Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Adult Honorable Mention


by Bill Janssen

Author Bio

Bill is a recovering technophile who has read far too many mystery and crime stories over the years.


I looked at the prompts from my creative writing teacher, MVLA's Sylvia Halloran -- "a scene where someone is making pancakes" -- "household belongings spread on the front lawn" -- "begin with 'She'd learned a lot in two years'" -- and thought to myself, "How would Roald Dahl incorporate those elements?"

She’d learned a lot in the last two years. Longer than that, really. She thought about it as she flipped the last pancake. First, two years as Dr. Shipman’s housekeeper in his big old Victorian, after his wife had died. Two years reading in his library when he was at his office. Two years of discreetly guiding his household purchases.

And after he’d moved away, something new, working in the café. She didn’t miss working for Dr. Shipman; he was a dour man. The coffee shop was different. During the past three months, she’d found she liked the bustle of the place. So different from being here at home with Marvin.

"Doris!" came a shout from upstairs. "Doris, come up and take this crap away!"

"Coming, dear," she called back. Marvin had wanted breakfast in bed ever since he’d decided that he had "long COVID," and had gone on disability. It was simpler just to do it, and had the added benefit that she could eat her own breakfast in peace, and read the newspaper. But he hated having the tray and dirty dishes in the bedroom.

She slid the turner under the last pancake and slipped it into the plastic bag with the others. She hated to waste batter, so she always made it all up and put the leftovers in the freezer. She left the bag open on the counter to cool while she went up to get Marvin’s tray. He was tap-tapping on his laptop, arguing with some stranger on the Internet, about something neither of them knew much about, mumbling as he hit the keys. As soon as he saw her, he started grumbling at her.

"The pancakes were lumpy, Doris," he said. "Can’t you do better?"

"It’s the oatmeal, dear. They were the buttermilk oatmeal pancakes from your mother’s recipe. I thought you liked those."

"Lumpy. Don’t make them again. And the coffee was off. Is that a new coffee? I thought we always got Peet’s."

"Yes, dear, that was Peet’s."

"Well, get some fresh. That bag has gone off, obviously. Rancid. Can’t you taste it?"

"All right, dear, I’ll bring some home tonight from the café." She didn’t drink coffee. He knew that. He used to know that. But maybe it did taste a little off today. She wasn’t sure. She looked in the carafe. He’d drunk it anyway; the pot was empty.

She picked up the tray and carried it down to the kitchen. She washed the dishes, paying extra attention to the coffee carafe, scrubbing the coffee stains off Marvin’s cup, doing the pancake griddle last so it wouldn’t leave grease on the china. She closed the bag of extra pancakes and put it in the freezer. She looked around to make sure she hadn’t missed anything, then took the little glass vial off the counter and put it in her purse.

She went out into the hall and put on her coat, then called up the stairs. "Goodbye, dear. I’m off to the café. There are sandwiches in the refrigerator if you get hungry." There was a grunt in response.

The bus stop was three blocks away, but on a nice day like this Doris didn’t mind at all. It was always interesting to see what was going on in the neighborhood, and sometimes it made her think.

Like the green house on the next block. Usually it was just a common ordinary house, neatly kept, grass always nicely trimmed. She knew the couple that lived there, to say hello to, not really friends. But one day three years ago when she came up to it the front lawn was covered with household belongings. Marlene was standing on the sidewalk, screaming imprecations. Doris had been afraid to get too close.

"What’s the matter, Marlene?" she’d asked.

"It’s that goddamned rat, Henry!" Marlene said. "He found out about my personal trainer, and he threw me out! Look, he threw out my quilts! My grandmother’s rocking chair! My father’s portrait!"

"I’m sorry," Doris said. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Got a gun?" said Marlene.

"Now, honey, you know you don’t mean that."

"I swear, if I could get away with it, I’d kill him! Kill him! Then the house would be mine, and Jason and I wouldn’t have to sneak around!"

Doris had done what she could to help Marlene, but the incident had started her thinking. Thinking and then, later, reading. All those books in Dr. Shipman’s library, about the ways that people die. And then endlessly polishing his dead wife’s silver, to use up the dead wife’s silver polish. So that she could order a different brand. Her hands ached just from thinking about those polishing sessions.

Polishing silver in that silent house. Could she live in a silent house, without Marvin always talking? He used to recite poetry to her. But these days, it was all muttering. Muttering as he typed some argument with some stranger on the Internet. He was like a stranger too, now, in her house. She wasn’t sure what it would be like, a silent house, without the tap-tap of laptop keys, the low grumble of his voice.

She wanted to concentrate on remembering him the way he’d been when they first met, when they were dating. A poet, always talking even then, but not grumpy then, no, talking about things that were above the world, so lovely, so spiritual. Too spiritual to hold down a job. Maybe that should have been a warning to her. Where was that Marvin, the one she’d fallen in love with, the poet she had already mourned the loss of, for years now. What had happened? Had she somehow let him down? Where had he disappeared to? She had tears in her eyes.

She reached the bus stop. There was a storm drain there. She reached into her purse and took out her handkerchief, the glass vial hidden in its folds. She had washed it out already, but she thought it would be better if it wasn’t found there at the house. Who would have thought you could make an undetectable poison from an off-brand silver polish? She dropped it to the ground and nudged it into the drain with her shoe as she brought the handkerchief to her eyes, to dab at the tears.

Tears were good. The 9-1-1 people would expect to see tears. The police would expect to see tears. Or maybe there wouldn’t be police? She wasn’t sure. He had the long COVID. Maybe, after she got home this evening, after she found him, after she called, after they’d come, after the ambulance had taken him to the hospital, maybe after all that they’d decide he had died of it. But if there were police, she’d think of the long-ago Marvin, and weep for him.

Her bus came, and she climbed on.