Who Needs Who?

This is the fourth short story I’ve written that has the current pandemic as an underlying theme. The other three: Lost and Found (in five parts), Be the Change, and Gathering Storm, can be found by clicking on the category Short Stories and Poems, above.

I hope you enjoy it.   

Who Needs Who?

The quiet, tree-lined neighborhood of single-family homes was just what Jen was looking for. After spending most of her 20s and early 30s living in the beach area, she had been ready for a change. The traffic, noise, and loud weekend parties—things that she energized her when she was younger—had started to wear on her. Then, Covid hit, and it all became too much. Her friends acted as if they were immune and continued to gather, unmasked and in large groups. She grew tired of complaining, and she knew that her friends weren’t going to change, so she decided to move to an area where she felt more comfortable.

The cute, two-bedroom, one-bath, bungalow she found was perfect. The house was big enough to have a separate work-from-home office but small enough so she could afford the rent by herself. The days of dealing with roommate drama were over. Her move in November was more than just from one abode to another; she felt like she finally had transitioned from her unmoored youth into adulthood.

Jen knew that she was one of the lucky ones. Her job as a project manager was easy to do from home; in fact, she preferred working there. The windows in her office allowed soft light into the room and offered a relaxing view of her front yard and the street. Although she hadn’t had a chance to meet any of her neighbors face-to-face, she was starting to recognize a few familiar faces as they walked by or worked in their yards. She was relieved to see that they were careful to wear masks and keep their distance when interacting with each other.

Jen was especially intrigued by the woman who lived directly across the street. She reminded Jen of her grandmother who, at nearly 80, was a tiny ball of energy topped with a puff of gray hair. The woman even used a cane like Gram, although, from what she could see, her neighbor’s brightly-colored cane looked to be as much of a fashion accessory as a walking aid.

One Saturday morning in mid-January, as Jen was cleaning her office, she glanced out her window and saw her neighbor walking down her driveway to retrieve her newspaper. Jen’s thoughts turned to her Gram and how hard the Covid restrictions had been on her; how lonely and isolated she said she felt. Jen kept in touch as much as possible, but she lived several hours away and Gram’s facility still didn’t allow visitors. Despite their distance, Jen was happy to have been able to help her grandmother get her first vaccine appointment the prior week. As Jen navigated through the convoluted and frustrating process, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for anyone who wasn’t internet-savvy and didn’t have assistance.

As she watched her neighbor, it occurred to Jen that she might need help signing up for her Covid vaccine too. Offering assistance to her neighbor would give her a great excuse to introduce herself and, perhaps, do a good deed. Jen figured that her neighbor probably felt as unsure of the process as her grandmother had.

Later that morning, Jen put on her coat and walked across the street. She didn’t know why she felt anxious, but she put on a big smile to cover her nervousness and knocked.   

After a few moments, her neighbor opened her door.

“Hi! I’m Jen. I moved into the house across the street a few months ago.” Jen smiled brightly, before putting on her mask. “I haven’t had the chance to meet any of my neighbors yet, but I’m really happy living here. This is the first time I’ve lived alone and, although I miss my roommates, I’m starting to appreciate the quiet.” Oh, gawd, I’m babbling like a nervous suiter, Jen thought to herself.

“Oh, hello, dear. I’ve been meaning to introduce myself and welcome you to the neighborhood but, well, you know, this virus makes those things so complicated. My name is Cora.”

Cora put on her mask, opened her screen door with her cane, and stepped onto her porch.

Jen’s confidence faltered a bit as Cora looked at her with questioning eyes. “Um, well, I was wondering if you might need some help setting up your vaccine appointment. The online process can be pretty confusing and there are a lot of forms to complete. I was able to help my grandmother, so I’m familiar with the procedure.”

“That’s so sweet of you. That would be lovely. I’m anxious to get vaccinated but I understand it can be difficult to get an appointment.”

Jen breathed a sigh of relief. “Great! I can either help you on your computer if you have one, or you can come over to my house and use mine. You can enter all of your personal information yourself, so you don’t need to worry about privacy.”

After some discussion, Cora agreed to meet later that day at Jen’s house. Jen assured Cora that they could do the work on her laptop outdoors in her small backyard. As Jen walked back across the street, she was filled with satisfaction. Not only was she helping someone who needed her assistance, Jen was also hopeful that she had just met her first friend in her new neighborhood.

That afternoon, sitting at a small table on Jen’s postage-stamp-sized patio, Cora and Jen worked together to find a vaccine appointment at a nearby facility. With Jen’s help, Cora filled out all the necessary information and, when they got to the screen that announced her success, they both spontaneously let out a cheer and clapped their hands. They both felt like they had won the lottery.

As Jen walked her new friend back across the street, she offered to drive Cora to her appointment the following Thursday. Although she knew Cora had a car, she figured her apparent leg injury might make driving difficult. Besides, if there was a long line or any other complications once she got there, Jen wanted to be able to help. Cora accepted her offer gratefully.

