The Center That Holds by Dennis Lowery

The Center That Holds (FREE SHORT NONFICTION)

I answered the phone, and after the “Hi, how’re you doing,” he had started the conversation: “I believe many of these students have already formed the way they view life. If they don’t have basic honesty as part of who they are…” It was Tom Faught, one of my clients on the phone; he’d emailed me on what he would call about. “How will what I say have any meaning to them?”

Tom—who sadly passed away last year—was a veteran (a Marine) and Harvard-educated former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and university professor. He had also been the CEO of a global company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. His book focused on corporate ethics and integrity; core values that define the responsibility of business executives as stewards and leaders of companies: a comprehensive guide on how young executives can be ethical and still achieve success in their careers. That was the topic he’d been invited to speak on by a major college. His question—an excellent one—was something I’ve given thought to and written on. We talked and I gave him my perspective, which seemed to help for his speech. After hanging up, I continued to think and looked at my notes jotted as I talked to Tom. One was a quote I had recalled and put at the top of the sheet of paper:

 “Everything is figured out, except how to live,” attributed to Jean-Paul Sartre (1905—1980)

I’m a writer and that entails a strong inclination for introspection and thought—often on the ‘Why’ of things and to see the truth and sometimes perplexity of human behavior—on cause and effect. I’m in my late 50s now… an age which includes reflecting on life so far and the first tinge of wonder about how much of it is left. It’s sobering. So, I understand what Sartre meant.

I’m also a publisher who sees that often big-name biographies and memoirs—representing success—are testimonies to a celebrity without talent, wealth without earning it, positions of power and authority without knowledge and experience as the foundation for judgment (many of our political leaders are stellar examples). The hypocrisy of them is overwhelming. Many are pages and pages of that and the books sell because of their celebrity, notoriety or money to fuel a well-oiled hype machine. While other books and memoirs—much more valuable to the reader (and to our society and nation)—stay undiscovered. I’ll share here something about such a memoir from another of my clients. It’s an email from one reader of his book:

From: Mark Faulkner
To: Richard Neal
Subject: “WHAT NOW, LIEUTENANT”—THOUGHTS

Sir,

I just finished reading your book and thoroughly enjoyed it. More importantly than being easy to read and hard to put down, it is packed full of lessons for success in life and service. What I found most impressive in your writing style was that the lessons were not delivered in an “in your face” fashion with lessons as titles of chapters or words bolded or underlined. Rather, they were delivered as part of one of your many life experiences, which, in my humble opinion, made them even more relevant and digestible. I just told Col. Woodbridge that I think this is a book that needs to get in front of CMC [Commandant of the US Marine Corps] for his consideration to be added to his professional reading list. I think it would be beneficial to our Corps’ younger officers for a number of reasons (discussion of importance of family, courage (and fright) in combat, jointness, etc.).

Semper Fidelis,
Mark
William M. Faulkner
LtGen, USMC (Ret.)

I’ll pull things from that email to touch on because I see them as the cornerstones of life. The messages within Butch (Richard) Neal’s memoir are a direct reflection of who he is: no self-aggrandizing bullshit. Not a pretentious word or phrase. No ‘secrets of leadership’ hype; its straightforward lessons learned from experience. Its teaching leadership real-time by example. The thread throughout of what’s important: Family doesn’t need elaboration or explanation, we know the benefits of having family in our lives; when there are mutual respect and love… they’re our anchor. How earned and given loyalty makes for a sense of ‘family.’ Courage in the face of consequences (such as combat, when not all come out alive or unscathed)… that’s doing the right thing when it’s needed. It’s the innate fulfillment of responsibility and accountability, two things all should live by and expect of others. The precepts of jointness when different service (military) branches work together to support and fulfill specific missions. The working together to achieve a common goal (for the public good).

Why those are meaningful requires a slight digression. There is a line from W. B. Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ (written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War), that has always fascinated (and concerned) me:

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold…”

I’ve never felt more than now, how important that warning is… how much I hope it’s not a near-century-old prophesy coming true.

I wrote the following years ago. One of the countless things (some in pieces, some sewn whole) that I’ve kept for the right time and place to use. Perhaps now is the time and this article is the place:

A husk. The thing that seems to surround nothing but space. That facade that everyone sees as being the substance.

A seed. That self-contained promise that if there’s soil… if it can get enough water and light… it will grow.

Then soil, water, and light work leading to what’s next.

A push. In two directions, first downward… feeling, then setting the roots of who you are, and strengthening them. Then upward… reaching for more light… more sky… more life.

When we—humans—come upon something like that in the forest do we wonder how it happens? It’s nature. Don’t question… just believe.

A whisper. A sound… an articulation of a word. Even if barely past your lips, it breaks the silence, more compelling than a shout. Sometimes the start of a conversation. Even if it’s just saying to yourself, “I am good and can fill any void… can grow and be strong. I am the center that holds.”

Don’t dismiss Butch’s book as a mere military memoir. It’s a story about a man—once a small-town boy—whose personal philosophy and belief, his sense of loyalty to the deserving, is a center that holds. What LtGen Faulkner mentioned and what I wrote above as cornerstones… are what can keep a person, even a nation, together.

I’m not naïve. There is no easy solution to the issues we face in life. Reading a memoir as good as Butch’s won’t solve problems. And what I’ve written here won’t be of much import to people stuck in their ways or are non-receptive, but it’s not for them. This and Butch’s memoir is for those who might read and realign their thinking and for those who agree with the message and do things in their own way to further the principle. I think that is who Butch hopes to reach, too. Especially those young officers in our military who bear such tremendous responsibilities and may become senior officers shaping policy at a national level.

Mostly, what I write here is for my children to read and think about what I try to teach them… to be a responsible person: to believe in the principles of family, courage, equality, and togetherness. Those go a long way—are perhaps the only way—to create a better life and build a better world. To answer Sartre, that’s how we should live… and to Yeats I’ll say, that is the center that holds.

