Category: Short Fiction

COFFEE SHOP TALK-The Good and The Bad

I’m about to pay when a woman pokes in front of me, hands the server change and orders a coffee. The server who I called Shirley for years but whose name, I found out today is Marion, says, “You have to go to the back of the line.” The woman is in a hurry. She has to catch the bus. Marion tells her she doesn’t care. The woman leaves. “I know I’m being a bitch today but too bad,” Marion says. 

“It’s okay, sometimes dealing with people can be difficult,” I say. 

The perky woman behind me pipes in, “I worked in customer service for years and I loved it.”

“It’s been awful since early this morning,” Marion says. “A guy tried to pay with his phone but it wouldn’t work and he kept jiggling it and jiggling it and it still wouldn’t work. And he wanted me to call the manager. I told him it’s his phone. The manager can’t fix it. All the time the line kept getting longer and longer and he was getting more and more annoying.”

“Well, I’m a people person,” perky woman says. “I love people.”

I want to ask her if telling everyone in line about her people loving skills makes her superior and does she realize she’s made Marion feel worse. But I don’t. Instead, I pick up my coffee and take to the back. 

“Hi Sammy,” I say to the man sitting in my seat, then regret it.  A few years ago he bought the café where I spent every morning writing Sunshine Girls. He’d turned it into an old boys’ business club. They would spread their newspapers and work on two tables. Wouldn’t move it when I asked. Sammy told me they had the right. Turned out they were his friends. That’s how I ended up in Coffee Shop. Now here he is, years later in my seat arrogant as I remember. And I hate that I said hello.

“Sold the café,” he says when I sit down at the table two over from his. “It’s now a juice bar.”

I don’t care. I’m interested in what’s happening across the room. The man I call, Mafia Boss, is chatting up two elderly ladies. And I think: How come we can no longer be vocal about having a bad day? What’s with only positivity allowed and no negativity? Don’t they slide together? And how mafia can you be in a bright yellow jersey making two grey-haired ladies giggle like schoolgirls?  Who knows? All I know Marion is having a bad day. And I’m in Coffee Shop drinking from a red cup. 

Edward and The Romans

Sister Angela telephoned Mother every day to complain about Edward’s fighting. Every day Mother promised she would talk to him about his behaviour. But no matter how many times she spoke to Edward, he still managed to cause some kind of ruckus with the other boys at St. Mary’s Catholic School. He even threatened to slug our older sister Elaine and me, especially me. Being the youngest I seemed to annoy the heck out of him.“You are never to hit a girl, and certainly not your sisters,” Mother warned him. “If you do, you’ll be severally punished.”

Mother’s rule about him not hitting us gave Elaine and me free rein. Elaine teased him about not really being our brother. About being an ugly silly boy who Mother, Grandmother and Grandfather allowed to live with us on the Sugar Estate. We smeared shoes polish inside his shoes, put grasshoppers in his socks and lizards under his sheets. We chased him one Friday afternoon as he went to meet his cub troop, dressed in his freshly washed and pressed uniform and shiny black shoes.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” we yelled.

He made a fist at us.

“You can’t hit us,” I shouted, making a face. “You’re not allowed, because a boy who hits a girl is a coward.”

He made two fists and then got on the school bus. A few minutes later the driver closed the doors and Edward left for his weekend cub camping trip. We jumped up and down, hooted and hollered happy we were finally rid of him. Then we missed him. We missed his stories that always ended with him as the hero, saving the day and world from another villain. We waited for him to return on Sunday afternoon and fill our heads with tales of danger, fun and intrigue. Instead the only thing he talked about was Father Carmichael teaching them to box. He also brought home two pairs of boxing gloves.

“Father Carmichael was a boxer when he was young,” he said, dancing around and jabbing at the air. “And I want to be one when I grow up.”

“You’ll ruin your handsome face,” Mother said.

“I don’t care. I want to be like Cassius Clay.”

He tied a pair of gloves on my skinny wrists and began to teach me how to protect myself. Unable to raise my arms, I soon tired of the game and the heavy gloves and took them off.

Edward laughed. “You’re a sissy,” he said.

I shoved him to the ground, straddled him and punched him with my fists.

“And you hit like a baby,” he mocked.

Tears rolled down my sweaty cheeks and I was about to cuff him as hard as I could when Grandmother walked into the room.

“Eleanor,” she yelled, pulling me off of him. “Nice little young ladies don’t fight.”

I ran from the room.

“Edward, you’ve been told never to hit your sisters,” I heard Grandmother say. Then she went into the dining room. I heard her take the old leather belt she had nicknamed “Charlie” years ago, down from the hook behind the dining room door. I didn’t tell her Edward didn’t hit me. I didn’t have to. I knew by the time she returned to the living room, he’d be out the kitchen door and down the red gravel road to his special place across the cricket field. He kept that place secret from Elaine and me even though we begged him every day to take us. So one day we’d followed him. After we waited for him to scramble over the high white wooden gate, Elaine put her feet on the heavy chain and padlock, pulled herself up and sat on the top.

“Hurry, he’s nearly at the other end of the cricket field,” she’d said, looking down at me.

