Hard Times Require Beer (and a Favorite Uncle. Oh, and a Porterhouse)

Elliott’s favorite place is on his aunt and uncle’s back porch leaning against the house in an old kitchen chair with his feet up on the railing. Summertime finds him with an iced tea or a beer. Winter is a hot mug of coffee, or at Christmas, with his aunt’s holiday hot toddy. Elliott could sit like this all day watching the world drift downstream along the fork of the river at the edge of the property.

But on this summer’s day Elliott was leaned forward, elbows on his knees. He slowly peeled the label off of a bottle of beer, wadding up the remnants between his fingers and then poking them down the bottle’s neck. He thoughtfully placed the bottle with the other empties, then reached for another in the cooler under the chair. He took a long draw off of it before going to work removing its label.

“Hard times are easy to find, aren’t they?” Elliott’s uncle’s voice came from just behind the screened door.   

Elliott reached into the cooler and offered his uncle one. The man took the beer and sat on the stairs on the edge of the porch, looking back at his nephew.

“You need to get a new No Trespassing sign,” Elliott said, pointing out toward the river.

His uncle glanced out across the property and shrugged. “Folks can pretty much guess what it says.”

“It’s not like a new sign’s ‘gonna set you back.”

“Don’t see the need, son. But thanks for your concern.”

Elliott finished his beer, jammed to the bits of label down the bottle, set it down with the empties, pulled out another one and got to working on that label.

“Look, kid, it’s a bum deal, but a case of beer isn’t going to make you anything but a drunk, sad-sack S-O-B, more than you already are.”

“Yeah? Well, could be worse,” Elliott grumbled. “Could be out with my guys making a night of it. Been a while since we were out looking to score.”

“OK. I’ll give you that,” his uncle conceded.

Elliott stopped fiddling with the bottle and looked up at his uncle. “Look, I’m a grown man, I know life’s not about scoring, and it’s not always going to turn out to be like some huge winning lottery ticket. I just wish,” he shook his head. “Whatever. Forget it.”

“No, I get it,” his uncle replied. “And don’t go mistaking my big mouth for God’s only truth. I just been around the block a few times more, is all.”

“I appreciate you bein’ here for me.” Elliott smiled as he took a moment to focus his thoughts. “I mean, if we’re talkin’ truths here, me and her? We were chalk and cheese. Take this place,” Elliott leaned his chair back into his customary position, “I love it here!” He sighed as he opened his arms wide. “How can you not love every bit of this?”

“I agree, I agree, of course” his uncle said. “But, you only brought her around that one time. She didn’t take to the place?”

“Who knows. I mean, she said it was pretty out here, but, yeah, I guess not. Anytime I suggested we come out here? She’d make a face and then say we should go shopping at the mall, or see a movie, or go out to dinner, or hang out at the casino, or whatever.”

Two gun shots echoed through the valley, setting a flock of startled crows aloft.

“Mick and Geraldine’s got their grandkids for the summer. Teaching them how to shoot,” Elliott’s uncle explained. Elliott nodded.

“So, how ‘bout I take you and Aunt Mary out for a bite?” Elliott said as he gave his uncle a slap on the back. “Your choice!”

Elliott’s uncle smiled. “Oh, well then, I could do with a porterhouse from River Bend Grill. With one of their whiskey sours Mary likes? You’re on!”

———-

I like to accumulate prompts and then have a go (as the Brits say). Mostly, I like to force myself to just “get with the program” and write, something, anything!
The Un-OLWG prompts used are: big door prize; a simple kitchen chair; hard times are easy to find; gut shot; chalk and cheese; while the world drifts downstream; no trespassing; mistake my big talk for truth; who am I kidding; shamelessly speak the truth

The Old Man and the Enchantress

As Alice stood at the kitchen sink filling a glass of water, she looked out the window to see her husband Ed dozing in the chaise lounge in the yard; his “picnic recliner,” as he liked to call it.  The spring sun was high and warm, thoroughly melting away the spring morning frost.  Alice smiled wryly to herself. Ed’s nap was going to last only as long as she let him think she hadn’t caught him goofing off again.

Cutting the arcadian scene came an explosion of cawing and flapping wing chaos.

“LITTLE!” Ed yelled as he sat up, “I swear to God! You damn bird!”

He ran to the coop in a fury. Alice’s wry smile changed to a giggle as she watched the drama unfold. She opened the kitchen window and called out. “Ed! Those two chickens at it again?”

In a casual trot from the direction of the coop came a small hen and her partner-in-crime rooster. Alice walked out to the yard and headed toward the birds.

“You GIT! SHOO!” she scolded. The two birds stood stock still and then began pecking at the ground, as if they were just out for an pleasant afternoon walk, minding their own business.

“I said, SHOO!” Alice scolded again, this time charging the birds. They fluttered a bit. The rooster took a short flight , but the hen stood her ground, head cocked to one side.

Ed strode across the yard with another bird in his arms. “What is it with those two? I swear to God! Look what they did this time.” Ed held out the bird in his arms. It had blood oozing from its breast. Alice and Ed looked at the rooster and the hen. The pair of them had settled onto Ed’s chaise lounge, as if they found themselves a new, comfy nest.

“Damn birds,” Ed grumbled.