What Now Lieutenant - front cover 10-6-2016

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Richard ‘Butch’ Neal’s book is What Now, Lieutenant? Leadership Forged from Events in Vietnam, Desert Storm and Beyond. He is a retired 4-star general (USMC) and former Assistant Commandant of the US Marine Corps.

Dennis Lowery is a writer, ghostwriter, author and founder and president of Adducent, Inc. (established in 2000). Adducent is a creative company that provides writing, story and book development and publishing services. It assists individuals and organizations with their writing needs and finds, develops, writes, ghostwrites and publishes stories and books with compelling and positive messages that are entertaining, enlightening, informative and enjoyable to read. Adducent and its founder believe in Cause-Based™ stories and not just nonfiction, fiction stories work equally well—sometimes even better—to present a compelling message. Adducent works with clients internationally, and several have appeared on PBS NewsHour, 60 Minutes and MSNBC (not to mention other TV and radio shows nationally and in their local markets).

BOX SCORE by Jack Carpenter With Dennis Lowery

BOX SCORE (NONFICTION: Booknology)

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BOX SCORE Cover ConceptAbout the Book

Ladies, it’s time to gear up. To step onto the pitcher’s mound or better yet, into the batter’s box in the game of relationship improvement.

BOX SCORE—What Husbands and Boyfriends Really Want is your turn with 10 ideas of how women can make their husbands and boyfriends happier.

WISHBOOK (front) by Jack Carpenter With Dennis Lowery

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In his debut title, WISHBOOK—What Wives and Girlfriends Really Want, author Jack Carpenter offered men 10 suggestions to improve their lives with their women, and a call to action. Game two of this double-header, BOX SCORE is the companion book for women. After you read it and make your 3 For 3 choices, your happiness with your man will significantly increase, guaranteed.

So, strap your cleats on, get your grip but be loose and be ready for a fast-paced and entertaining read. You’ll be glad you did. Hey batter, batter!

Click here to read about this book’s title and its AFTERWORD.

And if you want to follow my writing, click here.

The Sign of Fools and Sages - An Alpha and Beta Story from Dennis Lowery

The Sign of Fools & Sages (NONFICTION, FREE SHORT STORY)

‘Dream On’ started playing. I was at the kitchen counter making sandwiches.

“Do you like this song?” I asked my two youngest—twin—daughters. Alpha and Beta [not their real names] nodded at the same time; Beta with her spoon still in her mouth.

“Do you know the words?” Beta asked wiping milk from her chin.

“I do, it’s one of my favorite songs to sing.”

It’s a thing with me—to sing at times—especially as they eat breakfast while I make their lunches for school. It’s also good talk time (with topics ranging from silly to serious). We discuss school, what they’re studying, they ask me about stories I’m working on… and we talk about travel, places we’ve been and where we want to go. And I find ways to talk about life (often my stories are a good segue for that).

I had my Kindle Fire HDX, sitting on the kitchen table Bluetoothed to our home music system. [I really enjoy the rich sound from the speakers set in the high ceilings and bass thrum from the subwoofer on the floor in the corner.] We enjoy new music but do play a lot of oldies: 60s and 70s (era of my youth) mostly with some from the 50s to take it way, way, back. My twins are probably the only kids in their grade that know all the words to Zager & Evans ‘In The Year 2525.’ And a whole slew of songs from The Temptations (you should hear them sing ‘Ball of Confusion’), Johnny Rivers and Bad Company and other greats from back then. We were recently on a Styx kick, pre-Mr. Roboto songs).

I walked over and turned the Kindle so Alpha and Beta could see the lyrics scroll. A favorite line was coming up, and I sang along. “… live and learn from fools and from sages.” Beta stopped me with a question—I hate to stop when rolling—but it was a good one. The kind of question a parent needs to consider and answer thoughtfully.

“How do you learn from fools, dad?”

I turned the volume down (sorry, Steven Tyler). “Well,” I sat at the end of the table. “It’s important to pay attention to all kinds of people around you. But mostly those close to you that you might listen to or think you can learn from. You have to watch to see how they act and interact; what they say and do, especially the impression they give you. And then compare that to reality.”

Alpha’s bagel kicked up in the toaster. I got it for her and brought it and the not-really-butter spread she likes to the table. [I’m a butter believer so look down on such pretenders, but she loves it.] I explained what I meant. “Does what they say and do make sense.”

Alpha raised her hand and looked at Beta before speaking—it seems twins do that; I think its telepathy—and at the same time, they said, “Martin.” [Name changed to protect the not so innocent. I’ve heard tales about Martin; heaven help his parents.]

I nodded and continued. “You see, really odd and unusual people are easy to spot. You learn to avoid them and not take them seriously. But Fools can be hard to identify. They often sound like they know what they’re talking about.”

Alpha had not-really-buttered her fingers, and I handed her a napkin. She asked, “How can you tell?”

“If they tell you about things they can do… but they never do them. Or when they do, it never works out like they said and they always want to blame someone else… they never take responsibility. People like that and those full of excuses are not the ones you should listen to… chances are they are Fools or delusional.”

“Does delusional mean crazy?” Alpha asked.

“No.” Though in my mind I thought of people I’d met and known who seemed at odds with reality and could qualify as bughouse bizarre. “Not exactly. It means the world inside their head is not the same world normal, rational, people live in. No matter what reality shows them, they still believe in their own version of things. Stay far away from people like that… they’re Fools.”

Beta looked at me. “But Sages are wise; smart people. Right?”

Back at the counter gathering their lunch stuff, I sipped my coffee, nodding. “Supposed to be.” I took another drink.

