Great Expectations

 

Author’s note: Please know that it’s Stephen referring to his dream woman as an amazing thing, and to the speed dating as “normal.” Not me.

 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Stephen Atcheson paid for his meatball sub and headed toward the North Campus Student Center. With luck, he’d find Kristen Beach eating outdoors – without her so-called boyfriend. Stephen sniffed in disdain at the thought of that cop – Jamie’s brother, no less.

Well. Kristen wasn’t married to the cop. She wasn’t even engaged. That meant she was fair game. Every man for himself. Stephen was well-educated, well-read, a fellow librarian, and unlikely to be killed in the line of duty. All he needed was time, and he knew he could win Kristen over.

And if not her, Jessie Gaither in ILL. Or Katrina Johnson, also a librarian. Although she had kids. Stephen didn’t care much for kids.

He spotted Kristen at a table, and his spirits lifted. No cops were present. Although Liz and Jamie were there, as expected.

No problem. He knew he could handle Liz. As for Jamie, Stephen still believed that he could use Jamie to meet women. One of these days he’d invite Jamie to go clubbing. Gay guys were catnip to women, and when Jamie told them he played for the other team, Stephen would be there to pick up the pieces.

He stopped at the table. “May I join you?”

Liz said, “It’s a free country. For now.”

Stephen sat, unwrapped his sub and took a bite. He was blissfully unaware of the meatball that escaped from the distal end of the sandwich and plopped onto his trouser leg, then somersaulted to the ground. He turned to Kristen on his left and asked her, “How was your morning?”

“Fine.”

“What are you working on now?”

Kristen looked at him over the frame of her glasses. “Research guides.”

Stephen was thrilled. He had her attention! “Ah. What subject?”

“Speech.”

“Oh, that’s interesting. What sorts of resources are you linking to?”

Kristen’s eyes narrowed. “I thought you were a librarian.”

Stephen was puzzled. “I am. Why?”

“Shouldn’t you know what sorts of resources belong on a speech guide?”

To his right, Liz snorted. Stephen ignored her. “Well, yes, of course. Since you’re the subject specialist, though, I thought you might know of some interesting sources.”

Kristen turned back to her salad. “I do. That’s why I’m the subject specialist.”

Stephen thought, Crap. He was losing her. He decided to take the leap. “So what are your plans for Valentine’s Day?”

Liz and Jamie both snorted that time. Stephen ignored them. Kristen turned toward him and smiled. He thought, Yes!

“Kevin and I are going to order in. Then we’ll have sex. At least twice.”

Across from him, Jamie made a strangled sound. Stephen was disappointed but tried not to show it. “Oh. Well. Jamie, what about you?”

“I have rugby practice.”

“So you won’t be going out?”

“Nope.”

Stephen sighed inwardly. He might have to ask Katrina out after all. Or… he could activate Plan D.

 

Tuesday, February 14

Stephen checked his look in the mirror. The new hair color worked, he thought. Some women didn’t like redheads, so he’d switched to black. He fluffed the strands on top in an attempt to cover the bald spots. There.

He buttoned his shirt – not realizing he’d missed the bottom button – and tied his tie, unaware of the meatball stain at the bottom. He tucked his shirt in – mostly – and buckled his belt. He was ready. He opened the door of the men’s room handicapped stall – the only location on campus with a private sink – and strode confidently to the exit.

Stephen was totally unfamiliar with Venice, but his GPS guided him right to the door. He hesitated for a moment as he pulled to the curb – twenty bucks for valet parking! – but then decided to go for it. If he got lucky tonight, he didn’t want to look like a cheapskate.

Once inside, he surveyed the place. El Caribe, at first glance, was classy. Tiffany lamps cast a warm glow around the large room. A woman in a slinky red dress was playing piano in the far corner. Ahead of him, the bar was a burnished dark wood that gleamed.

Stephen suddenly experienced what was for him a nearly unheard-of sensation – a loss of nerve. He didn’t see anyone that appeared to be here for speed dating. People were sitting at tables in twos or fours, chatting and sipping cocktails. What was he doing here?

Then he spotted her, and time stopped. His hesitation fled. His nerve returned with reinforcements.

She was sitting against the far wall, a few tables away from the piano. She was with three other women – one a chunky blonde, one with razor-cut dark hair, and one who was too old for his tastes. But his focus was entirely on the first woman. She had long, curly dark hair and pale skin. She was wearing a sleeveless top, and her arms were toned.

She was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen. Even hotter than Kristen Beach.

A male voice interrupted his reverie. “Sir? Excuse me, sir. Do you have a reservation?”

Stephen blinked and realized that he was being addressed by a head waiter of some sort. “Oh. Er – no. I’m here for the speed dating.”

The guy stared at Stephen for a moment, long enough for Stephen to wonder if he had the wrong night. Then he said, “Of course you are.” He pointed to the corner to Stephen’s left. “Registration is over there.”

Stephen immediately turned to the left. The head waiter said, “Um, hello? That’ll be forty dollars.”

He turned back, mouth agape. “Forty bucks?

The guy made a “duh” face. “That’s right. All proceeds to AIDS Project Los Angeles.”

