Tag Archives: short story

Burger Queen

They sat in a booth in a fifties diner after a long drive from Sacramento. It was a locally owned joint with charming black and white checkered linoleum floors and red leather bar stools and framed photographs of the Rat Pack and James Dean on the walls.

“How do you like the food?” the cook asked.

She stared at her hamburger. “It’s not what I thought I ordered,” she said, feeling ashamed.

The cook checked her tab and confirmed she had ordered the hamburger with barbecue sauce and onion rings. “I can make you another one,” the cook said.

“I only need a half,” she said, pointing to her half eaten burger.

“I’ll make you another one,” the cook insisted.

When the cook returned to the kitchen, she sat up straighter. “Mikey would be proud of me,” she said. “I stood up for myself when I usually don’t say anything.”

Her boyfriend frowned. “What’s going on with you and Mikey?”

She sat back, as if pressed against a wall. Her eyes widened with fear and confusion. “He’s coaching me on how to be more confident,” she said.

Her boyfriend stared at her, his frown deepening.

She continued. “He could tell I was unhappy. He had a heart-to-heart with me. He said I was worth being someone’s wife and that if that’s not what you wanted it was okay but that I needed to leave you because I’m not getting any younger.”

His face darkened.

“He was just trying to build up my confidence.”

He glanced away.

“I shouldn’t have told you,” she said.

He turned back to her, his eyes flashing. “No, I asked you to tell me,” he said.

“But you’re angry.”

“I’m not angry.”

The cook returned with her hamburger. She took a bite and smiled. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” the cook said.

It felt good to be heard. It felt even better to have received exactly what she had asked for, even if it was only a hamburger.

STRANGE AND REAL

“You’re worth it,” he said.

Strange, she thought, that’s the same mantra I’ve been telling myself since October and it still doesn’t feel real, but it is. Real.

They stood in the street in front of his truck after she had shown him a fixer upper house that wasn’t worth fixing. The sun slanted dangerously low in the west.

“I blame your boyfriend for some of it,” he said, “because he’s smart. He should have known better. Women are cyclical. They’re emotional. They change their mind. He can’t pick this, this, and this about you and leave out that, that, and that.” He jabbed the hood of his truck with his fat finger. “I know. I was married to someone like him who only wanted this, this, and this.” He pointed to the spots on the hood he had smeared with his finger. “But I had to remind her I was one person. I came with that, that, and that.” He pointed to the other spots he had previously missed.

Tears clung to the bottom of her lashes. She was not going to cry. Already her teenage daughter had told her that she had cried one too many times this week.

“You know what I’d like for you?” he asked.

“What?” She looked up with an expectant gaze.

“I’d like for you to get your legs,” he said. “Find your bearings. Stand up for yourself.”

She took a deep breath and exhaled. “How do I do that with him?” she asked.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “Your boyfriend isn’t a bad man, but he doesn’t like variables.”

“I’m full of variables.”

He laughed. “So am I. That’s why I’m single.”

She smiled. At least, she thought, I didn’t say, ‘Why am I with him and not you?’ like I said the other night at the restaurant when I told him the story about how my boyfriend ordered for me the first night we dined there because the dish I wanted to order was fried, not baked, and he didn’t want me to ‘spoil my lovely figure.’

“Maybe you should invite me over. Let me tell him what is what.”

“Only before he’s had a drink,” she reminded.

“Ah, yes, that’s the dark horse for him.” He gazed up for a moment. “For all of us,” he corrected. “I’m a happy drunk, but he’s closed off. He doesn’t let anyone in, and I’ve known him for 10 years.”

A lifetime, she thought, compared to me.

“Maybe someday we can get together, have a few drinks, talk about life,” he said, a belated invitation. “But right now, we have to talk business. And that means you need to stand up for yourself because you’re worth it. Your feelings are worth it.”

“It takes practice,” she said.

“Then let’s start practicing.” He stood up straight and said, “Say it. ‘I’m worth it. My feelings are worth it.’”

She stood up straight, shoulders back, but still she felt small, crouched over, a coward. “I’m worth it,” she mumbled. “My feelings are worth it.”

“Louder!”

“I’m worth it! My feelings are worth it!”

“LOUDER!”

“I’M WORTH IT! MY FEELINGS ARE WORTH IT!”

“That’s it, dear,” he said. “Now we both have to get home. Tell your boyfriend I said hello.”

