Sometimes, you’re gonna have to own up to your mother

Not even the poets could put a shine on this situation, mm-mm. I understand you and believe you aren’t lying. Your sincerity is a good thing, honey, and you have always been honest, almost to a fault, but you can be sincere and still be stupid.

Now, here’s the thing. Nothing you learned in school from those rocket scientists, in the long run, is going to deliver you from this. It may be sunny southern California, with its beaches and Hollywood la-di-da, but shady people are anywhere you go. You are old enough to know this. You must know this sort of crap happens all the time, to good people as well as bad, right?

No, you’re wrong. There’s no other way to see something that should be as plain as the nose on your face. Sorry kiddo.

Call it quits. Hm? Walk away and leave the whole thing in the gutter where it belongs. Come home, apologize to Dad, and move on. Rise above it.


Three weeks’ worth of prompts, rolled into one:
throw it in the gutter; learned in school; long term; the nose on his face; can’t there be another way?; rocket boys; you can be sincere and still be stupid; sunny place/shady people; not even the poets

https://aooga.wordpress.com/2020/09/20/olwg-156-the-pavilion/

Where the Heart Is

I started this LONG story (fair warning) last week as a response to OLWG171 prompts. But, once again, I was inspired instead by TNKerr’s preamble story and its title. That, and a scene from a movie I recently watched of a man and woman walking through an abandoned house reminiscing about their childhoods.

——      ——      ——      ——

It was a bright, clear-sky summer afternoon when Helena pulled off Interstate Five into Chehalis. The valley’s sun-scorched grasslands glowed gold against the dark greens and blues of the tall trees and foothills. Helena rolled down her windows, letting the warm breeze wash over her.

Your destination is ahead on the left, GPS declared.

The large bungalow was weather worn and waist deep in an overgrowth of blackberry, morning glory, cheatgrass, thistle and heather. A monstrous rhododendron on one side of the house looked more like a tree with its thick trunk and branches. Three-foot tall dandelion and coltsfoot sprouted up from the myriad of cracks in the concrete driveway. Heavy moss covered practically the entire roof. The windows were boarded up and the graffiti that sprawled across the front of the house read Tina Chopp is DEAD. Helena shook her head. Last time she saw a Tina Chopp tag was sometime in the 80s.

She entered a search for Lewis County Sheriff in the GPS and headed back into town.

—–       —–       ——      —–

“Hello. I’m here to meet Sheriff Aldridge.”

“Name?”

“Helena Stockbridge.”

The Police Clerk gave Helena the once over. Her appraisal made Helena wonder if should have worn a suit and blouse instead of a t-shirt and jeans. Maybe even curled her hair instead of going with the plain bob she’d grown accustomed to over the years. She brushed her bangs off of her forehead. The clerk punched numbers on her phone.

“Yeah,” a baritone male voice answered.

“Someone’s here to see you.”

There was a pause and then, “Dammit, don’t make me guess. Who is it?”

“Boss, you’re on speaker.”

The call disconnected.

“He’ll be out in a sec.”

The clerk indicated a bench across the lobby with nod her head just as the door next to the front desk opened. Holding the door ajar, Sheriff Aldridge impatiently asked, “Yes, hello, ma’am, how can I help you?”

The Sheriff was shorter and a much more handsome man than Helena expected. She felt awkward when she realized she was staring, but then recognized he was giving her the same once-over as the clerk had. Now she really wished she had worn her dark suit and done something with her hair.

“Sorry if this a bad time, but you said I could stop by when I got to town today.” Helena stepped forward, holding out a hand. “Helena Stockbridge.”

Sheriff Aldridge’s expression changed and he visibly relaxed. “Yes, yes. Sorry,” Sheriff Aldridge said, this time with a broad smile as he shook Helena’s hand. “Come in, come in.”

Aldridge stepped aside to allow Helena pass. As he closed the door behind them, he leaned over the half wall that separated the front desk from the rest of the office. “Next time?” he said in a rough whisper to the clerk, “Please ask the person’s name and announce them, right? And, no more speaker phone. A little effort goes a long way with me, OK?”

“Is she new?” Helena asked as she took a seat in a chair in front of the Sheriff’s desk. The Sheriff rolled his eyes and gave a dismissive wave in the Clerk’s general direction. He took the seat next to Helena, which surprised her. The expression on her face gave her away.

“Um, hope you don’t mind,” he said. “Making folks talk to me from across a desk is a cheap power play in my book. Either they respect me and the authority of the office, or they don’t.”

“I never thought of it in that way, but I agree. It’s friendlier.”

“So, Ms. Stockbridge, your email said you need help from the Sheriff’s office with your parent’s property. How so?”

“Helena is OK, Sheriff,” she said, “since we’re being friendly. The property is actually still in my grandparent’s name, which is the problem.”

“Gil is OK with me, too. As you can see, I’m not that formal.”

“Not Gilmore?”

“Gil is fine.”

“Actually, I remember you. We called you Gilmore in those days, right?”

“At my mother’s insistence, yes, when I was a kid.”

Gil sat back, and this time, he really took Helena in. There was something about the obsidian colored eyes and similarly colored hair set against the virtually glowing alabaster skin. Was she one of the Offenbach family? People said you always know an Offenbach just from the look of them. Her hair might be colored, though, Gil thought. A woman her age would probably color her hair. He guessed Helena to be at least as old as he. Then his eyes brightened.

“Hells Bells? You’re little Hells Bells!” he exclaimed, sitting forward again.

Helena smiled. “That’s me!”

“Well, I’ll be damned…You look…ha! I was going to say, ‘all grown up,’ but then, of course you would be!”

“You as well!”

Gil smoothed his grey hair and gave the bit of middle-aged paunch a sympathetic pat. “Happens to us all. Jesus. How’s your folks? Damn. Caleb? How’s your brother? My God, haven’t thought about Cabe in a long while.”

