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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

20130324AliceFrontCoverWebSize

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: 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.”

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Impressions: Benny’s Last Dollar

Benny swallowed the end of his drink and looked at his last chip, a dollar.

It was all set up to favor the house. Benny knew that. He’d known it from the first time he went to a casino, but still, he couldn’t stop until his pocket was empty. There was a slot machine near the exit just waiting for this chip.

Even the time he hit the big jackpot, big enough to buy a new truck, maybe even one of those new little houses on the edge of town that his girl always talked about, he’d kept on playing until his stake was completely gone. That’s what he called it—his stake. That made him feel like one of the pros, the serious poker players in the big money games held privately in the back room. But Benny never took more than one day’s pay. However much he was earning, that was his limit.

Of course, he’d made that rule when he had a good full time job. This week, he’d only worked two days, helping an old lady fix a bunch of stuff on her house so she could sell it. He and George had really dragged their heels to make the job last. She was only paying them minimum. They used to make four, five times that with overtime.

Not anymore.

One day’s pay had gone for new socks, thrift store shoes and shirts, and groceries they never had at the food bank. He’d come to the casino with the rest, and he’d managed to make it last a good while – building it up, then losing some, building it up again. Until he ended up with nothing but this dollar chip. Since then he’d been watching other people play while he finished his drink.

Back in the day, he could say the free drinks paid for anything he lost. But he didn’t drink much anymore. He wasn’t AA or born-again; he hadn’t even tried to quit. It had come on him gradually, until one night last July he’d headed home and realized he’d nursed one whiskey the whole evening. Even when the company folded and his girl dumped him, all in one week, he didn’t crawl into a bottle like some of his buddies.

Benny scanned the casino, all the people absorbed by machines or tensed over tables. The drink girl came up and offered him a refill.

“No,” he said. He paused and stared at her as if she were an alien life form. “No, I’m done. Thank you.”

She moved on to the next customer.

Benny cashed in his chip and tucked his dollar into his pocket.

He straightened his shoulders, smiled a half smile to himself, and gave the pocket with his dollar in it a pat. Satisfied, he took one last look around before leaving.

He wouldn’t be back.

Impressions is a series of character studies – short sketches to wet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about Benny, leave a comment.

Thanks.

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Impressions: The Novice Traveler

Carolyn lumbered through the airport, a backpack slung over her left shoulder, her right arm stretched by the weight of her carry-on.

Big Brother’s voice reminded her, “Unattended bags will be confiscated.”

She stopped to catch her breath, put the suitcase on the floor close to her feet, and moved the backpack to her right shoulder. The pack had been the agent’s idea, so she could make sure everything made the plane change with her. It held more and had better pockets than a traditional purse, but she felt silly carrying it.

She picked up the suitcase and trudged onward. It had taken her forever to get to the departure gate and then they announced a change. Why did it have to be at the opposite end of the airport?

The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls filled her as she instinctively inhaled deeply. That would have to do. The bakery line was long, her new gate was still a good hike away, and the flight would be boarding soon.

She looked longingly at all the people effortlessly pulling bags on wheels. Why hadn’t the agent suggested that? If her father’s old bag hadn’t been the right size for carry-on she would have shopped for one. Maybe they all had wheels now.

Finally she got to the new right gate.

Carolyn lifted her eyes skyward. “Please don’t let them change it again.”

“You got that right,” said a Gothic person of indeterminate sex.

Carolyn started. She hadn’t meant to talk out loud.

Big Brother repeated his warnings. The Gothic person sniffed, drawing Carolyn’s attention to a nose ring. There was one through the left eyebrow, too. Why would someone do that? It had to hurt.

“You going to Maui, too?” the Goth person asked.

Carolyn paused, but saw no way to keep her destination a secret. She nodded and turned away. There were only two seats left open. The Goth person plopped down next to her.

“I love the islands… you been before?” it said.

Carolyn shook her head and pulled out the novel she’d brought for the plane. She opened it and put her head down, but that didn’t work.

“Kauai’s the best, but Maui’s nice if you stay away from the tourist traps.”

Carolyn stared at the first page.

“I’m Becca.” The girl shoved her ring-laden hand over Carolyn’s book.

Carolyn raised her head and made cautious contact with her fingertips.

The girl’s black lips couldn’t hide her dimples or the openness of her smile. It was just all the black leather and spiky hair and dramatic, ghoulish make-up that made her seem threatening. Well, that and the piercings. Carolyn returned the smile tentatively.

“You’ve been to Hawaii before?” she asked.

“Oh yeah. I love it there. Costa Rica’s nice, too, but Hawaii’s my favorite.”

“Really?” Carolyn thought of all the vacations she’d spent caring for her parents and working on their house – her house now. “You travel a lot?”

“Yup. I’ll stay until my money runs out, then go crash with my folks, get a job, and save up for the next trip. They cut me a deal on rent, to get me to come home sometimes, but eventually I’m going to work my way around the world.”

“How long did it take you to save up for this trip?”

“Three months. Maui’s really cheap if you know how to do it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“About fifty dollars a day. And the plane ticket.” The girl pulled a small electronic device from her pack and stuck pieces of black foam into her ears.

“Fifty dollars a day?” Carolyn sighed. Her hotel alone was three times that.