She didn’t want to have to return to the empty house with her daughter who huddled behind a closed door completing her homework while her boyfriend was out having dinner with his friends. She wanted to go anywhere but the house he owned. It was the house he would not sell so they could buy a home of their own with money from her divorce and whatever he wanted to add to it. But she had nowhere else to go, no place to call home. She stood up straighter, shoulders back, her confidence abating under her stance. “I will,” she said, her voice weak. “I will,” she said, her voice stronger. “I WILL.”

Short Story Treat!

Traditional Style Living Room

Here’s a short story I wrote recently called, “Room by Room”:

Our Realtor, Mandy, wants a tour of the house she will be listing for sale. You aren’t here. You left three weeks ago to be with that older woman you work with, the one the children and I call Sue-Sue instead of Susan because it sounds more appropriate, both juvenile and irresponsible, the way we like to imagine her.

I reluctantly guide Mandy through the foyer where your shoes once lay stacked like a fortress against the wall instead of hung neatly on the shoe rack I bought for the garage. Mandy takes pictures that will eventually end up on the Internet for the whole world to see. I cringe when I think of the mess of my life exposed for any voyeur to critique and comment, all those strangers who don’t know what hell I’ve been through to get here.

In the living room, Mandy bends to examine the hearth. “What’s that?” she asks. I look closer and notice the safe you placed inside so robbers would never guess where our valuables hid. It conspicuously sits like a steel box where a stack of logs should be. “I’ll remove it,” I say, knowing I will have to text you after the appointment so that you can use your key to come in and remove it while I’m at work.

“Would you like something to drink?” I ask.

“Just water.”

I flush with embarrassment when I pull open the refrigerator and see my collection of Lenox dolls on the top shelf. You aren’t here to criticize me for keeping them, but I hear your voice nonetheless. They’re porcelain. They won’t break in the heat. But still I kept them refrigerated like they had an expiration date. I grab a bottle of water and shut the door. I’ll have to pack them up or sell them on eBay. I can’t leave them with whoever will buy the home. They aren’t garden gnomes, after all.

I find Mandy in the master bathroom taking a photograph of the double sinks underneath the skylights that make the house look like a model home. Only she must have opened the cabinets to spy what was inside because the room smells like your Eternity cologne, the one I bought for you when I thought I would be spending eternity with you.

My eyes smart with tears. As soon as Mandy takes the bottle of water, I leave the room. I thought you had been erased once you left, but the reminders linger everywhere. Even in your absence, you take up more room than me.

Outside, in the backyard, I slump down into a chaise lounge and try to read a book I picked up from the library. It’s called, It’s Not Me, It’s You. The title seemed appropriate, a little bit like the fuck you diet my coworkers suggested I go on so that you might give me a second look when you see me again. But I can’t focus. I just read the same line over and over again.

My yoga teacher says, “Life is simple. We make it complicated.” She says it’s a quote from Confucius. I don’t care who said it. It’s not true.

I didn’t make my life complicated. You did. When you told me you were leaving me for an older woman, a woman who had just received her AARP card, I felt like you had punched me in the gut. I couldn’t breathe. How many nights had I spent bent over the mirror plucking every single gray strand of hair from my scalp because I was too lazy to dye it? I should have let my black locks grow gray and wiry like steel wool. Would you have loved me enough then?

Mandy pushes the slider back and steps outside. She surveys the garden oasis our gardener has meticulously landscaped. I am sitting beside the koi pond beneath the willow tree. Mandy asks me to move. “I want to photograph this Zen-like scene,” she says. “It will help the house sell quicker. It feels like a little piece of paradise.”

My chest hurts. I stand up and stagger back into the house and sink down on the nearest sofa in the family room. The walls are bare. I made you take every painting you ever created, even the one I like the most, the one you painted of me. I wonder if you’ll paint a picture of Sue-Sue.

“I’m done,” Mandy says. She closes the slider and sits down on the sofa next to me. “I’ll get your ex-husband’s signatures and then we can place the home on the market. What hours do you want the lockbox programmed for?”

I feel a headache blooming behind my right eye. I rub my temples, hoping to stave it off, but it remains. “How about by appointment only?”

“It will sell quicker with better access,” Mandy says. “I’m sure you want to move quickly.”

I don’t want to move at all. I want to take a bottle of sleeping pills and lie down on the cool leather sofa and fall into a hundred year’s sleep only to be awakened by true love’s first kiss.

But my life isn’t a fairytale. It’s a nightmare.

“Okay. Show it as much as you’d like. I’ll stay with a friend until we get an offer.”

Mandy’s smile broadens. At least I still have the power to make someone happy.

