2022, May 25, Wednesday, the Karen at the Grocery Store

At lunchtime, I left the office to go home to eat and then finish the day’s work from there. I stopped at the grocery store because I didn’t have anything good to eat at home.

As of this day there had been 214 mass shootings in the US. Just the day before this it was Uvalde, Texas, children and teachers on awards day at school. Two weeks prior, people in a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, targeted for being Black. Shootings happening at churches, movie theatres, synagogues, mosques, parks, streets, nightclubs, outdoor concerts, anywhere someone with a firehose of bullets feels like it, apparently.

Near the door, a weathered, red-faced man in a bright red shirt and jeans, bent at the hips, was leaning his elbows on the top of a garbage can, using it as a desk (it had one of those flat tops with a small hole so people won’t throw large items in there). He was writing with a pencil, intent and fast. As I passed, I saw there wasn’t much space left on the paper. I wondered if he was writing his manifesto before going into the store to shoot people.

I went inside anyway, because we act normal.

(The guy wasn’t, and he didn’t. He was just a guy writing on paper.)

Just inside the entrance, bakery items: Look! Fresh baked cookies so sweet in clear plastic shiny boxes! I refocus: Where are the handbaskets? I turn to find them where they should be, by the door. A few feet away, more goodies in shiny packaging cakes and cookies with American flag decorations. Frosted stars and stripes sugar cookies so soon? Who plans that far ahead? Those baked goods will not stay fresh all the way to the Fourth of July, even frozen.

I turn away from the promotional bakery items and am faced with the standard bakery case: fresh pastries—and donuts! I’m tempted but I know the pleasure of eating a donut vanishes as fast as the donut. I get my shopping list out of my pocket and attend to it. I need a few staple items and I want a salad kit for lunch.

By the time I get to the checkout, my basket is heavy. I am fourth in a line that moves pretty swiftly at first. Ahead of me is an older woman, ahead of her, a middle-aged woman, and ahead of her, a younger middle-aged woman who is just finishing her transaction.

As I put my items on the conveyer belt, the middle-aged woman chats with the older woman. She speaks with an authoritative, critical tone, “I ordered delivery but they got my order wrong. Now I have to come all the way over here to return this. They always get it wrong! Always!” I wonder why she doesn’t try another grocery delivery service.

A man gets behind me in line. He sets his basket on the floor then steps forward with a quiet, “excuse me,” passing behind all of us, between our backs and the next register over, and disappears. I wonder if he has decided to abandon his cause.

I think about how I don’t want to engage as the middle-aged woman pries at the older woman to interact, using a conspiratorial dynamic against the faulty grocery delivery person. When it gets her nothing, I muse to myself about how I like the way the culture of complaint seems to generally be going out of style, and how out of synch with today’s world she seems.

The man comes back, making the return trip along the same path but now he’s holding a quart of whiskey to add to his basket.

The older woman is quietly pleasant but doesn’t give the middle-aged woman more energy than that. I like how, since the pandemic, people seem to be giving each other more breathing room overall. Most people are being kind. Sure, I’ve seen the videos of people behaving monstrously, but in my experience…

The younger middle-aged woman responds with impatience to something the middle-aged woman has said to her. I mostly miss it because my mind is enjoying my own thoughts about how when I get home I’ll eat my salad. Tangerine dressing! I love tangerines, and no, a Clementine orange is not a tangerine. You have to look for the deeper orange kind with the thick puckery skin. And now the younger middle-aged woman is at the bagging area, speaking sharply to the middle-aged woman, “I wasn’t holding up the line! You’re the one holding up the line because you keep complaining about every single thing—!”

The middle-aged woman raises her voice, but I return to my thoughts figuring she’ll be done and gone soon. Then it will be the older woman’s turn, then my turn, and then I can go home and eat my salad. Dried cranberries with the tangerine and greens!

The middle-aged woman is holding up a bag to show whatever is inside it to the cashier. As he asks her to hold on a second, she increases her volume and pitch. Her tone rises from critical to accusatory. He acquiesces and gives her his attention. She juts toward him as she clucks, chunky locks of dirty red hair swinging forward and back.

He is in his early-thirties, politely attempting to be accommodating. The middle-aged woman’s agitation builds as they interact but I’m still thinking this will pass shortly.  Then she says or does something I miss and cashier, raising his voice but not shouting, points straight armed and robustly to the self-check-out area, “Ok, that’s enough! I will not be handling your groceries today. You cannot say that to me! I am Mexican. You can go to the self-check-out right over there—no waiting!”

She leans toward him and speaks something low then shouts, “…and you need to go back to your own country!”

