Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

An Unexpected Christmas Gift (Narrative)

by Paula Gail Benson
[This week features three variations of a story -- narrative, screenplay, and first person. If you post a comment or holiday greeting during the week (December 22-28, 2013), your name will be entered into a random drawing for a copy of the recently released anthology MYSTERY TIMES TEN 2013 (Buddhapuss Ink). Hope this makes your holidays happier!]
            Professor Richards had a habit of viewing life as a screenplay. He couldn’t help it. That’s what happened when you taught film studies to university undergrads for twelve years. You realized most experiences were just fodder waiting to be incorporated into a script. 
           Take tonight, for example. A week before Christmas.
            Interior setting. A local, hole-in-the-wall, fast food hangout on the outskirts of the university. Catered to the students and surrounding community. Provided lots of memories. First jobs. Study dates. Surprise proposals.
            Oops, Ham thought. Let’s not explore that back-story.
            Return to the premise. The protagonist enters the hangout. His name, English Professor Hambly Harrison Richards, III. Unfortunately called Ham all his life because his dad took Harry and Grandpa had been Double H.
            Blessedly, Ham had only a daughter, so the moniker could rest in peace with him.
            He navigated straight to a familiar booth near the front and sat. After a good ten minutes, a pimply undergrad, pushing back at his large black rimmed glasses, arrived to take Ham’s order. 
            “Just coffee, please. Black.” 
            “Oh, gee,” the worker said. “I just broke down the machine. Didn’t think we’d get any more coffee drinkers tonight.” 
            Mr. Kressley, the proprietor, hurried over after shutting his office door. “Then, it’s good I’m still here to keep the Professor entertained while you set it back up and brew a new pot.” 
            “Yes, Mr. Kressley.” 
            Shaking his head as he watched his new employee amble behind the counter, Mr. Kressley told Ham, “The ones who work here now are nothing like your generation. You were always here early for your shift and ready to stay late to clean up.” 
            Ham shrugged. “We didn’t have iPad games and the Internet beckoning us.” 
            “You’re telling me. Even those Jessie’s age had more gumption to them.” 
            “Hum.” Ham always called his daughter Jessica, after the Shakespearian character for whom she had been named. But, he would never correct Mr. Kressley. Anyone who had worked at the restaurant knew you accepted anything the boss said. Ham looked at his watch. “She should be here shortly.” 
            “Ah, such a lovely girl. Always a professional worker. Spitting image of her mother.” 
            Ham nodded, thinking that “spitting” was an appropriate tribute to Jessica’s mother. 
            “She and her young man relived a little of your history here a few nights ago, you know.” 
            Ham arched a brow. “I didn’t.” 
            “Gave her THE ring.” Mr. Kressley pointed to the spot. “Right in the booth where you proposed to her mom.” 
            Ham thought history would have taught them what a mistake that was. 
            At the sound of a mechanical sputter, Mr. Kressley glanced back toward the counter and shook his head. “Let me go check on the rookie. He may never get the coffee maker back together by himself.”
             Sitting back in his seat listening vaguely to the sounds at the counter behind him, Ham indulged in flashback. When his baby was a little girl, he brought her here so her mother could grade papers without distractions. He called it their daddy-daughter date nights and let her wear the pink Cinderella outfit she wore every Halloween until she outgrew it and stopped trick-or-treating forever. 
            But, wait. Halloween wasn’t the last time she wore the costume. Ham let her wear it here for a very special daddy-daughter date night. When he told her that he and momma were divorcing. That was the last time she wore the outfit. 
            Ham shook his head, forcing his thoughts to return to the present. He had decided to repeat the date night ritual, despite its potential ramifications. Surely, the bad couldn’t outweigh all the good they had shared in this place. And, he had to confront her someplace about her decision he was sure would ruin her life. 
            After her mother left him for that adjunct professor gigolo, how could Jessica just go live with Gordo, without any certain sign or agreement of commitment? 
            Oh, sure. Now, Mr. Kressley said that Gordo made a show of giving Jessica a ring. 
            But, Ham had seen the ring. It wasn’t a diamond. And, there had been no talk of marriage.            Jessica was late. Ham blamed that on Gordo’s influence. Gordo never had turned a paper in on time when he was Ham’s student.
            Ham always told Jessica that she would be his princess, and warned her to settle for no man who would treat her as less. So how did that bozo Gordo breach the perimeter? Despite his English teacher facility with words, Ham didn’t like what he was thinking.
            Stretching to relieve his tension, Ham took a look around the place. A derelict in a dirty, wrinkled trench coat slumped in the back corner booth. Seemed to be talking to himself. Maybe just taking advantage of being inside, out of the cold. 
            Mr. Kressley returned with Ham’s coffee. “You and Jessie were all I could have asked for in employees. Nothing like the rookie I’ve got behind the register now. But, it’s Christmas, and the kid has expenses like everyone else. So I give him a chance, despite my misgivings. I’m even going to take a few hours to leave early and spend time with the family before coming back to close.” He looked back toward the rookie. “You think I’m making a mistake?” 
            “No, no. He’ll be fine. Everyone’s a little rough around the edges in the beginning. He’ll get the hang of it.” 
            “Just keep an eye on him for me, will you, Ham?”
            “Sure, sure,” Ham replied, thinking he had enough to watch over without having to keep track of a rookie at the register.
            Mr. Kressley looked back at the rookie once more. “He should have no trouble.” He didn’t sound as certain as his words. “And, if there is something serious, we’ve installed a buzzer just under the counter that sends a silent alarm to the police sub-station. You’ll have to ask Jessica about the night she hit it by mistake and all hell broke loose.”
            “I’ll do that.” Ham figured she might talk about that subject if not Gordo.
            As Mr. Kressley departed, Jessica dashed in. After a quick kiss on her former boss’ cheek, she came directly to Ham’s booth and scooted in across from him.
            “I can’t stay long. I’m meeting Gordo at a party. Don`t try to talk me out of it because we accepted weeks ago and people are expecting us. And while we’re at it, don’t waste time trying to talk me out of living with Gordo. My decision’s final. I’ve already given notice at my apartment. I’ve got no place else to go.”
            The divorce left her uprooted. Ham blamed himself. “You can stay with me. I’ll give you your space.”
            “Dad, you barely have your own space in that apartment. You don’t need another occupant.”
            “I want one. I want you.”
            She sighed. “I love you, Dad. But, I’m living with Gordo, so get used to it.”
            Ham sipped his coffee, now cold. What could he say to prevent this travesty? He knew Gordo’s inabilities, too well. Always late for class. Always unprepared. Always uninterested and never contributing to the discussion. Who didn’t like to talk about film? What in the world had attracted his only beloved daughter to such an unimaginative, unworthy male?
            “Dad, don’t move.” 
            “That guy who was sitting behind me in the back booth?” 
            Ham nodded. He looked back to the booth and saw the man was gone. 
