Walter

Walter Grindle sits in a small cubicle in the corner of the office that doesn’t have windows. On two sides he faces sickly green walls on two sides half wall, half glass. Walter believes he is the office manager because his father owns the company, but Marsha Goldman who sits in the opposite cubicle—the one with windows on two sides—is the real office manager.

She gives Walter petty jobs, like taking inventory and adding up the day’s invoices. Walter loves numbers. He hunches at his computer, his fingers tap tapping at the keyboard as he inputs figures and smiles because he believes he is doing important work. Marsha doesn’t have the heart to tell him that the computers have already calculated the day’s figures and incorporated them into the weekly, monthly and yearly totals. They will be automatically updated at 5:31 p.m. Walter does do a very nice job of keeping track of the inventory, however.

“Hey, Cindy,” Walter says looking up from his computer.

Cindy Sautherton halts and takes a breath to compose herself. “Yes, Walter?”

“I noticed that you took a box of legal pads last week. You didn’t fill out a form.” He holds up one of his specially designed color coded forms for her and waves it. His smile stretches across his rubbery face, and she stares at his pink gums and tiny square teeth. His black glasses ride up his nose and behind them his small black eyes leer at her. He shakes the form again. “Come and get it.”

She exchanges a look with Jeff Wong who rolls his eyes in sympathy. Jeff sits right outside of Walter’s office and is subjected to a constant barrage of jokes and remarks that only a man of extraordinary patience could endure. Jeff is a Buddhist. Though he has been born and educated in the United States, he has begun to pretend he doesn’t understand English very well.

Cindy walks into Walter’s cubicle and reaches for the form. He holds it just out of reach.

“Say the magic word,” he says.

“Please, Walter. Will you give me the form, so I can get back to work?” Cindy generally is good at handling Walter, but today her patience is frayed. Today she has three reports to finish and a presentation to prepare. Right now she just wants the goddamn form. “Give me that, Walter.”

“You should be polite,” Walter says. “If I tell my dad, you’ll get fired.”

“Fine. Tell your dad. Just give me the form.” She reaches over and snatches it out of his hand. She checks off legal pads, signs her name, and tosses the form back at him. “Here. Take your form.”

“I guess we aren’t having drinks tonight, Sin-Cindy.”

“We’ll never have drinks.”

Cindy walks out of his office. She hears Walter mutter, “I hate them all. I’ll tell Dad.”

He says that all the time.

She passes Tina and Jolene on her way back to her desk. “Take the long way to the ladies room,” she says. “His highness is in a mood. I hope you didn’t take supplies.”

Jolene sits back in her chair and folds her arms. “Why doesn’t his daddy stick him someplace useful? Like on a farm shoveling shit?”

Tina just giggles. “Oh, he’s kinda sad. Don’t you think?”

“Poor Jeff. If I was him, I’d wring the little bastard’s neck.” Jolene shakes her head.

The day passes slowly until it finally is five-thirty. Walter has enjoyed his afternoon, telling the new guy in accounting that he needs to work harder–of course, Marsha comes into his office and puts an end to his lecture. He’s sent Jolene a link to some new miracle diet because he knows she’s always trying to loose weight, and he has asked Ali, the new receptionist out. She’s said no.

At the end of the day, he asks no one in particular who is up for a round at the local pub. There are no takers. He watches his co-workers file out. No matter. He’ll get them next week.

Walter gets his coat and heads for the parking garage, but he recognizes the red Mini on the second level as Cindy’s. Across and down is a blue Toyota that he’s pretty sure belongs to Jolene.

Walter pulls in next to Cindy’s car and walks to the exit like a bloodhound on the trail. He heads to the pub everyone used to frequent, but no one from the office is there. He tries a few more on the street and is about to give up when he sees a place tucked into an alley.

Walter ducks down the alley and peers in the window. They’re all there at a big round table. Cindy and Jeff. Jolene and Tina. Ali, the new receptionist, and the guy from accounting. Even Marsha. They’re all sitting together and laughing like friends.

Walter swallows a few times and tries to will one of them to look up and see him, but no one does. He turns and walks back to the parking garage. He pulls out his keys and scrapes them the length of Cindy’s car before he drives home.

