First Date Jitters

Jessica could always tell when seafood wasn’t fresh. It had a distinctly sour smell to it, like it’d spent the last three days thawing on ice in a warm cooler with a broken seal. Jessica wrinkled her nose as soon as they entered the restaurant and plastered a phony smile when Whitmore turned to her for validation. He’d said it was his favorite restaurant to eat, had the best fried catfish in town, and she didn’t want to disappoint him on their first date, despite hating catfish, but the place was rank—like Bradford pear tree blossoms, rank; like wet mutt, rank; like a trash heap that missed garbage collection, rank; like dirty panties tossed in the hamper, rank; like an unclean crotch, rank; like a common area bathroom in an all girls dorm after the residents’ menstrual cycles synced, rank.

Whoever had decorated the interior was obviously an ex-employee of Red Lobster and didn’t give a damn about his job. The walls were covered in a tacky nautical wall paper—complete with images of anchors, sailor hats, compasses, telescopes, and steering helms—and was peeling at corners. There was an eight-foot long fish tank sitting in the middle of lobby, right next to the hostess stand, and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. The water was a murky dark green, and Jessica could barely see the brown shells of the crabs moving around inside, if they were moving at all—they looked dead. She made a note not to order the crab legs—probably best to avoid all shellfish, and she damn sure won’t eat the catfish. She wondered what non-seafood options were on the menu. Every eatery had to have at least two, for those stubborn patrons like her who refused to order seafood at a seafood restaurant. She flipped to land entrees. Fried pork chop with garlic mash, and chicken Alfredo. The only setback about ordering “turf” at a restaurant that served mostly “surf,” the food still tasted like “surf,” because the chicken was cooked in the same pan with the seared fish fillets, the pork chop battered and fried in the same grease as the trout, flounder, and whiting. She settled on the popcorn shrimp, accepting her inevitable fate of mercury poisoning, while Whitmore ordered the catfish.

Unfortunately, it took over an hour for their food to arrive. The kitchen couldn’t have possibly been backed up, but the reality was the restaurant was crowded, overcrowded even; there were people packed in the lobby like sardines waiting on a table. Whitmore had actually called ahead to make reservations. Reservations, for a place like this, which couldn’t have had more that a B+ sanitation rating. But he’d gotten them a good table, despite sitting directly underneath a vent that was blasting cold air, giving her goosebumps across her shoulders. However, they were away from most of the chatter of the larger parties, and thank God out of sight of that horrendous fish tank, where she would certainly lose her appetite.

They used the extended wait time to get to know each other more, though Jessica did most of the talking, babbling on and on about herself while Whitmore listened intently, nodding and laughing at all the right pause points. He was a good listener, which made him even more attractive—that he was intrigued to know every detail about her—but then she started to think he couldn’t hear her, because the couple at the table behind them had three young boys who were kicking, squealing, and rough housing in the booth while the parents ate absently as if they didn’t notice or care. In the few moments when Whitmore spoke, it was as if he were whispering. She asked him more than once to speak up, they weren’t in a library, but he still spoke in a low voice, and she leaned in closer to get a least a fragment of his words.

When the food finally came out, Whitmore dove into his plate, and Jessica hesitated. Her French fries where soggy and a burnt gold color, as if they’d been fried in old grease, or possibly fish grease. No coating of ketchup could save them, but even the ketchup was acidic and watered down. The hushpuppies were fried hard, and the shrimp was more breading than meat and extremely salty. She’d had better meals at Libby Hill.

“How’s your food?” she asked Whitmore when his plate was nearly empty.

She thought he might have said good, but truly she couldn’t hear a thing, and before he could mumble anything else, his mouth full of the last bites of what looked to be dry, overcooked catfish, there was a loud crash and shattering of dishes by the kitchen. A waitress had just dropped her entire ticket on the floor, right at the feet of the six-top she was about to serve, and was on the brink of tears.

Jessica sighed. There was too much chaos in this restaurant, and for the subpar food, it wasn’t worth the trouble. She’d had better dates with worse men, but she wanted to give Whitmore the benefit of the doubt. At least he was trying.

“How about I chose the where for our next date,” she suggested.

Whitmore smiled and nodded, but Jessica suspected he had no idea what she’d just said.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  today’s prompt, “Sumptuous Settings,” asks us to get descriptive, very descriptive, using all five senses…

Peace in Trials

“They keep killing our boys. It’s like a genocide out there!” Stella was saying. Behind her the tea kettle whistled, clouds of steam shooting from its spout. She took the kettle by the handle and poured the boiling water into two mugs already prepped with a teabag, two packets of Splenda, and a lemon wedge.