On Thursday morning, Jen sat in her tiny kitchen sipping her coffee. She had arranged to take the morning off from work and was looking forward to spending an hour or two with Cora. Jen knew that her Gram enjoyed their conversations and she imagined Cora would also appreciate having someone to talk to.  

A half an hour before they were due to leave, Jen went out to her car to tidy it up. She tended to use the passenger seat as a desk and there often were notebooks and file folders strewn about. As she opened the passenger door to grab her stuff, she saw a neighbor walk towards her waving.

“Hi, there! I’m so happy to finally have a chance to meet you. I’m Lisa, I live in the blue house two doors down.”

“Nice to meet you,” Jen replied, smiling. “Sorry I don’t have my mask with me, but I was just getting a few things from my car. I’m driving Cora to her first vaccine appointment this morning.”  

“That’s so nice of you! She is recovering well from her bike accident, but I know she still has trouble now and then.”

Bike accident? Suddenly Jen’s perception of her new friend shifted. As far as she knew, her Gram never cycled, and, even if she had, it would have been well before Jen was born. 

“Um, yeah. I helped her get her appointment. It can be difficult if you aren’t comfortable with the internet… you know, dealing with the various websites and forms. I helped my grandmother too.”

Jen was surprised to hear Lisa laugh. “You helped Cora get an appointment?”

“Yeah?” Jen didn’t mean for that to come out as a question.

“Cora and her late husband used to own a computer consulting business before he became ill and they had to sell it. She knows Macs, PCs, and the internet better than anyone in this neighborhood. In fact, if any of us have an issue, she is the one we go to for help. We are lucky to have our very own Geek Squad on our block.”

Just then, Cora stepped out of her front door and waved. “Good morning! I’ve been looking forward to this day. I’ll be over in ten.”

“Well, you two have a nice time,” Lisa said. “I envy her. My appointment isn’t for a few weeks.”

Jen went back inside her house to dump her notebooks and grab her purse and mask. When she came out, Cora was standing by the car. Jen opened the passenger door and waited as Cora climbed in and settled her cane on the floor. After closing the door, Jen walked around to her side, got in, and turned towards Cora.

“Lisa tells me that you hurt your leg biking.” Jen cringed a bit at the accusatory tone of her voice.

Cora sighed. “I should probably give it up at my age. My grandkids and I love to ride in circles around their cul-de-sac. It was a way to spend time with them outside. I fell several weeks ago and got a bit banged up. My son tells me that I’m nuts, and he is probably right.”

“Lisa also says that you used to own a computer consulting company.” There was that tone again. “That you are always helping your neighbors with their technical problems.”

Jen could see Cora winch behind her mask. “Oops,” she said with a slight giggle. “I guess my secret’s out.”

“You probably didn’t need my help making your appointment.”

“No, I didn’t. But I was so touched by your offer, I couldn’t say no. You also seemed a little lonely and I thought you could use a friend.”

Jen turned back and started her car. Her face flushed with indignation. She felt foolish. How dare Cora take advantage of my generosity? And, then to make it sound like she was doing me a favor?

As Jen drove a few blocks further, she began to reconsider her initial reaction. She was the one who made the offer, after all. She had assumed Cora needed help because her Gram did. Besides, she thought, I am lonely, and I really could use a friend.

As she waited for the light to change so she could turn onto the main thoroughfare, Jen looked over at Cora and smiled. “How about after your appointment, we stop for coffee? I’d love to get to know you better.”

Gathering Storm

This short story was written last year for a local writing competition, The Decameron Project. Entries, limited to 1,000 words, were to be previously unpublished and based loosely around the theme of the current pandemic. Genre, tone, and content were left up to each author.

I’m pleased that my story was chosen as a finalist and was published in an online collection. I am now able to share it on my blog.


Gathering Storm   

As Sarah walked through the house collecting her shopping list, keys, and purse, she glanced out the window and saw rain clouds forming. Where is my umbrella? Thinking that she probably left it in her office, she entered the small room off the front entry.                                                                                              

She wasn’t surprised to see her grandson nestled in her favorite reading nook, his nose buried in a book. At 12, Jack was bright and inquisitive. Sarah loved having him stay with her while his parents were at work.

“Hey there, I’m looking for my umbrella. I’ve got to go out for a bit, but I’ll be back before your father comes to pick you up. Whatcha reading there?”

“In school today, my teacher talked about a pandemic back in 2020, and I wanted to read more about it. Mom was just a kid then, right?”

Sarah put her purse down on the desk and sat next to Jack. “Yes, your mother was a little older than you are now, about 15. Your dad must have been 16 or 17. They, of course, didn’t know each other back then.”

“What about Grandpa, was he alive then?”

“Yes. I wish you two could have known each other; you would have been great friends. Before Covid, your grandfather was the picture of health. In fact, we were going to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary by hiking the Camino in Spain. Those plans, like so many others, were put aside when the virus hit.”  

“What happened?”

