The Bystander

02/15/2011 at 11:04 am (Exercises, Janet's Prompts, Short Story Excerpts)

What initially started as a 500-1000 word exercise, using Janet Fitch‘s prompt of The Word “Open” last summer, turned into a 3,500 word short story that I am currently revising.  Exploring Ken, the boys’ stepfather, I chose to write close 3rd-person in hopes of  discovering some secrets about him, as well as understanding what motivates his behavior.  The excerpt below comes about halfway through the piece, with Ken looking back at a defining moment in his childhood.  Right now the story is tentatively titled,

The Bystander

Ken had been five years old at the time, his mother out of the hospital barely a week with his new sister Claire.  It had been the early fifties, when fathers traditionally sat in the bar across the street from the hospital while their wives gave birth, only returning to hand out cigars and chauffeur their families home.  His father was a man of that time, but there was a tenderness in him that Ken cherished and grew to covet once he was gone.

He and his father played cribbage at the kitchen table, while his mother nursed Claire on their antique sofa owned by long-dead Polish immigrants he had never met.  Cards were fanned out in front of him, his pegs creeping toward the end of the flat wooden board.  His father’s pegs, which he always called spilikins, lagged behind, with the outcome all but predictable now.

“You learn fast, Kenny,” his father said.  His attention was split between the game and his wife on the other side of the room.  Every few minutes he would squirm in his chair, then stare away from the game as if looking for some sign from Claire or her mother.

“You taught me good, Dad,” he said.

“Well,” his father corrected him, gently.  “I’m going to check on your mother,” he finally raised out of the chair and moved toward the couch.

His little boy self was anxious, impatient for his father to do whatever he was doing with his mother and new sister, then return to the table.

“Can I take over for awhile, dear?” his father said, standing over his mother.  He folded a heavy blanket that had fallen to the floor, then replaced it on the top of the couch. “Maybe you can rest for awhile.  In the bedroom?” he pointed down the hall, as if she had forgotten where it was.

Ken’s view of his mother was blocked by his father’s large body.  But he heard her, clear as Clarabell’s horn from Howdy Doody, when she hissed, “Shoo, Bert.  You leave this to me.  You have your job.  This is mine.”

“I want to hold her, too.  I want to hold my daughter,” his father said, in a low, defeated voice that barely reached him at the table.

“It’s not time.  I’ll tell you when it’s time,” she said and he slinked away.  Past Ken, into the kitchen where he poured himself a shot of the bourbon they reserved for company.  He came back to his son, gave him a tender kiss on his forehead, and then turned away as if he planned an escape from the room.  From his life.

His father stood there, silent and unmoving, before turning around and sitting himself back at the table.  He gathered up the loose cards, shuffled for a fresh hand.  “Don’t get too comfortable over there,” he teased, “this game isn’t over yet.”

Two years later his father was dead from a work accident—in the middle of his ten-hour shift at T.S. Feed Supplier, his arm got locked in an industrial grain separator and he bled out before the doctor arrived—and his mother accepted the out-of-court settlement the company offered her.  She never remarried and raised them both on her own.  The only father he had lived in the photographs pressed inside faux-leather albums on top of their dust-coated mantle.

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