THE NEXT TO LAST STOP

This short story originally ran on SERENDIPITY.

The Inconvenience Store, by Rich Paschall

It was a peaceful summer evening.  The sun had just set.  The air was warm and the light breeze was refreshing.  Jorge had walked three blocks from his small apartment to the local convenience store for a Big Drink and Big Sandwich combination.  He had little food at home and did not feel like making anything anyway.  It felt good to take a walk on such a pleasant evening.  There was nothing quite like summer in the city.

There were a few others in the small store but Jorge paid no attention to them.  He went directly to the soft drink machine and then on to the Sandwich Stop.  After he made his selection, he noticed there was a bit of a commotion at the front of the store.

Three young men rushed in.  They looked like they were in their late teens or early twenties.  Two were tall and wearing white t-shirts and baggy shorts.  The third was a large guy wearing a black sleeveless shirt with some design Jorge could not make out and black baggy jeans.  The big guy was also carrying a machine gun or automatic rifle.  Jorge was unfamiliar with weapons and was not too sure.

Do Not Cross

Do Not Cross

“Don’t anyone move,” the big guy commanded.  “Don’t anyone make a sound neither, not a sound.”

One of the others told the cashier to give him all the money if he wanted to live, and the third thief looked down all the aisles to see if anyone was hiding or there might be trouble there.  The few people in the store had not moved.  The aisle checker then stopped at the cooler and reached in for a twelve-pack of beer, but paused like he did not know if he should steal it.

“Just take it,” the big guy shouted, “and let’s go.” He grabbed the beer and the thief at the counter only collected a small amount of money which he put in a backpack.

As they prepared to leave, there was a small whimper from the next aisle from where Jorge was standing.  In response, the big guy sprayed the aisles with bullets.  Jorge hit the floor.  There was a sharp burning sensation in his abdomen.  His head was groggy and he could not make himself move at all.  He slowly drifted away from the conscious world.

The cashier gasped and as the big guy got to the door he turned and sent a few shots in the direction of the cash register.  The convenience store worker had already hit the floor and shots went over the top of him and heavily damaged the display behind the counter.

As the thieves got to their car, the police were pulling up to the lot.  The cashier had set off a silent alarm when the trouble started and the response had finally arrived.  There was an exchange of gunfire as the young men were able to get in the car and out of the lot, with a squad car in pursuit.

police car

Two officers wearing bulletproof vests had their guns out and cautiously entered the store.  The cashier saw them in a monitor high on a wall and shouted, “Help them, help them.”

One officer carefully went around the counter to find the cashier lying on the floor.  He approached slowly with his gun pointed at the young man.  He had to be sure it was not a trick.  Finally, he helped the trembling cashier to his feet.

The other officer looked down the aisles and immediately called for medical attention for multiple victims.  He searched the aisles before going over to one of the victims.  By the time he checked to see if the first one was alive, more police were in the store and in the parking lot.  One ambulance came onto the lot closely followed by another.  A police officer outside was now obviously taking charge of the scene and ordering onlookers away.  Paramedics rushed into the store and observed pools of blood in two different aisles.  There was a lot of damage caused by the bullets of just one man.

The next thing Jorge was aware of feeling was the burning of his stomach.  It was the sharpest pain of his life.  His head was heavy and he could not open his eyes.  It seemed, however, that he was now lying on his back, rather than face down on the tile floor of the convenience store.  In his stupor, he could not tell where he was or even if he was alive.  He drifted off again.

Three adults were taken to The Resurrection Hospital.  It was the closest trauma center.  The Catholic hospital had become familiar with treating gunshot wounds.  It seems they saw someone every week who had been gunned down.  The victims may have suffered from a gang dispute, domestic violence, armed robbery, or were just innocent bystanders.  The increase of guns had brought an increase of gunshot victims to the Emergency Room.

Sometimes the medical staff could do little more than calling the chaplain to say a prayer.

Back at the convenience store was one more victim.  A ten-year-old boy was going to be taken directly to the morgue.  He would not whimper again.

LATE LUNCH

With baseball season upon us, I recall the story of old friends and late lunch. This story originally appeared on SERENDIPITY

The Old Ball Team, by Rich Paschall


When they started the monthly get-together it was almost 15 years earlier.  There were a dozen of them then, and two of the “boys” had already retired.  They had all known each other since childhood and were within a few years of one another in age.  They went to the same park as kids and most played on the same teams.