“Well, at first many of us thought it was no big deal. Avoid crowds, wash our hands, that sort of thing. The outbreaks seem to be happening elsewhere, to other people. Then, your grandfather started to feel feverish and he lost his sense of smell. When his symptoms became severe enough, he went to the hospital. Since I couldn’t go with him, the last time we saw each other was as he was being loaded into the ambulance. He had turned 45 just two months before. I think that experience might have been what convinced your mother to become a doctor.”

“It says here that a vaccine was developed towards the end of 2020?”

“Yes, but it wasn’t widely available until later the following year. There were also mutations of the virus that were harder to fight. In the end, we lost almost 4 million people worldwide, close to one million in this country alone. There was so much controversy: mask, no mask; shut everything down, open it all up. Scientists and medical professionals were being drowned out by politicians and conspiracy theorists.”

“That doesn’t sound much different from today.”

“You are right about that,” Sarah said, patting Jack’s leg. “Well, I have to get going if I’m to get back in time.”

“Thanks for talking to me about it. I’m sorry I never met Grandpa but I’m glad you and Mom and Dad didn’t get sick.” Jack closed his book and looked up. “Can I go to the store with you, Grandma?”

“Oh, I wish you could, but you know you can’t. Unlike the 2020 virus, this one seems to be harder on younger people. We need to keep you safe.”

Sarah picked up her purse and checked to make sure her mask was inside. Then, she grabbed her keys and umbrella. Giving Jack a quick kiss on his forehead, she said, “We can talk more about this anytime you want. It’s your history too.”

As Sarah left the house she looked up at the sky, hoping the promised rain would come soon. The response to the latest virus, coming just twenty years after Covid-19, was playing out much the same as before. She knew that the protesters would be out, without their masks, yelling about their freedoms. She thought about her late husband and her precious grandson and said a silent prayer that the rainstorm would make it too inconvenient and uncomfortable for the angry crowds to come outside.

History has its eyes on us

This is part of the poem, The Hill We Climb, by Amanda Gorman. Gorman will read this poem today at the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Gorman, 22, is continuing a tradition that includes poets such as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, and is the youngest poet in recent memory to deliver a poem at a presidential inauguration. She is a force.

Be the Change

Here’s my latest short story to start the new year. I hope you enjoy it!

Be the Change

Crystal burrowed down into her comforter and peeked out, scanning her room. She wasn’t sure what she hoped to see, but clearly nothing had changed. The same mess of papers were scattered on the top of her dresser and yesterday’s clothes—and maybe clothes from the day before—littered her floor. Sighing her disappointment, she closed her eyes and rolled over.

At midnight, the whole world had collectively kicked 2020 to the curb. Leading up to the last day of a dreadful year, Crystal’s Facebook feed had been full of words of hope and clever memes heralding the dawn of a healthier, happier, kinder year. Crystal had her doubts, but she was willing to play along.

As she debated the merits of staying in bed where it was warm and cozy versus getting up and starting her day, Crystal’s mind drifted to her best friend, Annie, and the huge argument they had two weeks before. The force and ugliness of the words that were exchanged still stung but Crystal felt a satisfying comfort as she basked in her righteousness. A friendship that began in college was most likely finished.

When the need for coffee won over the warmth of her bed, Crystal threw back her covers and shook her head, trying to clear it of the unpleasant memory. If Annie was so pigheaded that she adamantly dismissed the facts and figures of Crystal’s argument, then she wasn’t worth thinking about. Annie could continue on her stupid path, and Crystal would continue on hers. Screw her.

Later, as Crystal worked on her first mug of coffee, she opened her laptop to begin her morning ritual of perusing her favorite news sites. Even though she knew better, she hoped that—somehow magically—the world really had turned over a new leaf at midnight. What if, suddenly, the political discord stopped, Black lives really did start to matter, and people chose to listen to scientists over talk show hosts? Yeah, right. Her news feed looked very similar to the one from the day before. The only difference was the pictures of large, boisterous crowds ringing in the new year; unmasked and close together. Idiots.

As much as she tried not too, Crystal thought once again about her blow-up with Annie. The harsh words they said to each other couldn’t be taken back or forgotten. It was clear that Annie wasn’t the person Crystal thought she was, so maybe it was best to part ways. How could she continue to be friends with someone so obstinate?

They both had kept pretty close to home since the original lockdown in March. Each had made occasional trips to the grocery store and pharmacy, but their interactions with friends and family were only by phone, text, or Zoom. Crystal had missed seeing her friend in person, but they agreed that it was for the best—not only for their safety but, the sooner this thing was over, the sooner they could resume their lives. Crystal knew this was especially hard on Annie because she had a granddaughter that she ached to be with.

Their blow-up happened mid-December when Annie let it slip that she was planning to spend Christmas with her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter.

“How could you do something so stupid?” Crystal asked incredulously. “You’ve sacrificed for so long and now you want to throw it all away?”

“But I need to see them,” Annie replied. “All three of them have been isolated for a week so we are pretty sure everyone is safe.”

“PRETTY SURE? What if they aren’t? What if one of them is asymptomatic? What if you get sick and end up in a hospital, alone and on a ventilator? Are you pretty sure you’ll survive?”

