Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
by David Fromm
In the winter, to make extra money, Chickie Wheelan drove a truck
that was something to see. At its nose was a plow, the blade eight
feet wide and cut like a heart, and when Chickie dropped it down
it bit easily through the snow and ice and even pavement. Where
the bed would be, two deep tanks held salt and sand and fed them
via unseen tubes into the bristles of the coarse brushes that rotated
along the trucks belly. With the push of a button, Chickie
could engage in wholesale, or more refined, granular distribution.
Sometimes, on nights so cold that the hairs in his nose stuck together,
Chickie would sit in the cab and look out onto a newly plowed parking
lot or driveway or back road and imagine himself at the wheel of
some wide clipper, knifing through a sea of white.
| About David Fromm
This year's first-place short-story winner in the adult category
grew up in Massachusetts.
Almost one year ago David Fromm and his wife moved out to
the Bay Area, where he discovered the Palo Alto Weekly short
story contest while researching the couple's new city of residence.
Fromm said he appreciates the comforts Palo Alto offers. "I
like that you can get from the ocean to the mountains in about
a half hour. Things on the East Coast seem packed tighter,"
Fromm said. The "packed tight" feel of Fromm's Massachusetts
home provided inspiration for his award-winning story, "The
Millionaires," about a small-town former high school
basketball star rediscovering his identity. Fromm completed
the story just a day before the entry deadline, and was admittedly
nervous about handing it over.
Fortunately, his wife assuaged those fears. "She's kind
of a tough critic, so when she liked it, I knew it was a good
sign," Fromm said. Fromm is a litigator working out of
Menlo Park. Raised by a newspaper columnist mother and a father
Fromm says is "a poet at heart," it's no wonder
his creative endeavors include writing. He also enjoys travel
and, you guessed it, basketball. Fromm is waiting for another
good opportunity to share his stories. "I'm waiting for
the intersection of time and inspiration," Fromm said.
After discovering his story had garnered the first-place prize
in the Weekly short story contest, Fromm checked out past
short-story winners on the paper's Web site, and was honored.
"I look at some of the old story winners and I'm proud
to be grouped with those people," Fromm said.
-- Tyler Hanley
"You plowing tonight, Chick?" Don Patella looked out the
steamed window of the Snack Chalet at Chickies truck, looming
ponderously at the curb, and then turned back to the grill. His
apron, clean and white when the day began and he flipped pancakes
for Chickie and the other mill workers, was now spotted with slick
thumbprints. "Or going down to the game?"
Chickie sat at the counter and searched for his reflection in the
Formica. "Both, I think." He spun idly on the stool, half
left and back half right. "Ive got to salt the parking
lot before it ends, but Ill probably catch the first half."
Patella flipped Chickies hamburger, and the flat griddle sizzled.
Above it, a small chalkboard listed the weeks specials
Wednesday, meat loaf, Friday, split pea soup. How was it, Chickie
sometimes wondered, that the same plain surface could turn out pancakes
and sausages and cheeseburgers in the same hour? How was it that
their flavors didnt gradually merge over the course of the
day? And would he mind if they did?
"Try to make it," Patella said, sliding a plate across
the counter. Hed been going to the games for twenty years.
Now, his son Ben was the starting small forward at the high school,
and the glass panels of the Chalets donut case were papered
with the box scores and headlines from the Millionaires current
and surprising season. "Its a big game."
Snow fell quietly on Chickie when he stepped out of the Chalet,
like confetti. He shook his collar down and checked his watch. Six-thirty,
and the sidewalks of downtown Leonard were already empty. By February,
the tourists were months gone, taking their easy dollars back to
Boston and New York, and locals like Chickie had the lonely run
of the Leonard streets. Even the holiday crowd home on break,
visiting parents had vanished, returned to school or jobs
in distant cities. Chickie was almost glad. The Heritage was a lot
quieter and less predatory, and he didnt miss the feigned
interest, the concealed despair, that seasoned each high volume
conversation from July to the New Year. Chickies breath floated
softly in the night air and beclouded the moon.
He hopped into the cab and thought about Ben Patellas game,
not so much the one tonight as the way Ben played it. Ben and some
of the other high school players occasionally came to play in the
Sunday night pickup games at the elementary school. Good shooter,
Chickie remembered, but not much of a handle. Even at twenty-eight,
Chickie could cross the kid up, but then Chickie could still cross
most people up. Seemed like a nice kid, though. The truck rumbled
to life and headed east onto Housatonic Street, the snowfall looking
like static in his headlights.