After Mandy leaves, I exhale. The tears pour out in messy belly-aching sobs. They rack my body until I feel like I’m out of breath from sprinting five miles. I grab a throw pillow and squeeze it tightly in a hug because you’re no longer here to hold me, and I wait for my breathing to return to a normal pace before I go into the kitchen to remove my figurines from the refrigerator, the first step to clearing out the house like I must clear out my life, making room for the next family who will move into it with the same bright hopes of making this place a home.

###

Dog Lover’s Delight

running puppy
Below is an excerpt from the title story of my short story collection, The Human Act and Other Stories:

I see her feet first. White Reeboks, size 7 ½, with mud on the soles coming straight at me. Then I look up past the knotty sinews of her legs in denim shorts, past the belly button and small, swinging breasts in a white cut-off T-shirt, past her narrow chin and high ruddy cheekbones to her deep-set brown eyes full of tenderness and love. I’m so lost admiring those sad and hopeful eyes that I don’t notice her left arm winding up a pitch until she says, “Go fetch it, Marcus.”

I stagger to the left through choppy grass, scampering over beetles and ladybugs’ nests, trying desperately to beat the breath of a late spring breeze that exhales the softball Amelia has thrown toward me. I move a little more to the left, then forward, then step back a few paces, then stop, rise up on my hind legs, open my mouth and lean forward. Got it!  The gummy material bounces against my teeth and then mysteriously falls away. Oh, no!

“Better luck next time,” Amelia says, jogging toward me and bending over to retrieve the soppy softball. With her free hand she rubs behind my ears and under my chin. I close my eyes and luxuriate in the gentle love of her massage. When she stops, I start to whimper. She palms the softball, wiping my slobber against her denim shorts, and smiles. “Want to try again?”

I bark enthusiastically, though I don’t really feel like it. All I can hear in my head is her boyfriend, Phil, saying what he always says when I’m around, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

I am seven years old. Five of those years I spent on the streets. I had a family once, when I was a puppy, but it didn’t last for long. I couldn’t follow the rules:

Don’t sit on the sofa.

Don’t pee in the house.

Don’t jump on anyone.

For a while, I was moved from shelter to home, home to shelter, then I escaped and traveled the back alleys, rummaging through garbage cans. I know what it feels like to be cold and homeless.

Then I met Amelia.

She was coming home from work at the legal office where she represents corporations in billion dollar mergers. She bent over the trunk of her gray Volvo and removed a single bag of groceries. With a grace both astonishingly simple and stunningly learned, she closed the trunk with her elbow and proceeded to balance the groceries against one hip while humming a tune.

Eager for a look at her face, I stepped in front of her. She tripped on my front paws and staggered back, regaining her balance. Shock and fear melted into kindness and concern. She stooped to examine me, setting her groceries on the lower step. “You look hungry,” she said, combing her fingers through my matted fur. “And lonely.”  Her face was fuller then, with softly rounded cheeks and a subtle double chin. She gathered me into her arms and I licked her neck helplessly. Then she screeched and shoved me out of her lap, standing up and glancing down at her black slacks drenched in pee. I thought for certain I had blown it, but she just shook her head and wiped her pants with a tissue from her purse. “We’ll have to fix that,” she said, stooping to gather her groceries. “Come on, let’s get something to eat.”

I trotted behind her up the stairs and down the hall to her one bedroom apartment. She once again perched the groceries against her hip while fumbling with a jangling set of keys on a long golden key chain with a picture of the sun dipping into the Pacific. She threw open the door and invited me into her spacious living room with its neutral carpet and eggshell walls. I trotted past the built-in bookcases lining either side of a marble fireplace to the loveseat and sofa across from the sliding glass door that lead to the small yard that would become my sometimes home, sometimes prison.

While Amelia stocked fresh fruits and vegetables in the crisper, I sniffed my reflection in the glass coffee table that was trimmed with oak. A row of photographs of her family graced the end tables and the bookshelves. I noticed a brother and a sister, a mother and a father, and someone else, someone special. His photograph pierced the center of a stainless steel heart. With windswept sandy blond curls and rugged mountain climbing muscles, he seemed unusually turbulent, even with a cloudless smile, and some part of me knew, instinctively, that I would have to battle him to retain a space in Amelia’s otherwise rambling, open field heart.

Amelia smiles, not sensing how hard I am trying to please her. She winds up another pitch and asks, “Are you ready?”
I bark and leap into the air. I’d do anything for Amelia. Anything. Even slop around in a muddy soccer field chasing fly balls, trying to catch them in my small mouth and bring them back to her like ten-carat diamonds dug up from the depths of my hound-dog heart.

