Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — Pie At The Zeitgeist Diner

“Pour you another cup?,” the zaftig waitress inquired.  The coffee made a circular slosh in the round belly of the service pot as she waited for his reply.

He just wanted to slow down.  Why did everything have to be done with such immediacy. And right on cue his phone buzzed again and he took it up off the counter.

“Hey, doll. Let me warm it up for you.” The waitress poured and sauntered off in her own sloshy way down the counter.  Mario was beginning to think that his Dad was right about this job.  That whole “work from anywhere” schtick meant he should also “work at any time.”  Mario thought the old man was out of touch for pitching an office job in a cubicle farm, but maybe there was some benefit to it. It was another text from his boss out on the road. And not even an important text — just a random thought he had over beers with a prospect. Like Mario was just some sort of human note pad.

Mario put the phone in his pocket and looked down the counter. Sitting at the curve about six stools away was the most gorgeous girl he had ever seen. She had a cup of coffee and a huge slice of lemon meringue pie in front of her — untouched — as she wrote with intent in a black, old-school composition notebook. She used a yellow Ticonderoga no.2 pencil and Mario thought he had gone back in time.

The girl had no interest in anything around her as she wrote — she was lost in her own world. A world she was in the midst of creating. Mario was both jealous and curious. He had been to this diner many times but this was the first time he had ever seen her. And then he noticed: she didn’t seem to have a phone, at least not in front of her.

Now he was even more intrigued and used the action of stirring his coffee to make some distracting noise, but she didn’t even look up. He checked to make sure she wasn’t wearing any ear buds and noticed she had tucked her long honey hair behind a perfect pearly ear.

She stopped writing and looked upon her pie with wonder — as if it she had magically willed it there, and Mario saw his chance to make contact. “The pie’s really excellent here,” he said nodding.

She held up her fork, gave him a big smile and said, “You only live once.”

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — Suburban Meandering Youth

In this middle class town there are still kids who walk to and from school.  Yeah, some have cars, and some still get rides from parents, but when you live near schools there are always kids, or “youths,” meandering around.  Even the local high school gym class takes kids through the neighborhood working on their fitness.

But it was a bit of a surprise to Wendy as walked her dog early one hot, sunny September morning.  The school year had just started, but it took her aback to see a kid coast past her on his bike and run it up to side of a suburban home.  He grabbed a ladder out of the bushes and with a practiced air leaned it up against the house, climbed up and slithered through a half-opened window.

As Wendy circled the sidewalk to the front of the house she saw a man walking out the front door dressed for work.  She smiled slightly and raised her hand in greeting but the man was too preoccupied with his Blackberry to see her. Wendy’s son was grown and on his own now, and she debated telling this man that a boy (presumably his son, but maybe not?) had just climbed though a second story window into his house, but something stopped her.

Maybe she remembered that sense of freedom from being a kid,  and knowing that school meant schedule and routine.  Clearly this kid knew he had to be home and clearly he’d come home like this before.  She thought about her own son and all the things he had shared with her as he was growing up.  Was he so open about sharing some things in an effort to keep some things from her as well?  This wasn’t her child, and maybe there was a tattling sibling or mother waiting on the other side of the window — she would never know.

But maybe tomorrow morning she and Pogo would walk the same route again and watch for the boy on the bike.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — What eXit Did’Ya Take?

Setting: Summer suburban backyard Bar-B-Que when the men and women have self-segregated. The men are over by the grill holding their beers while the women are inside the air-conditioned house drinking wine coolers. The dudes are talking.

Vinny: “Good to see you, my man. (Pulls Gil in by the hand for a shoulder bump) “So, how’d you come here, man?”

Gil: “I took the Parkway to 1 & 9 and just came straight down.

Rob: (Swallows a big swig of beer, wipes his mouth on the the back of his hand) “Nah. You don’t go that way. Too many lights. I take the Turnpike to exit 9 and then get on 18 South. It’s much faster.

Vinny: “Oh man, you both need to learn the back ways. Saturday traffic to the Shore is a bitch. I cut across 18 to 9 South at the split and that takes off a good 7 minutes.”

