Short Story Contest
All winners
Kirby Wright
Rites of passage, family power dynamics, the subconscious and the islands of Hawaii are all important themes in Kirby Wright's work.
A free-lance writer and poet by profession, Wright was born and raised in Hawaii, and the islands are the setting of a novel that he is now completing.
Although the short story "Houdini" is not an excerpt from the novel, both the novel and the story are set in Hawaii and deal with pivotal moments in the life of a family.
"I'm interested in how you have within a family structural subsets and a constant movement of power" between family members, Wright said. "I'm after those moments in the family structure that change the family forever and there's no going back."
Wright is also fascinated with dreams and the role the subconscious plays in the creative process. "That's where all my prose poems come from--dreams. Ninety-five percent of my dreams are published," he said, joking, "I'm a lazy writer." But humor aside, Wright is very serious about his writing; he has published extensively in more than 100 poetry journals.
"Houdini" has an autobiographical tone, and at least part of the story is based in fact. The idea for the story "came from my brother, who really did want me to tie him up," Wright said. "But I could never get the knots right, and I could never capture him, so I thought, 'What if the father tied him up?'" Wright then added the character of the father to be the one who violently changes the family's lives, he said.
While his literary inspirations are F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce, for their poetic language, Wright has also been influenced by Kurt Vonnegut. Wright, 40, met Vonnegut while a student at UC San Diego, where he had a job helping host visiting authors.
"I picked up Kurt Vonnegut (at the airport) and hung out with him for about four days," Wright said. When he asked Vonnegut to autograph his copy of "Breakfast of Champions," Vonnegut wrote the inscription, "To Kirby Wright, who is going to make it as a writer. I know these things."
Although Wright enjoys writing short stories, his first love is poetry. "I have to write poetry. If I don't write poetry, I can't write."
When he isn't writing poetry and fiction, Wright, who has lived in Palo Alto for nine years, writes business plans and magazine columns and articles. He and his wife, Darcy, have two cats, Neh Neh and Baby, and a Reeves turtle named E.T.
--Christina Ziegler-McPherson

Houdini

by Kirby Wright

Ninth grade marked the end of my big brother's interest in board games.
Every day after school, Ben would ask me to tie him up so he could practice his Houdini act. He'd been inspired by a Tony Curtis movie and wanted to become Honolulu's first escape artist. Ben loved it when I tied him up with nylon cord out in the back yard.
"Tighter, Jeff," he said. His hands were behind his back and one side of his face pressed to the grass. He had the green eyes and blond hair of my mother. I had the brown eyes and dark hair of my hapa haole father.
I wound the cord around Ben's wrists. "This might cut your circulation."
"Will not."
I tied a square knot and tried squeezing a finger between the cord and his wrists. "It's like a tourniquet," I said.
"Can't you tie anything besides a square knot?"
"How 'bout a fisherman's knot?"
"OK. But make it tight."
I finished his wrists and started binding his ankles.
Ben would twist and squirm on the grass trying to free himself. He always refused my offer to untie him. I studied the Boy Scout's Handbook and got so good at knots that it was typical for Ben to rub his skin raw. But somehow, he always managed to get free. Even if it took hours, he'd get loose. He was more interested in escaping knots than doing homework.
"Better luck next time," he said as he tossed me the cord. He was tall and lanky and I figured this helped him escape time after time.

