Voting Buddies

Jennie Walters always dresses her best when it’s time to vote. She’s doing her civic responsibility, an effort of extreme importance. She’s never missed an election, and she’s never even tried to shirk her way out of jury duty, like some she knows, like even her own husband, God rest his soul. “This is a representative democracy,” she tells anyone who will listen, “and I aim to represent my own part in it whenever I’m given the chance.”

But she had some trouble convincing her grandchildren. They’d just sit and roll their eyes when Jennie went on about voting. “People around the world have fought and died for this right,” she’d say, standing between them and the television. “Don’t you ever go taking that for granted.”

Her grandson, Spencer, could never be reasoned with—he had far too much of his mother in him—but her granddaughter, Deidre, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, was so proud to show Jennie her sticker proclaiming that she’d voted. They’d been voting buddies ever since. They made it special. They’d go to the firehouse together, stand in line, check in with the volunteers—half of whom Jennie had known since childhood—and then celebrate afterward. She’d make a fancy dinner until she could no longer manage so well in the kitchen. Deidre took over the honors at that point, first in Jennie’s house and then, when she moved out and got married, in her own. They didn’t get to vote together anymore, as Deidre lived in a different district, but there was always a celebration afterward. Year after year after year, even when Deidre had children of her own and moved to a bigger house in the next county. And even then, they’d all get together, and Jennie would tell stories about the first time she voted, and who got elected, and how even one person’s vote could make all the difference.

But then Deidre moved up north for a new job, a wonderful opportunity. That took some adjustment, and Jennie was happy for her granddaughter, but she felt terribly sad on Election Days. Even though they chatted on the computer thingie, it wasn’t even close to all of them being together.

This November she felt even worse. A fall had left her laid up temporarily, and Jennie didn’t even know if she could get out of the house to go vote.

“Get an absentee ballot, Grandmama,” Deidre said over the phone. “It’s easy. Lots of people do it.”

“That ‘lots of people’ is not going to be me! I am going to that firehouse if I have to call a fireman and have him carry me there.”

There was a long silence on the line. “Grandmama. You don’t have anyone there taking care of you? What happened to that nurse’s aide?”

“Pfft. She doesn’t even believe in voting, can you just imagine?”

“You get that ballot,” Deidre said.

Jennie promised she would, but it was all so confusing. First she had to get to the right website, then find a form to even apply for a ballot, then wait to get the ballot, then mail that in…how could she trust all those people? What if her vote didn’t get counted because she was not there to see it? She wasn’t too proud to admit that she cried a little while sitting at that computer in her wheelchair. But it didn’t sit easily on her that this would be the first election year in which she wouldn’t vote.

In fact on the big day, she didn’t bother getting out of bed until close to noon. She didn’t even look at the television while she got herself together. Just played some old music and wheeled herself to and fro doing this and that. When the computer thingie rang, she knew it would be Deidre, and she doubted she’d have the strength to talk to her without crying.

But she didn’t want to worry her, so she answered, to find two beautiful great-grandbaby faces grinning at her and waving. “Hi, Grandnonna!” they both yelled, giggling like they had a secret.

And then the doorbell rang. In walked Deidre, beautiful in her best dress, and behind her… Spencer. All decked out in a suit and a tie.

“Put your hat on, Grandmama,” Deidre said. “I know you didn’t get that absentee ballot. So we’ve come to help you vote.”

The Council: Notorious

A little story inspired by current events. Warning: satire alert.


The Council: Notorious

In case he’d been followed, Forty-four looked right and left before disappearing inside the door. Once again, they’d had to change locations. Once again, he blamed that on Forty-two, chatting up the waitresses. But Forty-four could always trust this place. A few times he’d escaped from his official duties and enjoyed a draft and part of a basketball game here.

“Evening, Earl,” he called to the barman, noting with some satisfaction that he was the first to arrive.

The barman nodded, already at work procuring the beverages. “The usual, Mr. President?”

“Now, you know you don’t have to keep calling me that.”

“Yes, sir, but you know I always will.”

As he took a seat at the big table in the back, he decided to give Earl twice the usual payment. Not only was he closing his whole business down for the night to cater to them, but good people who could keep a secret in this town were worth their weight in gold. If anyone cottoned to what they were doing, not only would the Council be driven deeper underground, but the current occupant of the Oval would waste no time splashing the fact of their existence all over the media, with his fool jibber-jabber about “Deep States” and “enemies of the people.”

