Short Story: Senior

The day of the promotion Junior felt a surge of excitement which he had not felt in a long time. Last time might have been when he was accepted into his college program, which he still hoped to complete one day. He still kept the acceptance letter in his desk drawer at work, occasionally taking it out and reading it over again, thinking about how it would have felt if he had been able to graduate. Now, however, he had another letter, one that informed him of his promotion. He carried that with him in his breast pocket so he could show his father.

He knocked on his father’s door and waited. No one answered at first so, he knocked again. This time he heard his father’s footsteps which fell upon the floor with authority, whose verdict he heard under his own boots, as he felt his father come closer. The steps were not hurried. They were always in control. The door sprang open and his father stretched across the gaping door. Junior could tell his father had dressed quickly for he simply wore his robe with no undershirt and he could see his father’s broad chest and specks of grey hair that covered it. Junior found himself lowering his head as if he were bowing, a natural reaction in the presence of his father.

“Is it Friday already?” His father voice was deep and his lips barely moved. There were hints of facial hair on his father’s chin.

“No pa, it’s still Wednesday.”

“Of course I know what day it is, you think I’m that far gone?”

Junior smiled, embarrassed at taking his father’s question literally. His father often joked and asked questions that didn’t need answers but he found himself answering them anyway.

“I thought you only came to see your old man on Friday’s?”

His father stepped back, allowing Junior space to come inside. Junior squeezed past his father who closed the door behind them. His father was a big man, Junior had to look up to speak to him. His shoulders were still strong for someone his age, his chest still stuck out further than his belly even though men his age often had a fuller belly. But his father had always taken care of himself. His father pulled him in for an embrace. There was a musky smell to him as if he had just been exercising. His father let him go and like a little child, Junior found himself staring up at his father.

“So, what’s the special occasion?” He asked.

Before Junior could answer his father started for the kitchen and Junior hurried to keep up with his father’s long strides.

“I was just making some coffee. You want some?”

“Sure.”

“You like sugar in it?”

“Two teaspoons.”

“I don’t have any. The doctor said to lay off so I’ve been having it black. It might be too bitter for you.”

“I think I can handle it.” He said.

“You sure? I guess you’re a grown boy now.”

Junior sat down on the kitchen table and watched his father pour two cups of coffee. He felt for the letter in his breast pocket and waited for the right time to show his father.

“How’s Emily?”

His father joined him at the table, placing a cup of coffee in front of Junior.

Junior felt the warmth through the mug as he lifted the cup to his lip. His father was not lying when he said the coffee was bitter but he could see his father watching him so he took another sip and acted as if it was good.

“Better now, she’s almost over her cold,” Junior said, lowering the cup down to the table.

His father spread out on the chair and faced towards Junior. Junior felt as if he was back in school, in the principle’s office having to answer for something he did wrong. That feeling quickly passed but before he could bring up the letter, his father spoke.

“I have been meaning to thank her for letting an old man like me stay with you for those few months.”

“Oh, there’s nothing to thank. It was the least we could do.”

“I must have been a real nuisance for you to get rid of me so quickly.”

His father smiled before taking a sip of his coffee.

Junior could not meet his father’s eyes as he stared at the table top where his coffee cup was, watching the steam rise. Although his father had been a difficult house guest for he needed so much attention, Junior could never bring himself to tell the truth to his father. Instead, he had told his father that it would be better for him if he had his own place, a sense of independence. Of course, his father must have seen through the partial lie as he often hinted at the truth.

“No, it was never like that.” Junior’s voice was soft, barely above a whisper, it was as if his father’s gaze could change his tone, manipulate his words, cause the letters to come out quickly, in a hurried manner as if he were out of breath.

“Come on, I’m only joking,” his father’s strong hand struck Junior on the shoulder, “we can joke with one another, can’t we? That’s what men do. Your mother never understood it but I told her that it’s all play between us.”

Junior replied with a smile and a soft, “yes,” that was barely audible and sounded more like a deep exhale.

