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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The Word is Scissor

04/05/2010 at 4:48 pm (Janet's Prompts)

Here’s another short exercise inspired by one of Janet Fitch’s prompts. It explores one of the main characters of the novel, Rose,  the mother of Stephen and Demian.  I envisioned this piece as taking place about five years before the opening action of BEAR, at a moment soon after the boys’ father has left the family in order to follow his unencumbered bliss to New York.


Berkeley, 1971.

She was alone.  The house retained a calm, Rose thought, that was unique.  Eerie.  It lacked qualities it routinely possessed: heavy footfalls rumbling its floors, cigarette smoke swirling and dancing in the air with the scent of five-alarm fires and seared flesh, upraised voices of male war cries, chaos of an unearthly kind rattling the very structure of the two-bedroom house.

She was alone.  The men were gone, all three of them emptying the house of its weight, excising a force that had previously strangled her, savaged her, shackled her to an existence of servitude and subjugation.  She sat curled up in the velvet-upholstered chair she had purchased long before the boys had grown inside her.  Before her essence was compromised, her body twisted and torn and devalued in the eyes of her suitor.

The suitor was gone.  The boys remained, the oldest nearly six and the youngest — the hungriest, the neediest, the loudest — still nursing and always screaming, screaming, screaming.  For the moment, the children played and ate and slept at her mother’s home, the home where Rose’s essence once bloomed like the perennial flower she had been named for, but they would return.  The man, the husband who rushed into her world like a cowboy on a comet, all teeth and curls and hands and hair, would not return.  The man who had given his love freely, generously, his only request that she trust him, that she worship him, that she support his every whim and desire.

The man was gone.  Abandoning his castle, his queen, his princely heirs, in search of a new kingdom, a place to re-invent himself as a pauper and a genius.  She believed he had wiped his mind clean of her, of them, of this tiny house and this beat-down chair in favor of a spiritual rebirth.  All she saw of his spirit now was blackness and rot.  A void.

Rose drew her legs closer to her recently nurturing belly and glanced down at her hands.  She held a pair of scissors, silver as the poisonous mercury she knew coursed through the cold, cruel veins of her first and only lover.  She pressed her finger against the slick metal of the blades, long and sharp and poised for menace.  She wrapped her other hand around the tempest black eye rings of the instrument, allowed the joined circles to separate, to drift outward as the thin blades opened with the sound of Excalibur freed from the stone.

She tasted metal at the back of her throat, a flat, uncompromising flavor of  violence and snow.  When the blades clamped shut, the crash of the oblong rings rattling her fingers like a tectonic shift, her mind was set free.  Power had been returned to her, choice restored to a woman who lived for them, for their needs, their desires.  It was her turn.

The scissors she placed on the knee-high Laotian bamboo woven basket, its sharp reed fingers like tiny tentacles poking upward and outward.  Her hands dove into her hair, strong and black, twisting the lengthy strands as a mariner would untangle a gallows knot from an ocean-ravaged dock.  Rose felt moisture surging toward her eyes, the vision blurring and a point at the peak of her temple pulsating as it sent waves of pain through her scalp.

She had grown this hair with the care of a gardener tending her nursery, pruning sections of it periodically to prompt new growth, in order to maintain the shape and feel of her healthy, blooming filaments.  She had waged numerous battles during her childhood over the elongation of her hair, unwilling to shed so much as a centimeter despite complaints from her parents, her teachers, even her closest female confidantes.

The suitor had never complained.   The man who courted her with hand-written sonnets and later proposed on a high cliff in Big Sur had adored her face, her lips, her body, but admitted that he had fallen in love with her hair.

She opened the mouth of the scissors wide, slid the cutting edges of the blades into the darkened cave that was once an object of so much affection, and closed her eyes.  She waited, her breath slow and measured.

The whistle of a train, miles away at the edge of the bay but its sound carried north by playful winds, reached her in that empty, noiseless house and she held her breath.  Her fingers tensed inside the two metal loops.  Her scalp pulsed with ache and anticipation.

By the time the train’s song faded and the house reclaimed its eerie silence, Rose had clamped shut the polished blades of the scissors and placed them back on the bamboo basket.  A single strand of errant hair clung to the keen point of the closed blades.