***

Pretty sure this goes under the column of “Feel free to seize the prompts, twist them, form them, play with them as you will“, and is inspired by characters I find so fun: A Golden Comet

Tears of a Clown

Daniel drove the DeSoto with its broken headlamp lid onto the fairgrounds toward the rodeo stadium as the young man at the gate instructed. The slow roll across the grounds of all the other devoted owners of classic cars who could no longer keep their precious automobiles looked every bit the funeral procession. Daniel let his observation linger, allowing time to take it in, rather than tossing it off.

That night, three months ago, lost in the country after the fight with Susan, Daniel sat for a long time in the DeSoto. The hum of cicadas filled his ears and the occasional firefly dancing by caught his attention. Other than turning the car around and heading back the way he came, he hadn’t a clue what to do next. In those still, dark minutes he finally calmed down long enough to realize everything he’d ever wanted, everything he’d frantically pursued, even everything he achieved amounted to only desperate, foolish clap trap.

“You watch all that mopin’,” Daniel remembered his grandmother saying, “or you’ll burn down the house with all that moonin’ about.” She did not tolerate whining or complaint. “Rise above it!” she would holler. “I’ll have none of your sad-sack today, mister.”

A tough, angry woman, but Daniel and his siblings owed their grandmother their lives. So Daniel looked forward, never lingering a moment too long on the negative, just like his grandmother insisted. Or, at least, that is what he thought she wanted. Daniel had been running from his grandmother’s disdain his whole life, only to find himself exactly nowhere in the middle of nothing. It was not Susan’s fault he lost his temper. That night was a long time coming.  

So, here he was, at the auto show, ready to start again, but this time without pretense.  He had quit his job as a sales director and took a couple of part-time jobs washing dishes at night and delivering various products and supplies during the day. He sublet his place to a friend and moved into a hostel for traveling businessmen to save on expenses. Now it was time to unload the final burden of his past. The DeSoto was an expensive toy; a misguided attempt at showing the world he was the positive person, the fun-loving guy, the can-do cheerful chap. Today, if he were lucky, he’d get a good deal on the car, which would be enough to pay for the first quarter of architecture courses offered at City College.

Daniel chuckled to himself when he pictured the frown on his grandmother’s face.

***

This week’s UnOLWG prompts are: Tears in a sandbox; whimpering and complaining; It might burn down your house…and TNKerr’s preamble story about Daniel and his DeSoto.

The Brick and Mortar Bar and Grill

The Brick and Mortar Bar and Grill was, at long last, at capacity after the long wait for COVID19 to finally be classified as a seasonal flu. Husband and wife owners Craig and Allie were among the fortunate few restaurateurs in Cedar Falls that managed to stay in business all the while.

Marianne walked into the place a couple of weeks after the all-clear. It was a strange feeling walking in alone. She was very aware of the empty space around her body. She took a moment to let her eyes adjust to the gloom before spotting Craig behind the bar. She made her way to an empty stool and waited for him to see her.

“Holy crap!” Craig finally exclaimed. “Long time, cuz!”

Craig reached an arm over the bar and Marianne rose to meet his familial embrace.

“Can I just say, I’m not used to seeing you behind the bar.”

“Yeah, well,” Craig shrugged. “It’s still gonna take some time, ya know, to rebuild. Don’t have the capital for a full staff yet.”

“Well then, Mr. Barkeep, I’ll have a martini. Vodka. And, don’t forget, I’m a big tipper, so top shelf.” Marianne winked and smiled.

Craig shook his head. “Don’t give me that. You don’t know one shelf from the other, let alone one drink from the other. Just to prove, you want olives or lemon twist?”

Marianne stalled. Her cousin had caught her out. “Olives? I didn’t have lunch. But, do you have green? I hate black olives.”

Craig laughed. “Right-o. Green olives it is.”

He mixed Marianne’s drink in a shaker, poured it into a large glass, and with a flair for the dramatic, brought out a jar of green olives with pimentos. As Craig handed Marianne her cocktail, Allie walked up to the bar with a full tray of empty glasses and dirty plates.

“I need four of the usual, two shots, and a…”, Allie paused as she pulled out her writing tab from her apron pocket, “A grapefruit vodka, tall, on ice with fuzzy water, whatever that is. For six.”

Craig peered into the restaurant at table six. “Four Buds, two JDs and a tall Greyhound with seltzer,” he repeated.

As Allie cleared her tray in the into the wash bin, Marianne impatiently waited for Allie to see her. “Hey,” Marianne finally said.

Allie looked up.  “Oh! My God! Mary!”

The women hugged, pulled apart to take each other in, and then hugged again.

“Boy, you guys are really back to basics, with Craig running the bar and you waiting tables. Jesus!”

“Oh, you just watch out or I’ll put you to work washing dishes,” Allie replied.

Marianne took a sip of her cocktail and studied Allie as she finished clearing her tray and loading up again with drinks and plates from the kitchen window. The woman looked beat. Craig looked happy, but Marianne could tell her cousin’s smile was forced.

“OK, sure. Why not? I’m game.”

Craig and Allie exchanged looks.

“Seriously, we could use the help,” Craig said.

“Grab me an apron and put me to work.”

*******************************

The three friends sat around the front table nursing their beers. The clock over the bar ticked past 3AM. Oscar the cook waved goodbye from the pass through and everyone bid him a good night.

The last of the guests was asleep with his head on his table in the back. Craig routinely looked at the man and checked his watch.

“Did you call?” Allie asked. Craig nodded. Allie looked at the man, which made Marianne look at him as well.

“Who is he?” Marianne asked.

“He rolled in with the pandemic,” Allie replied. “Nice guy, but definitely a heavy drinker. He’s got a son in the area who we can call if he’s too far gone. He should be here soon.”