“Oh. Uh – okay.” Stephen fished out his wallet and handed over two more twenties. He’d have to use his credit card for drinks.

The woman across the room was worth it.

The head waiter handed Stephen a ticket. He went to the registration table, where a sign on a post read, Wide Open Speed Dating. Everyone Welcome. A businesslike woman in a suit and heels collected his ticket. Her name, according to the tag she wore, was Nadine. “Name?”

“Stephen Atcheson. A-T-C…”

She stopped him. “No last names.”

“Oh. Okay.” He pointed as she filled out a name tag. “PH, not V.”

“Sorry.” She corrected the mistake and handed him his name tag. “Is this your first time?”

Should he admit it and expose himself as a greenhorn? No. He said, “I’ve done it elsewhere.”

Nadine looked skeptical, but said, “Good. Then you know how it works. The tables are set up over there.” She pointed to an area beyond the bar. “It’ll be another ten minutes.”

“Thank you.” Stephen affixed his name tag and wandered in the direction of the bar. Should he get a drink? No. Apparently the participants would be switching tables when speed dating began. Better not to have to carry a glass with him.

He parked himself against a wall where he could watch the dark-haired woman. She was laughing about something with her friends and tossed her hair back from her shoulder.

She wasn’t wearing a name tag.

Stephen thought, Noooo. She has to be speed dating. But what if she wasn’t? He couldn’t take the chance. He straightened his tie and headed across the room.

When he reached the table, the older woman was speaking. She stopped in mid-sentence as all four women gave him the once-over. The chunky blonde, in particular, was staring at him as if she’d never seen a man before.

Stephen spoke directly to the dark-haired woman, oblivious to the ring on her left hand. “Hello. Are you here for the speed dating?”

For some reason, the chunky blonde found that amusing. The woman of his dreams said, “No. I’m not.”

“Oh.” Stephen didn’t want to seem overeager. “That’s too bad. Have you ever participated?”

The chunky blonde and the older woman both snorted. His future girlfriend was appraising him. “No.”

“Ah. Well. Anyway. My name’s Stephen.”

She crossed her arms and nodded at his name tag. “I see that.”

Stephen sighed inwardly. This was like having a conversation with Kristen Beach. “What’s your name?”

“Melanie.”

“Melanie. That’s a beautiful name.” He glanced around, and spotted an empty chair. “May I join you?”

Melanie said, “No. You may not.”

Oh. Uh -” Stephen fumbled. That wasn’t the reaction he’d expected. “Then…”

The chunky blonde said, “Your speed dating is about to start.”

Stephen didn’t want to speed date. He wanted to stay and get to know Melanie. But he’d paid the forty bucks… “Maybe I’ll see you later, then.”

Melanie said, “I don’t think so.”

What was it with these Los Angeles chicks? Back in Minnesota, the women were far more compliant. But he wasn’t giving up. He smiled politely. “It was nice meeting you, Melanie.”

Melanie was shaking her head slowly. The chunky blonde said, “Wow.”

He had no idea what that meant. But he didn’t have time to mull it over. Nadine was now standing by the row of eight small tables, each of which was now occupied.

Nadine said, “All right. Here are the rules.” She handed out small slips of paper numbered 1 through 8. “Five minutes per table. At the end, you’ll give me the number or numbers of the people you’d like to get to know further, and the people at the tables will likewise tell me which of you they’re interested in. If there’s a match, I’ll let you know.” She checked her watch. “One minute.”

Stephen glanced back at Melanie’s table. She was reading something on her phone. The chunky blonde was hanging over her shoulder so that she could see too.

Typical women, joined at the hip to their best friends.

Nadine called out, “And – begin.”

Stephen sat at the closest table. The girl was Asian, although her name was Claire. Stephen didn’t care for Asian women, but he was polite. Claire didn’t seem interested in him at all, which assaulted his male ego somewhat – but it was just as well.

The five minutes seemed like fifteen, but then a bell rang. Nadine called, “Move to your left.”

The woman to Stephen’s left was a statuesque redhead wearing a lot of makeup. Not that there was anything wrong with that. She smiled coyly. “Well, hell-ooo, big boy.”

“Er – hello. I’m Stephen.”

“I’m Rickie.” Rickie batted her eyelashes. “Tell me about yourself, Stephen.”

Stephen had created his cover story on the drive to Venice. “I’m on faculty at UCLA.” Well, he had been adjunct faculty, until those eleven students had totally misinterpreted his intentions and he’d ended up in the library.

“You don’t say.” Rickie propped her chin on her fist and gazed into his eyes. “Let me guess what you teach.”

“Okay.”

“Hmmmmm.” Rickie tapped her fingernails – she had very long fingernails – on the tabletop. “Chemistry.”

“No.”

“Physics.”

“No.” He didn’t understand – why would she think that?

Rickie looked him up and down. “Food science.”

“No.” Stephen was tiring of the game. “I teach English.”

Rickie crossed her arms and leaned back. “Get out. You do not.”

That flustered him. “Yes, I do. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Honey, I’ve got an MFA, and I never saw an English prof that looked anything like you.”

