Category Archives: Short Story

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