Tag Archives: social commentary

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: Where Ponderosa Pines Stand Guard

coverimagespbcBefore the story, I have a brief announcement:

Carla King’s 4th Edition of Self-Publishing Boot Camp, Guide for Independent Authors is available tomorrow (2/1/19). Check it out here. Disclosure: as an Amazon affiliate, I get a few cents if you buy anything after going there from here. But whether you do that or look later, this is my primary resource as a book coach and when publishing my own work. The best part? She stays on top of all the changes in the industry and provides free updates.

Now, the story: “Defining Moments: Where Ponderosa Pines Stand Guard”

Karen was the last to leave. She pulled on her fleece-lined jacket, hat, and gloves. As she said goodbye, she yawned.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stay over until morning?” Mary offered.

“I have a lot to do tomorrow.”

“It may be April, but you could still run into snow up on the rez.”

“There was a little on my way over this afternoon, but the sun was melting it off as it landed.”

The road passed through the edge of the Apache reservation. For thirty-some miles there would be no house in sight, just high plains on either side, broken by stretches of Ponderosa Pine and Aspen groves. In the summer, driving across it in a thunderstorm was humbling and exalting at the same time. Tonight it would be dark and peaceful; a good ending to a full day.

Mary was skeptical. “Well, watch for elk; they’re always on that stretch.”

“I will. I haven’t hit an animal in thirty years.” Karen gave her friend a hug. “I’ll see you next weekend.”

Mary watched her walk to her car. “Call me when you get home.”

“No, I won’t. It’s an hour drive and you’ll be asleep by then.”

Karen started her car. As she drove out of town, the bank’s marquee flashed the time and temperature – twelve o’clock, twenty-seven degrees. She had to turn down the heater, though. The car might be old, but everything worked except the air conditioning, which she didn’t really need living up here in the mountains.

She continuously scanned ahead to the edges of her headlights’ beams. It was habit, ever since she’d killed two deer six months apart, long ago, before she moved to Arizona. Elk were much larger than deer, and harder to see from her little car because when they were close, their eyes were above the range of her headlights, and their dark coats blended in with the night shades of shoulder and roadside brush.

She spotted a group of large dark shadows off to the left and automatically slowed in case one should suddenly decide to cross the road. They were far enough away that her headlights flashed off a pair of eyes; the other animals continued feeding. She decided to stay well below the speed limit, to be on the safe side.

She passed only one car, going the other direction. There would be no sign of civilization until she reached McNary, a little town on the reservation. While her eyes continued watching for elk as she drove, Karen slipped into a meditative sense of peace. Clouds blocked whatever light the sky might have offered as she drove the deserted miles on top of the world, but she knew when the road dipped she was moving from the vast open fields into a stretch of forest.

Suddenly, anxiety hit, jerking her out of her reverie.

There was no good reason for it. She turned off the radio; maybe the car was making a noise that disturbed her subconsciously. But the car was okay, knocking a little, but that was normal at this altitude.

A cold shawl of prickles dragged up and across her shoulders and her breathing became so shallow she was almost holding it. She forced herself to inhale deeply. She lived alone; she didn’t jump at shadows. She tried to chide away the unwelcome sensation of fear.

But the chill was palpable inside her winter jacket. She cranked up the heat and still felt icy. Goosebumps were lifting her shirt off her arms.

She hadn’t checked the back seat when she got into the car; hadn’t done that since she moved up here out of the city. She resisted the urge to look back or even in the mirror, as if not knowing would make it not real. And if she didn’t see anything, she still wouldn’t be sure.

The pines rose high on either side of the road.

Suddenly, something dark poured into her and constricted her breath. A triangle of lights off to the right came and went so quickly she wasn’t sure she’d really seen it. Silently she recited the 23rd Psalm, as well as she could remember it.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my soul.” There was something else she wasn’t remembering, then “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

Death and evil, that’s what she felt pouring at her from the forest. It wasn’t someone in the car. It was something out there. She drove a little faster, but not so fast she wouldn’t be able to stop for an elk. She definitely didn’t want to have an accident here, not tonight.

At last she saw the sign announcing the edge of McNary. The feeling eased away from her as she drove through the little town. She passed someone walking along the other side of the road in dark clothes. She was almost home.

By the time she got to her cabin, she no longer felt the presence of evil, in fact she felt a little silly about it. She fixed herself some warm milk. Once it was gone, she was barely awake enough to slip under the covers of her bed.

Karen’s life went on. She forgot all about that unpleasant feeling and there was nothing to remind her. The Apache girl’s disappearance never made the newspaper Karen read.

The first assumption was that the teen had taken off with her boyfriend, but then he came back from visiting relatives out of state and asked for her. He’d been in Oregon when she last left her mother’s house, and he could prove it. In Karen’s world this was still not newsworthy.

It was fall when a hiker’s dog happened upon the girl’s shallow grave – not far from the road, where the Ponderosa Pines stand guard.

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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