I didn’t (don’t) want to make my daughters grow up paranoid or suspicious of things and people in the world, now and in the future. But I think it’s crucial to learn to not automatically place faith in anyone or anything because of a label, position, a title, or perception that they are an authority. And certainly not because the media covers them extensively. That does not confirm, nor is it evidence of, their value. My girls need to know to verify and validate that for themselves. I told them. “People who get things done and are right more times than wrong… who have real experience and produce actual results aligned with doing what’s right. People who when they talk, make sense and show intelligence and compassion… and you can match it to accomplishments and action. They are the ones worth listening to.”

I gave them the line again from the song. Yes, I sang it. “Live and learn from fools and from sages…” I want them to learn to acknowledge labels or reputations but—and this is a big but and I cannot lie—I want them to define people and assess situations based on their own relevant criteria. I continued. “Something to understand that’s important in life.” That’s not the first or hundredth time they’ve heard me say that. I got a bit of eye-roll from them but kept going. “You can learn from both types of people. The way to do that is judge by actions… results, and not words. Listen to what people say but… it’s more important to see what they do. If a person proves to be a Sage; an intelligent person with good, moral, ethical, judgment… then their words have weight.”

Beta raised her hand. “What does weight mean—you know—how you just said it?”

“It means to take them seriously and listen. They have value and merit attention.” I went to the pantry for napkins and came out with their allotment. [I tend to harp a bit on being wasteful… my ‘don’t use more than you really need’ thing. I know if they have five they’ll use five… if they have one… they know that’s it… and will use it wisely. On pudding or fruit cup days, they get an extra napkin. I’m not unsympathetic on this issue.] “But don’t give people’s words power over you. Only you can—rationally, logically and contextually—decide what’s right and wrong for you.”

Alpha poured more milk; adding some to Beta’s glass, too. “But what can you learn from fools?” She brought me back around to the original question.

“Simply, what not to do… and how not to be. We don’t live in a perfect world, and humans are imperfect, too. We all have flaws. The thing to do is to not just understand our own flaws but also see them in others because that can be a factor in gauging the value of what they’re telling you and more importantly any advice they give you.” I put a drink-box, chocolate milk today, snack bag of carrots, fudge brownie and their sandwiches (Alpha’s turkey with mayonnaise and Beta’s peanut butter—not spread too thick—with grape jelly) into their lunch bags.

I made my ‘wind it up’ motion, twirling my index finger and hand clockwise to speed them up; an eat-your-cereal signal. “So, Fools can talk a lot and have very little, if anything, worth listening to. Sages may not say much but when they do… you listen. And the most important thing is to think about what they say and decide what it means to you. That’s called giving it context.”

It was time to finish so they could read a while before walking to the bus stop. They brought their bowls to the sink. Murphy—our Irish Terrier, my only boy—had discovered a couple of Cheerios under Alpha’s chair and was underfoot exploring for more. While they wiped down the kitchen table and counters, another song came to mind; another favorite of mine. I switched my Kindle from Pandora to my music library; found ‘Simple Man’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd and pressed play. It got to the line I wanted before they finished cleaning up. I put my hand on their shoulders, and they looked up at me. I sang a slightly changed version of a line from that song:

“Your father’s telling you… while you’re young. Come sit beside me my lovely ones. And listen closely to what I say. If you do this… It will help you in many ways.”

They smiled at me—used to this sort of thing—and gave me a hug. As they headed to their bathroom to brush teeth and hair, I told them, “We’ll talk more about this….”

And we will….

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SONGS MENTIONED:

Dream On – Aerosmith

http://youtu.be/yyfNHlqymP8

In The Year 2525 – Zager and Evans

http://youtu.be/izQB2-Kmiic

Ball of Confusion – The Temptations

http://youtu.be/-9poCAuYT-s

Simple Man – Lynyrd Skynyrad

http://youtu.be/sMmTkKz60W8

LEAVING TAOS Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery

LEAVING TAOS [M] (FREE SHORT FICTION STORY)

“They think,” Henry nodded in the direction of the cop at the sidewalk, “the killer’s headed to Santa Fe.”

“Nah, I bet he went north.” Joe drew hard on his cigarette, taking the smoke deep then letting it out in plumes. “Folks on the radio are warning people to watch out… whoever he is, he’s a dangerous man.”

Henry shook his head slightly. Joe was one of those men who sounded, with dead-solid certainty, like he was right. But was always mostly wrong, and sensationalized everything when he passed it on to others. “What makes you think it’s a man, Joe?” He wanted to wind him up a bit and see where he spun.

“Bud Carson’s my wife’s nephew… he works with Tom Flint’s cousin. Tom’s the deputy who found the man on Old Mill Road night before last, just as he rattled out his last breath. Tom told his cousin the killer caved the man’s ribs in—someone beat the shit out of him. And get this,” he took a last drag from the cigarette butt in in his hand and flipped it to the ground, “the head had been twisted, so it was turned around backward.” He shook his head. “The poor bastard was belly down but looking up at Tom when he died. Musta happened not long before Tom rolled up.” He pinched a piece of tobacco off his tongue and spat. “Ain’t no woman strong enough to do that.”

“You haven’t been here but a year, Joe. And haven’t seen Bill Stoudemire’s wife, Maggie, then.” Henry shook his head and winced remembering his single date with her when they were young. “She’d go 200 pounds… and none of it fat.” He shuddered again at the thought of when he told her he wouldn’t go out with her again. “And she’s a mean bitch. That’s probably why Bill ran off a couple of years ago.” He looked thoughtful. “Maggie, she doesn’t come to town much… stays on her place east of town.”

“Well, I don’t think no woman could do it.” Joe turned away. “See you later.”

Henry watched him walk toward Mabel’s Diner and thought, Old Mill Road runs east-west…. right by Maggie’s land. He let the idle thought slip away. It was time to pick up that load of lumber from Granger’s and get to work.

