Tag Archives: family

Alice – Episode 6: Meeting the Neighbors

This is the sixth episode of an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read the whole thing here over the next weeks or buy a copy and binge. Or you can do both and compare the two – writers may learn from the differences. As always, you are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

That first day, we made quick polite stops at every house on the block, both sides of the street. Like Jack had figured out, it was a bedroom community, so most houses we ended up tucking the flyers into the edge of the front door. I was going to put the first one in a mailbox, but Jack stopped me.
“That’s a federal offense,” he said in that serious lecture tone he shared with Mom. “They probably wouldn’t care, but it’s best to avoid trouble when you can.”
I was burning to know more about Jack and trouble, considering all Mom had shouted when he first arrived, but I hadn’t even figured out what to call him. Grandfather was way too formal, Grandpa didn’t really fit either. I thought of him as Jack, but I didn’t normally call adults by their first name – at least not anyone over thirty.
“We’ll go back out in the evening,” said Jack. “After dinner. And on the weekend. Take our time and let people get to know us.”
That evening, Jack went straight for the house where he’d seen the girl with her head covered. It turned out one of the Apu families was Muslim, from Pakistan, but the other was Hindu, from India. Their dads were doctors at the same office.
There was a Hindu girl my age, Ambar, and two Muslim brothers a little older than us, Yusuf and Karim. While Jack chatted with the fathers, Ambar and I sat in her backyard talking with the boys. Her mother kept an eye on us from the kitchen.
“I’d never have been allowed to have Muslim boys for friends if we were still in India,” Ambar said. “And when it’s time for me to marry, my parents are going to insist on a nice Hindu boy.”
Yusuf, who was sixteen, laughed. “Our parents would be furious if they knew how casual we are at school with the other kids. They wouldn’t want us marrying outside our religion, either.”
“I don’t know if I’ll ever get married, and I don’t even go to church,” I said. “We celebrate Christmas, but that’s because everybody does.”
“Don’t tell our parents,” said Karim. “That’s worse than being a Christian!”
“Definitely,” said Ambar.
“So you girls are going to be in high school with us this fall,” said Yusuf.
“You’ll probably get Mr. Zeller for math,” said Karim. “He’s a complete burnout—he should have retired years ago. Whatever you do, don’t correct him if he makes a mistake.”
We chatted for an hour about the different teachers and what high school was like. We were all friends by the time Jack finished talking with their fathers and said it was time to head home.
I told him how nice they all were. “I can’t believe they’ve been on the bus for three years and they never talked to me before.”
“They were probably waiting for you to make the first move, Nina. After all, they’re in a country where half the people see someone whose skin’s a little different, who talks with an accent, and immediately they’re suspected of being a terrorist.”
I considered that. “Maybe. And I’m usually doing homework or reading.” I started to wonder what other potential friends had never tried to talk to me. “I don’t talk much with anyone else on the bus, either.”
“Well, don’t feel bad. They’ve had each other for friends.” Jack laughed a little and slipped into teaching mode. “That definitely wouldn’t have happened if their fathers hadn’t gone to med school together. When India and Pakistan were split apart by religion, the lines weren’t as clear as the politicians tried to make them. It got ugly.”
Mom using that tone would leave me bored and looking for a way out. Jack made it feel like he was sharing important secrets, so I didn’t mind. I wanted to share, too. “Ambar wouldn’t be allowed to be friends with the boys anywhere else.”
“I’m surprised they let it happen here,” said Jack. “But maybe they figure it’s unavoidable, and they can manage it this way.”
It was too late to go anywhere else that night, but we went out every evening after dinner. Three of the houses we visited later that week belonged to university professors. Jack talked with the couples about new developments in stem cell research, globalization vs. isolationism, and the social resistance techniques of Gandhi.
In the last discussion, Mr. Parker, a young professor of Social Justice classes, eagerly listened to Jack describing the Berkeley protests he had participated in, with Mom strapped onto his chest. He asked if Jack would be a guest speaker in the fall.
“I’ll have to let you know,” said Jack.
When I told Mom how much Jack knew about so many different things, she still said he was full of shit. She used that word a lot whenever he was near her, and they argued almost every time they were in the same room—about personal stuff or world affairs, anything and everything.
Jack’s check came to our house the first of July and he insisted on giving Mom some of it for room and board, which was probably why she quit saying he had to leave. She was getting more and more stressed about money and not having a new job lined up for the fall. She was on the computer all day every day, putting in applications all over the country. She told Jack she wasn’t putting our house up for sale until she knew where she’d be working in the fall. There was still a chance a French teacher would leave mid-summer, somewhere close enough for her to commute.
I finally decided to call my grandfather Jack, like Mom did. I tried it out on him alone first, then at dinner. Neither of them noticed. At least they didn’t say anything about it.

You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn
https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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Alice – Episode 5: Breakfast

This is the fifth episode of an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read the whole thing here over the next weeks or buy a copy and binge. Or you can do both and compare the two – writers may learn from the differences. As always, you are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

The next morning I made a scramble. Breakfast is my favorite meal to cook. Jack helped and then went to get Mom. They were talking about the empty houses when they came into the kitchen.
“I can’t believe the banks just let the yards die off like that,” he complained. “Don’t they know that hurts the value of the house, and everything around?”
“Why do you care?” Mom asked. “You never believed in owning real estate, did you?”
“I hate to see waste. There are too many homeless people to have houses sitting empty all over this country, left to fall apart.” Jack turned to me. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Plates are in that cupboard, silverware in that drawer,” I said. “Put the plates here and I’ll dish this up when it’s done.”
“Having homeless people move in wouldn’t help much,” said Mom. She got juice out of the fridge and took it to the table. “They wouldn’t be able to take care of the houses. Ownership’s not cheap.”
“They’ll have to sell them under market, the way they’ve let them go. That won’t help your investment.”
Mom looked at him like he was speaking an alien language that she understood, but she didn’t expect him to understand. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “Even if they sell at a depressed price, the new owners will invest enough getting them fixed up to bring their equity back in line with the rest of the neighborhood. It’ll work out.”
“If you don’t have to sell before that happens.” He pointed at Mom. “You should be making a fuss, now, before they sell.”
She stretched her neck, tilting her head side to side and rolling once each way. “I hadn’t planned on moving anytime soon.”
I caught the past tense – that’s what happens when your parent is an OCD teacher. I whipped around to face her, dropping some scramble from the spatula onto the floor. I didn’t care. “You’re going to sell our house?” I demanded.
She took a slow breath before she answered – always a bad sign. “I’ve expanded my job search. We might have to move.”
“Great.” I turned away from her and finished dishing up the scramble. I kept blinking to hold back the tears. Everyone was away for the summer. If we left before they came back, would I ever see my friends again?
“It’s not a definite,” she was saying. “I’m checking every day for new postings, but there’s nothing within fifty miles of here. French teachers just aren’t in demand.”
By the time the plates were ready to take to the table, Jack was cleaning up the mess I made on the floor with a paper towel.
“Thanks,” I said as I stepped past him. I couldn’t look at Mom yet. She couldn’t know how close to tears I was. She was doing her best. I knew that.
After breakfast, which was really quiet, Mom went back to her job hunt on the computer. Jack helped me clean up the kitchen.
“Can you print from that computer of yours?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s wi-fi’d with Mom’s printer.”
He looked at me. “Wi-fi like they have in coffeeshops?”
“Kind of, but it’s just our local network. We have a password so people driving by can’t access it for anything disgusting or illegal.”
“Okay,” he said. “Is it too old-fashioned to print out some flyers offering handyman and babysitting services? Figured we could take them around and introduce ourselves.”
I wiped the table and counters. The kitchen was done. “Actually, that’s a good idea. There’s one family I’ve worked for a little. I’ll call and ask if I can give their name and number as a reference. We should put our pictures on it, too. You look nice this morning.”
I slapped my hand up against my mouth, but he laughed.
“I was pretty scruffy after that bus ride.”
“Why didn’t you fly?”
“Bus was cheaper by almost a hundred bucks. Train would have been better, but it was almost as much as flying.”
I understood being careful with money. Even before she lost her job, Mom had always watched our spending – like not getting cable. She did agree to getting an antenna and we picked up quite a few options with that.
“Will your mother see the flyers on her printer?” he asked.
He seemed worried. I started to ask why when it hit me. “You’re staying more than a few days, aren’t you.”
He grimaced. “Well, I’m not sure where else to go. I’m too dang old for sleeping under bridges. And it seems like Alice can use some help right now.”
I thought a moment. “If she sees the flyers, she’ll know you’re planning to stay awhile, but she’ll also see you’re looking for work, and Mom likes that. The only reason I haven’t done more babysitting is we’re away most holidays and during the school year, she says that’s my job… It’ll be okay, whether she sees the flyers or not.”
As it turned out, by the time I’d taken and uploaded a photo of Jack and we designed a great flier together, Mom was taking a break, making coffee in the kitchen, so she didn’t even hear her printer.