The wives are looking out the window at their menfolk waving their beers around as the flames leap up from the charcoal in belly of the grill. They know it’s a ritual of their coming together to discuss their directional prowess. It’s a badge of honor in this Garden State to find the fastest — not necessarily the most direct — route from point A to point B. There are bonus points for speedy rides to and from sports and concert venues.

The wives nod knowingly. Sitting next to their driving men they secretly cheer the womanly GPS voice that declares, “Re-calulating,” whenever their mates think they know a better way. The fight for directional supremacy evens extends to trips they’ve made for years.

Gina opens the ‘fridge and takes out a platter of cold shrimp. Placing it in front of her guests she says, “Let’s see how long it takes them to find their way to the shrimp, ladies.”

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — Winter’s Breath

Lou woke up in his car, still running, in the bitter cold of an early New Year’s Day. Head pounding, mouth so dry, he could hardly believe no cop woke him to move. Or maybe the cops had bigger issues than rousting sleeping drunks off the Ocean Grove oceanfront on New Year’s Eve. The wind was strong. It made his old Honda shimmy a little as it blew around it which in turn made him queasy.

He turned it off and heaved himself up onto the boardwalk. Far off in the distance was a virtuous jogger, but other than that there were no people, no colors, both sky and water were grey. A landscape of dun. Stark brown, grey, some off-white foam churned with sand. From inside the car it looked silent, but it was really a loud silence created by the monotonous waves. Lou turned his head into the wind and screamed into it, a raw sound from the back of his throat that made him forget the headache, the nausea, and the disgust he felt about himself.

Why didn’t he go to a meeting last night? Why did he fall off the wagon? He thought he didn’t need a higher power anymore, but that was clearly a crock. He looked down at his hands, bruised and shaking, and remembered a scene from last night. He tried to go back to Rachel and she wasn’t even home. The wind blew into his face and he could smell his own nasty, alcoholic breath. It was so bad that even Old Man Winter would reject it from mingling with the salty sea air. There were tears in his eyes now — from the wind, his breath or regret? At this point, it didn’t even matter. He hung his head and watched the boardwalk blur.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — The Real Vampires of New Jersey

They had been living together for long time now.  Nobody paid them any mind. They kept to themselves, but went to work every day.  Actually they went to work every night, and they chose the most undesirable shifts.  The upside was that their nocturnal co-working mortals were so less curious than the day workers.

They lived off the grid in a cob house on the border of Vincentown. They drove old Audis retrofitted to run on moonshine bio-diesel, and they liked to play their vinyl records backwards.   The neighborhood hoodlum kids thought they were cool.

Folks thought they were related in some way, but they weren’t.  It’s just that when you spend a lot of time together, say 300 years, you start to resemble each other and share the same mannerisms.

Would it really be a surprise that the New Jersey vampires of 2075 were radical environmentalists?  They had a vested interest in keeping the Earth inhabited by all the creatures along the food chain. Between the rising sea levels and the fracking, the northeast was getting hotter, drier and hazier.  Vampires are on the same evolutionary track as mortals, and they much prefer constancy in their environment.   Enough dicking around with the politics and profiteers of the environmental industry — the only thing that was going to save the planet was radicalism of the vampiric kind.

Zerra and Gimletta were putting the final touches on the desalinization still when   Hectorus and Phullmund came up from their day’s rest.

“I heard there’s a private convoy of miners being smuggled through the woods to work the coal mines tonight,” Zerra said.  She was plugged into shadowy network of the black marketeers who trafficked in the banned fossil fuels.  The plan was to follow the convoy, secure the location of the mine and seal it off before the miners could get inside. It was a small scale operation, but until more of their kind could find their way to New Jersey they had to operate under the old grass-roots motto:  “Think globally.  Act locally.”

More vampires would come.  They had banded together in crises before but never in numbers as large as now. Despite the grim tasks ahead of them they were a bit excited to catch up with old friends and share tales of how the world was a vast, lush and colorful place.  Where scent had meaning and blood was rich.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — The Tomato Skirmish of Toms River

Skip admired his seedlings.  Soon, soon it would be warm enough to put his cosseted tomato plants out in the garden.  He was ready, so ready.  This was going to be his year.  His tomatoes were going to finally shame that turd Bennie’s.