Earl brought Forty-four’s beer, set the tall, frosty glass on a bar mat. “Any new ‘usuals’ I should know about this evening?”

Forty-four ticked off the orders on his fingers. “Two Diet Coke and rum, one iced tea”—he was about to give Forty-one’s and Thirty-nine’s orders before he stopped himself, feeling a hint of sadness that they were too infirm to make the trip, that their time on this planet was growing shorter. “And we’ll be having a special guest, but I’m not sure what she’ll be drinking.”

Earl grinned. “I know just about everyone in this town, Mr. President. You tell me who and I’ll tell you what.”

“Notorious in a black robe,” was all he said, and Earl laughed.

“Oh, my lord. Last time she was in she schooled me on wine and made me order a case of a particular vintage of California red. Might have a bottle or two left.”

Soon the others began trickling in. Madam Secretary, whom they’d christened “Forty-three and a half,” looked more relaxed than he’d seen her in years. After some brief chitchat, Earl made himself scarce and they got the two missing members on the line and settled down to business.

“First of all, thank you for your time, and to those present, thank you for coming out in this weather. Especially you, Justice. I know I speak for…well, most of us when I say I don’t want any harm befalling you.”

“Here, here.” Madam Secretary hoisted her glass, her husband following her lead.

“No need to worry about me,” the deceptively small but iron-tough woman said. She flicked her stiletto-sharp eyes, huge behind her giant glasses, toward Forty-three. “You, on the other hand…”

Forty-three gave one of those humble Texas-boy shrugs that made so many, including Forty-four’s own wife, overlook his history. That made quite the picture, him handing Michelle a piece of candy on national television during McCain’s funeral. “I know y’all want to take me to the woodshed for whipping up the undecideds for the Court nomination, but I hope I made up for it by getting Fox News to stop airing those ridiculous rallies.”

“And we’re grateful for that, at least,” Madam Secretary said.

Forty-four frowned into his beer. He’d had a long talk with Michelle about picking his battles post-presidency, and certainly it stood to reason that those on the other side of the aisle were doing the same. He preferred those battles where they were all standing together. Like the one they regretfully had to address again tonight.

“Now. As you’re undoubtedly aware, our last attempt to restore order in the Oval has failed. Apparently Mr. Putin feels his work is done and has focused his attentions elsewhere. That’s why I’ve asked the good justice to join us this evening. Not in her official capacity, of course.” He eyed each member of the Council in turn to gauge their discretion, and he felt reassured. Even by Forty-three.

The justice sat up straighter. “I have the evidence you need.”

“Please let it be a blue dress,” Forty-two muttered, and his wife speared him with an elbow.

“It is airtight,” the justice said. “And it is damning. You are not to ask how I procured it. Let’s just say that not only does our newest associate not hold his liquor as well as I do, but he becomes quite talkative. About many, many sensitive subjects.”

Forty-three grinned. “You drank him under the table and he spilled his guts?”

“In vino veritas.” Then she stood, took one last sip of her wine, and started for the door.

“Wait,” Forty-four said. “You have security?”

The diminutive justice laughed. “I have an army of women. And a black belt. I’m good.”

The Sock

Hi, everyone! Back to flash fiction again. I’ve been writing bits and pieces about this character for a while. This week, he had a story to tell me.

The Sock

The bed creaked as Jeff turned over and pulled the quilt over his aching head. Like some little bastard pounding an anvil in there. His beard itched, his blood sugar was probably in the red zone—no, make that definitely, his queasy stomach and lightheadedness told him—and he deserved every stinking last bit of it. In fact, he stunk. From the dank, sweaty sheets to the comforter to the body encased in them, clad in boxers and a T-shirt stained with a multitude of sins. A shower would help. But that would mean getting up. Passing the detritus of his bacchanal of the previous night…and the night before that…and, hell, he didn’t remember what day it was. He clamped his eyes shut and cursed himself and thought those words he’d thought so many times before: never again.

The phone rang. He had a vague memory of it ringing a few times yesterday, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone. Still didn’t. The people from unemployment could go fuck themselves. Who else would be calling at whatever the hell time this was—the sun was just reaching the slat in the blinds that meant he should be up and around already. Going and getting ’em, like the guy from job counseling said. Jeff took in as deep a breath as he could and let it out slowly, waiting for the voice mail to pick up.

It didn’t. Shit. That meant the damn thing was full. Then the ringing stopped. Caroline.What if something was wrong with her, what if Marta had been trying to get hold of him, what if it was Caroline herself, wanting to talk to her daddy…?

