Palo Alto Weekly 24th Annual Short Story
First Place Adult
| About Kevin Sharp
Adult-category winner Kevin Sharp has lived in Japan and New Mexico, and went to high school in Palo Alto. He returned to Paly five years ago to teach English, philosophy and creative writing.
In response to questions about the style of his winning story, "Pomegranate," Sharp said, "The surest way to ruin a story is to over-analyze it. I'd rather let the writing speak for itself."
He added, "This isn't just for the contest -- I treat literature in my classroom the same way."
His experience in the classroom may have been valuable in developing his recent fiction work. In "Pomegranate," Sharp's main character escapes the stressful environment of middle school by drifting into a world of categorized lists and rambling tangents. The author revealed that the story is loosely biographical and that the students he observes today "have it more together than we did."
"Art and writing have been interests and hobbies for as long as I can remember. My dream as a kid was to create my own comic books, which would have combined the two things I loved," Sharp said. He lists Harlan Ellison, Margaret Atwood, David Thomson, Jeanette Winterson, and Vladimir Nabokov as inspiring authors.
In the past he has worked on screenwriting, a few short plays, and two novels but says of them "neither was very good."
For the future, Shap said, "I've got a couple of stories I want to tell, but haven't found the format yet. I think I'd like to take another shot at novel writing, maybe young adult."
by Kevin Sharp
Grover Cleveland Middle School.
During times of extreme stress -- of which there had been many during his thirteen years, up to and including the present moment -- Paul Nelson Andrews found making numbered lists to be a helpful distraction. It wasn't that he was particularly smitten with math, though he was in the top ten percent of the school; rather that the dependability of numbers anchored him during those dark nights (and mornings/evenings/afternoons) of the pre-adolescent soul.
Beautiful numbers. Always there in times of need, like the axe behind the fire glass or the hotline to the Batcave.
Numerically, Paul could describe himself as follows:
66 (inches tall)
Five (number of zits, including the two he'd partially popped that morning but not including the bindi forming between his eyebrows that would make its debut on the bus ride home)
Eight (items of clothing -- shoes, socks, corduroy pants, white briefs, Superman T-shirt, and the accursed glasses)
14 (swipes of Right Guard applied that morning -- seven on each armpit, though the creeping trickles down his sides indicated it hadn't been enough)
About the present moment...
His current position -- back to the chalkboard, looking out across Mrs. Harper's room -- was, shall we say, outside of Paul's comfort zone. He'd outlasted all his classmates in the spelling bee (admittedly, not saying much). Any pleasure he could take in making it this far, though, would be the type of pleasure an adult would look back upon and smile, an adult who'd long since forgotten the terror of being on the spot.
Mrs. Harper, at her desk to his right, wore seven pieces of jewelry (two earrings, one wedding ring, one turquoise bracelet, one turquoise ring, one pendant with a stone of, yes, turquoise).
The room was quiet save for the buzz of the fluorescent light, the distant drone of a John Deere lawnmower, and some low-level giggling from a certain row of desks.
Twenty-eight desks in the room, one empty. (Samantha Wexler and her dyed black buzz cut had been expelled two months earlier, to the dismay of no one. Rumors abounded that she'd been caught sacrificing the principal's dog in some kind of ritual.)
Paul's left eye throbbed. He divided the audience into four segments.
Segment # 1: His three best friends -- Bryce Armstrong, Spencer Bell, Ted Bryant -- seated alphabetically. The fact that their names all started with A or B had ensured they sat near each other throughout their school careers. It had kept them bonded, and protected (somewhat) against the hostility of the outside world. They would come to realize, years later, that it had also locked them into their roles -- not only did they sit together, but ate lunch together, and even got on the school bus at the same stop each morning. Not a lot of opportunity to make new friends or polish one's skills with the opposite sex.