That was the most civil part of their argument. From there, it devolved into heated accusations, personal insults and, finally, tears. When Crystal and Annie ended their phone call, their parting words held no hope of reconciliation. Crystal spent the next two weeks nursing her anger and disappointment. How could she have been so wrong about someone she thought she knew so well?

Stop thinking about it! Crystal admonished herself. Her ex-friend was stupid, selfish, and definitely not worth her time. She had plenty of other friends to hang with when this was over.

Crystal forced herself to re-focus on the New Year news. Among the stories of continuing virus surges, political fighting, and vaccine distribution challenges, a local story caught her eye. A young boy was in the hospital clinging to life. Covid, of course, Crystal thought. But, as she continued to read, she realized it wasn’t the virus, at least not directly. The boy had attempted suicide. According to his grief-stricken parents, the months of isolation, during which he wasn’t able to be with his friends or extended family, had made him depressed. Although he was expected to survive, his parents were distraught, knowing they had to continue to keep him away from others because of underlying health conditions.

Crystal was surprised at the sudden, overwhelming sadness she felt for this family she didn’t even know. She also thought about her own solitude, that of her parents’ who lived two states away, and Annie’s desire to see her granddaughter. On this first day of a new year, at the beginning of a new decade, Crystal thought about the kindness and empathy everyone was hoping for and realized that it could start with her.

After two rings, her friend answered, “Hello?”

“Annie, this is Crystal. I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me.”

Lost and Found (part 5)

(This is the final part of Lost and Found, a short story posted in five parts over five days. You can find Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 by clicking on the Short Stories and Poems tab in the menu bar.)

—–

The next morning, Eleanor attached the dog’s leash to his collar and grabbed her tote bag, mask, some tape, and the flyers she had made the night before. Originally, she planned to drive over to the housing tract but decided at the last minute to walk. “The exercise and fresh air will do us good, huh, boy?” Judging from his delighted yelps and dance around her legs, he agreed.

Eleanor knew there were just two ways in and out of the neighborhood. She planned to enter on the road nearest to her, follow the streets as they looped around through the neighborhood, and finish at the other end. She would post the flyers wherever she could and ask anyone she ran into if they knew who owned the dog.

After about a half hour of walking the neighborhood, Eleanor was almost done. She had managed to post most of her flyers and talk to several of the residents, none of whom recognized the dog. Approaching the final block, she saw a group of boys walking her way (all wearing masks, she was relieved to see). Before she could ask them if they knew the dog, they enthusiastically gathered around him and showered him with nuzzles and hugs, which he just as enthusiastically returned. Eleanor was sure this was it; they knew the dog and his owner and Eleanor would have to give him up. “Do you know the dog?” she asked quietly, already feeling an almost unbearable sense of loss.

“No, ma’am,” said one of the boys. “We see your dog sometimes when we play in the field, but we didn’t know who he belongs to. I’m glad to know that he has an owner and a home.”

Eleanor felt giddy with relief. She assured the boys that he had a good home and was well-loved. As she walked away, one of the boys called out to her, “I like how it looks like he’s wearing a mask like the rest of us. What is his name?”

“Ranger; like the Lone Ranger,” she replied over her shoulder. Then, she looked down at the little dog happily walking beside her and said, “Except you aren’t so lone, are you? You have me, and I have you.”  

A week later, just before the scheduled Zoom meeting with her son, Eleanor prepared herself and Ranger for the call. They had taken walks in the woods just about every day and, yesterday, she gathered more flowers. The vases competed with her books for table space. Her hair was loose and fluffed up like she had been wearing it lately, and Ranger was newly brushed after having had a bath that morning. She wanted everything to be perfect. “You are going to meet my son today,” she murmured as she held Ranger’s face between her palms and nuzzled her nose against his. “I’m sure he’ll love you as much as I do.”

Douglas Jr. had also been looking forward to the call. He had some news that he was anxious to share with his mother.

“Hi, Mom!” As upbeat as he tried to sound, Douglas Jr. couldn’t help feeling worried as he took in what he saw on his screen. Her living room still looked unorganized, her hair and clothes were much too casual, and her general demeanor was, well, a little erratic. “I have some good news for you!”

“Me too!” she exclaimed. “But why don’t you go first.”

Douglas Jr. took a deep breath. “My company is letting me work from home. Now that Max isn’t in school and Wendy is home full-time, we have all agreed that you should come to stay with us.” Not getting the reaction he expected, Douglas Jr. continued a bit more cautiously, “You must be getting pretty lonely in the big house all by yourself. It’s probably hard to keep up with the housework and cooking for just yourself must be boring. You won’t need to shop for your groceries and Wendy could also help you with your clothes and hair. She’s good at that type of thing.”

Rather than the enthusiastic response he hoped his announcement would receive, Douglas Jr. saw that his mother’s earlier smile had faded. “Before you tell me what you think, why don’t you share your news?”

