2017 Third-Place Winning Story

We are very happy to congratulate Eleanor Ingbretson for winning Third Place in the 2017 Bethlehem Writers Roundtable Short Story Award competition. The quality of Eleanor's work is consistently high--she won First Place in the 2016 Short Story Award competition, with her story "Stick to the Bypathings," which appears in Once Upon A Time: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales for All Ages. We hope you enjoy "1977--The Bronx."

Eleanor Ingbretson, a transplanted New Yorker now living in the woods of New Hampshire, is relatively new to the writing world. She has had two short stories published in Toasted Cheese (www.toasted-cheese.com), an online literary journal, and has written a story for an award-winning film in a 48 Hour Film Slam competition (in which she also acted). Spikes can be found on Youtube (https://youtu.be/kYDgPLpWAbo). She blogs regularly on Thursday Night Writes (https://thursdaynightwrites.com), with fellow members of her writing group.

Fantasy became her favorite genre after discovering Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, and she has never turned back, except to finish her cozy mystery tentatively titled “Poughke.” She is working on a collection of short, short short and flash fantasy, to be called “A Little Light Fantasy.”

Addictions include, but are not limited to, writing, Mah Jongg, dark chocolate, and Iceland. She is supported in all the above by her husband, Paul, and children, Whittaker and Chloe. (Except maybe the dark chocolate part.)

1977--The Bronx
Eleanor Ingbretson

The bus dropped me at nine A.M. in an untidy section of the Bronx ten hours after the week-long city trash collectors strike had been resolved. There was already a palpable miasma of rot and decaying what-not presenting and I sincerely hoped to conclude my unhappy business before the day grew any warmer. A passing dog lifted his leg at a nearby mound of garbage and woke a somnolent swarm of feral flies.

            I found the address on busy Tremont Ave. Over the door an ancient wooden sign lolled in the fetid air. The words 'Tremont Avenue Small Embalmers to the King, est. 1774', were carved into it in Old English script. Beneath that, H. Grustatorian, Prop., by appt. only, had been added in small gold lettering. I didn't have an appointment. Would he take a walk-in? I sweated in the foul air for about five minutes and decided to try.

            The door opened to the jingle of sweet chimes and I entered a tiny shop barely the size of a large walk-in closet. Mr. Grustatorian, as I assumed him to be, looked up from his desk. His pop-eyes, enlarged 10X behind his magnifying glasses, independently gave me the once-over.

            “Whatcha got for me, Sonny,” he asked as one bulbous eye cut and darted around the shop. The other eyed me steadily.

            “A fly,” I replied cautiously. “I'm afraid I don't have an appointment, Mr. Grustatorian.”

            “I got ten free letters with the gold. Don't worry about it. A fly, you say?”

            “Yes, sir. Uh, would you be bonded?” I asked.

            He gestured to the wall where there hung a dozen certificates, including many from prestigious embalming schools. European mostly, but there were a few from the U.S. and Canada.

            “I guarantee my work one hundred per cent, Sonny,” he said, “which is why you chose to come to me. You got any references?”

            “No sir. I found your establishment listed in the yellow pages.”

            “No problem. Now, would I be sensing a particular need?”

            “Maybe.” I said, not willing to divulge more than that, not right off the bat. I needed assurance that he was the right man for the job.

            “Perhaps a special request was indicated by the departed? Whatever the need, you won't leave dissatisfied, my boy.”  Mr. Grustatorian cocked his brows over his shifting eyes and looked at me, the door, the wall, the clock. He was in possession of two independent oculars! I felt a sinking feeling in my chest. Perhaps he wasn't right.

            “Don't mind them,” he said and indicated his eyes. I swallowed; I did mind them. 

            “Was it a swatting incident?” my host asked kindly, breaking into my thoughts. “It happens more often than you would imagine, even in the best homes.”

            He appraised me with one eye and fixed on the tiny battery powered ice chest cuffed to my wrist. The other eye located a loose-leafed album which he took from a shelf. The monocular vision he possessed naturally resulted in blind spots, so, with one eye on me, and the other scanning his shop, he felt around on the counter for an uncluttered place to lay the album.

            “Before and Afters.” he said and opened the book. He pointed out loved ones that had been swatted, mauled by cats, spat out by infants or caught in venetian blinds.

            “This picture here?” He said and tapped a nasty one. “An older couple from Queens brought their loved one in only last week. The departed was playing hide and seek and they opened the blinds before the count of ten. So much guilt. The missus was crying something awful.” He indicated the after photo. “I was able to put him together well enough for an open casket.”

            There was absolutely no question about his skill despite his wandering eyes.

            “See anything representative of your loved one's condition?” he asked after we'd leafed through all the Before and Afters. While he waited for me to answer he closed the album and put it away.

            I rested the ice chest and its battery pack in the vacated spot on the messy counter and told him, with a catch in my throat, that I thought she was in good condition.

            “Ah, you know the sex of your loved one. Excellent. I almost always have to sex my clients for the bereaved, not as easy as it sounds, especially after a significant incident.”

             After I'd unlocked  the ice chest from the cuff he took it from me and placed it on his worktable. He carefully opened it and removed the ice cube containing my loved one and set it on a jewelers cushion. Instruments, steaming fresh from the autoclave, were placed in a semicircle around the ice cube. He sensed my extreme unease and to buck me up for the procedure he gave me a demitasse of Armenian coffee. I've had Armenian coffee before but his nearly burnt out the inside of my head.