Oh! I am witnessing a full on Karen. I don’t want to escalate this. Anything I add now is fuel to the fire. I should have begun getting video by now, what is stopping me? Why don’t I reach into my purse now and record? But I don’t.

The older woman in front of me turns toward me. Her expression probably matches mine: wary and wearying. In solidarity, I reach my arms up and open to the above and bring my hands down, palms up, as in “om” then into prayer-hands. The levity of my heavenward pantomime does nothing to alter the vibration around me; the Karen keeps at it. She condescendingly implores him, “I have a return! I can’t do self-checkout.”

I say to the older woman and anyone else within earshot, “Doesn’t she know this was Mexico?” The cashier echoes with a little laugh, “That’s right! I know my history!”

The younger middle-aged woman has finished gathering her bags and is still engaging the Karen but I can’t hear it.

Okay this has peaked and will stop any second.

But it doesn’t. The Karen puts her hand toward the cashier’s face, pointing a finger close enough that he would have been justified if he bit it, and she says, “This is why I’m retired at forty and you will be working until the DAY. YOU. DIE!” She huffs off, demanding to talk to the manager, leaving her groceries and taking her bag of complaints with her.

The cashier shouts after her: “Forty!?” and laughs, “There’s no way you’re only forty! Not a chance!”

I say to the cashier that I should have recorded this but I kept thinking it would stop.

He says, taking a breath to calm himself, gesturing to include all of us, “That’s ok. You’re all witnesses anyway.”  I say, “Yes, I am!” so do the older woman and the younger middle-aged woman.

Another cashier comes to relieve him so he can step away. The replacement-cashier thanks me for saying I’ll talk to the manager. She makes prayer hands and thanks me again and I see they are selling Mounds bars at the checkout within inches of where my fingers tap on the payment-keypad. I pick up a Mounds and give it to her to scan, saying, “This too. Because of that!” As I finish paying she hands the candy back to me, understanding it is going into my purse, not the bags.

The other two women talk to the manager as I finish my business. I hear a little Spanish coming from each of them. When I talk to the manager, I say that woman should never be allowed into the store again. “She’s a racist Karen,” I say. The manager’s eyes almost laugh, and I sense some relief–I guess it might be because she didn’t expect a white lady to say that, or maybe the directness was refreshing. I describe how the scene played out and she tells me that the others said the same thing. I tell her the cashier was nothing but calm and polite and the Karen just kept pushing and pushing and he can’t be blamed for raising his voice and he was still being polite when he did.

The manager looks over my shoulder and asks, “Is that her?” I turn to see the Karen walking, flip-flops slapping, toward the door, and I say, “Yes. That’s her.” I add that I’d like to go after her and confront her in the parking lot, but I won’t because she’d probably pull out a gun and shoot me.

I leave the store with a little desire to see her just to say something sarcastic she wouldn’t understand until later. But I’m glad I don’t.  Outside the air is fresh and she is gone. I put my bags in the trunk of the car and drive away.

It’s about fifteen minutes to get home and halfway there I remember I have candy in my purse. Mounds: you get two candy bars in one packet, really, so small they’re just a couple of pieces of candy. And coconut is practically health-food. And so delicious. I never realized just how delicious. This one is super-delicious. They’re doing road construction along the boulevard, but I don’t get a sense of what they’re fixing

and what the hell why didn’t I record why was I not ready for that why did it seem unreal why don’t I have de-escalation skills to have stepped in and made her stop?

The candy is gone and I put the wrapper in the cupholder.

 And what the hell did I just witness?

I turn right on my street, acknowledging to myself that I’m rattled. I am listening to NPR in the background. They say today is the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd.

I review the scene of his murder in my mind. The onlookers could not stop the police.  But the Karen—I guess I really did think she might have a gun. While I still could have recorded, it was instinct that told me not to jump into the fight. I am discomfited but it will pass. Oh what kind of agony do the people who witnessed the murder of George Floyd live with?

I get a text notification and listen to it. My friend is waiting in my zoom room for our lunchtime visit that was to start about ten minutes earlier. I had completely forgotten.

Two days later I write this story. As I describe the bakery section, it comes to me: The red, white, and blue American flag themed cookies and cakes were not for Independence Day.

They are for Memorial Day.

I recall in more detail the guy coming back into the line with his whiskey, holding his arm straight down, bottle low, chin up.

Jean O’Sullivan, May 27, 2022 (as experienced May 25)

David Bannerstrom’s Deciding Day

“We can’t expect Mrs. Proctor accept what they’re offering!” David stood, resting the knuckles of both hands on the top of the conference table for emphasis. “And I’m not backing off!” He turned his attention to the window, away from his assistant, Shirley, and the partners, all three of them, Oneida, Michael and Steve, who waited in deference for their senior partner to draw his conclusions. David Bannerstrom was sixty-five today, and could announce his retirement at any moment. That seemed to be the consensus of hope, anyway.