But I was too small to crawl up the wooden slats and she made her way down.

“Don’t worry,” she said, “tomorrow we’ll start digging under the fence so next time it’ll be easy.”

By the time Edward came home, Grandmother was busy setting the table for tea and had forgotten about giving him the strap.

“I don’t want to be boxer anymore, I want to be a drummer like Gene Krupa,” he said.

“I think that’s a good idea Edward,” she said, passing him a slice of cake.

After tea he found an old black suitcase and a rusty cake pan in the storage room. He hammered a spike through the pan and stuck the pointed end into the suitcase. It became a cymbal. Then he whittled and sanded two pieces of wood and made them into drumsticks. Every day he came home from school and practised his drumming on the suitcase drums. But it didn’t keep him from getting into a fight with the other boys during Lent. Not even when I told him he had to give it up, because we all had to give up something we loved. I had given up candy and recess. I spent every day after lunch in church saying the Stations of the Cross. In class I listened to Sister Angela preach about Judas’ betrayal, and about Saint Theresa the Little Flower. I promised Sister Angela that when the Communists invaded I would be more like Saint Theresa than Peter the Apostle. As Sister Angela said, Saint Theresa refused to denounce Jesus to non-Christian soldiers while Peter denied knowing Jesus not once but three times.

“I don’t have to stop because I fight as a Good Samaritan,” Edward said, “and I don’t know who the Communists are, and I don’t care about them.”

Yet Sister Angela chose him to be Jesus in the Good Friday play. The thought of it plagued me all during Lent. Edward would never make a good Jesus. Sister Angela always told us Jesus wanted everyone to turn the other cheek, something Edward didn’t know anything about and refused to do.

“Can we go home after mass?” I asked Mother as we made our way to church. “I don’t want to see the play, and I don’t want to see Edward as Jesus.”

“Good Friday is a day for little girls to be quiet and not annoy their mothers,” she replied, and gave me one of her warning looks.

Elaine was lucky. She got a cold and didn’t have to spend her afternoon in church listening to Father Carmichael telling us that Jesus died on the cross because of our sins. I couldn’t understand how my sins had anything to do with Jesus dying thousands of years ago.

Finally, mass ended. Father Carmichael said the last prayer, made the sign of the cross and stepped away from the altar. People rushed to the statue of Jesus, crying and begging forgiveness, as they rubbed his painted clay feet. I snuggled closer to mother.

“You would never do what they’re doing, would you?” I smiled at her. “Because ladies don’t that, do they?”

She squeezed my hand and pointed to the front of the church. In a tattered robe, a cross on his back, Edward was entering from the side door along with the other altar boys dressed as Roman soldiers. When they hung Edward on the cross with ropes, the crowd howled and dabbed at their eyes. Mother grinned proudly at him. From where I sat I could see the boys poking him hard with their cardboard swords and Edward kicking them.

After the play, Edward and the Roman soldiers rolled around on the ground outside the church cursing each other. I ran to tell Sister Angela. I thought that once she heard about the fight, she would march over and stop it. I thought she’d make them scrub the chapel floor for a month or give them some other horrible punishment. I thought she’d never let Edward be in another Good Friday play as long as he attended St. Mary’s. But she didn’t. She waved me away.

“Boys will be boys,” she chuckled.

I turned to leave but she called me back and peered at me over her glasses.

“Eleanor, wasn’t it tattling that got Jesus crucified?” she asked.

I kicked at a pile of gravel. Dust rose and fell, leaving a grey powder on my brown shoes and white socks. Sister Angela changing her mind about wrong being right confused me. Not only that, I wasn’t certain tattling got Jesus crucified, but one thing I knew for sure: I was going to be in trouble with Mother for getting my new shoes and socks dirty. And Edward and the Romans would continue to brawl every Good Friday.

The In-Between

Catherine dumps the contents of the box on her bed.

“My box of goodies,” James had said three months earlier. She’d found him huddled against a wall on a rainy fall day. She turned when he called her name, knowing even after thirty-five years, it would be him. He had always been the one to find her.

“I remembered where you worked,” he’d said, pulling his thin jacket around him and coughing. “I took a chance that you would still be there.”

He stumbled, coughed again and held onto the wall. Catherine waved at a cab. When it stopped she gestured for James to get in. He picked up the box and followed her. At the time, it bothered her that he’d found her. Not because she didn’t want him to, but because it meant she’d been stagnating in the same job for years. And at fifty-five, it was too late to find something else.

Now she spreads photos, newspaper articles, a notebook filled with scribbles and old university catalogues on her bed. She looks at a map and opens a high school yearbook. The first time she’d met James he impressed her with his good looks, and the fact that he wanted to date her. She was pretty, but nothing like the girls he usually dated, who were considered super cute or beautiful. She and James went out for their final year. Then, near the end of school, he broke her heart.

“I understand,” she’d said, when he explained that he’d be going away to university and it was unfair to her. She blocked the word unfair from her vocabulary and moped through the last days of classes, anxious for the bell to ring so she would never have to see him again.