“Well, you’re wrong.”

“No, I’m not.” Rickie raised her left eyebrow, and her voice dropped into a lower register. “You may have taught English somewhere, sometime, but you are not full-time faculty at UCLA. I can spot a liar from across the city, and I’d bet my Louboutins on that.”

Steven was deeply offended, entirely disregarding the fact that he was, indeed, lying. “Has anyone told you that you’re an incredibly rude woman?”

Rickie laughed. She had a deep, throaty laugh. “They most certainly have.” She looked past him and tossed her head – and the bell rang.

Nadine said, “Move to your left.”

The man at the table to his right – Claire’s table – said, “Hey. That wasn’t five minutes.”

Claire said, “Close enough.”

Stephen moved to his left. Gladly. The next girl was black. She had a cute African accent, but again – not his type.

As he moved to the table after that, Stephen glanced back at Melanie’s table.

She was gone.

The thought that he might never see Melanie again caused his stomach to drop to his heels. Maybe if he started coming here every weekend…

Then he turned back to the table, and his gastric distress righted itself.

The woman was very attractive. Not in Melanie’s league, true, but a looker nonetheless. She was blond, with startlingly green eyes and enormous boobs.

A man could get lost in those.

Stephen sat. “Hello.”

The woman smiled. “Hello. I am Katia.”

Her accent was Russian, or something similar. Stephen said, “It’s nice to meet you, Katia. How are you this evening?”

“I am very well, thank you.” She leaned forward, giving Stephen an up close and personal view of her assets. “What is your occupation?”

He was so flustered by the proximity of Katia’s chest, he almost forgot to lie. “I – ah – I teach English at UCLA.”

“A university professor? Do you have tenure?”

Stephen thought, What an odd question. “Er – yes.”

“Wonderful.” She gazed into his eyes. “You must be a brilliant man.”

Stephen blushed, in spite of himself. “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

“Do not be modest.” Katia smiled more widely. “Brilliant and handsome.”

Memories of Melanie were receding quickly from Stephen’s brain. “Thank you. What do you do?”

“I am a model.”

It didn’t occur to Stephen that a woman of Katia’s advanced cup size was unlikely to be a runway model. Visions of the Victoria’s Secret catalog were dancing in his head. “Wow. That’s amazing. I guess you travel all over the world.”

“Oh, yes.” Katia licked her lips. “Do you live nearby?”

Ugh. How could Stephen take an international runway model back to his trailer park in Lancaster? “No, I’m afraid not. I live out in the desert.”

“Mm. Too bad.”

The bell rang. “Move to your left!”

Katia shook Stephen’s hand lightly. “It was wonderful to meet you, Stephen.”

“You, too. Maybe I’ll see you at the end.”

Katia smiled. “Maybe you will.”

Buoyed on a wave of self-esteem, Stephen moved to the next table, where he found a woman who was probably close to his own age. Too old for him and mannish, besides. She regarded him with what could only be described as a jaundiced eye. “Stephen, huh?”

“Yes. And you are…?”

“Dru.” She folded her arms across her flat chest. “Let me guess. You’re waiting tables until you get your big break.”

“Er – no? I teach at UCLA.” Until his big break came along, but he wouldn’t add that.

Dru looked incredulous. “Seriously? Like, what? Soil science?”

What was it with these women? “No, like English.”

She snorted. “Buster, I don’t know who you are or what you do, but you do not teach English at UCLA. I teach in the MFADW program at USC, and I know everyone in UCLA’s department. And you aren’t one of ‘em.”

MFADW? Stephen caught his breath. The MFA in Dramatic Writing program at USC produced some of the best playwrights and screenwriters in the country. This woman might have contacts. “I did teach there, as an adjunct. I’m working at YRL now. I guess you must know a lot of people in the industry.”

Dru was greatly amused. “I guess I must. And I suppose you’ve got a script in your back pocket.”

Stephen mentally kicked himself for not bringing the script. “Not with me, no, but I can have it to you by morning.”

“I’m sure you can. Just to satisfy my own curiosity, what’s your genre?”

“Horror. The title is Carnival of Doom.”

Dru sighed deeply. “Carnival of Doom. Where do you people come from?”

He wasn’t sure what she meant by that. “I’m from Minnesota.”

“Of course you are.”

Stephen was opening his mouth to ask Dru if he could send her his script when the bell rang. Nadine called, “Move to your left.”

He stood up. “It was great to meet you, Dru. Do you have a card?”

“Darn. I forgot to bring them with me.” She made a run along, now motion with her hand.

Stephen was undaunted. There couldn’t be more than one or two women named Dru in USC’s MFADW program. He’d be able to track her down later.

 

The final contestants for Stephen’s affections were unremarkable, in his opinion. There had even been a man at one table. Awkward. When Nadine rang the bell the final time, he handed her the number for Katia. He’d been watching her out of the corner of his eye, and didn’t think she’d been pleased with any of the other contestants.

He was thrilled when Nadine called him to Katia’s table. “You two have matched. What happens now is up to you.” She went to Rickie’s table and called a man over.

Katia stood up and produced a business card. “Here is my telephone number. I hope to hear from you soon.”