“Did you hear about the last shooting? He was only seventeen years old. A child!” She slammed her fist down on the table and the water in the mugs rippled.

“Mama, please,” Leslie said. She covered her mug with a saucer to allow the tea to steep.

“I just don’t understand this shoot first ask questions later mentality. You see a black man walking down the street, and you automatically assume he’s dangerous—his presence is life-threatening.” Stella dropped a spoon in her “World’s #1 Grandma” mug and stirred the ingredients together. Leslie remembered the year Tony and Gregory pulled their allowances together to buy the mug for Stella. They were young, around nine and seven. Having just learned there was such thing as a Grandparents Day, they wanted to surprise Stella, the only living grandparent they had left, with a special gift.

Now Tony barely paid rent to his grandmother, and Gregory hadn’t been home in weeks since moving in with Tammi. Leslie wished they were boys again, who still honored and eagerly showed their appreciation for the women who raised them, not like the entitled children of this generation, who lacked any type of respect for authority. Even if the cops did abuse their power, most of those kids deserved a few slaps upside the head.

Stella ladled some of the tea onto her spoon, blew on it, puckered her lips and slurped. She quickly wiped her mouth from the heat, then stood and took another Splenda packet from the spice cabinet. She sprinkled it into her mug and continued with her tirade. “You shoot a boy nine times in the back as he’s running away from you and then try to say you feared for your life. You? Really? While another baby is lying dead in the street? I thought the police were here to protect and serve the people, not execute them.”

“Mama!” Leslie pleaded. She massaged her temples with her middle and index fingers. She didn’t want to hear about any more cop killings. Not with Gregory MIA, not with Tony and his anger issues. Her family was at risk as it was, and with Gregory living in Pleasant’s Edge, where the police could murder without consequence—no one would miss a dead body in Pleasant’s Edge; it was the South Side Chicago of Leiland—Leslie spent most nights wide awake, deep in prayer, chanting in her prayer language for the Lord to keep His angels encamped around her sons for protection.

“You can’t expect an old woman not to worry about these things,” Stella grumbled. She took her mug and walked to the living room, where she sat on the couch by the window, leaving Leslie alone in the kitchen.

Leslie traced the tip of her finger around the rim of her mug. We all worry, she thought, we can’t help but to. Even Stella, who had witnessed the atrocities of Jim Crow and of the Civil Rights era, worries, even more now with a president in office who encourages hate speech. Each day, we become more and more endangered. When will it end? When will the killings, the injustice, the fear and worry all end? She hadn’t had a night of sweet sleep in a long time. It would be nice to get one now, assurance from God that everything happens for a purpose, despite all the uncertainty in their lives. “Jesus, give us peace,” Leslie prayed, “peace from all the troubles of this world. We need it. We need You.” She sipped her tea.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to continue in world-building but from a societal aspect. It was hard to get a story out for this prompt, and I’m not totally in love with this scene, but hey, at least I wrote something. Hopefully this is the end of the novel prompts, because I feel I’ve written all I can write about these characters. If you must know more about my novel in progress, check out my 2017 A to Z Challenge from the beginning here.

On the Other Side

Leslie loved the fresh greenery of Leiland’s street corners. A few years ago, the mayor began a “Beautify Our City” initiative. Every weekend, citizens from all walks of life—the seniors who still had enough pep in their movement to walk and bend without suffering, to the middle-aged and working class, to the high school students looking for extra volunteer hours—they all joined together as one body on assignment, Mayor Richardson heading the brigade, to plant grass, small trees and shrubs, and flowers, including daffodils, lilies, chrysanthemums, lilacs, azaleas, and daisies, along the roadways and on the medians throughout town.

The goal was to make Leiland feel more welcoming to those outside of town, especially travelers coming off Highway 87, where they would often endure miles and miles of gray road, overgrown weeds just off the shoulder, and the noise blocking walls built up behind them—hardly any appealing sight to witness at all apart from the occasional billboard advertising fast food at the next exit. Mayor Richardson had hoped the new vegetation would invite visitors to stay awhile, get to know this quiet, quaint little town, and maybe even decide to make it their permanent place of residence.

Leslie couldn’t say if the population of Leiland actually grew as a result, but she could testify to the initiative being a definite success, at least for her. For she often resolved to walk to places rather than drive just to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the city’s flora, smelling the blossoming azaleas in the cool, early Spring breeze, just in time for annual azalea festival in Wilmington every April.

But today was different. She drove on the outskirts of town and watched out the window as the precious green vegetation of Leiland transitioned to the cool dankness of concrete and red clay, and then she passed the sign: “Welcome to Pleasant’s Edge”; it was anything but pleasant.