            “Don’t turn around. He’s at the register. I think he has a gun in his pocket.” 
            “How can you tell?"
             “Well, there’s a bulge larger than his fist, and he seems to be pointing at the kid with his hand inside his pocket.”
            “Oh, my God. We’ve got to call the police.”
            “Just stay still. There’s a silent alarm beneath the counter.” She frowned. “If that new kid at the register will just remember to press it.”
            “What’s happening?”
            “Damn. The kid just keeps shaking his head. The guy’s getting nervous. I’ll try to call the police. Move in front of me to keep him from seeing me use my cell.”
            Ham couldn’t stand it if something happened to Jessica. He shifted uncomfortably on the bench, wishing he could be a larger shield.
            Jessica pulled out her phone. An old flip style model.
            Ham’s eyes widened, and he wondered why she hadn’t already upgraded her phone. The gunman might hear her opening it. Sure enough, when activated, it sounded a few notes.
            “What’s that noise?”
            The voice coming from behind Ham must have been the gunman, who sounded skittish.
            Ham turned around to face him. The gunman was frightened, and the kid at the register had frozen. Ham stood up and slid out of the booth.
            “I can’t believe it either,” Ham said carefully positioning himself between the gunman and Jessica. “I ask my daughter out for a night of quiet conversation and what’s the first thing she does but whip out her cell.”
            “Put it up,” the gunman demanded to Jessica.
            “Maybe she’ll listen to you. I’m sure my pleas will have no effect. I’m just her father who’s worried sick about her throwing away her future.”
            The gunman started to shake. When he did, his hand slipped further from his pocket, revealing what looked like a gun handle.
            Ham kept talking. “She’s just like her mother. I thought my girl was stable and secure, but no. Her head’s turned by the first male bee to BUZZ HER.” He emphasized the last two words, glancing at the kid behind the counter. “Buzz her. Buzz her. Buzz her.” It did no good. The rookie seemed paralyzed.
            “You mean, ‘buzz around her,’” the gunman corrected.
            “Exactly. BUZZ HER.” Ham gave it one last try, then wrapped his arm around the gunman’s shoulder and tried to walk a few steps toward the door. “She’s my one little girl. I’ve always told her to settle for nothing less than someone who adores her, but what does she wind up with?”
            “Somebody like me?” the gunman asked.
            “Not half your caliber. A wing nut. Like the low life who ran off with her mother.” Suddenly, Ham remembered another incident to turn to his advantage. “Can you believe it, that scum who stole my wife went on a game show, knew all the answers, and got so excited he called them out before he HIT THE BUZZER.” Still no reaction from the kid. “Pitiful.” Ham wasn’t even sure who he was describing.
            “How dare you insult my mother and step-father,” Jessica cried, jumping up from her seat and approaching Ham and the gunman.
            What was she doing? Ham wanted to keep her safe.
            “How dare you,” Ham countered, clutching the gunman closer, hoping to immobilize his trigger hand. “To inflict our family’s trauma on this good man who has simply come in to seek shelter from the cold. You should be ashamed to act this way so close to Christmas.”
            “Why?” Jessica challenged him. “Because I’ll get on Santa’s naughty list and receive no toys? I’m not a little girl anymore, Dad.”
            “More’s the pity. The way you’re acting now, I should paddle you across my knee.”
            “The shame’s on you, Dad, for not being able to realize how deeply Gordo loves me. I don’t care what you say, I’ll shout it from the mountain top.” By now she was behind the counter. “Boost me up,” she told the kid, gripping underneath the counter where the buzzer must have been. Then, with the kid’s aid, in one swift move, she was standing on top of the counter, looking down on them. “Gordo loves me and I love him. And we’re going to live together so just get used to it.”
            “Stop making a spectacle of yourself.”
            “You started it.”
            Ham struggled to regain eye contact with the gunman. “I really have to apologize for my daughter’s behavior,” he began.
            “Let me go, mister,” the man replied. “I just want outta here.”
            “Of course,” Ham said, loosening his grip on the man. “I’ll be glad to take care of your bill for the trouble we’ve caused you.”
            As soon as his arm was free, the man swung around, pulled out his gun, and began pointing it at each of them -- Ham, Jessica, and the rookie -- wildly.
            “Dad, be careful!” Jessica cried out.
            Ham held his hands up in from of the gunman. “I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt my little girl.”
            The man pointed the gun directly at Ham. “Keep away from me, mister. You are one crazy bastard.”
            In the next instant, Ham saw the rookie rush past him and grab the gunman’s arm. They struggled. Ham heard the gun go off, then felt himself falling to the floor.
            Goodbye, Jessica. I’ll always love you, baby.
            Ham opened his eyes and blinked. He was still in the hangout, lying on the floor with a wet cloth on his forehead. He could hear people talking around him and Mr. Kressley yelling. He looked up and saw Jessica’s beautiful brown eyes watching him.
            “What happened?” he asked.
            “Mr. Kressley’s employee rushed the gunman when he tried to shoot you. The impact of the blast propelled all three of you into a heap on the floor. Fortunately, the police got here quickly. I guess the kid pushed the alarm earlier than we thought. Your head must have hit the floor hard. We couldn’t get you to wake up, so we’ve just called the paramedics. They should be here soon.”
            “Help me up. Let me sit at our booth.”
            Jessica did as he asked. Ham sat down, leaning his elbows on the table and holding the towel to his aching forehead.
            After watching him a few moments, Jessica slipped into the booth on the bench across from him and took out her cell phone. “Gordo?” she said after dialing the number. “I’m not going to make the party. I’m okay. Don’t come get me. Don’t worry. I’ll explain everything at home. Love you. Bye.”
            She flipped the phone closed. Ham groaned, more at what she said than at his own pain.
            “You really hate Gordo that much?” Jessica asked Ham, as she put up her phone.
            “I guess not. It just irks me that he only wants to live with you and not commit to marriage. Maybe what happened to your mother and me makes you wary about the institution, but Jessica, baby, a marriage is about promise and trust. Living together is just about convenience. I mean, even though your mother left me, she found real happiness with your step-father, and they committed to each other. I want you planning a future with someone, not just hoping it works out.”
            She sat with her arms on the table, hands clasped, head bowed. “Okay. I get it. Now, I have something to give to you.” She reached into her purse and took out an envelope to hand him. “You were supposed to get that Christmas morning.”
            He opened the seal and took out the card from inside. It read: Jessica Richards and Gordon Humphreys request the honor of your presence . . . The wedding was scheduled for 9:00 pm New Year’s Eve.
            “Think you could take time out of your busy schedule to give me away?”
            “How do you know I’ll be in town?” Ham asked, playing grumpy to avoid smiling.
            “Because you and I always spend New Year’s Eve together. Now, we’ll just have Gordo along.”
            Oh, joy, thought Ham.
            “But, I swear to you that Gordo will never put our child through what you just did to me.”
            Ham braced himself, wondering if another unexpected gift was about to come his way.



Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

What a fascinating and terrific idea! Can;t wait to read the others... Happy Holidays and oxxo

John said...

Loved it.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Clever story and clever way to show it three ways.

carla said...

Nice job, Ms. Paula!

Georgia Ruth said...

Paula, a nice story gets even better with additional formats to choose from. Great idea!

Nancy Sweeland said...

This is an interesting idea - can't wait to see the others to compare.

Shari Randall said...

Hi Paula,
I especially liked the sweet relationship between the dad and daughter and your terrific first line (I am a sucker for great first lines!)
Can't wait to read the rest!

E. B. Davis said...

Love, trust, expectations, protection, all those elements in the father/daughter relationhip--you captured! When are you posting the other two versions?

Paula Gail Benson said...

I can't tell you how much I appreciate the enthusiastic response to this blog post! Thank you so much Hank, John, Debra, Carla, Georgia, Nancy, Shari, and E.B. for your kind comments. The next version (screenplay)goes up tomorrow, December 24, and the last(first person) will post on Friday, December 27. I hope you'll have a chance to look back in and compare. Best wishes for a happy holiday season to all!

Jacqueline Seewald said...


A lovely holiday gift for readers!

Best wishes for your continuing success in the coming year.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thank you, Jacqueline! Best wishes to you also.

Kara Cerise said...

Great story, Paula! I looks forward to reading the screenplay and first person.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Thanks, Kara!

Kaye George said...

The story looks great here! Nice job.