Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Stories Over Tea - Short Story Improv #1

The story that follows is something I have decided to refer to as an "improv" - a story that I came up with the concept for and then wrote, on the fly with little to no planning. This first one is a story about an old war veteran and a young boy meeting in a coffee shop.  Enjoy !

~ Dr. Ewan Lowe shuffled to the counter of the coffee shop, collected his cup of tea from the barista, and moved to his usual spot – a worn, sagging leather armchair that seemed to have seen as many years as he had.  In truth, it had not seen quite so many, but it was close.  It had been there longer than the shop - Rick’s - even, the last vestige of the house it once had been.

He sat down with a contented sigh and picked up a newspaper, flipping past the usual eye grabbers – the stories of death and corruption and, of course, the page with the pictures of local children doing the things that their mothers and fathers would insist on showing off to anyone who made eye contact.  It was a small town, so he knew most of the parents and which to avoid after the paper came out.  It was a skill, one he was unabashedly proud of.

At last, he found the editorial section and settled in to read.  It amused him how people felt the First Amendment was their ticket to spread their uneducated opinions on every little thing that came up. Still, they were sometimes insightful, and he didn't see any harm in reading.  It seemed someone should.

He was just getting into a rather lengthy (and incorrect) summation of a recent town hall meeting when he realized that there was someone else in his corner.  Peeling down one corner of the paper, he glanced at the person who had intruded upon his solitude.

It was little Jacob Miller, one of the boys who lived down the street, dressed up in a Cub Scout uniform.  He was staring at the paper, as though he was reading the headline.  It was clear, however, that he was merely deciding whether or not it would be rude to try and get the older man’s attention. Dr. Lowe saved him the trouble of making a decision and put down the paper.  The boy jumped, stammering slightly, apparently unaware that he had already been noticed. The doctor used the moment to collect his cup of tea, which he cradled in his hands as he waited for the boy to regain control of his voice.

“Good morning, Dr. Lowe,” Jacob said finally.

“Good morning, Jacob,” said the doctor, “might I assume from your regimental outfit and worried expression that there is perhaps some honor badge that you are endeavouring to acquire?”

“No sir.”

“Indeed?  Well then, it would seem I am at a loss as to why you have come to see me, unless you make a habit of intruding upon the peace and quiet of an old man.”

“No sir, it isn't that sir,” said Jacob, squirming a little.  Whatever he had come over for, he hadn't expected it to go quite like this.

This was just as well for the doctor, who was having some fun at the child’s expense.  However, he wasn't a cruel man, so he felt it was perhaps time to bring the game to an end.

“Well then, how about we get down to it, then?” he asked, gesturing to a chair nearby, “pull up a chair and we’ll talk.”

The boy nodded, relieved to have something to do.  As soon as he was seated, Dr. Lowe continued.

“Jacob,” he said, “as you probably know, I spend a lot of time down at the park, and I've seen you when I’m there.  I've seen you chase snakes and try to fish snapping turtles out of the creek, so I have to admit it’s rather funny that you seem struck speechless by an old man who can barely get around.  I haven’t got any teeth either, except the kind that I have to take out at night. Well, I can turn them on their side, but that isn't very scary.”

To prove his point, he popped his dentures loose and waggled them.  This proved to be the right thing to do, as it looked ridiculous and, like many young boys, Jacob liked things that were ridiculous.
“That’s better,” said the doctor as the boy laughed, “now, what was it you came over to talk about?”

“Well, sir,” said Jacob, “my dad sent me to find you cuz he thought I should ‘stop playing video games and go do something useful with my time’ and he said I should talk to you because you have the best stories.”

“Stories?” asked the doctor, sipping at this tea, “well, that is one way of putting it, yes.  And you’re absolutely positive that there is no badge or anything of the sort?”
Jacob shook his head.

“No sir,” he said, “would that be bad?”

“Of course not,” said Dr. Lowe, standing, “but I prefer not being lied to.  Follow me, if you would.”

Getting up, he led Jacob to a small side room off the coffee shop.  It was a small room, with lots of windows, giving it an almost porch-like feel.  Here, the furniture was old - as old as the armchair the doctor had recently vacated, and smelled faintly of mothballs. Pictures covered the walls, many of them with scraps of paper attached to them as well.

“What’s this room?” Jacob asked.