The girl didn’t hear. She was nodding to a dissonant sound audible despite the ear buds. So Carolyn didn’t talk about the Jeep the agent had insisted she add to the reservation, so she wouldn’t get stuck off-trail or on a beach. Carolyn was too timid to ever leave the road, and too timid to argue with the man. At least he hadn’t made reservations at restaurants for her, though he’d given her a list of places that served delicious fresh sea food – probably all expensive.

Carolyn touched Becca tentatively on the forearm. “Where do you eat?”

The girl emptied the ear closest to Carolyn, but still nodded to the music as she answered. “Mostly from grocery stores, then fix it in the kitchen or barbeque out back at the hostel. Groceries are expensive, but it’s cheaper than eating out.”

“They let you use the kitchen?”

“It’s a hostel. Like a hotel, but with community bathrooms and kitchen.”

“You share the bathroom with strangers?”

“And I’ll be sharing a room with three other people. You can get a private room, but it costs more. I’ve only done that when my gram came along.”

“Your grandmother?”

“Yep. She travels the same way. Hey, let me give you her email.”

As the girl handed Carolyn the slip of paper, a disembodied voice called for the first passengers to board. Carolyn stood up. The agent had said a first class ticket was essential for such a long flight. She knew Becca would be flying tourist.

“Are you sure your grandmother won’t mind you giving this to a stranger?”

“That’s the beauty of being a traveler,” Becca smiled. “There’s no such thing as a stranger.”

Impressions is a series of character studies – short sketches to wet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about Carolyn’s journey – or Becca’s – leave a comment.

Thanks.

Sheri McGuinn Photo Signaturewww.sherimcguinn.com
www.amazon.com/author/sherimcguinn

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Curves in the Road

At sixteen my plan was to spend my senior year of high school as an exchange student, then go to Northwestern for journalism and become an international reporter. I’d make the world a better place and have adventures at the same time. I was on that road. I was editor of my school paper and studying both French and Spanish. I joined AFS and met exchange students from all over the world. I brought home the application.

But my mother had been a stay-at-home mom for almost forty years and she wasn’t ready for an empty nest, so she insisted I could wait and go abroad while I was in college. That last year of high school, there were few academic courses left for me to take. Instead, my interest in art, music, and drama, which had been largely dormant for two years, came back full force. I never even applied to Northwestern.

The killings at Kent State, a month before my high school graduation, did nothing to change my mind. The paranoia of the day seeped into me. Publication of the Pentagon Papers could have inspired a renewal of my interest in journalism, but instead the content increased my detachment from world events. Then Watergate filled the television and my first choice for president was a crook or the man he’d made look like a buffoon. I did a write-in vote for “No Body” and wanted nothing to do with any of it.

I just wanted to live my life.

It’s a good way to live, focused on immediate surroundings, the things where you may make a real difference in lives, one at a time, or one small community at a time. And that is one way to change the world without taking on the big issues.

Looking back, there have been many other roads not taken, some of which might have brought me back closer to my original intent. It’s okay I didn’t take those roads. There have been rough spots, but overall, life has been full and interesting and right now it’s really good. I’m writing fiction full of strong women, providing good role models. . .but, every so often, I wonder if I’m playing hooky from another destiny.

A few weeks ago, I bought the January 15, 2018 Time because it was supposed to be a good news edition, edited by Bill Gates. This morning it got to the top of the reading pile. In it, there’s an article by Melinda Gates about how women’s movements around the world are bringing about significant changes not just for the betterment of women, but for society as a whole. She advocates for an increase in financial support for grassroots women’s organizations and women’s funds.

The article makes me feel as if there’s more I need to do.

It could be a diversion from projects already in place, to avoid completion. I need to guard against that temptation. But I suspect the road I’m on is curving and will eventually intersect with the one not taken long ago.

Sheri2012RGB2inch

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Transition

A few weeks ago I completed my new novel and started pitching it to agents.

Logically, I should have gone straight to my non-fiction project that will tie into workshops. Or I could have focused on getting the marketing of my short stories and screenplays set up to run smoothly. Both of these projects are in process and could lead to more immediate income than a novel. But neither of them provides the same satisfaction as working on long fiction: creating characters and watching them evolve in unexpected ways, braiding together plot lines, and those “Yes!” moments when a phrase or scene is just right or critique illuminates a way to tell the story better.

Instead of being logical, I became depressed.

My files are full of ideas, but none of them was calling my name. I took different short stories and novel starts to different critique groups, to see which made people want to read more. Several did, so I still had to make a decision. I dithered, knowing it would be more practical to focus on the other projects before starting another novel, but missing the process unique to writing long fiction. Then I took ten pages to a drop-in critique. They only work on five pages there, but I intended to take the second five to another group later in the day. The faster readers read all ten pages and there was consensus that they wanted to keep reading.

I took it home, where I had the first twenty pages on the computer, and made revisions based on their critique, changing the starting point and several other minor corrections. I sent off pages to a critique group that pre-reads. I’m stoked! It’s YA speculative fiction, a contemporary setting with some parapsychological elements and that group not only gave me excellent feedback to improve the beginning, we discussed writing goals as well.

The next week and a half is going to be devoted to family. We’re doing Thankmas because one group’s moving across the country in December. (Thanksgiving Thursday, Christmas Friday.) But ideas will be simmering and once everyone’s gone home, I’ll be ready to crank out that first draft quickly.

I’ll still need to set aside time to focus on getting those practical projects set up and working, as well as pitching or publishing the just-finished novel and planning promotion and marketing for it. However, having a new work simmering energizes me and improves my focus, so that time spent on the practical will be more effective.

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

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Sheri McGuinn

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