Case in point: They once went en masse to a school dance (though ask any one of them whose idea it had been and you would likely get four different answers). Spencer had been the only one who actually asked a girl -- Amelia Himmel -- to, well, dance, but she couldn't hear him over the music (and likely wouldn't have said yes in any case). They spent the evening sitting on the bleachers and drinking punch and occasionally bouncing along with a song.
Mr. Buckland, the one cool chaperone, approached at one point and asked the key question: "Why did you guys come?" Not having an answer, they enacted a stealthy retreat during a slow song, reported to Paul's basement to play video games and talk about how lame the dance had been.
Sixteen posters around Mrs. Harper's room, most of them seemingly pitched to elementary school children (e.g., "Meet the Parts of Speech," "The Conjunction Wizard").
Paul's mouth was so dry he could feel the flecks of spittle clinging to the corners of his lower lip. He thought about asking to go get a drink but knew that if he left this position he might never get the nerve to return. (Possible escape plans: pull the fire alarm; pretend to faint in the hallway; flee campus and stage a fake kidnapping.)
Segment # 2: The largest segment -- 20 students -- were those to whom Paul was a beige couch. His parents had an old couch in the basement, somehow repeatedly spared from his dad's "purgings." One could be down there for hours, as Paul could attest, and never be aware of the couch's existence. (The most Paul had ever thought about it was the day Spencer speculated that, given its length of service in the Andrews household, maybe Paul had in fact been conceived on it.)
Though Paul had enjoyed some notoriety at school as the one who had to leave class to brush his teeth after lunch every day (orthodontist's orders), to most of his classmates, he was a beige couch.
Except of course during moments like this.
He felt like he might hyperventilate for the first time since the "Dr. Terror's Castle of Horrors" ride, and had that been a scene. At least it went down in front of strangers in a faraway state who didn't know him well enough to make fun of his stammering meltdown. To have it happen here would be so, so much worse, a potentially unrecoverable lapse that would leave him no choice but to insist on changing schools. (Changing cities, or even states, would be a preferable option, but there was a limit to his parents' tolerance for shameless begging that may or may not include tears.)
Forty-nine tiles on the classroom floor, swept nightly. How many had stood on these tiles, perhaps right where Paul now did? How many times had Mrs. Harper run this same spelling bee, in this same room? (There was speculation that she may be 80 years old!)
Segment # 3: Four time-lost Neanderthals named Chad Everleth, Joey Griffin, Ian Foster, and Kirk Howard, again seated together due to an alphabetic convergence -- though some teachers in the past had had to throw the alphabet out of whack in the interest of separating these boys. To briefly, oh-so-briefly, glance their way was to be reminded of so many joys: Indian burns, shaving cream, the powdered sugar on the school bus, etc., etc. (His father would tell him never to use more than one "etc." His father would also tell him to ignore a bully rather than "legitimizing their aggression," but that hadn't worked out. Perhaps Bryce's dad had the right idea: stand up to a bully, punch him in the nose. Neither Paul nor his friends were ready to take that step... What if you missed? The consequences were too vast and terrible to consider.)
On cue from some reptilian center deep in the brain, Kirk flashed his notebook (wherein he'd scribbled a large cartoon penis wearing a pair of glasses) at Paul. Kirk and his cohorts turned crimson covering up their laughter. Mrs. Harper shot them her patented "Are you really the future of this country?" look.
Two large classroom windows showed the goings-on in the outside world.
First window: Serge, the gardener, riding his John Deere across the field. Whispers persisted about Serge being high every day, so one time during brunch Bryce had flat-out asked while the other three cowered at the snack bar. Serge's reply: "I'm high on Jesus, buddy. It's a great feeling."
Second window: Coach Meyer, gut threatening to bust out from under his polo shirt, jabbering on his cell phone (as uncommon a sight as Mrs. Harper wearing turquoise) while 30 tiny, uniformed sixth graders jog/walked laps around the track. Coach Meyer once wondered loudly to the other boys in P.E. -- as Paul trembled to finish his fifth pull-up -- if the reason for the difficulty was perhaps because Paul was "afraid to chip his nail polish."