The friends turned their attention back to one another.

“I’m just going to say it,” Allie said. “It’s damn weird without Max here.

Marianne smiled to herself and nodded. “It was weird walking in here tonight without him.”

“How you holding up?” Craig asked as he gave Marianne a squeeze on her arm.

Marianne threw back her head and shook it, fighting back the sudden onslaught of tears. She pulled herself back together with an audible sigh.

“Ya know, this is just what I needed. A tough night washing a ton-load of dishes,” Marianne paused. “There was no room in my head for anything but the task at hand.”

“You made Oscar’s night, that’s for sure.”

“How the hell does he manage all that?”

Craig and Allie shook their heads.

“Well, we thank you for pitching in.”

“I told you, I’m a big tipper.”

The three chuckled, then Allie said, “Ya know, we couldn’t pay you much. In fact, we’d only be able to split tips with you, but if you need to get out of the house a couple nights a week…”

Craig looked at his wife a little appalled, but then noticed Marianne seemed to be considering the offer. Just then the bell on the front door rang and a young man stepped in. Craig got up and nodded in the direction of the man in the back.

“Sorry ’bout this Craig. Hi Allie,” the young man said. “In fact, I’ve been meaning to ask ya’ll, next time? Call me right when he gets here. We’re trying to help him get clean.”

Craig nodded and shook the young man’s hand. The friends watched as the young man wrestled his father awake and assist him as he stumbled out of the restaurant into the dusk of early morning light.

Apartment #404 Error

Toni stepped back out into the hall to double check the number on the door. She shook her head. Of course it was her apartment. Her key would not have worked if it wasn’t.

“Oh, there you are! This cake is fantastic, honey, you want some?”

An older woman and man were sitting comfortably on Toni’s couch. The woman had a wide, warm smile. The man, with an equally pleasant smile, placed his empty plate on the coffee table and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Darn good!” he replied.

Wildly confused, Toni looked down the hallway to the apartment building exit, contemplating if she should make a run for it. She looked back at the couple in her apartment. The woman was standing now, holding out a plate with a piece of cake.

“Well, come on in, honey!,” the woman said. “Look! I got us some cake. Have a piece!”

Toni walked cautiously into her living room, leaving her front door wide open as a precaution and clutching her purse and coat against her chest as if it was armor.

The man asked, “Have a good day?”

“Uh, can I…”

The woman stepped toward Toni with the slice of cake. Toni back up a couple of steps, waving the woman off.

“No, I don’t…”

“Oh, come on, now, don’t be like that. Have a piece! We got it from the bakery you told us all about,” the woman said.

Toni thrust her hand out to stop the woman’s further approach. “Excuse me, but…what…how the hell did you get into my place?!”

The man huffed, “Well, you didn’t leave us a key, so what’ya think? We had to find the manager!”

“What? He just let you in?!”

Toni took out her phone and dialed the building manager, retreating back into the hallway to wait for him to answer her call.

The man and woman exchanged disbelieving looks. The woman walked into the kitchen. Toni heard her throw the plate with the slice of cake she had been holding into the sink. The woman came back out, and in a low, angry tone that sounded almost like a growl announced to the man that they were leaving. The man shot Toni a look, which she thought seemed strangely sad.

The man and woman left the apartment, slamming the apartment door behind then and aggressively brushing past Toni where she stood in hall. As they cleared the apartment building exit, Toni heard the woman curse a blue streak.

Toni’s call to the building manager went to voicemail. She sent a text instead, trembling as she keyed in her message. She then went back into her apartment and started to go through all her belongings to see if anything was missing. Maybe the man and woman were burglars. A sweet old couple like them? The manager would never suspect them of being anything other than her parents, or an aunt and uncle.

A couple of hours later Toni overheard her neighbor talking in the hallway to another resident.

“John finally found his grandparents at a hotel downtown. They said I threw them out! I was so confused, like, how could I throw them out when I hadn’t even seen them!”

“But you left them a key under your mat, right?” replied the other.

“They said they didn’t find the key and so they had to get the manager to let them in.”

“Have you talked to the manager?”

“No, he hasn’t returned my calls. God, they are so pissed. Now they won’t even answer the phone. John’s gone to the hotel to talk to them. It’s just so screwed up!”

Toni shyly opened her door and approached her fellow tenants. “Sorry, um,” she began, and then gave out a little laugh. “Hi. I’m Toni. Yeah, uh, I think I know what happened.”


In response to TBP Redux #14

Care to play a game?

The OLWG #193 prompts are:

just shallow socializing

and then I heard this …

she’s already cooler than me

The following two stories have all three of the above prompts, but they are not literally spelled out. Can you spot them? Give it a try!


Good Fences

Lee Radcliff continued to work in silence for the better part of ten or fifteen minutes, fully aware he was being watched as he weeded his flowerbed. Lee knew who was watching him and he did everything possible to point his attention in the opposite direction.

“Mither Ra-ciff?

The meek four year-old voice was far enough away that he could justify not hearing the little girl call out his name.

“Mither Ra-ciff? ‘cue me Mither Ra-ciff?”

Please kid, Lee thought, go away.

“Lee!”

Lee looked up to his wife Marianne standing in their door. She nodded toward the little girl. Lee turned around to see their neighbor’s youngest child Jenny standing as she usually did on her side of the low chain link fence with her fingers twisted around the thin metal and her face pressed hard against it.

“Little Jenny, don’t do that,” Lee grumbled. “You’ll get a mark on your face.”