One night, when we were eating dinner on the lanai, Ben asked my father to tie him up. "Bet I can get away," Ben said.
My mother nodded. "Ben's like Houdini, Dear."
"Better," I said.
My father finished his last bite of Hamburger Helper. He sat at the head of the table in a V-neck undershirt and khaki shorts. He had thin lips and a ruddy complexion. He wore horn-rimmed glasses like battle gear and had trouble smiling. He'd joined the Army after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and got stabbed in combat on Tarawa Atoll. Ben had started calling him "the General" because he liked giving orders.
"You won't get away from me," my father told Ben.
"Oh, yes, I will."
"Get the rope."
Ben walked into the house and returned with two lengths of nylon cord. My father followed him out to the lawn.
"Finished your homework?" my father asked him.
"All done."
"Get on your stomach.
Ben flipped over on his belly.
My mother and I watched him roll up Ben's jeans and loop cord around his ankles. He used the second piece to bind Ben's wrists. Then he went into the kitchen and returned with a third piece. He used a slipknot to tie Ben's hands and feet together behind his back. "This is how we handled prisoners of war," my father explained.
"What prisoners?" I asked.
"The Japanese."
"Did any get away?"
"Not a one."
"Always a first time," Ben said.
"That looks uncomfortable," said my mother.
"He asked for it," my father replied. He stood over Ben the way a hunter stands over his kill.
"Does it hurt, Ben?" my mother asked.
"It tickles, Mummy."
"I'll be watching 'Mission: Impossible,'" my father said. "I'll untie you after the show."
"I'll be free by then."
"We'll see." My father walked across the lanai and slid open the screen door to the house.
My mother started clearing dishes. She wore a muumuu, clip-on earrings, and red lipstick. She'd met my father in her hometown of Boston, where he attended Harvard on the GI Bill.
I knelt down and watched Ben struggle on the centipede grass. He arched his back and slumped. He arched again and rolled onto his side.
"You look like Curly in 'The Three Stooges,'" I told him.
"Kulikuli."
"What's wrong with talking?"
"I'm trying to concentrate."
"You're the General's prisoner of war."
"If you don't kulikuli."
Through the glass doors, I could see my father sprawled on the couch. I knew Ben desperately wanted his praise for something, anything. He'd been cut from junior varsity football and was getting D's. The cord was something tangible Ben could defeat. Every time I'd tied him up after school was practice for this night.
I went inside, switched on the floodlights, and returned to Ben's side. His T-shirt was covered with grass stains.
"Think you can do it?" I asked.
"Don't know."
"Should I loosen that stupid slipknot?"
"That'd be cheating."
"The General won't know."
"Yeah, but I will."
My mother walked out. She was an optimist who went to Mass every Sunday. She believed her perfect attendance, combined with her weekly tithing, guaranteed her a place in Heaven.
"Pray for Ben," I told her.
My mother looked skyward. She held out her hands to the stars above Diamond Head. "Our Father," she began, "who art in Heaven."
"Go, Ben, go," I said. "God's on your side."
My mother finished her prayer and we started cheering for Ben. It felt like "Monday Night Football." My father got off the couch and looked out the glass door. After 15 minutes of frantic contortions, Ben loosened the cord binding his wrists. Then he reached for the slipknot. He arched his long back and, in a matter of seconds, was free. I have never seen Ben more pleased with himself than the night he escaped before "Mission: Impossible" ended. My mother and I accompanied him into the living room, where he presented my father with the three lengths of cord.
My father laughed. "You should be on this show," he said. But there was a defeated tone to his voice and his praise sounded phony.
I jumped up and down while my mother tap-danced on the wooden tiles. The show ended and I did The Monkey to the "Mission: Impossible" song, making sure to block my father's view of the screen.
"Ben did it!" I said.
Ben raised his arms in acknowledgment. "Thank you, thank you."
"All right," my father said, "that's enough."
"Don't you think your son's pretty terrific?" my mother asked.
"Keep your big voice down, Mary, all the neighbors'll hear you.
"But Ben's the best!"
"Better than Houdini," I added.
Ben nodded. "I can escape anything."
"Look, you li'l jerk," my father said, "want me to really show you how we tied up the Japs?"
"Sure."
"Then let's go outside, big mouth."
"Lead the way."
"This is getting silly," my mother said.
"Shut your yap," my father told her.
My mother and I followed them back to the lawn. Moths, having discovered the floodlights, were dive-bombing out of the night sky. Even stink bugs were buzzing the lights.
Ben got on his belly again. My father jammed his knee between Ben's shoulder blades and looped cord around his wrists. He threaded the cord between Ben's wrists and secured it with a surgeon's knot. I could see Ben's fingers turning white.
"Owie!" Ben said.
"You made your bed, big mouth," my father said, "now sleep in it." When he finished with Ben's wrists, he started in on his ankles.
"Isn't that enough for one night?" my mother asked.
"He won't escape now," my father said.
"Is this really necessary, Dear?"
"God damn it, Mary, stay the hell away when I'm disciplining them."
My mother looked at me and then retreated to the kitchen.
"Bend at the knees," my father ordered. He connected Ben's roped ankles and wrists with a timber hitch knot, the kind lumberjacks use. My father pulled the nylon tight and Ben screamed. "Now this is the real McCoy," my father said.
"God," Ben said.
My father mussed up Ben's blond hair. "Have fun, big mouth." He returned to the house and I could hear him arguing with my mother.
I sat beside Ben on the grass and tried coaching him to freedom. His hands and feet touched behind his back I told him the position of the timber hitch connecting his wrists to his ankles. I told him that there was a surgeon's knot between his wrists that got smaller and smaller every time he reached for it. A stink bug landed on his neck and I brushed it off.
"Let me know when to free you."
"Sure."
"Want some juice?"
"No."