You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn
https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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Alice – Episode 4: Nina Cries

20130324AliceFrontCoverWebSize

This is the fourth episode of an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read the whole thing here over the next weeks or buy a copy and binge. Or you can do both and compare the two – writers may learn from the differences. As always, you are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

Jack was really old school about technology. He insisted on having the cell phone on speaker so it wouldn’t give him brain cancer, so I found out his friend was dead with him. He wrote down the name of the cemetery and thanked the person who told him, then said goodbye and handed me my phone.

“I don’t know how to hang that thing up. You don’t have to pay long distance for that call?”

“No, we have unlimited calls and text anywhere in the country.”

“And your mother has internet on her phone, doesn’t she? That’s what she was doing before?”

“Yeah. So can I… I’m sorry about your friend.”

He shrugged it off. “Wouldn’t a land line cost less? Or having one cell phone? What with your mother losing her job and all?”

I’d never known anyone who had someone close to them die, so it was a relief to talk about anything else. Maybe that’s how Jack felt, too. “We talked about it when she got pink slipped, but my cell phone’s how I stay in touch with my friends, especially over summer, and Mom needs hers for jobs. So I’m going to babysit more and pay half.”

“I’m just meeting my granddaughter and here she is taking care of babies herself.”

He sounded sad again, so I babbled on about texting and Facebook and Twitter and all the ways my friends and I communicated.

“You don’t have to be an adult for that?” he asked.

“As far as the internet is concerned, I’m eighteen.”

“Does your mother know?”

“Yeah, she lectured me about not talking to strangers online, but she caved on the age issue because she knows that’s how all the kids connect. She admitted that’s important. But she insisted that I keep her on my friends list, so I have to tell everyone to be careful what they post.”

He stared out the window and let out a big sigh. “Does your mother have many friends?”

“Not really. Mostly she works and then spends time with me. It was cool when I was little, but it’s kind of a pain sometimes.”

“That’s probably my fault,” he said. “When she was little, she made new friends all the time, then we’d move on. Somewhere along the line, she started keeping to herself. I didn’t even notice until she was gone and there was no one to tell me where.”

I didn’t know what to say. Most of what he’d been telling me about my mother was really weird and didn’t fit with what I knew about her at all, but being a loner was totally Mom. After all, she even went to a sperm bank for me. But I’d never thought about why she might be that way.

“You and your friends do things together, too?” he asked. “It’s not all electronic stuff?”

“Of course.”

“But skinny dipping’s not one of them?”

He smiled. I was glad he wasn’t talking about sad stuff anymore. I grinned back at him.

“No, I don’t think my friends would do that.”

“Too bad. It’s a liberating experience. What will you be doing with them now school’s out?”

That’s when I told him how my friends all lived across town and everyone had plans for the summer. It hadn’t mattered when Mom and I were going to hike the Appalachian Trail all summer, but now it was a bummer. But it wasn’t as bad as finding out a friend was dead, so I stuck on a fake smile and tried to sound excited that I’d have all that extra time for babysitting.

“Who do you babysit for?” he asked.

“There’s one family down the street, but I think there’s more with little kids.”

He looked at me like I’d said something really strange. “Think? You don’t know your neighbors? How long have you lived here?”

I got defensive. “All my life, but we’re never home. When I was little, Mom taught gymnastics across town and took me with her – that’s where I met my friends. We’ve been friends forever. We do things together after school and summers, Mom and I go camping different places.” By then I was shaking. Everything caught up with me all at once and I couldn’t stop the tears but I managed to lower my voice. “It’s just now everything’s messed up. And I can’t tell Mom because she’s worried enough.”

Jack pulled me into a hug and let me muffle my sobs against his chest. He didn’t mind the snot all over his shirt.

I’d almost gotten it under control when we heard Mom coming. He gave me a wink and went to head her off. I washed off my face and holed up in my room until dinner.

Dinner was tense. Jack still looked like a hippie, but he wasn’t so scruffy after he’d showered, shaved, and put on some clean clothes. He complained about the bus trip.

“It would have been more comfortable if I’d hitchhiked,” he said. “But the folks at the hospital didn’t think I should do that. . . So, is this a small town or a suburb?”

“A little of both,” Mom replied. “It’s more separate from the city and smaller than most suburbs, but there aren’t a bunch of people who’ve lived here forever. Most of it used to be a farm until they built these houses for commuters.”

Jack nodded. “So it’s a bedroom community? People mostly just sleep here?”

I put in my two cents. “And they work in their yards and gardens. The houses in this area are all pretty small, mostly like ours, but they all have big yards.”

“Folks keep things nice?” he asked.

“Pretty much.” Mom replied.

“Looks like you picked a good place for Nina to grow up.”

“Don’t try to schmooze me,” Mom warned him. “You’re only staying a few days.

“I know.” He put his hands up, then looked at me and lowered them.

That ended conversation until Jack helped clear the table while I loaded the dishwasher. Mom had already excused herself to get back to her job hunt.

“I usually take a walk after dinner,” Jack said. “Let’s scope out the neighborhood, see who might need a babysitter.”

“Okay.”

As he closed the front door, Jack asked if there were any kids my age in the neighborhood.

“A few ride the bus, but they keep to themselves.”

“Why’s that?”

I shrugged one shoulder. “I think they’re Muslim. I know it’s two different families, but all the parents speak English with that accent like Apu.”

“Who’s Apu?”

“On the Simpsons, the storekeeper?”

“Oh, that cartoon. I’ve seen that a couple times. Never bothered having a television myself.”

“Mom’s like that. She’d rather read.”

“Guess I didn’t do everything wrong.”

The red Porsche with the personalized license plate that said “I SUE 4U” went by about the time we reached the vacant house on the corner.

“Lawyer I take it?” asked Jack.

“Yeah. He moved in next door last summer. He’s hardly ever home.”

“Probably busy taking people’s money away from them. He doesn’t have any kids, either, right?”

