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 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

Fun House of Nightmares and Pancakes

Gareth woke and rolled over on his side. He stared at Abbie, soundly asleep, as the scene from his nightmare dissipated. This is real, he whispered.

He slowly sat up, not wanting to disturb his girlfriend, and looked around his bedroom. This is real, he whispered again. He hunched over and closed his eyes. Nothing but blackness. He lay down and drifted back into sleep.

The smell of coffee and bacon roused him the next morning. Abbie, of course. She just gets it. No better way to overcome a bad night than a large breakfast. Thick strips of bacon, fried eggs over-easy, on top crispy hash browns and Tabasco sauce dribbled over all of it. Gareth took in a deep breath. And sourdough biscuits, or maybe pancakes?

He asked Abbie once how she knew. She said something casual, like she just felt like it, but she lied. Gareth’s mother. Whatever. Only one of the many smoke and mirrors games couples sometimes play with their relationship.


UnOLWG prompts this week: she just gets it; she lies; all done with mirrors

Helen’s Dawning

I’m enjoying the rediscovery of posts from a former blog. As with almost all of my posts, they start from writing prompts. Maybe they’ll inspire you as well?

The OLWG prompts were: Neither have I; An impeccably dressed transvestite; The birds at dawn


The morning dawned clear and cold the day Helen left. Smoke from the wildfires the next county over turned the sunrise into a lurid magenta and orange. Somewhere a tractor started up, sending a swarm of Starlings high into the sky. They swirled this way and that, circling the farmhouse as if to herd her along her way.

Helen sat in her car, staring at the home built by her great-grandparents. The home where her grandfather and father were born and raised; where she and her sisters were born and raised, and where she gave birth to and raised her three children. Helen and William’s wedding was held in the living room. Leaving was audacious and terrifying.

The morning sun revealed the place for what it had become. The window trim she painted blue the year her youngest left for college was already peeling. The sign William placed on the stairs to the front porch, warning of rotted wood, had sunk down into the gap between the boards. The cracks in the living room window were not as visible from the outside, but Helen could see them. From the inside, the cracks looked as though someone took harsh, angry strokes of black spray paint to the picture-perfect view of the river valley.

The bedroom light came on, jarring Helen out of her melancholy. She started her car’s engine, rammed the stick into reverse, and sped backward down the drive. As she whipped around and pulled out onto the road, she compulsively glanced in the rear-view mirror. William was jogging down the porch stairs. He kept running down the drive, stopping just before Helen cleared the crest of the hill, and raised a hand.

###        ###

An impeccably dressed transvestite greeted Helen at the hotel reception counter. “Have you been to Denver before?”

Helen shook her head.

“Neither have I. HA!” Helen was not sure what to make of the man’s joke.

As he tapped away at the computer, Helen stared at the man’s attire. He had manicured hands and translucent pink polished nails. A tuft of chest hair peeked out from the neck of his pristine white linen blouse. Small solitaire pearl stud earrings dotted his ear lobes. He had bushy eyebrows and did not wear a wig, but what most fascinated her was the man’s waxed, jet-black mustache with tiny pin curls on each tip. She smoothed her sweater and slacks and ran her fingers through her uncombed hair.

“It’s none of my business, of course,” the man said as he handed her the key to her room, “but, I work here, right? I take note of these things.”

Helen did not understand what he was getting at. She waited for him to continue.

“I noticed you booked an extended stay,” he said. Helen nodded.

 “I can give you a list of relatively inexpensive apartments in town, if you like. That is, I mean, I assume. You moving here?”

Helen nodded again. “For school. I’m going back to school.”

“That’s great! Good for you.”

“Yeah. Hard decision to make, but…” she finished with a shrug.

“What school?”

“The Art Institute of Colorado.”

“No shit!? Oh, excuse my language, HA!” the man rolled his eyes and folded his hands neatly in front, then smiled. “No kidding? Really? I teach there. Great place. You’ll love it.”