A chair squeaked as someone shifted weight. A drinking glass tinked against the edge of a pitcher as someone else poured. Ahem. Slight cough. David waited out the small wave of impatience, looking down to the street two floors below, to the pink truck with the cupcakes painted on the side, to the man getting out with a big pink box and balloons, disappearing under the awning and into the building. David’s heart picked up pace. He sensed his timing was perfect, so he turned to face the team, “And so we will sue Northside Plumbing on behalf of Mrs. Proctor!”

This was the moment David expected the singing to start–the door would open, Tricia, Pat, Mary and Chuck would appear with the now infamous office party delivery man. This had been the year of cupcake birthdays all over the building and it was always this pink truck, always this guy, cupcakes for everyone, candles glowing. This kind gesture would confirm David’s sense that he should stay with the firm a few more years. But the door stayed shut and the partners said, respectively, “Good!” “Fine!” “Agreed!” Shirley glided her finger across the tablet to move onto the next order of business.

“The Ulster Upholsterers union reps will be bringing in their sewing workers tomorrow at 11,” Shirley said, “and we all need to do some research on the complaint. I’m sending you all links to the files now…”

David felt his stomach growl. He had skipped lunch to make room for cake in the afternoon. “What is the gist of the claim?” he asked.

Talking became nonsense; it sounded like rubber balls bouncing down empty hallways. It sounded like a Doppler effected bad guitar chord. It sounded like wind in trees. It sounded like his stomach growling.

“… and so, David, that’s why I’m asking, isn’t it better that way?” Michael said, looking to him as they all fell silent.

“Yes,” David said, not clear about what he was affirming. “Write it up and send it so I can look at all the angles.” His decision was made. He would end the meeting early. “That’s it,” he said. “I’m done.”

And he walked out of the board room, down the low pile green carpet to his office to get his coat, scarf and briefcase. Leaving the office door open, he headed for the elevator, pushed the button and waited. The doors opened. He stepped in. The doors closed. He pushed 1 and put on his coat.

On the first floor, the doors opened to the sound of somebody else’s office singing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow!” David Bannerstrom nodded as he passed the open office doors, pushing through the revolving door, outside to the cold winter sun of late afternoon glinting off the cars in the lot.

Upstairs, Tricia, Pat, Mary and Chuck burst into the board room, “We can’t find the cupcake guy!” The partners and Shirley hovered in the moment that had just passed; they turned toward Tricia, Pat, Mary and Chuck.

Downstairs, outside, David walked past the pink cupcake truck. The roll-up door was up and an open box of cupcakes was within view. He did not look left. He did not look right. He saw a Red Velvet and he took it, sunk his teeth past the cream cheese frosting and into the cake and moaned a satisfied groan. He finished the cupcake in a few short bites as he got to his car, opened the door and got in. There was some frosting on his fingers so he licked it off, put the car in gear and backed out of his space.

At the first floor, the elevator doors opened. Tricia, Pat, Mary and Chuck burst out, rushing through the lobby as the revelers in that first floor office resolved their melody, …which nobody can denyyyy!” to laughter and applause.

Tricia, Pat, Mary and Chuck filed through the revolving door and poured out to the parking lot, scanning the horizons for David. Pink truck. No David.

Inside, the cupcake guy, ready to hand off the most exquisite cupcake and the balloon bouquet said, “So: which one of you lucky guys is David Bannerstrom?”

This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions. 


The jigsaw was too loud for Gregory to hear the doorbell, the knock, or the pounding, but when he finished the last set of curlicues he glanced up to the monitor to see a young woman at the door holding a brown paper bag. He switched off the saw and the whirring slow-hummed to a stop. He snatched his cigar from the edge of a sawhorse as he started through the house, taking a puff and blowing out the smoke before opening the front door.

Teresa waved her hand in front of her face and winced a little, but tried to act unaffected as she caught the smell of cigar smoke mixed with sawdust. She couldn’t hide looking a little glum. “Canton Dragon?”

“That’s me!” he said.

“Fried rice, spring rolls, cashew shrimp and a Pepsi,” she said, “eighteen fifty eight.”

Gregory reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, then fingered through some bills and handed her a twenty.

“What’s gotcha down?” he said.

“Oh my friends’ new band is at this club and everybody’s going and I didn’t say anything soon enough so I’m the one working.”

“I thought restaurant people always wanted Saturday nights.”

“We usually do. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t complain to the customers. I’m sorry.”

“Here then,” he said pulling out a ten to add to the sum as he took the bag, “Night’s not a total loss.”

