I belong to a writing group and suspect that I’ll post several pieces here that derive from our exercises. A recent starting point we used was to modernise a fairy tale. I’ve taken Little Red Riding Hood and turned it somewhat inside-out…

A boy of about sixteen carries a heavy carpetbag down a narrow sidewalk that borders a wide treeless thoroughfare. Late morning sun draws sweat from the armpits and back of his cheap black suit. He walks unmolested past office blocks, car dealerships, chain restaurants decorated with plastic foliage. Fumes of leaded fuel fill his nose.

A small late-model car slows as it passes him before parking a few hundred feet ahead. A man gets out of the car and walks with some purpose towards the boy.

The boy registers the man’s light linen suit, close-cropped hair and easy gait. He figures him to be in his late fifties and tries to ignore him.

“Where are you headed, young man?”

“I don’t know, sir.” The formality comes easy. His grandfather always insisted on military address.

“That’s looks like quite a burden to carry without a destination.”

“There must be a fleabag hotel down here somewhere.”

“No money, son?”

Though the man‘s familiarity irks the boy, he replies quickly, “Not enough to waste on the bus, sir.”

“Or a plate of breakfast?”

They stared at each other a moment and finally the boy lowers his gaze. “Let me buy you soemething – get you a seat for a few minutes.”

The boy struggles between a scylla of hunger and a charybdis of having no debt and wanting to keep it that way.

He puts down the carpetbag between his feet and looks into the man’s face. The eyes seem small until he registers how thick the glasses the man wears are, and how nearsighted he must be.
The man catches the hint of the boy’s cocked eyebrow and steps back.

“Young man, I know you don’t need anything. And I don’t want anything from you. There’s a coffee shop a few blocks up. I’m sure they’ll put on a fresh pot if we ask nicely. What do they call you?”

He stares further into the man’s eyes, wanting to to see if the pupils dilate with the hunt, but cannot tell.

“It’s settled then. Let me carry this.” They both reach for the case at tyhe same time, the boy’s hand wrapping around the man’s. His skin feels as though it has never worked or even washed a dish, much less carried a burden. The boy withdraws with some hesitation, as a mollusk into a cracked shell.

Relieved of the bag, he speaks. “My grandfather’s funeral was first thing this morning. If you could call it that. Just the funeral director and me.”

A delivery van with shot suspension squeals by as the older man lifts the case up. The odor of underlubricated metal makes them both wince. They walk a little farther in silence, Without prompting, the boy continues.

“I closed the bank accounts and paid the corner store where gramps had a slip running and made sure everyone in his little book would have no resentment. ‘Debt is resentment’ was his motto. There was barely enough left to plant him.”

The old man almost asks how running tabs and account books with payable balances were different from debt.

The boy looks at him just as his he closed his lips over gritting teeth and sees that there must have been something hard in the man’s life – his front teeth were all ground to the same level. The man looks ahead.

“Hand it back. My arm has had a rest.” The man doesn’t argue, even though their destination is just across the road.

Just keep moving, the boy thought. Don’t go, don’t owe. But the day of walking and the weeks of waiting wear on him and he follows the man into the coffee shop. Its plate glass windows give the boy a nostalgia for something he feels too young to recall.

The force of the air conditioning cools him to a brief shiver as he places his bag by the cracked red velvet of a booth. It is set with four sets of stainless wrapped in cheap paper napkins, heavy cream-colored ceramic mugs, and short red plastic glasses. He sits at one end and smells the pumice a hidden cook scrapes across a hidden grill. Pumice mixed with scrapings of egg fried in too much grease.

He inhales again to clear his nostrils of that smell, like grampa’s kitchen before the hospice help scrubbed it clean and the apartment smelled only of bleach and the odors of dying old man that bleach never really cleans.

He looks at the old man who has sat down across from him. His ears seem to open wide, as if they could swallow his words.

A waitress the boy thinks is in her late 20s comes to them bearing two pitchers. Black curls escape her barrettes as she drawls “Regular or decaf?” The old man covers his mug, but asks “is it fresh?”

“Just brewed new pots,” she says as she tries to blow a curl out of her eye.

“Regular for the boy, and some tea for me. And proper milk as well, miss.”

As she pours the coffee, she adds, “Specials are the chicken-liver omelette, jack cheeseburger, and forest fruit pie,” before turning her back on them.

“Keep talking, young man.”

The boy looks up and the ears seem even larger and the eyes behind the thick lenses more intent. He sips his coffee and suppresses a shudder at its bitterness. “Debt is resentment, son,” he heard in his grandfather’s nicotine-stained voice. “Never owe or be owed if you can help it.” Had that codger given him no more wisdom than a piece of reheated Shakespeare? He searched the stones in his belly for something else to guide him and found only those same featherless words.

If my words cost him coffee and some AC and maybe a slice of pie, what debt is there, really?