April 27 is “Tell a Story Day”, so I’ll be telling you stories all week. Plucked from the pages of Off the Shelf, a volume of short stories and poems just published for Kindle, in it perhaps you’ll meet some characters in situations you never envisioned. Perhaps you’ll laugh—or cry—or maybe just stop and think. Either way, I hope you’ll enjoy.
The first story I’ll share has been rated a “5” by a pre-pub reviewer, Sally, who writes:
. . . if you are a sensitive person this goes right to the heart and makes you think about people, past, pain and wonder. Different views, feelings and "no answers" are good or bad…
Past in Prison
The past is a prison for those who live in it.
She knew her husband would tell her it was a hoax. If he was alive, he would tell her, but he wasn’t. So who was going to tell her if he didn’t, and was she going to fall for it anyway?
Abby stuffed the letter into a desk drawer. I’ll think about it. John always told me to think about things carefully like he did. But John didn’t know…
She shook her head to clear it, but the words followed her into the kitchen as she busied herself with what passed for supper. I never ate a frozen dinner in my life until a year ago. Some of them aren’t bad. It’s better than having to clean up and put away leftovers to end up molding in the back of the refrigerator.
She shoved the plastic tray into the microwave and punched in the specified time, then closed her eyes while she waited for the obligatory ping.
Twenty-five years ago. Five years before she’d married John. Five years in which she’d put her life back together with a secretive deliberateness. Five years in which she’d known what they said wasn’t true---she wouldn’t forget. But then there was John, comforting like a real-life teddy bear, telling her he loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life making her happy, and she’d let him, not knowing the rest of his life would be a scant nineteen years.
Forgetting to use the hot pad when she removed the steaming dish, she almost dropped it as she rushed her burning fingers to her mouth. “Damn!” she mumbled, then looked around as if John was within earshot and might have heard her. “Damn!” she said again when she realized afresh he wasn’t and never would be again.
She wiped up the sauce which had splattered onto the bottom of the microwave and dumped the chicken fettuccini onto a plate. It looked suddenly unappetizing, but she got a fork from the drawer and perched on a stool at the breakfast bar.
Of course, it’s a hoax. She skewered a piece of chicken and blew on it. No one knew, not even Mamma. Especially not Mamma. But if nobody knew, then how…
When she finished, she rinsed her plate and fork and placed them in the half-empty dishwasher which, like her life, needed more before it could run.
She resisted the temptation to retrieve the letter and read it again. She’d read it half a dozen times already and knew it by heart.
Dear Mrs. Temple,
I realize that this letter will come as something of a shock to you, but I am. . .
She grabbed the remote and switched on the television. It was eight o’clock, and she never missed a re-run of The Big Valley. It was a form of escape but one she desperately needed tonight. The theme music filled the room.
Lordy, I wish I had hair like Barbara Stanwyck. I wouldn’t mind her figure either, though mine’s not too bad. She watched the opening credits. When Lee Major’s face slid onto the screen, she reflected how he was always billed only as Heath without the Barkley surname. The show’s pilot had been a first for the middle 1960’s. She couldn’t remember another show dealing with a situation usually discussed behind closed doors.
She could still remember the shock of Heath’s words echoing in the barn after Nick beat him up and demanded to know who he really was. Turned out he, like Nick, was Tom Barkley’s son—the one nobody knew about.
Abby shuddered. Dear God, I have one, too. Somewhere out there, I have a son nobody knows about, and it isn’t television, and I can’t turn it off.
When she finally fell asleep, she dreamed about that summer. That wonderful summer when her parents went to Europe after depositing her at their summer house on Cape Cod. Mrs. Bunker, the housekeeper, didn’t care what she did as long as she was home for meals and brought her laundry and bed linens downstairs every Thursday morning.
Todd told her he was in college, too. Yale. Later she found out he was a groundskeeper for one of the other estates in the area. He said he didn’t come to the beach every day because he was responsible for his younger brother and an aging grandmother, and she believed him. The days he did meet her there, out of sight of the house, were wonderful beyond anything she’d ever experienced.
She didn’t mean to let him. Let him. That’s what the girls in her set at Smith called it. She suspected they invited more than let, but it was none of her business. Not until Todd anyway.
Todd. Did their son have his blonde wavy hair? His broad shoulders and eyes the color of the tide that played over their bodies as they lay in the sun? His ability to deceive? (She thought the latter was entirely possible as the letter had come from a prison in a small Mississippi town with an unfamiliar name.)
In the fall, she returned to college for her junior year. By Halloween, she couldn’t deny what was wrong with her. Going to her parents would be fatal, at least emotionally, so she simply packed a single suitcase, withdrew every cent from the substantial checking account provided by a father who couldn’t give her anything besides money, and bought a one-way bus ticket to nowhere.
They---the kind counselors in the Salvation Army Home---told her she would forget, that she should forgive as she was forgiven, and move on with her life. She’d only managed to do the latter— move on. Later, after she signed the relinquishment papers, she wrote to her parents, saying only that she felt imprisoned in college and needed to do something else for a while. She knew, of course, they wouldn’t believe her.