Wait. He wasn’t going to get laid tonight? He said, “Er – what about now?”

Katia gave him a flirtatious, sideways look. “Stephen. What kind of girl do you think I am?”

“Oh. Sorry. Not that kind. Not at all. I just thought…”

She laughed lightly and patted his arm. “Call me.”

“I will. May I walk you to your car?”

“Certainly.”

Stephen waited while Katia gathered her things. He glanced at Melanie’s table; it was now occupied by someone else.

Oh, well. A bird in the hand…

He walked Katia to the valet stand, where she patted his arm again. “I will see you soon, yes?”

“Yes.”

Rickie came through the door on the arm of – Claire?? They spotted Katia and Stephen, and Rickie smirked. Claire said something to her, which made them both snicker.

Maybe they were jealous of Katia’s endowments.

Katia’s car arrived – a midnight blue Beemer. She climbed into the driver’s seat and drove away, fluttering her fingers at Stephen.

He stood for a moment, staring after her. The valet said, “Are you ready for your car, sir?”

“Uh – no. Not yet.” Stephen went back into the club to take a leak before the long haul back to Lancaster. As he did, he created a to-do list in his head.

One. As soon as he got home, find Dru on USC’s website and send her Carnival of Doom.

Two. Call Katia tomorrow on his morning break.

Three. Talk to the bartender.

Stephen left the men’s room – it didn’t occur to him to wash his hands – and went to the bar. The crowd was thinning now, so it wasn’t difficult to catch the bartender’s eye. He ordered a beer and asked, “Do you happen to know a girl who was here tonight named Melanie? She was sitting over there -” He pointed. “- with three other women. She has long, curly dark hair…”

The bartender said, “Yeah, I know Mel. What about her?”

“Do you know her last name?”

The bartender eyed Stephen skeptically. “Yes. Will I tell you what it is? No.”

“But…”

The bartender held up his hand. “I can save you some grief. Mel has been married to the blond woman she was with for almost ten years. You’re definitely not her type.”

Stephen was too shocked to move. “How can that be?

The bartender didn’t even dignify that with a reply. He shook his head and moved to another customer. Stephen turned around and looked over the crowd. Now that he knew what to look for, he saw it. There were a few straight couples here – but the majority were either two women or two men.

But the speed dating was normal…mostly…

Stephen was confused. He left half of his beer and went to collect his car. As he waited, he asked the valet, “Is this primarily a gay bar?”

The valet turned a suspicious eye onto him. “Everyone’s welcome at El Caribe.”

“Oh. Sure. Thanks.”

“Uh huh.” The valet moved to the other side of the stand.

Stephen crossed Melanie off his mental list, and added another item. Look for an apartment in town. He couldn’t take Katia to his trailer, but he knew he couldn’t afford rent in or around West LA.

Maybe Dru would send Carnival of Doom to someone who’d buy it.

But that could take some time…

Stephen’s car arrived. He got in and reset his GPS for home.

GPS…

He worked in a library…

He was struck with an idea about how to make some extra money. He smiled to himself as he drove away.

He thought it was a brilliant idea.

It wasn’t.

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Clueless

Tomorrow, here on the blog, you’ll be treated (or subjected) to the first publication of the year, a short story called Great Expectations. I mentioned this in my New Year’s post. In this story, Stephen Atcheson, nemesis of the single women on staff at Jamie’s library, goes speed dating.

I don’t want you to think that the story is mean-spirited. Stephen is one of those people who is truly clueless about how he comes across to other people and in society. This is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, but Stephen is a true misogynist – and truly believes that he is not. He really does think that he’s a chick magnet, and that any woman would be grateful for his attentions. He oozes self-confidence. No inferiority complexes in this guy.

This story was prompted by a night out with friends at a wine bar. We happened to stumble into Speed Dating night. The women were all dressed to the nines and the men, with one exception, were in jeans and had their shirttails hanging out. There were a lot of guys there who could have been Stephen in the flesh.

That got the old creative juices stirring.

So don’t feel sorry for Stephen. He deserves this night. It’s his own fault for not doing his due diligence.

The story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which will be resolved in Promoted to Death. (Scheduled for release in early May.)

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Inside Pete Ferguson’s Head

I’ve been assembling the short stories for the anthology which will be published next

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By Miz.mira (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

summer. I’ve also been writing some new stories for inclusion, so the collection will include plenty of new material.

One of the new stories describes how Pete and Kevin became friends and partners. Obviously it had to be told from the point of view of one or the other of them. I’ve thought about it several times, and I just don’t believe I can write as Kevin. So Pete it is.

I wasn’t sure I could write as Pete either. I’d been hesitant to try. But for this story, it worked. Not that I’m going to start writing in Pete’s voice a lot. I may never do it again.

I think it helped that the time period covered was before Pete met Jamie. Maybe that’s the problem – Jamie has scrambled Pete’s brain for good. 🙂 The pre-Jamie Pete was less complicated in some ways.

Anyway, the story is called Partners, and it will appear in the anthology, still scheduled for August. I think you’ll like it.

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Don’t kill the dog!