The hatless man near the bus depot window stood shoulders hunched and faced away from the others waiting for the bus. They never should have come to Taos, he thought. But they’d heard there might be work. There was. But he and Johnny never should have taken that laborer job. Poor Johnny. He had to flirt with that woman that hired them… and then actually tap it. He’d grinned and said, “In the dark, there’s more of her to grab. And man, she can squeeze that thing tight.” But something about her had bothered him. The way she looked at them. He had slept in the barn, but after the first night, Johnny was in the farmhouse with her. The fourth day, yesterday, he had come to breakfast to find that Johnny was gone. She had smiled at him—a big-toothed invitation—and came close enough to brush his shoulder with the largest set of tits he’d ever seen. “Your friend took off… you can sleep in the house tonight.” She had put her hand on his shoulder and given it a crushing pinch. “Come supper time, I’ll pay you your wages,” she waved a five-spot in her other hand.

He had nodded and gone out to the stretch of fence he and Johnny had been mending the day before. They both needed money and Johnny wouldn’t have run for no reason, but he hadn’t wanted the kind of trouble this woman seemed capable of dishing. He had decided to finish the job and get the Hell away from her, but with that fiver.

At sundown, she had called him to dinner, “Come and get it…” He couldn’t help but hear the emphasis she had put on her call to eat… and to something else.

At the table, he had wiped his plate clean. She had looked from it to him, an up and down run of her eyes. “You eat like a starved man…” she had gotten up from the chair at the end and moved to sit next to him, putting a hand on his forearm. “I do love me a man who has a hunger,” she squeezed and let go to hand him the five-dollar bill. “I’m the hungry kind, too….” She had then—as she got up—leaned forward to drag the tips of her chest across his arm and stood looking toward the room where she’d taken Johnny last time he’d seen him.

He had stuffed the money in his pants pocket, “I left your tools out, gotta go put them away…” the look on her face had hardened into something he’d never seen before on a woman. He had met her glare, managed to work up a smile and squinted at the darkened entry to her bedroom and back, “I’ll be quick… for some of that dessert.” The smile had come back, and she showed the edges of her teeth behind the curl of lips. “I’ll get it ready,” she had walked to the bedroom as he headed outside.

When he was nearly to the fence line, he had shifted from a walk to a sprint. On the dirt road, he had slowed for the long run to town. He had spent the night hiding in a patch of woods just outside it, walked in at daylight and waited. The morning bus for Santa Fe was late. He had heard from the newsboy working the corner with a stack of papers at his feet, ink so fresh the kid’s hands were smeared with it, that a body had been found the day before just off the road near to town. And now a cop was checking people at the depot. Maybe I should tell the police what happened, he thought, maybe Johnny did run from her but was hurt bad and didn’t make it. But that arrest warrant for him in Los Angeles was waiting to land like a ton of brick. They’d send him away for a long time on that one. Where was that bus?

* * *

Twenty Years Later

The article from The Taos Recorder 10-10-1954

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LEAVING TAOS Short Fiction by Dennis LoweryNOTE FROM DENNIS

This story resulted from my looking through a collection of Depression Era public domain photos and spotting one that sparked some thoughts: What were the two men on the left talking about and what about the man by the depot window with hunched shoulders, what’s up with him? That picture became the story’s cover.

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‘Til the End… (Lexie)

“Not that I dislike the sport, but I’m not really a football fan and I was surprised at how I enjoyed the story. I felt for the characters and though sad and tragic at points it was a good read.” –Karen McCall

“When I came across this book, I was interested in the suspense that was described, although I have no liking for football what so ever. I decided to give this a try based on the reviews and I am so glad that I did. This book is a very simple read and it’s written in a lax style that allows me to enjoy this book without too much concentration. The writer wastes no time introducing the key stars in this book, Ryan, Tyler, Avery, and Jacob. I like that I knew exactly who each of the boys were right from the beginning of the book, and I was able to gauge their character and have a better understanding of their actions as the book progressed. The football scenes in the book were tolerable for me and I was continuously engaged and kept wanting to read more, especially when the action begins in the story.” –Ashlie Walton, from her Amazon review

About the story:

Ryan, Tyler, Avery, and Jacob are high school football stars. Everyone looks up to them. They’re living the life that young boys and men dream of and are right at the point of having it all: a state championship, college paid for, a chance for big money and even more glory in the NFL. It’s all there in front of them; the future they and everyone expects.

Then something happens that could bring it all crashing down. And they can’t tell the truth because it’s even worse than having to keep the secret for the rest of their lives. They make a pact to cover it up and never tell.

Hiding the truth fuels their escalating addictions and pushes them in different directions as they try to erase the past, deal with the present and hope for the future.

But at some point, in some way, there’s always a price paid for lies told.

Til the End - Amazon Review 7-31-2016 (1)

 

THE CALL -- Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery

THE CALL (FREE SHORT FICTION STORY)

THE CALL delivers a compelling message for parents and their teenage or young adult children. In it, we find that love—even with the challenges the relationship presents—is what’s important… it can heal and if you’re ‘lost‘… it can bring you home.

The Story

Jolted awake by the buzzing and vibrating on the nightstand next to me, I focused on the numbers from my clock projected on the ceiling above: 02:18. I had to be up in less than three hours and at work in four. I blinked, shook my early-Monday sleep-muddled head and then reached for my phone. “Hello?”

“Daddy?” I could barely hear the whisper over the static. That line hiss something I’d not heard in years. When the frantic sound of a young voice crying became clearer, my heart pounded. I gripped the phone and glanced over at my wife who was turning on her side to face me.

“Daddy, I know it’s late, but don’t… please, don’t say anything, until I finish. And before you ask. Yes, I’ve been drinking. I ran off the road a couple of miles back, and…”

I drew in a sharp, shallow breath, pressed my hand against my forehead, then rubbed my eyes. Sleep still fogged my mind, something was wrong.

