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A Goose, a Grin, and a Glass of Gin

Short Story: Short-order fiction


Published December 17, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

We gave six writers "a goose, a grin and a glass of gin," and a limit of 400 words in which to explain how they might figure in the same story. The results range from the supernatural to the psychological, take in a wedding and a funeral, and involve a good number of parents -- mostly problematic ones. The biggest surprise, for us, was the goose. They came in both cooked and on the wing, but not once in the form of a verb. We hope you have as much fun with them as our writers did.

Best Man

By Erik Esckilsen

I felt nothing at first. Standing on the altar with my best friend, Steve, I should've been lamenting the imminent loss of my partner in bachelor smart-aleckhood. But he -- the groom -- had clearly not made the transition to serious married guy.

The string quartet had just begun a pleasant number when a big-boned woman on the friend-of-the-bride side began sobbing. A beaded necklace rattled like maracas upon her bosom.

"Jesus," Steve whispered. He gestured toward the woman, then eyed the priest, a mid-forties guy with soap-opera good looks. I'd been trying, since the wedding rehearsal, to connect his rakish likeness with a celebrity name. "If the band breaks into ‘Danny Boy,'" Steve added, "Aunt Colleen's going to need a tranquilizer."

I chuckled. Father Soap Opera flashed me a tense grin.

I studied the church decorations, particularly the flowers -- garish, trumpet-shaped monstrosities of a variety I'd never seen outside an aquarium.

"Nice flowers, huh?" Steve whispered.

"Charles Darwin would be jealous."

"It's not the flowers I mind so much as the killer bees that came with them."

I nodded to an elderly gentleman shifting in his seat on the groom's side. He wore a bow tie and a scowl as he cleared his throat in rasping reports that sounded like Jimmy Durante singing scales.

"I loved him in Frosty the Snowman," I said to Steve, "but Gramps needs a glass of water."

"Uncle Buster," Steve said. "Glass of gin's more like it. And a bocce ball."

Father Soap Opera turned to us -- and not to show off his perfect teeth. The band struck up the processional.

To Pachelbel's "Canon" and Aunt Colleen blowing her sentimental nose like a lost goose, I finally got it: Steve now had another partner -- in things other than cracking wise. I wasn't sure how I felt about it, but I know I felt something.

The ceremony ended, naturally, with a kiss. Seeing Steve and Sharyl smile at each other, like friends, I considered that maybe I was, as the cliche holds, gaining a new friend, not losing an old one.

Father Soap Opera stepped forward and grandly introduced the newlyweds. While the congregation applauded, Sharyl winked at me. "Check out David Copperfield," she said, flipping her tiara toward the priest. "Do you think he'd saw my Aunt Colleen in half?"

Erik Esckilsen is the author of The Last Mall Rat (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) and the forthcoming An Iron Rain, both novels for teen readers. He is also a journalist and college writing instructor in Burlington.

Endless Simmer

By Sue Halpern

Emeril was starting to truss a goose when Janet's phone rang. For a second she considered letting it go to message since she knew it was her best friend Christine, whom she talked to every day. Ever since she read Dogs Who Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, Janet understood that she was one of those acutely hypersensitive types who knew what was going to happen before it actually did. On the other hand, ever since she told her non-committing boyfriend Carlson to take a hike six weeks ago, the only people who called regularly were her mother and Christine, and her mother had already called that morning.

("Hi honey!" her mother said in that aggressively isn't-it-great-to-be-alive voice she used when she phoned before the sun was up: "Today is the four-hundred-twenty-sixth day of my sobriety!"

"What are you doing?" Janet yawned. She had been in the fifth hour of her sleep.

"Aren't you going to say ‘Congratulations?'" her mother asked. "What do you think I'm doing? I'm thinking about not having a glass of gin. I'm wondering if the vodka I put in the Fantastic bottle two years ago is still behind the Citrasolve in the laundry room. I'm thinking about cooking braised fennel with wine." Her mother loved to watch the food network too. It was something they had in common.)

So it wouldn't be her mother, who right now was probably watching Emeril herself. Which meant it had to be Christine, who recently had become a vegan.

Janet didn't bother to say hi. "Emeril just plunged the skewer deep into the goose's flesh," she gloated. How could she be soulmates with someone who chose to eat pizza topped with tofu "cheese?"

"Ugh. Gross."