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HOW COULD YOU??? By Gilliamhome’s Olympus E3 and Evolt 500 Page – Flickr: Hoss, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21292208

I was reading a book the other night where the hero adopts a puppy. Then the worst thing ever happens – the dog dies. And not just dies, but is gruesomely murdered by the killer as a message to the hero.

Aaaaagggggghhhhhh!!

It should be the first rule of writing. DON’T KILL THE DOG.

It makes me less anxious to read anything else by this author. Will he kill more dogs? I don’t want to take the chance.

I was telling a writer friend about this, and we decided there should be universal writing rules, regardless of genre.

  1. Don’t kill the dog.
  2. Don’t make the entire story turn out to be a dream. (A la Dallas, for those of you who remember.)
  3. Sex scenes must be physically possible to replicate.

There are other rules that apply to the mystery genre in particular – you can’t introduce the killer at the end of the book, you can’t have the crime solved by intuition. But across genres, I think these three rules are a fine starting point.

What other rules are there? What do you HATE to see a writer do? What makes you stop reading?

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What I’m reading now: The Enzo Macleod Mysteries

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Public domain. Wikimedia Commons.

When I travel, I like to visit the local bookstores. I’ve found some great stuff in UK bookstores that I’d never find in the US. This past summer, I came across a mystery series written about a Scottish forensic biologist, Enzo Macleod. The author’s name is Peter May. I bought the first two in the series.

I hadn’t gotten around to reading the first one – Extraordinary People – until now. I was disappointed to find that the books don’t actually take place in Scotland, but in France. Enzo Macleod has moved to France and is teaching at a university. It’s not that I don’t like books set in France. I just like books set in Scotland better. 😀

But other than that, it was terrific. Macleod has bet some local officials that he can use new forensic techniques to solve old crimes. A reporter has published a book about the seven most famous unsolved murders in France, and the bet is that Macleod can solve them. The first unsolved murder was of a well-known political figure and TV personality. At least, it’s assumed he was murdered – the body was never found. Macleod’s quest takes him all over France, and the story kept me guessing until the end.

I’m about to begin the second in the series, The Critic. The victim in this case was a wine critic. That’s all I know so far.

If you enjoy a well-plotted mystery with well-drawn characters, regardless of where it takes place, you’ll enjoy these.

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Another year older…

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But – fortunately! – not deeper in debt. (That’s a reference to an old coal mining song called Sixteen Tons, in case you didn’t know.)

This was a good writing year! To recap:

  • Filmed to Death was published in the spring.
  • Photographs and Memories, a serial novella, was published here on the blog in June.
  • Trapped to Death was published about four weeks ago, and is still in the Top 100 on Amazon’s gay mystery bestseller list! Thanks to you all!
  • I participated in and “won” NaNoWriMo again, churning out the first draft of Cloistered to Death, which I have now set aside. It’s not scheduled for publication until fall of 2018.
  • Author Jon Wilson wrote a guest post earlier in the year. If you enjoy gay noir and haven’t read his Cheap as Beasts, please do. It’s fantastic.
  • About three weeks ago I was delighted to be part of Josh Lanyon’s annual Advent Calendar on her blog, with a mashup story between Jamie Brodie land and Adrien English land. Kate Keegan, Jake Riordan’s ex, joins the fun at West LA Homicide.

So what’s ahead for 2017?

  • There will be a Valentine’s Day short story called Great Expectations. Stephen Atcheson gets lucky.
  • Promoted to Death, Jamie Brodie Mystery #14, will be published in late April-early May. Santa Monica College gets embroiled in a promotion scandal, and naturally someone ends up dead.
  • Someone – I’m looking at you, Lin – made the terrific suggestion that I compile and publish all the short stories. So I’m going to! That anthology will include all the shorts from the blog and the books, and a few that haven’t seen the light of day because I never found a place to use them. It will probably land in August.
  • Published to Death, JBM #15, will appear in November. I am having a BLAST writing it, and I think you all will love it. Think of everything that could go wrong at a conference of self-published authors… 😀
  • There will probably be another short story or two along the way, as they come to me.

I hope the coming year is a happy and healthy one for you! Thank you so much for reading!

 

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Gone Fishing: A Jamie Brodie Christmas story

Jacksonville, North Carolina

Christmas Eve

My cousin Lindsey rolled down her window and leaned out, waving, as her husband Jake pulled away from my Uncle Doug’s house. “Good night! Merry Christmas!”

We waved back, responding in kind – Uncle Doug and Aunt Linda, my dad, my cousin Carly and her husband Mike, and Pete and me. Jake’s tail lights flared as he reached the road, then the car turned and was gone.

We trooped back into the house, stopping in the kitchen. Carly distributed adult beverages and we gathered around the huge island in the center of the room. Linda asked, “Who’s going fishing in the morning?”

Dad said, “I am. Doug, you’re coming, right?”

“You bet.”

I said, “Pete and I will go.”

Carly said, “We’re going. Looks like you’re the only one staying home, Mom.”

Aunt Linda grinned. “Yes. I’ll get some peace and quiet for a few hours.”

I asked hesitantly, “Will Tanner come?”