The comforter tangled around his legs and he hit the carpet with a thud, ass first.

Something was sticking into his back. It felt like a fork. He opened his eyes to an empty pizza box a few inches from his face. The sausage and pepperoni grease in the cardboard turned his stomach the rest of the way over and he couldn’t make it to the toilet in time and most of it landed on the carpet in front of the bathroom door.

“Kill me now,” he groaned. His stomach heaved as he dropped from all fours back to his side. In his head he saw Caroline’s little face. If by some miracle she came back home, what would she think of him? Half naked and big as a barn and lying next to a puddle of his own puke. Marta, of course, would have all of her suspicions confirmed. She’d just stand there with that ugly smirk, then whisk his daughter away from him again, maybe for good this time. Caroline. She’d grow up and learn the truth of her parents and the world soon enough, but a five-year-old shouldn’t hate her daddy.

For her, he struggled to his feet. For her, he cleaned up the vomit and stuffed the comforter into the washing machine. Threw out the pizza boxes, the beer bottles, the empty bags of chips and cookies and fast food meals.

Then, spent and not yet ready to face the phone, he fell back onto the bed while the washing machine swished and whirled.

The sock. It was all because of the sock.

He’d read somewhere that keeping up with the normal routines of life could help fight depression from unemployment. He’d pushed the living room sofa back so he could vacuum beneath it…and a small pink sock with little bunnies on it had reduced him to a 320-pound sack of tears. He fell and kept on falling.

No.The voice inside him fought through the self-doubt, through the choking sobs, through the recriminations that he’d been a failure…as a husband, as a father, as a man. He would do this for Caroline. Marta could take a flying fuck, but he had a daughter. A beautiful, perfect daughter, with his red hair and freckles, with Marta’s eyes. Whatever she told his daughter about him, it would not be that her daddy offed himself, committed passive suicide by pepperoni pizza. He had to keep going. For her.

He tried to remember where he’d left the sock. He found it wedged between two couch cushions. So small. The sock, and the foot it had slipped over. Giddy with the news that he and Marta were having a girl, he’d gone a little crazy at the mall. He bought a pink teddy bear and little onesies and one of those mobiles that goes over the crib, pastel-colored bunnies hopping in circles.

Marta didn’t take the mobile; she’d thought it was tacky and that he’d spent too much money on it, but he found himself now in Caroline’s bedroom, flicking the switch and watching the bunny parade.

After a while he felt strong enough to clean himself up, then face the voice mail. Two calls about overdue bills. One from unemployment. And a voice he vaguely recognized.

“Hello, Mr. McNeil. This is Diana, from the weight loss center? You came to one of our meetings a few weeks ago? Well, we missed you and wonder if there’s anything we can do to help.”

He played the message two, three times. It was a nice voice, kind. Sincere. He remembered the woman. She’d weighed him in. He didn’t much like the meeting, all those women applauding each other about losing a pound or two, as if it were a damn game show.

But maybe it was time to go back.

The Translator

This week’s flash fiction bit was inspired by current events. With a twist. I hope you enjoy it.


The translator had dreamed in different languages before—bits of this and spots of that blending together into linguistic soup, or the frustration of not remembering words she needed to say. But never dreams like this. Nightmares, really. The men’s faces loomed like mountains over her head, their eyes laser-sharp. “Tell us,” they said. “Tell us what you heard.” This time, they’d locked her in a small room, left her alone in the dark. It was cold and damp and she was hungry and they’d taken her shoes. The door bashed open, the shock so great that she’d woken, sweating, heart racing. The comfort of someone sleeping next to her would have been welcome. The steady breathing, the warmth. The thing she missed most about him.

Comfort had come in a cup of hot tea, a breath of the night air. She had both on her small terrace, and she curled into her chair, imagining the stars through the orange-black haze of the sky. Stars that didn’t need human language.

A light winked on and her neighbor’s terrace door slid open. Sam stepped out, a robe over his pajamas, both hanging loose on his thin frame. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“No, it’s okay.” She sat up, straightening her nightgown. Their terraces shared a railing. A feature she hadn’t been crazy about when she took the apartment, but Sam and Trish were considerate neighbors, both retired from their government desk jobs, and the translator traveled a great deal. “My body clock is still messed up from traveling. Seems I’ve forgotten when to sleep.”

“Occupational hazard?”

