The Four Faces of Me
By W. Edward Gregory
About 400 words
While struggling to create a banner for this site, I subconsciously chose the four faces and phases of Ed Gregory as writer.
At the far left, is Ed Gregory the soldier. This was in Vietnam, not too long after I was cranking out really rough action/adventure stories on an orderly room typewriter at night after graduating from basic combat training. It might have been me, or just the boredom of waiting for our next assignments, but there were guys standing at the typewriter waiting to rip out fresh pages and pass them around to other guys sitting in chairs along the walls.
The second from the left is Ed Gregory the mild-mannered reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, The Tennessean, where I wrote mostly about business and technology. Look! Up in the sky! Okay, so I didn’t take it that far – but that’s mainly because, except during a gym rat period in my forties, I didn’t look good in tights.
The third from the left is Ed Gregory the song-slinger. I produced a full box of half-written songs, and my original “thewritespot.com” Website, while participating in songwriting workshops for several years with hit writers whose names were on millions of records. I learned quite a bit – like how to write a good song and, more importantly, that only great songs get cut. Alas, that I did not seem destined to be among those who write a super hit that pays for a nice house.
Finally is Ed Gregory the cranioluminescent geek. This is the me who was at home in a corporate cube farm as a technical writer and, later, analyst. I got the role of Tina the techwriter, not even an understudy to Dilbert. However, I do have a collection of cube life stories that will knock your . . . wait, let me check the expiration date on my non-disclosure agreement and whether it has impacts on my retirement package. (Just kidding, former bosses. [No, I'm not!])
There is no picture of Ed Gregory the fictionator. He’s a work in progress, as are the stories that appear in these pages. The he that is the me of now spends a lot of time writing, and reading about writing, and writing about reading about writing, and in blogs and discussion threads around the ‘Net with other fictionados.
I’m building a collection of short fiction at the urging of my muse, who was quiescent for 40 years and suddenly seems eager to make up for some of that lost time.
- Queen of the Sunday Morning Waffle House Crowd
- What Goes Up
- Honeysuckle in July
- Oprah, Al Gore, the Dancer, and Me
- Final Brush with the Law
- It Rings True
- The Glitch Who Saved Christmas
Two of these stories were entered in flash fiction contests online, so there are links to them. The others are “unpublished” even here so that when they do reach the hands of potential publishers, I will be offering first publication rights rather than reprint rights.
Standard advice from stellar authors, like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, is to have a daily writing goal and treat writing like any job. Thanks, guys. Now I have to worry about whether I’m going to lay myself off.
So my goal is to complete one short fiction work every week, even if I have to do an all-nighter every Saturday night until I make better use of “normal” working hours.
Queen of the Sunday Morning Waffle House Crowd
By W. Edward Gregory
About 1,800 words
The door marked “Restrooms” swung open and Miss Annie Ledbetter toddled back into the restaurant proper, rearranging her gloves, umbrella, scarf, Sunday paper, Bible, and purse without losing a step.
Two of the three red booths nearest her were open, but the white-haired matron passed them by.
Two tables at the far end of the crowded breakfast counter were also open, but Annie continued only far enough to settle into the middle-most of the straight-backed waiting area chairs lined up along the front windows.
“Won’t be long, Hon,” said a woman identified by her yellow nametag as Ruby – Shift Manager – 23 Years Service.
The aptly named waitress spoke just loud enough to be heard over the rumble and sloshing of the silvery Hobart dishwasher.
Ruby gave the counter a couple of big swirls with a wet towel, then caught Annie’s attention and nodded toward the table in the corner where a mature couple, dressed as if for church, was sipping coffee. Their napkins lay wadded up telltale on their nearly empty plates.
In return, Annie gave Ruby a quick little smile and thumbs-up sign.
Tourists and other non-regulars might have wondered if perhaps this genteel lady shunned the two empty booths at the right of the counter because of their proximity to a third booth that could barely contain three raucous young men whose explosive laughter was punctuated by animated arms and legs.
More cynical observers might wonder if, given her age and this being the Deep South, she was averse to sitting at one of the two vacant tables at the left end of the counter because the corner table was occupied by persons of color.
On either of those counts, they would be dead wrong.
“Miss Annie, your table is opening up,” Ruby called across the counter.
Annie’s eyes twinkled with anticipation. She remained in her chair a few moments longer as the church couple rose and headed for the register, the woman gathering up the bill as her male companion tossed some greenbacks on the table.
Rosita hurried down to clear and wipe the table.
Annie displayed a modicum of grace, for one with arms so full, as she navigated between the chairs at the back of the table and took her usual seat in the corner. She settled in and then pushed the table forward to get just a little more room for comfort. Rosita helped with the table adjustment, as usual, and plopped down three napkins and three spoons.
“Just three coffees. Two with cream. Right, Miss Annie?” Rosita asked.
“Yes, sweetheart, if you please.”