“Wow, thank you!” she said suspending motion a moment, “Are you sure? I wasn’t trying to–?”

He waved her off and she backed and turned away walking. Short of closing the door he called after her,  “Sometimes you don’t fight for something and you get something good anyway. Just remember that. They’ll play again and you’ll have a few bucks in your pocket.”

“I hope.”

“Nothing’s an end in itself, you’ll get more chances,” he said with a wave, looking down with a smile, closing the door.

He served himself up a plate, put the containers in the refrigerator and went into the workshop to eat while contemplating the chair he was crafting. It was all put together except for the backrest which he was carefully carving with curlicues. “Curlicues,” he muttered prodding through the shrimp to pick out cashews. “Ma baby loves the curlicues…”

She would be home in three more days. The chair would be waiting for her in the living room, polished smooth and inviting. He imagined her relaxing in it, reading a book, listening to music, talking with him about the road. She’d tell about the triumphs, keep the spin upbeat. He’d avoid lines of questioning that turned toward the  the dreams she once had for herself because now they’d just just stiffen her spirit, but he’d listen to the melody in her storytelling, his reactions cutting a fine line, carefully coiling his end of the conversation hoping she would recognize she was marvelous beyond her vocation. He hoped she would hear her own voice the way he heard it, like honey and velvet, riot and outrage, soul and simmer and sexuality.

As usual she’d leave the tedium out of the tales, avoid the subject of whether the price was worth the cost of long absences from home and distance from where she wanted to be. She’d minimize the long drives, the bad motels, the cramped van, the drunk audiences, the deaf sound mixers and the slightly sour feeling she’d get looking out on the crowd to realize most of them weren’t even listening, too young to appreciate a Heart tribute band.


This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions. 

Something to be Happy About


 > Monica!  help!

> yes

 > This window pops up and it’s red and then the arrow goes– downloading– WTF!!!

> what are you trying to download?

> nothing!!! I was just working and.  It just pooped up!

>> i mean popped up.

> hit the x out

> I tried!

> alt curl delete or shift command escape then quick

>> i mean alt CONTROL delete

> come see! aaaah- it keeps going!

> I’m on the bus home…

> shit i’m still here okay i did what you said its shitting dawn.

>> Where are you? Hey have dinner with me!

> ???

> dinner maybe in like qn hour?

> ??? is shitting dawn? what is that?~

> autocorrect damn! shutting down. I shut it down. New subject  I want to have dinner, with you, tonight.

> well, I  [delete delete delete delete delete delete] > Maybe another ti [delete delete deleeeeeete]  > I already ate [deleeeeeeeeete]  > I’m on the bus.

> I was hoping last minute would catch you off guard. 

> well, I’m more than half way home, but thank you for asking, Bill. I can run a scan this w/e and make sure you didn’t get a virus. Gotta go.

> Monica! have dinner with me, please!  cmon it’s friday. It’ll be fun XD

>> I want to take you to dinner.

>>> yes i am asking you out on a date.

> I have to get up early to [delete deleeeeeet]  > I really need to go home fir [delete delete deleeeeeet]




> Monica?  Please say yes this time. it’s ok and who knows, maybe happiness. Maybe lifelong happiness who nose.

>> who KNOWS!  –but we could start with soup, lol

>>> : P

> ok. can you come out here?

Yes! Get off at Stanley and Bronco.  There’s a restaurant, Thai Faboso.  I’ll meet you 6:30.

> Okay

Okay!  I’m happy!  It restarted- seems fine now.

> Oh. well okay.

>> So see you Monday then.

No! Tonight! I said I’m happy cuz you finally said YES!

> That’s good

>>> that your computer’s okay i mean.

oh yeah that. What’s good is I’m happy about YOU!

>  🙂

Through the window of the bus, Monica watched the people hurrying against a slight chill in the air, warm lights coming on in storefronts and restaurants.  She felt herself smile a little, listening to her thoughts: “What’s good is I’m happy, about you.”


This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions. 


Johnnie’s back garden faces the back of the mall. He’s got a bench and table set up and he makes candles back there. Five pots on hot plates brew a variety of colors of melted wax, and he dips and hangs the candles to cool by twos on an umbrella-style clothesline. It’s about 4pm and by now it looks like a magical tree in the early dusk of December. He’s got several boxes loaded with more candles stacked ready to go somewhere.

Across a short vacant lot past his chain link fence he can see some of the stores’ exits. Employees appear from doorways to take their breaks, most enmesh with their phones, but there is one woman who comes out to gaze at the sky. She ponders the blues and greys watching for high flying birds and daydreams. She wears a white apron and slaps puffs of white from it as she comes out. Whatever her mood, happy, neutral, frustrated or animated the clouds of dust fly and as they dissipate all else seems to settle in deference to the captivating sky.

