TW: addiction, violence
Grace remembers the women at the fabric store talking about the Ramsey family, trailer trash they said. Mother and father with three little ones. The bank took their house. The Ramseys left in the middle of the night and took nothing with them. The townspeople carried out a good sofa. A set of twin beds. A high chair and crib. The pictures from their mantel were thrown in the garbage. Grace had taken the dishes.
Even so, Greenhills Pennsylvania had a certain nostalgia to it. Grace Berman had grown up there; moved away from the white bread community and its meddlesome gossips. Like so many people who make big changes, she remembered the good parts and missed it at times, now that she lived outside of New York City. She and her husband, Archie, had moved a year ago into a small two-story home with a tiny patch of grass. The city neighborhood had sidewalks, and an eatery called Break-an-Egg diner, within walking distance. The place reminded Grace of home with their pies that were every bit as good as those from the Grange weekly bake sales. Best of both worlds, Grace told her husband.
On a cloudy Sunday, after the lunch crowd had cleared out, Grace sits down on a red vinyl-covered stool. A smell of cooked onions hangs in the air. Shelly appears from the kitchen wiping her hands on a damp white cloth and sets up a glass of water, utensils, and a paper napkin in front of Grace.
A noisy crowd of little girls, dressed in Elsa outfits with capes and sparkly headbands, their high voices, each yelling louder than the other head for the door and disappear onto the sidewalk outside. Grace enjoys the hubbub, but the quiet the girls leave behind makes her sad. She notices a silver wand hanging from the coat rack, grabs it, and runs out after them, handing it to the adult who is herding the kids toward an SUV. The woman is wearing leotards and a long sweatshirt. Her smile shows perfectly aligned white teeth which, to Grace, is a sign of success. Back home, most people didn’t bother or couldn’t afford such a smile.
A man has collapsed next to the diner’s entrance and pushes himself upright, leaning against the stone wall. His clothes are dirty and torn. Grace walks a wide circle going past the door, turns, and approaches from the other side. She reaches for the door. He pushes the stringy hair from his eyes and says, “Have a nice day.” Grace does not answer. She still hasn’t adjusted to the bums, as she calls them. Her opinions have been arranged under labels and she keeps them in a mental file cabinet with people slotted according to their appearance.
Shelly lifts the uncut pie from the glass-front cooler and places it on the counter taking care not to injure the crust along the edge. She jerks her head to throw back loose strands of hair that have escaped the clip; the bulk of it hanging down the back of her long-sleeved pink blouse. A white apron, wrinkled but clean covers her front.
Grace takes her place once more and sheds her bulky sweater. She thinks of Shelly as a shop owner, a hard worker, and a good person. There is no reason that man should be on her sidewalk. Grace scoops the first bit of cream and meringue onto her fork.
“Shelly, there’s a druggie sitting next to the door. Should I call the police?”
Shelly’s expression is blank. “Did he bother you?”
Grace holds up a finger. “Wait.” She takes the first forkful of sweet smooth peanut butter cream pie and lets out a low moan.
“God, that’s good.” Her eyes close and she takes a minute before saying more. “Oh right, that dirtball. No, he didn’t bother me. It’s just that he’s gross and he’s on the sidewalk.”
Shelly opens the cooler and with both hands, returns the pie to the shelf. “You and Archie have the Hamilton tickets yet?”
“You bet. Took us three months. I’m so ready. I have a Louis Vuitton dress that I found at the used clothes shop. And I got some new shoes too. It’ll be our second time. You’ve seen it right?” She pulls her big red sweater over her shoulders.
Shelly’s back is to Grace; she’s begun slicing up lemons. The citrus scent cuts through a lingering garlic-onion odor.
“No. I don’t do plays. Broadway’s not for me. I have obligations,” Shelly says.
“How’s Derek doing?” Grace says and takes a huge bite. Derek is frequently the center of conversation. Such an awful thing for Shelly.
Shelly sighs. “Don’t know. He quit the dog-walker job. Too bad too. He got to take out Meryl Streep’s dog. Did I tell you about that?”
“Meryl Streep? How exciting."
Grace loves the idea of seeing a celebrity out and about. Something to brag about in Greenhills.
"So, what’s she like. I’ve heard she’s nice but not too friendly. Who would be though? People pestering you all the time, judging you when you’re just out for some bread. What did Derek say?”
“He never saw her. As far as I know, he only took the dog a few times.”
“Why’d he quit?”
“Who knows? It might be a big lie. He makes stuff up sometimes.” With the side of her hand, she wipes the lemon slices into a dark blue bowl, picks up a second lemon, and begins scraping the zest. “Coming to New York City. What a mistake.” Her voice is quiet as if talking to herself. “He used to be a good kid.”
Grace would not put Derek in the ‘good kid’ folder.
Shelly takes the chef’s knife and begins chopping the zest. “So was I.”
“You? Shelly. You’re a good person. What are you talking about?” Grace takes the last of her coffee. The cup misses the saucer and clatters on the counter.
Shelly jumps. She wipes her forehead with the back of her hand. Her pale skin glistens.
“So, when do you see Hamilton? You guys see plays all the time, don’t you?” She rubs at her forearms as if she has ants crawling over her skin.
