Category Archives: Short Story

Retro Rocket – My Short Story Submission to the WPL 2015 Ray Bradbury Creative Contest

Space Fantasy Stamps

Against the black infinity of space, a rocket-ship floated like a blimp above a long and gradual curve of the Red Planet. The ship’s bulging hull, like a mirror, gathered what could be seen–the field of stars, the distant sun, the rust colored horizon–and reflected it all back.

Inside the rocket’s nose-cone, two figures in bulky spacesuits sat side by side, their white helmets facing the fore of the ship, their dark visors reflecting indicator lamps, and their thick-gloved fingers floating before an array of knobs and switches.

The silver ship slowed, nosed up, then began its descent to Mars. The rocket descended vertically, a reverse of its liftoff from Earth. Fire-columns thundered from nozzles at the ship’s bottom. The blaze of orange and yellow pushed against the Martian ground, stirring red sand into a billowing cloud through which the ship set down on the planet.

The engines quieted, and silence filled the ship. As the astronauts awaited their signal a speaker crackled with a voice, “This is Mission Control calling Vegas Station. Sandship One has landed.”

Beyond the upright rocket’s porthole the night sky glimmered with pinpoints of bright white, but one shone a brilliant blue. The captain didn’t notice, but Lieutenant Ellison did. He used a scope to magnify the object, and discovered that the brilliance came not from a star but from a faraway planet with oceans of blue brightened by a more distant sun. Ellison gazed in awe of Earth.

On Earth a small town slept as streetlamps shined orange onto tree-lined lanes. In the dark, dewy lawns lay in squares formed by sidewalks, and the walks leading to concrete stoops. Above each stoop, a single porch-light lit the front door of a brick home.

Atop a shingled roof towered an aluminum antenna. It gathered radio waves and routed them down to a cool basement, dim and unfinished. There an aging man in a thick sweater sat at a wooden table before a shortwave radio. From the metal console a cable curled up to a pair of large headphones cupped over his ears. Through the headset a voice crackled, “Mission Control to Vegas Station. We’ve delivered your astronauts. Captain Borges, you and the lieutenant get some sleep. At dawn we’ll commence the Mars walk.”

This transmission stirred the old man from his daydream, in which he saw the landing like those in the sci-fi movies of the nineteen thirties. Hearing the radio transmission assured him that now, men really would walk on Mars. He’d been waiting for it since he was a boy and wanted to be part of it. So he clicked a radio button and pulled forward a tall, chrome microphone and spoke, “This is Waukegan-One calling Sandship One.” Then he listened through the hiss and hum and squeal for a response, but the voice that came next came from behind him.

“Dad?” His middle-aged son in jeans and a t-shirt called from the bottom of the stairs. “Dad!”

The old man pulled off the headphones and swiveled around, his face feeling warm as he realized his son might have heard him. “You startled me. You’re back from the library already?”

“I’ve been back for a while. What are you doing?” The son rubbed his own arms. “It’s cold down here.”

The old man’s embarrassment went away. “Using this radio is my nighttime routine. Do you know it works as good now as when I built it fifty years ago?” The old man’s blue eyes became blank for a moment, then the spark returned. “How was the presentation?”

“It was fantastic! The author discussed his book about the Mars mission. Tomorrow he’s touring the control room in Nevada. It’s from there that Borges and Ellison operate the mechanical astronauts.”

Though the newspaper reported for months that the mission would be unmanned, the father rejected the idea. “Mechanical astronauts?” That’s no way to explore Mars! Man himself must take the ride, step off the ladder, feel his boot sink into the red dust. When life on Mars is discovered, Man must be there to look it in the eye!”

The son smiled, familiar with his father’s retro temperament. “Like in that vintage sci-fi poster over your desk?” The son continued, trying to be kind. “Dad, you know rockets don’t land backwards. And ladders don’t slide down from under their fins.” Then he shook his head, “And as for looking a Martian in the eye…there’s no life there. The probes and rovers confirmed that.”

The old man mocked, “The probes and rovers confirmed that.” Then he protested, “Technology has ruined it! The remote missions, the imaging, the Internet and its interactive globe of Mars. All this destroys our imagination, destroys the possibilities, destroys the wonder!”

The son appreciated his father’s sentimentality. “Dad, come upstairs. We can watch the mission together. This one is different. The mechanical astronauts let us see through their eyes.”

“Nah.” The old man dismissed the offer. “I won’t watch. But I’ll be up in a few minutes. First I need to write some notes about what the radio picked up tonight.”

The son’s steps on the wooden stairs echoed off the basement walls, and the old man turned to the console. He put the headphones on, reached for the dial, pulled forward the chrome microphone and whispered, “Sandship One, this is Waukegan Station. Confirm Martian sunrise.” Then he continued a little louder, “Captain Borges. Lieutenant Ellison. Time to commence the Mars walk!”