They had decided years ago to meet once a month for dinner, so they could be sure to see one another regularly.  Over the years dinner changed to lunch, as some of them did not want to drive or be out after dark.  The sessions remained as lively as ever.  It seemed none lost their boyhood personalities.

With the passage of time, the group had dwindled in size.  While the first ten years saw no loss of participation, recent years were not kind to the group.  Three had passed away and another three were no longer well enough to attend.  One just seemed to disappear.  No one could ever say what happened to Roger, although a few tried hard to find out.

nationals in DC baseball

The meeting was now on the first Tuesday of the month at 1 o’clock.  Most of the lunch crowd was gone from the Open Flame Restaurant by then and the old guys could sit around and reminisce for as long as they wanted.  Today they wanted to hang on just a little longer.

Raymond had arrived right on time which was his way all through life.  Like the others, Ray was retired now.  Unlike the others, he carried a secret with him he would not tell, even to his best friends.

Bob came with Ray.  He was no longer able to drive and in fact, needed a good deal of help to get in and out of Ray’s car.  Ray always allowed enough time for Bob, so that they could walk slowly together and get in and out of the house, the car, and the restaurant safely.   To Ray, Bob was like a rock, the anchor of the team.  Now Ray was Bob’s rock of support.  There was a certain irony in that, and Bob would never know it.

Frank still worked a little.  It is not really that he wanted to do it, but he could not shake free of some business obligations he had over the years.  He did not need the money and tried to steer any business to someone else.  If you asked, Frank would tell you he was retired.

Bill was always late.  Everyone would have been surprised if he had been on time.  He maintained an active life and was always finding more to do than he had time.  This seemed to keep Bill healthy and robust.  Perhaps he was the only one of the remaining members in such good shape.

Without any doubt at all, Jerry was the talkative one of the bunch.  If others wanted to tell a story or share some news, they had better do it before Jerry showed up.  He was likely to dominate the conversation from the time he arrived until the time the check came.  It was guaranteed that Jerry would tell his favorites stories, although all of these guys knew them just as well as Jerry.  In fact, one or more of them probably participated in whatever episode he was recalling.

At every meeting, Jerry was sure to get around to the championship baseball game.  “What were we Bob, 12 or 13?  What a summer that was!  I remember when Bob dove for that ball in the last inning.  If that got through the infield we were screwed.  Raymond was so damn slow out there in left field.”  They all would laugh, even Ray.

2-hyannis-cafe_113

Usually, the boys would be planning to leave around two, but they told stories and laughed their way past 2:30 in the afternoon.  Finally, Ray called for the check.  Over the objections of the others, Ray paid the bill. They had always split the check evenly.  No one ever paid for everyone, but Ray was a diplomat and a businessman and knew how to get his way.  The matter was settled.

They all made it out into the warm spring day together and stood on the sidewalk for a moment.  Raymond gave them all a long hard look but said nothing.  He knew Bob could not come out any longer.  Bob’s wife had strongly objected to Raymond continuing to take him to lunch.  This would be the last time, for sure.  Raymond was dying of cancer but kept it to himself.  He looked well enough, so the others just did not know.

As the two walked to Raymond’s car nearby, the others said goodbye to Frank.  It seems that Frank’s wife had been insisting that they move to Michigan to be nearer to the kids and grandkids.  Since Frank was the practical one of the group, he also realized it was better to have a safety net of younger people nearby if the need should ever arise.  These old guys may have promised to always be there for one another, but that now came with the heavy reality that it just could not be so.

As Frank wandered off in the other direction, Bill and Jerry stood looking at one another and big, knowing smiles came across their faces.  Nothing more had to be said.  It was all right there before them. Words, tears, hugs would have been out of character.

Finally, Jerry left Bill with the same words he issued for years, “I’ll see you at the next game.  I’ve got the ball and gloves, you bring the bats.”

“OK, Captain,” Bill said and walked away.

THE NEW TWILIGHT ZONE

Episode 1: The Campaign, by Arod Serling*

Opening scene:  Rural state rally, small town folks and area farmers in attendance.  A candidate for office is at the podium.  To the left of the stage are two of his aides.

Candidate: “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ’em, would you? Seriously. OK? Just knock the hell—I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees. I promise. I promise.”

Cut to Narrator standing at undetermined location, presumably at the rally.