Janet came to attention. Unless Christine had developed a terrible cold in the last 18 hours, this was definitely not her voice.

"Oh, sorry," Janet said. "Who is this?"


"Carlson? Is that you? I have a feeling it might be you."

"Yes," Carlson said. He had a grin on his face. Janet could hear it. She could see it. It was very winning. She loved the way, when he smiled, he bit his lower lip with his front teeth. She loved the impression they left.

Emeril was opening the oven. Janet focused long enough to hear him say, "Your goose is cooked," and then she turned down the sound.

Sue Halpern is a journalist and author of the novel The Book of Hard Things, published this fall by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Playing with Mr. Finger

By Ruth Horowitz

"He reminds me of Mr. Finger." Becky points to the picture.

"Yellow-Dog Dingo?" Lisa rolls her eyes. Becky knows what that means: Books like Just So Stories are for babies. Lisa's only reading it with her for something to do while they wait for their parents' party to begin. Mr. Finger is always first to come and last to go -- their mother's oldest friend. "You're not going to play that stupid name game with him, are you?" Lisa asks.

"Why shouldn't I?"

"Because he's gross. Like Yellow-Dog Dingo. You just said so.

"I meant his grin," Becky says. "Always hungry, grinning like a coal-scuttle."

A coal-scuttle is something hard. Not happy. How Mr. Finger always grins when he pulls her aside. Which he does every time. "Rebecca Jean," he'll say, though Jean is her mother. Becky's middle name is Jane. "I'll give you a quarter if you can tell me the story of your name." So she'll tell the story: Rebecca at the well giving water to Abraham's servants' thirsty camels, proving she's the perfect bride for Isaac. When she agrees to be married, the servant gives her silver and gold. It's that easy. And even though Lisa is three years older, Mr. Finger never plays with her.

When she comes upon him standing alone in the kitchen, he spills what he's pouring. "Rebecca Jean. You startled me. I was thirsty." He raises his glass in a shaky salute, then noisily swallows. "Gin was mother's milk to me. To paraphrase Shaw." His eyes are red. In the puddle sits a coin of French bread, spread with something gray. He holds it up, his hand trembling. "Know what this is?"

"Pâte." When he doesn't answer, she adds, "de foie gras." She just wants to get her money and go.

But he shakes his head. "Deception." The word is slurred. "This is deception. The goose is hungry, of course. We're all hungry or thirsty. So they feed it. With a funnel. And then eat its fat liver."

Lisa was right. He is gross. And now he won't play properly. Becky turns to go back, but he suddenly reaches for her. "Don't you be like that, Rebecca Jean," he says, grinning like a coal-scuttle. Her mother's laugh rings out in the other room. "Don't lead a man on." He's hurting her arm, he's digging in so hard. "Don't you do that, too," he says.

Ruth Horowitz is Seven Days' associate editor. Her fifth children's book, Big Surprise in the Bug Tank, will be published in 2004.


By Rick Kisonak

The young man stood at the edge of a smoking crater and looked down. What remained of the meteor or whatever it was protruded from the rock and dirt 700 feet below and glowed, but the heat singed his face and he had to step back.

A goose passed noisily overhead and the Labrador barked. The dog beckoned his owner homeward but, instead of following, he shuffled slowly to the side of the highway and rested on the rusted guardrail. A feeling of lightness overtook him. He tingled for a moment, as though he'd knocked back a glass of gin in a single swallow. The young man's mind raced and reordered itself like a computer downloading a program.

He would never be the same. He was sure of this somehow. He'd come too close to something that had come from too far away.

After a while his mind quieted. He looked around and noticed his dog was gone. He stood. The dizziness and tingling had passed. He tried to make himself believe that nothing had happened to him, that life would go on as it always had. A grin began to take shape on his face. And then a pickup appeared on the horizon.

The closer the truck got, the more intense the buzzing in the back of his head became. When the vehicle finally passed, a white flash blinded the young man and, in its wake, he was left with the certain knowledge that the pickup's precise speed had been 73 miles per hour.

The same thing happened a little while later. Only this time it was a beachwagon doing 61. "Great," he said to himself, "I have a cosmic rendezvous with destiny and, instead of a miracle worker or a superhero, I get turned into a human radar gun. What a gyp."