He didn’t know the half of it. She wouldn’t lie about that occupation when asked, but she didn’t like to advertise it. She detested the inevitable questions—if she’d met such-and-such world leader, if she’d ever translated something wrong and caused an international incident. “Something like that.”

“Boy, I tell ya.” He scrubbed a hand over his receding hairline. “The news lately is what’s keeping me up at night.”

She nodded. “That, too.” There were so many voicemails on her phone that she’d turned it off. Her palms grew sweaty, her throat tight when she remembered what a colleague had called to warn her about. That Congress would try to subpoena her over what was said in Helsinki, a breach of her professional ethics. Never again, she thought. Never again would she take a job where there was no press, no backup. She had the seniority to refuse an assignment; perhaps it was time to start.

Perhaps it was time to retire. Would she then need to keep what was said confidential? For the good of the country, could she reveal the startling and worrisome things the men had discussed? The thought gave her more comfort. The dark SUV across the street did not. “Sam.” She tipped her head toward the road. “Has that car been sitting there for a long time?”

He squinted into the distance. “Not sure. I think I saw it this morning. Why? Think they’re up to something?”

It could have been any of them. An agent with the subpoena. Or someone from either side who wanted to shut her up. She swallowed and said, “Follow me and close the door behind you.” As quietly as she could, she set down her tea, got up, walked back into her apartment, and started repacking her suitcase.

After she briefed him on her situation, he said, “Is there something we can do?”

“Yes. If anyone asks you, tell them you don’t know where I’ve gone.”

His thick white eyebrows knit together. “But you haven’t said—”

“Exactly. It’s safer for you and Trish that way.”

He put up a hand. “Just give me a minute. Please.”

She didn’t know why she waited. Maybe the suddenly serious glint in his gray eyes. She continued her packing. Passport. State Department ID. All the cash she had on hand. Then her door opened. Sam, fully dressed now, had Trish with him. Trish was stuffing what looked like a gun into the waistband of her jeans. A shoulder harness peeked out from Sam’s jacket. “Let’s go,” Trish said, flashing an FBI badge.

The translator couldn’t get the words out. In any language. She stammered, “Am I…under arrest?”

“No.” Sam picked up her suitcase. “We’re taking you someplace safe.”

Rebuilding

Toby had built beautiful homes into the unlikeliest of places, fit rock against rock to craft the finest stone walls; he’d even designed a treehouse that disappeared into the branches. But nature always has the last word.

Yet you can’t tell a client that. Not when a windstorm uproots a mighty oak from waterlogged earth and smashes it through the roof of a back porch that had been one of his favorite projects.

He knew from the forecast it would be bad. He knew what those conditions meant for the things he’d worked so hard and so long to create. It meant phone calls. It meant backbreaking hours of excavation and reconstruction, and more thoughts that perhaps the business was becoming more trouble than it was worth.

But he couldn’t think of that now, as he wound his truck through the debris on the road leading up to Ms. Brandon’s house. Jane. Nice lady, divorced, about his age. She’d been a sweetheart to work with, never once balking at his vision or his price or his schedule. She’d inherited the house from her grandmother, and the only improvement she’d asked for was a screened-in back porch. A place she could sit in the warmer months with her books and her lemonade and her cat, a pudgy Persian who was not as young as he used to be and therefore couldn’t be allowed outdoors. And she was willing to wait for him. Which made Toby want to move heaven and earth to help her then; and to help her now.

She was standing on the front stairs when he pulled up. She looked a lot smaller than he remembered, her dark hair long and loose and wet from the rain. Her hands were clasped together as if in prayer. He almost felt as guilty as if he’d caused the storm that toppled her oak. As he swung out of the truck, he said, “I’m so—”

“Simon got out.” She wrapped her arms around her chest and started fast-walking toward the back. He followed. “The tree broke one of the screens,” she said, “and he must have been so terrified he bolted out, and now…”

Holy yikes, Toby thought, getting an eyeful of the damage the tree had done. The trunk had crushed that roof. She was damn lucky it hadn’t killed them both.

“Are you okay?” He scanned what he could of her, looking for cuts or bruises.

She nodded fiercely, then her gaze raked the length of the oak, which surpassed that of the porch by a good eight feet. “Yes. Fine. A little shaken up, maybe, but Simon…”

“You think he’s up there?”

As if answering, he heard a small yowl. He thought it would be easier to spot a white Persian cat among the green oak leaves, but it was one dense tree and one scared cat.

