Short Story Contest
All winners
Rita Lomio
Rita Lomio is fascinated by history, a subject that has inspired many of her stories, including "Master," her winning entry in the Weekly's Short Story Contest.
She got the idea for "Master" during an episode of "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS. A guest on the program produced a violin that his father had received from a tenant in lieu of rent earlier in the century. Lomio was enthralled by the story and the glimpse back into the world of the immigrant factory workers in New York.
"I just stopped watching and went and wrote the story," Lomio said.
In "Master," the protagonist's father, a New York landlord, accepts a balalaika from a penniless Russian immigrant and his son as payment of their first month's rent.
Lomio said she wanted to write her story about Russian immigrants but didn't know of any Russian instruments. She looked on the Internet and discovered the existence of the balalaika.
A senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Lomio has been writing for as long as she can remember. She enjoys setting her stories in the past because "I'm interested in all the different historical time frames."
When Lomio sits down to write a story, she shies away from making outlines and imposing structures. Instead, she just lets her thoughts flow freely.
This strategy works pretty well, she said, until she gets to the ending.
"I start a lot of stories," she said, "but not all of them have endings yet."
Lomio plans to attend college next year but is not sure where she wants to go. When she is not writing, she enjoys playing basketball, tennis and badminton.
--Megan Lindow