They never wrote back. She packed up again and bought another bus ticket, this time to somewhere. She finished college, established a promising career as a journalist, and, a few years later, met John and knew the meaning of unconditional love for the first time in her life.
“I don’t want to know where you came from or your deep, dark secrets,” he said only half in jest when she attempted to explain her lack of a family and a past. “It’s enough you’re here now.”
The quiet wedding was a preview of their pleasantly comfortable marriage. She loved him, perhaps not as much as he loved her, but enough. When the babies didn’t come, she accepted the fact they wouldn’t and didn’t speculate on the reason. John said it didn’t matter. She was all he needed.
She made up her mind at least a dozen times to tell him the truth, but she never did. Deep down, she knew he didn’t want to know. The product of a series of foster homes where he’d been unloved at best and abused at worst, he didn’t want anyone’s garbage, not even hers. So he never knew, and now, when he’d have to know, he’d been mercifully removed from the entire situation.
In the morning, unable to pass the desk drawer without stopping, she took the letter to breakfast in the small hotel coffee shop she frequented during her work week.
Dear Mrs. Temple
I realize that this letter will come as something of a shock to you, but I am your son. At least, I think I am. I was born. . .
She stuffed the envelope into her purse. I know when you were born. And where. And how. I know all about it. So, it seems, do you. I don’t know if I want to meet you under the circumstances, but I do want to know how you found out about me.
After she got off work at the newspaper, she stopped at an attorney’s office, a stranger who didn’t know her and certainly hadn’t known John. “I can make an appointment if he can’t see me now,” she said to the secretary, unable to resist wondering if the young woman had a lover. . .or a secret child.
Gordon Summers could and did see her. He leaned back in his chair with a legal pad propped on his knees and voiced no comments or questions until she finished her story. “So what is it you want me to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
His voice didn’t betray impatience with her waffling reply. “Could he be your son?”
“Do you want to meet him?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you feel the need to contact him?”
“I want to know how he found out about me.”
“Did you use your own name at the maternity home?”
“Yes, because it was so far from where I lived, and I didn’t know anyone.”
“Did you give a social security number?”
“Aren’t those protected?”
“Yes, but they can be gotten if you know how.”
“A convicted felon would know how.”
“Possibly. What is he in prison for?”
“He says he drove the car for some others who were involved in an armed robbery.”
“How long will he be in prison?”
“Another six months.”
“And he wants to see you?”
“He says he wants to start his life over.” She took the letter out of her purse. “Here. Read it for yourself.”
“Suppose you let me do just that, and if you wish to retain me, I’ll make some inquiries on your behalf.”
“I can’t afford a huge fee.”
He smiled. “Can you afford three hundred dollars?”
“A little more than that.”
His smile widened. “Don’t be so forthcoming with your personal information, Mrs. Temple.”
She felt the heat rise in her face. “I can’t deal with this on my own.”
“All right. Give my secretary a check, and I’ll telephone the prison warden and ask some questions.”
She thought it was a nice gesture for the attorney to walk with her to the door.
She didn’t hear from Gordon Summers again for three days. Then he called and asked her to stop in. “The warden gave me enough information to make a trip to see the young man worthwhile. I just got back.”
“You saw him? What does he look like?”
“A little like you.”
“So he’s really my son.”
“He has a birth certificate obtained from the home where he was born. A certified copy. I checked with the director there. He says he has no idea how it was obtained. The original is always sealed upon adoption.”
“How did he find me?”
“One of those organizations founded for the purpose of reuniting children and birth parents.”
“Even though he was in prison?”
“What does he want from me?”
“To meet you.”
“I can’t believe he doesn’t want more. Money maybe. Somewhere to live.”
“His adoptive parents are wealthy, and he says they’ll welcome him home. I have a private investigator substantiating those claims as we speak.”
“Did he ask about his father?”
“Yes. He intends to find him, too, if you have any information.”
“I suggested rather strongly he not contact you again. I told him you’d be in touch if you decided to meet him.”
“What did he say?”
“That he understood.”
“So it’s over.”
“If you want it to be.”
“I don’t know.” She fumbled for her checkbook. “How much more do I owe you?”
“Surely you want to be reimbursed for the trip…”
“It was only a little over a hundred miles.”
“And the investigator.”
“He’s a personal friend who does work off the cuff for me sometimes.”
“Why would you go to this trouble for me?”
He leaned back in his obviously expensive leather chair. “Because I share something in common with the young man in Parchman. When I finished law school, I searched for and found my birthmother.” He looked away. “Do you know what she said? She said, ‘I didn’t want you then, and I don’t want you now.’ That’s what she said.”
When she could speak, Abby said, “I’m sorry.”
“It was probably for the best.”
“Well…thank you for everything you’ve done.” She rose on uncertain legs.
“Don’t mention it.”
Abby had reached the door when he called her name. Not Mrs. Temple, but Abby. “I wonder if you’d have dinner with me tonight.”
She didn’t turn around. “Why?”
“To help me understand. To help you understand.”
After a moment, she nodded. When Gordon Summers joined her at the door, his eyes were wet.
Now here's the deal: Off the Shelf will be FREE at Amazon on Friday . .so come back tomorrow for a another story to whet your appetite for more. . .