Narrator

Narrator: The man at the podium has recently announced that he is running for the highest office in the land.  The tall gentleman to the left of the stage is Michael who is attempting to control his candidate, a reality TV star.  Next to Michael is a young intern named Billy.  He wants to get some experience in political campaigns.  They all think they will be heading to the nation’s capital when in fact, they are about to enter “The Twilight Zone.”

Fade to opening credits, theme music. The scene will resume at the same rally.

Candidate (speaking on his own popularity): “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

Billy (to Michael): Did he just say he could get away with murder?

Michael: All politicians are getting away with murder in one way or another.

Candidate (speaking about opponents): “How stupid are the people of Iowa? How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?”

Billy: I am unclear. What is he saying?  The people of Iowa are stupid or the other candidates are speaking crap? (Pause) Both?

Michael:  If you are unclear, so is everyone else.  Don’t worry about it.  We can spin it whatever way we want.

Candidate (speaking on ISIS):  “I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.”

Billy: What could he know about ISIS that the generals don’t know?

Michael:  Look, you ask too many questions.  Just watch and learn.  It’s all a television show and he’s the star. (pointing to the candidate on stage).

The candidate

The candidate is giving the cheering crowd two thumbs up.  Fade out for a commercial break. “The new Twilight Zone is brought to you by Preparation A, for those nasty flare-ups”

Episode resumes with quick shots of various rallies around the country.

Billy (to Michael in South Carolina):  Did he just give out the real phone number of the opponent?

Michael (laughing):  Yeah, that should generate some press.

Candidate (to crowd trying to eject protester in Missouri): “Part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.”

Billy: More violence?

Michael: Whatever works!

Candidate (at another rally): “Do I look a president? How handsome am I, right? How handsome?” (Looking smugly at the crowd) “I feel like a supermodel except, like, times 10, OK? It’s true. I’m a supermodel.”

Cut to Billy shaking his head and Michael laughing.

Candidate (in New Hampshire): “That could be a Mexican plane up there. They’re getting ready to attack.”

Billy: That can’t possibly be a Mexican plane and they certainly are not going to attack.

Michael:  The crowd doesn’t know that.  You can say anything, no matter how outrageous, as long as you are willing to stick with your story.

Quick cuts to various rallies.  The candidate is always looking smug and/or giving a thumbs up to the crowd.  The crowds always seem to love whatever he has to say.

Scene: Hotel room at debate site.  Michael and Billy our waiting anxiously for the event to begin.

Michael and Billy

Billy: I don’t have a good feeling about this.  I mean he would not even practice for the debate.  How can we get the message across if he is not prepared on the topics?

Michael:  Don’t worry, if he doesn’t have an answer, he will just change the subject and throw some dirt on an opponent.

Billy:  But some of those things he says are not true.  That will not work in a debate.

Michael:  Of course it will work.  These are not real debates, they are reality TV shows and we have the star.  Just watch.

Cut to the television studio where the debate is underway.

Candidate (replying to a Senator in the debate): “I never attacked him on his looks and believe me, there’s a lot of subject matter there.”

Cut Back at hotel room.

Michael:  See Billy, he did not have to actually answer the Senator.  And take a look at the Senator’s face.  This is hilarious.

Cut to television studio.

Candidate (referring to female primary opponent): “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!”

Hotel room:


Billy:  Do you think insulting a woman like that is good?  I mean, even if it is an opponent, people might get upset.

Michael:  His fan base will eat this up and who cares what the others think. We are well on our way to success.  A few more debates like this, a few more rallies and he will have the nomination.  From there it is just a few easy steps to victory.  I don’t think there is anyway we can screw this up now.  The fans love us, we are getting a lot of press and the ratings are good.  Best show in town!

Billy looks lost in thought for a moment.  Then finally speaks.

Billy:  I think I should leave the campaign now.  It is not really what I expected.

“You can not leave the campaign now. You know too much…”

Michael (angry): You can not leave the campaign now.  You know too much, and nobody likes it when someone can give away the magician’s tricks.  Our candidate has a way of getting even with people who cross him.  You are in this until the end. I wouldn’t bring this up again if I were you.

Camera settles on Billy’s astonished face as the Narrator speaks over this shot.

Narrator: Billy wanted to learn politics and make his way to the nation’s capital.  Instead, he found a permanent address in The Twilight Zone.

Fade Out.

*Arod Serling is also the Narrator and Executive Producer of this program.

Candidates quotes courtesy of: “The 155 Craziest Things Trump Said This Election,” Politico Magazine, November 05, 2016.