“I think he lives alone.”

There was some new graffiti on the abandoned house and the grass wasn’t coming back.

“That place looks like shit,” said Jack.

“It’s been empty a couple years. Mom said it’s going through foreclosure.”

“That’s too bad. Especially when everyone else keeps their places so nice.”

“There’s two more the other direction. They’ve been empty even longer,” I said. “They’re worse.”

You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

Sheri2012RGB2inch

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn
https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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Alice Episode 3: Settling In

20130324AliceFrontCoverWebSizeThis is the third episode of an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read the whole thing here over the next weeks or buy a copy and binge. Or you can do both and compare the two – writers may learn from the differences. As always, you are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

We only had one television; Mom was weird about that. She thought it was almost all a waste of time. I even had to promise not to watch programs online. At least I had my own computer. It was her old desktop, but I’d put in some new components to speed it up, so it worked great. No, I wasn’t really a computer geek. They had a workshop at school on how to build a computer.

Anyway, the television was in the den, where I helped Jack set up temporary living quarters. I figured I wouldn’t be watching TV much while he stayed with us.

“Does this thing pull out into a bed?” he asked.

“No, sorry, but it’s comfy to sleep on,” I said. “I’ve zonked out on it plenty of times when I was watching movies late. Or we have those really thick air mattresses that we use for camping, if you’d rather have one of them.”

“No, the couch is fine. How often do you go camping?”

“At least half of the summer, usually.” Talking with him while we put sheets on the couch seemed like the most natural thing in the world. “We’ve been to most of the national parks east of the Mississippi. And we were going to hike the northernmost section of the Appalachian Trail this year, except Mom’s got to job hunt now instead. We were going to do part of it each year and finish right after I graduate from high school.”

“Don’t teachers get tenure in New York?”

“Doesn’t matter when they cut the program. If she’d been qualified to teach something else they would have transferred her. But she can only teach French.”
Jack laughed so hard his shoulders shook and his eyes teared.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Your mother started speaking French when she was about your age,” he said. “We were living with this woman in Quebec. That only lasted a few tense months, but your mother caught onto the language easy as pie.”

“You lived in Quebec?”

“Just while I was with. . .Genevieve, that was her name.”

“Mom never told me she lived in Canada. She never talks about anything before I was born.”

“She had a whole lifetime before that, Darlin’.”

I whispered again, “She used to skinny dip?”

He whispered back, “When she was a little tyke, she hardly ever wore clothes and no one wore them for swimming.”

“What are you whispering about?” Mom was in the doorway and she didn’t look happy.

“We’re just talking about how much you liked swimming when you were little, Baby Girl.” He sounded completely innocent. “Thought you were unloading your car.”

“It was almost done. Nina, don’t listen to his stories. This man is the biggest liar you’ll ever meet. And you, don’t you infect her with your nonsense.”

“What do you mean?” He looked bewildered, but I could tell he knew exactly what she meant.

“And no pot in my house,” she continued to lecture. “Nothing illegal, or you’ll get a ride straight to the police station, you understand?”

“Sure thing, Baby Girl. I don’t want to cause any problems. I’ll just sleep here a few days until I figure out where I’m going. I won’t be any bother at all.”

“Yeah, right. Nina, take him to your room and do a search for this Jimmy Parks person in Arizona.”

“Okay, Mom.”

“And leave the door open. I’ll be checking on you. No stories.”
Jack had never had a computer or a cell phone.

“Seriously?” I asked.
Jack sat on the bed behind me. “Played with one at the coffee shop a few times, looking around on it, but most of the news was about people I’d never heard of. Seemed like most of them hadn’t done anything worthwhile for people to care about, either.”

“Yeah, but you get the news fast.” As I waited for the internet to load, it didn’t feel fast.

“How much confidence can you have in the truth of it? They’ve always tweaked history, but they can do it way too fast with the internet.” He sounded so much more serious now. “I’d rather read something on paper, where they know what they said is going to be around for people to take a second look at it. That’s harder to change.”

“You can get news from around the world, though, and get their perspective on things. Our Social Studies teacher had us checking the BBC last year.”

“Really? Well, that might be a good thing,” he said. “So you think you can find Jimmy Parks?”

“I can try.”

It turned out that there were dozens of Jimmy and James Parks in Arizona, but we didn’t find the one Jack knew.

“I should have had them check while I was at the hospital.” He sighed and shook his head.

“Should always have a backup plan.”

“He was in the military with you?”

“We were in ‘Nam together.”

“When’s the last time you talked to him?”

“Ten, fifteen years ago. Maybe.”

“He could be anywhere,” I said.

I was thinking he could be dead, and Jack looked like he was thinking the same thing. I figured that was why he hadn’t asked at the hospital – that and he’d expected Mom to be happy to see him. Sadness poured out of him the same way happiness did. I wanted him happy.

“How did you meet Mom’s mom?” I asked.

“Got out in June of ‘67. Headed straight for San Francisco.”

“That’s what they called the Summer of Love, wasn’t it?” I was proud of my knowledge. “We had a sub in Social Studies when we were studying the sixties, and he told us about that and Agent Orange and a whole bunch of other stuff that wasn’t in the books.”

“History changes according to who has power.” Jack spoke in what I already considered his lecture voice.

“That’s exactly what Mom said when I told her the teacher was upset his plans hadn’t been followed! Word for word the same.” And she’d sounded like Jack, too.

“Well, she heard me say it often enough, and she was there for the protests. She was a tiny thing, she may not remember much of it, but she was there.”

He dug in his pocket for his wallet and pulled out a plastic sleeve. I caught a glimpse of a young woman with flowers braided into her hair before he turned it over and pulled out a yellowed piece of newspaper. He unfolded it carefully and smoothed it out on my desk where I could look at it. It was starting to rip on the folds.

“That’s your mother,” he said proudly.

It was a peace rally. The toddler he pointed to had tangled hair down to her waist and she was wearing shorts and nothing else. She was helping a much younger Jack hold a sign: Make Love, Not War!

“Did she do protests when she got older?” I asked.

“Nah, the movement cooled off once they finally pulled out. There was still stuff going on, but the fire had died. At least for me it had.”

He looked sad again so I got the hospital’s number from Mom and called to ask about Jimmy Parks. Jack’s social worker connected us with an officer who connected us with another officer, until we finally got someone who could help us. Jack had enough information for them to track down Jimmy Parks.

Unfortunately, Jimmy was residing in a cemetery in Phoenix.

You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.
Sheri2012RGB2inch

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn
https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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Alice – Episode 2

20130324AliceFrontCoverWebSizeThis is the second episode of an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read the whole thing here over the next weeks or buy a copy and binge. Or you can do both and compare the two – writers may learn from the differences. As always, you are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard.
Thank you.

It was like ninety degrees and humid that day Jack arrived, and air conditioning wasn’t in our new budget. But I figured the old guy needed a good meal, so I heated up some of Mom’s homemade stew in the microwave while they talked.

“We’ll feed you, then I’ll give you a ride to a truck stop myself,” Mom said.

“That’ll be fine, Baby Girl. I told those people at the hospital you wouldn’t want me around, but they felt better thinking they were sending me to family.” He sat down at the table.

Mom didn’t sit. She was busy looking for a truck stop on her phone.

“Thanks,” he said when I put a bowl of stew in front of him with a plate of crackers. “I should have gone to Arizona in the first place. Last I knew, Jimmy Parks was still kicking. He’ll let me sleep on his couch. You go through war together, there’s a bond.”