“But I must say, I would like to see my boy and his bride more than once a week, you know, I’m an old man now, not much left for me in this life, if I can’t even get my blood to come to see me, what am I still doing here?”

The truth in those words could not be ignored. They were true because they were Junior’s own thoughts. He had often felt as if he had not been doing enough as a son. His father had done so much for him that he felt a sense of debt to his father which he was not sure he could ever pay back.

Junior always felt the burden of his father’s shadow. He carried in his heart the notion that he had failed to live up to his father’s sacrifices. He had watched his father slowly change as he lost his youth, working, taking care of Junior, waiting for the day Junior would be able to take care of him. But that day had taken too long and in the meantime, his father had become wasted. He still recalled the day when his father got sick and could no longer work. He had a bad heart and the doctor told him he needed long periods of rest. Junior offered his help, he felt obliged to do so after all his father had done for him. Junior understood his father’s hesitation to quit his work. How could his boy run when he had never even learned to walk?

Which was why the new promotion meant so much to Junior. With the new promotion, he felt as if he had finally arrived in life. He had concrete proof that his father’s sacrifices were not for nothing. More so, it was proof that he could do something good with his life. He had often wondered if he was capable like his father if he could work as hard as his old man, for he had never been much of a worker. It was a comfort that his father had provided him. In such comfortability, he felt softened. Such thoughts had plagued Junior’s mind for a long time.

“I know pa, I’ve been meaning to come more often but work’s got us busy—”

“Ah yes, how are you liking my old job?”

“About that—“

“Do they still talk about me or have they forgotten about the old workhorse?”

“They remember, pa, how can they forget someone like you?”

“What good is a horse if he can’t gallop,” his father said, his voice flat and toneless as if he were making a statement to himself.

Junior had quickly found work as a manager in a company. It was the same company his father used to work at. The workers often talked to him about his father. At first, they simply asked about his father’s health but as they started to know Junior and get comfortable around him, they would tell him about how intimidating his father was. This often happened once they had a few drinks after work. One of the workers, George, even said that his father had made him cry one day. Many recalled his father’s stare when the work wasn’t done properly. The workers were glad Junior was not like his father. However, Junior, upon hearing such complaints felt he needed to speak on his father behalf and he told the workers that his father was just under a lot of stress especially after his mother had passed away.

At work, Junior quickly gained the reputation for working hard, something that he had desired for he was not sure he had such a trait in him. For two years he sacrificed his vacation times and most weekends to put in extra hours at work. He felt as if he owned the company that which had been generous enough to provide him with work when he was desperate. However, such sacrifices came at a cost. His wife had to take a back seat to his ambition. However, Junior felt as if his ambition was not selfish. It was a selfless ambition to make his father’s life more comfortable and also his wives.

His father finished his cup of coffee.

He stared at Junior’s almost full cup, knowing he had been right about his son’s taste. He took his own empty cup to the sink and started to rinse it.

“I can do that for you,” Junior said, joining his father at the kitchen sink.

“I’m not that old yet,” his father replied.

“I didn’t mean that,” said Junior whose voice was drowned by the flow of the tap water. His father shut it off and placed the cup to dry on the side of the cloth placed beside the kitchen sink.

“So they still remember the old bull?” He asked.

“Oh, very much, in fact, Mr. Johnson was talking to me about you just this afternoon.”

“My works got you looking soft,” his father poked Junior in the belly. “Here, look at mine, still solid,” he slapped his own stomach with an open palm, “now you must know how hard I used to work to keep in shape.”

“I guess Emily’s been keeping me too well fed,” Junior smiled.

“That’s no excuse. A man has to stay tight. Softness is an illness to his character. How can you expect others to follow you if they see this belly of yours? You can’t lead men if you can’t even control what you put in your mouth, son.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“Of course I’m right, I’ve been doing your job much longer than you have.”