Johnnie’s lived a good life, “a full life,” the well-meaning nurse told him as he left the hospital after his last round of chemo. His quiet decision was that it was the final treatment. Maybe at 80 it was okay to admit defeat gracefully instead of spiraling through medically inflicted belly aches, stiff joints, dry mouth, aching bones and chemo-brain only to meet with the same end a few months farther down the line. He would hope to fade, just not wake up one day.

But watching that woman come out of the bakery evoked a desire to be alive, to fail to give up, to accept, along with the grief, savoring life. She looked to be half his age, and he knew a crush was folly but he imagined what it would be like to dance with her. Maybe kiss. Okay, maybe get her pregnant. He’d meet his maker too soon; it would be nice to leave a little progeny behind.

Rhea shoved her phone into her pocket but it slipped into a bowl of flour and vanished in a soft puff of hushing. She reached in, took out the phone, blew the surface clean and tried for the pocket again, this time with success. A foot on the trashbin pedal and in went the contaminated flour. She tramped out the back door cursing beneath her thoughts about how she was too weak to say no to hosting Christmas yet again, that hosting her kids’ friends and families was overkill but that making “room at the inn” was the proper Christmas response and she had no choice. She may have muttered, “Jimminy Christmas…” as she walked into the light of day, slapping flour out of her apron, agitation out of her soul, captivated by a blue sky too infinitely open to keep her mood down.

She saw the old man in his backyard again, the steaming pots, the clothesline of dangling colors, and of course the long pauses where he’d just stare in her direction; she’d pretend she couldn’t see that far and it seemed to work. She set her gaze on the sky and watched for birds.

Johnnie turned toward his house. A man in uniform approached from the side gate with a cart. They shook hands and loaded the boxes onto the cart. “Thanks for picking these up, Santos,” he said, “You’re a lifesaver.”

“Johnnie we sell these too cheap. For godsakes I’m SanTOS, not SanTA! People will pay what they’re worth.”

“They’re candles, they cost about 40 cents a piece to make, five bucks for two is already asking too much.”

“You’re not adding in the time and energy you spend,” Santos said.

“I like it out here,” said Johnnie turning toward the mall. “Look. She’s pacing. Something’s bothering her today.”

“Christmas,” Santos said. “When I stopped by the bakery on my rounds today her teenagers were in there nagging about something –showed up as soon as they got off school. And she’s trying to keep them in line and some guy walks off with a cake he doesn’t even pay for!  That’s the spirit of Christmas nowadays. Tis the season for me having to chase down idiots.”

“That’s why we sell the candles so cheap, Santos. People need gifts they can afford,” Johnnie said. “Pick me up Saturday at five for the swap meet?”

“Saturday.  Five A-M. You want me to mention to her that we have a booth? I can bring you a cupcake.”

“Yeah, be SanTA, Santos.  Bring me a cupcake,” Johnnie said. He smiled and loved how it felt to do so.

This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions. 

Over His Shoulder

Ruben wanted to see the tropics but could only afford Florida. For a six month sabbatical from his job teaching digital manipulation at Camptor Community College in South Dakota, he took local work to make spending money and was happy to get a little gig his first week in Tampa. His task: Photoshop an office party picture. Close open jacket, cover a grease stain on a necktie, and remove an undesirable from the background–a woman whose head appeared to be sprouting out of the shoulder of the CEO of Uubershopps’ Florida chain, Rance Hunksacker. Rubin didn’t ask much, 100 bucks an hour with a one hour minimum. This job took him twenty minutes.

Within 24 hours he was asked to put the undesirable back into the picture. It was a no-brainer since he saved drafts, but he knew Uubershopps could afford another hundred so he said it had taken “some time” to do the job and presented his invoice to Hunksacker’s assistant Barbara, kind of excited to be making two hundred for twenty minutes’ work. It had turned out the “undesirable” was Hunksacker’s wife, Eloise. When Barbara called to ask Ruben to put Eloise Hunksacker back she said it was “because she was laughing,” and pretty, and “looked so happy.”

So Ruben sent a new image with Ms Hunksacker back in place.

So when Eloise Hunksacker would, several days later, turn up missing, along with Rance Hunsacker’s Picasso, Ruben would become a focal point of the case. His work would become Exhibits A and B at the trial, testaments to the “fact, exhibit A!” that Eloise Hunksacker, “failed to appear at the party the night of the theft!” And of course “exhibit B! Her image was Photoshopped into the picture to make it look like she was there!” Ruben was characterized as an accomplice, for having “pasted her into the picture, and poorly at that,” the prosecuting attorney turning on his heel toward the jury, pointing at the picture and declaring, “the head is out of proportion!”