“You’re still pretending to be a Vietnam vet?” Mom was using her stern voice, the one teachers use to bring rowdy teenage boys into line.

“It was never pretending. You can call the hospital if you don’t believe me. They wouldn’t treat me if I wasn’t a vet.” His lower jaw came forward under his tight lips, just like Mom’s when she’s mad.

“You have the number?” she asked, calling what she thought was a bluff.

He handed her a card and went back to eating the stew.

“They won’t tell me anything,” she said.

“Yeah they will. I signed off for you. Figured if I croaked, they’d track you down and you might want to know what happened.” He winked at me.

Mom glared at him. “Decades of drug abuse will do a lot of damage.”

“I haven’t used anything except pot since 1985.” He looked straight at her.
“Haven’t even had a beer since then.”

“Because I left?”

“No. I had Hodgkin’s. Figured my body had enough poisons in it without my adding any more.”

“Hodgkin’s?” I asked. “Isn’t that like cancer?”

He nodded. “It’s a lymphoma, hits the whole system. A gift from Uncle Sam and Agent Orange. I beat it, but the chemo and radiation they used back then were pretty destructive themselves. When I had those chest pains, they figured it was heart disease from all that, but my heart checked out fine. It was just a spasm in the artery, but they said if it happened again and cut off blood flow to the heart too long, that would cause damage. So I carry the nitro.”

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” asked Mom. He’d finally given her the full explanation she’d wanted.

He looked at her standing there with the card in her hand. “Use that cell phone of yours.”

She went out to the back yard to make the call.

“Are you dying?” I asked. I knew it wasn’t polite, but somehow he invited that kind of directness.

“No, I got a clean bill of health before they put me on that bus. But I need to take care of myself and keep watch for other cancers.”

“So why’d they think you needed to be with family, if you’re healthy?”

“Because I’m old, and the home I’d made for myself got taken away from me. That left me pretty depressed at first. Especially being all alone.” He looked out the window at Mom on the phone and sighed.

“Why’d the landlord kick you out?” I asked.

“Damned greedy guy’s making it a grow house.”

My jaw dropped. I’d caught Weeds a few times at Mary’s house. Her parents didn’t pay any attention to what she watched. But that was fiction. We didn’t know any people like that.

“He was going to grow pot there?” I whispered.

“Yeah,” said Jack. “They went and made medical marijuana legal in California, but it’s still illegal to feds. So growers are taking it indoors, out of sight, doing intensive hydroponics. I’m not the only one who got kicked out.”

Back then, marijuana was still illegal most places, including where we lived. I checked out the window. Mom was still on the phone, looking majorly stressed. I was glad she couldn’t hear us. I still whispered when I asked, “You smoke pot?”

“Yup. Have my medical card for back problems. But really it’s to help me deal with stress.” He looked out at Mom. “I could use some now. You know where to get any?”

“No.” I couldn’t believe he’d asked.

“Your mother brought you up to walk the straight and narrow, eh?”

“I guess. Well, she’s a teacher. Her contract says she has to reflect well on the school at all times.” How many times had I heard that? “She won’t even wear cutoffs unless we’re camping.”

“Seriously?” He laughed. “Good Lord.”

“So she wasn’t always like this?”

“Like what?” Mom asked from the doorway.

“Uptight, Baby Girl. You won’t wear cutoffs even at home? Probably don’t skinny dip anymore, either.”

“No, I don’t.” The cell phone was still in her hand. She put it back into her pocket.

“So,” she said, “they say you could go into the veterans’ home, but there’s a waiting list.”

“It’s bad enough having to go to a vet hospital. I was drafted. I’m not going to go live with a bunch of regular army types. I’ll sleep under a bridge first.”

“They said you get disability.”

“Yeah, but it’s not enough to live on.”

“Well, you can stay here a few days until we figure out an alternative.”

“Why thank you, Baby Girl.”

He went to hug her and she dodged it again.

“Just a few days,” she warned.

“Sure. I’ll get. . .” He turned to me. “What’s your name again?”

“Nina.”

“Nina,” he repeated. “I’ll get Nina to help me find a bridge for the summer. Then I’ll head to Arizona in September; see if I can find Jimmy Parks.”

Mom rolled her eyes over to me. “Nina, help him get settled in the den. I’ll finish unloading the car.”

She didn’t mean to let him stay more than a few days, but at some level she must have known it was inevitable.

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Alice – Episode 1

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This is an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read it in weekly doses, buy the complete book, or do both and compare the two – a useful exercise if you’re a writer. The plan is to make an audio version, so I’m tweaking the writing to make that work better.

As always, you are welcome to share this link, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to publish or use the material. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where my story has traveled. Thank you.

Alice – Episode 1

This is the story of my mother, Alice McKenna. You know her as the Rosa Parks of the Taxpayers Civil Rights Movement. When she refused to give up her seat on that bus, Rosa Parks moved working people to stand up for their rights to end discrimination. That day in 2012 when my mom sat down in the middle of the bank and said “No,” she became the same kind of symbol for taxpayers.

If you’d known her a few months earlier, you’d never have believed it was the same person. I guess it started back in March, when she got pink-slipped. The school board decided football was more important than French. Frankly, my first reaction was relief that she wouldn’t be teaching at my high school when I hit ninth grade in the fall. I figured she’d commute to another town. But it was June, school was out, and Mom didn’t have a job yet. I helped her pack up her classroom.

We were unloading the car, stacking boxes in the garage, when an orange taxi pulled up in front of our house. The back door opened and out came a long-haired, scruffy old man in a faded tie-dyed shirt with a dirty army surplus duffle bag. He turned to look at us.

Maybe I should back up a minute.

You’ve got to understand, my mom was perfect. She always followed all the rules. The only wild and crazy thing she’d ever done was go to a sperm bank for my other half. No one knew about that except us. We never met the guy. People assumed she was divorced and I had a deadbeat dad I never saw. Aside from that, she’d always been very proper. If she ever had sex, it was before I was born and I don’t think that ever happened. And she never ever swore or used what she called “ugly” words.

But when my mother saw this scruffy old hippie standing by the taxi in front of our house? She dropped the box she was holding and said, “Shit.” She said it with a sigh, as if she used that word all the time. Then she set down the box she was holding. She put her hand up for me to stay put and she started for the guy, shaking her head and saying, “No, no, no, no, no! No, you are not here. You never came here. Get back in that cab.” He opened his arms as if she was happy to see him but she dodged the hug and said, “No. Leave.”

“Could you pay the taxi driver?” he drawled. “I used up all the cash they gave me on food. That bus trip took days.”

“Who they?” she demanded.

“The social worker who found you on her computer. Just like Orwell’s 1984.

“1984,” she repeated. “That’s the year I got the hell away from you, Jack.”

Jack! My grandfather. My only other relative and all I knew about him was his name and that Mom had left home at sixteen and never looked back… I’d never seen her so angry and flustered, and the more upset she got, the calmer he got.

“Now, Baby Girl…”

She shouted over him. “Don’t Baby Girl me! What are you doing here?”

The taxi driver interrupted to let her know the meter was still running. “You gonna pay me, lady?”

“Can’t you just take him back to the bus station?” she asked.

“Double the fare,” he said.

“I’d have to walk all the way back here, Baby Girl,” Jack reasoned. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Mom glared at Jack and paid driver. He burned rubber pulling away.

