A while ago, I announced I was offered a position of story writer for Acorn TV. Unfortunately, like hundreds of other writers, I was scammed. It wasn’t Acorn offering me a position, but some guy or guys setting themselves up as Acorn. I still don’t know what the endgame was. They didn’t get any money from me. My work is all under copywrite. Lesson learned and all that.
Being the Pollyanna that I am, I found a silver lining. I hadn’t written a short story since 1987 when Dusty and Me was published by St. Anthony Messenger. And these scammers wanted short stories. So, I wrote three of them.
Writing a short story differs from book length fiction. The rising action has to occur at a faster pace. There are fewer characters. The final action and resolution is, like the rising action, at a faster pace. And short stories have fewer words.
A short story is anything over 1000 words and under 10,000 words. Micro Fiction or Flash Fiction is shorter than that, using less than 100 words. With the economy of words one needs to use, you can see the writing needs to be much tighter. No fluff, nothing added. As Sgt. Friday would say, “Only the facts, ma’am.” Yes, I showed my age there, didn’t I?
I found I enjoy writing both. I think writing short fiction helps to sharpen the pencil (or computer) when it comes to writing longer fiction.
With that, I thought I’d give you a short story I wrote. I pulled it out, tweaked it, did some edits, and here it is. I have an idea in the back of my head to write a book of short stories. This might be one of them. I hope you enjoy it. Please let me know what you think. It brought a tear to my eye and put a lump in my throat as I wrote it. It might do the same for you.
Memories and Regrets
by Joseph Lewis
Richard made sure Jean was comfortable on the couch in her favorite seat. A glass of iced water sat on the coaster on the end table within her reach. Her wrinkled hands were on her lap, and she looked tired. Wheel of Fortune with Pat and Vanna was tuned in on the TV with the volume on low, and it looked to Richard that Jean might doze off. He had to hurry.
Jean hadn’t eaten much, even though it was one of her favorite meals. Beef, small red potatoes, carrots and onions in a slow cooker, seasoned just right. Perhaps a bit more spicey than she liked it, but Richard ate it too, and he liked spicey anything.
He scraped what was left on her plate into the garbage, then rinsed off both plates, cups, and silverware, and put them into the dishwasher with the rest of the day’s dirty dishes. He put in the soap pod and ran it so everything would be clean by morning.
As was his habit each night, he ran the Swiffer around the floor and wiped down the counters and small kitchen table. Richard wanted everything neat and clean because he didn’t want anyone to have to clean up after them.
He stood in the clean kitchen, made sure nothing was out of place, and began his walk to the living.
Before he entered, he stood in the doorway with one hand on his chest and one hand on the wall to catch his breath, and waited until the pain abated. It didn’t last long. It used to be a now and then kind of thing, but in the last month, certainly in the last week, it happened more frequently.
Before going to the living room, he stopped in their bedroom. He dug around in the closet until he found the large photo album Jean had put together in the last year with his help. They had tried to keep the pictures in chronological order as best they could.
Before opening it, he ran his hand along the front of it. Warm and friendly to his touch, the leather cracked and creased, but not worn out. A tear escaped his eye, then another. He took out his hanky and wiped his eyes. He couldn’t afford for that to happen in front of Jean because it would set her off.
He took a deep breath, picked up the album, and made it to the hallway before he had to catch his breath. He shut his eyes, willing the pain to subside, marshaling his lungs to function. He and Jean would be asleep soon enough. But first, he wanted to go through the album.
He smiled, nodded, and walked into the living room.
As Richard expected, Jean had dozed off, leaning her head against the corner of the couch, her chin tucked. She had managed to pull a blanket off the back of the couch to wrap herself in. The air conditioner was on and it was quite comfortable. But as she got older, her tolerance to cold and to heat had diminished.
He set the album on the end table, and walked back into their bedroom, and got her slippers from the closet. After waking her up, Richard knew she would ask for them.
Back in the living room, he stopped in the doorway to gaze at Jean.
Still beautiful, though a bit wrinkly like he was. Not nearly as toned as she used to be. An avid runner and exercise buff, she had been forced to give that up in her sixties. Hadn’t done that in years. Now, they walk together. Shorter now, her hair gray and cut as short as she wore it in her younger years. Still beautiful to him. Always would be. The warmest smile. The kindest gray-green eyes.
She always knew what she wanted and wasn’t shy about letting Richard know. When angry, her mouth would clamp shut and her chin stuck out a little. When that happened, look out! As forthright in older age as she was in her younger years.
The first time they met, Jean had demanded a boy, Garrett, be removed from her PE class. Richard was a counselor back then, and asked, “Why?”
“Because he’s a criminal and a liability. That’s why.”
As patiently as he could, he had explained that he couldn’t just move a kid out of her class. He had to build a case.