“Simon, baby, it’s going to be all right,” Jane said, in a kind of tremulous purr that made Toby want to fix every problem in her life. “Can I use the ladder on your truck? I tried already with Gran’s, but it wasn’t tall enough.”

“I’ll take care of that.” He hated the way his voice came out, the way his chest puffed of its own accord, like some kind of superhero. Idiot. “You just wait there and try to keep him calm so he won’t run off.”

It took some doing, and he had to shinny up the length of the fallen tree and past the roof line, where he hoped there was enough trunk to balance out his weight, and Simon and the tree gave him a few decent scratches, but eventually Toby got him down and settled in Jane’s arms.

“You’re bleeding.” She tipped her chin toward the front of the house. “Come inside, I’ll clean that up. It’s the least I can do.”

Soon Simon was fed and sleeping off his adrenaline rush. Sporting four new Band-Aids, Toby sat with Jane on the front porch, where she’d brought lemonade and a sketch pad. He watched her hands as she picked up a pencil. Those same hands had been so tender on him; why hadn’t he noticed last time the depths of her gray-blue eyes or the sweet huskiness of her laugh as she teased him about rescuing cats from trees? Funny tricks, the mind plays. What it lets you see or not see. Like the patterns in the way a rock wall fits together.

He pointed at the pad. “You want something different on that back porch, when I fix it?”

“No, I love it just the way it was. What I’ve been thinking lately”—she began to sketch the slope of the lawn—“is a little stone path leading up to a gazebo.”

“I think we can do something like that. But maybe more like this…”

She handed him the pad and pencil, their forearms brushing a spark in transit. The blue devil tails of the storm gave one last flick as they departed from west to east. Nature, as always, having the final word.

Three Wishes

I have no idea what inspired this short bit. Sometimes a character appears and has something on her mind and you just can’t stop her.


He wouldn’t listen. That’s been his problem from the beginning. If he’d only listened when I said, “Ernie, don’t take that bottle down off the shelf,” we would have avoided a whole mess of trouble. Trouble like you wouldn’t believe. Like you don’t even read about in books, cause nobody would even believe that you made it up. But no, I saw it with my own eyes. Well, there not as good as they used to be, whose are, right? But I saw. And he took down that bottle and I said, “Ernie, you oughtn’t go messing with stuff you don’t know,” and him being a man and all, he just had to. You know how they say “watch out, that plate’s hot” and they gotta go touching it anyway? Yeah. Just like that. Wasn’t even a real pretty bottle, neither, not like the ones in the museum or in the catalogs, even. You know. That pretty blown glass all shot through with colors. No, he musta thought he was that Aladdin boy or something, the way his eyes lit up, the way he’s giving me the elbow and whimpering and all. Like, “Oh, Sylvie, look at that. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.” Uh huh. Right. You see them all the time. In the horror movies! The one you pick up and say “Oh, it’s so fragile, I can’t even believe…” and then some axe murder comes through the door and you drop it and it shatters into a million pieces. Well, okay, we didn’t have no axe murderer. Just that bottle. And then he has to shine it all up, since he can’t read the label. Thinks he might have hit the lottery with some expensive bottle of wine that got bought up in one of those auctions, rich guy died and they had to auction off all his stuff and it ends up in some shady secondhand store. Then what do you know, this smoke starts pouring out. Oh, he went and done it now. Then this big ass guy in fancy pajamas is hovering over him, and I damn near fainted. He looks like that big blue dude Robin Williams played in the movie. I damn near peed myself. And Ernie, he’s looking like the fox in the henhouse. Already he’s planning his three wishes. He didn’t even get one out yet when the big blue dude cuts him off cold, says, “Let me tell you how this is gonna work. I’m sick and tired of you guys coming around here asking for stuff and me always doing all the work. This time it’s gonna be different. This time I get the three wishes.” Well, that sounds fair to me, ‘cause he’s got a point and who asked Ernie not to go touching that bottle? And Ernie just stands there like a dodo. Like how’s he gonna grant a genie three wishes. The guy says, “One. You’re gonna do me a favor. You’re gonna get me a pack of cigarettes. Cause I’ve been stuck in this gol darn bottle for a hundred years having one serious nicotine fit. Two. I want a burger. Like the biggest burger you can find.” Ernie’s just about as white as a sheet at that point, cause the guy’s huge and leaning over him. He looks like he’s gonna faint and can barely talk, but he says, “What’s the third wish?” And the guy just leans back and crosses those damn big arms over his chest—who’da thought a genie would have that kind of muscle? Then he says, “You get me the other things, then we’ll talk.” Well, Ernie looks at me and I look at Ernie and I say, “You heard the man.” I’m starting to kinda like this genie and maybe while Ernie’s gone I can take a lesson or two in getting my way once in a while. So Ernie takes off down the street and we’re just chatting away, trading tips about how to clean bottles and stuff and you know, we don’t even notice when Ernie comes back in. “I got your smokes and your burger, now you gonna let me have one wish at least?” Yeah. Mr. Genie didn’t care much for that. He sits up a little taller and says, “For my third wish. You’re getting into that bottle, cause I kinda like it out here.” Ernie should have known better. Before he could even say a word, there’s this big puff of smoke and a whoosh and Ernie’s gone. We keep him on our shelf, Mr. Genie and I do, where he won’t get himself into any more trouble.