Helen set her bags back down. “What do you teach? I’m getting my degree in music. I want to teach. I mean, of course, naturally, I want to play, but teaching…that’s the goal. Maybe write music.”

“What’s your instrument?”

“Piano. Some guitar. But I really want to learn to play the saxophone and the harp.”

“Wow. Ambitious.”

“Yes, well. It’s now or never.”

The man held up a finger and walked away. He returned holding out a business card.

“Here’s how to reach me. When you’re settled, we’ll go to lunch. I’ll tell you everything you need to know.  I’ve been teaching at A.I.C. for twenty years. Love it. Really, it’s a great place. I wish it paid the bills, but, well, anyway, HA!” the man waved his hands in the air, “Here I am.”

“What do you teach? You didn’t say,” Helen glanced at the card, “….Jeff.”

“Oh, right! HA! How’dya do!  I’m Jeff, the Executive of Everything! HA! No, no…seriously…I’m in the visual arts program. I teach most of the 101 classes. Hey, so, it’s actually a requisite for most of the programs at the university to take the 101 courses I teach, regardless your major, so you’ll probably end up in one of my classes!”

###        ###

In failing health and wheelchair bound because of a botched hip replacement, getting ready for a day out and about was an ordeal for Helen. She had to keep her mind focused on a can-do attitude in order to make it through the laborious task of bathing and dressing, something she did not always get around to these days. But on this day, she had to rally her strength.  The transport assistance van would be by in two hours to pick her up. She did not want to miss Jeff’s memorial service.

When asked if anyone wanted to share a story about Jeff, Helen raised her hand. A nice-looking young woman Helen did not recognize handed her a microphone.

“There I was,” she began, a little thrown by the sound of her quavering elderly voice coming out of the speakers. “There I was, every bit the frightened kid away from home for the first time, regardless the fact I was a grown woman my fifties.” She paused, taking a moment to see Jeff in her mind’s eye. “And here was Jeff, in his quintessential pearl earrings, Kate Spade print skirt and Ralph Lauren linen blouse… and his weird sense of humor… and his perfectly coiffed mustache.” Helen mimed twirling the end of a mustache. The room let out a soft, knowing chuckle.

“He saved my life. Jeff saved my life. I don’t know where I would have been if it weren’t for his unabashed kindness and hospitality.  The luckiest day of my life was the day I met Jeff.”

Helen paused again, this time to halt the tears. “The past thirty years of my life are all the sweeter for having Jeff to call my nearest and dearest friend.” Helen blew a kiss to Jeff’s family in the front pew.

In her apartment afterward, Helen sat gazing at the painting Jeff made for her years before. It hung in a prominent place over her mantle.

The subject was the farmhouse on the day Helen left for Denver. Jeff perpetually asked Helen to tell the story of that morning, pressing her to describe what she saw. At the time, Helen did not understand why Jeff asked her to recall the most bitter-sweet moment of her life, again and again. She remembered growing perturbed at his repeated requests, begging him to stop pestering her. The memory made her smile.

Each time she looked at Jeff’s painting, it was as if she was there again, too terrified to turn the ignition of her car and put behind her all she had ever known. When that old fear arose, as it almost always did, Helen would quickly turn away, just as she did that morning backing out of the drive.

This time, she let herself become lost in the paintings magnificent purples, oranges, pinks and blues; the way Jeff made the hillsides behind the farmhouse seem as soft as giant pillows, and the warmth he imbued in the glow of the light from the bedroom. The usual memory of fear and trepidation did not arise. This time, the scene was peaceful, almost welcoming. This time, as she visualized William stepping out of the front door and onto the porch, she didn’t turn away.

She kept looking. At the house, the sky, the hills, the peeling blue trim, broken stairs, and the cracked window. She kept looking, even as her memory of William jogging down the stairs and onto the drive came back. This time, Helen saw what she refused to see all those years ago. William, with a resigned, and deeply sad smile, raising his hand to wave good-bye and mouthing the words, “Good luck. I love you.” 

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.

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.”