The old man’s mind resumed the movie. He imagined his message being converted into radio waves, sent up through the antenna into the still night sky, up into space where a planet shined red. On that world, rising above its rust colored horizon, the white sun silhouetted the standing rocket-ship. From it, a ladder slid down. Then an astronaut in a bulky spacesuit descended, and stepped back from the last rung onto the Martian powder. The figure turned from the ship and began to walk. It paused, knelt down, pulled off its glove, and plunged its hand into the soil. The astronaut brought up its cupped palm and let the red sand sift through its fingers.

“Dad!” The son called down from the living room. “It’s started. Ellison’s astronaut has stepped out of the lander.”

But the movie continued in the old man’s mind. The astronaut stood and removed his helmet, then his mouth shaped into a scream and his eyes grew wide, as he came face to face with a Martian.

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You Can’t Get There from Here

Nico Park

This is the first half of a short story. I got the inspiration during an outdoor writing workshop with the Kenosha Writers’ Guild. We were given some prompts to use if we wanted. The prompt that interested me was, “You can’t get there from here.”  This is just the first half, so I apologize in advance for stopping in the middle. I’ll post the conclusion once I write it.

That evening the sun was far from setting, as on any June evening. Its glare came through the passenger-side windows of my car. It’s heat did too, even though the windows were up and the dashboard vents directed cool air.

The rush-hour traffic wasn’t bad, so I got into town earlier than I expected. The wake wouldn’t start until seven o’clock. So before I reached Oakton Street I slowed the car, waited for a break in traffic, then turned left off of Waukegan onto one of the side streets. The previous time I drove down that block–was thirty years ago.

The trees were a lot taller, but the homes which lined both sides of the street looked the same as they looked back then. Brick, one-story, with low, shingled roofs. Each with a front lawn, green and square, divided by a straight concrete walk. Each with three, wide, concrete steps up to the front-door. To one side a large front-room window. And to the other side a smaller, bedroom window.

I drove slowly along the quiet street. A few cars were parked on each side, and I weaved through to the end of the block. A little before the stop sign I pulled over, stopped, and turned off the car–to remember.

At the end of one of these streets there used to be a park. That’s why I turned. To see the park again. I was about to start the car to drive to the next block over, when I saw an old man walking on the sidewalk. He had just come around the corner ahead.

I lowered the passenger side window and called to him. “Excuse me sir. Is Nico Park nearby?”

He stopped, and stooped a little so he could see me.

I said, “I’ll come out.” And I got out of my car and walked up a lower driveway to the sidewalk.

I explained to him, “In the eighties I used to work near here at Waukegan and Caldwell. At the nursing home. In the kitchen. In the summer a group of us who worked there–we were all in high school or starting college–after our shift we’d drive to the park for its baseball diamond. We played sixteen-inch softball there. For fun.”

The old man cocked his head a little and looked into my eyes as if he did not understand.

I went on. “There were usually about eight of us. Enough for each team to have a pitcher, third baseman, shortstop, and outfielder. Kosta–he could hit the ball way out into left field, over the tall chain-link fence and into the tennis court. And Shimmo–he was a lefty. Whenever he came up to bat, the outfielder had to run all the way over to right-field, before the pitch. Shimmo could hit the ball beyond right-field and into the backyards. Sometime a neighbor would yell at us.”

The man listened.

“We liked when the girls played, but most of time Kathie and Debbie sat on the bleachers, and talked to each other and giggled.”

The man’s lips and eyes turned into a gentle smile.

“We’d play until it was too dark to see. Then we’d walk to our cars. The ones our parents let us drive to our part-time jobs. We’d lean on our cars and talk. No matter what we’d been doing–playing ball at the park, or having ice-cream at Dairy Queen, or dropping our quarters at the arcade of Par-King–those evenings in June we had nothing to do but to stay up and stay out. We’d lean on our cars and talk.

We talked about the girls we liked at work. Talked about the movies and music videos we’d seen. We talked about going to college, turning twenty-one, and how great it would be going to bars. We talked about what our real jobs might be.

The man’s smile started to go away.

It was almost seven o’clock, so I asked the old man, “Can you tell me how to get there? To get to Nico Park?”

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Freedom Stream

Freedom Stream Color

In the year 2100 the Social Health Office sent a technician wearing gray scrubs to the one room apartment of twenty year-old Diego, and fitted him with a tiny receiver. By the end of the fifteen minute visit, as the technician gently sewed a single stitch into the back of Diego’s head, the Freedom Stream hit a milestone: Every resident of the city connected.

In his room with no desk or bookshelves, Diego smiled and called out, “Yes!” No more looking at the wall-screen or holding a blue-glowing device. Now, right into his mind streamed the popular songs, videos, movies, and shows.

Outside Diego’s apartment, traffic lights showed black. Since the second economic collapse fifty years prior, no traffic moved on the streets. Diego and most other citizens didn’t work. The city provided each resident with food, and a person rarely went out. The Freedom Stream deadened everyone’s curiosity about the real outside.

But the technology had glitches. And the next morning when Diego woke up he did not experience the relaxing wave sounds of the Stream. Instead he heard nothing. Silence, unfamiliar and unsettling, panicked him. So he immediately acted to restore the connection. Diego moved closer to the source which he knew to be atop the nearby, hundred-story, redbrick smokestack.