Jenny pulled back from the fence as Marianne made her way across the yard.

“Where’s your mommy today honey? Is your daddy home?”

“No,” Jenny said, then offered, “Daryl went to Mickey’th.”

“Who’s Mickey, honey?” Marianne asked.

That poor, damn kid, Lee thought. He shook his head and went back to weeding.

Marianne asked again, “Jenny, sweetie, who’s Mickey?”

“Daryl’th friend.”

“Does Mickey live nearby?”

Jenny shrugged a quick, sharp, sort of spasm with her shoulders.

“Sweetie,” Marianne continued, “Where’s your mommy?”

“She went to work.”

“OK, your brother is at Mickey’s, whoever that is, and daddy? Where’s daddy?”

Jenny nodded her head, up and down repeatedly, like a horse frustrated with its bit, followed by her little spastic shoulder shrug, and then the two together, then finally replied, “Daddy’ thleep.”

“Well, then, hm.” Marianne turned to wage Lee’s response, but he was ignoring the conversation.

“Why don’t you come on over here, honey.” Marianne gestured toward the gate of Jenny’s yard with a sweep sweeping her arm over the sidewalk, and then circling her wrist as if waiving Jenny in. “C’mon. You come spend the day with me and Mr. Radcliff.”

Lee shot a scowling look at his wife. It was difficult to get anything done with the kid underfoot. Lee decided it was high time he had some words with Jenny’s folks. That poor damn kid.

Marianne walked up to Lee with Jenny in hand. Lee dropped his head to his chest in frustration and defeat.

“Let me finish in the yard,” he pleaded, “and then some lunch, and I’ll set up the train, OK?” he said.

Marianne smiled and Jenny jumped up and down, squealing, “Train!! Train!!”


When I’m 64

At sixty-four, Ken knew he was fortunate. He was, for the most part, in good health, comfortable, and though he never pictured himself single, and living in a small town in the mountains, he knew he shouldn’t have any complaints about his lot in life. He had several good friends and plenty of work as the town’s only general contractor. So, as long as his the old bod’ could hack it, he’d keep building homes, mending roofs, remodeling kitchens and live out his days where he was.

Ken had not always been a bachelor. He had two ex-wives. No children, hence, the two ex-wives. His first wife, Marcie, was actually the one to say she didn’t want children. Ken knew she was perfect for him. But, two years later, over dinner one night, she announced she had a change of heart. She filed for divorce the next day. Losing Marcie was a hurt that never did heal.

Abigail, his second wife, figured Ken was just a typical guy afraid of kids. She was sure that, once she was pregnant, he’d be OK with being a father. Ken cared about Abigail enough to agree to think about it, meaning, he would think about getting a vasectomy. She was gone as soon as Abigail landed a lover who, when learning she was having his baby, promised to marry her (and believe me, she tried her luck with more than a couple of men).

Ken quit his job as a foreman shortly after Abigail left. He moved to the small town in the mountains and hung his shingle out as a general contractor. Here, he could not only start over, he was far away from his failed marriages and the rest of his disappointed family. It was a fresh start with new people who knew nothing about him, and time to rethink his prospects.

That was almost 30 years ago.

“Hey, Ken!” John Capshaw called out when Ken came through John’s hardware and feed store door. “You made it in, and in one piece!”

“It’s not as bad as the last couple of years. Even found a place to park.”

John finished ringing up a line of people purchasing various Christmas decorations and supplies. He thanked the last of them as they left and then went looking for Ken, who was contemplating items in the plumbing aisle.

“This town during the holidays, I tell ya. Man! Anything I can help with today?”

“Don’t think so my friend. Just making mental notes. I promised the Fairchilds I’d do some work on their place. You know Don’s still laid up.”

“No, didn’t know. Figured he’d be up at back at it by now.”

“He’s had some complications. Not sure what, but Alice called last week and asked if I’d see to a few things around the place while he’s recovering. Their bathroom’s in pretty poor shape.” Ken placed a hand on John’s shoulder, “You have a good Thanksgiving?”

“Oh, sure. Always good to have the family around. Too much food, as always, but you get my grandmother and Carol in the same kitchen? It’s gonna be a cook-off!” John patted his stomach. “You go to your sister’s this year?”

“No. If I’m going to sit around with nothing better to do than watch the game, I might as well stay home. I’ll see her in summer.”

Ken selected a couple of pipes and fittings from the shelf and followed John up to the register. “And a bag of popcorn, and that’ll do it.”

His purchase tucked under his arm, Ken walked slowly back to his truck, munching on his popcorn while taking in the spectacle the little town’s business district magically transformed into a scene from a Christmas card. The merchants and Street Department colluded each year to wait until fairly late in the evening on Thanksgiving to completely decorate the stores and streets. Locals and visitors alike stream in the following day to see the decorations with the same excitement they had as children when they rushed from their beds to see what Santa Claus silently slipped in their stockings the night before. The town would be jammed with people from now through the first of January.

Ken’s phone chirped. He looked to see who it was before answering. It was his sister. He took in a sharp breath and answered the call.

“Hey Tina.”

“Hey yourself!”

“What’s up?”

“What’s up? It’s Thanksgiving! I meant to call, but things are just crazy here. Donovan and Cheryl’s baby was not having a good time of it, and, well, you know…crazy! I’m sorry I didn’t call yesterday. What’d you do?”

