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Acid Test
About the Author: My stories back in the 50s, 60s and 70s came out in all the glorious s-f and mystery pulps of those years. Many were anthologized: Speculations, ’73; Purr-fect Crime, ’89,Analog II, ’63, Hitchcock’s A Brief Darkness ‘87 and the 1971 Mystery Writers of America anthology, Murder Most Foul. (This last not to be confused with my friend, Professor David Bevington’s scholarly analysis of Hamlet). Recently a dozen of my one-act plays have been produced by amateur and rejected by professionals.

After a day of scoping colons south-to-north, Julie checked out from the hospital to pick up Annie from the nursery school and take her to shop for supper. She perched the baby on the kiddy-shelf of the cart. She reached into the baby bag to find a peeled carrot for Annie, who licked it once and then tossed it over the side of the cart.

Julie picked up the damp carrot and filed it in the used-diaper bag. As she looked up she saw a flicker of light at the end of the aisle. Annie pointed in that direction. “Ho!” she said.

A white-haired fellow in a black raincoat was pushing along his shopping-cart with his belly. He palmed a purse-size makeup mirror in his right hand, using it to peer under his left arm as a rear-view mirror.

“Nuh,” Annie demanded, holding out her hand.

Julie selected a fresh carrot and handed it to the baby. “Is he signaling someone? Let’s find out, Annie.”

The aisles were jammed, making it easy for Julie to shadow the pudgy mirror-flasher. He stopped beside the bakery display, tucked the mirror under his left arm again, stared into it, and then whirled around to inspect the shoppers behind him. He nodded and then bellied his shopping cart onward.

“What do you think?” Julie asked her baby. “Is our Pudgy Flasher bonkers?” She eased nearer to check out what was in the fellow’s shopping cart. “Looks like the stuff little boys carry up into tree houses,” she whispered. “Pickled pimento loaf, chocolate cupcakes, a jar of grape juice.”

“Gottcha!” The old fellow stood, white head tilted forward, blue eyes challenging Julie over rimless glasses. He twinkled his little mirror in front of Annie. “See the pretty lady,” he said. She reached for her image. “She’s about nine months old?” he asked.

“Most men would have thought Annie is a boy,” Julie said. “The blue blanket.”

“Can’t fool the father of daughters.” He held out his hand, remembered the mirror, and dropped it into his raincoat pocket.

Julie took the hand. “Julie Travis,” she said.

“Vince,” he said. He glanced into her shopping cart: the diaper bag, half a dozen baby food jars, bread, and a single pork chop. “The Mister away?”

“A conference in Canada,” Julie said.


“He’s a doctor,” Julie said. “Like me.”

“We’re blocking the aisle,” Vince observed. He bumped his cart to the side. “You girls got everything you need?”

“Except yogurt and strawberries,” Julie said. “And skimmed milk.”

“Skimmed milk for this baby Venus?” he asked.

“For me,” Julie said. “You know: Stay slim for Jim.”

“While Jim’s daughter drinks from a more pleasing container,” Vince said, dropping a carton of skimmed milk into Julie’s cart. “If Jim is away up north, why don’t you find another pork chop and cook supper at my house?”

“Well …”

“I’ve been dining alone ever since my wife died and the daughters took off over the horizon. You cook for me, Doctor Julie Travis, and I’ll explain my mirror monkeyshines, the purpose of which you could never guess in a gazillion years.”

“I was going to take a taxi home and wash my hair.”

“Your Mama tell you, don’t talk to strangers? We’ve talked, we’re not strangers. Julie, as a representative of the healing profession you’ve got to show mercy to this hungry old plumber.”

“Well, I’d really like to know why you were flashing your mirror around,” Julie said. “Vince, you’re on.” She wheeled back to the meat cooler for two thick pork chops, and then headed to pick up flutes of Italian bread. “Got garlic?” she asked.

“Of course. I’m not a barbarian.” Vince dropped a bottle of Merlot into Julie’s basket.

“We’ll need bell peppers,” she said. “And green onions. Bay leaf, parsley, cayenne pepper. I don’t suppose a bachelor like you stocks such exotics.”

Vince set to work transferring the items from his basket into hers while Annie gravely inspected him. He pushed the cart to the front of the store and piled the groceries onto the belt. “Ring up everything but the young lady,” he told the cashier.

Julie offered Vince a pair of twenties.

“Nope. This feast is on my nickel,” he said. He handed Julie the two shopping bags to carry and picked up Annie. The baby touched his nose and smiled.

This story appears in our OCT 2016 Issue
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Reader Discussion

A gripping story! Not much I can say without giving away the ending, but I really enjoyed this one.
By Lilly Santorini

A great story, great tension to the crazy finish.
By Frances Dunn

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