Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mardi Gras

Jaimie lay in bed, curled up on her side, feeling miserable. She had arrived in New Orleans the day before – just in time to catch the end of Mardi Gras. “It must be the hangover,” she groaned. “I couldn’t have seen him. He died before I was born.”

She had caught just a glimpse at first – recognized him from pictures that her Mom kept around the house. It was on Bourbon Street, just out front of Preservation Hall – the home of New Orleans jazz. He was beckoning to her, silently imploring her to come with him.

Jaimie tried to follow him, straining to keep him in sight. The kaleidoscope of colors and characters whirled all around – sometimes out of focus, sometimes in shocking clarity. But he was always out there somewhere ahead, leading her onward. “Where are we going?” she wondered.

At first, his movements seemed random; up one street, then down another, weaving through the crowds that went on and on. Then she understood. He was leading her back to her hotel room in the French Quarter. He was taking her away from the crowds. Away from the noise. Away from the groping hands and sloshing cups of beer that splashed her as she struggled to keep up with him.

She had almost caught up with him now. She saw him enter her hotel. And then he vanished. Jaimie went up to her room, half expecting to see him there. But the room was empty – a quiet oasis in the constant chaos known as New Orleans. “Must have been my imagination after all,” she thought. “May as well go to bed. I’m more wasted than I thought.”

And now it was morning. Had she imagined the whole thing? Had her subconscious mind protected her by drawing her back to her room?

“I need some air,” Jaimie thought as she opened the door and stepped onto her balcony. She surveyed the street below, littered with the detritus of last night’s revels: empty beer cups, stray strings of beads, sticky puddles of evaporated beer. A typical morning in the French Quarter.

Then she saw him, standing below, looking up at her – the man she saw last night. The man in the photographs in her Mom’s house. It was Joe. Her long-dead grandfather. Her protector.

And she knew. Jaimie rushed back into her room, grabbed her cell phone, and hit the speed dial. “Dad,” she stammered, as soon as she heard his voice, “what’s wrong? It’s Mom, isn’t it? Is she going to be OK? Yes, I know she’s worried about me. Tell her I’m safe. I’ll be home tonight.”

©2012 Phyllis Entis. All rights reserved.

A Note of Explanation: The “prompt” for this story was multi-stage. First, each participant was asked to write down one male name and one female name. Then, we each were asked to write down a location – a city, country, or any physical place – on a slip of paper and put the paper into a common envelope. Finally, each of us drew a slip of paper at random from the envelope. Our “prompt” was a combination of the names we had selected and the random location each of us drew from the envelope. The “prompt” for this story became “Joe and Jaimie on a wrought iron balcony in the French Quarter of New Orleans.”

Sunday, November 18, 2012

That Book

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.

She knew she was late and would miss her bus. But she hadn’t been able to help herself. Once she started reading, she was compelled to finish. It had taken her 15 hours – and cost her a night of sleep – but it was worth it.

It’s not as though Anna didn’t know the story. She couldn’t help knowing it – she had grown up with it. She first heard about what her grandmother had done in “the war” when she was just a toddler, too young to understand what it all meant. It was a story to be whispered among the grown-ups, lest the youngsters get scared and have nightmares.

As Anna grew older, she began to question. “Why, Grandma,” she would ask, “Why did you do it?”

“I had to,” was the unfailing reply. “It was the war. I did what had to be done.” After a while, Anna stopped asking.

Somehow, through the years, she managed to avoid That Book. Its very existence was disturbing. She didn’t think it would be wise or safe to delve too deeply. This time, though, she had no choice. It was required reading – part of the literature syllabus at the high school where she taught.

So last night, in trepidation, she opened a tattered copy at random and read, “Nice people, the Germans! To think that I was once one of them too!” Shocked, she flipped forward through the book, only to encounter, “There’s in people simply an urge to destroy…”

This would never do. She must begin at the start and force her way through. She must find out for herself – at last – why Grandma had behaved the way she did. Anna began to read. As she approached the story’s climax, she believed that she had discovered the answer she was searching for.

But, what now? This question occupied Anna as she absorbed the remainder of the book. It filled her mind as she walked outside and headed to the bus stop. Suddenly, she knew what she must do.

