Palo Alto Weekly 25th Annual Short Story
Third Place Adult
About Kevin Sharp
The first thing I should say is that this piece isn’t autobio-graphical! It’s about a character who could be both anyone and no one. A few factors contributed to this story. Sticking with the format of the piece, I’ll offer them in a numbered list.
1. For many, the main connotation evoked by “2012” is something about the end of the world, or some major cataclysm. But what if the end of the world was metaphorical rather than literal? All of us have experienced worlds ending, sometimes on a regular basis. All of us have left old selves behind on our life’s journey.
2. The idea of going through adulthood at the end of the twentieth & start of the twenty-first century. Our world looks much different now than it did in 1992. Many of us know someone who came of age during the Depression, or World War II, or the tumult of the 1960s. I wonder how history will judge our current era.
3. What do the things we own say about who we are? Do they say anything? We are inundated with advertisements telling us what we need to own, and some of us undoubtedly have more STUFF than we need. An archaeologist looks for clues in the objects left behind at a site; now imagine an exploration of one’s home – and what conclusions we could draw.
4. Is an author visible in their work? Oscar Wilde warned that, “He who reads beneath the surface does so at his peril,” but many scholars think that the contents of an author’s work tell us about who that author is (or was). If you read a novel or a story by a person you’ve never met before, can you tell anything about them as a person?
I’ve always been a fan of authors that play with form and convention in their writing; while I enjoy a straight A-B-C narrative, I always get a special kick when writers make me work for the story. I’d never tried writing that way before now – it was both a challenge and a good deal of fun.
by Kevin Sharp
You are thirty-eight years old.
You sit in a hotel room, atop a yacht-sized bed with its marshmallow pillows and 1,000,000 thread count sheets. You have come home to attend your twenty-year high school reunion. Outside, rain slaps the window like nickels – the only sound that reaches you through the bomb bunker walls.
If you were to die here, tonight, an investigative team (glamorous, multicultural, of the sort found on TV), sweeping your apartment after your death would find the following, and use these items to piece together a life:
1. A photograph of you smiling atop a new Honda motorcycle.
2. An unsharpened pencil adorned with the logo for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?1
5. A short story entitled Masquerade. Your author’s credit is followed by “4th Period.”
a. The opening lines:
“Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived a princess. She was beautiful and smart and didn’t suffer fools easily. She was also fond of wearing plaid pants beneath her royal gown.”
You are 18 years old. In Amy’s bedroom, listening to Annie Lennox. The ice has made your earlobe numb. She lies on her back, silent beneath the artificial stars on the ceiling. The lamp, sheathed in red silk, highlights downy hair on her arms. You realize in hindsight that this is the type of memory one might refer back to when asked to name “A time you were truly happy.” In later retellings (to yourself primarily) you make yourself truly happy by lessening your soon-to-be sizzling agony, intense need to urinate, and the fact that your left foot is asleep, the circulation cut off by Amy’s resting head. This will sometimes seem like the last moment you were sure of anything.
8. A torn-open airmail envelope (empty), addressed to you, postmarked from Melbourne, Australia.
9. Your last high school yearbook. Inside the front and back covers are various messages.
a. On one page:
“Hey You! Thanks for introducing me to L&R2. You’re a great writer and I hope you never give it up. Remember you’re a man now and those colledge [sic] girls better watch out. You have to give me a mailing address when you sign my yearbook so I’ll be able to write you from Down Under. Love, Moi (aka Amy).”
When Amy dashed off those words, seated on a bench at the school snack bar, her fingertips stained Cheeto orange, she could not have known the number of times you would return to that page. It’s possible Woodward and Bernstein paid less attention to the Watergate affair than you dedicated to her message.
You are 37 years old. On your couch with a goddess. She is way out of your league but neither of you cares. Your mouth is sticky with beer – this you do care about. The mole at the end of her eyebrow makes her an exclamation point. Her eyes are closed. You keep yours open to make sure this is real. At one point she mumbles a name – Tim? – and you pretend not to hear.
13. A copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.
a. Written inside the front cover:
“Promise it’s not too ‘rah-rah feminist.’”
b. Inserted between pages 117 and 118 is a photograph of a topless woman (identity unclear) holding a hand up to block her face from the camera.
14. A bachelor’s degree from a mid-level university.
16. A Planned Parenthood sexually transmitted disease testing form (results negative).
You are 22 years old. You finally say, “I love you,” and instantly want the words back, while the cement is still wet.