“I’m sorry to tell you, but none of them are with us anymore.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. Huh. Cabe, too?”

Helena nodded. Gil took a moment to process the news. Caleb was one of his favorite boyhood friends. “Well, then. That’s too bad. Sorry to hear. But, tell me, what did Cabe end up doing with his life, anyway?”

Helena shrugged, not really wanting to go into details. “He was a sales director at Boeing for a long while.”

“Impressive. Married? Kids?

“Not really. Just about everyone worked for Boeing or Weyerhaeuser back then. But, yes. He did marry, eventually, for a while. They split up. They have a daughter. She’ll be 12 this year, I think.

“Boy, that would have made him pretty old, as a father.”

“He was forty-three when they had her.”

Gil whistled. “By forty-three my youngest was just about out the door. Tell you what,” Gil stood up. “Let’s go to Bakers for a cup of coffee. We’ll finish catching up and you can tell me what I can do to help. Carl and Helen Offenbach’s place. Of course! I was wondering what property you were referring to, since you didn’t mention it in your email. I’ll take you the scenic route to Bakers.”

The drive through Chehalis old town was certainly a treat. While Gil talked on his cell phone to someone Helena assumed to be a fellow officer, she happily took in the passing sights of the places where so many of her childhood memories were formed. As they drove by one block after another, her early life came back to mind as vividly as if she had never left.

“Oh my God!” Helena suddenly exclaimed, “Swenson’s Confections is still here?” She turned to look at Gil, who smiled and nodded, then pointed at his Bluetooth earpiece.

‘Sorry’ she mouthed.

As they pulled into the parking lot of Baker’s Pancake Haus, Gil finished his call and then asked Helena, “Remember this place?”

 “I don’t think so. Actually, no.”

As the waitress showed them to a booth in the back, Gill continued. “Well, not everybody came to Baker’s, I guess. Just a couple of large coffees, Trish, thanks.” The waitress gave Gil a wink, which Helena pretended not to see. “Mostly truckers come here, come to think of it. And the kids, of course, on Friday and Saturday night, as always. Families and such mostly went to Mary McCrank’s, I suppose.”

“Oh, now, I remember that place. You had to drive a while to get there. At least it seemed like it. Somewhere on the way to Rainier?”

“That’s the place.”

Gil thanked the waitress when she set down the two large mugs of coffee. Helena guessed Gil was being quick about cutting the waitress off from an attempt to make conversation. The woman walked away with a wry smile she flashed at Helena.

Gil continued, “The last folks to own Mary McCrank’s tried to change it up, make it a steak house, and, well, it was also the recession, so,” Gil shrugged.  “Simple fact? People loved the old place as it was. Can’t mess with the history of a place like that. A local couple bought the property a couple of years ago. I know them. He was a county prosecutor, retired now. Anyway, they turned it into a wedding venue.”

“You are right about the history of a place. I can hear all four of my grandparents turning in their graves.”

Gil nodded. “But, we should get to why you’re here. Your family’s property.”

“Yes.” Helena took a moment to refocus her thoughts. “As Sheriff, you probably know the place has been vacant for years now.”

Gil nodded.

“Can I say, I’m surprised no one ever tried to contact anyone in our family about it.”

Gil did not reply. He had transformed from being chatty to circumspect. Helena reasoned it was his professional demeanor, now that they were talking business, and a good skill to have as an elected law and order official. Still, it made her uncomfortable. She preferred him talkative.

“Caleb was looking after the place, or so I thought,” Helena continued. “I assumed, when our dad died, that the place was left to him. I really didn’t know. I didn’t talk to my family for a long while. We…sorry. Never mind. I won’t go into all that. Anyway, my point is, Caleb named me his executor. I didn’t know he’d left the place vacant, and now I find out he’s not even the owner.”

Gil remained silent. He kept his gaze on her with a polite expression that gave away nothing of what he was thinking.

Helena shifted in her seat. “So, the reason why I contacted your office, is, I didn’t find the keys to the place, I mean, for starters. Initially I thought I’d just come down here and, well, break in, I guess. But then, I thought I better come armed with the deed. That’s when I discovered that the place is actually still in my grandparent’s name.”

“So, you want me to let you in the place.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what I’m asking. Better to have an official escort.”

“What are your plans for it?”

“Well, I guess I’m in for some sort of litigation because the title is in my grandparents name. If they ever had a Will, I couldn’t find it. It’s so strange to have this thing that is your family’s home, but not legally yours. I did find records of property tax payments Caleb made. Not that that would make a difference.”

Gil looked out the window, clearly sorting through whatever thoughts he had on the matter. Helena wished she could read what he was thinking. He turned his attention back to her and cocked his head.

“Why’d they call you Hells Bells?”

Helena sat back. The non sequitur threw her off. “Uh, well, because I was kind of a rambunctious kid. So they tell me.”

“I don’t remember that. I recall, you seemed OK to me.”

“I doubt you gave me that much notice. Caleb’s kid sister? And, what, four, five years younger? I can tell you that a little girl is nothing more than some strange alien being that just happens to be in the same place at the same time as her big brother. An annoying gnat, at best.”

Gil laughed. “OK, fair enough. My youngest is a boy, so, what do I know. Tell me about Mr. Stockbridge.”

Redirecting the conversation back to the personal was frustrating. Helena glanced at her watch. She hoped to be back to her hotel shortly, preferably with a plan in hand. “He left. I kept Stockbridge for the kids’ sake, I guess.”

Gil waited for Helena to continue.

“Three boys and a girl. Which is the other reason I know older brothers and their friends don’t notice much about a little sister, except that they are annoying.”

“Do they all live near you?”

“Sheriff…”

“Gil. Please.”

