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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In Our Room

02/08/2011 at 10:07 am (Exercises, Senses)

I realize it’s been a very long time since I’ve posted anything on this site.  There are multiple reasons for this, but I’m back, hopefully adding new creative work more frequently, from this point forth.

This “welcome back” post is an exercise I did recently for my novel-writing class at USC.  The first part of the assignment was to take a character (in this case, Bear‘s protagonist, Stephen) and describe a room from his point-of-view.  Only details, no emotion, no commentary on the scene.  The second part built on the first part, describing his reaction to the room, how the character felt about this private space and his place in it.

In Our Room


The bedroom that I shared with my brother Demian when I was eleven and he was six will always look like summer to me.  I remember that whenever I entered the room from our door off the front hall, it always appeared to be drowning in light.  No shadows on the wall, no moody corners ever met my eye; the entire room was suffused by the sun, bursting inside through a window without drapes.  There were always finger smudges on the inside of the glass — and outside, occasional droplets from the morning dew that had swept across the San Francisco bay and accumulated on our window — but the insistence of the daylight obliterated those marks by mid-day.

The worn wooden headboards of our two twin beds grazed the bottom ledge of the white window frame, where Demian had positioned his action figures like a battalion of soldiers.  His plastic Spider-Man, which used to be mine, had its perch at the top of his bed, as if ready to spring down upon his bedspread, where Pinocchio and Bambi lay unaware that arachnid-danger loomed above them.  My bedspread lay crumpled on the floor, library copies of Jack London books and my personal collection of oversized Tintin paperbacks — with the adventures of a Belgian boy and his dog Snowy nestled inside — scattered across the yellowing sheet.  A half-empty glass of Pepsi and a ravaged box of Wheat Thins commanded the majority of space on the nightstand that separated our two beds.

On Demian’s side of the room, posters that had been thumb-tacked on the sun-burst walls struggled for space.  A Benji movie poster nuzzled up against an Incredible Hulk banner, which loomed above a March-of-Dimes walkathon announcement.  The blast of colors and shapes and material — from glossy to newspaper-print to the black velvet from a flea-market-bought mini-painting of the Fonz — stood in contrast to the walls on my side of the room, bare but for a small calendar of the Alaskan wilderness.

Strewn along the floor, miles from the bamboo hamper in front of the closet, were his clothes and my clothes, commingled in an almost perversely intimate way.  From under the bed poked more t-shirts and holey socks, in addition to half-broken toys and comic-books that had been abandoned for other pleasures.  This was our room, in 1976, and it looked and smelled like summer.


Even though entering the room I shared with Demian looked and smelled like a three-month break from school, it felt more somber than hopeful.  The blinding sun through the poorly-insulated window made me sweat whenever I tried to read a book on my bed in the middle of the day.  The mess of the clothes on the floor was my responsibility as well as my brother’s, but thinking about cleaning it up fostered resentment toward him, so it stayed in unclean piles until my mother finally caught the overwhelming odor of foot wafting into the hall and demanded that we toss it into the wash.

All the posters on Demian’s side of our room reminded me that he had more zest, more appreciation for life and its bright colors than I did.  At eleven, I saw those monthly photographs of frozen tundra as a place of physical escape, while experiencing my internal world in the same cold, bleak terms on a daily basis.   All my young-boy possessions served to ground me, to anchor me to my life, for a little while, and then the reality of the space outside that room would throw everything I thought I knew into disarray.  I felt suffocated and trapped in this bedroom filled with old memories that were becoming tainted by new truths.

I didn’t feel safe in my room anymore, didn’t know who I could trust or how much to trust them.  Demian’s bed, his belongings, his vibrant personality inside this room made me feel alternately relaxed and anxious.  Relaxed that he was safe and unaffected by the small fissures I had begun to notice in the foundation of our family and the neighborhood around us, but anxious thinking of what I needed to do to keep him from discovering that our world was slowly becoming an unstable and hazardous place.