“This room is the only room in the shop with two comfortable chairs.  Do you know, I think the reason why coffee shops go for those confounded swirly metal contraptions is to keep people from sitting too long.  It’s all about money, you see - the faster you get them out of the seats, the faster you can get someone else in them, preferably with a new coffee,” said the doctor, “now, you have a seat in that chair, and I will have a seat in this one."

Once they were comfortably seated, the doctor pulled down a photo from the wall.

“Tell me, has anyone ever told you the story of how this coffee shop came into being, or why it is named Rick’s?”

When Jacob shook his head, the doctor continued.
“Well, it’s a very interesting story.  There’s no dragons or knights or space aliens or any of that sort of thing, but there’s war, and friendship, and maybe even a little bit of romance.  Would you like to hear it?”

More nodding.

“Excellent!” said the doctor, “then let us begin.”

A long time ago, back even before your father was born, I was a young man.

Don’t look so surprised.

It was during World War II, and no sooner did I graduate from medical school, then I was enlisting in the army.  I hoped that I would be employed as a medic, seeing as they didn't have to train me, and it meant there was less chance there would be anyone shooting at me - I was patriotic, but not that patriotic.

I got my wish, and was assigned to the 101st Airborne.  At the time, I thought this was very fortunate for me, since it meant I wouldn't have to storm any beaches or that sort of thing.

Then we were dropped into Operation Market Garden.  The telling of what happened there would take a whole story of its own, so let me tell you the short version.  It was bad.  It was so bad I thought for certain that I was never, ever going to see home again.  I don’t know what happened to most of the friends I made there, I assume some of them must have died, I never found out.

“Dr. Lowe?” Jacob interrupted, “is this going to be a sad story?”

“A little bit, but not entirely, it just starts that way.  Hasn't your father taught it’s rude to interrupt your elders?”

“No sir, he taught me it’s rude to interrupt anyone.”

“Good of him, but you’re still interrupting.  Now shush.”

Getting back to the story, I eventually found myself separated from my division and behind enemy lines when I found him.

In a burned out barn, just a little off the road I had been following, I found Rick. He was lying amidst the bodies of several of his comrades, nursing a broken leg. I never did find out who they were -resistance fighters perhaps, but I never did get an answer out of Rick. It seemed the loss of his friends made something in him shut off, and he never spoke to me, not even once in the weeks we traveled together.

However, there was something in him that kept him going, because he was up and about with no sign of the troubles he had faced on him.  Despite the language barrier – I spoke no Dutch, and he spoke no English – we managed to decide on a direction that we thought we would find safety in.  We had no idea where we were, but I thought I knew enough from the maps I’d seen and Rick seemed pretty definite about not going in the other direction.

After a few days of travel, it became clear to me that Rick was somebody special.  Despite the constant danger, he never abandoned me, despite the fact that he could easily have slipped away and disappeared amongst the locals.  But no, he stayed with me, keeping watch while I slept and, while we couldn't talk, he was good at listening.

I remember this one time, we were passing through a village where I managed to get some plainclothes and, while we were outside a coffee shop  - Rick loved coffee, you see – this woman came up to us, gorgeous as anything.

“How gorgeous is anything?” asked Jacob.

This caused the doctor to pause.  After a moment’s pondering, he smiled.

“I’ll be honest, son, I can’t remember what she looked like, but I thought she was beautiful.”

Anyway, this gorgeous woman walks up and orders something, so I turned to Rick and said, “What do you think of her, Rick?  What do you say I go up to her and say hello?”  It was then that Rick showed he was more perceptive than I was, because the look he gave me should've been warning enough for me to stay away.  But I tried anyway, and Rick turned out to be right.  I supposed she would have slapped me, if she hadn't been carrying her purse and coffee, so I got a solid kick to the shins instead.  So there I was, kneeling on the ground, clutching my shin as Rick laughed.  It was the first sound I ever heard him make, and while I can’t remember the face of the woman, I can remember the sound of him laughing.

After that, I was captured by the Germans only a few days later and Rick and I were separated.

“What?!” Jacob exclaimed, jumping from his seat, “you go from getting kicked in the stomach to getting separated?!  What about the stuff in the middle?!”

“Did I say the story was over?” asked the doctor, “there’s more to the story than that.  Now, sit down and I’ll tell you the rest of it, unless perhaps you don’t want to hear the rest?”

Jacob sat down so fast, he missed the chair, tumbling to the floor.

“Right, we’ll just keep going with you down there, shall we?”