She turned to Gregory, who sat next to her in the passenger’s seat. He was quiet most of the ride, only speaking up to direct her where to turn. Leslie tried not to worry about him—what was going on in his personal life, why he had dropped out of college after finishing just one semester—she wanted him to know that no matter what he did, she would always support him; he was her son after all. She only wished he would speak to her more and try not to take Tony’s abuses so personally; his brother’s unfiltered mouth being the only reason Leslie could think of for why Gregory never wanted to stay home.

“You know Tony and Kerry will be moving out soon,” Leslie said. “Your grandmother’s giving them one of her rental homes.”

He said nothing, only rested his elbow on the door handle, put his chin in his hand and continued to look through the window. What was he thinking? Would he even tell her?

Leslie sighed. She’d thought the news would at least get a reaction from him. To know that all the noise of Tony and Kerry arguing, and Tony taking all of his anger and frustrations out on his quiet and reserved little brother would finally cease. Then it would only be Leslie and Gregory left in the house, and they could seize the opportunity to repair their relationship, restore that tightly weaved mother-son bond they once shared when Gregory was a child, before his father passed.

“It’s just up here.” Gregory pointed right of the intersection just ahead, and Leslie turned into a dilapidated trailer park, where the siding on the houses cracked in places and the roofs either slanted or sunk in. On one home she even spotted the clean entry point of a bullet hole in one of windows, the glass cracked in a spider web-like pattern surrounding it. To her right, on the other side of the street, a barbed wire fence stood at about seven feet tall and extended down to just beyond where she could see an end. Posted on the front of the fence, every twenty feet or so, were “No Trespassing—Authorized Personnel Only ” signs. Behind the fence, a mound of gray rubble, just as wide as the fence itself, towered over the neighborhood.

“Please don’t tell me she lives here,” Leslie said as she put the gear in park. She regretted making this drive without first considering where she was taking him. She had been so desperate to get Gregory to trust her again and open up to her that she had been willing to take him to the home of a girlfriend she’d never even met, and it had to be in the worst part of Cumberland county, to further worry her. Pleasant’s Edge wasn’t known for its herbaceous greenery like Leiland, or for its friendly neighbors exchanging pleasantries. Pleasant’s Edge was infested with crime and rampant drug use. More people were dying of gang violence and heroin overdoses in Pleasant’s Edge than in anywhere else in North Carolina, and Leslie had just dropped her youngest son off at its front step. Was he in any of those things also?

“At least tell me this girl’s name,” Leslie said as Gregory opened the door to get out.

“Tammi,” he said. No details on who Tammi was, how they met, how long they’d been seeing each other, if she was a sweet and respectful young lady—though her environment warned that she was anything but. Nothing to give Leslie a clear indication of who she’d just handed her son over to, other than a single name: Tammi.

“Will you call me to come pick you up later?” Leslie asked, but she wanted “later” to be now. She wanted for Gregory to get back in the car and they speed off back to Leiland, back to safety, back to the cover of precious trees and flowers and herbs, symbolizing a city that cared, before he got into any more trouble, which he would surely find here.

“Nah, I’ll have Tammi’s mom take me home.” Gregory slammed the door behind him and crossed in front of the car to the yard of the trailer Leslie had parked in front off.

Leslie started to roll down her window to ask when he thought that would be. She feared it would be another week before she saw him again. Granted he was old enough to make his own decisions now, she wanted to remind him that he still had a home to come back to. He shouldn’t feel obligated to shack up with this girl in poverty as if he had lost everything, including all hope and all dignity.

As he walked up the driveway, she heard something shatter underneath his foot, and he briefly stepped with a limp before regaining his stamina and continuing to the house at a quicker pace to disappear in the darkness behind the open door.

Leslie remained parked in front of the trailer, wondering if anyone from the household would come out to greet her. Was it just Tammi who lived there, or were there others? Did she have roommates? Were her parents the actual homeowners? Leslie knew she couldn’t linger any longer, the indigenous folk would start to suspect something wrong. Already she could see through her rearview mirror, two men in all black, wearing black du-rags tied around their heads, approaching the car. She looked back to the trailer, where the door was now closed, and her eyes fell to the shattered glass on the sidewalk. She floored the gas without thinking, without realizing what she’d just left her son to. She wanted to erase it from her mind, but there was no way she’d be able to rest that night knowing that a broken crack pipe lay just outside the home she had allowed her son to enter.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and  all this week the prompts are geared toward novelists! Today’s prompt asks us to shape our characters’ physical world. For this one, we switch back to Leslie and “Lost Boy” to take a glimpse into the stark contrasts between the towns of Leiland and Pleasant’s Edge just next door. To learn more about my novel in progress, “Lost Boy,” read my 2017 A to Z Challenge from the beginning here.