“Gil. I would like to get back to my folks place if you don’t mind.”

“Yes, of course. Sorry. Um, so. The problem is that you don’t have legal access.”

 “What are my options?”

Gil frowned and then waved, as if telling someone to leave. Helena realized he was looking somewhere behind her. She turned to see the waitress, coffee pot in hand, standing stock still in the middle of the aisle between the rows of tables. The woman frowned back and walked away.

“She’s a friend, I assume?” Helena asked.

“This is a favorite place of mine. I am here a lot.” Gil hesitated and then chuckled. “She probably thinks you’re a date.”

Helena noticed Gil did not wear a wedding ring. “You mentioned your kids. Mrs. Aldridge is…?” Helena ventured.

“She racks up ex-husbands for a living. Back to your problem. Actually, I have a solution. Let’s go see someone at the courthouse.”

——      —–       ——      ——

The next morning, Sheriff Aldridge picked Helena up at her hotel. The warm, sunny weather had turned to a typically cold, damp, and gray Northwest day.

“Got you a latté, hope you don’t mind,” Gil said as Helena got into his cruiser. He handed her a large white cup. “Didn’t add anything, so I had them give me some sugars.”

“No sugar. This is actually perfect. Thanks.”

As they drove off, Helena said, “You are very good to take all this time with me. I’m sure you have more urgent, and definitely more important things that need your attention.”

“Here’s the thing about being Sheriff: I have a staff of pretty great officers, most I hired myself. Besides, the number of times I’ve covered for them…” Gil drifted off with a shake of his head. “Let’s just say, a few of them owe me.”

“Is that how you got the, whatever, warrant? Someone owed you?”

Gil smiled. “No, ma’am. I have a legitimate reason to search the premises. You called, concerned about trespassers, and property damage. Worried that the place might be a meth lab. Asked we take a look.”

“Which goes back to my question yesterday. Why hadn’t anyone from the county ever contact any of us about the place being empty for so long?”

“If an abandoned place isn’t a nuisance, then there’s not much we can do. It’s private property. Look, I know the place my whole life. One of my boyhood best friends lived there. I spent time playing there. Of course I drove by from time to time. For a while, a family I know lived there. About 10 or so years ago. They said they paid rent to a Mr. Offenbach.”

Helena frowned. “Why didn’t you tell me this yesterday?

Gil shrugged.

—–       ——      ——      ——-

When they arrived at the old house, Gill pulled the cruiser all the way up to the front, driving over the tall weeds in the driveway. Helena got out and took closer look around. This time she noticed that nothing much had changed about the surrounding neighborhood. While the rest of Lewis County experienced growth, change, and modernization, the neighborhood around her childhood home remained pretty much the same as when all the bungalows were built in the beginning of the last century.

“Shall we?” Gil asked.

They picked their way through the overgrowth that shrouded the stairs to the front porch. Gil expertly picked the lock and opened the door. He instructed Helena to stay on the stoop while he checked things out. Helena noticed he had unlatched his holster and the safety on his gun. She waited until he returned, about ten minutes later.

“Well, the place is trashed, I’m sorry to say, but no one is here, and from the looks, it’s been a long while. No worries about squatters.”

Helena began to cry when she saw how damaged the house was. It was in that moment she realized the tears were for the memory of how happy her family had been during the time they lived there; how happy hers and Caleb’s childhood had been.

What she could not recall was how tough things were back then for her parents. They never gave away their fears or concerns. It was not until well into adulthood that she learned what her parents were up against. What Helena couldn’t understand is why they felt so strongly that their only choice was to leave.

Nothing after her family left Chehalis went right. They moved to Seattle for what her mother said would be a fun adventure in the big city. Her mother got regular work as a school bus driver, but her father bounced from one part-time minimum wage job to another. He slipped into alcoholism. Then her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and they tried to survive on her mother’s disability benefits and welfare. After her mother’s death, Helena deliberately lost touch with her father and brother, until the day Caleb called to say their father had passed away.

“You haven’t told me what you do for a living,” Gil said, pulling Helena abruptly out of her reverie.

“You know, you have a bizarre knack for changing the subject,” she snapped.

“Hmm. OK, then, tell me about the accident.”

“What?”

“How Caleb died.”

Helena looked for a place to sit, but of course there was none. She walked into the kitchen and Gil followed. Helena took a swipe with her hand at the accumulated dirt on a corner of a counter, brushing the residue off on her jeans. She leaned back, wiped her residual tears off with the back of her jacket sleeve, crossed her arms and took a long look at Gil.

“How’d you find out Caleb died in an accident?”

 “After I dropped you off yesterday, I looked up the record of his death. It shouldn’t surprise you have access to that sort of thing.”

“Not that it’s any of your business. Look, Gil, I am grateful for letting me in to the house, and taking all this time with me, truly, but now I have to figure out what to do…” Helena buried her head in her hands, only to instantly remember they were covered in god-knows what. She furiously wiped her face again with the sleeve of her jacket.

“I am a bank manager, since you asked. And a really good one, too. Raised my children on that job, no thanks to their father. Of course, they love him to bits. He’s fun! But, my eldest, Denny, he’s finally wised up. Keeps his father at a distance, as he should. As they all should.”

Gil repositioned himself opposite Helena against the other counter. “I’m sorry. Life always has a habit of getting in the way of living. And I’m sorry about Caleb.”  Gil paused. “I also looked up the accident report. I just want to say that I’m sure you weren’t deliberately reckless.”

“But possibly criminally liable, only there wasn’t anyone to press charges because Caleb was dead, and my parents were dead, and his ex…. she didn’t give a crap…” Helena gasped. She let out a long moan and slid down the cupboard to the floor in sobs. “What business is any of this of yours, anyway? Just because my brother was your childhood friend? Because I came here, asking for help?”

