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. 

Curliques

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

“doodley-dink!”

 > 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😄

>> 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. 

Candelas

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.