Rosita spun around and stepped back behind the business side of the counter. Smiling, she called back over her shoulder, “Coming right up, Miss Annie! I made a fresh pot just for you!”
The “Miss” most folks used was a Southern affectation, a sign of respect and not so harsh-sounding as calling her “Mrs. Ledbetter.” Folks called her Annie, or Miss Annie, or, sometimes, Ms. Ledbetter.
Hardly anybody called her Mrs. Ledbetter anymore. One exception was the third waitress on duty today. Mary Helen said “Good morning, Mrs. Ledbetter” with her mouth but not with her eyes. She had waited on the Ledbetters for years, but now was grumpy every Sunday morning when Annie came in.
Ruby, believing she had some understanding of what soured things between Miss Annie and Mary Helen, made it a rule that Mary Helen would not be assigned on Sundays to the section containing Annie’s favorite table.
This particular Sunday morning’s rush was a bit slower than average. Still, there was plenty of hustle in the air.
Ruby tucked a stray auburn and grey lock back under her hairnet and hat, raised her order pad, and sounded off.
“Three eggs over medium, two waffles, order covered in the ring, pull two sausage,” she shouted in the general direction of Big Al’s broad back.
This size of the order meant the police officer at the counter, a Ruby regular who paid his own tab and was a good tipper, was hungrier than usual this morning.
Rosita sidled closer to Al, dodging nervously as he moved in and out and around the grill area, and called out just a bit timidly, “Two eggs scrambled, order smothered and covered, pull one bacon.”
Mary Helen was the poster girl for honey-and-sunshine Southern grace most of the time. Today, because Annie was near, Mary Helen was drill-sergeant-gruff as she fired out the orders of the three teenagers and of two truckers seated at the counter.
Like a human cipher machine, Big Al soaked it all in, hands and arms and skillets and plates moving with hypnotic precision until at the end of an extended series of rattles and scrapes, clinks and clanks, the cook’s butcher block counter was covered by a row of glistening white plates all steaming with hot Southern-style breakfasts.
“Orders up!” the cook called out. He stepped back and, in a grand gesture, spread his big arms wide to showcase his “art.”
When Big Al worked the busy shift, it really was a thing of beauty. People say the show he put on is part of the reason this place had so many regulars on Sunday mornings. He moved with the smooth grace of an Olympic gymnast – if Olympic gymnasts weighed north of 300 pounds, flipped omelets, and wore greasy white aprons and paper hats.
His prowess at the grill was not why Annie came every Sunday, although she was always happy to see him. She watched him today from her vantage point in the corner and chuckled softly when it occurred to her that Al looked like he was conducting a stainless steel symphony.
On Sundays, people flocked to the Waffle House either after early service or before late service. Annie preferred coming early, but her son, TJ, and husband, Tom Sr., preferred to skip church service and would come directly from their garage, sometimes hardly slowing enough to wash up properly.
The Ledbetter men looked forward to Al’s showmanship with spatula and omelet pan. But that came second to their joyful grins when talking rapid-fire about whatever the next step might be in their father-son restoration project. That pair had their heads and hands full of antique pickup truck every weekend, it seemed, from Saturday morning until 9:45 am Sunday when it was time to head out and meet up with Annie.
TJ and Tom Sr. did their best to get to the Waffle House in time to hold down the corner table for when Annie was finally through shaking hands and sharing warm regards with other members of the Ebenezer Lighthouse Victory Chapel.
Annie and Tom Sr. had continued coming to the Waffle House every Sunday after TJ’s National Guard unit deployed to Iraq, saving their absent son a place and ordering an extra coffee – black, the way TJ liked it.
The first time in recent history that anybody can remember all three Ledbetters missing a Waffle House Sunday was last December,… Continue reading
Honeysuckle in July
By W. Edward Gregory
About 475 words
She’d been dumped in a honeysuckle thicket just outside the town limits almost two weeks earlier. It was July, the South, and there had been no lack of visiting critters.
Later, I saw the blood-soaked mattress that her ex-husband turned over before he put their two toddlers back in the bed so he could leave and dispose of their mother’s body.
I only heard second hand about the vacant stares that greeted the church bus driver who stopped because he saw two little children wandering in pajamas in the front yard. His bus was half-loaded with children not much older who, I hope, never learned why they were late for Sunday School that day.
That’s what being a reporter with friends on the department will get you.
I was a rookie stringer, but, having gotten the chief of detectives in this neighboring county on the front page of the big city paper, I wasn’t surprised at getting a call inviting me to join in the search for a murder victim’s body.
An hour after that call, I was on the edge of a country road at dusk, lined up with a bunch of strangers. We spread out , raggedly spaced about six feet apart. It was like being back in Army basic training, lined up for a police call of the company area. But we weren’t looking for cigarette butts and litter.
We weren’t out there long before I heard the chief of police, just to my right, crying out in an odd voice.
“Oh God. I found her.”