Gil crossed over and sat on the floor next to her. He placed a gentle hand on her arm. After a while, Helena calmed. She lifted her head, rubbed her face again with her sleeve and tried to smile.

“OK. That day. It…it had been…” Helena began, but the tears came back.

Gil pulled off his coat, took off his badge and gun belt and placed them on his coat. He pulled his legs in and wrapped his arms around his knees.

“It’s just me now. Me, Gilmore, your brother’s friend, sitting in your parent’s kitchen, on the floor, on a soggy, cold day, talking with little Hells Bells. Pretend I just bullied you into telling me a secret.”

“Asshole,” Helena grumbled.

“Every bit of one, my entire life. Makes me the best Sheriff a man can ever hope to be.”

“And single one, apparently, which goes with the territory, I bet.”

Gil deflected Helena’s insult with the same flat, professional, non-expression she noted the day before.

Helena took in another deep breath. “I’m sorry.”

“It goes with the territory,” Gil joked, which made Helena laugh.

Helena reached out and gave Gil’s arm a squeeze. “Caleb really missed you. Your gang of boys. I think he missed Chehalis, too. Maybe that’s why he kept paying taxes on this place. Maybe, I don’t know, maybe he thought he’d retire here? But then, why let it go like this?”

Gil sighed. “I thought a lot about those days in this house last night. I wondered why neither Cabe nor I ever got in touch. I suppose, for my part, I just got too used to people moving away. Moving on…”

“I was driving. That night.” Helena interrupted, “which you would have read in the report, I guess. We were on our way home from my college roommate’s birthday party. She throws one every year. It was the first time I went by myself, without my kids, and I hadn’t seen Caleb in a while and was worried how he was holding up after his divorce, figured he needed to be around people, so I asked if he wanted to come along.” Helena shook her head to fight back the tears. “How do you flip a car six times?”

 “You would have been going pretty fast. And, January? Probably icy roads, though there was nothing in the report about that.”

“They said he had massive internal injuries. I was pretty badly injured, too. I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks.”

“Yeah, but he had a bad brain aneurysm, so….”

“A what?”

Gil looked surprised. “You didn’t know? The autopsy found a burst brain aneurysm.”

Helena was stunned. “Is that what they mean by massive internal injuries?”

“No. He had that, too, but the Coroner could not conclusively determine whether the injuries sustained in the accident or the aneurysm was the cause of death. It’s possible he died before the accident.”

“He…. had a lot to drink that day. He was out within minutes after we left. I thought he’d passed out. And then the next thing I knew, we were tumbling over and over across over the road.”

Helena stared at Gil for what seemed to him as entire lifetime. He took it all in, remembering every time the girl with the dark brown hair and nearly black eyes set against alabaster skin looked up at him, wide eyed, inquisitive, and so, so pretty… before punching him playfully in his gut and running away in peals of laughter.

Everything about Gil’s first crush came back to him, and it warmed him through and through. No one ever since caught his attention, or his heart like her.

Helena. All these years, he never knew her name was Helena.

Mandy

The Un-OLWG prompts are (and, attached to this story): Let them go; bulbous; bandit cash

The canvas bag on the floor behind Mandy bulged with the stacks of cash. She kept her eyes on the road, kept tabs on who was behind her through the rearview mirror, and kept her speed steady with the traffic. So far, so good.

How much time she had before anyone put it together that she and the cash were gone, Mandy could not tell. If she were lucky, the first thing that anyone noticed was that she was gone. That would buy her more hours, maybe even an extra day.

The trick was this: once Danny discovered the cash was gone, he would immediately go looking for her. Then Mandy would be racing against the clock.

The whole thing was a wild risk and Mandy’s eyes welled up with tears as she thought of her kids. She was desperate for her plan to play out as designed. If it worked, she could see her kids; be a part of their lives again. She could live life in the open once again.

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

Elsa, part one

A hot, thick, wet breeze swaddled Elsa in an uncomfortable blanket. The second she stepped off the plane, her desperate wish was for a breath of cool, dry air. How do people live like this; like they are underwater? The days of the masked pandemic had nothing over tropical summer humidity.  

The drive was long to her sister’s place, as Elsa remembered. A rain forest to one side, and the Pacific Ocean to the other, all along a winding two-lane highway. The open car window blasted relatively cooler air in her face, which gave Elsa the time needed to adapt to the climate. She took in one deep breath after another and slowly exhaled after each one.

Finally arrived at her destination, Elsa dug around her carry-on for the set of keys sent to her, then thanked the Uber driver.

“You good?” the driver helpfully asked.

“Yeah, sure.”

“I don’t have another ride. Happy to walk in with you if you want.”

“No, thanks,” Elsa told the woman. “I’m fine.”

The exterior was a different color than before, but otherwise, Elsa’s sister’s house was much as she remembered it. But, the months of vacancy, especially in a tropical climate, showed its wear. Ants crawled in long lines on just about every countertop and cupboard door. Green Geckos scurried across every wall. Elsa remembered an aggressive spider, smaller than your garden variety, with short legs, bulky girth, and a bite that would make a mosquito envious. The memory made her wince.

That time before, when she came to visit, by the time she arrived at her sister’s, she was covered in bites from any number of venomous vermin. Elsa’s sister quickly ushered her to the bathroom, insisting she immediately shower with citronella soap, then get lathered up with her husband’s black goop (a concoction he brewed up to draw out the venom of any number of tropical insect bites), and afterward come curl up on the couch beside her with a G&T and watch some TV.  

“Just what you need, baby girl.”

Sitting on her sister’s couch that time, a short 45 minutes after her arrival, in an agitated state of itchy discomfort, Elsa silently wept. Staring out at the magnificent panoramic view of the Pacific from her sister’s home high atop an ocean bluff, Elsa thought, whomever it was that first sold the idyllic version of an exciting, exotic trip to Polynesia? What a fucking bastard.