Eleanor hesitated, taking a breath deep into her lungs and blowing it out slowly. She knew what she was going to say would surprise and, probably, disappoint her son, but she had to say it.

“I want you to meet someone special,” she began. “His name is Ranger. I was lost, and he helped to find me.”

The End

Copyright © 2020 retirementallychallenged.com – All rights reserved.

Lost and Found (part 4)

(This is part 4 of Lost and Found, a short story that will be posted in five parts over five days. You can find Parts 1, 2 and 3 by clicking on the Short Stories and Poems tab in the menu bar.)

—–

After a fitful night’s sleep, Eleanor woke up tired, but with a plan: she’d go back to where she saw the dog the day before and see if it was still there. If it was, she’d bring it home and give it food and water, then take it to the local vet to see if it was chipped. If no chip was found, then she’d have to figure out what to do next.

She rummaged around the garage for a length of rope and an old blanket to cover her back seat. As much as she wanted the dog to be from a loving home, she couldn’t help hoping that the little pup was still where she left it. “The last thing you need is to worry about a dog that doesn’t even belong to you,” she admonished herself (or was that her husband’s voice?) as she got in her car.

When Eleanor reached the spot, she slowed down and scanned the fields on both sides of the road. Seeing nothing, she parked her car and got out. “Here, doggie,” she called tentatively. “Are you out there?” she asked a little louder. She was ready to give up when she heard a slight rustle and saw the tall grass on her left move a little. Thinking the dog could be scared or shy, she decided to sit down and wait to see if it came to her. “Come here, honey,” she cooed softly, “I won’t hurt you.” The small brown dog slowly emerged from the grass and, standing a few feet away, cautiously looked at Eleanor. “It’s ok. I won’t hurt you,” she tried reassuring the pup. Then she tried flattery: “Aren’t you a handsome fellow?” Finally, a bribe, “I have lots of food and water at home just for you.” That seemed to do the trick; the dog crept close enough to sniff Eleanor’s outstretched hand.

After a few moments of hand sniffing and having his ears scratched, the dog suddenly gave Eleanor a very wet swipe of its tongue across her face. She pulled back instinctively but then quickly reconsidered and reached forward to gather the dog into her arms for more enthusiastic kisses.

When Eleanor finally got up and walked over to her car, the dog followed right along. There was no need for the rope at all. She opened the back door and the dog jumped in liked it belonged there.

Back home, Eleanor spooned some of the leftover chicken curry into one bowl and filled another with water. Moments after putting them on the floor, the bowls were eagerly emptied. Another serving of leftovers and water disappeared almost as quickly. It was obvious that the dog hadn’t eaten for a while.

On her way to the vet’s office, Eleanor made a quick stop at the pet store to pick up a collar, leash, and a couple of cans of dog food. “Just in case he is with me for a few days,” she told herself. As she made her purchases, the clerk looked back and forth at Eleanor then the dog. “Your dog has a mask just like yours,” she laughed. Eleanor looked at the dog’s face and realized that the clerk was right. The white mark that started just under his eyes and extended partway down his throat did kind of look like a mask.

At the vet, she explained the situation to the receptionist who assured her that she’d be able to get right in. “We are always happy to help reunite lost pets with their families,” she smiled. Eleanor didn’t find the words comforting, but she knew that she was doing the right thing. The vet echoed the same assurances as she began to run the scanner over the dog’s shoulder blades.

A few moments later, the vet put down her scanner and gave Eleanor a look of disappointment. “Sorry, I wasn’t able to find anything,” she sighed. “If you don’t mind keeping him for a few days, you could put up some signs in the area where you found him. Although he is a bit thin and scruffy, someone could be missing him. Look at his cute little face; did you notice that his white fur around his nose and mouth looks a little like a mask?”

Back home, Eleanor didn’t quite know what to do. Although she realized that she had to look for the dog’s owner, she was becoming attached and knew that she’d be heartbroken to give him up. Before she could talk herself out of it, she put together a simple “Found Dog” flier with a slightly out of focus picture and her contact information and printed out multiple copies. “We’ll go out tomorrow and find your home,” she assured the dog, who didn’t appear to be the least bit concerned. In fact, he was comfortably stretched out on the sofa, looking as if he was already at home.

Dinner that evening—ramen noodle stir fry for her and Purina chicken and rice for him—was the most enjoyable meal Eleanor had eaten for years. Not only was the food delicious, she also discovered that the dog was a delightful dinner companion. He seemed to listen to her every word, and his occasional yips, snorts, and hand licks gave her the impression he understood what she was saying. It was ridiculous, of course, but his rapt attention made her feel special and interesting. She couldn’t remember the last time she had felt that way.

—–

(Thanks for reading! Comments have been disabled until the last part has been posted.) Click here to read Part 5.

Copyright © 2020 retirementallychallenged.com – All rights reserved.

Lost and Found (part 3)

(This is part 3 of Lost and Found, a short story that will be posted in five parts over five days. You can find Parts 1 and 2 by clicking on the Short Stories and Poems tab in the menu bar.)