I’d been in a P.O.W. camp – that means “Prisoner of War camp”, in case you don’t know – when one of the boys there told me about a way out of the camp.  They were digging a tunnel under the fence and into the brush.  There was a resistance group waiting to ferry them out of the country to safety, and they asked me if I wanted in.  Naturally, I accepted.  There was little argument against it, I wanted out as much as anyone else there.

Well, there was little to do in the camp but wait for the night to arrive and everything went off without a hitch until someone made a noise and it caused a panic, which the guards heard. I was one of the last ones out, and who should I find waiting for me, but Rick.

After that, Rick and I got reacquainted best we could before I had to head back to the army.  We even managed to have a night on the town.  Then it was just the promises – I promised to stay in touch, to write, to visit.  But none of them came true.  I would never see Rick again, except in a photograph sent to me by someone who remembered me, all those years ago.  That was the year I started the coffee shop.  I wanted to leave something as a testament to our friendship, however brief, even if no one understands.  And that, young man, is why this place is named Rick’s.

With that, the doctor sat back in his chair and sipped at his tea.

“That’s it?” asked Jacob, “where’s the adventure?”

“If I remember correctly,” the doctor said, “I didn't promise you any adventure, now did I?”

“But there has to be more!”

“Oh? And what else do you think should have happened?” asked the doctor.

“There should have been a mad dash through the woods, or a story about sneaking into a weapons depot or a train yard and blowing it up!”

“Well, here’s an idea then – how about you write those stories and then you can read them to me?”

At this suggestion, Jacob’s eyes went wide.  Nodding quickly, he ran off, in search of paper and pencil.

Dr. Lowe sighed happily, savouring the scent of his tea as he enjoyed the quiet.

There was a cough – the polite kind, though bordering on impatient.  Opening an eye, he peered at the figure standing in the doorway.  It was the barista, standing there with arms crossed.

“You know,” she said, “I've heard you tell that story some twenty times now, and I think you've told a different story every time.”

“Have I?” he asked, “must be this old brain of mine going on me.  It’s a pity how even the mind must succumb to time.”

The barista scoffed.

“Oh, don’t give me that, you know very well that isn't why you changed the story, so why do you do it?”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Tell me,” he said at last, “did you see the look on that boy’s face when he ran out of here?”

“Yeah, I did, and he looked like he needed to find a bathroom.”

“Oh, you cynic,” said the doctor, chuckling, “what you saw were the ideas running through his mind, and him trying to hold onto them before they got away.  The reason I changed the story, this time at least, was to give him something to feed his imagination.  He’s filling his hand with grand stories full of acts of great courage and heroism that the truth could never provide. Imagination, that is the greatest gift I can give him… and I think Rick would like it this way."

The barista considered this for a bit.

“Alright, I guess I can accept that,” she said at last, “but I want to know – who was Rick, really?”

“Does it matter, in the end?”

“…no, I guess it doesn't really,” she said at last, “come on now, that tea’s gotten cold, I’ll pour you a new one.”

“Thank you my dear,” he said, “I shall be along presently.  It takes me a bit longer to get around these days, you see.”

“You’re the boss,” she said, and turned and went back to the counter.

Getting up carefully from his chair, he picked up the photo he’d taken down from the wall, cradling it carefully.  Then, with even greater care, he placed it back upon its hook and prepared to head out for a fresh cup of tea and, if there were no further interruptions, to finish his paper.

“You see, Rick?” he said, addressing the photo, “I may have forgotten to write you, but now there will be others to write for us.  To give us the adventures we never got to have, the hours we never got to share.  Good morning, Rick, I’ll come back around later.”

With that, he left.

Several days later, the barista remembered the photo Dr. Lowe had been holding and went to see what it was.

There in the photo were two young men in uniform, sitting against an old stone wall, a field of wild grass stretching out behind them.  One was obviously the doctor, as he had looked all those years ago.  So the other man must be Rick.

… no, he couldn't be, she thought.  No matter how he had changed the story, one detail had never changed.  Whenever he met Rick, one of the first things he did was set Rick’s broken leg. The man in the photo obviously didn't have a broken leg.  So what did the picture mean?

It was then that she noticed the third occupant of the photo.

There, sitting on ground between the two men, tail mid-wag leaving a faint blur, was a dog.  Its left foreleg was stretched out awkwardly in front of it.

And there, around his neck, was a crude collar and written on it in big black letters, was “Rick”.

1 comment:

  1. So much love AND jealousy! This is such a great story, Sean, and proof that you should share more of your stories. I cannot wait to read what you come up with next.