She was alone.

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The Word is Ball

03/12/2010 at 12:56 am (Janet's Prompts)

Following Janet Fitch’s prompt of the week, I’ve written a short story that uses her word choice as an inspirational jumping-off point.  This piece follows my protagonist, Stephen O’Neill, a year before the action of the novel begins.


Only a few months shy of his tenth birthday, Stephen sat alone on the bus, his younger brother Demian helping their mom with chores while he journeyed from his small home in South Berkeley to the cavernous YMCA in Albany.  It was the summer of 1975.  It was basketball signup day, the first year he found himself old enough to join the league.  It was a beautiful day.

The bus shot through the Northbrae Tunnel, curving toward the top of the Solano Avenue hill, as fumes of exhaust evacuated the rear tail pipe like a canister of riot police tear gas lobbed into the center of a UC Berkeley protest.  Stephen could have shaved time off his trip by taking the bus with a direct route along San Pablo Ave., but it was a Saturday, he had twenty-five dollars in his pocket that he’d saved expressly for the Y’s summer fee, and he was in no rush.

There was something different about this day, Stephen had decided when he awoke before six, well rested and alert.  He’d dreamt of himself skinny, as thin and normal as his little brother.  This was the Stephen he was meant to be, a boy who didn’t lumber but leaped, who sped and never stumbled.  He wasn’t that kid yet, he was still chunky and gross and unhappy with how he looked, but he felt all of that could change.

Which is why he’d made the decision to sign-up for the basketball team, why he had dressed himself in the only appropriate clothes he owned: cheap, thin-soled tennis shoes instead of a pair of real running shoes; shorts that showcased his pale, fat legs; and a t-shirt that could barely conceal his flabby torso.

It doesn’t matter, he thought, by the end of the summer I’ll have turned into the kid I was destined to become.  I’ll run hard, I’ll shoot high, and no one will be able to call me Sloppy Stephen or Fat-Ass anymore.

He exited from the back of the bus, noticed the green- and white-striped design of the AC Transit bus stop sign, and leaped toward it.  He threw his whole body into the jump, smacked it like it was a backboard, with enough force to beat a clanging moan out of it, then made his way across the street to the Y.

Inside, he found the basketball court.  The sign-ups had already begun.  Stephen strode in as a bearded man in basketball shorts, his arms and legs as hairy as a wildebeest’s, addressed a small group: nine- and ten-year-old boys beside their enthusiastic parents.

“So it’s really important that you spend time practicing with your kids when they’re not on the court.  It’s vital to them getting better as the season progresses,” the bearded man said.

Stephen didn’t think his mom would spend any time helping him better his game, and Ken, his stepdad, was too busy smoking dope and hanging out with his old college friends to muster up any time or enthusiasm to play ball with him.  He struggled to remain positive, so he assured himself that he could practice and get better without any help from them.

Then he saw Miles, a friend of his from fourth grade who had told him all about the b-ball program and encouraged him to join.  Miles hadn’t seen him yet, and Stephen was about to move farther into the gym and join the small crowd when the bearded man said something that made him reconsider.  It almost made him cry.

“And everybody needs a uniform,” the bearded man held up a purple jersey with “YMCA” on the front and the number “1” on its back.  “You need to purchase one of these with your twenty-five-dollar sign-up fee.  These are twenty dollars and you have to have one of these to join the team.”

Stephen didn’t have another twenty dollars.  It had taken him almost six weeks to save up the twenty-five he did have.  He knew Ken and his mother were broke, that there was no way either of them would just hand him money for something like this.

Miles looked behind him, and Stephen turned around quickly, hoping that he hadn’t been seen.  He quickly ran off the court, his flat shoes scuffing against the floor and making an unearthly, squeaky noise as he bumbled out into the lobby and then back onto Solano Ave.

He was a fat-ass, and he’d always be a fat-ass.  He saw the movie theater across the street and decided to just spend all of his money there.  He would pay for whatever movie was playing, and watch it over and over again until he had to go back home.  He would buy popcorn and Coke and hot dogs and Raisinets and anything else they had under the glass counter until the horrible, wrenching feeling that consumed his entire body stopped aching.



 photo by Philip Kamrass

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