Three steps and I was standing beside him and what was left of her. Instinct took over and my Pentax was in action, it’s strobe revealing in vivid flashes the nightmare at my feet.
Regrets continued to pile up that night. The small town department’s official photographer wasn’t to be found. Another officer had a camera, but since I was a “professional” and I was already there, it was decided by somebody that it made sense for me to take the pictures. Pictures that would never accompany any story I wrote, but would have been shown to a jury if the killer took back his confession.
They asked me to meet the body at the morgue so I could take more pictures and then give them the film for processing. I called in the story from the morgue while waiting for the body to arrive. Then I took the pictures I try unsuccessfully not to remember while I’m writing this 40 years later.
Back at the paper the next day, I took a ribbing for not bringing the film back. Not for publication, but for the morbid fascination of editors, reporters, and photographers who had themselves seen the same or worse – or were waiting their turn. Some asked brutally frank questions about the grisly details, hoping to harass this rookie.
What they didn’t know is that I was already inoculated, as much as you can be. My own father was murdered when I was 16, and I was just a few years back from Vietnam.
I was already tough. I was already hardened. Yeah. Bullshit.
For nearly 40 years, I’ve wondered what became of those children who spent the night on a mattress soaked with their mother’s blood.
By W. Edward Gregory
About 700 words
The colors were all too familiar. Outside, the lumbering camouflaged C-130s almost melted into the surroundings. Inside, walls and furniture blended unevenly in variations of olive drab green. Passengers waiting to escape the Central Highlands were dressed either in the mottled grey-green-black of jungle fatigues or in silk as black as jungle shadow.
How many of them wished me dead right now? How many had relatives who had been on the other side of the wire, or inside the wire . . .
A noise or a movement brought me back to a scene that was, thankfully, four decades newer. I was arriving at, not departing from, the Pleiku airport. But why was I here? Ah, yes. The Visit.
My brother had returned home with a Vietnamese wife, and they learned that she could not bear children. In a moment of guilt or stupidity, I told her that when I received orders to leave Vietnam, my house-girl/lover pulled me aside. Crying, she pulled my hands over her rounded belly and said, “You no leave. You take me. I got baby for you.”
Those words gnawed on the frayed edges of my conscience for decades.
I’d spent my last three months of my tour in the boonies, without the niceties of barracks and hot water and her companionship. I was naïve for 20 and I didn’t know what three or four months pregnant should look like. It didn’t seem real, but what did at the time? I pressed the equivalent of hundreds of dollars American – most of my going home pay – into her hands. I walked away to the sound of crying and cursing in English and Vietnamese.
My sister-in-law was certain several years later that the story must have been true. Her whole being wanted it to be true and she pleaded with me.
“I want adopt a baby who look Vietnamee and look like you, like your brother. Do you know mother name? Can you find her?”
I didn’t try. Not then. Not for 40 more years.
In fact, it wasn’t even I who tried. Not deliberately. It was the Internet, some cells I donated to a VA research project while I was in for something else, a Communist government eager to use American technology and science to embarrass America, and who knows what else that combined and conspired to place my genetic fingerprints in plain view of a teenager in the Central Highlands who was trying to locate her American grandfather.
And here I was, again. The airport was much more modern on this arrival than it had been on that departure. The clothing was a mix of Western and traditional. The mood was festive instead of somber – people talking in many languages, children laughing and running.
I was soaking it all in when the eddies and currents of the crowd suddenly shifted to open a corridor easing the passage of the small family toward the American standing frozen – me. A reluctant 10-year-old boy, a radiant 17-year-old girl, and their taciturn mother – whom I had hoped for decades was not real and now loved instantly and forever.
Her eyes were hazel like mine, a combination of brown and grey and green that had not served as camouflage for her. They were a beacon identifying her unmistakably and forever as the child of an American GI – to many a bitter reminder of what they called The American War.
She looked at me and I saw a slightly older and partially Asian version of my daughter back in Ohio. More wrinkled, I thought at first, from a harsh life under the sun. Then it was clear: some of those wrinkles went the wrong direction. They were scars.
Books and articles I finally mustered the courage to read explained, in soul-chilling terms, about the horrific treatment of Amer-Asian children. But this was not somebody in a book. This was flesh of my flesh.
My blood froze and my muscles heard the silent warning: Incoming!
“You are my father?” she asked. Her voice was soft, but the words sent shockwaves through the ground.
I nodded. “Yes.”
“THU-BOOOOM!!” shouted the memories. The ground shook again under my feet. No, it didn’t.
She wrinkled her brow and her nose disapprovingly.
“You are not so strong and beautiful as my mother told me.”
I could see that she instantly regretted the words, but I felt weak and ugly after all the years of knowing, or at least suspecting, and doing nothing.
She reached out and took my hand, looked to her children, then looked up at me with a beatific smile that turned time and distance into forgotten mist.
“We will go someplace quiet so you can you sing to us like you sang to my mother,” she said, “and then we will sing for you.”