“I got so scared, and all I could think about was how it would hurt you and mom if the police came to your door and told you I’d been killed. I want…” I heard her take a deep breath. “I want to come home. I know running away was wrong. I know you’ve been worried sick. I should have called you before now, but I was afraid… so afraid…”

Her sharp cries pierced me. Immediately, I pictured my daughter’s face, and then my senses cleared. “I think you–”

“No! Please let me finish! Please,” she pleaded. I paused to think what to say. Before I could go on, she continued, “I know I shouldn’t be drinking… especially now, I’m sorry Daddy, but I’m pregnant and… and… I’m scared, Daddy. Really scared!”

The voice broke again, and I bit my lip, hard. I looked at my wife now sitting up, as she silently mouthed, “Who is it?” I shook my head, and she shifted closer to me, putting her head next to the phone held to my ear.

“Are you still there?” Worried at my silence, the faint voice continued, “Please don’t hang up! I need you. I’m so alone.”

I squeezed the phone tight in my hand. “I’m here, I won’t hang up,” I said.

“I know I should have told you. But when we talk, you just keep telling me what to do. You read all that stuff on how to talk about sex and all, but all you do is talk. You don’t listen and won’t let me say how I feel. It’s as if it’s not—my feelings aren’t—important. Because you’re my father, you think you have all the answers. Sometimes I don’t need them; I need to figure things out first and not jump into an argument where we both get mad. I love you Daddy, but I just want you to understand.”

I choked down the rising lump in my throat and thought about all the how-to-talk-to-your-kids information I’d read. “I’m listening,” I whispered.

THE CALL -- Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery“You know, back there sitting in my car on the side of the road, I started thinking about the baby—I made the mistake, it’s my fault—and how I had to take care of my child. I couldn’t get a cell phone signal, it’s a cheap one, so I started walking. Then I saw this phone booth, and in my head, I could hear you going on about how people shouldn’t drink and drive. So, I called a taxi.” The shuddering of a racking cry came through the phone. “And then I had to call you.” I heard her voice thicken with sobs, stronger now, “I want to come home.”

“That’s good, Honey,” I said and let out a breath I didn’t know was held. “Come home.” My wife laced her fingers through mine.

“I think I can drive now. I’m going to–”

“No!” I snapped and squeezed my wife’s hand. “Please, wait for the taxi. Don’t hang up on me until it gets there.”

The line crackled and hissed. “I just want to come home, Daddy. I love you and mom.”

“I know. Come home, but do this for your Daddy. Wait for the taxi, please.”

I listened, in fear, to the white noise on the line. When I didn’t hear her answer, I closed my eyes and prayed she wouldn’t go—hadn’t gone—back to her car. “Honey!” Then the static stopped, and I could hear her clearly.

“I think this is my ride.” I heard a car engine coming closer in the background. It slowed to an idle. A tick-tick-ticking sound. Someone—a man’s voice—called out, “Hey, you call for a cab?”

I felt the taut muscles across my chest and shoulders release. I took a deep breath and let it out.

“Hang on just a second,” I heard her reply to the driver and then to me, her voice still shaky but not as unsettled, “I’m coming home, Daddy.”

With a click my phone went silent, its display dimming and then going dark in the moments, I sat there staring at it. Releasing my wife’s hand, I put my phone back on the night-table and moved from the bed with tears spilling from my eyes. I walked out into the hall and down it to stand in my sixteen-year-old daughter’s room. The darkness was still but for the soft sound of the turning blades of her ceiling fan. I could hear my breathing and felt my heart thumping in my chest. My wife came from behind, wrapped her arms around me and tilting it up, rested her chin on the top of my shoulder.

I wiped tears from my cheeks with the palm of my hand. “We… I… have to learn to listen.”

She turned me around to face her. “We will. You’re a good father.” She hugged me tightly, and I buried my head at the nape of her neck in her long hair, and we held each other for an armful of heartbeats. Then I pulled away, turned and watched my daughter asleep in her bed.

My wife’s hand stroked the side of my face and rested there for a second. It felt warm in the cool air. “Do you think she—the girl on the phone—will ever know she dialed the wrong number?”

I looked at our sleeping daughter, then back at her. “When she gets home, she will… and maybe it wasn’t really a wrong number.” I leaned down and kissed my wife on the forehead and then straightened, “At least not for me, and I hope not for her.”

“Mom, Dad, what are you doing?” The voice came from under the covers. I walked over to my daughter, who had sat up and was staring at me, the phone in her hand—as a nightlight—shining on her face. “We’re practicing,” I replied as I sat on the edge of her bed.

“Practicing what?”

“Listening,” I whispered and brushed the hair away from her face. “Listening, Honey.”

NOTE FROM DENNIS

A few years ago, I read different—shorter, rough—versions of this premise in the public domain without attribution: one of those things online with a string of dated (old) ‘shares.’ Being the father of four daughters, I thought its message moving and compelling, but its premise as a story deserved improvement. So, I rewrote the story and think this version is worth sharing.

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HONEY - Where's That Book_ Flashfiction by Dennis Lowery

HONEY – Where’s That Book (FREE SHORT FICTION STORY)

Bob and Jane sat at the table with Sandy and Timmy that Friday morning. When the work and school day ended, it was the beginning of a holiday weekend, and they had special plans.

Just the day before, Bob had picked up his new 1958-model Edsel from ‘Big Jim’ Axelrod’s Ford dealership over in Union City. It now shone prettily just outside the kitchen windows, and he looked forward to a long drive over the weekend. Bob wasn’t the kind—because of the ‘gaddam idiots not paying attention’ driving through the neighborhood—to park his car on the street. He’d insisted on moving the Oldsmobile so he could get the new Ford under the carport. That he’d have to then back the Olds out of the one-car driveway each time to get to it hadn’t sunk in yet. But then Bob wasn’t much for long-range planning.