October 29, 1997
It’s the ghost of high school past. I saw you registered on the alumni page & about fell out of my chair (recalling your comments about things you’d rather eat than have contact with our classmates again).
Well… I’m not sure what to say. Guess I have writer’s block. Hope you’re doing well.
18. A pair of crutches with various curse words scribbled on them in Sharpie.
You are 26 years old. In a bar with Xochitl. Soft jazz, ten dollar drinks. Her wedding ring like the gaudy costume jewelry of high school plays. Back then (before Amy), you wanted her, would have given your left leg to be with her. Now, this. Still the girl you once adored, but also now someone’s wife and mother. The drinks are gone, decision time.
19. A photograph from a holiday party. You have your arm around Jill. Both of you wear semi-formal attire; you also wear a Santa Claus hat and appear intoxicated.
20. A manuscript, entitled The King of Wishful Thinking.
a. The opening lines:
Gregory’s finger hesitated above the door buzzer. He thought about all the choices he had made before coming here. Leave Boston. Go back. Give up on poetry and cigarettes, his mother, therapy, celibacy, Buddhism, LSD, choices.
Give up on choices.”
21. A stack of letters from various publishers, rejecting your submission of The King of Wishful Thinking.
You are 33 years old. Sitting across from Gina, a basket of sourdough bread between you. The clatter of silverware on plates, dinner conversations all around. She waits until her mouth is full and then tells you she’s seeing another man. He makes her happy. You don’t ask for how long. You don’t ask anything, just nod and push your crumbs into patterns. You’re afraid to meet her gaze, knowing what you might see. Then someone comes to refill your water and she stops talking.
May 1, 1999
Subject: Me again
Hey A –
I’m sure you’ve seen on TV about that school in Colorado... The news showed a picture of this girl who died (Rachel something) and I felt so sad, like I knew her. When did the world go insane????? I guess hearing the chatter about HS reminded me of you. I’ll probably delete this w/o sending anyway.
p.s. do you ever check your email?
You are 28 years old. The motorcycle purrs like a silver lion beneath you. You are content, perhaps even happy. You zoom through the world like it’s a wax museum display, a gallery of statues. The car appears from your left. Does he see you? You shout at him from inside your helmet. Then you are tumbling through the sky. Fully aware, a moment in time, the majesty of flight. You are not religious but you whisper, “Lord, I’m...” Then you are rolling across asphalt. The rest is silence.
Multiple choice: Choose the best answer and explain in a well-reasoned paragraph.
A person creating their own mythology would find which of the following most useful?
A. A shortcut through a dark alley led him to a mugging (like something out of a comic book – where was Batman to swing in when needed?). He fought off the young criminal and received a knife slash across the chest for his trouble. Friends and lovers found both the deed and the scar fascinating. (NOTE: requires a scar to be believable.)
B. Croissants and espresso never tasted so good as under the slanting roof of a top-floor Paris apartment (with a view of Sacre Coeur), seated across from the freckled French girl who spoke all of ten words of English and liked to wear his dress shirts. Some days she wouldn’t let him out of bed at all.
C. Lurking in a hotel lobby – having escaped the dreary conference – he encountered an aging (but still sexy) movie actress and ended up spending the night with her. Seriously, someone like her, who had all those famous studs back in the day, giving herself to an accountant? But she was spectacular. They never spoke again.
D. Dad’s government desk job was actually a cover for a career in intelligence. Later, after the old man had retired and mellowed (well, somewhat) he shared the whole story with his son. “Business trips.” Brushes with death, or worse. He even kept certain souvenirs. Dad had pulled off the role of dull, moody suburban father with great aplomb.
25. A page from the May 10, 1999 issue of Time magazine, featuring the essay “A Note for Rachel Scott,” by Roger Rosenblatt.
You are 27 years old. On September 12, 2001, you go looking for a church but find a bar. Or maybe they’ve become the same thing. Too crowded but you can’t leave. TVs on the walls hawk their scenes of horror to everyone and no one. You keep ordering gin & tonics because you don’t know what else to do. (You like neither gin nor tonic.) Periodically a collective groan erupts from the crowd. Things like this just don’t happen in your America, the country in which you grew up. Someone down the bar mentions Pearl Harbor, but that might as well have been during the Civil War for all it means to you. You drink and listen, cataloging the experience for some future story.