“You can’t stay,” Mom said. “Why are you here?”

“Well, the hospital social worker insisted I needed to be with family. You’re it, Baby Girl.”

“Why were you in the hospital?” she asked.

“It wasn’t a heart attack,” he said.

“What was it?”

“Well, they weren’t really sure, but all the tests showed that there was no damage to the heart, so it wasn’t a heart attack.”

Mom took a deep breath and blew it out hard. “Were you having chest pains?”

“Well, I got so upset when the cops came,” he said, as if it was perfectly normal.

She interrupted. “You were being arrested again?”

She’d obviously forgotten that I was right there in the garage where I could hear every word they said.

“I’d been renting the same place for, I don’t know, probably ten years,” he said. “The owner decided to take it back!”

“You? In the same place for ten years?” Mom scoffed.

He kept trying to sweet-talk her. “Well, Baby Girl, I’m getting up there, you know. Moving around gets harder as you get older.”

“It’s tough when you’re a kid, too,” she said.

At that point, he started rubbing his chest. “You’re not being fair, Baby Girl. I did the best I could.”

“Don’t bother pretending to have a heart attack with me. I’m not a wet-behind-the-ears cop. I know you, Jack.”

He squatted down by his bag on the sidewalk and pulled out a little brown bottle of pills.

“Quit faking,” Mom said.

He ignored her and stuck one under his tongue. He closed his eyes and kept rubbing his chest.

“You’re not fooling me,” Mom said, but she sounded a little worried.

“Just call a cab,” he said. “Get me to a truck stop. I’ll hitch myself a ride and leave you alone.”

“Fine,” she said, “I’ll do that.” She pulled out her cell and started to search for a cab company. We didn’t do rideshares.

That grundgy old man was my only relative, aside from Mom. I walked out to the sidewalk and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Nina, your granddaughter. Are you okay now?”

His full smile was like a light going on. “Granddaughter. Wow. Half-grown, too. How old are you?”

I found myself smiling right back. “I’ll be fourteen in August.”

“Almost as old as your mother was when she decided to be on her own.”

“Jack,” Mom warned, “don’t you start on her.”

“I understand, you don’t want me around here causing problems between you and your husband.”

“She’s not married,” I said. “My father was a sperm donor.”

Jack grinned. “Really?”

“From a sperm bank!” Mom crossed her arms and glared at him. “Having a man in our lives would only complicate things.”

“Well now you know what it’s like being a single parent,” said Jack.

“I was always the parent,” said Mom. “Nina’s never had to take care of me.”

“I did when you had the flu,” I reminded her. “I even made chicken soup from scratch.”

“You cook?” he asked.

“I can.”

“Man, I’m hungry,” he said. “Think we could convince your mother to let me stay for some lunch, at least?”

“Fine,” Mom said. “Lunch. Then you leave.”

Of course that’s not what happened.

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Defining Moments: Technology & Yesterday’s Coffee

Marvin unplugged his computer for the fourth time as yet another thunderstorm rolled through. He worked on battery, trying to meet his self-imposed deadline, but the computer died before he could finish. Frustrated, he gave up. He turned off the lights and stretched out on the couch to watch the storm outside. He toyed with the idea of plugging the computer back into the wall, but repeated lightning strikes lit up the room. He couldn’t afford a new computer and he didn’t want to lose all of his work on this one.

His cell phone jarred him awake. Why had he set the ringtone to that annoying buzz? He stumbled across the now-dark room towards the sound, bumping into a chair and cursing on his way. He grabbed the phone and caught a glimpse of a 716 area code before the display flashed its low battery warning and went dark. The clock on the microwave beamed a steady 12:06. A few hours ago, the phone had said the battery was at 100% and he’d unplugged it.

Obviously it had lied.

He turned on a light. The storm had passed, so he plugged in both the phone and his computer to let them recharge, though he didn’t hold out much hope for the phone. He probably needed a new one, or at least a new battery – if they even sold batteries for it anymore. Someone told him the new ones didn’t have batteries.

He decided to make a cup of coffee and get back to the story he’d been trying to finish all day. As he waited for the microwave to chime, his thoughts wandered back to the phone call. He knew that area code. It was an East coast number. It would be three in the morning there. If he knew the caller, their name would have popped up, not the number.

A telemarketer? Not at three in the morning. A bill collector? They weren’t supposed to call in the middle of the night either, and he didn’t have any debts anyway.

It had to be an emergency – someone calling with bad news.

The phone rang again. He didn’t think it let calls through while it was charging. He looked at the number and hit answer, but again the phone died before he connected with the caller. He repeated the number as he wrote it on his whiteboard.

The first thing he did on his computer was a reverse search for the number. Angela Newsome – no one he knew. He took a sip of coffee. She was probably calling his number by mistake. That’s all – it was probably just a dyslexic error or she was drunk, this time of night.

He tried to work on his story.

He went back and looked for more information about Angela.

She did live in a small town near his aunt and uncle. What if she was letting a stranger – a member of his family – use her phone at a hospital because their cell phone had died? It had to be important for her to have tried calling twice at this hour.

The phone rang again and he dashed across the room to answer it. Again it died without making a connection. As Marvin stared at the useless piece of technology in his hand, he felt he had to contact Angela Newsome as quickly as possible. He wouldn’t get any work done until he knew the reason for the calls. He copied the number onto a piece of paper and the phone actually let him check that he had it right, though he couldn’t call out.

It had to be something wrong with Uncle Joe or Aunt Helen. They were in their eighties. It could be either of them, one lying in the hospital with a heart attack that promised to be fatal and the other desperately reaching out to family for support.

He slipped his wallet into his pocket with the paper, put on his shoes, and found his car keys on the kitchen shelf where he’d left them earlier. He didn’t stay in touch the way he should. A few years back, Aunt Helen had called him late at night when one of their grandkids wrapped a car around a tree. The kid didn’t make it, and Marvin hadn’t gone to the funeral.

He paused on his way to the door. Did he really want to know what was happening?

Maybe he could wait until tomorrow, go buy a new phone or battery, have his number transferred if necessary, and then he could call. The only funeral he’d ever attended was the one for his parents and kid sister, when he was sixteen.

It was his fault they weren’t safe at home. He’d gotten so obnoxiously drunk that night that someone had called his parents – either to get rid of him or to get him home safe. He didn’t even remember. His sister rode along because when he was like that he responded better to her. He didn’t even get hurt in the accident; neither did the drunk who plowed into them.

Marvin hadn’t had a drink since that night.

Joe and Helen had taken him in while he finished high school. Their kids were older – already had families of their own, scattered all over the country. Some of them might even be living out his way. Aunt Helen could be calling for him to go help someone dear to them.

The night was crystal clear, with stars shining brightly. The air was still moist and aromas heightened – damp earth and pines. It wasn’t a bad night for a drive. He wound down dark roads into the little town near the highway, where the diner was open all night.

He explained his dilemma to the woman who seated him.

“I can’t let you use the business phone, but I’ll get my cell for you,” she replied.

“Thank you,” he said as she handed him a menu. He felt like he had to order something. “I’ll have a cup of coffee.”

“It’s yesterday’s.”

“That’s okay.”

He planned to leave her a large tip anyway.

The first time he called the number, he got a voicemail message that confirmed it was Angela’s phone. He left a message and took a sip of the bitter coffee.

“No one answering now?” asked the waitress.

He shook his head.

“They called you three times… I’d call them back the same,” she said.