Of course the dates on the files should have cleared him but he saved on flash drives because he didn’t trust the cloud. He kept the drives on a key ring, color coded, this one red, and the red one had disappeared the night he met Jillian for coffee, a tantalizing twenty-something artsy hipster who made him forget he was a forty year old man as he chatted her up, she fondling his key ring of flash drives. He had left the table to get a lemon square to share and when he came back she was gone, the ring of drives remained, but the red one was gone.

“The prosecution calls the next witness,” Rance Hunksacker’s attorney said. A woman rose from the courtroom seats. Jillian!

State your name and occupation for the court please, the lawyer said. “Barbara Fulsom, Assistant to the CEO, Mr. Rance Hunksacker.” The questions would travel the predictable trajectories, who what where when how, and then came why: “Because Ms Eloise Hunksacker was in love with him!” she said, pointing to Ruben who reflexively looked over his shoulder for the accused, but there was no one behind him.


This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions. 

A Grace Period

The tourists were to file back onto the bus precisely one hour after getting out at the Santa Barbara Mission. Jerome was allowed to give them a five minute grace period, but then he had to be on his way, no variation, whether everyone made it or not. “At the hour you’ll hear the old mission bells ring as they have rung for over two hundred years,” he always said before the passengers got off the bus, “Within five minutes, be on the bus or you’ll end up waiting for the four o’clock tour and hope there’s room. There’s forgiveness in there,” and he’d point to the parish, “But out here we’re on a schedule.”  It sometimes got a nervous laugh, but so far never a hearty one.

Each group would debark and scatter about the same way. Some would take the mission tour, some would walk the grounds, some would go inside and gawk and talk, or maybe even pray, and some would head for the gift shop. Nine times out of ten, children would head straight for the fountain. Today was a hot day for Santa Barbara, nearly 80 degrees, and sure enough at least one little boy, maybe six years old, broke ranks and ran to the fountain, his mother dashing after him.

At the noon bells the hubbub commenced. Friends beckoned each other on the adobe steps for one last photo op, parents herded their children away from the fountain as they threw their pennies into it wishing. Wishing at the fountain seemed genuine to Jerome; wishing inside the House of God seemed a little self serving.

Jerome wasn’t a Catholic anymore, in college he’d thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but by thirty he’d decided it was okay to like what he called “the good parts” of Christianity, the loving kindness, the compassion, the peace. He accepted the idea of Jesus as the political activist the small world needed at a dire time, but as a rule the fighting and vitriol that came with religious packaging had lost the heart, made theology an encumbrance, eclipsed a savior.  Jerome accepted Jesus as a presence to be found in human compassion.  His quiet wish was that one day Jesus would come walking out of that mission, get on his bus and sit down for a ride along, even for just one day–and here came the passengers, back and boarding. Counting each, recognizing some, they wended their way down the aisle to plop down into their seats nattering about their souvenirs, chattering with speculations and fresh memories. Whatever reverent states of mind they might have held while in the church were abandoned; they were gabbing tourists now.

Two missing. Jerome looked to the fountain to see the little boy and mother were still there in the sun and shade of the willow, just talking, watching dragonflies, listening to the birds. The boy would drop his hand into the water and lift it out, holding it up to the cooling air and sunlight. The same scene could have played out for generations at this same fountain before buses, engines, touring throngs, photographs, gift shops or loud-talking part-time spiritualists. The five minutes were up and the two were lost in timelessness. No one on the bus noticed, enamored of phones and comparisons and what they’d have for lunch.  None responded when he called, “excuse me,” to ask someone to go get the stragglers, so he closed the doors, put the bus in gear and began to crawl the bus along slowly, just to give the mother and boy a second chance.

Mother and child both looked toward the sound of the rumbling engine. The mother put out her hand to the boy and he took it, and they walked quickly to the bus. Jerome slowed the bus to a stop and opened the doors. As the mother ushered the boy on board she put her hand on her heart and offered a gentle, “Thank you.” The boy did not make eye contact, and flinched slightly at Jerome’s, “Hiya.” The two sat down in the front row right behind Jerome, the mother holding the boy’s hand and listening intently as he looked out the window to the fountain, happily murmuring indistinguishable things.

This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions. 

Early in the Morning, Late in the Day

The sound of an electronic –Chirp!– woke Dwight up.  He opened his eyes, slapped at the clock. Four. By tonight he’d be a rich man if all went accord- –Chirp!– -according to plan.  He slapped the clock again.

Up and out of bed. His legs were stiff, his back was stiff, his shoulders ached and he took  extra time washing his face because the water was so soothing on his fingers.