Uncle Doug said, “Yes. He’s bringing Sarge. Is that okay?”

I hadn’t seen or spoken to my cousin Tanner, my Uncle Dennis’s son, since his younger brother Tyler’s wedding last summer. Tanner had crashed the rehearsal dinner, strung out on drugs, intending to cause trouble. His older brothers and I had intervened and prevented an ugly scene. Once we’d hauled him outdoors, Tanner had suffered a grand mal seizure and was hospitalized.

After detoxing in the hospital, Tanner moved here from Virginia and had been in rehab ever since. For the past six weeks he’d been in an outpatient program, under Doug and Linda’s supervision. He was working for a friend of Doug’s, mowing lawns and learning handyman skills. He was staying at a halfway house for now, but would be moving in with Doug and Linda in January.

During the last two conversations I’d had with him, Tanner had called me a faggot and a few other choice terms. I knew he was under the influence both times, but the encounters hadn’t engendered warm and fuzzy feelings on my part.

Now I said, “Sure.”

Carly said, “Don’t worry. He’ll behave with Sarge there.”

Sarge was our grandfather, who at 92 was still formidable enough to scare the devil out of his grandchildren. I said, “I’m not worried. He’s not gonna start anything.”

Doug said, “No, he isn’t. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the new and improved Tanner.”

I had my doubts about that, but I didn’t express them.

 

For as long as I could remember, Brodie family tradition dictated that we fished on bogue-inlet-pier-nc.png (485×316)Christmas morning. Christmas Eve saw the family gather for dinner and gifts; Christmas Day was Santa Claus and fishing. We were all adults now, but we still had fishing.

When we were kids, Dad and Sarge had taken Jeff, Kevin and me to the Oceanside pier every Christmas morning. We’d baited our poles and sat, our little-kid legs dangling over the edge, waiting for a bite. We almost never caught anything, but it didn’t matter. It was the tradition that counted.

For the past couple of years, Pete and I had been driving from Tucson to Oceanside on Christmas morning. We’d missed out on fishing with Dad, Kevin, Jeff, Val, and my nephews. This year we’d gone to Tucson for Thanksgiving, so were free to come to Jacksonville for Christmas. I wished Jeff and Kevin were here, but neither of them could get enough time off work.

Carly and Mike lived in Wilmington, sixty miles to the south, but they were spending tonight at Doug and Linda’s. We all wanted to get an early start in the morning.

Pete and I were sleeping in my cousin Shana’s old room. Shana was Lindsey and Carly’s oldest sister, and lived in Germany with her husband and kids. Once we’d turned in and were snuggled deep in flannel sheets, Pete asked, “Are you sure Tanner won’t make trouble?”

“I don’t know that he’ll be delighted to see me, but no. I don’t think he’ll make trouble with Doug, Dad, and Grampa all there. If it was just him and me it might be different.”

I felt Pete grin against the side of my head. “You could take him, I bet.”

I chuckled. “Oh, yeah. You’ve never seen him, have you?”

“I guess not. I missed his entrance at the rehearsal dinner. Is he small, like Tyler?”

“Not as small, but he’s considerably shorter than me.” My uncle Dennis, Dad and Doug’s middle brother, had missed out on the Brodie height. As a result, all four of his sons were under six feet.

Another grin. “I suppose Tyler and Blair won’t go fishing in the morning.”

I laughed out loud at that one. “Can you imagine? Tyler might have seen a fishing pole at some point in his life. I doubt he’s ever touched one.”

“Dennis didn’t continue the tradition with his kids?”

“Dennis was divorced from their mothers by the time his kids were big enough to hold fishing poles.” Dennis’s sons Will and Henry were by his first wife, Corinne; Tanner and Tyler were by his second wife, Marilyn. Dennis was now on his fourth wife, Toni, whom we all fervently hoped would be the final iteration. “Did your dad take you and Steve fishing?”

“A few times, to Elizabeth Lake. But Steve got bored with it fast and would start whining, so that ended it.”

“Did you have a boat?”

“Yeah, an ancient, beat-up metal bucket with an awful motor that was always stranding us. Dad eventually gave up and ditched it. Did you guys have one?”

“No, but the Fortners did.” My friend Ali’s parents. “That’s how Kev and I learned to waterski.”

“You had a fun childhood.”

I tugged him closer so that his head rested on my shoulder. Pete’s childhood had been anything but fun. “Yeah. I did.”

 

Christmas Day

When our alarm sounded at 6:15 am, I could already smell coffee and bacon. By 6:30 Pete and I were showered and dressed. We gathered at the kitchen island again, where Linda handed out bacon biscuits and thermoses full of coffee. Forty-five minutes later, we pulled into the parking area at the Bogue Inlet Fishing Pier on Emerald Isle.

baitshop.jpg (600×459)Doug, Dad and Mike went into the bait shop while Carly distributed gear from the back of Doug’s SUV. I was working out the best way to balance a beach chair, fishing pole, cooler and thermos when a battered Kia parked two spots away. As I turned toward it, my grandfather and Tanner emerged.