Jane—worried that bills were getting out of hand and now this car—followed his look at the new debt through the window. She wore a not-quite-latest-fashion-but-still-nice, gray, dress with a wide white collar that framed her strong, lean, neck and high cheek-boned face perfectly. She smelled of lilacs this morning. A new scent she’d found that Arturo, the pool-boy at the club, seemed to like a great deal. He called it “Lilicks…” and would laugh as he burrowed his head between her—.

“Jane?”

She blinked away the memory of what she loved so much, but Bob wouldn’t do and looked at him. He had shifted his face around the edge of the newspaper to look at her. “Yes, dear?”

“Are you okay?” He looked concerned.

She canted her head; felt her hand rise to her ear and then stopped. She’d almost started to tug her right earlobe. Bob knew she only did that when she was nervous about something. He’d be on to her. Instead, she brushed a lock of hair, that hadn’t fallen out of place, back from her brow with the palm of her hand.

“I’m fine, dear.”

He grunted. His usual response when he didn’t quite believe something he’d heard someone say… or more often, didn’t really care. But then added before ducking back behind The Daily Courier, “You’re kinda flushed, you running a fever?”

“Really, dear… I’m all right.” She felt a catch in her voice and hoped he hadn’t heard it over Timmy and Sandy fighting about the last slice of buttered toast. She was meeting Arturo that afternoon—between the Church Planning Committee luncheon and picking up the kids from school—at the Golden Pavilion motel where 6th Street ended at Highway 9 and felt the warmth rise again. But not on her face this time; she clenched her thighs. “Any good news in the paper?” Getting him talking about that always worked.

“If someone—and I mean the gaddam president—doesn’t do something about them Russkies… they’re going to take over Europe.” Bob had fought in World War Two, serving in Patton’s 3rd Army, and was still pissed that the US had let the Russians enter Berlin first. “And then they’ll be landing in New York.”

“Yes, dear.” It was automatic and came out of Jane’s mouth without thought. She was still thinking of Arturo singing, Return to Me, to her last weekend. He so looked like Dean Martin. Then he had put his mouth on her and his tongue would— “What’s that, dear?”

He had the paper down and was looking at her again. “What’s that you’re humming?”

A bright light, like God had taken their picture, whitened their faces.

Bob, Jane, Sandy, and Timmy looked out the window.

“Honey, where’s that book, you know… the one about—”

The lights went out, and they felt the house shiver then groan. Just before the window blew in, Bob thought of the Edsel… and them ‘gaddam’ Commies.

# # #

NOTE FROM DENNIS

I wrote this little story after I saw this:

GIF

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WHITE BIRD - Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery

WHITE BIRD (Love is the Very Best Gift to Give & Receive)

A perfect–feel good–story for the Christmas season! And that twist at the ending, how you add some Christmas lore. Love it!”

Available 

WHITE BIRD - Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery

This is just the type of story to read during the holidays. Dennis has a lovely way with words and crafting the story to keep the twist hidden just around the corner, but when it happens, it’s a warm and satisfying revelation. Grab a mug of coffee or cocoa, sit in a favorite chair, and enjoy this heart warming story.” –Amazon Review

A 7,469 word holiday story about two people who find love and a future not bound by their past.

Olivia works for a misogynistic businessman who made his fortune in New York City real estate. Her life has not turned out as she expected or wanted.

Henry had lost his wife and children in a tragic accident. It’s been years and he doesn’t know if he can keep going… nowhere. And is it wrong to want the pain to go away?

Both are haunted by the past.

Both are alone, caught within circumstances.

Caged.

But then… this holiday season something happens…

THE BALLERINA IN THE GARDEN Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery

The Ballerina in the Garden (FREE SHORT FICTION STORY)

About the Story (revised and expanded a bit from the original)

THE BALLERINA IN THE GARDEN Short Fiction by Dennis LoweryTwo years ago, Claire lost her husband and Audrey, her father. A job promotion requires a move to a new state and town, and Claire hopes it’s also a fresh start for them both. Audrey, just starting high school, since her dad’s death, had become withdrawn and the move hadn’t helped. Now on a single-earner income, Claire can’t afford a pricey house. So, she picks the cheapest one in an older, affordable neighborhood. The once-lovely house she buys is old and needs work. In its overgrown, neglected, backyard Audrey finds something hidden among the overgrowth of weeds and scrub that changes both their lives. For the better.

Note from Dennis

The real ballerina in the garden

The real ballerina in the garden

A friend sent me a picture of an orchid shaped like a dancer and asked, “Dennis, what can you write about this?” A part-challenge, partly hopeful request that I met. This short fiction piece is about finding beauty—in an unlikely place—and how that helped a young girl deal with loneliness, to accept and appreciate new surroundings and make new friends. And that what you find often leads to some self-discovery that can have a great effect on your life. So, always look for the beauty—the things we should appreciate—around us. Because they’re there. It may take some work to uncover them, but they are always there.

A few of the reader comments:

“Oh my gosh!!! I am in tears. That was amazing how you just pulled a beautiful and complete story out of a simple picture!” -Janet Mix

“Beautiful…” -Vicki Tyley

“It touched my heart Dennis!” -Rea de Miranda

“What a great read, over morning tea! Thanks!” -Susan Gabriel

“A lovely morning read to start the day feeling good!” -Nina A.

The Story

Friday Afternoon

The new girl tightly clutched her phone and didn’t look up at him.

“Audrey…” Mr. Gardner, the teacher, repeated, “It’s your turn.” He motioned to the large display he had wheeled beside his desk and thought about what she had told him last week after class when he had assigned the project.

“I don’t draw, and I can’t make anything… Not like what you said.”

“You don’t have to do those things, Audrey. When I said a visual presentation, I also meant you can take pictures of people or places and then tell us why you find them interesting. Present why they mean something to you.”

“Why do you care; why ask us to do that?”