The Leonard Millionaires played basketball in an old gym adjacent
to the high school. Chickie pulled into the parking lot just before
seven p.m., rolling over the feeble curb and sliding plow-first
into a snowbank. He cut the engine and sat in the darkness of the
cab, surveying the full lot. Red taillights shone off of plumes
of exhaust, lighting up the parking lot like a festival. The visitors
bus, chartered in a city sixty miles east, idled by the entry to
the gym. A group of smokers lingered in the night air by the doors.
Walking through the lot, Chickie startled three sophomores passing
a furtive beer across the seats of a Dodge Ram.
At the front door, Chickie kicked his boots free of salt and sand
and ice. Selma Rozack, the Vice Principal, sold him a ticket for
five dollars as the jayvee kids milled around the concession stand.
She smiled at Chickie.
"Nice to see you, William," she said, patting his hand.
"Where have you been hiding yourself?"
Chickie smiled at her. "Oh, you know, just working for the
state, I guess."
"Well, Im glad you made it to the big game," Selma
said. "Western Mass finals, can you believe it?"
"Guess not," Chickie said as he slid through her hands
and into the gilded foyer of the gymnasium. "Tell Principal
Panetti I said hello."
The gym itself was small and smelled like old sweat and laundry.
Chickie high-stepped his way up into the crowded retractable stands.
Above him, the high schools rectangular sports banners hung
like tapestries from the rafters, skiing and cross-country predominant
with the occasional girls soccer southern division championship.
Against the far wall, on a diagonal vector from Chickie, hung one
that read "Leonard Millionaires 1991 Division III State Finalists
Boys Basketball." Chickie looked at it for a long second, and
felt someone grab his leg.
Chickie looked down at a man and a woman. The womans blonde
hair fell in tendrils into the hood of a fleece pullover. The man
wore jeans and a nylon jacket in the maroon and gold of the Millionaires
and smiled like he knew Chickie. "Whats going on, Chick?"
Chickie played along, even though he wasnt good at it. "Not
much. Whats going on with you?"
"Aww, you know, just working, I guess. Its great to see
you." The mans investment in their uncredited friendship
worried Chickie a little, and he searched his memory, to no avail,
for clues. "I saw you looking over at that banner. This is
the biggest game in this gym since that one, huh? Sit down here
Somewhat uneasily, Chickie took a seat next to the woman. She smiled
at him as the teams came out of the locker rooms and threaded in
eager lines across the court. "Hi," he said, "Im
"I know," she said. "You went to high school with
"This is Katie Berenson, Chick," the man said, putting
his arm around her. "Paul Berensons little sister. Remember
Paul? He was on that team with you, right? He was the center?"
"Sure," Chickie said, and thought about Paul Berensons
sister. She was a freshman when Paul and Chickie graduated. Much
smaller then. Chickie thought he remembered that she played ball
too, and had maybe played in college somewhere. "Pauls
a good guy. Whats he doing now?"
"Hes a doctor," Katie Berenson said. "He and
his wife live in New York." She had to twist on the bench to
talk to him, and her hair brushed on his cheek. It felt cool and
particular like fiber optics. She paused, looking around the gym,
and then said, "I havent sat in these stands since I
used to come watch his games."
The Millionaires ran two-line lay-ups on the near side of the court.
They had a couple of athletes, who cut through the lane seamlessly
and finished with both hands. Chickie watched them, and tried to
resist the urge to twitch. Back in 1991, Chickie had hands like
weeds and legs that were spring-loaded. He was the point guard,
the only real star, on the Millionaire team that went all the way
to the State finals. The game was held on this same Leonard court,
and Chickie remembered the fans being so thick together that they
looked like barnacles around the courts shiny hull. It was
the best and last game of Chickies high school career. Chickie
could still feel the waves of noise rolling through the gym as he
held the ball, down one with fifteen seconds left, for the last
shot. He had already put up 34 points, the last seven on foul shots
with under a minute on the clock, and the next day the Boston Globe
would say he was playing a different game than the other nine guys
on the court. In that moment, as he waited at mid-court with the
seconds draining away, Chickie had felt in perfect focus. Gathering
the noise, he took the crowd and the Millionaires and the opposing
team into his chest and held them there, reverberating, inside him.
Then, with six seconds on the clock, he penetrated, leaving his
own man flat-footed at the three-point line and drawing two defenders
before whipping a pass under their arms to Paul Berenson, his astonished
and unguarded center. The moment he threw it, Chickie knew that
it was the kind of pass that was so good, it was bad, and he watched
the ball skate through Berensons arms and out of bounds.