So, here she stood, a twelve years later, in the middle of that unpleasant memory. This time, however, every centimeter of her body was covered in a rich citronella lotion.

“OK house!” Elsa yelled. “Your new mama is here! And, I’m having none of it! Umm-umm. No sir.”

Two geckos scurried to the corners of the walls. Elsa turned her gaze downward and stomped at a group of ants, who also scurried. She scanned the room for those damn spiders.

No room for dessert

Call and Response to Un-OLWG #168


“It’s his thing,” Linda said.

“What?”

“The ringtone. Disco Duck. He’s…well, a friend, and….Anyway, it’s his thing.” Linda shrugged.

“I’d completely forgotten about that song.”

I said it with a smile, but not to be encouraging. I didn’t want to talk anymore about Disco Duck, her phone, or her friend Chip, who she assigned as her get-out-of-jail-free card. We sat in silence, neither of us knowing how to make our way out of this particular paper bag. So, I apologized, again, for running late.

“Totally OK,” Linda said. “Like I said, I was early because I’d not heard of this place. Wasn’t sure where I was going. I like to plan, you know? Make sure where everything is, and…But…whatever. Anyway, I am sorry about the…phone. They say it’s…anyway, like I say, I like to plan…”

The waiter mercifully arrived with our appetizers. “One arancini with peas and mozzarella, and one bruschetta with white bean, prosciutto and arugula. OK?”

We nodded. Finally, synchronicity.

“More wine?” the waiter asked.

I said yes; she said no. Back to disjointed, awkward moments. We hadn’t even made it through appetizers.

My daughter-in-law’s gentle reprimand echoed in my head and I wish to hell I heeded her warning. Dinner at the Fare and Feed with a woman I met online was now the last thing in the entire world I wanted to be doing. Should have gone for the coffee thing, like everyone said. Should not have even tried, in the first place. Dating really is just for the young, inexperienced and recklessly hopeful.

“No, that’s fine. I’ll pass. Water’s fine.” I said to the waiter. A blatant, and, frankly, dishonest gesture, but at least I’d be called safe at base. What I actually wanted was to be called out. And a Scotch, if I had the balls. Might as well make it a double.

“Well, shall we?” Linda divvied up the appetizers onto two plates.

“Ever been to Italy?” I asked, excited to discover a path out of our little circle of hell.

“Ah, yes. Years ago. You know. Before job, marriage, kids, blah, blah, blah.”

“The land of fat men in Speedos!” I cheerfully quipped. Linda raised her eyebrows. Jesus, was this strike three? I wished for her phone to throw aspersions again with its vibrating Disco Duck. Or, maybe I’d get lucky, in the other sense, and she’d just leave. I wouldn’t consider it rude. I’d be off the hook! I wondered why I hadn’t thought to make an arrangement for someone to call me.

“Cats, is what I remember, actually.”

“Cats? The musical?”

“No. I mean, cats, wandering around. Lots of old tabby cats. Everywhere you went, there were cats.”

“Ah.”


Prompts are: running late; a fat man in a Speedo; an old orange cat

Back and forth, forward and back

Yolanda gazed up, watching how the early morning sunlight created colorful patterns on the ceiling as the oscillating fan gently swayed the stained glass adornment that hung from the bedroom window’s sill. The blue, red and green glass twisted one way and then the other, left to right to left, again and again. It reminded her of playing at being a clothes washer when she was a little girl, arms out, fingers touching her shoulders, twisting her torso back and forth. Back and forth, back and forth.

“Fuck it,” Robert said as he rolled off her.

He lay on his back, an arm flung over his eyes. Yolanda decided it would be unfair to comment on the irony of his remark. Instead, she turned over and straddled him, and though it was obvious it was not going to happen, she nevertheless attempted a few gentle kisses to his cheek, tip of the nose, side of the neck.

As she began to scoot down, Robert abruptly sat up, pushed her off and got out of bed. He pulled open the drawer of his dresser with such force, it frightened her a bit. Robert’s mood was more and more prickly these days, but this was the first time Yolanda had ever seen him in a rage. He put on a pair of sweats, and walked out of the bedroom without a word or look toward her.

She wondered if he blamed her. Morning sex had become such a routine over the years, something he wanted whether she was into it or not, that she had become complacent. If he didn’t necessarily require her interest, why should she even bother to reciprocate? Were she given the choice, she would rather have the extra bit of sleep.

Robert banged about in the kitchen, slamming drawers, clanging utensils and bowls. Then a moment of silence fell. It was Yolanda’s cue to get up. As she put on the t-shirt and short jammies from the night before, she heard Robert walking down the hall to the bedroom. His footfall was heavy and rushed. Yolanda swept up her long hair into a messy bun and waited.

Standing in the bedroom doorway, Robert held up the old, broken hand blender. He face was pure anger.

“I asked you to please take better care of shit!”

“That is the old one,” Yolanda replied in a quiet, measured tone, eyebrows raised. “Remember? You said the cost to have it repaired was more than buying a new one. Hmm?”

Robert shoved the hand blender in the air toward Yolanda, as if a weapon to threaten her. As he began to speak, their young son stepped into view, and gave Robert a hug around his leg. Father and son looked at one another, both a little confused. From the kitchen came the sound of another blender.

“Pancakes!” their son triumphantly declared.

“C’mon,” Yolanda took her son’s hand, pushing past Robert. “Let’s help your sister make pancakes.”

“With chocolate chips!”

As her son skipped ahead, Yolanda was struck at being caught between the pure joy of a little boy with something as simple as pancakes to look forward to and the senseless anger of a grown man creating nothing but regrets on which to look back.