Tina was an affable, warm hearted woman. Ken’s senior by eight years, Tina looked very much like their mother. So much so, it sometimes gave Ken a bit of a start. Their mother died when Ken was nineteen and during those first years after her death, Ken looked to Tina more as a parent than a sibling. Tina never quite kicked the habit of playing the parent ever since.

 “Did you go somewhere? Thanksgiving with friends? Anything?” Tina proded.

“I was at the Lutheran church for a couple hours in the afternoon. Helped them clean up after their annual community turkey feed. They sent me home with leftovers and I watched football the rest of the night.”

Ken and Tina finished their call with Ken promising to consider Tina’s invitation to come to her place for a visit sometime between Christmas and New Year’s. He climbed into his truck and drove home.

For a long while Ken stood on his back porch and watched as the afternoon wane into twilight. The temperature made a sharp drop, but Ken did not move to get a coat. He was too deep in thought to take much notice.

It was always the holidays that made the bachelor life rub him a little the wrong way. From time to time over the years he would think about pursuing something with one woman or the other he met along the way, but inevitably ruled out the idea. But each year with the advent of the holiday season came the keen reminder of how lonely he truly felt.

As the twilight gave way to nightfall, Ken could barely make out the black silhouette of an owl, the female who nested somewhere nearby, slowly sweeping by, on her way to her favorite perch in the tree next to his house. Ken marveled at the grace of her flight, and grateful for her company.

Mack and Officer Dink

worms eyeview photography of coconut trees

Mack woke to the sound of waves gently rolling onto the beach. The sand was cool and damp, and the air was still. The morning’s sunlight penetrated his eyelids, but he was not ready to open them. Sunburned and hungover, he had no desire to leave his darkened cave of sleep to face whatever carried over from the antics of the night before.

“Hello sir. Time to get up. C’mon.”

The voice startled him, and he sat up. He had to shade his eyes from the sun that was now high in the sky. The person who spoke was uniformed police. Mack looked around, surprised to be on a beach he did not recognize.

“Are you Mack Steadman?” the officer asked. Mack nodded.

“C’mon. Get up.”

“Am I…” Mack gagged on his dry mouth and coughed. The officer handed him a bottle of water. Mack nodded his thanks and gulped down the entire thing.

“OK, I’m taking you to the station. We’ll have your wife come get you there,” the officer held up his phone. “Smile!”

“Rather you didn’t do that,” Mack said.

The officer smiled. “I’m sure you don’t. I have to send it to your wife so she can confirm it’s you, though from the picture she gave us, I’m not sure she’s going to recognize you.”

Mack dropped his head in humiliation. The sudden change in posture threw off his balance and he stumbled.

“Whoa, there, big guy.” The officer reached out to keep Mack from falling down.

 “How’d you find me, anyway? I don’t even know where I am.”

“Oh, I’ve been with this precinct for many years. When we get a call from a frantic wife, girlfriend or parent, all we have to do is look at the incidents and complaints filed the night before, check in with the beat cops along the boardwalk and follow the trail from there.”

The officer’s phone beeped. “OK, your wife confirmed its you. Let’s go. You got shoes?”

Mack looked down at his bare feet. “I, uh, did…”

“Nevermind. I keep flip-flops in the trunk. Don’t suppose you got your I.D. on you.”

Mack patted himself down and shook his head.

“Well, not surprising. We’ll take care of reporting your wallet stolen when we get there.”

The two men walked off the beach to the promenade. Mack was aware of the dirty looks he was getting from the people they passed.

“Probably should get you cleaned up. Beach shower is just over there,” the officer pointed to a drab cinder block structure a few feet away. “Don’t want to have to clean all that sand out of my cab. Make you a little more presentable for the wife.”

“Officer, it won’t make a difference, but I certainly appreciate you being a good guy about all this. A fair dinkum cop is not something I deserve.”

The officer let out a laugh. “That’s not what people typically say to me when I tell ‘em I have to bring ‘em in.”

“Hey, um, mind if I ask if there were any other, what’d you call them, frantic phone calls, yesterday, about anyone else?”

“No. Why?”

“I’m wondering where my friends got to.”

“Oh, I’m guessing they managed to make it back to their hotels, Mr. Steadman.”


Prompts from UnOLWG this week are: Sunburned and hungover; fair dinkum; smiling cameras.

Always comes up with stuff I have to look up! Thanks for intro to “fair dinkum”.

The COVID Shag

Shawna frowned at her beaming husband, Carter.

“I actually got used to you with long hair.”

“Really? I thought you hated the COVID shag look. I sure did.”

“No, I said I don’t like it on me.”

“Oh. I love your hair long.”

“It itches my neck. Can’t wait to cut it.”

“But, you are waiting.”

“I’m waiting until I get vaccinated.”

“Why? If it’s bugging you, get it cut.”

“Why can’t I just do what I want, how I want, hm? You wanted to get yours cut, fine. I don’t. Not yet.”

“You going to cut it short, like always?”

“Like I said, I don’t like long hair on me.”

“I do.”

“Well, I liked you with longer hair, but you didn’t ask me.”

Shawna and Carter stared at each other, unsure what the next move should be. If there is one thing this year cooped up together demonstrated, it’s that it is best to just let the conversation freely wander around the trivial things, rather than piling them up into burning pyres of marital discontent.

“Why’d you like my hair longer?” Carter asked.

Shawna shrugged. “Oh, I guess it made you look… I don’t know… not exactly sexy, but, yeah. Sexy. Sexier.”

“Huh.”

“Not so buttoned-up, I guess.”