Sit Down

Hi, everyone. I wanted to share a story I wrote for this week’s Two-Minutes-Go. I didn’t intend to be political, but sometimes the characters have other ideas. I hope you’ll read the brilliant work being posted on JD Mader’s blog, and maybe one week, you’ll join us.

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Betty liked to make one full circle of the main floor and the gallery before she left for the night, plucking up any papers or loose items strewn about. There was no need; the cleaning crew was spit-spot like Mary Poppins, in before the break of dawn preparing for the day ahead, but it was a small courtesy she prided herself on and had for the last twenty-five years she’d been a fixture in this place. On her last sweep through the first floor she found three empty coffee cups, several newspapers, and pair of eyeglasses someone would be dearly missing in the morning. She slipped them into the pocket of her apron and paused before leaving, admiring the gleam of the brass and the polished wood lectern and the deep blue carpeting. It was so much more impressive in person than on the television. That’s what she usually told people who asked. But because of her work hours, she rarely got to see any of the senators in action. She’d heard about what happened yesterday—who hadn’t—and she’d shaken her head, imagining those important men and women, in their expensive suits, sitting on the floor! She knew the carpeting was clean; the steamers had been in just last weekend, but still. The second-shift men in the cafeteria didn’t see what good would come of it, and they argued among themselves, but they’d stood at the ready, always a new pot of coffee brewing. One of them bragged he himself had served a cup of coffee to a man who had marched in Selma, Alabama, way long ago. That man. That man was sitting on the floor not ten feet from where she was standing. She slipped a glance right, then left, then walked over to that spot. One hand on a chair’s armrest, she lowered herself to the pile. It was sturdy, but soft, and she dug her fingers into it and listened carefully. She could almost feel them then, could almost hear their words still echoing around the room. She inhaled and exhaled in time with their chanting back and forth, their calls for justice to be done. She sat for a long while, imagining faces, speeches, and what, if anything, would come of it. And then she jumped at the sound of a thin, uncertain voice calling her name.

“Miss Betty?” it said again.

She turned. She knew that young man. He worked for one of the senators, she couldn’t remember which, and he reminded her of her son when he was that age, and she could not help but stare, even as embarrassment heated her face for being caught.

“You all right?” he said.

He stepped forward to help her from the carpet, but she waved him off. “I’m fine,” she said.

It came out sort of snippy, and he smiled and said softly, “Well, all right then.”

“Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes. The senator. He left his reading glasses here, he thinks…”

She fished them from her pocket. Turned them around in her fingers before extending her arm toward him. “These them?”

“Yes, ma’am, thank you.”

He held the frames a moment, but made no move to leave. Like he wanted to talk about something.

“You were here,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.” He pointed up toward the gallery. “It was pretty wild.”

She patted the carpet beside her. “Tell me.”

He looked confused, and hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Miss Betty, ma’am, you can watch it on the computer in the break room. I can show you how it works, if you like.”

“No,” she said. “If you don’t mind humoring an old woman, I’d prefer if you sit right here where they sat and tell me how it started.”

The young man nodded. He smiled shyly, as if he’d been waiting to be asked, and despite the possibility of dirtying his nice suit, he folded his long legs beneath him, closed his eyes, and then began to speak.

Catering Girl

CateringGirlMaybeFinal

Coming soon on Amazon!

Stand-up comic Frankie Goldberg is one of my favorite characters. She popped into my head while I was stuck in traffic in the middle of Woodstock, New York, and she had a story to tell me. That initial meeting eventually became The Joke’s on Me. But before Frankie reunited with her family, she wreaked a little havoc in Hollywood. Catering Girl is a novella from that chapter of her life.