            “Better, sonny?” he asked. “No fainting. I haven't got anywhere for you to fall.”

            I took the proffered folding chair, found a place to set it up and sat. When I could breathe normally again, and as Mr. Grustatorian began the gradual thawing process to release the departed, my loved one, from her ice cube, I asked if he would like to hear my story. I could only see his head from my side of the counter and it nodded. One eye glanced at me briefly and rolled up to look at the clock.

            “I was only four years old when my mother disappeared and I went to live with my grandmother. No one knew who my father was.” I paused when I saw how devotedly he went about his work.

             “Uh, Mr. Grustatorian, would you like the long or the short version?” I asked.

            His attention was fully riveted on his work and it was a moment or two before he answered. His near eye rotated around the shop till it found me.

            “The salient points will do, my boy,” he replied. “No need to dwell on the unpleasantness.”

            The eye swiveled back. His hands, encased in latex-free surgical gloves, were busy with his work and from time to time he leant forward to dab his sweat beaded forehead on the roll of paper towels fixed above his work area.

            “Go on, boy. I'm listening.” Had his ear moved? Did he possess independent auriculars as well?I dared another sip of the coffee. The caffeine loosened my tongue and I loudly gave way to my emotions.

            “It was a lab experiment gone all wrong,” I gasped.

            Mr. Grustatorian sighed, removed his gloves and pulled a sheet of paper toweling off the roll to wipe his hands. Then he turned in his chair to face me. One eye continued in its circuit while he poured a hefty dose from a bottle of Armenian Stimulating Restorative into my coffee. I took a sip and, double-bucked, continued my tale.

            “To make extra money to care for me, Mom had agreed to take part in experiments to enhance  human abilities to their extremes.” I took another slug. “Of course I was too young to know all that, but I do remember that the last time I saw her she was hardly taller than I was.” I sipped again from the cup. I seemed to be getting used to the stuff.

            “The rest of her story I found out only last week. Gradually, Mom was shrunk by some quack scientist till she was only the size of a fly. Then, injected fly genes changed her into one. Mostly. When it became obvious to the scientist that he wasn't able to reverse what he'd done, he swatted her and froze her in that ice cube.” I paused. My head was spinning. An excess of emotions, my doctor had told me once. I took another slug.

            “The quack bagged his so-called professional and personal notes, together with Mom's ice cube, and put them in the lab freezer. Then he left everything, went home and called his brother in Hollywood.”

            “Nothing new under the sun, is there, Sonny,” Mr. Grustatorian said and swabbed his brow on the paper toweling. I peeked over the counter; tiny oscillating heat lamps played over the ice cube and he dabbed constantly at the emergent form with minuscule cotton swabs. “How'd you even find her?”

            “A janitor at the lab brought her to me. He found Mom's ice cube last week at the back of a freezer that was getting tossed. He brought me all the documentation too, and lots of other weird stuff.  He said that there were other ice cubes in there as well. The S.O.B. used her, Mr. Grustatorian, and then he and his brother made a fortune on a movie about her! They called it The Damselfly, with Bette Davis as Mom.”

            “I saw that movie,” Mr. Grustatorian said. “Never thought I'd have anyone famous in here.”

            I'd seen the movie, too. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it was about my own mother.

            “I was hoping, maybe, that if Mom had a decent burial she could rest in peace.” I got teary eyed and finished my coffee. “I got her a nice spot in Jersey, near her parents.”

            “Garden State, nice location. She'll like it there,” said Mr. Grustatorian, stretching his arms and arching his back. “Come on back. Your loved one is completely thawed. We'll get to the embalming in a moment.”

             Thoughtfully he had covered Mom from her chin down with a piece of pink silk about the size of a postage stamp. With the magnifying glass he handed me I was able to gaze upon her face for the first time in twenty years. She was beautiful. Her soft, brown hair, still damp from the thawing process, gently curled and the dimple in her chin awoke sweet memories. The tips of her wings extended over the edges of  the cotton balls she rested on. She looked like an angel. I was holding my breath, but her lashes trembled. I mentioned this to the embalmer.

            “Must'a left the transom open,” he said as he washed his hands at the sink, one eye on me, the other I couldn't see. “I'll go shut it. Don't want those disgusting street flies in here. Trash collectors don't come by till ten.”

            “It's almost that now,” I said abstractedly and continued to gaze upon Mom's lovely face.             Suddenly her eyes popped open and she stared at me in horror. Her mouth opened in a silent 'o' as she buzzed, struggling to dislodge the tiny piece of silk that covered her. Her wings flailed and her fore, mid and aft legs pushed against the fabric. Her bruised thorax, where she had borne the brunt of the fiend's swatter, was exposed.

            “She's alive!” I shouted. “Mr. Grustatorian, she's alive!”

            I clumsily tried to cover her again but she eluded me. She righted herself on all sixes and flew instinctively toward warm air and ripe smells.

            Mr. Grustatorian pulled the chain hanging by the door and the transom snapped into place. 

            “What's that you said, Sonny? Couldn't hear you over the garbage truck.”