The Mouse

“I think we have mice,” Kayla said. She rolled over on the sofa and placed her ear against the wall, sure that she had just heard the scuffling of feet. Nothing. She looked back at Matt who slouched in the red chair, his feet on the coffee table, his eyes half closed.

Did you hear me? I think we have mice?”

“Don’t be silly. It’s the neighbors upstairs. I’m sure they’d fumigate.”

He held up the remote and began to switch through the channels until Kayla said, “Pick something.”

“Huh? Nothing on really.” He left it on the Military Channel where there was a program on World War II and fell asleep. Kayla listened for the scratching, but it remained quiet. Almost as if the mice knew she was listening for them.

They’d been lucky to get this place. It was a decent size two-bedroom, and they split the twenty-four hundred dollar rent. The drawback was that it was a basement apartment—garden apartment, the owner called it—though it only had small half windows in the front of the living room and in the back at the kitchen. Because the house sat in the middle of the block there were no windows in the bedrooms.

“Cells,” Kayla called them, though Matt didn’t seem to care. He seemed to enjoy holing up in his dark little bedroom and tapping away on his computer.

“You’re like a mole,” Kayla would tell him. He was a little with his longish nose and thick round wire rimmed glasses. He was a psych student of independent means. Quiet, easy-going, he kept to himself most of the time, but that was fine by Kayla. She had her own friends.

“You’re too picky. This place is perfect for you. You can walk to work.”

He was right. It was a fifteen-minute walk to her office at Dupont Circle, and yet there were those noises. Not all the time, but enough. Except Matt didn’t hear them. Whenever he came into the room, they stopped.

Kayla decided to buy an electronic mouse trap. It was the most humane thing. She would bait it with peanut butter and let it do its work. The directions said it could hold up to six mice at a time.

She set it up behind the couch and waited. A week went by. Then two. The trap remained empty, but the scratching continued. At night when she was lying in bed, she’d hear the scritch scratching on the wall, the scrabble of little feet, and she’d toss and turn until morning. She couldn’t eat. She’d imagine mice running through the cupboards prying into their supplies, leaving a trail of little brown turds behind. Stepping into the shower with its dark curtain terrified her so she bathed less and less often. Her hair became a chaotic nest of tangles around her thin, white face. She was too tired to do laundry.

Kayla would find herself drifting off at work. During a presentation by the president of her company, she began to snore. She was fired that afternoon.

Kayla dragged herself home and threw herself on her bed. She no longer cared about the scratching. She just wanted to sleep.

When she woke, all was dark and still. She didn’t hear a sound except her own breathing.

“Feeling better?” Matt said.

“I am a little.”

Kayla started to stand, but Matt grasped her arm and pulled her down. “No, I’m afraid you won’t be leaving yet. This is the second part of the experiment. I call it sensory deprivation. Don’t worry. It’s not total, and I won’t let you starve or dehydrate. Maggie was very resilient. I expect you will be too. Who knows? You make even make it to Stage Three.”

Kayla could feel hear her heart throbbing. “Stage Three?”

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Matt said as he wrapped duct tape around her hands. He slapped a final piece across her mouth. “The record is four months. Let’s just see how you do.”

We Could Be Heros

Jimmy Hanson slipped on his Boba Fett helmet and stared at himself in his mirror. He pulled out his plastic blaster and pointed it. He looked pretty badass. This Star Wars party would be pretty outrageous—of course, all Jen’s parties were.

Jimmy guessed he was getting a little old to be dressing up and running around with blasters and light sabers, but what the hell, he was four days from graduating with honors. He had a real job lined up. There was plenty of time to grow up and start paying off his loans. If he were lucky, he’d have enough left over to eat a real dinner more than once a week.

Jimmy figured he could walk to Allie’s apartment. He headed down Commonwealth Avenue, enjoying the early May air. Still cool, trees just starting to bloom.

A couple of people honked, and he waved. He figured he’d stop and pick up a couple of bottles of wine and a pint of Jameson’s for himself. He took off his helmet and ducked into a store.

Jimmy never could decide whether to pick up red or white, so he grabbed a bottle of chardonnay and was heading for the pinot noir when he heard shouting. He peered around the Captain Morgan display to see a short guy in the front of the store waving a gun and the terrified clerk behind the counter.

