to live.

Back home, Charley had spent all his free time for the following weeks digging a four-foot deep grave in their basement. The basement was windowless, dark, dank, not much more than a tornado shelter.

After he completed his task, he and Betty made plans. When he began to have trouble functioning, when the pain grew intolerable, they would initiate his last days. Betty acquired a strong sedative and a lethal injection.

Charley ordered a body bag online. On his final day, he gathered his fishing gear and set out one evening to spend the night fishing. He left his gear at the river’s edge and quietly sneaked back home in the middle of the night. He and Betty descended to the basement. Charley pulled the body bag over himself, leaving enough room for Betty to do what she had to do. 

They kissed, held hands. After a while Charley simply nodded. Betty applied the sedative, waited for Charley to doze. Then she administered the lethal dose. She slipped the syringe into the body bag, zipped it up, and rolled Charley’s body into the grave. She spent an hour shoveling dirt back into the hole. She smoothed it over as best she could, dragged a sheet of plywood over the loose dirt, and laid an old rug over the plywood. She stomped down on the rug to flatten the soil.

A tear rolled down her cheek as she mounted the stairs.

A day later Betty reported Charley missing.

Now, nine years later, Betty will never move from her home. And her Charley.

***

« Older posts

© 2024 Bob Gillen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