I lowered my burden to the ground and hugged my grandfather. Tanner went straight to Carly, shooting me a weak smile as he did. Sarge greeted Pete warmly and said to me, “Tanner wants to talk to you.”

“Um – okay?”

Dad and Mike returned from the shop, bearing buckets of bait. Dad and Sarge exchanged a backslapping hug, and Dad spoke to Tanner, shaking his hand. Whatever he said made Tanner smile a bit more widely.

Doug appeared with one more bait bucket. “Hey, Dad, Tanner. Everyone got their gear?”

We responded with a chorus of “Yes, sir.” Having retired as a colonel, Doug outranked the rest of us.

“All right, let’s move out.” Doug led the way toward the pier.

Tanner hung back, edging toward me hesitantly. “Hey, Jamie.”

“Hey, Tanner. How’s it going?”

“Good. Everything is – better than good.”

“That’s what Doug was telling me. I’m happy to hear that you’re doing well.”

His expression was skeptical but hopeful. “Are you? Seriously?”

“Of course. You’re family, Tanner. I’d never wish bad things on you.”

“You should, after all the things I’ve said to you.”

I began to respond, and he held up his hand to stop me. “Listen… I want to apologize to you.” He began talking faster, in a rush to get it all out. “For whatever I said to you at Tyler’s wedding, which I don’t remember, and for calling you to ask for money. That was messed up. I was messed up.”

I said, “I know. Apology accepted.”

He sagged with relief. “You mean it?”

“Yeah, I mean it. You said it, you were messed up.”

He kicked at a pebble morosely. “I sure was.”

I tried to steer the conversation in a positive direction. “Doug says you’re working.”

“Yeah. I’m mowing lawns, mostly. But I’m also taking a class at Coastal Carolina Community College.”

“Oh, he didn’t mention that. What class are you taking?”

“It’s kind of an orientation class. How to be successful in college. Study skills, time management, computer skills, all that.”

“Sounds good. Do you have a specific program in mind?”

“Not yet. I’m thinking about HVAC.”

“Always a need for that in the South.”

He grinned. “True. It’s good for me, being here. Getting out of Virginia. Mom and Dad had given up on me, I think.”

I said, “They’d never give up on you. I think they just didn’t know what else to do.”

“Maybe you’re right. Anyway. Between Doug, Linda and Grampa, I’m gettin’ back on my feet.”

“That’s great, Tanner. I am really happy to hear that.”

“Thank you. That means a lot to me. Of course, Carly’s mean as ever…”

Carly, walking a few feet ahead of us, turned in mock outrage. “Mean? I’ll show you mean, Tanner Brodie.”

Tanner laughed. It was good to hear him laugh. “Anyway. Thanks, Jamie. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too. You hang in there.”

“I will.” He lowered his voice. “I know everyone expects me to screw up again.”

“I don’t believe that. I didn’t get that impression from Doug or Linda at all.”

“Well, maybe not them. But my immediate family does. I can tell.” Tanner swallowed hard. “When I talk to Mom or Dad, I hear it in their voices. They encourage me, but they don’t think I’ll make it.”

“But they hope you do. They’re praying you do.”

“I guess.” His face twisted a bit. “Will and Henry just lecture me. And Tyler won’t even talk to me. Damn caller ID – he won’t even answer the phone.”

“Tanner, listen. Your mom and dad just want you to get healthy. They’re worried because of your history, but they support you 110%. And so does Grampa, and so does my dad. You know that, right?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“And Will and Henry – they’re doctors. Lecturing people is what they do. They do it because they want you to succeed. Right?”

“I guess.” He huffed a laugh. “Will came down here and inspected the rehab facility. I guess it had to meet his standards.”

“See? What does that tell you? And listen – don’t worry about Tyler. He’s got his own issues.” Tyler was a lobbyist for the Nature Conservancy. With an environmentally hostile administration taking over in D.C., he feared for his job.

Tanner’s expression was achingly hopeful. “Do you think he’ll ever forgive me?”

As a kid, Tanner had behaved horribly to Tyler, the only person in the family who was smaller and weaker. He’d seriously injured Tyler on a couple of occasions, one of which I’d witnessed. “I don’t know, Tanner. I hope so. I’ll talk to him, if you want.”

“Oh, would you? Please?”

“Sure.”

Thank you.” Tanner sighed deeply. “Thanks for talking to me.”

“You can call me whenever you want, Tan. I promise to answer. Unless I’m in the head or something.”

He laughed. “Okay. I’ll take you up on that. I’ve gotta talk to Uncle Dave now.”

“Good luck.”

Tanner trotted ahead of me. Pete, who’d been walking with Carly, dropped back. He said, “That sounds promising.”

“I hope so. What are his chances?”

Pete lowered his voice. “Relapse rates are high. Anywhere from 50 to 90%. But he’s been through rehab before, right?”

“Right. I don’t know how many times.”

“It’s similar to smoking. The more experience you have with trying to quit, the better you get at it.”

“He’s got more in his favor this time. Doug, Linda, and Grampa are right here with him. That was never the case before.”

“Family support improves his chances considerably. Am I reading it right, that Doug and your dad are far better parents than Dennis?”

