A Sample from a Short Story Collection

Birds at the edge of the surf in Santa Barbara
Birds Work the Tide in Santa Barbara

As noted in this blog, I completed a collection of short stories in March. I’m shopping the collection around to see if I can generate any interest in it. In the meantime, I thought I’d release one of the stories here. You never know who might be reading this blog, right? So, to that end, “Gathering for Dinner” is below. I hope you enjoy it. Oh, and don’t try this at home!

GATHERING FOR DINNER

I kept running back and forth between the picnic area above the lake and the water to see how dinner preparations were progressing. Each time I returned from I saw my father standing over the inert charcoal, a beer in one hand, waving a newspaper trying to breathe life into the charcoal with the other. Thirty minutes of drinking and waving hadn’t produced a flame capable of cooking anything.

A large bowl with a diminishing supply of potato chips, a plate of hamburger patties covered with tinfoil, another platter stacked high with ears of corn also wrapped in tin foil, and a couple of loaves of garlic bread, also wrapped in the ubiquitous tin foil, sat on the picnic table just beyond the stone cold, infuriating grill. My sister sat at the table reading a Nancy Drew mystery. My brother stood to the side, oiling and breaking in his new baseball mitt. Uncle Fred and Aunt Fanny sat at the table across from each other playing double solitaire. My mother and our car were gone, and I knew enough to stay clear so that on each return trip from another quick swim, when I could see that no progress had been made, save for the devouring of the potato chips by the increasingly hungry crowd, I made a quick U-turn for the water. On the last return trip I noticed my father sitting down, defeated, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other.

As I came over to our picnic table for a handful of chips, our car approached and parked. My mother got out of it, popped the trunk, and pulled out four large boxes of pizza from Artie’s Tavern a couple of miles down the road.

“Pizza! Oh, boy,” I immediately shouted. Big mistake.

My father, moved to instant fury by the sight of the pizza, leapt to his feet, grabbed a new, full can of lighter fluid he’d been saving, and spun around towards us, can in hand, damning this, that, and the next thing the whole time. For a moment I thought he was going to douse the pizza boxes and all of us with lighter fluid and set us all on fire. Instead, he popped the plastic top off the can’s nozzle, grabbed the can with both hands, and slowly lowered and aimed it. His powerful hands squeezed the lighter fluid can to the point of creasing it as he shot a steady, flat stream of fuel splashing onto the charcoal at the bottom of the grill. He kept squeezing with one hand, and the fluid kept splashing into the cold charcoal, as he reached for his cigarette with his other hand. He got the cigarette burning brightly with one last, long drag before flicking the smoldering butt onto the coals.

Flame instantly erupted on the charcoal and immediately began a crazy, violent, spitting dance working its way back up the stream of lighter fluid toward the can in my father’s hand. My mother screamed. The rest of us froze. My father jerked his arm back and spun his body around like a crazed Olympian. After a full 360-degree turn, he released the flaming can. It went flying from his hand in a great flaming arc towards the lake below, lighting up the late evening sky as fire shot from the nozzle propelling the spinning can through the air, an out-of-control rectangular rocket. It was spectacular, like nothing I’d ever seen! The can, twirling and engulfed in its own inferno, crashed into the lake with a splash and a hiss. A bluish purple film spread out on the lake’s surface from the can’s point of impact.

We were silent. We stared at the spot in the lake, speechless, in awe. Even my mother, pizza boxes still in hand, stared, frozen, not daring to move.

The silence was broken by my father’s proud declaration as he pointed to the roaring fireball now coming from the charcoal in the grill.

“That got it! Hell, no, we’re not eating pizza! Look at that damn fire, just look at it! We’re grilling, boys and girls!”

My mother recovered and let loose.

“So what am I supposed to do with these pizzas?”

“Beats me. Maybe feed the fish.”

”The ones that survived the goddam bomb you just threw in the lake?”

I braced myself for what was surely next. We’d all been there before, at the start of some big blowup, and this had the elements for another. My father glared at my mother, his neck and shoulders tightening, his rage barely contained, when Uncle Fred, the family peacemaker, broke in.

“Harry, go down and scoop up the dead fish. We’ll put those on the grill too!”

I don’t know how, but Fred cut right through it all. My father let out a breath and looked over at me, relaxed now.

“Go on. Do like your uncle told you, but don’t pull anything out less than 15 inches. We don’t want any trouble from Fish and Game.”

I turned to run down to the lake, grateful to have an excuse for leaving, when I heard my Uncle Fred say, “Yeah, I hear they really frown on the local rocket scientist using a Molotov cocktail to kill the small fry.”

I didn’t get it. Everyone else’s laughter faded as I got farther down the gentle slope of grass and closer to the water. When I reached the shoreline, I looked for the dead fish I’d been sent to fetch. I searched, desperate to be part of the fun, but I never saw any fish, nothing but a slick of lighter fluid spreading over the water – not a single dead fish. I turned to go back up the bank to our picnic site, hungry and wondering how they would react to my failure.