Frankie keeps getting fired from her day jobs, thanks to her smart mouth and a lot of other bad habits. Now a thirty-something catering assistant on a movie set, she reluctantly agrees to bring a cappuccino to the resident diva. The young star Anastasia Cole is in tears, distraught about disturbing changes in the script. Frankie serves a side of common sense with the coffee, and excited to have an ally, Anastasia offers her the role of a lifetime. It’s not what Frankie had in mind—but being needed might be exactly what she needs.

I’m excited to share a bit of Catering Girl with you here, before I publish it this weekend.

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Catering Girl

Chapter 1

I wasn’t supposed to be smoking on set, even though it was an outdoor shoot nearly halfway to the Mojave Desert. I wasn’t supposed to be smoking at all, having promised everyone who still loved me that I’d quit. But lack of sleep and a vicious hangover made for a deadly combination that lowered my willpower to zilch. I’d just lit up, intent on spending my midmorning break in contemplation of my bad habits, when a voice perforated my muzzy thoughts.

“Catering! You there, catering!”

Busted. I ground my cig underneath one designer heel and prepared for another lecture. Snapping his fingers at me was the producer’s son, an entitled little creep with a Napoleon complex and a suspiciously low hairline. Per my contract with the studio, I didn’t have to man my station for another ten minutes. For almost anybody else involved in this movie, I would have hopped to, probably with a joke and a smile, but I had no intention of saluting this guy’s flag any sooner than required.

My deficiency of hop-to did not appear to please him. His eyes narrowed to nasty slits. “What are you, deaf? Cappuccino to trailer three, nonfat milk. Don’t screw it up.”

Speaking of entitlement. “I’m not going in there.” I’d yet to meet the performer in person, but the last coffee jock who’d gone into Anastasia Cole’s trailer had exited wearing the cappuccino, then kept on walking.

If either he or Miss Silicone thought that a slew of forgettable slasher flicks and one Oscar—best supporting actress, in a slow year—earned her the right to go full-on diva, they both had another thing coming. I didn’t care that my teenage nephew adored her and had seen all her movies, some twice.

The heir apparent sighed. “Okay, what’s it worth to you?”

“Excuse me?”

He pulled out his wallet. “Ten bucks?”

Ten bucks? I saw what that putz drove onto the set. My parents hadn’t paid that much for their house. “Fifty,” I countered. “But if she throws it at me, I’m walking, too. And I’ll take the entire catering unit with me.”

I had no authority to pull up stakes, but I’d been working with guys like this for years. It seemed a safe bet that beyond his own imagined influence, he didn’t have a clue who was responsible for what.

A vein bulged on his left temple. “Christ. You’re as bad as the agents. Anastasia won’t do the nude scene, the other producers are threatening to bail, and now the catering girl is shaking me down for a lousy cup of coffee.”

Catering girl? I straightened my spine, which probably didn’t make me any taller than my usual five foot five, sans moussed curls and impractical footwear, but it made me feel more intimidating. “What did you call me?”

He got right up in my face. “Catering. Girl. No power.” He pointed to himself. “Producer. Power. Get the difference?”

I smiled sweetly at him. “Thank you for clearing that up for me. Now let me give you some advice. When Daddy makes you drive to McDonald’s to pick up dinner for the crew, don’t forget the french fries. Makes the union guys pissy.”

Then I turned and started for my car, forcing a cool, confident walkaway so he wouldn’t see that I was having a quiet nervous breakdown over what I’d just done. It was a crappy movie, but I needed this job, bad. In the thirteen years since little Frankie Goldberg had left the East Coast and the comfort of my mother’s brisket, the career as a famous movie star hadn’t panned out. Nor had I been doing very well as a fair-to-middling standup comic. The only marketable skill I had left was a knack for cooking in large quantities. At the moment, I couldn’t afford to put my job on the line just to make a point. I had bills coming due, my beat-up Barracuda was on its last cylinder, and I owed my sister and her current husband, at her last accounting, six hundred and thirty-two dollars and fifteen cents.

It was the fifteen cents that bothered me the most.

“All right,” he said. “Fifty. And I’ll talk to her first.”

I let out my breath. For fifty bucks, I’d even draw a little heart in the foam. “Nonfat milk, you said?”