“About that—”

“I saw the doc the other day and you know what he said?” His father didn’t wait for an answer although Junior opened his mouth to reply. “He said I’m in the top percentile of his patients when it comes to my physique. I told the doc I’ve never missed a day of exercising. Every morning I exercise. You should do that too or else you’re gonna fall apart when you become a geezer like me.”

There was a hint of a joke in his father speech and so Junior smiled, weakly. His father patted him on the shoulder and said, “don’t worry, boy, you’ve got plenty of time to straighten up.”

“But listen, pa, I got some good news for you.”

His father turned towards him, leaning onto the kitchen counter, arms folded across his chest.

“What’s that?”

Junior reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the letter from his supervisor.

“I’m being promoted, pa.” He said, presenting the letter to his father.

His father did not accept it.

“About time we got that position.”

He turned his back to his son and picked out a glass bowl from the cabinet above. “The son always eats the sweet fruit of his father’s labor,” he said, as he poured cornflakes into his glass bowl.

“I am very grateful, pa.” Junior’s arm hung beside him now, his hand still holding the letter.

His father spoke, as he poured mike into the bowl, “I suppose that is what the purpose of being a father is. I lay the foundation, build upon it, make it nice and pretty for you to come and see further than I ever did. Congratulations son.”

“Thank you.”

His father took a spoonful and aggressively shoved it in his mouth, some of the milk dribbled down his chin which he wiped with the back of his hand.

“I was thinking,” Junior said, “this new position can allow me to hire some help to look after you the days I can’t come.”

His father chewed, his jaw flexing and relaxing, his eyes staring right at Junior and Junior’s own shifted back to the tabletop, where his coffee had lost its steam.

“So you’ll be coming to see me even less?” His father asked.

“No, no, nothing like that, pa, I just felt it’ll be good for you to have someone around to talk to and be with.”

“Why can’t that someone be my own boy?”

Junior felt his voice soften. “These past few months I’ve been neglecting Emily too much and I just thought the two of can spend more time together, maybe go on a trip.”

His father did not reply. Instead, he quietly finished his bowl of cereal, the metal spoon scraping the glass bowl after each bite. Once the bowl was empty, he let out a sigh and leaned back into his chair.

“It makes sense, more time for your bride and less time for your old man. Don’t worry, I’ll be gone soon, you’ll have plenty of time after that.”

“Please don’t talk like that.”

“All these years I spent working, I only did that so I could see my boy do good in his life. So, I’m happy for you, son and now, if it means to watch you from afar, then I suppose I’ll do that, I’ll clap for you from the stands.”

He stood up, towering over Junior, “you do what you think is best, after all, you’re the man of the house now, right?”

Junior looked down, staring at his father’s strong legs and feeling the weight of his father’s touch as he lightly patted him on the cheek. His father picked up the coffee mug and carried it with the empty bowl to the sink. He poured out the coffee, which was cold now, into the sink and rinsed out the cup before cleaning the bowl as well. He left both the cup and bowl to dry beside the other mug.

He seemed to be waiting for Junior to say something, perhaps apologize, to take back what he had said, thank him for the promotion but Junior stayed silent, his voice caught in his throat.

“Well you must be a busy man these days,” his father said, “I shouldn’t keep you away from your bride much longer.” He started for the door and Junior stood up without a word and followed his father’s strides.

His father held the door open for him and Junior stepped through.

“It was good seeing you.” His father said.

“Pa, listen, I would come more often if it wasn’t for Emily and the work—”

  His father smiled, quieting Junior with his look.

“Your grandfather would not tolerate such words, in fact, I think he would hate you for saying such things. I’m different than my father, I don’t judge like he used to. He would have judged you to be a lousy boy, inconsiderate. He was a hard man from a different time but I still loved him and took care of him because that’s the duty of a son. But I me, I don’t judge you. You do what you think is best and send my regards to my workers and also to Emily.”

The light from the sun cast his father’s shadow upon Junior whose gaze was fixed upon his father’s feet, unable to raise his head and meet his father’s eyes.

“I’ll try to make it work.” He said.