The sounds of the train whistle, far off and otherworldly in the middle of the night, filled me with visions of travel and escape.  I wanted to create my own unique trill, one that would signal the departure of my brother and me from a depot crowded with detachment and blindness.  Demian deserved to be protected, and while our room served that purpose for the moment, I knew that eventually the roof above us would collapse and it would be too late for me to do anything to save him.  Or myself.

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04/11/2010 at 8:55 pm (Senses, Telegraph Ave.)

One of those scents that hook directly into my memory circuits and take me straight back to my childhood in Berkeley: the potent herb.  Take a whiff alongside me:


The smell is unmistakable, no matter what location I find myself: indoors, outdoors, at a house party or walking down Telegraph Ave. late at night.  Skunkweed, marijuana on fire in a wrapped cigarette, its smoke sucked into some stoner or hippie’s throat, then exhaled into the air with most of its pollutants intact.  Into the air with the stench of the smoker toker, the remnants of their own human spray blended with homegrown pestilence and filth, the atmosphere chokes and wheezes, reels and expires.

The vapors that swirl and twirl on the end of the thin paper’s burning edge emit the impotentcy of its mother crop.  Harvested before its time, or past its prime, the crusty green flakes that may have once been leaves or even a tasty bud mix with dead seeds to fill a baggie of ineffectual purpose.  The smell, once enflamed in joint-form or stoked in bong water, is its immediate giveaway.  Bitter, acrid, full of weight and pressure, the smell consumes me, encircles and penetrates my nasal cavities.  If I plug my nose with the tips of my fingers, the traveling vapors parade into the corners of my mouth, and I taste ostrich dung mixed with pepper gum.  If I force my mouth closed, the invisible strands of skunk smoke spray my eyes, coat my retina with liquid sludge and hazardous waste.

There is no escape from this smell that assaults my clean body, my fortified fortress that has smoked the killer weed but has not embraced it as a companion.  The burn is excruciating, but that sensation is reserved to the actual partaking of it firsthand.  It is the second-hand smoke that is the worst: unexpected, utterly familiar, uninvited and unwelcome as guest or acquaintance.  Poisonous and insistent, the scent spreads out in all directions in order to attack and conquer.  My nostrils flare in aggravation, my eyes crinkle with identification and anticipation, and my mouth readies to retch as bile coats my throat and roils in my esophagus.



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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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Summer Writing at Skidmore

03/22/2010 at 1:18 pm (Novel Excerpts, Skidmore)

The first big piece of news surrounding this novel-in-progress: I got official notice that I will be attending – on scholarship! – the NY State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College.  This is a tremendous honor, one that I was nominated for, and then accepted based on the strength of an early draft of my novel’s first chapter.  Of course, I’m now feverishly trying to complete this current draft so that I can go to the retreat with a better understanding of my novel as a whole, and with new pages that can be presented to the workshops there.  I will be studying with Allan Gurganus and Joseph O’Neill, as well as meeting a ton of creative minds in poetry, non-fiction, short story and novel disciplines.   It should be a tremendous learning experience, and a big boost for my progress on BEAR.

I submitted the first chapter of my novel to the Institute with my application, but instead of posting the entire thing here, I’d like to just offer up a taste.  These are the opening few pages, which establish the frame story and act as a kind of prologue.  Of course, all of this will (and probably should) change by the time I reach my seventh or eighth draft of the novel, but it’s nice to see where the whole thing started.


Chapter One

Born Daedalus Stephen O’Neill, named for Joyce’s artistic young man and a living example of the ridiculous, romantic gestures that defined my father, I was raised an only child for five years of my life.  In 1970, my brother Demian was born, also a victim of my father’s love for literature and bombastic displays of narcissism disguised as affection.  Less than a year after his second son was delivered at Alta Bates, a small but respectable hospital less than ten blocks from where we were raised, Thomas O’Neill packed his Hesse, Joyce and Beat Poet books for a new life on an island three thousand miles away.  Pursuing a dream to transform himself into the most relevant poet of his generation, he abandoned us in a two-bedroom rental house in Berkeley, California so that he could experience the life of a Greenwich Village boho without the distractions of a wife and two children.