It was a “friendly” competition between the gardeners of their little retirement community plots where the most prolific crop was tomatoes.   Five years ago the homeowners association (headed by that turd Bennie)  decided to hold a little harvest festival Labor Day weekend.  Since most of the residents were retired it resonated as the official end of summer, rather than an occasionally depressing “back-to-work” signal.

Skip was a newcomer, but he didn’t like what he  saw the last  two Labor Day weekends.  The smug mug of that turd Bennie with manicured hands that sure didn’t look like they pulled weeds regularly.  And the widows all over his tomatoes offering to make his gravy on Sunday afternoons.  Right.  A true tomato man didn’t use the fruit of his vine as a cheap sex lure.  Bennie smoked his big stogies and bragged he just ground the ashes and cigar stubs into the soil.

Skip had spent the winter planning his crop rotation, composting religiously, reading about organic pest control, researching the hardiest breeds of seeds.   Like an athlete he visualized a successful outcome.  He saw himself standing tanned and victorious at the judges’ table over his antioxidant rich red crop.  His wife, on the other hand, took no interest in his, Bennie’s or any other tomato entrant’s strategy.  She was happily retired and enjoying her trips to A.C. for her nickle winnings and quarterly gossip.

She had heard from her widow posse that Bennie was a bit of a “catch, ” if only because he was still interested in a lady’s companionship and kept up his personal hygiene —  cigars withstanding.    But this strange compunction of her own husband did not totally surprise her.  Skip was a competitor and liked to play the underdog.  She nodded sympathetically when he went blathering on about his heirloom seeds and special rabbit-resistant cages.  “Yes, dear, ”  she’d intone.  But deep down she rooted for her husband and his ability to play from the rear of the field.  And she wasn’t totally above plying Bennie’s latest conquest for a little bit of garden intel.

Who said living in a “55 and over” community was all canasta and mall walking?  The tomato war would ripen into the juiciest event ever in short-term memory.

Short Fiction

The A-to-Z Challenge — Sandy, Unplugged.

Monica didn’t know what was worse: the silent sunrise after the storm revealing the debris covered yards and streets or the radio hosts desperately asking listeners to call in and report what was happening in their neighborhoods.    Lou had unearthed their “emergency kit” with the dead battery flashlights and crank radio because the power had gone out sometime during the night.    But very few folks were calling in because they either had no cell service or they were conserving their batteries until the power was restored.

The morning chill was disconcerting, out of sync.  Most of these storms happened at the tail end of summer when you had to sweat out a power outage, not worry about keeping warm in late October.  Then she started to think about all the food that was bound to spoil in the ‘fridge, and if the water level in the sump got too high and their basement flooded.  At least the gas stove was working so they could boil water and fry up some eggs.

So no internet, no TV, no lights, no heat.  Oh, it’s quaint for a morning to congratulate yourself on your resourcefulness, but then it becomes painfully clear how dependent you are on the magical wires and screens.

The news trucks finally were able to make it out onto the roads to report back to the radio studios, and it started to feel like “The War of the Worlds.”  People stranded, boats in their backyards, brackish water creating tide-pools with their living room furniture.  Panic at  gas stations, abandoned pets, all the stories designed to make you scared, to make you hide and hoard.

But then it happens.  People check on their neighbors, invite them over to sit by the fireside.  “We’re all in this together.”  Libraries and firehouses open their doors, and as the power comes back on -line these “comfort stations” become a hub.  The old-fashioned town square where people talk to each other.  We go back to “odd/even” gas days, but there’s still a cop directing the cars to the pumps.

Monica and Lou got their power back after three days, and Monica cleaned out the ‘fridge, went shopping and re-stocked.   Lou bought new batteries for the flashlights.   But two years later she’s still reading about people fighting with insurance companies.  People who can’t even begin re-building their homes yet.   She feels a shiver of guilt as she swipes her screen to read the next news story.