Her response was, “If something happens, it will be on your head, not mine.” After that declaration, she stormed out of his office.
Not two weeks later, Jean had stormed back into the guidance area with Garrett in tow, and marched into Richard’s office without knocking.
“I warned you,” was all she said.
“What happened?” Richard asked.
She turned to Garrett and asked, “Do you want to tell him, or should I?”
Head down, Garrett shrugged.
Jean shook her head and said, “He aimed a loaded bow and arrow at another teacher.”
Richard removed Garrett from the class, and the assistant principal suspended him for ten days.
Jean didn’t speak to Richard for a month. They would cross paths and hardly any word was spoken. Richard would say hello and smile, but Jean only nodded and maybe, on a good day, mutter a hello.
Richard was intrigued by her. Thought about her often.
A group of teachers decided to go to a comedy club on an early fall Friday night. On a whim, Richard asked Jean if she wanted to go along, and she smiled and said, “Sure. That would be fun.”
The incident with Garrett wasn’t mentioned.
Their first official date was a baseball game the following Sunday. Neither of them liked baseball, but didn’t tell the other. They wanted to spend time together, but left after a couple of innings and went to a Mexican restaurant for dinner, and share stories and laughter, and the getting-to-know-you kinds of things.
Movies, bicycle rides, and trips for ice cream followed. They spoke about getting married, but there was nothing official until one day when Richard said, “I suppose this is something we want to do.”
It came out of the blue. No preamble, no context. Just the statement, “I suppose this is something we want to do.”
Her answer? “I suppose so.”
Richard nodded and said, “I guess this is official, then.”
And Jean answered, “I suppose so.”
Not the most of romantic of conversations that ever took place in the history of dating. Especially when you consider it was in the guidance area in front of Richard’s secretary, and during a drug bust. But of and by itself, sweet, in that both of them knew what was being said or asked without it actually being said or asked. And that typified their friendship and their marriage of fifty-six years. They knew each other. Their likes, dislikes, interests. Their tastes.
Richard in his nineties, and Jean in her eighties. A ten-year difference that neither questioned. Both were adults who knew what they were looking for back then. The only regret they had was that they hadn’t begun dating earlier.
Jean dozed peacefully, comfortably. He hated to wake her, but it was important to him, especially on this night.
Richard slipped her slippers on her stocking feet. She stirred only a little. Then he sat down next to her and gently shook her arm. Her eyes fluttered, then opened fully.
At first, it didn’t look as though she had recognized him. It happened more and more, and it hurt Richard, but he understood. Nothing neither of them could do about it, anyway. It happened with age.
Then she smiled, her eyes lighting up.
Richard loved her smile. It was that picture of her he took to bed each night, the picture he smiled at throughout the day.
“I have our album, and I thought we might look at it together,” Richard said.
He opened it so one half was on his lap, while the other half was on her lap.
“Is that my mom and dad?” Jean asked.
“No, sweetheart, that’s us on our wedding day.”
She frowned and bent to inspect the picture more closely. “Oh, of course. How stupid of me.”
“It’s not stupid. Back then, you looked a lot like your mother.”
Their July wedding was hot, but fun. The rehearsal dinner was a cookout in a park. Laughter. Games. Complete and utter embarrassment as two friends in the bridal party roasted Richard and Jean. But it was all in fun.
The birth of their daughter, Elizabeth. Liz, as they called her. A bright blond with blue eyes. Always smiling and laughing. Even to this day.
“Is that me as a baby or one of your sisters?”
Richard smiled sadly and said, “No, that’s Liz.”
“She always looked like you and your side of the family.”
Richard nodded. Liz was more like him than Jean, though as Liz got older, she became more like Jean and less like Richard.
The adoption of their son, John. Small and brown, wide smile and happy. Learning the English language from the radio and TV and from others conversing with him. Refusing to speak Spanish, his native tongue. Stubborn that way.
“Who is that little boy?” Jean asked with a frown.
“That’s Johnny. He had just come to us from Guatemala.”
“He was an artist and a soccer player.”
“Yes, and a really talented photographer.”
And their youngest, Ann. The tallest of their children. Smart. A quick wit, an avid reader like her older sister. As a baby, they couldn’t make her bottles fast enough to suit her. When she was hungry, she wanted to be fed right then and there. Always wanting to be held. Put her down, and she would wake up and raise a storm until she was held again.
Family trips to the cottage on a lake in the northern woods. Tubing and swimming. Hikes and four-wheelers. S’mores around the firepit at night. Stories and laughter. So much laughter. Academic honors and athletic achievements. And college.
John, of course, went to an art school to study photography. Liz went to a large school to become a teacher like her mom and dad. Ann to a small school to play soccer, and then to a much larger school for graduate studies to become a social worker. Each with lives of their own now. Married with families they fussed over, like Richard and Jean did with them.