Less than thirty years later, my only brother succumbed to one of his more prodigious funks and hanged himself in a studio apartment littered with mildewed clothes, empty beer bottles and drug paraphernalia.  When I arrived to collect his meager belongings, I found the only present our father ever gave him: a dog-eared copy of the bastard’s one and only chapbook, self-published and full of typos and misspellings.

I blame myself for Demian’s death, and if that sounds melodramatic or like a form of survivor’s guilt—those left behind always wonder what they could have done to recognize the signs, to save the deceased from themselves—then I’m exactly like ninety-nine percent of the people in this world who lose someone they love to a tragic, premature death.  Except, I saw the signs.  In fact, I helped create and foster them, influenced the path he followed and did nothing to halt the cataclysmic choices he repeatedly made in his life.

How did I do it?  Why did I do it?  These are the questions I’ve been asking myself, surrounded by the scant physical reminders of the one person in the world I should have protected, the only person in the world I ever really trusted.

In the summer of 1976, when I was nearly eleven and Demian was barely six, I made decisions that I’ve regretted ever since, but that I never fully understood.  I don’t strive to be the voice of my or any other generation.  I have no intention of following a path into the literary sinkhole where my father now resides.  I only want to find the truth, by chronicling the events of my life with Demian as faithfully as I know how.

He deserves a proper eulogy.

In the face of everything I did wrong, there may be a chance I get this one thing right.

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Musty Paperbacks at Moe’s

03/15/2010 at 6:17 pm (Senses, Telegraph Ave.)

One of the things I’d like to do here on this blog is tap into some specific senses (touch, taste, smell, sound, sight) about Berkeley as I delve further into my drafts of the novel.  This is an exercise I did a few months back that revolved around scent, in an attempt to bring sense memory onto the page.

Musty Paperbacks / Moe’s Books

Downstairs, in the big little basement that is home to all of Moe’s new books and used paperbacks, was my home away from home.  Whenever I find myself at a rummage sale or library book buyout, inevitably I will press my nose to a mass-market paperback that has seen better days, and the scent of acid-decomposed paper and water-damaged bindings caress me.  It is familiar, not unpleasant, and full of happy memories of trolling the aisles at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley for hours upon hours.  Sometimes, if I had my own used books to sell, I’d take a trade slip instead of cash, and my neck would tilt sideways as my eyes scanned the shelves – and metal carts of yet-to-be-shelved treasures – until a title or author caught my attention and the journey would be set on pause for a moment.

Could this be the book that would transport me to another time and place worth my eight to ten hours of nose-between-the-pages intense devotion?  Would the fact that another sci-fi fan had languored in a steamy bath or nestled into a worn-down, comfy base of a Sequoia, dissuade me from taking the Tor paperback out of the shelves for keeps?  Would the moistness of its pages and the battered shape of its jacket cover turn me off to the wonders and promises of secret wishes fulfilled that may lie encapsulated in the black-on-white words within?

Maybe yes and maybe no, depending on the intensity of the permeating odors of the little novel or the level of damage done to the small jewel.  But whatever the choice, the search for more adventure, intrigue, horror or otherworldly excitement would continue, my nostrils filled with foreign smells, ancient scents, and the ticket to more olfactory memories and subconscious future pleasures.

photo by Robert Eliason

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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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The Evolution of a Novel

02/23/2010 at 6:57 pm (Welcome)

Welcome to my first posting at WordPress.

This blog is inspired by April Davila’s blog and Janet Fitch’s blog, in that it both details my creative process during the creation of a novel – “The Bear Who Broke The World” – and displays short fiction pieces based on Janet’s prompts.  All of the prompts will be used to develop two-page exercises that revolve around the characters and the world of my novel.  The setting is Berkeley, California, so most if not all of the writings will occur in this specific place.  They will focus on different times in the city’s history, employ various points of view, engage numerous characters – both main and peripheral – and will hopefully serve as both entertaining reads for you and creative discoveries that will feed directly into the novel.

So, thanks for taking this journey with me.  It may not always be smooth or follow the most direct route, but hopefully it will be a trip ultimately worth taking.

– Justin

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