My father got my mother to go to bed early. He was in his pajamas when he turned off the floodlights. The only light came from a lava lamp on the lanai. I got a flashlight from the kitchen cupboard and returned to the lawn. Ben looked like a pretzel with his knees bent and his arms stretched behind him. He arched his back trying to reach the timber hitch. The more he struggled, the tighter the cord got. I shined the light on his face--one side rested on the grass and the other was covered with blue pebbles of Gaviota fertilizer.
"He's got you."
"I know."
"Let me untie you."
"OK, but don't tell the General."
"I won't." I put the flashlight on the lawn and faced the light toward Ben. The beam lit his face and shoulders. I felt the nylon around his wrists and there was something wet. I grabbed the flashlight.
"Turn that light off!" came my father's voice.
There was a silhouette standing at the screen door of the master bedroom. I aimed the flashlight in its direction and lit up my father in his pj's.
"You're next, Jeffrey," he said, shielding his eyes. "Is that what you want?"
"No."
"Then get to bed."
"This isn't World War II!"
"You've got 10 seconds."
"It's OK, Jeff," Ben said. "I'm almost free."
"Really?"
"Really. Go to sleep."
I went to bed. I listened for Ben's footsteps in the hall. I waited for him to walk into my room and show me the cord. I waited and waited. I fell asleep waiting. I dreamt Ben had to go to the hospital to have his hands and feet removed. My father told the doctor the operation was way too expensive and he could perform the surgery at home if my mother acted as his nurse. My mother pulled a dinner napkin out of her purse, folded it into a nurse's cap, and stuck the cap on her head.

The garbage trucks woke me up. I ran outside in my underpants and found Ben on his side with his eyes closed. His hands and feet were still touching. The cord around his wrists was red with blood.
I tugged at the cord. "Jesus!"
"How's the big mouth this morning?" my father asked from the screen door of his bedroom. He was wearing a dark suit and adjusted his tie.
"He's bleeding!" I said and yanked at the timber hitch.
"He asked for it," said my father. "Now untie Houdini and get ready for school."
I ran into the kitchen and returned with a steak knife. I sawed at the timber hitch and the nylon gave way, one strand at a time. I straightened out his legs and cut the bloody knot binding his wrists. Ben remained on his side. The skin around his wrists looked like raw meat.
"It's over," I said, rubbing his back.
He flinched.
"What's wrong, Ben?"
He didn't answer. Ben's arms were still behind him, as if the knot hadn't been cut. His eyes watered and he kept one ear to the ground. Blue pebbles were embedded in his blond hair and eyebrows.
I was surprised my mother hadn't come out to comfort him. The dream came back to me and I remembered my parents hadn't thought twice about maiming their son. I got up and something moved in the master bedroom.
I looked over at the screen door--there they stood, watching.


I enter the world of this story and am transfixed. It's fascinating material, and I don't want it to end. I hope the writer has a novel in mind.
--Ellen Sussman

I've heard it said that children can be cruel, but it's a rare child that can match the cruelty of some parents. In "Houdini," we meet one such parent, an insecure bully who uses and abuses his children to shore up his own weak self. A powerful, evocative story.
--Tom Parker

I enjoyed the tension the author developed between the strangely unnerving situation and the matter-of-fact prose.
--Kim Silviera Wolterbeek

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