Abruptly, she crossed the street to catch a bus that would take her to the center of town – away from her school. Away from her daily responsibilities. She would be missed, of course, but that didn’t matter. She had to see for herself.

One hour and two bus transfers later, with whole sentences from The Diary of Anne Frank – it was no longer That Book in her mind – running riot through her brain, she found herself in the center of Amsterdam. Stopping for directions, she made certain of her route. She strode purposefully now – no longer in doubt; no longer questioning herself – “two blocks down, then turn right, cross the Prinsengracht canal and you can’t miss it,” the helpful police officer had told her.

All at once, she saw it. Prinsengracht 263-267. The Anne Frank House. After all those years of hearing the stories, after reading Anne’s Diary in a single sitting, she was face-to-face with her family’s past. She felt Anne Frank’s words reverberate through her soul, “[I]n spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Solemnly, Anne Frank’s namesake crossed the threshold into the factory building where, for more than two years, her Grandmother Miep had sustained the lives and the hopes of a handful of Jews, so many decades ago.

©2012 Phyllis Entis. All rights reserved.

A Note of Explanation: This story was my submission to Round Eight of National Public Radio’s “Three Minute Fiction” contest. All stories submitted for Round Eight were required to begin with the sentence “She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door.”

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Runaway

BRITAIN DECLARES WAR! Canada Opens Recruiting Offices!

August 4th, 1914. Archduke Ferdinand was dead – slain by an assassin’s bullet on June 28th. All attempts to stave off war had failed.

“What am I doing on this street corner?” Reuben muttered. “I’m too old to be hawking papers. This is MY fight.” But, Reuben knew that his parents would never give him permission to join up. He was sixteen – too young to enlist without his father’s consent.

Reuben was born in England, the youngest of seven children. The family had emigrated to Canada just two years before. Now the Mother Country was in trouble and Reuben had to help.

As he stood on the corner of Saint-Catherine and Peel – copies of the Montreal Gazette bundled under his left arm and his voice growing hoarse from shouting the headlines – Reuben made his plans. After selling the remaining papers, he would have just enough cash for the train fare to Cornwall, the first town of consequence across the Quebec/Ontario border. One hour later, he walked briskly into Central Station. He was in luck. The next train west was just about to leave.

In three hours, Reuben was standing before a recruiting desk that had been hastily set up in the Cornwall train station. “Name?” the sergeant grunted, not even bothering to look up.

“Joe Lewis”




“5 foot, six”



Sign here and take a seat. The bus leaves for camp in an hour.

After six weeks of basic training, Private Joe Lewis (a.k.a. Reuben) boarded an eastbound train, together with a contingent of other newly minted soldiers. Upon arrival in Quebec City, the troops transferred to a ship bound for England.

The Germans, however, had other plans for Reuben and his comrades.

One doesn’t hear much about submarine warfare in World War I. But the threat was real. A German boat torpedoed Reuben’s troop ship just a day out of Southampton harbor. Although the ship was badly damaged, most of the men were able to escape immediate drowning. Reuben found himself in the water, clinging to the side of a crowded life raft. After a few hours in the frigid North Atlantic water, he and the other survivors were rescued by a British escort ship that had lagged behind the rest of the convoy.

Neither his unceremonious dunking nor the rigors of war dampened Reuben’s enthusiasm for adventure. In 1939, when Canada entered World War II, Reuben – by then a married man with two children – was back at the recruiting office. He revived his Joe Lewis alter ego and, although technically over age, talked his way back into the army as a batman – an officer’s orderly.

Friendships made in wartime last forever; the ties between Reuben and his military mates were indestructible. Every November 11th, for as long as his health allowed, Reuben and his friends would march together in the Remembrance Day parade on Montreal’s Dominion Square. And every November 11th, at precisely 11:00am, the massed veterans of two world wars would stand at stiff and silent attention as the bugler sounded Taps.

@2012 Phyllis Entis. All rights reserved.

- November 11, 2012

A Note of Explanation: The Runaway is fiction, but is based on the life of my great-uncle, who was too young to enlist for World War I and too old for World War II, but who “joined up” for both.