Honorable Mentions in Our Contest

The theme of our recent contest was Isolation. As we discovered, isolation assumes many forms. We present the three stories chosen for Honorable Mentions.

 

Bite Your Tongue
by Nadine Bonner

Image by mching49 from Pixabay

All I want is a piece of tongue. Is that so much?
     Tongue on rye. With some of that spicy mustard. Makes my mouth water just to think about it.
Ruth, my lady friend, thinks I’m crazy. “You’re just a trouble-maker,” she says.
     “Well,” I say, “our children are paying a pretty penny for this high-class nursing home. The least they could do is give us a shtickle tongue now and then.” Chicken breast, that’s all we get. Dry as dust and no flavor.
     Now, my mama, she knew how to cook tongue. In a sweet and sour sauce with raisins. My brother wouldn’t touch it. He’d seen the raw meat sitting in the kitchen one day before she cooked it.
     “It looks like a big tongue,” he cried.
     What else did he think it would look like? But, by the time Mama did her magic, it was tender and juicy and melted on my own tongue.
     She made it for my bar mitzvah lunch. We didn’t have a lot of money, but Mama wanted it to be special for me, the oldest son. No one had fancy parties like they do today. The family came over for a l’chaim – schnapps and a piece of apple cake – after the service. And then for lunch, Mama served her sweet and sour tongue.
     I remember so clearly, waiting for my slice of tongue. Then, during dessert, I stood tall and gave my bar mitzvah speech. Mama was so proud. That was the last time I stood up for anything.
Two days later, the polio had me. You can’t imagine what it was like then. Before the Salk vaccine. In summers we were scared to go to the beach or the playground because of the polio. We were locked in the house like prisoners. No one expected me to recover. But I did. Except for my legs.
     I didn’t let it stop me. I got around on my crutches faster than most guys. When the war broke out, the Navy was happy to have a civilian manning a desk and running operations at the yard, since I certainly was in no shape to go to sea or fight. After the war, the GI bill sent me to college.
     That’s where I met Donna. The minute I saw her carrying a load of books twice her size, I knew she was the one. She wasn’t so certain, but I was determined. And in the end, she found she could love a guy with crutches.
     Mama made tongue for the wedding. And she gave Donna the recipe. Which was a special gift, since Mama never shared her recipes. She claimed she just put in a little of this and a little of that. She never measured anything. She made rugelach we still talk about today. We’ve never tasted anything like them. And we never will, since she took everything to the grave with her.
     Except for the tongue. Donna made it herself for the party we had when our Joannie was born. You never saw such a gorgeous baby. She was the image of Donna with big blue eyes and hair the color of mahogany. Thanks to Dr. Salk, we didn’t have to worry about polio anymore. Joannie had sturdy legs and was running around the house before she was a year old. What a pistol she was. It wasn’t so easy for me with a lively toddler, but she liked to read, like her mother. Every night, she curled up in my lap, and I made up stories about Paul Winchell, Jerry Mahoney, and a duck.
     No one remembers Winchell any more. He died last year. Joannie loved him and his dummies. She cried when she read the obituary. Did you know he invented an artificial heart?
     Unfortunately, he invented it too late for my Donna. Life always hands you a sucker punch. I was the weak one – the cripple. I had two useless legs, so I concentrated my strength in my brain. I had a car modified so I could drive. I became an accountant to support my family. Donna was happy staying home, caring for Joan. She was a wonderful mother. They played games and went to museums together. In the summer, they spent every day by the pool at Mermaid Lake. Donna loved to swim, and she was teaching Joan.
     Right there, in the middle of the pool, her heart just stopped. Stopped.
     That was before cell phones and 911. By the time the ambulance arrived, Donna was gone, and Joannie was screaming like there was no tomorrow. It turned out that Donna had a small hole in her heart. How could we have known?
     Donna had a million friends, and they all tried to help us. One of them, Nancy I think her name was, even brought a sweet and sour tongue to the shiva. But it tasted like dirt to me then. Everything did. Joannie was only six, but we clung to each other. As the days and the months passed, we got strong together, and we survived. Well, what else can you do?
     I never remarried. Raising Joannie kept me busy. Women weren’t exactly running after a guy with crutches either. As I got older, it was harder to manage the crutches, so I got myself a motorized wheelchair, which was really sexy.
     Joannie got married and had kids of her own. Her husband is like a son to me. They visit every Sunday. It hasn’t been a bad life overall.
     When my eyes started to go, Joan made me stop driving. And I moved here to Majestic Heights. Now, I’m very popular with the ladies. I may not be Paul Newman, but there are ten women for every man, and few of them still have all their marbles. Which I do.
     And I still have my taste buds, too. So, Mr. Nursing Home Cook, how about a nice piece of tongue for dinner tonight?