“Gimme your cash. Gimme your cash now!”

Jimmy set the bottle of chardonnay on the shelf and crouch-walked toward the front of the store. A woman in an orange sweater stood frozen by the counter, and he could almost hear the kathunk of her heart.

“We don’t keep much money in the till, man.”

“Stop lyin’, bitch!” The man with the gun paced a little before he reached over and dragged the woman against him. “I’ll blow her brains out. I’ll do it. Just watch me.”

The woman began to scream.

Do something. What would Boba Fett do?

Jimmy reasoned that Boba Fett probably wouldn’t do anything since he was a character in a movie. However, since he was dressed in character, and Boba Fett was a badass character at that, Jimmy felt he should do something.

He wanted to jump up, but his body wouldn’t obey. If he moved the gunman might get startled and shoot. Jimmy didn’t want to see the woman’s brains spattered all over the counter.

“Gimme your cash!”

Jimmy’s phone began to ring. The familiar Star Wars Theme echoed in the store.

“What the hell?” The gunman let go of the woman who slumped to the ground, and Jimmy grabbed a bottle of whipped cream vodka. Before he could quite register what he was doing, he had tossed it as hard as he could.

It exploded in a rain of glass and alcohol over the gunman’s face. He dropped the gun on the counter and began to scream.

“Jesus Christ, what was that? My eyes! My eyes!”

While the clerk grabbed the gun, Jimmy dialed the police. The woman in the orange sweater crawled to the door, pulled it open, and ran down the street screaming for help. Soon a small crowd had gathered on Commonwealth Avenue.

Jimmy didn’t tell anyone about the incident. It sounded too incredible, and he figured no one would believe it, until it made the front page of the Boston Globe. Then he stared at the photo of himself in his Boba Fett helmet, the clerk, and the woman in the orange sweater. The paper identified him as Bob Hanson, and that was fine by Jimmy. He didn’t consider himself a hero.

The next day, a case of whipped cream vodka arrived at his dorm.

My Bad Nature

My Daddy always said I was born with a bad nature. Mama said I had a mean streak. If I do, well, tomatoes come from the same pack of seeds. They always did like to pretend they were fancy people. They sure did love the big house with all its fancy velvet furniture and gold plated bathroom fixtures. I never did understand why you needed a gold-plated handle on your crapper, but nobody ever asked my opinion.

After Russell was born everyone sort of forgot about me, like I was some kind of mongrel dog you could keep in a broke down kennel. They sent me to school, but I wasn’t much for studies. I remember my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Pinkwater telling Mama how she ought to consider special school for me.

Dummy school was what she meant. Sure enough, the next year the next year they packed me off in a special green bus to a school with all the “special” kids. Special my ass. They were slow as snails. Some of them smelled like snails too. I got kicked out after a year for trying to burn the place down.

After that Mama tried tutors for a while, then she just gave up. She had Russell. He was her sweet boy, her golden haired angel. It killed her when Russell drowned in the lake. He was five. How was I supposed to know he couldn’t swim? Poor Mama just couldn’t stand losing Russell; she swallowed a whole mess of pills one afternoon and never woke up.

Daddy blamed me, of course, but I wasn’t even in the house. I don’t know how she got hold of those horse tranquilizers. I guess she really wanted to escape.

Of course afterward Daddy and I had some real good rows. His face used to get so red! He used to chase me out into the field. Who knew he had a bad heart? The day he dropped dead in the potato patch, it came as a real surprise to me.

Of course, then Uncle Ford and Aunt Latice and cousin Myra came to live with me until I was of age. Aunt Latice always pretended to be so sugary sweet, but I could tell she was plotting. She would walk around the house with her tape measure and say, “Don’t you think we should spruce things up a bit?”

I didn’t like that idea. Not one bit.

She and Uncle Ford were always meeting with her brother who she insisted I call Uncle Clay. He was some kind of lawyer, and I’d hear them in the green parlor. The formal parlor where all the fancy green velvet couches were covered with crocheted doilies on the arms and portraits of all the family stared down at you. Even Mama and Papa.

One Sunday I heard them in there, the four of them, and I snuck down the stairs. When I heard Myra laugh and say my name, I felt the anger boil up. This was my house. She could go to hell.