After teaching kids for fifteen years, he knew she had really asked him, why make ME do this. He pushed his glasses higher on his nose and studied her as she remained in her desk. In part, he had decided on this kind of project to reach the quiet ones in the class. To try and nudge them toward expressing themselves in a way that wasn’t quite voluntary. It being a graded project might help push them to become more comfortable in front of their classmates. Before he could answer, she had stood. He had thought she was going to walk out.

“I don’t know anyone here,” her right arm had swept the room, “and I don’t know this place.” He knew she meant not just the school but also the town. She had only been there a month. He had seen her sitting at lunch, seemingly alone even when surrounded by other kids.

He had nodded and told her, “I know… I can’t draw either, and I understand that you’re new to us, and us to you.” The light tone and smile he gave her hadn’t changed her expression. “Even so… there are things you see or are around that you enjoy or they mean something to you. Just take some pictures of them or maybe a short video and add your description—just a few words—of how you feel about them. That’s all I’m asking.” She hadn’t seemed to buy into that but said nothing more and had not mentioned it over the past week.

The rest of the class had given their presentations and were now shifting restlessly in their seats, a few looking up at the clock on the wall. Gardner rose from behind his desk and came around to sit on its corner nearest the display, moving it another half a foot from him. “It’s your turn.” He knew she heard him.

Audrey’s long wavy hair fell forward as she got up. She didn’t brush it away as she walked to his desk, tapped her phone and then and handed it to him. “It’s ready.” He saw the video window on her phone, connected the micro-HDMI cable to it and the display and then looked at her. She nodded, and he pressed play.

The picture on the screen showed what looked like an overgrown, neglected yard full of weeds and brush. “Last month when we moved here, I found this behind our house.” Her voice pitched lower. “It—the backyard—seemed sad.” The next picture showed improvement, some of the area had been cleared, and remnants of what had once been flowerbeds now showed among the scrub brush. “I worked on it a little each day and on the weekends.” Her voice rose slightly, “Then I found her.” The next picture showed a flower, petals of a burnt-orange red, yellow and white, formed like a dancer in a pirouette. “She was on the other side of a scraggly bush. All alone.”

The teacher watched Audrey who had swept the hair from her face. The shake in her voice belied nervousness, but her look at the class was steady. Pushing his glasses higher on the bridge of his nose, his eyes went back to the video. The next picture was a close up of the flower, arms raised, its chin up. “She was so pretty among what had grown so ugly around her. I read a story once that used the word ‘forlorn.’ I looked up the definition but didn’t really know what it meant until I saw her there. She’d been forgotten.” Audrey paused and studied her classmates. “But she didn’t want to be alone. She wanted to have friends but didn’t know how. She wanted to dance but couldn’t because where she was… wasn’t where she wanted to be. So, she cried there among the weeds that crowded her and the horrible, tangle-thorned bush that blocked the morning sun.”

Gardner half-turned his head from her to glance at the class. Most were now leaning forward and watching Audrey. Jimmy Reynolds was in the back looking out the window, as he always seemed to, but still got straight As. He turned back to the display. The image on it began to move. The camera pulled back to show a now cleared area. There was a sound of the wind that swirled small bits of grass past the lens as it focused on the flower now fully revealed. A gust lifted its petals.

“I call her, The Ballerina.” Audrey sounded almost happy as the camera panned around the orchid swaying in the breeze. The sky grew darker, and a drizzle of rain flitted past the lens, falling to the ground with an occasional plop of a larger drop. The camera zoomed in on the flower. Beads of water now clustered on the petals, bowing the orchid with their weight. A bit of wind tipped the flower, spilling the rain off as a voice, Audrey’s, now accompanied in the video while she stood silently in front of the class.

“I like to read, and I remember something from an author that now makes sense to me. He wrote ‘misty rain falls; not as tears, but a kiss for a garden. It’s there, in its beauty, I find peace.’” The camera panned up to a blue spot in the lightening sky. It captured the instance of the rain’s end. A bit of rainbow color arcing overhead and as the camera walked back, it seemed to end at the orchid. There the motion stopped, freezing on the flower caught in a sliver of sunlight slanting down. “I know how The Ballerina felt in that garden where no one could see her. But now I can, and she’s beautiful.” The screen faded to black as the voiceover ended with, “Now she’s not alone.”

“That was wonderful, Audrey.” Mr. Gardner detached the cord and handed the phone to her. She returned to her seat not noticing his thoughtful expression or the look on some of her classmate’s faces.

* * *

Sunday Morning

The doorbell startled her. It had not rung since they moved in, nearly a month ago. Claire Stanton rose from the kitchen table and heard—an old, creaky board sound signaling—shifting steps on the porch outside the front door. She peeped to see a tall, lean, man with dark-rimmed glasses. She opened the door. “May I help you?”

“Yes, I’m…”

“Mr. Gardner, what are you doing here?”

Audrey had come downstairs and was just behind her mother in the doorway.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he smiled at her and then her mother. “But I wanted to ask if I could see your flower—the ballerina—in your garden?”

“It’s funny,” Claire said with an over the shoulder look at Audrey. “My daughter’s had two classmates, who ride the same bus, come by this morning asking the same thing.”

He saw a small flicker on Audrey’s face that settled into a grin. The first he’d seen from her. “Mom, can Mr. Gardner come in and can I show him…?”

“Okay,” Claire looked up at the man as he pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. “Sure.” She stepped back as he stepped in. He moved gracefully but seemed just a bit embarrassed. “Would you like some coffee, Mr. Gardner? We can take it out back with us.”

“Yes, please… that’d be great.” He followed them to the kitchen and moments later—mugs in hand—they were through the back door and into the yard behind the house. About thirty feet from the door stoop’s two-step concrete pad he could see the area from Audrey’s video. Among the green and fresh pastels of new flowers, the ballerina stood out proud in the morning sunlight, two white wide-wooden-slat lawn chairs next to her. He sipped the steaming coffee. “Your daughter’s project—what she showed and said—was impressive. I had to come see for myself.”