Not sure if he was angry or worried, Marvin called the number again and hung up when it went to voicemail. His third try a young woman answered – groggy, confused, and irritated.

“Who is this?” she demanded.

“Marvin Harrington. You called me three times.”

“I didn’t make any calls. You called me.”

“Your number was recorded on my phone. Three times, about forty minutes ago.”

“I was asleep. It’s the middle of the night.” She was mostly irritated at this point.

“Could someone else have used your phone?”

“No, I live alone.”

He could hear her running water.

“So you’re saying your phone must have called me itself?”

“No, you probably made a mistake copying the number,” she said, then yawned.

“I double-checked it.” Marvin was sure he’d gotten it right.

“Listen, I don’t know how my phone could have called you, but…”

“What?”

“Wait a minute.” Suddenly she was alert.

He waited, heard her walking down stairs. When she didn’t say anything, he asked “Are you okay?”

“There’s a weird light in my yard. . . Are you some kind of psycho trying to lure me out of my house? I have a gun.”

“No. I’m sitting in a diner in Arizona.” He flagged down the waitress and held the phone out to her. “Tell her I’m not in her yard.”

“Hello?” said the waitress. “This fella’s sitting in the diner, using my phone. He was six kinds of worried who was calling him so late from back East.” She gave him the phone back. “She says she’s going outside to see what’s going on.”

“You should call the police,” he said into the phone, suddenly fearful for Angela.

“I’m walking out to the hedge to see. . . Oh shit, someone’s put their car in the ditch. I have to call 911.”

“Call me back. I want to know you’re okay.”

The line was dead.

“You done with my phone?” asked the waitress.

“She said there’s a car in the ditch. I asked her to call back. Can I wait here awhile? In case she does? It’ll be your phone number.”

“I’m here until eight in the morning. You can keep my phone on the table, but let me know if there’s a local call. My kids should be asleep, but you never know.”

“Of course, and I’ll get some breakfast, I guess.”

“You don’t have to, but it’ll keep that coffee from rotting your gut.”

“It is a little strong. But that’s okay. I wasn’t going to sleep more tonight anyway.”

He was half-way through his greasy eggs and hash browns when the cell phone rang. It was the 716 number again.

“Hello?”

“Marvin?” The woman’s voice quavered.

“Yes. This is Marvin.”

“It’s Aunt Helen. This nice young woman’s let me use her phone. She said you woke her up insisting she’d called you.”

“Are you okay? Was it your car in the ditch?”

“Yes, and your uncle’s arm was bleeding something terrible. I didn’t dare leave him – I had to keep pressure on it. We were on our way home from Junior’s and we were close enough we decided not to spend another night in a motel. I was supposed to stay awake and help keep him alert, but I dozed off and he must have, too.”

“You’re sure you’re not hurt?”

“I’m fine. This angel is driving me to the hospital behind the ambulance.”

“Angel?”

“The girl you called,” explained Helen.

“Is Uncle Joe going to be alright?”

“The medics took him to the hospital because he lost a lot of blood, but they were able to get it to stop. They said he wouldn’t have made it if I hadn’t kept the pressure on.”

“How long ago did you crash?” he asked.

“I’m not sure, but it seemed like forever. I was terrified I’d fall asleep again and he’d bleed to death.”

“Where were your cell phones?”

“I think they were in the cup holder, but they must have gone flying when we rolled.”

“The car rolled?” he asked in a panic. He was answered by silence. “Aunt Helen? Are you there? Are you okay?”

“Hold on,” said a different female.

As he waited he heard voices in the background, not clear enough to hear the words.

“Marvin?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“Angela Newsome. It’s my phone? We’re at the hospital now. They’re both going to be okay. You’re really in Arizona?”

“Yeah.”

“Is there any family here that I can call?” she asked.

“I don’t think so, but Helen carries a little address book in her purse. That’ll have people you can contact for her.”

“Okay. . . Nice meeting you, I guess,” she said.

“Yeah. Thanks for going out to check on that light when you thought I was a psycho.”

“Psycho, psychic – where’s the line? I didn’t really have a gun.”

“You would have here. It seems like I’m the only person I know who doesn’t have one.”

“So if you were a psycho, you would have believed me,” she said.

“I didn’t doubt you for a minute.”

“I’ll stick around until someone they know comes. And I’ll call you later and let you know how they are,” Angela promised.

“Thanks. My cell phone’s not working right, but I’m getting it replaced first thing in the morning. My number should work by noon your time.”

Marvin gave his future wife his phone number.

“This coffee really isn’t too bad.” He smiled at the waitress as he returned her phone.

Defining Moments is a series of character studies and defining moments- short sketches to whet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about one of these characters, leave a comment.

Thanks.

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Defining Moments: Future in Podunk

Looking ahead, James could see the train snake around a curve. Then centrifugal force gently shifted him away from the coach window. In every sense of the term, his future was unclear.

Charlotte had been against this from the beginning. She was right about the timing. Quitting a good job was always risky; with the economy unstable, even more so.

And it might be a pipe dream.

Why had his father always used that term? The old man hadn’t been a drug user. Maybe he meant bagpipes. Or church organ pipes. There was no way to know now.

As a kid, forced to spend his weekends and holidays helping out at his father’s garage, James had sworn he was going to have a job where the grease didn’t soak into his skin. Working on cars, you could scrub yourself lobster red, yet, when you rinsed off the soap, your hands would still be grimy in the deep creases. He’d hated that.

Charlotte kept throwing it into his face, “You’re never going to be happy anywhere. Why not keep a good steady paycheck where you don’t have to be a grease monkey?”

“Maybe it was having my father for a boss that I hated,” he’d replied, almost making himself believe it. “Maybe I hate having a boss, period. Maybe I want to do work that means something.”

“You help people plan their future.”

“I help them lose it…”

The recommendations he’d made to several clients had crashed along with most of the market. He was good with engines. He’d be able to help people keep their cars on the road when they couldn’t afford new ones.

“Well, I’m not moving to the middle of Podunk,” Charlotte had announced. “I have a good job here and I’m keeping it. And I’m keeping the house. You’ll be glad once you come to your senses.”

“You can’t afford the mortgage alone, and I don’t know how much I’ll be able to send.”

“I’ll rent out the spare room. If you’re lucky, I’ll take you back once you’re done with this early-onset mid-life crisis.”

So he had a safety net, of sorts—if she didn’t end up getting some young hunk for a roommate and change her mind about taking him back. The house was in both their names, but with falling real estate values, their equity had disappeared. She could insist on selling and the bank would get it all. That wouldn’t surprise him; they’d been drifting apart even before his father died. It was just as well Charlotte had never wanted kids.

The future was so uncertain. He’d always had a plan, all the steps to get where he wanted to be by thirty-five. And he got there ahead of schedule. Then thirty-five came and went and… nothing. There was no prize; no dreams; nowhere he wanted to go. When the market’s slide started, he realized he’d been working for a system that pretended to care about people. It was all fake. He’d believed his own sales hype.

But the garage, that was different; fixing something that was broken, something tangible that people really needed. He had a lot to learn, though. His father had invested in all the computer-diagnostic gear. Of course he’d still insisted his ear was the best tool he had.

“Jimmy-boy,” he’d say. “Use your senses and the brain God gave you.”

The “boy” always attached to his name didn’t bother him much with forty lurking a couple years away, not like it had when he was a teenager. And now he’d never hear his father say it again. The old man had died in his sleep, holding a photo of the mother James could barely remember. Charlotte had flown out with him for the funeral and the reading of the will.