Nadine Bonner is the former managing editor of ABF Journal, a magazine covering the asset-based finance industry. Previously, she spent more than 10 years working in public relations for nonprofit organizations and served as deputy communications director for the Mayor of Philadelphia. In March she moved to Israel to be close to her ten grandchildren.


Best Friends Forever
by Archie Buchan

“I miss the good old days,” I complained, spreading the stadium blanket across my knees. “Kids these days got no heart. I miss the fist fights. Remember the fist fights, Willis?”
     “Are fist fights still a thing?” he asked, shaking his head sadly. “Folks nowadays seem to whip out a weapon at the first insult. They got no patience, no sense of tradition. It’s not like when we were coming along. A good fight had to evolve.”
     “Yeah, and once it started, only the two guys would duke it out. Nobody else interfered.”
     “Except for the football game riot of ‘66.” Willis laughed. “Now, that was a fist fight. Nobody on the sidelines for that one. Nobody in the stands either, except us. Must have been three hundred people involved. You remember? Teenagers and parents, male and female, all kicking the crap out of each other for, what you reckon, thirty, forty-five minutes? Police surrounding the field with their lights flashing, yelling into bullhorns, telling everybody to calm down, and nobody listening. Hot damn, that was something, wasn’t it?”
     “Yeah,” I said dreamily, “And we watched it all from here. From these same bleachers. Safe, above the fray.”
     “Safe, above the fray? Where do you get this stuff? Nobody talks like that.”
     “I know. It’s another reason I miss the good old days.”
     Willis Caldwell has been my best friend since we were three years old. He showed up at my back door one cold January morning, clutching a banana in each fist. He was wearing a fur lined, hooded car coat and his underpants. Nothing else. He walked in uninvited and gave me one of the bananas. We sat down in front of the television and watched Woody Woodpecker cartoons, and a lifelong friendship was born.
     Seventy-nine years later, very little has changed. We aren’t next-door neighbors any longer, and we usually wear pants in public, but other than that, everything’s pretty much the same. Except, of course, Willis is dead.
     A quiet heart attack in the middle of the night, and Willis was gone.
     Our chats had started innocently enough, about three months after his funeral. I couldn’t remember the name of our eighth-grade math teacher. “Willis would remember his name,” I had said to myself. “He remembered everything.” The teacher’s name just popped into my head.
     “Yeah, Mr. Riddle,” I said aloud. “He was the football line coach too, wasn’t he? No, you’re right. Mr. Riddle coached basketball. Mr. Rawlings coached football. I knew you’d remember.”
     After that, whenever I needed to retrieve some piece of hazy information from the past, Willis would supply it. The conversations evolved from there, and then one day as I was fishing, Willis physically appeared in the front of the boat. Physically is the wrong word. Willis wasn’t actually there, but he looked real enough. He didn’t look insubstantial. He didn’t look ghostly. He looked like Willis. That’s when I realized that what I needed wasn’t useless information. I needed Willis. I missed my friend. Throughout that summer, we fished together and reminisced every Thursday afternoon.
     “So tell me,” I asked, “what’s Heaven like?”
     “What makes you think I got into Heaven?”
     “Because if you were in hell, they’d never let you out to come visit me. Besides, you were a good guy. Of course, you’re in Heaven.”
     “If I were in paradise, you think I’d leave all that just to come back and fish with you?”
     “Maybe not the Heaven with the seventy-two virgins,” I said, “but the choirs and harps Heaven. The sitting around on a cloud all day Heaven. Yeah, I can see you ducking out on that. Remember the Sunday we skipped church and rode our bikes out to ….”
     And so the summer progressed. Just two old friends, fishing and reliving the good old days.
     “Let’s go to the house,” I said one Thursday as the sun was setting. “I’ll pour us a scotch, and we can fry up these bream for supper.”
     “You’re a lunatic.” Willis laughed. “You know I’m not real, right?”
     “Yeah, I know, but….”
     “But nothing. You start trotting me out in front of other people, and they’ll toss your butt in a rubber room.”
     “Yeah, I know, but….”
      “They’ll fit you for one of those canvas jackets with the long arms.”
     “Would you shut the hell up, Willis. I’m not nuts. I was speaking metaphorically. Since you’re not real, you’re not tethered to this boat or this pond, right? Cassie’s at her sister’s so I was thinking we could continue our conversation at the house.”
     After that Willis went everywhere with me. He would fade out whenever anyone else showed up, so I wouldn’t be tempted to talk to him, or God forbid, introduce him. The system worked well, until one night at dinner I said to my wife, “You know what Willis said to me the other day?”
     “The other day?” She laughed. “And which other day might that be, dear?”
     Willis, who had faded out when Cassie came home, popped back with a look of terror on his face. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice.
     “Last Thursday while we were fishing,” I said.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