—-

As Eleanor entered the grocery store, she could feel her anticipation grow. She had shopped in the store hundreds of times, but she never looked forward to the experience. The items she bought were always the same and the meals they made were bland and predictable. This time, although her mask hid her smile, her eyes sparkled with excitement.

Her shopping trip took much longer than usual because she had to search out many of the items on her list. For the first time she could remember, she found herself in the International Foods aisle, picking up several cans and packages. Standing in front of the shelves, she made notes of the many exotic ingredients she had never heard of, vowing to learn more about them.

As she was checking out, Eleanor was surprised when the clerk recognized her despite her mask. Even though she had shopped there for years, she had never really taken the time to remember employees’ faces or learn anyone’s name. She had always focused on getting in and out as quickly as possible. No time for small talk. This time, though, the clerk’s eyes smiled at her above his mask. “Wow, you really have some different items this time. Not your usual at all,” he exclaimed.

Eleanor didn’t know whether to be irritated or pleased. Apparently, her former shopping habits had attracted attention and, now that she was exploring other recipes and ingredients, he had noticed.

“Young man,” Eleanor began to scold, but then she stopped and reconsidered. Smiling behind her mask, she simply replied, “I’m very excited to try some new recipes.”

Back in her car and anxious to get home and start cooking, Eleanor applied a little extra pressure on her gas pedal. She was almost home when she saw a spot of brown out of the corner of her eye. Quickly stepping on her breaks, she prayed that she hadn’t hit whatever it was.

Eleanor got out of her car and looked around. While she was relieved that she hadn’t hit anything, she wondered what it was she saw. “Hello? Is anyone out there?” Eleanor tentatively asked. She was answered with a rustle in the tall grass alongside the road. “Hello?” Eleanor asked again. This time, she heard a little whimper. After some more rustling, a small, scruffy, brown and white dog emerged.

“Oh, hello,” Eleanor said. “Aren’t you sweet?” The dog reminded her of a pet she had when she was young. Maybe a bit of terrier, some shepherd, and a whole lot of who knows. Sadie had been a joyful part of her childhood. Her mother had complained about the dog hair everywhere, and her father was always cleaning the dirt and mud Sadie traipsed in, but they all loved her and were heartbroken when she died. Early in her marriage, Eleanor had suggested they get a dog, but her husband had vetoed the idea. “Too much work and mess,” he stated, ending all hope of a discussion.

After Eleanor assured herself that the dog was ok and, seeing children playing behind the tract of homes just beyond the field, she got back in her car, confident that the dog belonged to a family who lived in the neighborhood. “Bye, little one,” she said as she pulled into the lane and started to drive—a little slower now—back home.

Eleanor was eager to try her first new recipe, Coconut Chicken Curry. Although she knew the flavors would be quite different from what she usually ate, the directions seemed straight-forward. As soon as she got home, she removed her mask, put her groceries away, washed her hands, and got busy. The chicken needed to marinate in a sauce for an hour, which would give her just enough time for her scheduled Zoom catch-up with her son.

**

“Hi, Mom. How are you getting along?” Douglas Jr. asked cautiously. He tried not to show his growing alarm at the untidy appearance of both her living room and her hair. In the background, he could see that books were scattered here and there, and vases stuffed with flowers filled every flat surface. Even more worrying were her clothes and hair. As long as he could remember, his mother wore simple housedresses and always had her hair pinned neatly in back. He couldn’t be sure, but was his mother wearing jeans? And her hair was starting to look as disheveled as her house. Wiry waves of gray-blond cascaded around her face and fell to her shoulders. His once sensible and restrained mother was turning into a hippie right before his eyes.

“I’m making a pot of coconut chicken curry for dinner tonight,” Eleanor answered, her eyes dancing with excitement. “The chicken is marinating in a sauce that smells heavenly. I’ll simmer it later in a mixture of coconut milk and more curry. I can’t wait to try it”.

Douglas Jr. was now convinced that something was wrong with his mom. He couldn’t recall a time growing up that his mother cooked with curry, let alone coconut milk. His mother and father were sensible people who ate sensible food, just as they all liked it.

When the call ended, Douglas Jr. had an uneasy feeling. His mother seemed almost joyful (a word, he realized with a start, that he wouldn’t normally use to describe her), and she appeared healthy and engaged, so he wasn’t worried about her safety. It was just that the woman he had spent 20 minutes talking to bore little resemblance to the mother who raised him.

**

Eleanor, on the other hand, thought the call went great. She wanted her son to see that she was doing well—terrific, in fact—and that he had no reason to worry about her. Her happiness with the call carried her through the rest of her meal preparation and into devouring one of the best meals she ever had. Who knew that curry, cilantro, and coconut milk (all ingredients she had never cooked with before) could make chicken taste so amazing?

As Eleanor washed her dishes at the sink, her thoughts drifted to the little dog she saw earlier that day. Other than the bit of white on its face, it had looked so much like her beloved Sadie. What if the pup didn’t belong to one of the children she saw playing? Perhaps it was all alone and needed help. Maybe she should have taken it home with her.