At the cemetery he’d been overwhelmed by the number of people who came to pay their respects. Mary Jo was even there, and she’d given him a quick hug.

“I’m so sorry.” There were tears in her eyes. “He was a wonderful man.”

Charlotte suddenly appeared at his side and introduced herself as his wife. He was too shocked to correct her. She always said “wife” was a demeaning term inferring a woman was no more than an extension of her mate. Charlotte didn’t believe in marriage.

He’d never told her about losing his virginity with Mary Jo in the back of that old pickup out on the logging road. He’d been too ashamed. They’d been lying on the blanket afterwards, enjoying the sun, when Mary Jo took his hand, then pulled back with an instinctive “euw” from the forever grease embedded by his nails. He’d avoided touching her after that, and when he left for college the next month, he never looked back.

How could Charlotte have cued into that connection?

Not that it mattered. Mary Jo wandered off, talking to other people. His last glimpse of her, a man was helping her into a battered economy car. He didn’t see the guy’s face, but he moved like a young man, and it was a young man’s car. She wouldn’t be interested in rekindling any flame. So she wasn’t the reason for his decision.

There were only four of them present for the reading of the will: the lawyer, James, Charlotte, and the kid who’d been working for his father the last few years.

“Well, James,” the lawyer cleared his throat. “Did your father ever tell you his plans for the garage?”

“Not really.”

Most of their conversations had been on the phone and revolved around weather, politics, and James’ progress toward his goals.

“Well, Sean here… you know Sean, don’t you?”

His father had mentioned the kid from time to time. He’d apparently hung around the garage for years before he was finally old enough to work there. They’d never met, but James nodded, to get the lawyer to continue.

“Well, your father decided he wanted the garage to stay open, you know…”

James’ first thought was that his father had put in a clause to assure the kid would have the first chance to buy the place. Then the cold certainty that his father had left the garage to this Sean person settled into James’ stomach.

“What your father decided is to leave the garage to the two of you, fifty-fifty. If you both want to sell, you can do that only after working together at the place for a year.”

“What!” Charlotte was the one who shouted; James was speechless.

“James can’t do that,” Charlotte explained. “He’s got a good job; he can’t walk away from it for a year and expect it to be there when he gets back.”

“Well,” said the lawyer, “he can make that choice. But then the garage goes to Sean.”

“What about the house?” James asked. The idea of keeping the garage might already have been forming. He’d need a place to stay, though.

“Your dad sold the house long ago,” said the lawyer. “You didn’t know that?”

“He never mentioned it. I haven’t been back since I left; he always joined me for vacations. It was the only way to get him to take time off from work.”

He could count on one hand the number of times his father had come to visit, or met him in a vacation spot, but those had been good times, mostly. His father had complained a little about the business calls James kept taking, but that was the norm for James. He was always connected.

“Jim set himself up in a trailer and split the property when I was a kid,” said Sean. “He sold the house to my mother.”

“The trailer and the property it’s on are yours, James,” said the lawyer.

“So I could stay in it and work the garage with Sean here for a year, then we can sell the place and you can get out of this town.” He finished with a nod to the kid.

“That’s fine with me,” said Sean. “I loved working at the garage, but that was because Jim was there.”

“Your father practically raised Sean after his mother was widowed,” the lawyer explained.

James wondered how he’d never known his father was so close to this kid. He had tended to zone out when his father rambled on about the garage and town, but surely it would have registered if his father had talked about this kid like a second son.

“There has to be a way to break this will.” Charlotte’s voice cut through the uncomfortable silence. “James would lose more by giving up his job than he’d ever get from selling a garage in this little town.”

“Actually,” said James, “I’ve been thinking about making a career change anyway. The year here will give me time to sort out the future.”

Charlotte glared at him and walked out.

Now he was on a train, heading back to the home he’d left twenty years ago. Sean was going to pick him up. They’d spoken on the phone several times in the month it had taken for James to leave his job properly. James had let Charlotte keep the car and put most of his things in storage; he’d confided in Sean that relationship was dying anyway. Sean was sure they should sell after a year, which made the commitment less threatening than it might have been. The kid had graduated from high school almost two years ago and was as anxious to move out of that little town as James had been.

“I only stuck around because Jim needed reliable help,” Sean said.

Sometimes James wondered if the kid was the old man’s illegitimate child. He’d never known his father to be involved with a woman, but maybe he’d been too wrapped up in his own life to notice. His father might have split his property and lived separately like that to protect the woman’s reputation from small town gossips.

But Sean’s mother had just lost her husband when she bought the house, that’s what the lawyer had said. James couldn’t see his father getting involved with a married woman, so Sean wouldn’t have been his.

The old man probably missed having a son; James certainly hadn’t been much of one.

Sean was at the station waiting when James got off the train.

“My car’s over the other side of the street,” he said. “Your train came in a few minutes early.”

When they reached the battered economy car, Sean tied the largest bag to the roof, explaining, “My mom wanted to come along, so I can’t put it in the back seat.”

“Your mother?”

Sean looked over James’ shoulder and grinned. “Come on, he’s here already.”

James turned into a hug, then Mary Jo stepped back and smiled at him.

“Welcome home.”

Defining Moments is a series of character studies and defining moments- short sketches to whet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about one of these characters, leave a comment.

Thanks.

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A Single Christmas Tale

A stand-alone story, first published in The Maverick, Show Low AZ.

Glaring sunlight intruded on Alec’s dreams. He rolled over, willing himself to go back to sleep. Then the phone jarred him up and out of bed. He dragged the quilt behind him as he dashed to answer it.

“Santa got me skis!” The young voice was bursting. “Did you get my present?”

“Yes, I’m opening it now,” lied Alec. The present had been opened as soon as it arrived.

“Do you like it?”

Alec smiled, looking at the misshapen blob of clay. “It’s wonderful. Did you make it yourself?”

“Yes! It’s a pen holder. We made them at school.”

An older voice in the background said, “My turn, Honey,” then “Merry Christmas.”

“Yeah, you too.” The tears in his throat annoyed him.

“Thanks for the check.”

“Figured Santa could use it,” Alec replied gruffly.

“That’s for sure . . .”

That was all they had to say; there was more than one kind of distance between them.

Alec tried to shrug off the holiday blues by making himself a real breakfast – eggs, sausage, and pancakes with real maple syrup. When they were a family, she always made coffeecake on Christmas morning.

He dawdled over his food, staring out the window, watching the jays, and then he took his time cleaning up. Dishes washed, dried, put away. Counters and stove-top wiped clean. He even swept the floor.

Still morning, he thought. No one else will call. Maybe there’s enough snow for a ski up on the mountain – only got out once last year.

Alec pulled his cross-country skis and poles out of the garage, then rummaged through closets until he found his boots and special wool socks. He decided to wear his heavy coat. He’d probably be too hot, but he didn’t push himself the way he used to.

It was past noon as he headed out of town.

The railroad tracks were too open; the wind had blown them bare. He kept driving, looking for the wooded trail he’d hiked last summer. Finally he found it – at least the map painted on the large wooden board looked familiar.

It was sheltered, and enough higher to have gotten more snow.

There were no other vehicles at the trailhead, but the path had been skied on sometime in the last couple days – since the last snow. He put on his skis and started awkwardly. After a few minutes, the rhythm came back to him and he started moving right along. At first the trail led up steeply. He unzipped his coat and was still sweating, but it felt good.