He left his unit and walked across the road, picked his way down the neighboring ravine’s brush and trees, and stepped over the abandoned rails to the lakefront. There Diego discovered a moored pontoon which buoyed a rust-colored steel container once used to transport goods. Its opened doors revealed attached shelves holding thousands of well-preserved books.

An unkempt, seventy year-old man appeared on the boat and looked at Diego, at his brown eyes of curiosity. The old man could tell that Diego’s connection to the Stream had been interrupted, that for only a few minutes the young man would be able to listen.

“Hello! My name is Amit. These books contain the unique thoughts of individual men and women. Each book is different. Each is a snapshot of the person’s thoughts at the time they wrote it. Unlike receiving the barrage of the Stream, reading a book is hearing a person’s thoughts in a way you control. Reading allows you to pause, to think about what you take in, to be aware of your reaction. The binding, paper, and ink let you feel the book, truly hold it.”

Diego stepped back from the stranger and thought of an excuse to get away. “Sir, I cannot read. They closed all the schools and libraries before I was born.”

Amit heard this from others. “I will teach you to read. And as important, I will teach you to write.”

“But today there’s nothing to write with. Nothing to write on.”

“I wrap twigs in foil and put them in fire to create pencils. I write onto scraps of paper. Seeing my thoughts in words amazes me. To have my own thoughts, to choose which ones I share, and to choose the words–that is human. The Stream takes that away.”

The Stream now crackled in Diego’s mind, the reconnection was starting. He felt unsure about the man and his offer. But he wanted to know more. Diego reached to the back of his head–for the stitch.

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Freedom Stream – A Very Short Story by Jim Janus

Selected as Winner of Waukegan Public Library’s 30th Annual Ray Bradbury Creative Contest (written-adult category)

Contest theme, from the WPL website

“Waukegan-native Ray Bradbury and author of Fahrenheit 451 understood the importance of reading, writing, and education to a successful society, saying “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Bradbury saw the slow destruction of books and the written word and was fearful. In Waukegan, not only do we see the rising popularity of eBooks, acronyms, and textspeak today, we live and work with those who do not even have the foundation of basic reading and writing skills in English or in Spanish. As the written word continues to disappear, the future of libraries, literacy, and free access to knowledge is uncertain. In your contest submission, please consider a future without the  written word. What would society look like? What would happen if your freedom to read and learn disappeared? How do you feel about banning books?”

Freedom Stream <— Click here to read the story

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The Village by the Sea

Sventoji

Saturday morning in the village, the visitors appear from wooden cottages and sit at tables on porches or in yards to nibble on cold meats and last night’s bread, sip hot tea, and choose from soft pastries the wives just bought at the nearby stands.

The voices are quieter and deeper as they retell what made them laugh not too many hours before, when each sat on moveable stumps–tree trunks recently cut and arranged around the fire–and ate and drank and sang.

After breakfast the visitors go inside, to put on bathing suits and fill their backpacks.  They come out again and walk in groups along the main street that leads them to the pines, and the narrow path that winds through them.

The scent of the green needles above and dry needles below confirms that the sea is very close.  Conversation becomes excited as the visitors reach the boardwalk which takes them to the top of the dunes and the open, far-reaching sky.  And then down to the sea, and to the wide, flat beach, bright in the sun, but cool and smooth on the sole, the rising waves coming at an angle, from the southwest, from Stockholm.

I don’t go anymore to the sea, like I did when I was a boy.  Now a man I spend mid-days in the village, sitting with my back to it.  But in late afternoon when many visitors are napping, the sound of the waves makes it here, and cool air touches my neck.

I sometimes sit across from the weathered garage where I used to work, and I peer over at the worn cars.  Visitors drove them here, three hundred kilometers from Vilnius and Kaunas, and they need repairs before the return trip can be possible.  Years ago, few of the villagers had the skill to replace a belt, or a radiator, or a wheel.  Now, men from other countries move here.  They work on the cars for less.

The owner kept me.  Each morning I would go there and sit.  I would watch the others arrive and begin on the cars.  They acted kind to me, let me deliver this or that.  They didn’t tell me to go.  I left without saying.  Stood from the bench and walked away.  Past their backs, their heads disappeared between open hoods and lifeless engines.

Each day I stop by the churchyard.  The nun there washes my clothes along with the rags she uses for cleaning.  I like to clip the grass around the wooden carvings of the saints.  Sometimes there a visitor will give me a coin.  Most days I accept enough to buy bread, or a piece of fresh meat, or a piece of smoked fish from a cart.

Yesterday while walking along the road in the direction of the bus station, a woman asked me if I had enough to eat, if I needed newer clothes.  She said I reminded her of her grandfather, my blue eyes and light hair.  She gave me these coins saying I might want to go to the city.

Tomorrow I will use them–to sleep one night here, in the smallest cottage by the sea.

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The Robin

The Robin
He put the two spoons into the tray in the kitchen drawer, folded the dish towel over the oven’s handle, and turned to the living room.