28. A diamond engagement ring in a box from Tiffany & Co.
You are 25 years old. In a gray cubicle. You have become a man who wears a tie to work. You punch numbers into a spreadsheet all day and then you go home. All for the cause of buying the motorcycle – this is your mantra. Lily, in the cubicle next to yours, has a sign taped to her computer: “Follow your bliss.” You wonder if her bliss led her here. If you could invent another life for yourself, who would you be?
29. A printout of an eBay listing selling a Tiffany engagement ring.3
31. A sheet of paper from the Mandalay Bay Hotel, Las Vegas.
a. Written on the paper:
Accountant; Work for Dad – shoot me; Back to school – ditto; India; garbage man; Find sugar mama.”
You are 36 years old. You shiver in the cold leather seat of Norah’s car. She dabs her eyes with a paper napkin from the glove compartment. You’ve never seen her cry before. She’s traveled to faraway lands to help doctors put broken children back together – maybe she cried then, too. The Tiffany box throbs in your jacket pocket, like a piece of plutonium. While you waited for a table earlier, Norah commented on the hostess’s pants and you realized that you could never offer her the ring. What if she said yes? A small white Buddha sits on the dashboard, smiling at you.
34. Your online dating profile.
a. Turn-ons include “creativity,” “spontaneity,” and “independence.”
b. The “Quote I Love” is: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
March 1, 2012
Subject: Does this mean we’re old?
Hey A –
Twenty years! Going?
36. A handout welcoming members to “The Ecstasy of Words: A Writing & Healing Workshop.”
You are 18 years old. On an early summer night, you watch a police procedural on TV with your parents. The moment the detectives ring the doorbell of the prime suspect, your doorbell also rings. Amy stands on your front porch, wearing a winter hat with an orange ball on top. She says, “I leave in the morning.” You say, “I know.” Moths dance an aerial rave around the porch light while you wonder what to say next. She finally pulls a laminated card from her pocket and hands it to you. “Don’t forget about me,” she says, then drives away in her VW Bug. You go back inside just in time to see TV justice served.
June 7, 2012
Subject: Mea Culpa!
I just logged onto this account for the first time in years & found your messages. No excuses here – I deserve a serious flogging. Gah, so many things to tell you but this isn’t the forum. I want to come to the 20 but nervous (yes, you heard that right)… I’m WAY WAAAAY different than my HS days… don’t be shocked when/if you see me. Write back & talk me into going. I PROMISE to check this! You can also call me at XXX-XXX-XXXX.
You are 17 years old. The first day of your last year of high school. Time to put on a personality people will remember fondly when looking back through their old yearbooks. In the back row of your math class, still not fully awake at this hour. The teacher calls roll while you silently tabulate how many minutes remain until lunchtime. (That’s math, isn’t it?) A girl enters the room, late. Her hair hangs at various lengths; her eyebrow is pierced; she wears red and black plaid pants with shiny metal clasps running down the sides. “I’m Amy,” she announces, looking at the teacher but at a volume surely meant for a larger audience. As she moves to an empty seat she catches you staring and winks.
In the hotel room, you skim channels on the TV. The remote control trembles in your hand, or perhaps it’s your hand that trembles. A Zen koan?
In the bathroom an old man blinks back at you from the mirror. You wonder when this happened to you. You apply cologne and brush your hair and adjust your tie and he does the same. Is he ready to open the door when the moment comes? Are you?
In your suitcase, amidst the crumpled clothing and Ziploc’d toiletries, are two items:
* Amy Wylie’s high school student identification card, for the 1991-92 school year.
a. In the photo she wears a T-shirt that reads, “I’m With Stupid,” with an arrow pointing upwards.
* A manuscript entitled Western Civilization.
a. The opening lines:
‘It’s the end of Western Civilization as we know it,’ Thomas said as he swallowed the last two fingers of vodka in his glass. ‘R.I.P.’
Cathy melted back into the sofa as Thomas started his monologue. Another self-centered guy roasting marshmallows over the warm glow of his past, making sure we all knew how great things were, back then. The overhead light shone off his slicked-flat hair.
Finally – finally! – he said, ‘But who knows what the world will even look like a year from now.’
This all reminded her of being eighteen, freebasing codeine cough syrup in her mother’s kitchen. It’s about to be your lucky night, she thought, or maybe she said it; it was getting so hard to separate.
From outside the open window, firecrackers popped, like the sounds of a faraway war.”
There is a knock on your door.
You are thirty-eight years old.
1. The parting gift for failing the audition process. You will forever curse yourself for not knowing “Tungsten.”
2. Love & Rockets, both the band and the comic book.
3.This item received zero bids.