I’ll be fine as long as I keep moving, he thought.

He was glad when the trail looped around and headed downhill. But it was steep, and the light was getting tricky as the sun sank into the trees. He’d forgotten dusk would come earlier on this side of the mountain. He had to slow down.

His shirt clung to him like an icy glove. The trail was getting harder to follow. Going around a curve slowly, he nearly fell when his right ski grabbed a rock. He paused.

I could break a leg and freeze to death out here, he thought. But what difference would it make? No one would miss me; no one would really care.

Suddenly the hair on his body bristled, pushing the wet shirt away from his skin. He looked around in the dusk, but couldn’t see anything. Yet every nerve was tingling. He didn’t dare risk falling by going too fast, so he skied with his poles swinging broadly.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing…” He bellowed out Christmas carols to frighten off whatever was out there in the dark.

Suddenly, he saw bright light ahead. As he got closer he saw a truck sitting at the trailhead, its headlights on his car. Happily, Alec glided into the parking area and released his skis. He heard the truck door open.

“Hey there.”

The voice sounded friendly, but panic gripped Alec when he looked up to see a large man standing with his back to his truck, holding a long-barreled gun pointed in his direction.

“Man, I’m glad to see you,” said the stranger. “Pulled over ‘cause I was nodding off, then I seen them big cat tracks all around your car and figured you were a goner. I’ll just stand by here ‘til you’re ready to go.”

Alec stowed his gear, got into his car, and started it up. He rolled the window down as the man got into his own truck.

“Thanks,” he called, grateful to be alive.

“No problem. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

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Novel Bites: Christmas with Sunshine

Novel Bites is a series of short stories from the perspective of secondary characters in my novels. Sometimes the story is straight from the novel, sometimes it’s not. This is from Alice – her father Jack telling us about the moment he became her father. Please comment. Thanks.

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I had one Christmas with Sunshine.

We’d been together since August, though sex and drugs flowed pretty easy on the farm, so there was no way to be sure whose bun was in her oven. But now her belly button was inside out, I was the only one there massaging her back and cuddling up with her at night. I didn’t want anyone else.

We were still having sex. Anna told Sunshine it was perfectly natural and safe. In fact, she said pregnancy hormones increase a woman’s interest in sex – though that might have been wearing off. The last time we did it on Luke’s waterbed, Sunshine needed help getting out of it.

“Jack, I feel like a beached whale.” Then she rubbed her belly and smiled as if being a whale was the best thing in the world.

There were three or four toddlers and a couple waist-high kids living at the farm. I wasn’t completely sure which kids went with which adults, because they ran in a pack and we all watched out for them, more or less. There were two houses and who slept where changed frequently.

At our Thanksgiving feast, one of the older kids asked about Christmas, and there followed quite a debate about whether or not we should promote a commercial holiday. But we didn’t have a television, so the kids weren’t pestering anyone for the latest toys or anything. The kid asking just wanted to know what to expect – which I understood. Looking back at my life overall, you might be surprised to hear me say it, but living day to day with no plans for the future does have its down side.

Usually I kept quiet when the group was deciding on things like that, but that time I spoke up.

“I spent last Christmas in a miserable jungle, wondering if I’d make it through the day alive.” Mostly I kept being a vet to myself, so that was a surprise to most of them. “I don’t give a shit about it being commercial or religious. I just want that warm, peace-loving feeling everyone seems to get when they put up a tree and lights and start thinking about what they can do for other people.”

Longest piece of talk most of them had ever heard from me. Then I sat back and listened while they sorted it out. They decided they didn’t have to be Christians to believe Christ was a good guy who worked for peace, so it was okay to celebrate his birthday.

Once that decision was made, everyone got into it full bore.

We all hiked out into the woods and found a small tree to cut down. Luke suggested digging one up, but Ben, who had spent some time on the farm while his grandfather was still working it, said the tree would likely die when replanted and the one we were cutting would never grow because it was shaded by bigger trees. He said it was actually better for the forest to be thinned out now and then.

The ladies got to baking cookies and pies and popping corn that the bigger kids sewed together into garlands for the tree. I was supposed to call the ladies women, but that’s not how I was brought up and some things stick. Mostly I avoided calling them anything.

Once the smells and glitter got everyone into the spirit, we drew names from a hat, so each of us was responsible for one present and no one knew who had what name. Well, except for the ones helping the toddlers. Susie and Becky and couple other women stepped up to draw with the kids. They were probably the mothers, I guess.

I’m not sure how I got so lucky, but when I opened up my slip of paper, I had Sunshine. The rule was we were to make one gift for our person, unless there was something we knew they really needed or wanted that had to be bought, and they wouldn’t or couldn’t get it for themselves.

Well, Sunshine had all the hand-me-down baby stuff she was going to need, but there was one thing I could buy for her. She wanted a Polaroid camera so she could take pictures of her baby as she grew up. Sunshine didn’t talk much about where she came from – I never did know her real name – but she was sad that there’d never been any pictures of her growing up. She said it made her feel as if maybe she never really existed as a child.

Back while my father was still dragging me around, bragging about my medals and laughing about my shaggy hair, back before hordes of kids descended on the City and drove the original peace-lovers away, one of the guys passing through Sunshine’s life had taken her photo on a sunny day in Golden Gate Park. Sunshine had a copy of it, so she knew she existed there, in one of her gauzy outfits, with a ring of flowers in her hair. She was beautiful. She must have been a beautiful child, too.

So that’s what I got her. I didn’t share my finances with anyone, but I hadn’t spent all my money on drugs. When I first went to ‘Nam, I set it up so almost all my combat pay went into the bank for when I got home again. Figured it would give me a good start. But when I got back, there was nothing I really wanted to do with it, so most of it was still there – more than enough for a camera. I wanted to get Sunshine a lot of other things, but there was that one gift rule, so I settled for buying a dozen rolls of film to go with the Polaroid and wrapped it all in one box.

We exchanged gifts Christmas Eve, because otherwise the kids would have had us all up at the crack of dawn. It was after dinner and we opened them one at a time. I don’t remember what I got, or anyone else. I just remember the smile on Sunshine’s face. Annie wanted to take a photo of us together, but Sunshine said no, she was saving all the film for the baby.

There was a fire in the fireplace and all the lights were off but the Christmas tree and one for Ben to read by. He had a book of Christmas stories and he read them aloud, one by one, until the last kid got carried off to bed asleep and by midnight the adults were ready to call it a night. Then it was just me and Sunshine sitting on the floor, me spread-eagle with her leaning up against me so I could rub her belly as we watched the flames grow low. I leaned my head forward and breathed in the sweetness of her hair.

“Thank you, Jack,” she said softly, pressing her cheek gently against mine. “Not just for the camera, but for sticking with me. We’ll take a picture of all three of us once the baby’s here.”

She was assuming I was going to fill in as this baby’s father, and part of me wanted to, but I wasn’t sure it was mine or whether I would be any good as a father anyway. So I didn’t say anything, just eased back, but I kept rubbing her belly, watching the fire.

That’s when I felt it. The first time, I wasn’t sure. I sat there holding my breath, keeping my hand still in the same spot. Then that baby did a flip or something and there was no doubt at all.

From that moment on, Alice was my daughter.

 Sheri McGuinn Photo Signature

www.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn  

https://www.imdb.com/name/nm8459664/

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