“Huh.”

“Why do you like me with long hair?”

Carter took a moment before replying. “This’ll sound weird because you’ve always had short hair. But, it makes you look… more feminine.”

“How’s that weird?”

“Well, because… OK. I’ve always thought that you’re pretty, right? Long hair makes you… different pretty.”

“Different pretty.”

Carter smiled, “Yeah, whatever that means.”

“So, you’d like me to be different.”

“No, that’s not what I said.”

“Do you want someone different?”

“Shawna, please don’t do this. We agreed. I love you just the way you are. I don’t care if your hair is short. I just happen to really like it long. That’s it. I don’t want someone different. Please, please, don’t do this.”

Shawna gave Carter a quick hug around the waist, then walked out of the room. Carter sighed. It was going to be another one of her sulky days.


The haircut prompt made me laugh. All three prompts this week are: Let it wander around; Burning pyres; I don’t like your haircut

The House of Magic Products

I did it! I got all 15 of the recent Un-OLWG prompts in one post…and, I wrote it on the fly! Me so proud. The prompts are in bold. Easier to spot that way when there are so many. A few are tweaked to better fit the story. And, the story? It is inspired by a true event! Not something I typically do.

“This is the oldest district of Chinatown,” Brent announced to the group of twenty or so people who signed up for the walking tour of downtown. He smiled a grin so wide, it exposed almost all of his teeth. The people gathered looked at him in anticipation, as if he was about to deliver a punch line.

Brent was an unlikely Chinatown tour guide. A thirty-two year-old Irishman (regardless his grandmother’s protestation that the family was English) and community college basketball coach (a job that supported his fanciful dream of one day being a celebrated poet) who would be taken for an authority on nothing other than what was important to the average millennial. He walked the group a few blocks, making casual conversation along the way, before beginning his presentation. He stopped on the corner of Jackson and 4th.

“Now, most who write about Chinatown dismiss these four blocks north of Juniper Park as your classic red-light district, with girls loitering on street corners lit by neon restaurant signs, opium dens, and drug lords infamous for shooting their victims between the eyes, stripping them naked and burying them in vats of grease. That sold a lot of Hollywood movies and mystery novels over the years, but it’s a little too retro and cliche characterization, in my opinion. Not surprisingly, too, it’s inaccurate.

“What you actually have here are no less than ten different association houses, just in this area. An association house is an integral part of most Chinatowns around the world. It was a place of refuge, business, and, in a way, governance. When you lived in a world that shuts you out, or exploits you, the association house was your lifeline, and definitely a fairer arbiter than City Hall.”

A hand came up from the group. “But, there was crime, wasn’t there? It isn’t all B.S.” The question was inevitable on almost every tour Brent led.

“Yes, yes. Of course. No society or culture is without their share of crime. They did traffic in illegal goods and services, and fights would erupt, typically out in the street between two rival gin joints, but mostly, they did everything else right by their community. They provided housing, employment, temples for worship, schools, legal representation, traditional medicine as well as western health clinics and hospitals, excetera, excetera.

“Any questions? No? OK, let’s walk to the next spot.”

Brent led them through a narrow, perfectly kept alley, complete with a public art installation that looked like hundreds of large, colorful kites sailing above them. One of the cables anchoring the installation in place had come loose and was dangling enticingly close overhead. A couple of teenagers in the group jumped to try and grab it.

Leave it alone,” a woman, presumably their mother, hissed. “Show some respect!”

Brent ignored the comotion. He thought the tour guides who scolded people in their group, or barked orders, took all the fun out of it for the others. He simply pressed on, which tended to keep everyone on task to reach their next destination. He stopped in front of an old brick building and waited for everyone to catch up.

“We are standing in front of one of the last fully operational association houses. Up there,” Brent pointed to a brightly painted and decorated balcony three floors up, “written in character, of course, is the phrase, ‘The wind carries both good and bad to your door.’ It’s a sort of motto of this family association. I think it was, well, actually, still is meant as a warning that bad behavior is not tolerated here, and that only those pure of heart may enter.

“Travelers, visitors, new immigrants, upon reading that slogan, would know exactly which family association house this was. If you were of the same family, or had ties to the family name, then this was an appropriate house for you to find a bed for the night, something to eat, assistance, guidance, whatever your need.”

“What does that say?” asked a man holding a camera with a long telephoto lens and pointing to the terracotta archway over the main doors. Brent wasn’t sure what the man was indicating, until he stepped closer to the entrance and took a close look. He had not noticed the characters before. They were very small. So, unless, like the man with a telephoto lens, you had some sort of magnification, you would miss them entirely. The little bit of study Brent had made of Mandarin in college and in the years since helped him decipher the translation. But as he worked out the words, the thought came to him that it might be Japanese.

He stepped back to take in the building. The storefronts and businesses had signs in Mandarin, but he noted the building was just a block off of the predominantly Japanese neighborhood that stretched westward up the hill toward Little Saigon, something he had not taken into consideration before.

“Well, my friend,” Brent said to the man, “you managed to show me something I’ve never noticed!” The group chuckled. A woman said in a low voice to her companion, ‘thinks he’s such an expert…’ As with the comotion with the teenagers, Brent ignored the comment.

“What I can tell you is it says something to the effect, ‘Don’t pray for me, pray for them’, but what is fascinating is that I believe it’s in Japanese.”