I went to the hall closet. It was time.

I snuck back to the parlor, threw open the door and blew them away with my Grandpa’s 12 Gauge. Then I dragged the bodies to Uncle Clay’s car and drove them to the quarry.

It took a while to clean up the blood, but I managed. Now the house looks all spic and span, as Mama used to say.

A woman from Child Services dropped by a week ago to talk to me, and I said Uncle Ford took Aunt Latice and Myra on a trip with Uncle Clay. She said they shouldn’t have left me on my own. I said I’d be eighteen in two weeks.

I guess it’s okay though, because it’s been two weeks, and I’m still here.

Coming Home

I walk down the polished floors of the hospital with a heavy heart. After five years my father’s kidney cancer has come out of remission with a vengeance and spread to his bones, liver and lungs. His doctor is talking aggressive chemotherapy to give him an extra six months, but Dad’s been marking time here since Mom died.

He loves me and his grandchildren, but his heart belongs irrevocably to Lily, the woman to whom he had been married for forty-nine years.

She died a month before their fiftieth. He still hasn’t gotten over it. “The first time she was ever early for anything,” he always says.

Now I slip into his room to kiss him. His skin has grown as papery as the skin of an onion, and his veins are purple snakes twisting up his arm. We talk of simple things: the warm June weather, baseball, Mom’s roses. I tell him that the kids are starting summer camp in a few weeks, and take a breath.

“The doctors want you to take a course of chemotherapy. Is that what you want? Or do you want to come home with us? We have plenty of room.”

I tell him this knowing he has already given me power of attorney and knowing he doesn’t want any extreme measures taken.

“Oh, no, Lily. We discussed this,” he says and shakes his head. “Don’t leave me here.”

“No, Dad, it’s me. Susan.”

He just smiles. “You’ll do the right thing.”

I think about that conversation when I argue later with his doctors who tell me my father was in full agreement with their chemo plan. We bring him home anyway, and he dies peacefully in his sleep on Father’s Day morning surrounded by his family.

“It was a gift,” my husband tells me. “You brought him home.”

All I can hope is that somewhere he’s sharing a drink and laugh with his beloved Lily.

We Have a Delay

“Ladies and Gentlemen, BCA Flight 1251 departing for Philadelphia has been delayed for two more hours. We apologize for the inconvenience. If you are making connecting flights in Philadelphia, please come forward at this time to the service desk.”

At the sound of the attendant’s voice, I watch weary passengers rise and drag their suitcases to the service desk, while new people  quickly grab the vacated seats. This flight has already been delayed for three hours. Heavy fog blanketing the UK and spreading across the Channel to Europe has left so many of us stranded in a peculiar kind of limbo.

Two more hours. We who are waiting in the cattle car section are now firmly boxed. Young folks sprawl on the floor, the rest of us claim our seats with the ferocity lions protecting their prey. Since I travel alone, I can’t abandon my bags to head for the ladies room, lest I lose my coveted chair. Come to think of it, I would love to get up and walk around, but there’s really nowhere to go.

What a trip this has been. When my magazine sent me to write an article, Off The Tourist Trail: London Adventures On A Budget, I looked forward to the challenge. I found some great bookstores, a few specialty boutiques, a great little shop for war memorabilia, and some lovely restaurants. On my limited budget, I was quite pleased. Or would have been. I had planned to start writing the story here, but nothing comes to mind. I’m too worried about Chelsea. My errant daughter landed on my doorstep a week before my trip, eight months pregnant, deserted by her boyfriend. Life seems to be turning in circles.

My eyes keep drifting to the windows, where the gray presses against the glass and beyond I can make out some hulking shapes and dim blinking lights. Some days I feel like I’m disappearing into the fog. I suppose it’s because I’m nearing that certain age when women become all but invisible, just vague figures in someone’s peripheral vision until they are called to action.

Damn, I really need to get on with it. Self-pity is such an unattractive trait. Since the divorce, my oldest daughter likes to remind me of that fact. I still wear a ring on my left hand, not a diamond, but a ring nonetheless. My hand feels naked without one. I tell myself I’m easing into my new state.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m sorry to announce that BCA Flight 1251 departing for Philadelphia has been cancelled. Please go to the main desk at once for re-booking. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

I drag my carry-on and blend in with the stream of passengers who span a range of moods from dejected to furious. A red-faced man barrels through shoving me aside to get to the counter. In front of me an older woman in a shoddy pink coat trips, spilling half the contents of her purse, and I stop to help her as the rest of the people stampede past.