When we get home, Phil is sitting on the sofa. He has a key to the apartment that he uses when Amelia’s out of town on business and someone needs to care for me. On the coffee table, the morning classifieds and sports sections litter the glass. When Amelia opens the closet to hang up her sweater, two suitcases topple out.

“Cece’s leaving me,” Phil says. “I thought I could stay here.”

Amelia’s lips tighten. “Can you go home and talk about it?  I thought you were seeing a counselor?”

“We were. She told the counselor last night that she wants a divorce. She says she’s found someone who listens.”

Amelia unlaces her Reeboks and sets the softball inside the left shoe. She runs her fingers through her long brown hair and tries to smile. I’m thirsty from chasing muddy softballs, so I trot into the kitchen and lap up the clean water Amelia placed there this morning after we had breakfast. When Phil’s here, the rooms feel smaller, darker, cluttered. I stay in the kitchen, chewing Purina dog chow, eyeing Amelia in the living room. She curls up beside Phil on the loveseat and brushes a sandy curl off his forehead.

“I guess it will be all right. You can probably find a place by the end of the month.”

Phil kisses her mouth. “What would I do without you?”

By the end of the month, I’ve given up my space in Amelia’s bed to Phil. I sleep outside, eat outside, and pee outside. My chewy toys no longer hide beneath the sofa cushions or underneath the coffee table. The apartment is still a mess, but it’s a different kind of mess. Phil’s Polo shirts drape over the sofa’s arms. On an end table where Amelia’s reading lamp used to be, a portable television blasts a baseball game between the Yankees and the Dodgers. Monitors and hardware cases lean like Lego cities on either side of the fireplace. Sometimes Phil thinks he’s home and he trips on my paws or steps on my tail. I yelp. Amelia says, “Be careful,” but doesn’t do anything when he’s not. I’m beginning to wonder when they’re going to send me away like the last family did a month after they brought a new baby home. “There just isn’t enough room in this house for another mouth to feed,” the husband said. I thought they’d get rid of the baby, he came last, after all, but they got rid of me.

Amelia isn’t holding up any better. She’s lost a lot of weight. When she bends down to feed or pet me, I can see each bone in her wrists. And her sad smile.

Five weeks later, Phil says he’s finally found a place. I think we ought to celebrate. But the night before he’s supposed to move out, Amelia closes a deal between Soltech and Fusetronics and, in the process of restructuring, Phil loses his job as a software engineer.

Phil slams the door when he comes home. Amelia is cooking in the kitchen, dicing onions for the soup she will not eat. I am sitting by her feet, just happy to be near her.

“How could you?” Phil spits. “I may not love my kids as much as you love that damn dog, but at least my kids would never back stab me.”

Veiled by her hair, Amelia continues dicing. “You knew I was working on that deal long before it became final. If you had a problem with it, you should have said something then.”

Phil stalks into the kitchen and kicks over my water bowl and steps into the moist crumbs of dog chow. “Shit. His crap is everywhere. I thought I told you to keep it outside where it belongs.”

“We had a snack together. Is that so horrible?”

“You could at least get rid of the evidence.”  Phil dumps the bowl of water in the sink and rinses the dog chow down the drain. He mops the floor. He pulls open the refrigerator and moves around my cans of moist dog food looking for a beer. “You know, the Italian Affair is having its grand opening tonight. We should go there and celebrate your big deal.”

“Stop teasing me. It was a big deal negotiating that offer. I couldn’t write in the terms and conditions for everything. How could I have known they would lay you off?”

I whine and whimper, hoping Amelia will understand. Please, don’t let him stay.

But she’s not paying attention to me. She’s paying attention to him. “Listen, Phil,

I’m sorry. If it makes you feel better, you can stay here until you get another job.”

Phil pops the lid on a can of beer. Foam rises over the edge. He slurps it up and wipes froth off his mouth with the back of his hand. “I’m sorry, too. It’s just that most guys my age are settling down, not starting over.”

Amelia touches his cheek. “Beginnings aren’t bad. They’re endings upside down. Like a frown to a smile. You have to look at it the right way. Now you have time to do the things you’ve always wanted to do. Like play softball.”

“You’re right.”  Phil wraps his arms around her waist and kisses her. “It’s not all bad.”