The group stared at their tour guide, awaiting explanation. Brent flashed his big smile. “Not surprising. I mean, I will have to check out the ownership records to be sure, but we are on the border of the neighborhood that’s historically Japanese, so it’s possible a Japanese family or company owned the building at some point. Anyway…if you are interested, give me your email or number and I’ll let you know when I find out!”

At just that moment, Brent’s phone text beeped. He looked at it, but he didn’t need to. He knew it was the visitor’s center with a reminder that it was time to escort a tour back to Juniper Park.

“Sorry, folks, that text means we’re out of time! Before we head back, I want to thank you for coming along. I hope you enjoyed the tour and maybe learned something you didn’t know before. In conclusion, I wish all of you safe and happy travels, and encourage you to patronize any of the shops we pass by on our way back. My favorite is the little novelty shop across the street.”

Magic Products? What a weird name for a store,” the same snarky woman from before said. “Sounds like a snake oil sales pitch, if you ask me.”

“A literal translation of ‘Magic Shop’. Come on!,” Brent encouraged, “I’ll show you. It’s a great place!”

Ricochet

This post is merged stories “C U Then” and “Mandy”, with some changes and edits. I originally wrote “C U Then” to develop a story for a scene I had knocking around my head . I subsequently wrote “Mandy” to reveal why Chris was saddled with her, and as a response to OLWG #169 prompt, which I thought fit with their story. But as I wrote “Mandy,” the story veered off in a direction I did not intend. You know the funny saying, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader”? That is what I felt about Mandy’s story. I had no idea where she was heading, and since she did not reveal anything more to me, I stopped writing.

Fast forward to my recent Blog Propellant prompt to interview someone, real or fictional. I do not always respond to my own writing prompts, but this one I thought fun. I rolled around a couple ideas in my mind and Chris Morriston popped up. He asked, “Can we please demand that Mandy tell us why she came looking for me? You guys just left me here, in the hotel restaurant, with no answers!”

So, first, the following are the re-written Mandy and Chris stories, followed by Chris’ interview with me.

++++++++++

Mandy set the canvas bag bulging with the stacks of cash on the floor behind the passenger seat. She scolded herself for not doing a better job of packing it. It was too obvious. It also was heavier than she expected. Anyone who may have seen her could tell she was clearly carrying something other than an oversized purse.

She pulled onto the street as casually as her nerves would allow. She meandered through her neighborhood on streets she never drove before in order to avoid anyone recognizing her or her car. Once on the main thoroughfare, she moved into the inner lane of the four-lane boulevard, keeping tabs on who was behind her through the rearview mirror, and keeping her speed steady with the traffic. She knew where the street cameras were downtown, so she avoided making turns at those intersections. Getting to the freeway took more time as a result, but the effort to avoid detection bought her some time.

How much time Mandy had before anyone put it together that both she and the cash were gone, she could not tell exactly. Hopefully, they would first notice that she was gone. Her absence would not be particularly concerning, thanks to her habit of disappearing on drunken benders. So, as long as no one noticed the missing cash before they were aware of her absence, she had at least a couple of days ahead of them. But, once Danny learned the safe had been emptied, from that point on, she would be racing against the clock.

Seattle was at least three days’ drive away.

Mandy’s eyes welled up with tears as she thought of her children. She was desperate for things to play out as she planned. If it worked, she could not only see her kids again, but maybe be a part of their lives. If it all went as she hoped, she could live life honestly and in the open.

The exit sign ahead indicated a Rest Stop. She looked at the time. Ahead of schedule. Mandy pulled off the freeway to call Christopher Morriston.

The Un-OLWG #169 prompts are: Let them go; bulbous; bandit cash

++++++++++

Chris Morriston sat in his car, head in his hands. A gentle knock on the passenger side window jerked him back into the present.

“Hi…” the older man standing outside his car said, with a wave. “…you OK, there?”

Chris looked him over and decided it was OK to turn the ignition to roll down the window.

“Yeah. Just…a rough day,” Chris replied.

“OK, well, as long as you’re OK. I’m just getting to work. Night clerk at reception,” the man pointed to his name badge, “Roger. So, if you need anything, dial zero, OK? What room did you say you are in?”

Chris understood the man was just doing his duty by making sure Chris was not using the parking lot to sleep it off, or whatever was best done somewhere other than hotel property.

“Yeah, thanks, um… I’m in 404. Morriston. Christopher Morriston.”

Roger the hotel clerk gave him a thumbs up and walked away. Chris watched him enter the lobby, waited a couple of minutes, then went back into the hotel.

Chris slid the keycard into the hotel room and unlatched the door, giving a gentle knock.

“Hello?” he called out.

The lights were on, but the room was quiet. Chris’s pulse shot up. A sudden, excited notion hit him that maybe, just maybe, she took off. He walked in and called out again.

Mandy was face down in the first bed. An empty pint of vodka was on the bedside table. The bag she said was full of cash was tucked under her arm. The lower half of her body was uncovered, exposing purple lacy underwear that rode up one cheek. Chris stared, longer than he should; surprised at seeing something unexpected, or the terror of urgent attraction, he could not tell. He grabbed the edge of the blanket and yanked it over her legs, not caring if it woke her.

She did not budge. His pulse raced again. He bent over her looking for signs of her breathing. A muffled, gentle snore emanated from the corner of her open mouth. Relieved, Chris sighed. A dead Mandy would have been one complication too many.

If her story was true, then he was in a world of hurt.  What to do still eluded him. He could only stay holed up here with her for so long, and now that Roger the night clerk had a name with a face, he would have to put next steps in motion sooner than he was ready to do.