—-

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Copyright © 2020 retirementallychallenged.com – All rights reserved.

Lost and Found (part 2)

(This is part 2 of Lost and Found, a short story that will be posted in five parts over five days. You can find Part 1 by clicking on the Short Stories and Poems tab in the menu bar.)

——-

Once she reached the supermarket, Eleanor parked, retrieved her reusable bags from her trunk, and entered the store. Looking around, she noticed that everyone, including the checkers, were wearing masks. She didn’t recognize anyone, and she was confident no one would know who she was either. Perfect. Quick in, quick out, with no idle chit-chat.

She was pleasantly surprised to find the market to be relatively well-stocked, and she found what she needed in short order. She was also surprised at how much she enjoyed shopping wearing a mask. Not usually one to have a vivid imagination, Eleanor couldn’t help but pretend she was working undercover; that she was incognito and kind of daring. Even though she had everything on her list, she decided to stay a little longer and enjoy her fantasy. She surreptitiously watched what others were putting in their baskets and tried to imagine what meals they were planning. Was the young man who picked up a bottle of chutney making an Indian dish? Why did that woman possibly need three jars of hot sauce? In the produce section, Eleanor watched in wonderment as shoppers reached for fennel, bok choy, and something exotic-looking called dragon fruit.

Back in her car, Eleanor was exhilarated. As she looked around, she noticed other shoppers removing their masks before they drove away, but she decided to keep hers on. She didn’t want to lose the sense of freedom her face covering gave her.

Exiting the parking lot, she noticed that the usually busy street was almost deserted. “There must be a lot of people working from home, or not at all,” she thought. After looking to the right and left, then checking her rearview mirror for any sign of a police car, Eleanor put a little extra pressure on her gas pedal. As she accelerated five, then ten, then fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit, a smile started to spread under Eleanor’s mask. “This is why people love to go fast,” she thought.

Back home—in record time, she noticed—and her groceries cleaned and put away, Eleanor sat in her favorite chair and looked around her living room. The room that she had always been proud of because it was clean and ordered, suddenly looked lifeless and boring. There wasn’t a spot of dust on the shelves or a book out of place. Everything was neat and tidy. And dull. The daring, new Eleanor she discovered earlier that day felt oddly out of place among old Eleanor’s neutral decor.

Eager to recapture that energy, Eleanor changed out of her housedress, put on the jeans and top she normally wore gardening, slipped on her mask, and walked out her front door. Although she didn’t have an exact plan, she immediately headed for the wooded area just behind her house. She was confident that whatever she was looking for was there; she just had to open her eyes and look for it.

After about an hour of foraging, Eleanor’s arms were full of treasures. Her hands clutched bunches of wildflowers and she carried as many fallen twigs and pieces of moss as she could manage to hold in her arms. She even tucked bits of fern into the elastic on both sides of her mask.

When she returned home, Eleanor spread out her bounty on the kitchen counter. She retrieved vases from her cabinets, filled them with water, and distributed the wildflowers among them. Placing the vases around her living room, she added bits and pieces of the branches and moss to create little vignettes. When finished, she looked around with great satisfaction. The once dull and lifeless room now was filled with bright colors and interesting shapes. It also was a bit whimsical; just as she was starting to like it.

During the Zoom session the following week, Douglas Jr. noticed that his mom’s living room looked different. Almost messy. He also noticed that her hair was a bit disheveled. Always neat and tied back in a low chignon, it was starting to look unkempt. Because he knew that his mother was sensitive about her home and her appearance, he decided not to say anything. He did make a mental note, though, that he might need to arrange for a housekeeper and an in-home haircut appointment.

Eleanor had noticed her hair too. After the Zoom session, she went into her bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. Reaching around to the back of her neck, she pulled out the elastic tie and, giving her hair a shake, she let it fall free. Gray roots were beginning to mix with her blond, and her straightened hair was starting to regain its wave. A look that once would have sent her running to her hairdresser was now a better fit for the new Eleanor beginning to emerge.

The following week, Eleanor sat down to make out her shopping list. Almost by rote, she started to write down her usual items:

chicken breasts

ground beef

iceberg lettuce

… then she remembered seeing the groceries that other shoppers had been buying the previous week.  Curious, she entered “hot sauce,” then “chutney,” then “bok choy” into Google and lost herself in delicious-sounding recipes and intriguing cooking methods. An hour later, she crossed out her original grocery list and started over.

—–

(Thanks for reading! Comments have been disabled until the last part has been posted.) Click here to read Part 3.

Copyright © 2020 retirementallychallenged.com – All rights reserved.

Lost and Found (part 1)

(My short story, Lost and Found, is being posted in five parts over five days. This is part 1)

Eleanor was a rule follower. She kept both her house and herself neat as a pin; everything in its proper place. Her late husband preferred a quiet and ordered home, so she did too. After Douglas passed away three years ago, Eleanor found that her day to day life hadn’t change very much. Sure, she missed him, but her routines remained the same and she was satisfied with her own company. One day was pretty much like the other. Quiet and ordered; just as she liked it.