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Jia Blossoms

Jia plugged her iPod into the auxiliary jack of her Toyota Prius and listened to John Lennon sing, “Imagine,” as she drove up the hill to the back parking lot of Namaste Cafe where she worked as a waitress. Stepping outside into the blazing heat of another summer afternoon, she grabbed her thermal lunch bag and crumpled issue of Mother Jones and locked her car door.

“Excuse me.”

Jia glanced up into the dark brown eyes of a young man with disheveled blond hair. He was dressed in a frayed gray top and loose khaki shorts. A broken bicycle inner tube hung over one of his shoulders; a lumpy backpack against the other. Don’t look at homeless people, her father had warned her. They only want something for nothing. Just look away, pretend they don’t exist.

When the stranger stepped closer, Jia could smell grease and dumpster trash emanating from his bronze skin. She wasn’t sure if he was homeless or drunk or just in need of help. But she could not look away. She could not pretend he did not exist.

“Can I get a ride to the Pedaler Shop?” he asked. “It’s down Mendocino on College, about a mile or two from here. I need to fix my bike.” He lifted the broken inner tube for emphasis.

Jia’s gaze wandered from the man to the bike leaning against the willow tree next to the dumpster in the parking lot. The man followed her gaze, saying, “Yep, that’s my bike. I popped a tire going through a construction site.”

In a world of Jerry Springer, date rape, and online sexual predators, it was no wonder Jia heard her father’s voice: Don’t talk to strangers. They are dangerous. You could end up dead. But Jia suspected this man was as harmless as the bird with a broken wing she nursed back to health several months ago. Twirling her keys between her fingers, she said, “I have to start work in fifteen minutes.”

“If we leave now, you’ll be back in ten.”

Jia popped the trunk, and the stranger quickly dismantled his bike. It fit perfectly.

“My name is PAL.” The stranger extended his hand. “That’s short for Paul Alexander Loreau.”

“Jia,” she said, accepting his hand. “It means beautiful in Chinese.”

PAL studied her for a moment. “Your parents named you appropriately.”

Jia felt the blood rush to her cheeks.

Without hesitating, Jia unlocked the doors. She tried to keep her eyes in front of her as she drove, not on PAL who sat beside her with his elbow leaning out the window. A warm breeze ruffled her hair. She welcomed the distraction. Pausing at a stop light, she could feel PAL’s curious gaze traveling the curves of her body before resting on the blue river of veins on the back of her yellow hand where her mother’s wedding ring circled her third finger. “You’re married,” PAL said.

Jia felt no need to correct him. She didn’t open up to anyone, not even strangers. But she struggled to focus on the road. Her thoughts kept returning to the stranger sitting beside her. She had an odd desire to tug him into her arms and kiss his tight mouth until his lips blossomed. She had been alone for so long, she could not remember the last time someone had noticed her. In her head, she heard her father say, He could be tricking you. You could get mugged. Then what would you do? No money, no car. You’d be lucky if he left you alive.

Pulling into the parking lot of the Pedaler Shop, Jia pointed to her watch. “I can’t stay.” But what she wanted to say was, I can’t go.

“I don’t expect you to be late for work on my behalf.” PAL reached into his backpack and pulled out a wadded ten dollar bill. “For gas,” he said.

Jia lifted her hand and shook her head, but PAL unzipped her purse and tucked the ten dollar bill inside.

“It’s my gift.” He waved good-bye before carrying his bike into the air-conditioned store.

My father’s wrong, she thought. He didn’t hurt me. She reached into her purse with a trembling hand and retrieved the crumpled ten dollar bill. For a moment, she stared at the rip in the center of the bill just below Hamilton’s face. She smiled with conviction. He did not want something for nothing.

The clock on the dash changed to 2:57 pm. Three minutes before her shift started.

Jia zipped up her purse and backed out of the parking lot and merged with traffic. Although PAL was gone, she could still smell him sitting beside her. She rolled down her window, hoping the warm breeze would erase the smell. But the wind acted like a whisk in a bowl, beating up and blending the mixture of grease and perspiration and desire. Jia turned around at the nearest intersection and headed back to the Pedaler Shop. She parked her car and stepped into the air-conditioned store. PAL was standing between aisles of bikes waiting for the technician to fit his tire with a new inner tube.

He glanced up, startled to see her.

“I’m not married,” Jia said. “The ring was my mother’s. I wear it to feel safe.”

A slow smile spread across PAL’s face. “What are you doing for dinner?” he asked.

“Having it with you,” she said.

If you enjoyed this short story, you will love my upcoming short story collection, The Human Act and Other Stories from All Things That Matter Press. To be notified of the release date, visit my Fan Page or post a comment below.