“You do what you like, son, you’re the man now.”

His father closed the door.

Truth & Storytelling In The Things They Carried

The importance of storytelling is explored throughout The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. In doing so, the author raises many questions about the aspect of storytelling. Can a story be truer than the happening true? Why do we tell stories? Does it matter how a story is told?

The storytelling technique the author, Tim O’Brien, uses blurs the line between what really happened and what is simply a story. This is achieved by naming the narrator of the story after himself. With this, the text can be read almost as a memoir instead of a fictional piece. For instance, the narrator, Tim O’Brien, considered his participation in the war to be cowardly because he did not want to be shamed by his parents and neighbors and other people in his town for avoiding the war. This notion is expressed in the story called “On the Rainy River”.

This raises the question if the author, Tim O’Brien, felt the same way and if not, then does that take away from the narrator’s feelings or does one simply accept the fact that similar notions of cowardice must have circulated the minds of other soldiers who ultimately accepted their enrollment in the army.

The narrator also goes through a transformation, from being an anti-war student with the hopes of going to Harvard, to wanting revenge on a medic who he felt wronged him in the story “The Ghost Soldiers”. When the narrator points out this transformation, one cannot help but think of how war changes the individual. No matter who you were prior to the war, you were going to be someone else afterward. To me, this transformation is made more real because of the author’s choice to blur the line between fact or fiction. Having read other war novels where the main character is changed due to the war, the effect does not seem as concrete as potentially having the author himself be changed. The novel does a good job at eliciting emotions that perhaps only a memoir can do.

However, what if all of it is just fictional? An exaggeration of what really happened. After all, the text is still a novel. The idea of truth is brought up in the novel and how the different ways of telling a story can have an impact on the truth. Can a story be truer than what really happened? If it didn’t really happen does that mean it isn’t true?

The feelings elicited by the stories seem to be real. When the narrator Tim O’Brien describes his first kill and the disfiguration of the Vietnamese soldier in the story “The Man I Killed”, one cannot help but feel sorry for not only the individual who has died but also O’Brien himself for by killing the soldier, he kills a part of himself. However, it is then revealed that the narrator never killed the man but rather he walks up to a corpse of the disfigured individual but to him, it was the same thing. He had played a role in the killing by participating in the war. However, by having described the scene as if he was the one who had killed the Vietnamese soldier, it adds an extra layer to the storytelling, a realistic coat and although we have two accounts of what happened, they both still feel real and both are believable. A soldier did kill that Vietnamese soldier and a soldier did wake up to find the disfigured body and have feelings of guilt and sadness.

The narrator suggests a true war story cannot be written, which calls into question the point of this war novel. Perhaps this is why certain passages are exaggerated, stories that come into the realm of fictional, that cannot be believed, maybe that is the only way to actually tell a true war story. One such story being the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” where a soldier flies in his girlfriend from America and in the course of a few weeks, the girlfriend transforms from an innocent girl from the Midwest to a savage soldier who disappears in the Vietnamese forest. Such a thing may have never happened however, there were countless soldiers, innocent themselves, who fought and got lost in Vietnam. In that sense, the story about the girl is as true as anything else.

Or perhaps the only way to tell a war story is by shouldering the responsibility of the war and with it, the death of the soldiers. This can be seen with the death of Kiowa in the story “In the Field”. Several soldiers believe that it was their fault that Kiowa died. In the same way, the narrator believed that it was his fault that the disfigured Vietnamese soldier died. By assuming responsibility, one may be able to explain what happened, why it happened, how it happened, even though that individual was not at fault. In this way, the truth is different than the story however, the story could still be true.

Furthermore, the narrator explains why he is writing this story. To me, the narrator’s explanation seems to be the explanation of the author, Tim O’Brien for the reason behind the novel is that through storytelling, one is able to capture the soul of the individual who is not there anymore. In the story, that individual gets to live. This notion is expressed fully in the text “The Lives of the Dead”. The story keeps the soul alive. Which may be the reason why the author decided to name all the characters after people he knew. The soldiers that had passed away were still alive in this text. The girl that he loved when he was a kid is still alive in this text for in the story, she is dancing and laughing and the two of them can talk to each other. Perhaps the reason why the narrator is named Tim O’Brien is so that after the author has passed, his soul still lives on through this story.