Except for John, who died tragically. Richard didn’t want to think about it and didn’t want Jean to dwell on it. He purposely passed over that time in their lives. Not something he wanted to think about on this or any other night. Especially on this night.
Vacations to the beach, the mountains. Amusement parks. The Grand Canyon.
It saddened Richard. Jean had always wanted to go to Hawaii, and they never made it. He had wanted to take the whole family, but they couldn’t afford it. Now, they would never be able to go. It was Jean’s dream and Richard couldn’t deliver.
Yet, as they went through the album together, they laughed and talked. Both wept, not so much in sadness, but in joy. Maybe some tears of regret. Surely some tears of regret. Not on Jean’s part, but on Richard’s part. He had always wanted to do more, to give more, and to please her and the kids. Now, unable to.
The two of them closed the photo album, and Richard set it on the coffee table. He wanted to keep it there in case the kids would want to look through it when or if they stopped by. That didn’t happen much anymore, and it was never enough for Richard. Still, there was always the hope that one of both would visit. Richard was happiest when his family was all together. He knew that in the next few days, both girls would reach for the album again and again.
Richard slipped his arm around Jean and held her, and she rested her head on his shoulder. He kissed her on the side of her head, near her forehead.
“You know I love you, Jean, right?”
She smiled up at him and said, “Of course I do. I love you too.”
Jean nodded and said, “Always.”
“We had a pretty good life.”
“Yes, a good life.”
He kissed her again, and she reached over the held Richard’s hand.
They sat for a bit, chit-chatted about this or that, and finally, with a yawn, Jean said she was tired and wanted to go to bed. Richard glanced at his watch and was surprised it was 9:00 p.m.
Like their life, his life, he wondered where the time went.
He helped her off the couch and, with his arm around her shoulders, helped her get ready for bed. All the personal things done, she changed into her pajamas and crawled into bed. Richard sat on the side and held her hand.
“Aren’t you coming to bed, Rich?”
He kissed her forehead, smiled at her and said, “In a little while. There are some things I need to get done. If you’re sleeping, I might sleep in the other room because I don’t want to disturb you.”
She looked at him questioningly, and then reached up and caressed his cheek. “I love you, Rich. Always have.”
His heart climbed into his throat, and tears threatened to fall. He said, “I have loved no one as much as you, Jean.”
She smiled and said, “You loved our kids, Johnny, Liz, and Ann.”
He nodded and said, “They were the best gifts we gave each other. But I love you so much. Nothing will change that, Jean.”
“You’re a sweet man, Rich.” And with that, she rolled onto her side and fell asleep.
Richard remained there for a time, content to watch her. Her breathing was steady and deep. A small smile appeared on her face. He could sit there all night and not tire of it. And he wanted to, but he couldn’t.
He stood up slowly so as not to disturb her and shut the door to a crack on his way out.
In the hallway, he stopped to catch his breath and wipe away some tears with his hanky. He felt small. Jean had teased him he was shrinking, and the doctor confirmed it. But the smallness he felt had nothing to do with his height.
The pain in his chest hit him, and he winced.
He shook his head. “Not yet, Lord. Give me some time, please.”
Richard made his way to the desk in the kitchen, pulled out three envelopes, and placed them on the table. He had worked long and hard, starting and stopping, starting over. Crumpling up pages and beginning again. All the while keeping them from Jean. It was hard to do, because he kept nothing from her. Well, one or two things. One big thing. And only then because he didn’t want to worry her or the kids.
He picked up his cell and phoned Ann. She told him about her new job, a new position. Richard was proud of her. He was certain Ann would make a difference in the world, a difference in the lives she worked with. Head-strong and determined, stubborn, but funny. She had him laughing with stories about her work.
She and Jaquez were on their way to Liz and Rob’s house, and would be home in time for breakfast.
“Drive slowly, Annie. Please watch your speed. It’s late and you have pretty far to go.”
“It’s okay, Daddy. Jaq is driving, and he drives like an old man,” she said with a laugh.
Richard heard Jaq protesting playfully in the background.
“Just be careful.”
“I will, Daddy. I love you.”
“I love you too, Punkin.”
After hanging up, he wept. He would miss her sassy tongue, her wit. Her smile and the way she talked with her hands.
After gathering himself together, he made another phone call.
“Hi, Dad! What’s up?”
Liz was always so cheery, so bubbly. Richard loved her laugh, and longed for the road-trip days when the two of them, Liz and Ann, would sing along with the radio at the top of their lungs, complete with hand and arm motions, almost dancing in the backseat.
He smiled at the memory.
“Daddy, are you still there?”
“Yes, Peanut. I’m here.”
“Are you okay?”
He nodded, blinked back tears, and said, “I’m okay, Peanut.”
“Are you sure?”
“Mom and I were going through the photo album together, and it brought back so many memories.”