It seems as if the heat has quit and Grace pulls the sweater sleeves over her arms. “Not as often as I’d like. Damn expensive. I do love the city though. So much excitement with all the people. All kinds of different. Poor, rich and everything between.” She takes the last bite of cream. “Look at you. It's cold in here and you're sweating. Hot flashes. Shelly. You’re too young for that,” she laughs.
The way Shelly looked, perspiring and pale, reminds Grace of her cousin who has diabetes. Sometimes if she needs glucose, she’ll go that way, all sweaty. Or is it when she needs insulin?
Shelly says, “Just a minute” and disappears into the kitchen. Grace searches for orange juice convinced that it's a sugar problem.
Shelly’s voice is strained, “Don’t come in here. You aren’t allowed.”
“Shelly, it’s just me. What’s wrong? Are you sick?”
Shelly is sinking. A tourniquet and needle are scattered on the floor next to her.
“Shelly!” Panic runs through her in choppy thoughts. Call the police. Call 911. She’s going to die.
“Just give me a minute.” Shelly rubs her nose with her palm and through half-open eyelids looks up.
Heroin use is only on television, not in real life. Not with people Grace knew.
She fills a glass with cool water, kneels down and holds it to Shelly's lips. She drinks sloppily letting the water run down her chin.
“What happens now?” Grace says having no idea of how to react.
“I’m okay Grace. I’ll be up in a minute.”
Grace wondered later how it had started. Had she given it to her son or the other way around? No matter. It wasn’t her business.
Until that day, Grace thought of Shelly as the owner of Break-an-Egg; the queen of peanut butter pie, her friend. Now, she was someone else. But who? What folder would she fit in?
For the next week, Grace keeps busy with the house and her little patch of grass planting geraniums along the edge. She cooks and reads, plays Words with Friends on her phone. But the image of Shelly on the floor; the tourniquet and needle beside her, is constantly on her mind. She hasn’t gone back to the diner or phoned Shelly.
After a workout session, Grace brushes her tight curls and throws her comb on the dresser. Next to it is a picture whose frame has broken and repaired with electrical tape. The photo shows her wearing her Taekwando clothes in younger days standing next to her father with the old corrugated metal shed behind, the farm tractor beside them, and Goldie, her pet chicken at her feet. It wasn’t until the picture had been developed that the feral cat was spotted, down on its hunkers, about to pounce. It brings a smile each time she sees it. No one ever saw the cat. Goldie lived a long time and died of natural causes.
Her father had passed away after that. He willed the farm to her. A ten-hour drive from New York City. It could have been on the other side of the world.
The sports bra and her Dobok need laundering. In the bottom of her gym bag is a booklet with her handwriting on the back cover. Purity. Avoid ego. Simplicity.
Shelly. Mind my own business. But you can’t just use heroin. Doesn’t a user have to sell it too? Isn’t that against the law? Don’t druggies kill people? Grace had a sense of being frozen between worlds. Shelly is a hard worker, not a druggie. What’s that mean exactly, druggie? Grace had her own troubles. Nervousness, insomnia. Sometimes, well. It’s no one’s business.
The next Sunday, Grace wanders down to the Break-an-Egg. No reason to give up her pie. If Shelly wants to talk, fine. And if she doesn’t that’s fine too. After all, she isn’t Shelly’s savior. But Grace is still without a guide and doesn’t know what to do.
The diner is quiet. The bell over the door jingles as she opens it. Shelly works on wiping down the grill and without turning around, she sings out, “Afternoon, it’s a beauty isn’t it?”
Grace answers and sits on the red swivel stool. “Good to see you Shell. I’d love a coffee and a piece of pie if you have it.” Grace takes a deep breath and makes herself smile.
A small bell tinkles and the old door closes with a rattle. The smell swam in ahead of his voice and at the same time a chair is dragged, blocking the door.
A man’s gruff voice booms, “Everyone stay where you are.”
Grace begins to turn, not yet registering the meaning of those sounds.
“Shut up, and don’t turn around,” the man says.
Grace drops her fork. “Mister, what do you think—”
The hard end of a gun barrel jams against the back of her head.
“I said shut the fuck up, bitch. You—in the pink. Cash. All of it. In here.”
The man flings a cloth sack at Shelly striking her on the head. She yelps and puts her hand to blood in her hair. The bag thuds on the floor. Shelly opens the cash register and pulls out the bills while Grace stays rigid, eyes squeezed shut, head forward, holding her breath. Nausea takes hold of her stomach. Her mind races.
A bullet in the head. How long does it take to die? Will it hurt. She thinks of her new black dress. She wonders if the gunman has ever been to a play.
“It’s going to be okay bud,” Grace manages to say in a tiny voice. “I can help you.”
“Nervy one ain’t you.” He jams the gun harder into her skull forcing her head down.
Somewhere in the back of her mind is the suggestion to keep a madman talking.
“Your mother would be hurt,” Grace says. “She knows you’re a good kid. Life just isn’t fair. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry. Good one rich lady. Your kind don’t know about sorry.”