When he’d hit 50 he joked that crime paid, but not enough. Half a dozen years later he was acutely aware how much he’d slowed down. But today was the creme de la creme, a bank job, and if it went as planned he could retire. –Chirp!–  That wasn’t the clock.  What was that chirp?

He grabbed the black daypack with his gun, hacksaw, gloves, drill and was out of the house by 4:15.

He picked up his favorite protege, Milky, who got in the car and pulled a package of women’s pantyhose out of his shirt: “Got your knife?”

“‘Course I got my knife,” Dwight snatched a switchblade from the cup-holder, flicked it open and handed it to Milky.

“Robbers’ masks, two for one!”  Though he meant to cut the legs from the underwear part in a swift slice instead Milky initiated a fight with them. The harder he pulled on the nylon the more viciously he had to saw and it was just not cutting. -Chirp!– “What’s that chirp?” he said.

“I don’t know and it’s bugging the hell outa me,” Dwight said.

They parked around the corner from the bank so the cameras couldn’t see them. –Chirp!–

Milky was still hacking at the nylons, “Well that chirp needs to stop!”

Dwight took the knife and stockings away from Milky, loosened the slack and cut them easily. “Ignore it. After this job we’ll be able to pay a team of specialists to find it and kill it!”  He handed Milky his stocking and they each put one over over their heads.

“I can totally recognize you,” Milky said.

“Milky, what size did you get…?”

“They’re Millie’s.”

“Millie’s big.”

“She’s awesome!”

“Yeah, she’s awesome but she’s big.  The whole point of the stocking is it’s gotta be tight. Mash up your face.”

“Well we need a Plan ‘B’ then I guess,” Milky said.

“It’s a disguise not a veil of mystique!”

“I’m sorry then!” Milky said, –Chirp!– ”What is that chirp!?”

“Maybe we can fix it,” Dwight twisted around fast, rooting through the junk in the back seat. Then he froze. “Ah! My back – it’s spazzin’!”

“Ease out of it!” Milky said, “Don’t tense up, you’ll make it worse!”

“Find that damn chirp and kill it now!” Dwight groaned, turning slowly forward, relaxing into the backrest and taking a deep breath. ”Gimmie a minute,” he exhaled slowly – -Chirp!– “What is that?” and closed his eyes.

Dawn was breaking. Dwight and Milky, nonchalant,  strolled up the alley to the back entrance of the bank.  Each had a black stocking over his head stuffed with rumpled white fast-food bags, a little knot tied at the bottom to keep the contents from falling out. Commuters were driving out of their garages now, down the alley. If the effort was to be unrecognizable they’d met the mark but, not by a mile if the desire was to be inconspicuous. –Chirp!–

“It’s like it’s following us!” Dwight whispered hard, “What is that chirp!?”

At the back door of the bank, Dwight squatted, set the daypack down, unzipped it, slipped on his gloves then took out the drill to remove the lock. He squeezed the trigger but the bit didn’t spin, just a weak hum and a whimpering, –chwrrrp– then nothing.

Milky looked at him, worry behind black nylon, the bulges of paper in his stockinged face making crinkling noises as he winced, “…low battery…”

Dwight spoke low, “…Chirp,” he said as the pink light of daybreak hushed through the crack of dawn.


This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions. 

Measure Twice Cut Once

blueprint-simplifyWhat was nervousness anyway? It was tangled excitement with snarls of annoyance. Julia set the brush down on the bathroom counter and dabbed a little essential oil on her neck and chest. Nervousness was anticipation soaked in hope and doped with cynicism. She washed her hands and went to the wardrobe for her blouse and skirt. How many times had she gone someplace just to meet, possibly meet, ostensibly meet “him?”  Tucking her lips and ducking her head she pulled the perfect green chiffon blouse on. Far too many times, that’s how many times.

The structure of romance was built on a lot prone to liquefaction. Julia believed in soul mates, the magic thing that just happens when you meet the right man, but too much time had insisted she must be wrong; every chapter of her love life should have functioned to be a respite from the mental state she employed in her work, a counterbalance to her need for perfect measurements, CAD renderings, the day to day of the shape and reason of physical worlds. She wanted the flair of tossing back her hair and laughing without surmising, considering without assessing. Buildings house environments that foster effectiveness, increase comfort, and keep people dry when it rains. Love should tug toward freedom with a tantalizing tension but what it always did to Julia was skew her so drastically no aspect of life felt like home. Love was distracting because it was never  set quite right. Love maladjusted life because its corners were never true.

The speed dating was a crash course in humility, or was it humiliation? Internet dating only confirmed that while women online tended to seek lasting relationships, men, thrilled at the prospect of free hookers, prowled the profiles as study guides to become – become whoever you wanted them to be. The charming cast themselves as soul mates til a few months in, when they’d reveal they were only bit players, turning to declare her a taxing distraction from their real lives.