The prompts this week are: She stared at Robert’s ceiling and wished she was on top; take care of your tools; blue glass

There’s Got to Be a Morning After

Toby woke, per usual, sometime after 5AM. He swung his legs out of bed but sat a moment before rising. He didn’t need to look to the other side. It was empty. He glanced back anyway. It was not how he pictured this morning would begin. He took another moment to gather his thoughts before deciding to just get on with it by starting the day as he starts every day, with a trip to the bathroom, putting on his robe and slippers, and then to the kitchen for coffee.

As he passed the open guestroom door, he couldn’t help but glance in there as well. The bed was still made. She didn’t stay the night there, either. But he knew that.

As the coffee brewed, he watched the carafe fill to the point he knew was enough to fill a cup, which he did. He replaced the carafe to let the brewing finish, added his teaspoon of sugar and a bit of milk to his mug, and took the first sip of the morning. There is something calming but uplifting about the first drink of morning coffee. If his day did not begin with this small ritual, nothing would be right from there on out.

Depending on the day, Toby would either sit in his chair in the living room and watch the morning news, or shower, shave, and dress. This being a Sunday, he typically watched the news first. But this morning, he walked through the living room, past his chair and TV to the window, and drew back the drapes.

Ellen’s VW camper was still in the driveway.

Toby froze, staring intently at the vehicle while his mind raced. He now realized he never heard her VW’s engine start up last night. He assumed Elen left, headed back to Colorado, putting the whole thing behind her, and leaving Toby to his miserable self. Their evening ended so awkwardly; so awfully, Toby winced at the recollection.

But, now, what to do? Do I go out there, he wondered, cup of coffee in hand with a, Good morning, did you sleep well? He looked at the clock: 5:54AM. He might wake her from a deep sleep. More awkwardness. He should just wait.

A small bit of hope renewed, he thought she would certainly come to the house to at least say goodbye, giving both of them the chance to at least end things cordially. Then again, she might just go, without a word. There he’d be, hearing her drive away. The thought brought him down again. But, then again, why else would she stay?

Just in case, Toby decided to unlock the door. Better yet, leave it open. Let her know he was awake and….yeah. That’s the plan. He would sit in the living room and watch the news, as he does every weekend morning, but with the door ajar, and wait. He put down his coffee and made his way to the door, a little too quickly, he noted. No need to run, he admonished himself.

As he reached for the deadbolt, he had another thought: Robe and slippers were, perhaps, too casual, probably bordering on the too familiar, especially given last night. Shower, shave and dress first. Better plan.

Toby headed for his bathroom. He quickly stripped, turned on the water and stepped in the shower. Just as he finished lathering up, another thought flashed by that he couldn’t hear a knock at the door or doorbell ringing while he was in the shower. Fuck! He quickly rinsed, shut off the shower, and yanked his towel off the rack with such force, it nearly pulled off of the wall. He frantically debated his next steps. Jesus! Do I dress now, or go open the door and then dress?

The unmistakable sound of a VW engine turning over reverberated through the house.

No longer concerned about being too eager, Toby hurriedly wrapped the towel around his waist and ran down the hall. As he fumbled with the front door’s deadbolt and the handle, he heard Ellen’s camper drop into gear

“Stop! Ellen?!” he shouted as he flung open the door, way too urgently and definitely too loudly. “Ellen!? Hey! Wait!”

He could tell from the look on her face that the sight of him in his driveway clutching the now fallen bath towel—which he hoped to goddamned hell at least covered all the essentials in front—was not what she expected to see. As he stood there, feeling every bit the idiot, and hoping he hadn’t also attracted the attention of his neighbors, Toby began to chuckle. How else could the morning after such a terrible night play out?

Ellen’s expression change to a soft, bemused smile. She cut the engine, and as she stepped out of the van, Toby wrestled his towel back around his waist as discreetly as he could manage.

“Can I…” he ventured, with an apologetic shrug, “…offer you a cup of coffee? Before you go?”

Ellen shyly approached him; her smile still spread across her face.  “Yes. I’d like that. Very much.”

Toby gestured her to take the lead. As she walked past him, she said, “Sorry, but I remember you said you are an early riser, so I thought, hey, by 6 o’clock, Toby’d be up, and it would be OK if I, knocked, or whatever.”

Ellen wandered into the middle of the living room and turned around. She gave him a big shrug with her arms held up. “Standing there, I … I thought, maybe, I don’t know, that, whatever, maybe, it was all too much and you were blowing me off, or too pissed off about last …”

Toby stopped her with a dismissive wave. “I was the shower.”

“I can see that. Now, of course. Totally didn’t even occur to me.”

The silence that followed was surprisingly reassuring to them both. The sting of the previous night began to fade.

“God, I feel so stupid!”, Ellen blurted. “Just … I’m so sorry! I mean, thinking I should just take off. I’m so…”

“No, please!” Toby interrupted. “The thing is, I assumed you had already taken off. So, anyway, then I saw you didn’t, and I thought, Christ man, be a gentleman and get dressed! An then, after I got in the shower, I thought, oh, shit! What if she knocks, or rings the bell? I won’t hear it, and just as I got out, I heard your van…”

They both laughed.

“So,” Toby continued, “I’m going to just…” he gestured down the hall to his bedroom, “but, please,” Toby gestured again, this time toward the kitchen, “help yourself to coffee. There’s milk in the fridge and sugar’s there on the counter. I’m going to just get dressed…”

As Toby started to go, Ellen called after him. “Toby? I’m so sorry. Seriously, I…”

“Ellen, it’s OK. Really. I’m glad I caught you! Just, hold that thought a moment. I’ll be right back.”

“Of course. Take your time!”

As Toby reached his bedroom he called out, “Ellen, I say we call a ‘mulligan’.”

Ellen smiled. “Yes! Agreed. Let’s.”