Relics

pharaoh-471589_1280I’m sharing a story I wrote from Friday’s 2-Minutes-Go. There’s some great writing going on. Click here if you’d like to see what we came up with this week. Maybe one week, you’ll join us. [Audio version on SoundCloud.]

—–

He was still attempting to reach her, still attempting to explain. From the moment Marta had stormed out of their house, where she’d discovered her professor husband with his best student, throughout her ride to the airport, and even as she was checking into her hotel room in Alexandria, she sent his calls, texts, and voicemail messages into the ether. The ancient Egyptians she studied had the right idea. If you wanted to vanquish an enemy, remove the evidence. Chip their names from edifices, strike them from scrolls, let their good deeds, if any, never be spoken of again. The memories were harder. Especially because the two of them had made this discovery together. They’d found the pharaoh’s mistress. And yes, the irony cut her like the high-tech tools they’d used to exhume the remains. She’d been invited to speak at the opening of the exhibit; he’d declined, and now she knew why. But it was too late to back out, and besides, Marta felt she owed it to the “secret queen,” as historians had come to call her, to honor her memory, to drag her from the burial chambers relegated to the pharaoh’s servants, where she’d been hidden for thousands of years.

There was time before the curators expected her, so she asked for a private tour. She trailed a hand over the Plexiglas covering the death masks and relics and the mummified remains of the woman herself. She must have been important to him to merit such an honorable afterlife. Buried among the servants, yes, forgotten by the ages, certainly, but what ordinary person at that time in Egypt, even a palace servant, was treated so well in death? “I know you all too well,” she whispered. Squeezing her eyes shut, she remembered a time when she was the best student, the eager disciple of the man who had declined to come to Egypt and share the spotlight. She ducked into a corner and called him. “Do you love her?” she said. His silence told the story, and she hung up, and deleted him.

The Bridge

wooden-768663_1280

I’d like to share another flash fiction entry inspired by JD Mader and the writing cabal at his blog, Unemployed Imagination, where he generously opens up his comment stream on Fridays for 2-Minutes-Go. (And, if you’d prefer, here’s the audio version of the story.)

—–

She knew where he’d be waiting. On the left bank of the creek, just over the wooden footbridge, a small hollow flanked by two old, bent trees. She checked behind her. No one had followed. Her shoulders tightened, nearly bracing the straps of her heavy backpack of their own accord, and her breath was labored, rough as adrenaline spiked through her, as it chattered down her arms and curled her small hands into fists. Again she saw the storm building in her mother’s eyes, felt the crack of the palm across her cheek. Another note from school. Another reminder that she wasn’t like her brother, would never be like her brother, that pious freak, yes ma’am, no ma’am. She could not sit still in a succession of dull as death classrooms and listen to her droning teachers tell her things she’d learned on her own years ago.

But her father understood.

He would take her away from this.

Her sneakers squished in the damp grass, the patches of mud, as she dodged and wove the familiar ground, the same rocks, the same tree roots. The creek ran high with the recent rains; she heard it before she saw it, and she followed the sound toward the old bridge. Here, she worried. The rushing water could cover anyone’s approach. The social workers. The police. But so far, nothing but grass and pale-pink sunset clouds and trees whipped by the wind. She knew where he’d be waiting. But something ahead didn’t look right. The bridge lay splintered, half in and half out of the swollen creek. No way to cross. No way to get to where he waited. With her new chance, her new name, her new life. Something flashed ahead—a whisper of movement or maybe the wind. A light clicked on. Clicked off.

She chanced the question. “How do I get across?”

“Wait there,” he said. “I’ll come to you.”

He appeared from behind a tree like a vision. Like a holy mother vision from one of her brother’s Bibles. Even in the dimming sun she could see his smile. The promise in it. The promise of far, far away, which felt like the only safety she could imagine. Hands out for balance, he stepped foot by foot down the bank. She gasped as his left leg crumpled, as he slid to the water.

“Dad!” She skittered toward him, barely catching herself in time to avoid his fate. Then, breath held, she stared. Legs weren’t supposed to bend like that. Blood ribboned out into the water. When she followed it back to the tree branch sticking out of his arm, she nearly vomited.

“Go.” His voice was a weak rasp wheezing from his throat. A faint, rhythmic whine broke through the rush of the water. Sirens. “Shit. Your mother must have—left pocket. Take my keys.”

To reach him she’d have to swim for it. And after that— “I don’t know how to drive!”

He drew in a shallow, shuddery breath. “Time to learn.”