This short story originally appeared on SERENDIPITY (teepee12.com).

THE LONG ROAD

Recovery, by Rich Paschall

Bill was to report to County Hospital at 10 AM so he had to hustle through his morning routine, if you could call it that.  He slept until the sun woke him up, so he barely had an hour to wash his face, shave, get dressed, make coffee and leave the house.  In his usual haphazard fashion, Bill accomplished his tasks on time.

From the kitchen window he spied clouds that might roll in from the west, but nothing could erase the shine from this day. A goal had been met and Bill would have the honor of walking the winner across the finish line.  But despite his bright attitude, Bill grabbed for the large golf umbrella on the way out the door.  No, Bill did not play golf.  He just never knew when there might be a need for such a large umbrella.

Clouds rolling in

Everyone seemed to know Bill when he arrived at the hospital.  He had been making regular visits there for months, and chatting up the nurses and interns along the way.  Now he only had time to smile and wave as he made his way to the fifth floor.

In room 502 a nurse was assisting the patient in getting ready to leave the rehabilitation floor to head home.  Slowly he dressed, needing some help from others as he went.  When he was all set, the nurse helped him to stand, and after a minute on his feet, to sit in the wheelchair.  His personal items were stuffed into two plastic bags marked “Patient Belongings” and a small plastic tub, which was used a few times for washing up, was filled with a small half used tube of toothpaste, a cheap toothbrush, a small unopened shampoo bottle, a half bottle of mouthwash and some hand lotion.

The patient, a retired Industrial Planner from the Midwest, had arrived rather unceremoniously  three months earlier.  Paramedics brought him in after collecting him from the floor of his screened in patio.  A neighbor had spotted him and another neighbor arrived with his first name.  A medical investigator actually discovered his last name by visiting the home where he was found and looking on the mailbox.

Now the entire staff on the fifth floor of County Hospital knew Harold.  Although he said very little due to his condition, nurses and therapists liked to stop in to have a little chat.  For the first month, Harold could say nothing in return.  As time progressed, he began to react more to the comments with a nod, a smile, or even a word or two.

He had spent the first week at County down stairs in ICU.  For the second week he did little but lay in bed in 502.  Sometimes someone would turn on the television, but it was doubtful Harold was aware of it most of the time.  After that, the plan was put in motion.  It was not the plan of the supreme Planner, but one on which the rest of his life depended.

It took many helpers to carry out the plan for Harold.  A physical therapist was brought in to get Harold back into motion.  He worked his arms and legs and soon began to prompt the patient on which action to make.  When he was quite ready, the therapist would take him to the activity room where Harold would sit and roll a large ball across the room to the therapist who would roll it back.  After that there was standing and walking.  By the third month, Harold moved to the stairs.  It was a narrow set of three with railings on both sides to grab.  He went up to the top, then down the other side.

As movement improved, Harold was taken to a room set up like a kitchen.  There he would practice opening jars and bottles and sometimes even cans.  It was a struggle.  In the third month he would prepare his own lunch.  It was soft foods which he sometimes could not eat.

From week three a therapist came to teach swallowing.  Weeks of exercises lead to attempt at swallowing thick liquids.  Water and coffee were no good unless thickener was added.  Harold looked at the therapist with a bit of disdain every time she poured thickener into a good cup of coffee.  In truth, he could barely swallow the liquids when his time at County was up.

Another therapist worked on speech.  Harold found it strange that someone must teach him how to shape his mouth and exercise his throat for sounds in order to say words again.  It was not perfect after three months, but at least he could speak and be understood.

Bill arrived in 502 with all of the enthusiasm of a relative welcoming someone back from the dead.  His smile was even larger than the patient’s, who still was working on his facial muscles and reactions.

The long road home

“Ready to break out of here?” Bill said with a laugh.

Harold nodded slowly.  He actually was not sure he was ready, but he was certainly glad to be going home.

“OK then, I guess we will just roll you out of here, since they will not allow you to race through the halls,” Bill blurted out, amused with himself.

A member of the hospital staff rolled the patient to the front door and Bill pulled his car right up to the front.  They both had to help Harold get into the car, as his range of motion was limited.

The hospital worker handed into Harold a cane, the kind with four feet on the bottom.  “I guess you will be needing this for a while.”  With that, the two retirees drove away.

Leaving the hospital was not the end of the journey for Harold.  It only took him part way down the long road.

This short story originally appeared on SERENDIPITY (teepee12.com).