Master

by Rita Lomio

"Hello, Master Leonard."
My dad smiled smugly, his thick chin nestling in the flesh of his neck. He didn't like immigrants, but he did like being called "master." I looked again at the bowed old man before us. He was smarter than he seemed: He must have gone to the Russian political boss who had told him what to say. Of course, the man couldn't be that smart: Going to a boss was the same as handing the boss a signed paper pledging your body and soul to him for the rest of your life, your kid's life and, if your kid had occasion to marry and father a child, your kid's kid's life. Still, many found it preferable to starving. So the man was very smart, and very stupid.
My dad realized, after a long silence, that it was his turn to speak. He quickly gave a nod and slowly cleared his throat. He drew a breath, closed his eyes like he was listening to a distant conversation and said in an affected professional tone: "Ahem, yes. What is it?"
"Master Leonard, I am looking for a house for myself and my boy."
My eyes scanned around. I saw two dirty, grimy suitcases and a big, dusty hat. No boy.
I heard a small rustle, and reflexively shot my foot out to squash the rat. Instead of a squish, I heard a yelp. I saw two blue eyes blinking up at me from beneath the old hat. I snarled in return and grinned as the boy cringed back beneath the hat in confusion.
My father flicked his gaze over to the boy hiding under the hat. "Come out," he commanded, motioning with a fat finger. "I want a look at you."
The two large circular pools looked up at my dad, uncomprehending. My dad's thick face became a splotchy pink as he felt himself without authority over this 5-year-old boy.
The boy's father quickly stepped in and, still with face lowered, muttered some gibberish. The boy quickly scurried from under the hat and stood in front of my father shyly. My father looked up and down the boy. He put a hand out to search for lice, then pulled back the boy's lips to look at the teeth. The boy endured the overview well, as he had probably gone through it several times since arriving in Schenectady.
You can always tell a good tenant by his wife's and kid's teeth. If a tenant cares enough about the family, he will make them clean their teeth at least twice a week. If he takes the time to worry about that, he will take the time to worry about finances. Well, that's my father's theory. I figure if they take the time to scrape their teeth, they take the time to waste time.
Once my father had finished the inspection, he turned to the old man.
"We do have one apartment, it's on the top floor. No lighting, no heating, no water. There are, however, stairs, so don't worry. And you'll also get a bucket."
The old man bowed lower and waited.
"How much can you pay?"
The Russian straightened his back as he nervously looked at my father. Standing straight, he was a good hand taller than my father. I felt rather than saw my father frown. The old man recognized this too and quickly stooped back lower than my father in a sort of pathetic supplicating position. "We are poor, Master Leonard, just from Ukraine, and have little." My father's frown deepened.
The man hurried to continue. "All I have is this--Yegor." He nodded to his son.
All at once tiny Yegor was scurrying through the contents of a suitcase packed tight with dingy clothing and rusty metal trinkets they probably hoped to sell.
The boy stopped and picked out an object. With apparent sadness, the tin boy held up a wooden contraption with a long stick coming from a triangular body. On the squat triangular body were three short strings.
I eyed the contraption warily. "What--" I began, and felt my father's stern gaze upon me, "is it?" I finished meekly.
The old man stood tall and fumed to me slowly, then looked down at my father. "You do not know what this is?"
"Of course I do," my father snapped back quickly. "Yes, of course, it's-- it's-- "
"--a balalaika," the Russian man finished.
"Why, of course, a balalaika. What do you think? I have no culture? Why, just the other day I was telling my boy he should learn an instrument and become edug-- edut-- edu--," my father floundered, face flushed.
"Educated," the man finished.
"No, I told my boy it would help him become cultured, not educated. Cultured," my father snapped back angrily.
I remembered no such conversation, but watched in silent shock as my father made the deal: a whole month's stay for the instrument. When the dingy immigrants had left up the rackety stairs, my father scowled and thrust the instrument in my hands.
"There," he said. "Don't say I never did anything for you. I'm going to see the son of mine get some culture." With that, he spun on his heels and left me in the lobby of the dirty apartment, staring in wonder and horror at the wooden contraption in my hands. What was I supposed to do with it? I had never been given anything of value before, and here I was holding something worth a month's rent. With soft feet and holding the instrument like the freshly inked Declaration of Independence, I slowly made my way down to the basement and wrapped the instrument in my bed sheet. I sat all night staring at it, wondering what to do.
The next day I found that my father's proclamation of my getting culture was not one of the drunken ramblings he made. He took my getting culture seriously and declared that I would no longer work during the day at the apartments and would master the balalaika, though I still would be responsible for killing rats.
I couldn't imagine how to get culture from the wooden triangle-and-stick, and was even more incredulous at the idea that culture from a wooden triangle-and-stick would be of any use to me. But if the contraption could get me out of emptying all the buckets of waste from all the apartments, a hornet's nest couldn't keep me from trying.
I sat under a tree on the bank of the creek, clutching the wooden thing and trying to soak up some culture from it. I saw the doors to the textile factory open, which was a little way down the road. Streams of women and young children exited, heading for spots to eat their lunch. I saw Yegor stumbling about the feet of the workers, trying his best not to get trampled.
Yegor spied me and I watched, amused, as he crept closer and closer to me, eyeing me warily and trying to gain courage. As I watched him from the corner of my eyes, I threw stones nonchalantly into the creek. Each time they splashed into the water, he cringed. By the time he had managed to come within arms' length, a bell rang the end of the 15-minute lunch break for the textile factory workers. Yegor, who had been devoting all his attention to creeping toward me, was startled by the noise and quickly raced back to the factory.
The next day I made it a point to sit one tree closer to the textile factory. At lunch I watched as little Yegor crept toward me again. He reached me within 10 minutes (though the walk should take only two) and plunked his little dirty self next to me. I glanced at him as if surprised, but his eyes and concentration were not on me. The tiny, grimy, overworked little immigrant was staring woefully at my hands. Puzzled, I looked down to see that I was holding the balalaika.
Slowly, paying care not to frighten, I lifted the instrument toward him. Startled, he looked at me and I nodded back authoritatively. When I realized he was not going to take it from me, I threw it at him angrily. Instead of running away, he picked up the instrument, brushed it off and, casting a quick, furtive glance at me, placed it in his lap with one hand on the strings. Afraid he was going to break the strings, I said commandingly, as if chastising a dog, "No."
But the little boy seemed to have gone deaf. He muttered, "Da," and altered the instrument's position in his lap. I sat in shock at the little boy's defiance of my order. I raised a hand to smack the ill-bred urchin.
Then, suddenly, I heard the purest noise I had ever heard. Yegor was dancing his fingers against the short strings of the balalaika. I let my hand drop, and sat back against the tree. It wasn't the rowdy organ music you hear at bars--it was sweeter, cleaner, crisper. It was wonderful. I forgot to be jealous at the tiny immigrant for taking what was mine and displaying talent and intelligence. I forgot to be angry. I listened. And all those women and children within earshot softened their conversation respectfully. I stared back at the creek as the water ran among the stones, played with the reeds, lifted fallen leaves of gold and yellow and crimson. The music, too, ran and played and lifted.
The bell clanged.
Yegor fell from his trance-like state and remembered where he was. In horror, and with shaking hands, he flung back the balalaika and fled to the factory. For the rest of the day I sat clutching the balalaika in wonder, and watching the water flow toward the woods.
The next day Yegor didn't come, nor the day after that. Finally, I decided to go in search of him. I found him sitting alone under a tree on the other side of the creek, gnawing a bread chunk.
"Hello," I said.
He nearly jumped high enough to crack his skull on the tree's branches. I grabbed his arm to keep him from running away.
"Shh, shh, it's OK. See? I'm not going to hurt you. It's OK." Slowly I pulled the balalaika from my satchel. "This was yours, wasn't it? You play it very well. Shh, stop fighting me, I'm not going to hurt you, I want you to teach me." I motioned with my hand at him, at the balalaika, and at me, trying to get him to understand.
At length he did, and his dirty face spread into a grin. His impish eyes lit up and he held out his hands expectantly. I released his arm and grinned with relief as I handed the balalaika to him delicately. He motioned for me to sit, and I did obediently.
There, under the shade of a tree speckled with leaves of all sorts of colors, near the creek bed, and under the midday sun, the tiny Russian urchin Yegor showed me the fingerings for the balalaika.
After several weeks my father thought better of my becoming cultured, saying that he was cultured enough for the both of us and dared me to dissent. So I went back to work cutting wood, emptying waste buckets, doing all the normal chores. But each day, when the sun was midway across the sky, I would steal away for the textile factory and meet Yegor and we would sit under a tree and move our hands against the wooden triangle-and-stick until the factory bell rang.


I can't wait to meet this young writer! I'm so impressed by the very bold vision, by the finely honed writing skills, by the ability to tell a fascinating story.
--Ellen Sussman

"Master" surprised and pleased me on a number of levels. I particularly enjoyed its period/folk tale tone, but also its sly and somewhat cynical humor. Most of all, though, I was heartened by the path Yegor and the narrator found to bring pleasure into their world.
--Tom Parker

Here's a story which achieves characterization through dramatization.
--Kim Silviera Wolterbeek