“Thanks for dinner,” he called to her.  “Your vegetable soup is always excellent.”

She smiled and settled down into the loveseat, leaning her back against one armrest.  The sun brightened her as it moved lower behind branches and changing leaves.  She liked to watch the birdfeeder at the back.  Yesterday morning two faded cardinals perched on the corner post of the wood fence.  One peeping, as the other hopped to the feeder and back with the dark seed.

Now there were no birds.

She rested her hand on her stomach and looked at her ring.  Then she pulled up her knees and wrapped herself in a brown blanket, her lips straight as she looked again through the large window onto the yard.

He knew she wasn’t thinking about what was out there.  He called to her, “Will you go for a walk with me?”

She turned to him, relieved by the interruption.  “Of course I will, honey.”

He said, “I first need to check my work email.”

<><><>

In the laundry room each put on shoes and a jacket.  She asked, “Where do you want to walk?”

He chose a route he thought would get work off his mind, so he could think with her about what happened in the morning.  “Let’s leave the subdivision, and go to the farmer’s field.”

She took the flashlight from the shelf.  “We’ll need this for the way back.  It gets dark early now.”

They walked down the driveway into the cool, graying evening.  Before crossing the quiet side-street each felt for the other’s hand.  In a minute they turned onto the half-mile stretch of road that ran north, alongside a line of trees that screened the county bike trail.

He said, “I like this road.  The old trees on both sides, all the way to the end.  And I like that it’s straight, that it rises and dips a little, like a real country road.”

“And I like the rabbits,” she said.  She pointed to a gray-brown, furry lump.  It was still, and facing into the trees by the trail.  “He thinks if he doesn’t move we won’t notice him.”  Then she called sweetly, “We see you!”

She added, “I like the trees too, especially now with the colored leaves.  But the mailboxes.  Why are they on the trail side?  The people have to cross the street to get their mail.”

“I never thought about that.”  And he smiled knowing that what he’d say next wouldn’t satisfy her.  “Maybe the village wanted the boxes on the same side as the telephone poles.”

She liked when he made up answers for things.  But she let him know when he didn’t come up with a good one.  “They’re simply on the wrong side.”

Behind them the whisper of a car’s tires on pavement came closer.  They moved over to the narrow strip of gravel.  The car passed slowly and continued on.

“At least there aren’t many cars,” he said.

They became quiet in their own thoughts.  He looked toward an open garage with tools covering the inside walls.  She, at fall flowers in a garden near the road.

As they continued to walk, he said to himself, “Telephone poles and mailboxes.”  Then out loud, “It’s easy here to imagine it’s the seventies.”  He started to daydream and said, “Simpler times.”

They passed a house that, like the others, sat far enough back from the road that a group of old trees could spread their jagged limbs over the large front yard.  A long, gravel driveway bordered one side of the property and gave some weathered, undriven cars a place to be.  The small house’s front door was on a cement stoop.  Next to it stood a tall aluminum pole.  At the top the American flag drooped motionless, faded.

After the house he saw the mowed grass of the park-district baseball field.  No one was there.  In a far corner, a flat area of sand marked the infield.  The tall, chain-link backstop drew his gaze.  Behind it a line of trees screened a two-lane county route that ran the same direction as the road.  From there a high pitched trill of a squad car came and went.  It woke him up from his slide into home-plate.

“Those times seem simpler to me,” he corrected himself, “because I was a boy then.”

She looked at him and smiled.  “I’d like to have seen you as a boy.”

“A boy,” he repeated in a whisper.  Then he spoke in the serious voice he used when talking about his job.  “They’re cutting costs again.  I won’t get the new position.”  Then with a gentle voice, the one he used to ask her for help.  “Why do I stay at that place?  Twenty-five years under fluorescent lights.  My back to the window, the kind that doesn’t open.  Each day is the same–the building won’t let in the season.”

She wanted to say something, like if she owned a company he’d be CEO.  She knew he did well at his job, and hoped with him for a position where he could do more.  But she also liked that he came home at dinner.  She squeezed his hand and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”  And after a pause, “Maybe that new position would have been too much.”

On other walks they wouldn’t hold hands the whole time, but this time they did not let go.  His hand stayed warm because she was holding it.  And at that moment he thought only of her, that she cared for him, that she encouraged him to appreciate family, that she encouraged him to pursue his creativity.

She went on, “Today Agnes asked me to take her to the club.  Years ago she’d pass the time there since Joe was putting so much into his career.  They never had children.  She said they didn’t want kids.  Now there’s none to look in on them.  They need me to take them to the doctor, to help them around the house.  I cross their street to bring in their mail.”

He thought of their being old one day, sitting together at home.  No doorbell.  No ring of the telephone.  Emptiness.

<><><>

At a half-mile they reached the road’s end, the T at the east-west street.  They crossed to the field.  It was lined with stubs of dried cornstalks.

He looked up slightly, into the distance as far as he could.  Low in the west, pink wisps of clouds glowed in front of deep blue.

“The sky,”  he said, “It’s so big here.  So open.”