Claire looked at Audrey, who was sitting near the orchid, a smile on her face as she watched them drink their coffee. The breeze had lifted her hair back to show how much she and her mother looked alike. Claire set her cup on the arm of the garden chair. “It’s been hard on her, losing her father two years ago, and me moving us to a new town and state.”

Joe Gardner cupped the mug in both hands and sat elbows resting on his knees. “I didn’t know the circumstances. I’m sorry for your loss.”

She expected him to look at her as he spoke but he seemed lost in thought. She didn’t reply and watched him for a moment.

“They say time heals us…” He straightened in the chair and looked over at her, but his eyes were shadowed by someone or something not there. “A little bit each day…” his tone lifted, he looked at the orchid and smiled at Audrey.

A burst of birdsong made them look up at the nearby copse of woods. Claire sighed, “It’s beautiful here. Very different from the city where we’re from.”

He looked around and something—maybe the melody in her voice—made him realize how lovely the morning was and how good the coffee smelled and tasted.

“Mom, can Mr. Gardner come back again to visit her?” Audrey gently touched the ballerina’s petals.

“If he wants to.” Claire brushed a lock of hair back and smiled. He seemed a nice man and anything that got Audrey more engaged in school and with other kids was a good thing.

“Morning coffee?” He asked with a grin. “Next Sunday?”’

She returned his smile. “You bet.”

* * *

Sunday Morning – Twelve Years Later

The tall man, dark hair now thickly-frosted gray at the temples, pushed his glasses up on his nose as he looked down at the young lady next to him. The pool of her wedding gown train was cloth of antique ivory draped over the natural jade of the close-cropped grass. The dew dampened it, but that didn’t matter. In seconds, the music would start, and they would walk to her new beginning. He shook his head. So many years… so fast they go by, he thought as he looked around. It was the start of a beautiful day. The white chairs sat brightly on the emerald green grass. Each had a cluster of orchids at the end of its row full of guests.

“We’re here—all of us—because of a flower,” he murmured to himself and looked at the group of people, his eyes immediately going to the woman sitting proudly in the front row, half-turned in her seat and watching them. She lifted a hand and waved. A mother at the moment in a daughter’s life that holds so much meaning. A woman he would not have met if not for this young lady… and an orchid. He felt tears pool in the corner of his eyes. The music began, and they took their first step. He hugged her arm tightly to him—she was so lovely in the morning sunlight—and he felt her squeeze back. He bent, but only a little since she had grown so tall, and whispered, “I love you, Audrey.”

“I love you, Dad.” She smiled up at him and thanked the ballerina she’d found in this garden that day long ago.

# # #

WHAT THE WIND BLEW AWAY Short Fiction by Dennis Lowery

What the Wind Blew Away (A Short Story of Loss & Healing)

The eBook is Available Now

A touching—teaching—story about surviving the loss of a loved one from cancer.

Samantha lost her mother and has not been able to cope with that loss. And two things she sees every day are an unbearable reminder. She hates them both. Then something happens—a moment and a conversation with her grandfather—that changes her perspective. While she’ll never fill that void in her life created by her mother’s death, she learns that she can move on while still cherishing and loving the memories of her.

There are many things I can’t do. I have no superpowers. I don’t know everything and never will. But. I know that stories are the best way to convey messages you want to resonate deeply with people. And I think they—stories—are also a compelling way to teach compassion and maybe even come to grips with our own feelings.

WHAT THE WIND BLEW AWAY Short Fiction by Dennis LoweryCreation—in art, music, literature—is often attributed to a muse. A familiar spirit that guides and maybe even sits on a shoulder. One day I looked at my oldest daughter’s wedding pictures again while burning a DVD of them. One of her best friends, battling cancer and gutting it out though she was terribly sick, was one of her bridesmaids. In the weeks following the wedding, she had setbacks. The cancer had spread. And we lost Ashley. She was a brave and bright soul. As I looked at pictures of her at the wedding, I recalled how hard she hugged me after my toast to the new bride and groom… and I thought about our loss. And how we heal. Ashley was on my shoulder as I wrote this short story to explain how those we love—when they pass on—they’re never truly gone. The important part of them stays with us. Always.

–Dennis Lowery

What some of my early readers had to say about the story:

As a writer you believe what you’re creating will touch someone in some way. But you send your creation out into an often silent world. Maybe it’s just not found so it can be read. After all, we live in a world where we’re inundated with information, social media shares, and posts. Pictures of cute dogs… cute cats… cute girls… and bacon. In all of that, sometimes your writing gets missed. BUT then there are times where you get a message from a reader like this. And it confirms that what you’re doing does reach some people and that it’s touched their heart. I received this message–screen-grab below–from a reader of the excerpt from this story that I posted on social media.

Here’s more comments from other readers:

“Superbly written.” –Gwendolyn M.

“Wow, what a bittersweet yet beautiful story of love and loss and healing… Thank you for such a poignant and touching story Dennis!” -Lisa Wolfington

“Loved your story. It made me think of loved ones that are no longer here. They will always be with me. Thank-you.” -Marsha Mooneyhan

“Beautifully written, Dennis.” -Michael Koontz

“A beautiful story of loss and healing; so touching and lovely.” -Nina Anthonijsz

“Talk about tugging at the heart strings.” -Vicki Tyley

“I love your story; it’s a touching and poignant piece.” -RC de Winter

“Thank you, so much. It’s a beautiful story; a sweet and touching read. I need to explore that connection [in the story] I am glad you wrote this as it’s nudging me to explore what it is.” -Amy Dionne

“Left me speechless and filled with precious memories from when Mom was around. Thank you for this beautiful story.” -L. Moncivaiz