C U Then

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

“Just checking…” the older man standing outside his car began, with a wave. Chris quickly looked him over and decided to turn the ignition to roll down the window.

“…you OK, there?”

Chris nodded. “Sorry. Just…rough day.”

“OK, well, s’long as you’re OK. I’m just coming in to work. Got the night shift at check-in,” the man pointed to his name badge, “Roger. So, if you need anything, dial zero, OK? What room you in?”

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

“Yeah, thanks, um…My name’s Chris. Christopher. Morriston. I’m in 408.”

Roger the clerk gave him a thumbs up and walked away.

**********]

As Chris slid the keycard into the reader for Room 408, he gave the door a gentle knock. “Hello?” he called out. The lights were on, but the room was quiet. Chris’s pulse shot up with the sudden hope that maybe she had split while he was sitting in his car, trying to sort things out. He walked in, slowly, and called out again.

Mandy was face down in the first bed. The lower half of her body was uncovered, exposing lacy purple underwear that rode up one cheek. Chris stared, longer than he should; out of surprise, or the terror of sudden attraction, he could not tell which. 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 checked for signs of breathing. A muffled, gentle snore emanated from the corner of her open mouth. Relieved, Chris sighed. Death would have been one complication too many.

He walked over to her bag and opened the top, looking for anything that might further explain things. 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 dollars, four credit cards, a gym, grocery, and Starbucks card, a few coins, a receipt for LED bulbs and plumbing pipe from an ACE Hardware, and her license: Amanda Anne Andersen from Bend, Oregon. At least that checked out.

He looked at the ACE receipt again. Dated two years prior. He unfolded it and discovered his office phone number and his name scrolled on the back. He flipped it over again. Apple Valley. California? Minnesota? No phone, just a web address. There were at least a couple Apple Valleys in the country. The receipt might not have been hers. Whomever gave her his contact info might be the original owner.

Chris put all the contents of the wallet back and peered one last time into the purse before returning the wallet. Another pair of underwear, plain white cotton, and a pill bottle poking out of the fold of the bag’s lining: Ambien. She must have planned on at least one overnight somewhere, Chris thought. No wonder she was sleeping like the dead. Curious she wasn’t concerned about staying somewhat alert, he mused. He wondered at the difference between the underwear she was wearing and the plain cotton pair. Did she think a seduction might be necessary? If so, why? That didn’t make sense. Maybe not his seduction, but someone else?

Chris glanced at the hotel room door and then looked back at Mandy. He could just leave. Not that that would solve anything.  She’d just come looking for him again. No, he’d just have to see the damn thing through, though to what end, he was not at all sure. It was all too much, and too out of sync.

He walked to the far side of the other bed and sat, his back turned to the room. He stared out the window for what must have been the better part of a couple of hours, trying to grab hold of his thoughts as they flashed through his continued fits of anxiety. He had little to go on, and, at the moment, no way to check out any of it. Situations like these, you make a choice with only a hope in hell it’s not the wrong one.

His cell phone’s screen turned on every 20 or so minutes. He did not need to see who was trying to reach him. Only his wife Bella would be calling. Obviously, his text of several hours before did not do the trick.

He thought about Roger the night clerk and decided to head down to the lobby.

*************]

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 24/7. Late night menu until six, then breakfast. The bar’s closed, of course, but you can still get a beer. They keep the Olympics’ channel on all night. You can catch up with whatever you missed so far.”

“Olympics?” Chris asked with a raised brow. “They got a channel?”

“Yup. Go figure. A channel for everything, these days, I suppose. That opening ceremony was something, huh? 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. “Thanks. I’ll head in.”

He took a seat in a booth around the corner with his back to the entrance. That way, if Mandy did come looking for him, he had the advantage of seeing her first and ducking for cover. Since the thought that she might have taken off popped in his brain, he could not stop wishing she would. Maybe if he stayed away, she might freak out when she woke, give up in a panic, and just get gone.

A young waiter brought 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 the brew OK?”

Chris nodded, handing back the menu. As the young man walked away, Chris found himself watching him go. Force of habit, he tried consoling 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.

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 question him when he said he would be away for a while but could not discuss why. While the job may put him at some risk from time to time, it was not as though he was actually an operative. That stuff was a young, single man’s game, and the older he got, the less interested he was in taking those sorts of gigs, anyway. These days, he was what they call in the movies, for lack of a more accurate title, an analyst.

He desperately wanted to answer Bella’s call, reassure her he was safe and that all would be OK. She knew well enough not to press for details, but his unannounced disappearance would be the red flag she always feared. He knew Bella would have long since contacted his boss. Fortunately, all Chris was required to say when he abruptly left the office earlier that day was that he had to see to a situation and that he’d report back in a few days. Bella knowing his boss knew Chris was away could go some distance with her, but, not answering any of her calls was counteracting that fail-safe. And, Chris knew absolutely nothing he could say in this moment would reassure her.

Nevertheless, he waited for the call to end before sending her another text: I’m ok but can’t talk. I’m safe. Shit went down today. Will have to see this thru 1st before calling. Promise to call as soon as it’s ok. I.LOVE.YOU. Hang tight sweets. Breathe. Home in a few.

Seconds later a text came in. Thinking it was Bella’s reply, Chris was surprised to see a coded message from his boss: Just fyi all set for Fri. C U then

“Ah, shit,” Chris muttered.

The Road Home

Burt chuckled when he realized that, for the past hour, he’d been wearing a smile. He couldn’t remember the last time he had anything to smile about.

The sky was clear and the valley stretched for miles in front of him. Burt hadn’t passed another vehicle since Garrettsville. The only sound was the singing of his tires as he sped along the highway that would take him back home. He checked the time again. In just about an hour he’d see Jilly and Micky.