She too liked the view there, especially after sunset.  “It’s beautiful.”

He looked into the field.  “Last Saturday I saw them having a bonfire and hayride over there.  Boys and girls laughing and screaming.  Really having a good time.”

She smiled.  “Makes me think of when I was a girl.”

A group of robins fluttered among the top branches near the trail.  She looked at them and forgot the rest of what she was going to say.

He’d never seen her pay attention to robins.  She would look for birds that were harder to find.  “What is it?” he asked.

“I just had a memory,” she answered.  “When I was a girl, I would walk with my older sister to and from school.  One time it was spring and we were going along the path through some trees.  On the ground I found a tiny blue egg.  It was cracked and empty.”

He started to say it’s not unusual, but stopped.

“When I stood up, just a little higher than me I saw the nest.  And poking above it, I saw the head of the mother.  I remember her eye, round and black.  She was staring at me like she knew the egg was gone, like she knew there was nothing she could do.”

He put his arm around her.  She rested her head on his shoulder and he could feel her shaking.

She sobbed.  “I told the robin that everything would be okay.  I told her she would have others.”

He hugged her and listened to her cry.  And he began too, in his chest and throat and eyes.  He swallowed.  Then he said quietly, “We’ll try again.  Like the doctor said.”  They held each other for a minute as the sky became a deeper blue.

A single screech of a young great horned howl came from the trees.  Then, overhead, the silhouette of the mother’s outstretched wings glided silently into the woods.

He said, “Let’s go back.”  And before crossing the east-west street each felt for the other’s hand.  She felt hers become warm, because he was holding it.

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The Hustle

Hustle

I wouldn’t have noticed you.

Not if you’d stayed in the crowd walking east on Madison, hurrying to the Loop.  But you crossed south onto Canal, and into the morning shadows.  You didn’t notice me, the woman standing in the alley.  You were looking up.  To the top of Willis Tower.  That’s when I stepped from where I watch, to follow.

That other guy, wearing a suit and carrying a leather portfolio, I won’t try him.  A lawyer or banker won’t listen.  You, though.  Casual pants, a bright checkered shirt, lunch in a green cooler bag.  You will.  And just now, you turned your head to that woman passing by.  She’s a little younger than me, but I’ll still catch your eye.

The men and women walking in front, I see the backs of their heads.  But the top of yours is what I see as you tilt it again, to look up at the buildings.  Your hair is gray and thinning, yet the city’s beauty still fascinates you.

Like the guy I was married to.  In the city he saw only the good.  In me too.  When I would stray he always took me back.  He never said it but he liked not knowing where I’d gone.  I really wanted to make his world as good as he thought.  He left to see if anyone could.

So I’m here.  And I’m coming up next to you because this way works better.  Because if I was walking towards you, you’d study my eyes, my sweatshirt, my jeans.  You might see that I wore them last night, then look past me before I can say…

“Excuse me.”  I say it beside you, nicely, like when your wife’s here and asks someone how to get to State Street.

You look over to me with bright eyes, willing to help.

And so I go on, “I need to get to Bolingbrook.”

Still walking, you look forward.

I see you’re not sure about me.  I keep up and urge you, “Bolingbrook is far away.  I need to take the train.  I have to get home.”

You look over at me again, your mouth closed, lips straight.

You don’t like strangers asking for money.  But I can convince you I’m not a panhandler.  “I came down here yesterday for an interview…at Target.”  That makes me different, doesn’t it?  That I say I’m looking for a job, at a place you’re familiar with?

You stare forward, still walking.

I’ve got one more line that sometimes works.  It’s just for guys.  “My ex-boyfriend left me down here.”

You slow your pace and turn your head to me.

My eyes show I’m hurting and desperate.  I need a fix.

At Monroe the light turns red.  I stop with you.

You look to me and say, “I can’t help you.”  Flat and simple as my husband said when he left.

And as you walk east across Canal, I watch the back of your head.  You walk, and as far as I can see, you never again look up at the buildings.

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Giving Up (a continuation of a prior post titled “Junior High”)

Michael plopped on the couch in front of the television.  He was turning 13.  As he stared at the screen, he thought about his ride home from school.  He had noticed that his mom was a little different in the car.  She didn’t talk as clearly as she usually did, and she didn’t listen as closely to his day’s stories.

Michael loved his mother very much.  He loved her for how much she loved him.  He loved their being together.  Each morning his mom drove him to Grandma’s house, and each afternoon she picked him up.  In the evenings they’d watch TV together, taking turns between what she wanted to watch and what he wanted to watch.  Afterwards when he did his homework, she was just a room away.

From the couch, Michael heard his mom walking around in the kitchen, opening and closing cabinet doors.  Then Michael heard her say to him,  “I’m going upstairs to rest for a while.”

“Okay, Mom.” Michael answered, hiding his disappointment that she wouldn’t sit with him.

