My parents doubted I’d amount to anything. Three years out of high school, I lived at home and worked for minimum wage at Kentucky Fried Chicken. But I knew I was going to be somebody. I was going to make it as a writer.
“To be a good writer,” my English teacher said, “you have to read a lot and write a lot.” But after years of living by that maxim, something was missing. To prove my worth to myself, my parents and the world, I had to get published. That’s where I ran into difficulty. I studied the market in search of publishers likely to take a chance on an unknown writer and was soon subscribing to a dozen literary journals with strange names like Germinus, The Roseberry, and The Musquodoboit Review. My first rejection slips didn’t deter me. They made me look closer to find the difference between my work and the stories getting approved. Finally the answer hit me: there was only one story being published, one and only one – the childhood remembrance story.
This presented a problem: I had a poor memory and, from what little I could recall, a boring childhood. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t write an interesting story about my youth. I asked my parents and relatives if they remembered anything unusual, poignant or dramatic I’d done as a child. Memory, I soon discovered, wasn’t a strong feature in the family line.
One day, I got an idea. I started watching children at the neighbourhood school during recess. Forty minutes a day, five days a week, I could be found in my car, in the school parking lot, looking and listening for some youthful drama to incorporate as my own. Weeks went by. I watched a lot of tag, baseball and British Bulldog but was unable to fashion a story out of anything I saw.
One day a high-pitched voice barked at me: “Can I ask what you’re doing here?” It was a short man with a thick moustache, wearing a pale green suit; his golden belt buckle big as a fist.
“I – I’m just watching the kids.” I must’ve sounded guilty of something. He’d snuck up behind the car and startled me. That’s why I stuttered.
Firmly he commanded: “Would you kindly leave the premises and never come back?”
Professing my innocence proved futile. Driving away, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw him write – I’m guessing my licence number – in a small notebook. I assumed this was the school principal. He was right to be suspicious; the car I drove was a beat-up old Chevy and I must’ve looked pretty shifty sitting there watching kids play.
My next idea was more direct. In a letter sent to half a dozen teachers, I said I was a writer and asked to observe children in a classroom setting. Essential research, I called it.
The letter drew only one response. It came from the principal. I could see his green suit and golden buckle in every shrill sentence. Perhaps a faculty member sought his approval after reading my request and he made the connection. The matter, he wrote in reply, would be turned over to the police unless I immediately refrained from watching or contacting his students or staff.
Meanwhile, my writing languished. Every story I wrote was rejected at least ten times and every literary journal I opened had another childhood remembrance story inside.
At wit’s end, I began stalking the neighbourhood for youngsters who might provide enough insight to make a tale of youthful reflection come alive. I got nothing. The local kids were well trained and wouldn’t talk to strangers. One even ran away crying when I simply said hello.
Reluctantly, I gave up writing. Talking it over with my parents, they were willing to help pay my college tuition so I could study engineering.
Six months later, driving home after class, I spotted two children in a park. A boy of six or seven was throwing stones at a girl. She was much younger, and crying. Immediately, I parked the car and ran toward them.
“Put those rocks down!” I shouted. The boy stopped dead in his tracks, dropping the remaining projectiles as I came closer. I grabbed him by the collar, then asked the girl if she was okay. She nodded but I saw a small cut on her knee.
“Do you live near here?” I asked her.
Again she bobbled her head, then turned and pointed to a house across the street.
“Well, you should hurry over there and ask your mother to clean your knee. Okay?”
She nodded a final time before running home. The boy also tried to run. Tightening my grip, I said: “You’re not going anywhere, buddy; not till I’m finished with you.” Sitting him on a bench, I saw he was on the verge of tears. “Did you hit her with that stone?” I asked.
“Yes,” he sheepishly replied, sniffling.
“What for?” I asked. He merely shrugged and flung his palms upward to the side. “Well, how’d you like it if someone threw rocks at you?” Another useless shrug. “I bet it would really hurt,” I said and watched his fat, red lower lip begin to quiver. “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take you over to that little girl’s house and make you apologize. You’re also going to promise never to throw anything at anyone, ever again. Think you can do that?”
His head tilted low and to the side. It came back up reluctantly. A tear rolled down his cheek, wetting a path toward his jaw. It hung there a moment, then fell. The tiny droplet landed on his pants and made a dark circle that grew larger as it soaked into the denim. He started getting up but I held him there.
“Just one more thing before we go – and you have to stop crying first. Can you stop crying?”
His head jolted up and down and I never saw another tear.
“Before we go,” I implored, “I want you to tell me a story about yourself.”
Although puzzled, he complied and talked about listening to his parents fight. It made him so mad he stuck pins in himself and tried not to cry. That evening I turned his lament into a short story. It wasn’t bad – the protagonist was unlikeable but there was redemption in the end. I could easily picture it appearing in a literary journal but it was rejected several times and never published.
I don’t feel bad about failing as a writer – there’s a lot more money in engineering. It’s been a quarter century since I last wrote fiction but, recently, I discovered my literary pursuits actually amounted to something. I was in a book store and the latest edition of The Musquodoboit Review caught my eye. Out of curiosity, I read the first story.
After a single paragraph I realized nothing had changed; it was another childhood remembrance story. But something about the writer’s style captured my attention and made me want to continue. Fully absorbed by the end of the first page, it was shaping up to be the best childhood remembrance story I’d ever read. The writer had exceptional talent.
Two vivid pages later, it occurred to me I’d read this piece before. Or perhaps lived it.
The narrative concerned a troublesome, self-harming boy who used to pick fights at school, kick cats and steal money from his soon to be divorced parents. One day, a stranger caught him throwing stones at a little girl and, to punish him, made the boy tell a story about himself. Years later, he finally understood the meaning of this unorthodox discipline: the stranger meant to illustrate that any creative act has the power to erase darkness and bring light.
Curious about the author, I checked the ‘Notes on Contributors’ section at the back of the journal and found this:
Paul Christian has been teaching high school English and creative writing for four years. He reluctantly admits that, as a child, he used to throw stones at girls.
Feeling possessive of the story I inspired, I immediately reached for my phone and called my parents. “One of my stories has finally been published,” I exclaimed, verging on tears.
Dave Gregory was a young writer in search of the world when he inadvertently ended up with a career in the cruise industry. Two decades later, he has retired from life at sea and returned to his first love – writing. His short fiction will soon appear in the Eunoia Review.