Segment #4: One Michelle Summers, front row center. Yes, she warranted her own segment. Hair like the summer sun, tied back in a ponytail; atomic blue eyes; misting of freckles across her nose; teeth that could blind if looked at directly (though Paul had decided he'd happily be struck). Other than waiting in the lunch line, this was as close as Paul had ever been to her -- approximately five steps away.
No, wait, that wasn't entirely true...
Once upon a time -- in sixth grade -- Paul's class had a teacher named Sierra, who wore her hair in cornrows and had so many bracelets that they almost reached her elbows. Instead of seating everyone alphabetically, she'd placed them "holistically," which led to Paul sitting behind and to Michelle's left. (He was too fuzzy-headed during those weeks to perform any sort of numerical calculations, but the number of minutes he'd spent staring at and/or doodling her profile would not be insignificant.)
Sierra left midway through the school year -- they were never told why -- and the replacement teacher (Mr. McGinty) moved them back to the traditional layout; Paul would, as usual, be far across the room from Michelle, mostly blocked even from view.
On the way to his new location that day, he decided to let her know she wouldn't be forgotten. The plan popped into his head fully formed, as the worst plans usually do. He pretended to trip. Went down right in front of her. Everyone laughed. She laughed. He delivered his line: "We've got to stop meeting like this," but he was the only one who heard it.
He never sat near Michelle again.
Is a taste of honey worse than none at all?
Now, she was looking right at him -- but of course she was, he was on the spot, the center of attention. Where else would she be looking? Intellectually he knew this, but feeling her eyes on him gave him a warm feeling in his chest. Not nice warm, like the heating pad on his chest when he was sick (as common as Meyer's cell phone and Harper's turquoise) -- more like the warm after eating that jalapeno on a dare from Ted. He could only hope Michelle's gaze wouldn't make his face break out in hives like the pepper had.
He was suddenly a performer playing to an audience of one. He pictured himself alone, in a spotlight, like one of the old singers his mom listened to. Like Frank Santana, or whatever his name was.
The anti-perspirant in his Right Guard had long since been KO'd, but Paul held out the slimmest of hopes on the deodorant portion doing its job. He wanted to angle himself, to somehow steal a quick whiff of the armpit, but it was mission: impossible. He could only pray that perfect sense of smell wasn't one of the features with which Michelle was blessed.
Mrs. Harper cleared her throat for the 29th time that day, snapping Paul back to reality. It all came down to this moment -- everything he'd been (not much), everything he ever would be (debatable). He was one answer away from getting his name on the Harper "Wall Of Fame." One answer away from an actual identity beyond the tooth-brushing nerd in the Superman shirt. After all, a beige couch wouldn't win a spelling bee, right?
He lost control for a millisecond, turned ½ inch and met Michelle's gaze. She smiled.
Actually, make that: SHE SMILED.
The feeling went from jalapeno to habanero. He almost groaned -- thought for one terrible moment he actually had. What did the smile mean? Just being polite? Was she rooting for him? Would he be some kind of hero to her if he won? Or would he be branded forever in her eyes as The Loser Who Won The Spelling Bee?
Maybe he should miss the last word, be the hero who came so close to victory only to have it snatched away at the end. Then Michelle could feel sorry for him. Maybe she'd even talk to him, offer condolences. Then again, if he got it right she might think
A muscle spasm broke out in his right forearm; he clutched his wrist to keep from visibly trembling. He needed a number, but what? What?!?!
"The final word," Mrs. Harper said, jowls wobbling, enunciating each syllable like she was reading the Declaration of Independence, "is 'pomegranate.'"
The author invites us to join him/her on a visit into the adolescent mind of the obsessive and self-conscious Paul Nelson Andrews. The insecure protagonist's focus on numbers gives the story a freshness and quirkiness that any reader who has ever been thirteen will recognize and applaud.