“You’re in a hurry to get to the counter, aren’t you?” she says, and I shake my head. It’s too late to catch the next flight or the next. I may never get out of this airport. “It doesn’t matter as long as I get a plane. I’ll go cargo.”

She laughs. “That’s the right attitude. Everyone is in such a hurry these days. I suppose the world’s sped up since my day.”

“Not sure it’s such a good thing.” I pat her shoulder. “Are you all right? Not hurt?”

“Oh no. Just run along, dear. I’ll be fine. I’m in no rush.”

“No, here. Let me help you up. Are you sure you don’t need some assistance?”

She gives me a smile, her blue eyes twinkling with good will and a sort of joy. “You get along now. You won’t get a plane. Good luck to you, dear.”

By the time I reach the counter, I stand at the end of a long, long line. Does it matter? A few business class passengers saunter past the much shorter line and are hurried along. I suppose first class has its own entrance and exit.

The rest of us cattle fidget and shuffle and wait. I listen to customers berate the attendants as if they can control the weather. I wish I had chosen another day to fly. Right now, I believe I could settle down in a plastic seat and nod off.

At last I reach the counter where a harried woman with dark hair and large almond shaped eyes gives me a tentative smile. I return it. I figure she’s had a long day herself.

“BCA Flight 1251?” she says, and I nod. She sighs. “I’m so sorry, but our next available flight is not until Friday morning, Flight 962, leaving at 9 a.m. arriving at 11:36, Philadelphia time.”

“Friday?”

“I’m very sorry.”

“Do you have anything going into New York or Newark?”

She does a quick scan. “I’m sorry. We have nothing. So many flights were cancelled.”

“Baltimore? Washington? Boston?”

She shakes her head.

“But I need to be home. My daughter’s waiting for me.”

“Is she ill, Madame?”

“She’s pregnant.” I look away. Once again, I feel trapped. I take a breath. I can’t swim across the ocean. I need to relax. Chelsea’s an adult. She doesn’t need me. Tears prick my eyes, and I blink to keep them at bay.

“There is a first class seat available on Flight 409 tomorrow morning at 8:30,” the woman says. “There would be an additional charge of eight-thousand-four-hundred-ninety-six U.S. dollars.”

I want to laugh at the thought. My coat is ten years old, and I bought my suit from a consignment shop. Divorce has come at a heavy price. I shake my head. “It sounds lovely, but no thank you. You’ve been very kind and helpful, but I’ll take the Friday flight.”

“Excuse me, Danielle,” someone calls. “Could you come here?” The rep excuses herself for a moment, and I pull out my phone. It can’t be helped. Weather is weather. I’ll text Chelsea and tell her I’ll be there as soon as I can. I hope it’s good enough.

“Madame?” Danielle is back. “I’m sorry I had to leave you. It seems that we can get you on that 8:30 flight tomorrow after all. A seat is available. The last seat. You’re very lucky. “

“But I thought you only had one seat in First Class.”

“We do, did. It’s taken care of, Madame. Once we issue your ticket, we’ll have someone escort you to the First Class lounge.”

“But I don’t understand.”

Danielle smiles. “I’m not sure you need to, Madame. When good luck falls into your lap, you should take it, yes?”

I look around. The crowd has thinned. Moving down the corridor far ahead, I catch a glimpse of a woman in a pink coat. She walks with surprising vigor and laughs with one of the airport officials who strides by her side.

Taking Up the Challenge

I’ve just signed up for the Story A Day challenge in which you must write a short story every day in May. I don’t know how many people are familiar with StoryADay but it’s run by a lovely woman named Julie Duffy who believes that writers need to put aside excuses for not writing and just do it. If you keep just doing it, it will become second nature. That sounds reasonable to me. In any case, I love a good challenge. So, 31 short stories in May. Don’t know if I can do it, but I intend to try. Anyone out there who wants to try should look up StoryADay.org and give it a whirl.