The last time he saw his kids was a blur. He could not remember if there were tears, but there must have been. There was a lot of yelling, that much he definitely recalled. But, the memories he preferred to recollect were the ones of Micky telling himself long, shaggy-dog stories, using his toys as props and characters. And Jilly’s dance recitals. “My little Jilly ‘Sandman’ Jones,” he used to call her. She made Sammy Davis Jr. look like an amateur, as far as Burt was concerned.

Jilly and Micky would not be children anymore, of course. Burt wouldn’t need to scold them for putting their elbows on the table during the dinner to which they invited him, in order to get reacquainted. He tried to imagine what they look like now. Jilly must be tall, like her mother, and a dancer, maybe a Rockette, or even a professional ballerina. Micky maybe grew up to be a writer or journalist, what with all those stories he used to tell himself. Or an engineer, or maybe a scientist of some kind. He was always such a serious little kid.

What Burt knew for certain is that, in spite of his excitement, he needed to give both of them a wide berth. Let them ease into the reunion with him. Twenty-eight years is a long time.


UnOLWG Prompts are: keep the margins wide; throwing sand on the floor; tires singing; put your elbows on the table; this will take you there

Say Goodbye to Old Malcolm

“Been away so long, I hardly knew the place…”
I’ve not participated in weeks, but I must acknowledge three years of OLWG prompts! I pulled prompts from this post and the subsequent one, plus added one other. Can you guess what it is? Here’s a clue: What gift do you give for a third anniversary?


Along the old Lincoln highway in the heart of the industrial district, the Harvey Tannery and Shoes factory stretched all the way between Gower and Terracotta Avenues. The giant brick facility had been there practically since the day the city was a city. Its tannery days were long over, of course, and the manufacturing of shoes moved out about 60 years after that to wherever cheap labor could be found. What was behind the dirty shop windows was anybody’s guess. For the last several decades, people only knew it as “that giant brick building”, a relic of bygone days.

Dilapidated as it appeared, it was built to be a fortress. A century and a half of epic winter storms, floods (before the dam was built), a couple earthquakes and decades of Halloween pranksters who swore it was haunted, or drunk college boys on a Saturday night throwing rocks at the windows had not degraded its stalwartness, nor penetrated its walls.

Malcolm Dixon, a sixth generation Harvey on his mother’s side, depended on the building’s fortitude. It had been his home for some forty years. The original arrangement with the members of the Harvey family that still owned the property—-rent free residence in the apartment on the top floor that once was the factory foreman’s overlook, in exchange for turning the place into an event hall—-proved a pipe dream. Every effort to rid the place of the smell of curing leather and shoe polish did not work. The stuff perpetually emanated from the old brick walls. Not wanting to have to find another place to live, Malcolm suggested opening a shoe repair. He set up shop in what once was the entry lobby and administrative offices. He hand painted a marquee across the lobby windows in Robin’s egg blue that read, “Harvey Factory Shoe Repair”. In the decades since, the lettering faded to near white, but it still proudly announced that a shoe repair service was alive and well.

Not that Malcolm was not a cobbler. Never had been, and never wanted to be one. He just figured a shoe repair an obvious choice for an old shoe factory. Malcolm took the shoes and boots dropped off for repair out to the son of an old friend who actually was a cobbler. Once a week, Malcolm hopped a bus to the man’s shop in the suburbs with whatever had come in and returned the next week to pick up the repaired shoes. No one was ever the wiser. The warehouse shift workers, truckers and sometimes police officers who came in were just grateful to have a place where they could leave their expensive work boots to be resoled or patched for far less than the price of a new pair.

Primarily, Malcolm was a barroom fixture at The Factory Floor Bar & Grill. Part biker bar, part happy hour joint for shift workers, the place had been in the industrial district possibly as long as the Harvey factory. There was always a small crowd of bikers and drifters from opening to closing, but each weekday around 4:00pm, the place filled with tuneless rock-n-roll from the old juke box and guys and gals taking a load off of a long day before heading home. Malcolm would be in his spot at the end of bar closest to the door, greeting all the regulars as they came and went, sometimes collecting shoes for repair and payment for work completed, like some sort of side hustle.

On this day, when Malcolm came in at his usual time, the bartender, a tattooed toughy named Angel, uncharacteristically greeted him with a smile as she handed him his usual.

“So. Word’s goin’ ‘round,” Angel began, “and hey, that’s tough news. I’m really sorry to hear. You OK? I mean, where will ya go?”

Malcom took his boilermaker from Angel but hesitated a moment before he downed the whiskey and took a draw off his beer.

“Hmm?” he questioned, a bit confused.

“Um, we were just wondering…”

“Wait, wait … what’a ya mean, where will I go?”

Angel refilled Malcolm’s shot glass, “On the house.” Malcolm tossed the second shot back but kept his eye on Angel, who continued to give him a sheepish smile. As he set the glass down, he glanced around the room. A couple of the regulars quickly looked away.

“Angel? Why’s everyone’s lookin’ at me? What do you mean, ‘where will I go’?” Malcolm asked with some force this time.

Angel chose her words carefully. “OK. So, we heard…the old factory? Your building? Sold. Everyone’s talkin’ about it. People been askin’. I…we…just…are concerned, ya know? Anyway, I’m just sayin’. If you need a place, Bob said, if you want, you could stay in the studio back of the kitchen while you look for another place…”

Malcolm had been alone for so many years, with nobody to talk to but the crowd at the bar, that he had long been in the habit of not answering his phone in the shop. It suddenly occurred to him that lately, the phone had been ringing off the hook. He assumed it was robocalls. He never checked voicemail.

His mind was running like a gush of water down a gully. “What’a mean, you heard it sold?!”


Prompts are:

  1. run like water
  2. barroom fixture
  3. that song needs a chorus
  4. Gowers Avenue
  5.  dirty windows
  6.  robin’s egg blue
  7. leather