“I’ll bet you’d like farm country. Ever been out of the city? I used to live on a farm. Roomy out there. Food comes right out of the ground. For free.”
Grace let her eyelids open, seeing only the cream pie with the fork embedded in the meringue. A white napkin with swirling red letters, Break-an-Egg and a chicken whose wide-open beak squawks, Y’all come back now.
“What’s taking so long over there? Hurry it up,” the man shouts. “Get it—"
Grace can’t stop herself from talking. “Yes sir, country living. Wide open space, no sky scrapers. You’d love it there.”
“No lady. You’d love it there." The gun against her skull shakes. She wonders if it’s the gun or her who is shaking.
"Get over here pinky,” he says with a bark. "Gimme that bag."
The barrel let go and her head ricochets backward. A gunshot pings. Shelly screams.
Grace knows she’s been shot. But it doesn’t hurt. Maybe she is already dead.
The man shouts, “You!” He pushes Grace off the stool and points behind the counter, “down on the floor. Over there.”
Later, she’d lay awake nights thinking of where she’d be right now if he hadn’t pushed her. That's what did it, she kept thinking.
Up until then, she’d been scared to death. But then he pushes her and like an automaton programmed to attack, before she has time to think, Grace stands and the robber stretches an arm to her, his hand about to wrap around her neck.
The Taekwondo training clicks in her muscles.
In an instant, the man lands on the floor, the gun is airborne. The pounding in her chest tells her she is still alive.
After the police report, Grace limps from the cruiser to her front door. The key glides into the lock.
She inhales, filling her lungs, sending oxygen to her neck, her jaw, and her shoulders that let down as she steps inside. She goes straight to the medicine chest and pulls out a small unlabeled envelope, shakes two tablets of Valium into her hand. Her doctor would never give her these. A friend keeps her supplied for emergencies like this. Grace lays down in the bedroom with a cold washcloth over her forehead and ice on the back where it’s beginning to swell.
The man’s stricken face, his filthy clothes. Shelly's son Derek, is he like that? The Ramsey family--God, those dishes. What do they eat on now? Shelly. There are no labels that fit anymore. Grace begins to relax as the tranquilizer takes hold.
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Well done Cathryn I love the way that you have written your story. Is it wonderful. Also it takes me also 2 days to write a story; it feels good to know someone else is also like that. Could you please read my story and share some feedback on it. Thanks a lot ~Palak Shah
Hi Palak, Thank you so much for reading and for the generous comments. I’m happy to read yours! Any one in particular?
Yeah my latest story called 'Tea Taster' if possible :))
This is such a good story! You have a way with words that not everyone has! I can’t wait to see what you write next :)
Hi lucy, What a generous comment. Thank you for reading and taking your time to give feedback. I very much appreciate it.
Of course! :)
Suspenseful from beginning to end. I am glad to learn I am not alone in taking two days to write a story.
Hi Doria, Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I just read the odd comment on your story which makes no sense whatsoever to me. I'm sorry that happened. Yes, sometimes i work on a prompt for a week but can't get the story to gel and give up. I look at it as mental sit-ups. ha ha.
Hello Cathryn, I loved your story this week. It’s quite different from your other tales, or at least the ones I’ve read so far. I enjoyed the details of the decor, sense of place and the level of jeopardy as the gunman enters the diner; especially the line, “the smell swam in ahead of his voice...” It was a strange moment when she’s first threatened, “A bullet in the head. How long does it take to die? Would it hurt. That morning, Grace had pushed the clutter aside on her dresser and picked up a faux wood frame that had been held together ...
Hello! Thanks for taking a look. I’ve reworked the plot. Not sure it’s much better. I need another week to develop interiority. I want the robber tied in ahead of the event. Like have Grace walk pass him and think derogatory things. I’ll be taking a look at yours later today. Thanks again
Hi Cathryn, Quite the unexpected breakfast for our dear heroine, Grace. She indeed performed well under pressure. ;) I don't really have sentence-level suggestions, as the writing was very good. I have a few other suggestions though. What about starting with a vivid description of the cafe, and making it more active..something like...Red vinyl covered stools lined up along the long counter of the Break-an-Egg diner, a little cafe on the outskirts of New York City. And, maybe try the present tense for the bulk of the story, as it makes ...
Hi Heather, As always, you've given superlative feedback. I just now sat down to rewrite this story which I am not at all happy with. I'm wrestling with the POV and the tense. I had been reading Flannery OConnor's 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'. Arguably one of the best short stories ever written (according to experts). It was with that in mind that I wrote this one, trying to give the story a moral. ugh. In showing Grace's living conditions ie, crappy frame taped together with electrical tape; wading in the laundry on the floor, stacks of ...
Oo, another short story to read (A good man is hard to find), thanks for the (inadvertent?) recommendation. :) I applaud your ambition--the intent to convey larger, more serious themes. I think the changes you've made are helping clarify Grace's feelings and motivations. I also think the present tense does work better in conveying the drama and urgency, making me more involved with the story. And we're also seeing more of Shelly's struggles (or at least how she's coping with her struggles), which is interesting, because we don't often get...
Thanks for that. I do like the present tense much better. I'll be editing today and hope for improvements!