Soon after the funeral, Douglas Jr. suggested that Eleanor might be happier moving in with his family. He worried that she would become lonely and that the house would be a burden. Over the following three years, his suggestion had turned into prodding, and, lately, into pressure. Eleanor didn’t want to leave her home but had started to think that maybe he was right. She wanted to feel useful again so perhaps moving in and helping her son and daughter-in-law take care of her grandson, Max, was the right thing to do.

Eleanor had finally decided to tell her son that she would move in when, suddenly, the country went into lockdown. Although she prided herself on following through once she made up her mind, she found herself secretly relieved. Despite the coronavirus pandemic turning the world topsy-turvy, her life could go on as it was. Douglas Jr.’s position with his company was deemed “essential,” but his wife, Wendy, was able to stay home with little Max. Given Eleanor’s age, they decided that she’d be safer sheltering in her home.

Because Douglas Jr. wasn’t sure how long his mom would be on her own, he made sure she was well-stocked with groceries and gave her a lesson on using Zoom so he could check in and see how she was doing. Eleanor thought this was completely unnecessary since she was perfectly capable of shopping for her own food and had no need to be checked in on. In fact, during the first several Zoom sessions they had, Eleanor found herself quite irritated. Not only did Douglas, Jr. keep asking how she was doing (perfectly fine, thank you very much), but she found herself losing the thread of the conversation because she was distracted by her image on the screen. Did her face really look that tired and wrinkly? Was her hair, usually well-coiffed and tidy, beginning to unravel? As Douglas Jr. prattled on about how she needed to remain safe in her home, she started to calculate how long she could go before getting her hair cut and styled.

After obediently remaining at home for three weeks, Eleanor noticed that she was starting to run low on groceries. She knew that Douglas Jr. would shop for her if asked, but she didn’t want to impose. Her list had all the usual items on it, so it would be easy for her to get in and out quickly. Her late husband hadn’t appreciated spicy foods, “foreign” ingredients, or complicated recipes. He preferred a simple weekly menu (chicken on Mondays, beef on Tuesdays, pasta on Wednesdays, etc.), and she didn’t see a need to change it now that he was gone. Uncomplicated and familiar; Her grocery list would almost write itself.

Before she could venture out, though, she needed to make a mask, so she set up her sewing machine, found some unused fabric and elastic, and got to work. After a few attempts, she managed to stitch one up and tried it on.

“Humph,” she thought, “if not for the purple and pink flowers on the fabric, I’d look like a bandit. No one will recognize me, and that’s just fine.”

Eleanor wasn’t sure what the rules were for mask-wearing. Was she supposed to wear it in the car, or just when she entered the store? Since she didn’t want to get into trouble, she decided to put it on before leaving the house. If—God forbid—she got into an accident, she didn’t want to risk being cited for not wearing a mask at the scene. Best to be careful.

With her shopping list in her purse and her new mask on her face, Eleanor started to drive the four miles to the nearest grocery store. Her husband had always driven during their marriage and, even after three years on her own, Eleanor still wasn’t completely comfortable behind the wheel. She carefully checked, and double-checked her rearview mirrors, and paid strict attention to the posted speed limit. She didn’t care if another car tailgated her or tried to get around; her biggest concern was driving in a safe and lawful manner.

(Thanks for reading! Comments have been disabled until the last part has been posted.) Click here to read Part 2.

Copyright © 2020 retirementallychallenged.com – All rights reserved.

Gulp Fiction

WordPress tells me that I have written well over 300 posts since I started my blog seven years ago (on September 5, 2013, to be exact). Over my working career, I must have written thousands of marketing briefs, business plans, status reports, press releases, and many, many other business-related documents. What I haven’t written a lot of—or really any since graduating from college—is fiction. 

I enjoy reading fiction and have always admired those who can rummage around in their imagination and find a story. I know several writers of fiction who say their heads are full of characters and plots and they are only limited by the time they have to write it all down. As much as I would have liked, my brain never worked that way, so I figured I’d stick to non-fiction.

Then, late one night, when I should have been sleeping, an idea for a story came to me. It started as just a foggy outline of a character, but I couldn’t get her out of my head. Realizing that she wouldn’t leave me in peace, I powered up my iPad and started to write.

Over the next several weeks, I worked on my story; flushing it out, noodling every word, trying to bring my main character—someone who I was becoming quite fond of—to life.

Almost 4,500 words later my short story is complete, and I thought it would be fun (and a bit unnerving, hence the “gulp”) to share it on my blog. Because my posts rarely exceed 500 – 600 words each, I will break it up into several chunks: five parts posted over the next five days. After posting, each part will be archived in my new Short Stories and Poems tab on my menu bar (yes, I’m expecting more creative inspiration as time goes on). If you’d rather not read a post from me five—actually six, counting this one—days in a row, you can wait until Saturday to read them all together.

I look forward to introducing you to my good friend, Eleanor, and her story, Lost and Found.