 

Why the old man feeds pigeons

It is  Fête de la Fédération in France, or more commonly know as Bastille Day here. It is much like our Fourth of July. It reminded me of one of my favorite short stories from a few years ago.

Metro

It was a grey and gloomy Paris morning where occasional rain drops did not seem to chase the patrons off the sidewalks and into the many cafés that were sprinkled liberally around the area.  This particularly grimy part of town was liberally spray painted with “street art.”  Teams of youths and an occasional solo artist spent many evenings decorating the buildings, fences and a few trucks with their personal designs.  When we arrived at the nearby train station the afternoon before, we noticed the last few miles before the station contained a nonstop view of this French city artistry.  Back home we would call this graffiti, nothing more.

We approached a corner cafe with no thought of sitting outside.  My travel companions did not want to “take our breakfast in the streets.”  I would have preferred to be outside where I could watch Paris stroll by, but was left with the view from whatever window we could sit near.  My friends never actually took breakfast.  It did not fit their normal routine and they were not about to change for Paris or Strasbourg or any town in between.  One ordered Coke while the other attempted to order “jus d’orange” in his best sounding fake French accent.

“Café américain and croissant,” I ordered without any attempt to sound French.  I figured the waiter knew we were Americans before we sat down.  They always seem to know.  He smiled and wandered off to fix our drinks.  My tired friends stared off aimlessly as if sugared drinks would be required to bring them back to life.  I studied the room as we waited for our order.  Two men were standing at the counter enjoying espresso and talking loudly, as if that was the thing to do at 8 hours 30 minutes on the morning clock.  Paris life does not begin too early, unless you are a baker.

As our drinks were being set down in front of us, I spied a grey little man in a tattered grey coat walking slowly past the window to my left.  He was elderly, I presumed by his grey hair and grey stubble.  His open coat revealed a grey or dirty white shirt and several keys which hung on long strings from around his neck.  He carried a baguette in one hand while using the other hand to pull a cart with a small case attached to it.  I imagined the dirty, beat-up looking case carried his most valued possessions, whatever they may be.  Before too long, he disappeared from view.  My friends had not noticed him at all.

Our bill had come to fifteen euros.  Even at a good exchange rate, this would seem a high price to pay back home.  As it was a Paris cafe, I figured we were paying for the view of dirty streets and the indifferent service of our handsome waiter.  I really did not mind, however.  I was just glad to be anywhere we could take the pace of life as we pleased.  In that regard, we could blend in well for a week.

We left the cafe and were on our way to begin the tour of famous Paris landmarks, monuments and churches.  There is an ample supply of all three in the French capital.  A few days in the city of lights would not be enough to see them all, but one always hopes to return to Paris.  It will not matter how many times you go, there is always the belief deep down that you will return.

We moved up to the corner and waited to cross the boulevard lined with trash from the day before.  Although the city cleaned the streets often, it did not seem to matter as the locals tossed their trash anywhere along their path.  Perhaps they expected trash to be collected by city workers every day.  It is not for lack of trash receptacles that they throw garbage to the ground, as containers are everywhere.  I guess those must be for the tourists.

Down the center of the street was a parkway with a paved center and grassy areas along the sides.  We took the pathway which was lined with park benches.  As we moved toward the sign that said “Metropolitain” at the far end of the parkway, I noticed the little grey man just a short distance ahead of us.  He was standing in front of one of the benches and had the baguette firmly in hand.  As he tore a piece of the bread and put it in his mouth, pigeons flocked to him as if he was their leader and they were his faithful followers.  As a reward for coming to his side, he tore off a chunk of the baguette, then ripped it into small pieces and tossed them all around him.  At this site even more pigeons came to visit and soon the old man stood in a sea of birds, alternately eating some of the baguette and tossing some.  His subjects cooed their approval in a tone that I always found annoying.

As we wandered past the grey patch of ground where the old man stood, many of the birds took flight in order to clear the way before us.  We could not be slowed down on our trip to the stairway that would lead us into the ground and to one of the many subway trains of Paris.  I thought it was a shame all the birds were leaving the old-timer so I turned around to take a look after we had walked on by.  Since the old man had more baguette in hand, the black and white and grey pigeons all returned to continue the feast.  This would be the most attention the man would receive that day.  As a matter of fact, it was the most attention the man received most days.  As long as he returned each morning baguette in hand, his somewhat loyal avian subjects would appear to greet him.  This would bring him his daily moment of joy.