People still talked about it, and asked him why he didnt take
At mid-court, Ben Patella and the rest of the Millionaires starters
circled their opponents as a ref tossed up the jump ball. Immediately
the air filled with the squeak of sneakers and the giddy claps of
underclassmen. The Millionaires, still running the flex and pressing
after made baskets, jumped out to an early lead. Ten years and the
same offense, Chickie marveled. He could walk out of the stands
and run it without a hitch. Ben Patella hit two three-pointers and
slapped his palms against the floor. Across the gym, Chickie spotted
his former coach, Fred LaGarce, hunched forward with his fingers
to his lips, like Chickie wrapped in the blanket of some temporary
hegira. Next to LaGarce, Don Patella tracked the arc of his sons
jump shot through the wide eye of a videocamera.
The crowd roared as a Millionaire guard stole the ball at half court
and sailed in for a layup. For a moment, it looked like the Millionaires
might run away with the game. But their opponents, thick young men
from a suburb of Springfield called Monast, gathered themselves,
and when the big Monast center stepped up to block a shot and then
ran the court to finish a break with a dunk, Chickie watched the
way he took the crowd and his teammates and the Millionaires into
his chest and held them all there. By halftime, Monast had taken
a five-point lead and their small pack of imported fans howled like
The clock behind the basket read eight thirty, and Chickie made
his way into the foyer with the crowd. By the mens room, Don
Patella and Fred LaGarce argued about the relative stagnancy of
the Millionaire offense. Selma Rozack sold brownies at the concession
stand to eighth-graders. The man whose name Chickie didnt
know saw him and said, "were all going over to the Heritage
afterwards. You should meet us there."
"Maybe," Chickie said, looking around at faces red and
breathy. The milling slowed, and for a moment the crowd seemed fixed
in amber, arrested in a kind of civic emotional permanence that
Chickie, having played a role in, couldnt now disown. He turned
to the exit and began to walk to his truck.
"Hey," Katie Berenson said, and stepped out of the foyer.
"Do you guys still play pickup ball on Sunday nights?"
She joined Chickie under a street lamp, into whose still halo the
falling snow seemed to burst. "Uh, yeah," he said. "Are
"I live here now. My law firm has a local office, and they
had an opening." Outside the gym, the night was so cold and
dark it seemed to shine, and Katie Berensons teeth began to
chatter. She held her arms tight against her body and bounced up
and down slightly. "Do you guys let girls play?" She smiled,
like she was half-expecting to be denied, and said "dont
worry, Ive got better hands than my brother."
Chickie dug his hands into his pockets and grinned. "What do
"Oh, you know," she shrugged. "My brother always
felt bad about that pass in the State finals. He thought you were
going to shoot. We all did. I think you fooled everyone."
Chickie looked at the snow caked to his boots. "Im tricky."
"Yeah. Well, it sure was a pretty pass."
Inside, the buzzer for the second half sounded. Katie Berenson looked
back into the gym and stamped her feet. "So, maybe Ill
see you on Sunday?" She fixed him with a look that was somehow
blank and bold at the same time. Her lips trembled in the cold,
and her eyes sparkled.
"Yeah." Chickie shifted in his boots, then grinned at
her. "Thatd be cool."
She smiled wide. They stood for a second, grinning in the night
air, and then she bounced back into the crowd.
Chickie climbed into his truck and drove it over to the entrance
of the gym. He rolled down the windows and listened to the squeak
of the sneakers and the rushes of applause. It was a hell of a pass,
Chickie thought. Magical. The big blade dropped to the pavement,
and as the second half raged on in the gym, Chickie plowed the lanes
of the silent lot, pushing a wave of snow. Maybe hed throw
one like it on Sunday, he thought.
The snow had stopped, and he turned the truck out of the parking
lot and headed back into town. Behind him, salt crystals glistened
in the streetlamps like the tail of a meandering comet.
From the judges
Tom Parker: Bittersweet, touching and complex, yet simply
told, "Millionaire" convincingly evokes ChickieWheelan's
feelings of loss, failure and longing. This is a sad, wonderful
and eminently believable story, economically rendered and packing
a powerful punch.
Kim Silveira Wolterbeek: "Millionaire" captures
the energy of high school basketball with a narrative tension that
escalates to keep pace with the game. A seamless three-pointer,
this story builds to an ending that resonates with a mixture of
nostalgia and present possibility.
Ellen Sussman: This story knocked me out. The voice is authentic,
the world is vividly realized and the story is quiet and powerful.
Chickie Wheelan, the main character, deserves his place in the literary