A year later on a crisp fall day James phoned her. By then she was settled in a job and a new apartment. She met him for a drink. He wanted to make a new start.

“And university?” Catherine asked.

“I never went,” he replied. He took her hand and smiled at her. “I can explain.”

Catherine swallowed the lump in her throat. University was the reason for breaking up with her and he hadn’t gone. “Don’t even bother to try,” she’d said. She knew an explanation wouldn’t make a difference. She would allow him back into her life.

“It’s complicated,” he said, seven months later. “But we’ll always be friends.” He left, and Catherine returned to being one of the single girls searching for love.

“He’s like a field mouse, shows up in the fall and leaves in the spring,” her friend said, six months later when Catherine told her James had returned.

That time she tried to tell him she was involved with a stockbroker. But he didn’t want to talk about other people. Instead he promised to make her dreams come true. He swept his hand in the empty space in front of him and told her they’d travel to distant horizons. Ride camels in Morocco, maybe get married. A few months later he was gone—so much for Morocco and dreams.

The stockbroker gave her an ultimatum. He needed to know she loved him. Catherine shook her head. She told him she didn’t and had no intention of marrying him. She’d watched him pull out a handkerchief from the pocket of his navy-blue suit as he walked away. Then James was at her front door in September.

Catherine picks up the stack of photographs and shifts through the pictures of him and a girl. In one of them they’re standing in front of a university. The girl is dressed in full graduation attire, a diploma in her hand. He’s wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. They seem happy. Catherine looks at a picture of him with two small children. She checks the year at the back of a wedding picture. It matches the last time he left her. That time he’d yelled something about getting her out of his mind and slammed the front door.

She turns over the pictures, checks the dates and quickly thinks back to their times together. He’d show up in September and leave in April. It all had to do with the start and finish of university and the girl in the picture. They’d gotten married right after her graduation and had children. Catherine never had him. He was never hers. He belonged to the girl in the photo.

“Transient between two hearts,” she says as she gathers up everything and throws it all into the box. A piece of paper with a phone number written on it falls out of the notebook.

“I have his things,” Catherine says to the woman who answers the phone.

The woman says she doesn’t want them. “You must have meant something to him because in the end he turned to you,” she says. She mumbles a few words Catherine doesn’t understand.

“No,” Catherine says. She looks out her window and sees that it’s snowing. “I meant nothing to him. I was just in between fall and spring.”

Previously published in the anthology: Arrivals and Departures, November 2014

Dream Date

Classic Car

While visiting Manhattan, I saw a re-furbished Thunderbird for sale in Soho. I ran my hands over the beautiful leather seats, the chrome bumpers and wheel rims. I saw myself in it. My hair blowing in the wind. I imagined the stories it could tell. Maybe it once belonged to a young man who saved his allowance to buy it. Maybe it was a sweet sixteen birthday gift to a girl from her parents. Maybe it was owned by someone in the mob. I pictured him sitting in the back seat, being driven by his body guard to meet his death. Before I left Soho I took a photo of the car. When I returned home, I wrote a story about a boy, his car, and a young girl’s dream date.

Classic Car

The smooth blue and white leather felt cool on the back of Justine’s thighs. She pulled her skirt down to cover her knees. Tommy didn’t notice. He was more interested in how she liked the way the convertible eased over the potholes in the parking lot.

“I don’t know anything about cars,” she said.

Tommy pressed on the gas pedal. The wheels spun. Justine gripped the door handle as the car veered to the left then glided over the gravel road. “Like ducks on ice,” he said. He glanced in the rear view mirror, frowned and pulled a comb out of his shirt pocket. He ran it through his hair, looked in the mirror again and smiled. “Hey high school beauty queen,” he said, pointing to the radio. “Throw a dime in the juke box.”

She stretched out her hand to turn it on. Tommy put his hand on hers. “Be careful,” he said, “she’s delicate.”

It was the perfect afternoon. A love song on the radio and the most popular boy in school, she couldn’t ask for anything more. Justine leaned her head back on the seat and stared at the clouds flying by in a blue sky. She planned their wedding, their children and their life. After months of getting him to notice her it was worth lying to her parents about having to work.

Tommy pushed hard on the gas pedal. The turquoise T-Bird fishtailed out of control but quickly corrected itself. “That’s what I like,” he said and grinned at his reflection in the side mirror. He asked how she liked the feel of the leather and the purr of the engine. She looked at him and realized he didn’t know her name. He never asked. Since she could remember, he’d called her, high school beauty queen. What did she see in him when he pulled into the Burger Palace where she worked part-time? What did she think would happen when he asked to drive her home from school the next day? The other girls she worked with nodded at her then at him. They loved his slick dark hair, his bright smile, his pretty blue eyes and his car. They said he won every drag race. They said she was lucky. They said the girls in school would be jealous.

An hour later, he stopped the car in front of her house. “So what do you think?” he asked.

“About what?” she said.

He ran his hands over the chrome dashboard. “Isn’t she beautiful?” He didn’t wait for her reply. “Later high school beauty queen,” he said, then reached over and opened her door. He waved and sped away. Justine watched gravel scatter under the wheels of his dream date.

Previously published in CommuterLit