He saw Mandy’s purse on the chest of drawers. It was open. He peered into it. He was not worried about a weapon. She would have used it from the first if she had something on her. He lifted out a wallet and looked through it. Three dollar bills, four credit cards, all with different names, a Starbucks gift card, a few coins, a receipt for LED bulbs and plumbing pipe from an ACE Hardware, and her license: Amanda Anne Andersen with an address in Phoenix. He wished he took time to check her ID before he rushed them out of town.

He looked at the ACE receipt again. It was badly faded, but he could make out a date from two years prior. No store address or phone. He unfolded it and discovered his office number and his name scrolled on the back.

Chris put all the contents of the wallet back then peered one last time into the purse before returning it. Another pair of underwear, a phone, a tampon that had clearly been in the purse for some time, a pen, lipstick case, more loose change, and a pill bottle poking out of the fold of the bag’s lining. With a careful finger, he pulled the fold aside to read the bottle. Ambien. Washed down with the pint, no doubt. No wonder she was sleeping like the dead. Curious she wasn’t concerned about staying alert, he mused.

His cell phone vibrated. He did not need to see who was trying to reach him. It was Bella Obviously, his text of several hours before did not do the trick.

***

Roger the night clerk waved when he saw Chris. “Everything better now, sir?”

Chris shrugged. “ ‘bout the same, I guess.”

Roger bobbed his head in an understanding nod. “The restaurant’s open, twenty-four-seven. Late night menu until five-thirty, then breakfast. Oh, and today’s paper’ll be here in about an hour.”

Roger the night clerk genuinely belonged in the hospitality industry, Chris thought with an inward smile. Too bad for me, if anyone comes looking.

“Thanks. I’ll head in.”

Chris took a seat in a booth around the corner of the entrance and sat where he had a view of most of the place. A young waiter brought over a single sheet menu. Chris quickly perused the late-night offerings and ordered barbeque pork sliders, whatever was on tap, and a shot.

“I am so sorry, sir,” the young man said in a curious lilt that made Chris wonder what sort of affectation the young man was trying to emulate, “but the bar is closed. No spirits after one A.M. So, just a beer OK?”

Chris nodded, handing back the menu. As the young man walked away, Chris found himself watching him go. Force of habit, he assured himself. But truth was, since Mandy showed up, he had been on high alert; “show mode”, as he called it. Everyone was a potential threat or suspect, even the unassuming types, like friendly Roger the night clerk and the young waiter with the curious lilt in his voice.

His phone lit up again. This time a hard-edged angst knotted his gut. He had never given Bella any reason to fear for his safety, nor need to question him when he said he would be away for a while but could not discuss why.

It was not as though he was an operative. Not anymore. That stuff was a young, single man’s game. Bella knew that. Life as an analyst was cushy, with regular hours, uninterrupted days off. The few times he was called away were never a risky business.  

He sent her a text: I’m ok but can’t talk. Shit went down today. Will have to see this thru. Promise to call as soon as it’s ok.

Seconds later a reply came through. Thinking it was Bella, Chris was surprised to see a coded message from his boss: fyi all set for fri C U then

“Ah, shit,” Chris muttered.

++++++++++++++++++++

Hey, Chris, I’m here! You have questions?

Oh, hi! Yeah, uh, wow. OK! Uh, please, have a seat.

(I slide into the bench across the table from Chris) Right where I left you, looks like.

Yup. Want a beer?

Sure.

Wait, is that one of the questions?

No (I catch the attention of the young waiter with the lilt, pointed at Chris’ pint and then to myself).

OK, well, I have only one question: What is Mandy to me?

Do you want her to answer that, or me?

Uh, you, I assumed. Don’t you know?

I do, I do. But, Mandy knows as much as I do (my beer arrives, along with a refill for Chris). How many of those have you had?

Well, you left me here since, what, October?

Just so you know, that’s three questions.

Shit. Well, I guess I do have more questions. Let’s see. Wha… no, wait. Umm…OK, like this: Whoever said, only five questions are allowed, has not walked an inch in my shoes. And, while we’re at it, that’s two of your three follow up questions.

(I laugh) Good catch.

So, OK, allow me to guess! Conserve my rations.

Good idea.

Right. OK. So, Mandy. She’s from my previous life. Statement, not a question.

Yes.

(Chris throws up his arms in a referee ‘touchdown’ gesture) So, why don’t I know her? Oh, shit! That’s four. Damn!

(I laugh again. Chris is someone I’d actually like to know. Too bad he is only a figment of my imagination). Chris, think in degrees of separation.

How many degrees?

And, that’s your fifth and final question.

Damn! (Chris shakes his head. He takes a long draw on his beer and sets his glass down). Well, that’s it, I lose.

Yeah, but, you do get an answer: Just one.

OK! Then she is… a child; a daughter. Of someone I know?

Is that a question?

Oh, who the hell cares.

(We both laugh)

Well, Chris, I guess our time’s up. Too bad. I would have enjoyed helping you figure this out.

Help me? Are you kidding? No, no…forget I’m over the question limit. Seriously, it’s your job, my friend, to get back to that laptop of yours and write me out of this mess you got me in.

(I slide out of the booth and stand to go. Roger the night clerk sees me in the doorway of the restaurant and waves. I wave back).

We’ll figure it out, Chris, eventually. Together. Keep asking questions. As you say, who cares about the number of question rule.

(I suddenly look away, as if I’ve heard a noise).

What is it?

Mandy’s awake.