As he walked the side of the highway home, three cars and two trucks drove by at 54, 63, 71, 65 and 66 miles per hour. And in those few moments, he resolved never to mention his otherworldly power to anyone.

Then he heard a bark and looked up. His dog passed noisily overhead and rocketed into a cloud.

"What a gyp," the young man said to himself again.

Rick Kisonak is the film and television critic for Seven Days and hosts "Art Patrol" on WPTZ-TV.

Spicer's Gift

By Tom Paine

In Dr. Harman's office Spicer saw a Kodak imaging device pushed aside, replaced by a Siemens linear accelerator. "That's just such a piece of trash," Dr. Harman said. "Whatever happened to Kodak, you know, Spicer?"

Spicer grinned. He didn't know, but he knew who to talk to. A couple of hours later, he was betting on the stock tanking in the next quarter. He barely thought about how his PSA was spiking, how the cancer was getting worse.

Right after he placed the option on the stock, he got a call from his sister. Martha had been calling their mother in Vero Beach for two days with no answer. "So?" said Spicer. "Let her have a good time, for chrissake, that's why I sent her to Florida, right? For the old people, the friends." Spicer was the one who had bought the condo for their mother. Who else had that kind of money in the family?

But Martha screamed that their mother wouldn't just disappear two days before Christmas. She'd been kidnapped, or injured, or worse. Spicer had to fly down to check it out. He would have to actually move his body to do something for someone, not just pick up the phone and buy them a goddamn condo.

Spicer was on a plane that afternoon, thinking what a waste of time the trip was. Maybe he drank too many gins. He found himself staring at a picture of a cooked goose in a magazine, set on a perfect Martha Stewart dinner table. In a way, he decided, his coming to Florida would be the perfect Christmas present for his mother.

In Vero Beach, Spicer had to file a missing person's report. For two days he stayed in the apartment, and then on the second day, his mother walked in the door. She had two huge black eyes, bandages all over her face.

Spicer wrapped his arms around her and cried. He fell to his knees and said how sorry he was for being such a lousy son, and how he would get the bastards who had done this to her. When he stopped sobbing, she told him how totally embarrassing it was that everyone in the condo association knew she'd slipped away to a Naples spa for a facelift. Next thing Spicer knew she was gone, and he was on his knees in the sterile Florida apartment.

Tom Paine is the author of a novel, The Pearl of Kuwait.

Summer Night

By Sarah Van Arsdale

July, and my nephew and I sat on my mother's deck, her death so recent I was swooning still. He didn't seem to notice my airy lack of concentration, keeping up a stream not of conversation, but monologue: "What do you think those trucks weigh? Where do they go at night?" I was exhausted by his talking. "Shut up, shut up," I wanted to say. I wanted to be alone with my mother's house: what was left of her. But I'd invited him, in a fit of avuncular magnanimity. Or fear of being alone.

I grilled burgers, served them up to his grin. A year ago, I'd come up to visit my mother, and we'd looked out over this valley, into the misty evening. After dark, she was drawn from her early bed to the sound of fireworks; she stood at the sliding glass doors to the deck, and I approached behind her, to look. I could see our reflections in the glass, my mother going ahead, me following behind. Fireworks, across the dark Vermont valley, exploding red, orange, green.

Now, Martin said, "Was Nana ready to die?" I told him I didn't think so; she'd loved living too much.

It was hot. Everything was green.

"You know, she loved it all so much. She loved planting daffodil bulbs in the fall, and then being surprised where they came up in the spring. She loved the spring. She loved making pottery, and taking pictures, and going to the library, and everything."

"And the Fourth of July," he said. The mosquitoes were coming out; being an aunt and not a mother, I hadn't planned well; we were eating too late. I was crying a little. "You know, she would have loved to be eating here with us tonight, even though it's so hot." I'd abandoned my hamburger.

Together, we looked out over the valley. For the first time in the eight hours since I'd picked him up, he was silent. We watched as a single snow goose drifted down from the sky, then landed awkwardly in the meadow.

After I put Martin to bed, smoothing his blonde hair from his forehead, I poured a glass of gin, the only booze left from the memorial service. I stood at the sliding glass doors and looked out over the valley, pressing into the glass until I couldn't see anything, not even my reflection.

Sarah Van Arsdale's second novel, Blue (University of Tennessee Press), won the Peter Taylor Prize. She is also the author of Toward Amnesia.