He no longer paid attention to the show.  He began to worry.  Over the past few years he was becoming more aware of these times when his mom needed to be by herself in a room, to stay there for hours, even for a day or more.  It didn’t happen too often.  It happened many weeks apart.  So many that, just as he was about to forget, it happened again that his mom needed to be alone.  He had been with his mom through her ups and downs.  The downs started like this.

* * *

Tom headed home in his four-door Galant.  The inside had heated up during the day while parked in the company lot, so he reached his right hand above his receding gray-brown hair and tilted open the sunroof.  Cool air rushed in through the vents, over his khaki pants and around his cotton dress shirt.  He pressed the tip of his right shoe a little harder on the gas pedal, and with a quick look over his left shoulder he merged onto I-294 north.  All four lanes of traffic moved at 70 miles an hour.  Tom kept his car back enough from those in front of him.  Michael had taught him while playing the NASCAR video game to look several cars ahead for the wreck that was going to happen.  To not get caught in it.

* * *

Cathy carried her cell phone as she walked up the carpeted stairs to the bedroom and continued into the adjoining bathroom.  She closed the door and stepped toward the sink.  Squatting, she opened the cabinet beneath, reached behind the rolls of toilette paper and plastic bottles of cleaning products, and pulled out a half-full bottle of vodka.  She sat on the floor, leaned back against the clear shower door, and exhaled deeply.  She lifted the bottle to her lips, tilted her head back, and drank.  She felt the warm, stinging shot flow to the back of her mouth, rush down her throat and into her stomach.  Her nerves began to relax.  She felt guilty but it was too late.  She knew that she would continue drinking into the evening.

* * *

Brake lights glowed red across all four lanes.  This was the spot where traffic came to a stop.  The long drive home was usually a drag, but it didn’t bother Tom this evening.  He had tomorrow off.  The start of the weekend and the warm weather allowed him to relax.

He thought about the weekend.  Tonight he, Cathy, and Michael would watch a couple of movies.  Tomorrow they’d get some things done around the house.  Saturday they’d probably spend the day at her parents’ house.  Cathy would visit with her mom, and he’d watch TV with her dad or maybe shoot baskets in the driveway with Michael and his cousins.  Sunday they’d take a drive into Wisconsin and enjoy being away.

Tom liked the time he and Cathy spent together, whatever they’d do.  In the two years up to their marriage they had been together every weekend.  Even now, a year into it, Cathy’s companionship mattered more to Tom than her being blond, tall, and slim.  They spent time together each day.  In the morning while she’d get ready for work, he’d read to her from the paper a few articles he knew would make her laugh.  Around lunchtime for a few minutes they’d talk on the phone.  In the evening she’d make a small, simple dinner and they sit down together with Michael and talk about their days.  And at the end of the evening as they would get ready to sleep, Tom would sometimes read to her a chapter he’d come across in a classic novel, a chapter he knew she’d like.  And when they’d lie in the dark Cathy would hug him.  Tom was able to sleep again.  Cathy was keeping her promise to not drink, and it had ended their cycle of fighting.

* * *

Cathy hugged her knees as she sat on the bathroom floor.  The late afternoon sun shone through the bathroom window onto her eyes, swollen and red from crying.  She lifted the bottle and drank.  She hated herself.  Hated that this was who she was.  Hated this thing within her that she had been fighting since her teens.  The gradual build up of anxiety until she could do nothing but drink.  Her anger and violence toward everyone repulsed by her drunkenness.  Her pushing away those who loved her.

She had thought that marrying Tom would make her life better.  Tom loved her and forgave her and took her back.  He was good to Michael.  But she needed certainty that Tom would stay.  With each fight she sensed more and more that he was giving up on her.

Cathy told herself that before Tom would get home she’d stop.  Everything would be fine and they’d get on with their weekend.  It was now five o’clock and she knew that Tom would be getting ready to leave work.  Still sitting on the floor she used her cell phone to call him.

* * *

Tom clicked on his right turn signal, checked his mirror to make sure it was clear, and moved onto the exit ramp.  About twenty more minutes.  Tom liked coming home to his family.  He had never liked being on his own.  He had been married before, right after college.  His wife in that marriage had depended on him too much.  He had helped her work through her problems, but he hadn’t realized he was making too many decisions for her.  After a few years, and before they had any kids, she divorced him.

Years later Tom met Cathy.  A divorced mother confidently raising her son, starting a career with a good company.  He was drawn to her non-dependence.  It let him think he wasn’t repeating his mistake.

Buzzing came from the cup holder and interrupted Tom’s thoughts.  His cell phone.  Tom concentrated on the traffic, kept his left hand on the steering wheel and felt for the phone with his right.  At this time Cathy usually called him, so he wasn’t surprised when he saw her name on the screen.

“Hey Cathy.”  Tom answered in a relaxed voice.

“Are you going to be home soon?”

Cathy was trying to speak carefully but Tom heard her slurring.  It was easy to tell.  Tom knew the immediate and significant effect alcohol had on her speech, and on her.  His nerves now felt like they were vibrating and his stomach became upset.