I shrugged. “Uncle Denny put his career first. That’s why his marriages broke up. With Doug and Dad, family always came first.”

“Yet Will and Henry turned out well.”

“Will and Henry grew up in Roanoke, hundreds of miles away from Denny. They only saw him three or four times a year. Hugh, their stepdad, did a great job raising them.”

Pete nodded. “If Tanner has a decent therapist, they’ll ask Dennis and Marilyn to participate in Tanner’s counseling sessions. Will they take the time for that?”

“Marilyn and Cliff, absolutely.” Cliff was Tanner’s stepdad. “I think Denny will participate. I hope he will. Unless we’re at war with China or something.” Dennis was a Navy rear admiral, based at the Pentagon.

Pete grimaced. “God forbid.”

 

It took about twenty minutes for us to get settled – in our chairs, poles baited and secured to each chair, coffee in hand. Carly distributed more bacon biscuits from a hamper. Pete was to my left, Dad was to my right. I said to Dad, “We should call Kevin and Jeff while we’re out here.”

“We will.” Dad checked his watch. “Not for a couple of hours, though. You and Tanner got sorted out?”

I mumbled through a bite of biscuit. “Mm hm. Told him I’d talk to Ty for him.”

“Good. I’ll call Ty too.”

“You may get further with him than I will.”

“Maybe.” Dad shook his head. “Denny ought to be the one brokering between them, but he won’t.”

“Pete suggested that you and Doug are better parents than Denny.”

Dad snorted. “I’d like to think so. Denny meant well, but he was so frickin’ ambitious. I don’t know where he got that from. Neither of our parents pushed him that way.”

“Did you think about moving back here? After Mom died?”

“Sure. The whole family encouraged me to.”

“Why’d you decide against it?”

Dad sighed. “A couple of reasons. If I stayed at Pendleton, the Marine Corps would guarantee that they wouldn’t move me. If I transferred to Parris Island, they couldn’t promise that they’d let me stay. I didn’t want you guys to have a typical military childhood, getting jerked around all over the world.”

I shuddered. “We would have hated that.”

“I know. The other reason was that the schools were better in California. I wish you guys could have grown up with the rest of the family, but I wanted more for you than a South Carolina education.”

“You definitely accomplished that.”

Dad grinned. “Yes, I did.”

 

The fish weren’t biting, but we didn’t care. We finished the bacon biscuits and coffee, and I went to the Coke machine outside the bait shop and bought sodas for everyone. Pete stretched his legs out, leaned his head back, and fell asleep. The rest of us got up occasionally and walked around to keep the blood flowing, talking to the others. After a couple of hours had passed I called Kevin on FaceTime, and he and Jeff took turns talking to everyone.

2a1fee62bab9b50d6c1c497a3bcaaad6.jpg (362×362)After another hour the pier was starting to fill with people, seemingly testing the new fishing gear that Santa had brought them. Sarge and Doug conferred, then Doug stood. “Everyone ready to call it a day?”

We all agreed. No one had caught anything, and it was getting warm. We packed up our stuff and left the island, stopping on the way home for Chinese takeout. Another family tradition.

Once we’d eaten Sarge wanted a nap, and Tanner had to report back to the halfway house. We’d see Sarge once more before we left on Tuesday, but Tanner would be working tomorrow. I walked to the car with them and gave Tanner a friendly thump on the shoulder. “You take care of yourself.”

“I will. I promise.”

“Call me any time you want. And Dad and I will both talk to Ty.”

“I appreciate that so much.” To my surprise, Tanner hugged me. It was brief and loose, but it was a hug. “Thank you for listening. And supporting me. It means more than you know.”

“We’re family, Tan. We have each other’s backs, right?”

“Right.” He smiled, and I caught a glimpse of the cute, rowdy little boy I’d known growing up. “I lost track of that for a while. Never again.”

I smiled back at him. “Merry Christmas, Tanner.”

“You too.” He got in the car and drove away, waving.

Back in the house, Carly and Linda were in the kitchen, deep in conversation. Mother-daughter stuff, I supposed. Doug, Dad, and Mike were all in the family room, in the early stages of napping. I found Pete on the back porch glider, gazing through the screens at the pine trees lining the boundary fence.

I dropped beside him. “Whatcha thinking about?”

He smiled at me. “I was thinking about my own family. The holiday traditions that we have now? Those came from the Fernandez side.” Andy Fernandez was married to Christine, Pete’s sister. “We never had any of our own. My mother was always at church. Steve and I would spend the day playing with whatever toy we’d gotten. That was it. No other family, no dinner, no nothing.”

I squeezed his hand. “Ancient history, right? Now you have Andy’s family traditions and mine.”

He squeezed back. “Yup. And I’m gonna talk to Chris before next year. I don’t want you to miss any more Brodie Christmas fishing trips. I don’t want to miss any more of them. This has been the most relaxing Christmas Day I’ve ever had.”

“Aw. Thank you.” I scooted over so that we were touching, hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder. “That’s the best Christmas present ever.”

He kissed the tip of my ear then leaned his head against mine. “Merry Christmas, husband.”

I smiled. “Merry Christmas to you, husband. And many more.”

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