That’s how I ended up here at “The Meadows.” Willis was wrong about the room. It’s not rubber, and most of the time, I just wear my old cardigan, not a canvas jacket with long sleeves. I do get lonely sometimes, but Willis always seems to know and pops by for a visit. Mostly we just reminisce, but sometimes we go on little outings, like this football game. Everyone should have a best friend.

Archie Buchan is retired. He is retired from advertising, banking, journalism, politics, teaching, and a few other professions. The only thing he never stopped doing was telling stories. Born in Mullins, SC, Archie now resides in Florence with his wife Eleanor and their Labrador Retriever. These days he is focusing all his energy on doing nothing. “I think I’ve found my niche,” he says.

 


Hollandaise
by Paula Gail Benson

Since retiring, I didn’t get out much. Because I lived alone, the voices I usually heard were on the TV. So, when I did venture forth from my residence, I often struck up conversations where I could find them.
     “Do you think the Earl of Sandwich would have approved of a Benedict bagel?” I asked the server behind the counter. The advertisement had lured me to consider trying it.
     The server, anxiously eyeing the developing line of customers, said, “I …” She paused, shook her head, then continued, “I have no idea.”
     “Is the yolk runny?”
     She pointed to a container of pre-cooked eggs. “We just heat them up.”
     I squinted at the mound of white ovals, ready to be assembled.
     Call me provincial, but I cannot abide soupy poached eggs. Before I eat something, I want evidence that heat transformed it. I consume hard-boiled eggs, well-done steaks, and broccoli limp from having the starch steamed out of it.
     The server stared at me, biting her top lip. I was holding up the line.
     “All right. I’ll try it.”
     She heaved a sigh and prepared the sandwich. The egg, more fried than poached, fit compactly against the bottom bagel half and made a lovely bed for two perfect Canadian bacon rounds. Over the concoction, she squirted coils of light-yellow hollandaise sauce from a squeeze bottle, making me think of a dessert a la mode prepared with soft serve ice cream at a fast-food restaurant. The server placed the remaining bagel slice on top, allowing the hollandaise to ooze through the hole like custard seeping from a jelly donut. After receiving the wrapped sandwich in a bag, I carried it to the cashier and paid for it along with a frou-frou coffee.
     At an empty, crumb-free booth, I sat down, reopened the package, and took a delicate bite. Hollandaise deserved to be a prized embellishment. I remembered the first time I tasted it.
     Years ago, on the last night of a family vacation to visit my grandparents, the couple who introduced my parents invited the three of us to dinner. On that enchanted summer evening, we had grilled fish and asparagus, both over-cooked to absolute perfection.
      When we sat down to eat, the gravy boat of hollandaise was placed before me on the table. I had to know everything about the mixture. What went into it and produced the charmingly piquant taste? How clever of the Knorr company to distill its essential ingredients to a powder that could be revived with liquid and heat!
     Our hostess smiled at my fascination and my mother cautioned that a little hollandaise went a long way, but I could not get enough. It completely enhanced and elevated the flavor of the asparagus.