Instantly Tom recalled the times when Cathy was drunk, when he and she yelled at each other and pushed each other.  He hated it.  He knew that when he would get home he would try to avoid her, but that she wouldn’t let him.  He knew he would then get angry with her and it would make everything worse.  He knew, although he truly wished there was a way that he could make the situation better, that he would not get himself to react any differently.  The only thing he could do differently would be to not go home.  But that didn’t make sense to him.  He was not going to stay with his parents or a sister or a buddy.  He was not going to spend the night at a hotel.  He had done this too many times.

He answered in monotone, “I’m on my way home now.”

And Cathy heard in his voice his change of emotion, that he was again disappointed in her, would try to withdraw and ignore her, would again be distant from her.  This hurt her the most. His making her feel as if he didn’t want her, didn’t need her, as if he had made a mistake in marrying her.

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Filed under Alcoholism, Fiction, Short Story

Fade Away

The old man moved slowly from a room which included a collection of books, an oak desk with a leather chair, and a framed degree from Princeton.  He had white hair combed neatly back, and his once handsome face was now wrinkled and spotted.  Although his body was curved by age, he wore an L.L. Bean sweater and Kenneth Cole slacks.

In the living room the television broadcast the late afternoon business report from the New York Stock Exchange.  On screen, an executive in his sixties wore a red tie on a white dress-shirt.  He confidently answered a question from the correspondent.

“No, I’m not going to resign as Arthur Douglas did back in ‘85 after the insider trading scandal.  As CEO of Global Financial, I assure you that I had no knowledge of the recently reported illegal investments using funds from protected customer accounts.  In my 25 years as CEO I’ve done nothing but strengthen the reputation of this corporation.”

As the old man moved into the living room, a young woman in the kitchen called to him, “I turned on the news for you Mr. Douglas.”

“Turn it off, Karen.”  He said, irritated at the report.  He sat in his comfortable chair near a small oak table, from which he picked up the day’s newspaper.  He opened it, but could make out only the headlines.  His sight had started to go after his ninetieth birthday.

He began to read, and then began to sleep, breathing the fall air that came in through the screen of an open window.  Outside, dry leaves crackled and scraped, swirled by the wind.

The man’s head leaned back, and his mouth opened slightly.  He began to snore quietly.

Karen came into the living room.  She was thirty-five, petite,  and had blond short hair and blue eyes.  She wore the colorful short sleeve top of a nurse, gray loose fitting pants, and clean sneakers.  She was Arthur Douglas’s care giver.

She called to him gently.  “Mr. Douglas?”

He had just started to dream when he heard her voice.

“Mr. Douglas?  It’s almost time for dinner.”

He woke, embarrassed that he had fallen asleep. “What was that?”

“Dinner will be ready soon.  Here, I’ve sliced an apple for you.”

“Thank you Karen,”  he answered slowly.

“Did you find anything interesting in the paper?”

“The marathon is this weekend.”

Karen enjoyed their conversations, even now, having cared for him for more than a year.  She asked him playfully, “Would you like to run the marathon this weekend Mr. Douglas?”

He laughed a short but honest laugh.  He then answered earnestly, pointing a curved, aged finger at himself.  “With this body?”

“You’re not in that bad of shape, Mr. Douglas.”  Karen admired his health, and wanted to learn more about how he had stayed so fit.  “Were you ever a runner?”

He placed a slice of apple in his mouth, and chewed slowly as he seemed to leave, thinking back.  Then he said, “I had never run,”  he paused as he thought back,  “until I was about forty-five.”

He went on carefully. “After a couple years of training I ran my first marathon in about five hours.”  And he smiled.

Then Karen continued to be playful.  “Did Mrs. Douglas run with you?”

“No.”  He laughed, enjoying the memory’s details as they came to him.  “Nancy liked that I ran.”  He paused, and went on seriously.  “But she worried about how it exhausted me.”  Then he rubbed his kneecap.  “And she worried that it hurt my legs.”

His eyes then showed the beginning of tears.  “And she always waited for me at the finish line.”

When Karen saw him get like this, she cheered him up.  “Well Mr. Douglas, you are still in very good shape.”

He began to smile. “Yes.  But my mind…” His voice rasped, and then faded.

“Your mind is very good too.”  Karen truly appreciated Mr. Douglas’s intelligence.  “I took your advice about moving some of my money into that investment account you told me about.

“You went with the Lincoln Company’s product, not Global Financial, right?”

“Yes.  Just as you told me.  The man at the bank was impressed!”

The old man liked the compliment.  “You won’t go wrong with that one.”

He then lost track.  “What day is today?” he asked expressionless.

Karen replied comfortingly, “Today is Friday, Mr. Douglas.”

He then remembered what they were talking about.  “Investment accounts,”  he paused.  “That’s how I made my living.” He leaned forward proudly as if to his desk, “I’ve always been good with investing and finance.”

Karen had many times heard him reminisce, and she admired the good that came from his success.

“It enabled you to provide so well for your family.”

Around the living room, picture frames displayed photos of the man and his wife, his son and daughter, and their families.  He stared past the photos, towards his den where he had sometimes conducted business.