On her 45th birthday, Julia lifted her glass and told her friends that marriage was so obviously unlikely to happen it was now time for her to register at Macy’s and Target. “I want the silverware, I want the blender and I want the China I’ve held off buying for myself!” She said breaking out the good tequila. “Wedding presents for Christmas!  Wedding presents for Birthdays! Wedding presents so I can start to catch up with you Joneses!” She toasted, “Consider me a single woman family!” Hurrahs and cheers and laughter meant to uplift but Julia listened for a voice of dissent.  None came beyond a few tones of “awww,” at the fringes.  Whimsical, reflective, thoughtful gifts would be gone. Practicality was new the spice of life.

And here, just over a year later, Julia stood before the full length mirror, the black skirt fit nicely, thank you, the pedicure was lovely, the hair hung slightly swingy, and she smelled divine. She was ready to meet the man Mike and Candace had told her about a few weeks ago on her 46th birthday.  They’d given her a handmade fluted vase that went with nothing in her house, and she loved it.  “He’s a good guy,” Mike said.

“And who knows?  He might make a nice addition to this ‘single family home’ thing you got going here.” Candace said.

She wanted true love. She stepped into her sandals. She wanted someone to dance with in the living room spontaneously. She grabbed her purse and keys and went to the garage, pushed the button, opened the door. She wanted someone to laugh with and eat dinner, lay on the couch with and watch a movie, have sex with, make love with, feel magnetism and fire, know deeply for a lifetime. She started the car and pulled away from the house. Nervousness was a hopeful feeling, shifting into excitement. Checking the rear-view mirror she caught a glimpse of her shining eye.  ”Yes but,” she told herself navigating a left, “I hereby only hold out hope for a decent conversation.”


 This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions. 

One More Donut

donuts in a boxThe donuts were affecting Neal. Maybe it actually was true sugar kills brain cells because he could swear he was smarter when he arrived on set than he was after eating the buttermilk one, or was it the pink one with sprinkles that brought this abrupt sense of being out of touch with the soundstage, the morning, the day, the plan? Was every hole in every donut a black hole sucking up his mind? Was it performance anxiety? Stage fright for a walk on/ check phone/ walk off passerby small crowd sequence?  Was it a blood sugar thing? A brain chemistry thing? Hell, if he was clever enough to be thinking about neurotransmitters he must still be smart enough.

A chocolate frosted donut with peanuts lay there on the slightly rumpled, frosting smudged wax paper in the pink box. And what’s with the one sugar glazed with a piece cut out of it? Why was somebody always mangling the donuts and leaving the plastic knife in the box?  That’s just insult to injury. Who only eats a little piece of a sugar glazed donut, dammit? If you’re gonna have a donut, eat the whole damn donut!

But the chocolate peanut: if he didn’t eat it now, it might be gone after his walk on / check phone / walk off. But, if he did eat it now that would be three donuts and it wasn’t even 11am yet. At 11am, *Seth Rogen would be there and they’d go to work. Now of course Rogen wasn’t gonna be interested in the chocolate peanut, but the grip could be another story. Better eat it.

He’d do a water fast the rest of the day, after the coffee, and by night he’d still be under the calorie limit to keep losing. Ten more pounds and Christine said she was confident she could get him stand-in for Rogen, unless Rogen kept slimming down and Neal stalled out. Who ever thought Rogen wouldn’t always want to be the goofy fat guy?

The chocolate was giving Neal wisdom: He’d keep pace with Rogen, get stand-in, get a line, get Taft Hartleyed, get a part, get chiseled and then of course be handsome, get a role, get hooked up with the right people, get in the crowd get in the game, get the script, get on the A list, be in the right place at the right time and get the pinnacle role that Rogen would forever regret turning down! He’d get the hit, get the mansion, get the Oscar, get the girl, get while the gettin’ was good!

“Places! Action!”

Elevator doors open, take a quarter beat. Extra-Sara, extra-Paul and extra-Abbey step in, quarter beat, walk out, nod – everybody’s in a rush. Keep walking, check phone, Rogen rushes into scene, exit stage left, Rogen dashes onto elevator. Doors close.

“Cut! Let’s do it again… Places!”

Neal gets back onto the elevator and turns to see Rogen moving toward the pink box. As the doors close Neal sees Rogen slice the sugar glazed with the plastic knife, pick up a small piece, and pop it into his mouth.

*Seth Rogen is only pretend in this fiction.


This was originally published as part of the Character Project, a variety of fiction pieces from writers responding sets of writing prompts and general character descriptions.