     It was a memory I had never shared. I had no siblings, spouse, or children. My parents and their friends were deceased. There had never been an occasion to confide it to friends, colleagues, or the nearly one thousand school children I had taught in over thirty years. I alone retained the knowledge.
     And it was such a good memory.
     The hollandaise on my Benedict bagel was much blander stuff. Today’s creamy condiment covered an otherwise dry sandwich. Had the preparers forgotten the allure of lemon?
     At the booth across from me, a mother sat down with her preschool aged daughter. The child scooted into the bench, plopping down her backpack with a cartoon figure of a girl in a spacesuit standing on a barren planet.
     Seeing that backpack took me back to the hollandaise discovery evening. After the meal, we sat in our friends’ living room watching on the black and white television set as Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon.
     Because my parents and I were traveling home the next day, we had to return to my grandparents as soon as we watched the history. On the way, we stopped at a gasoline station where an attendant still presided over the pumps. I looked out the car window, up at the moon, and knew it was no longer just a light in the sky, but a destination. Neil Armstrong stood there, maybe looking back toward us.
     At the other table, the mother had just unwrapped her sandwich, also a Benedict bagel. Her curious daughter leaned across the table to inspect the food.
     “What’s the yellow stuff?”
     “It’s called hollandaise. Want to taste?”
     The child wrinkled her nose. “What does it taste like?”
     I waited to hear, but the mother hesitated. She didn’t have the words.
     My story could have relevance. If they would listen.
     “Excuse me,” I said to the mother. “May I tell her?”
     Parents must be suspect of strangers. I saw the uncertainty in her eyes.
     “It’s just …” I paused. How to plead to be heard? “I have such a clear memory of my first taste of hollandaise. I’d love to share if you would permit me?”
     Whether the mother decided I posed no danger or meant to be polite, she nodded.
     Now, I felt the anxiety. How to translate my experience for a child who grew up in a different world?
     I pointed to the child’s backpack. “Someday you’d like to travel in space?”
     Hesitating for a moment, the child finally nodded.
     “The first time I tasted hollandaise was the night a man walked on the moon, so its flavor always reminds me of exotic locations and possible destinations. See if you think the same.”
     After taking a dab on her finger and placing it on her tongue, a slow smile spread across the child’s face. “Tell me about the man on the moon.”
     I smiled in return, thinking that making a satisfying connection could be the most exhilarating journey of all.

A former law librarian and current legislative attorney, Paula Gail Benson’s short stories have been published online in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable and Kings River Life and in the following print anthologies: Mystery Times Ten 2013, That Mysterious Woman, Let It Snow, Fish or Cut Bait: a Guppy Anthology, Cold Blooded: Killer Nashville Noir (story co-authored with bestselling novelist Robert Dugoni), Love in the Lowcountry, and Heartbreaks and Half-truths. She regularly blogs on http://thestilettogang.blogspot.com and https://writerswhokill.blogspot.com

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