The old man was now off in some other place and time.  He thought back to boardroom discussions, quarterly meetings of shareholders, and then to late nights alone in his office:

There was a time, a time when I had thought that being at the top would be easy.  It sure wasn’t.  So much on the line every day.  The risk of losing millions.  The deals I had to make to cut that risk.  But I never crossed the line.  Damn me for trusting that my guys wouldn’t cross it either.

Coming out of the daydream, he then spoke aloud.  “I tried to give them as much as I could.  I wanted to please them.”

“You did Mr. Douglas.  Your family is doing very well.”

The young woman’s voice brought the old man back, but he looked confused.

Karen repeated herself.  “Your family,” Mr. Douglas, “they’re doing very well because of you.”

Karen had been around the Douglas family so often that they knew her well and liked her very much.  Over time, Mr. Douglas began to open up to Karen about things he would not discuss with his children, and even some things he had not talked about with his wife.

The old man had now fully returned from his daydream and now thought about his family.  “My daughter is not happy.  Even at sixty-five there’s never enough for her.”  The old man’s face turned red.  “Despite how Nancy and I had helped her, she continues to need loans.  I don’t understand it.”  He shook his head.

Karen had heard his disappointments before, and responded the same way.

“It’s okay Mr. Douglas.”  she said in a sincere and calming voice.  “It’s just the way it is sometimes.  Besides, you know how much she loves your grandchildren.  You’ve told me yourself how well she raised them.”

The old man responded stubbornly.  “But my daughter is always on the edge of bankruptcy.”

“Mr. Douglas,” Karen said flatteringly, “the expert with money is your son.”

“My son?”  The old man became upset.  “He understands money, but he has divorced and remarried so many times.”

“Mr. Douglas, the woman your son is with now, for so many years, she truly cares for him.  I’ve seen how she smiles when she looks at him, how honest she is with him.  And he is so comfortable and confident with her.  I’m sure it was not that way with the others.”

The old man continued, again shaking his head.  “But he doesn’t keep his vows.”

“Okay, Mr. Douglas.”  She used her voice to calm him.  “Dinner is just about ready.  Start making your way to the table.”

The old man entered the dining room.  He sat at the white plate with gold trim, the silver fork and knife on a folded cloth, he again disappeared in thought.

“They used to line up to meet with me.”

“Who did, Mr. Douglas?”  Karen asked.

“At work, at the office.  The vice presidents and the directors.  I got things done for them.  I made most of them.”

Karen listened, but said nothing now.  She saw that he was discouraged.

“And now where are they?  The last time anybody from the corporation called me I was in my seventies, just a little older than my son and daughter.”

The old man paused again.  “Karen.  Did either of them call today?  Jonathan or Ann?”

“Yes Mr. Douglas, I forgot to tell you.  They both called this afternoon while you napped.  They are coming on Sunday to take you to dinner, like they do every month.

And the old man continued to stare, and then he started to smile, and his eyes came back to life.

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Filed under Character Treatment, Fiction, Short Story

Junior High

As she drove her red Toyota out of the corporate parking garage, Cathy opened the sunroof and side windows and let in the sunshine and warm air of the May afternoon.  Taking both hands off the steering wheel, she pulled back her long blond hair, banding it into a ponytail.  It was Thursday and her workweek was already over.  She headed home, feeling both excitement and anxiety at the same time.

Cathy looked forward to having Friday off, and she thought of the things she would do over the three-day weekend: painting Michael’s bedroom, visiting her mother, preparing the vegetable garden, shopping, and maybe taking a day-trip into Wisconsin with her husband.

But it had been a tough week at work, and her mom was not feeling well and was in a lot of pain.  As Cathy thought of these things her anxiety increased.  She lit a cigarette, inhaled, and then extended her left arm out of the open driver’s side window.  She was ahead of schedule for picking up Michael from the junior high, so seeing a grocery store ahead she decided to pull into the parking lot and to go into the store to buy a few things.

Once inside she went to the liquor section and walked down the aisle she always walked down.  Cathy now felt entirely at ease, protected on both sides by perfectly organized dark wine bottles, shiny beer cans, clear vodka bottles, and golden whiskey—all full, unopened, and neatly labeled.  She picked up a four pack of eight-ounce zinfandels, and on her way back to the register picked up a small bottle of vodka.  The cashier recognized her, smiled, and rang-up her purchase.  As he wished her a good weekend she responded cheerfully, took the bag, and walked quickly to the exit.

When she reached her car in the sunny parking lot, Cathy opened the trunk and set down the bag by a couple of empties that had been rolling around back there for a few days.  She pulled the new vodka bottle from the bag, closed the trunk, and got back into the driver’s seat.

Immediately after closing the car door, Cathy twisted the bottle’s cap, breaking the paper seal.  Lifting the bottle to her lips she took a long drink.  It felt so good.  She took one more drink, capped it, and hid it in her purse.

Cathy then sprayed on some perfume, popped a slice of gum, and pulled out of the parking lot.  She drove on, to the junior high.

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Filed under Character Treatment, Fiction, Short Story