“As much as you two look through it, I’m surprised it’s not falling apart,” she laughed.
“It’s holding up just fine. I wish all the memories were good, though.”
“What do you mean?” Ann asked, sounding worried.
“I keep thinking that I could have been a better dad to you, and Annie and Johnny. I wasn’t the best dad to you guys.”
“I don’t know why you think that.”
“Moving you all around from job to job. You guys having to start over. Never getting the credit for all the time and effort you put into soccer or swimming, into your grades. I’m sorry, Peanut.”
“Daddy, we’re fine.”
“I remember one time I took you and Annie shopping for school supplies. I can’t remember what grade, but you two were so unhappy and disappointed. I ruined it for both of you. I’m sorry about that.”
“Daddy, that was a long time ago. It’s okay. Honest.”
As if he hadn’t heard her, he said, “I regret not being a better father to Johnny. I was too hard on him. I regret not being there when he died. He died alone, and no one should ever die alone.”
“Daddy, it couldn’t have been helped. If you were there, you could have died too.”
“I never felt he liked me very much. And I loved him, Peanut. I loved all you guys.”
“Daddy, Johnny loved you. We all did.”
Richard could hear her weeping, her voice catching.
“I just want you to know … I mean, I just need you to believe that I tried to do the best I could. I loved you guys. I tried to be a better father to you and Annie, because I knew I had screwed up with Johnny.”
“Daddy, don’t say that. You didn’t screw up with Johnny. He loved you. You butted heads because he was so much like you. And Ann and I know you love us. We’re not angry with you. We love you.”
The lump in Richard’s throat grew, almost choking him. He squawked, “Just please know I love you. I always loved you, and I’d do anything to fix things and make them better. If I could take back some of my words and take back some of my actions, I would, Peanut. Please make sure you and Annie believe that. Please?”
“Daddy, there is nothing to take back. You were a great dad.”
She was crying now. “Daddy, are you okay? Is everything all right?”
“Yes, Peanut. Things will be okay. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m sorry. It’s just that with some of the wonderful memories, there are some pretty shitty ones, too.”
“No, Daddy. Only good ones.”
Richard groaned as the pain in his chest hit him and took his breath away. He regained some control and knew he had to hurry.
“One last thing before I go to bed, Peanut. I know you and Annie love your mom. Her memory is fading. Some days are good and she’s as sharp as she ever was. Other days, she forgets. She gets tired easily. Naps often.”
“I know. After dinner, she falls asleep on the couch in her favorite spot.”
“Just remind her every so often that we love her. Make sure you visit and call. She likes that.”
“I know, Dad. We do.”
“I know you do. I just don’t want you to forget.”
“We would never do that, Daddy.”
“Good. Thank you.”
“Daddy, are you sure you’re okay? Is everything all right?”
“Yes, Peanut. Everything is as it should be.”
There was silence, not as comfortable as Richard wanted it to be.
Liz said, “I think when Ann and Jaq get here, we’ll drive up tonight. That way, we can surprise mom in the morning. We’ll even take you guys out for breakfast.”
“It will be late by the time Annie and Jaq get there, and you’re still an hour or so away.”
“We’re night owls,” Liz laughed. “We’ll try not to wake you and mom when we get there.”
Richard nodded, and he said, “Okay, but please be careful.”
“I love you, Peanut. Always and forever.”
“Always and forever.”
They ended the call, and Richard put both hands over his eyes and sobbed. He only wanted more time. More time with Jean. More time with Liz and Rob. More time with Annie and Jaq.
More time to laugh, to talk. To just be together. More time.
The letters would explain what he couldn’t say out loud. The letters would explain what he needed to say. He only hoped Liz and Annie would understand.
Taking his time, stopping every few steps to catch his breath and fight off the pain, Richard walked to the nearest spare room by leaning against the wall.
He turned on the light, sat down on the bed, and kicked off his shoes, only to bend down and straighten them. He loosened his belt and slipped off his jeans. He unbuttoned his shirt and folded both and put them with his shoes under the chair in the corner.
On the chair laid out neatly was a pressed white shirt, a blue-striped tie, and his dark gray suit. His dress shoes and dark socks were under the suit.
He shut the door to a crack, turned off the light, and slipped in between the sheets.
Richard sighed. He wanted more time.
There was so much more to say. He wanted to hold Jean one last time, maybe forever. He wanted to sit with Liz and Annie, listen to them tell their stories, hear them laugh. He knew Jaq would take good care of Annie, and he knew Rob would take good care of Liz. He couldn’t ask for better men for his daughters.
Still, he wanted time to repair some of the hurt he caused. Try to take back some words he used. He wanted to say things he should have said, do things he should have done. Give them more. He wanted, needed, to make sure they knew he loved them.
All he needed was a little more time.
I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Until next time …