Short Story: Remeber To Run

I run a lot. A younger me would never have believed I would be a runner one day. It’s funny how things work out. When I was younger in P.E. class we had to run around the soccer field every Monday morning. I hated those Mondays because I hated the cold but even more, I hated to run. Ten steps into the run my lungs would start to burn and with each breath I would feel a sharp pain in my chest and with each step my mind would tell me how awful this was and that I should simply stop running. I would think that I was breathing too loudly and the kids around me will look at me like I was weird. I also thought that my strides were too short and I looked awkward running and the girl I liked would see me or I would think that if I stopped everyone will know I’m a loser, so it’s best I kept going. Those were simple days when nothing really mattered.

But now, a quick lap around a field doesn’t seem enough. I could go round and round till my legs begin to shake and still, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. It’s not until I am mindless that I find running to be worth it. Although that can take a long time and some days I never reach that point where there is a void in my thinking. Those days I feel like a P.O.W. my mind acting like a prison and my thoughts as torture devices, depriving me of rest. Those are tough runs but I know I’ll have another shot at escaping next morning and that keeps me sane.

A younger me would have never believed that I would kill a man one day either. Of course that me didn’t know anything about the world or how it worked. He was too busy thinking about if Jemmy had seen him looking at her in class or if he’d get that red bicycle he wanted for his birthday so he can show off to his friends. He had just seen war on movie screens and in his mind. The younger me loved killing in his mind. That me always imagined himself as a soldier, as he played with his toys, and when the toys fought, in his mind he was fighting too, he killed and the toy soldiers fell down, easy and bloodless death but real death was never that pretty. Those were fun times, especially when my brothers and I played together. If only that younger self knew that one day his hands would know the grip of a real gun, the familiarity of the handles, the understanding of the trigger, the sight of men falling as their consciousness leaves them, the sound of men crying as they claw at the dirt trying to stay alive, trying to stop their dreams from leaving them, that younger me wouldn’t know anything of that and he will never know. That younger me still lives a peaceful life, playing with his toys.

I am a runner now. I wake up early, before the sun most of the time. I make sure not to disturb my wife as I get changed into my running clothes that I had laid out the previous day. A pair of black shorts that I had worn for years now which my wife got for me for my birthday when we first started dating. She had got me a shirt to go with it but that had been used and discarded by now, yet, the shirt I did wear looked years old. Along with that, I had my socks, my gloves, my cap and my cd player with the cd already inside it. I changed quickly and went downstairs to the lobby where my running shoes were waiting for me at the front door.

Most days I put them on without a thought and then I was gone. Somedays I stared at the shoes thinking why I am not in my bed with my wife, hearing her snore peacefully as the warmth took me back to some dream that I once had. Those days are rare but they do come and every time they come I stare at my shoes, distracting my thought by forcing myself to remember how long ago I had bought these particular pair of shoes. I would even imagine myself walking into the running store and purchasing them and I would recall how snug they felt the first day I wore them for a run. I had worn these particular pairs of shoes for sixty-two days and the threading had started to come undone in the front and the shoelace was beginning to lose its tightness. The ones I had previous to this pair had lasted me eighty-two days before the sole of the shoes broke. Sometimes these little tricks is all you need to overcome that initial weakness, tricks to occupy the mind, after which, I put on those shoes and leave my house.

I know the exact day when I became a runner. I had come home from work and my wife sat me down. I knew it was something serious by the way she spoke to me. She usually spoke in a soft and quiet manner, something the doctors had told her to do but that time, she could not hide the anxiousness which she was feeling, she wasn’t able to cover up the possible effect her words could have on me. She told me my mother had passed away. A letter came in that morning while I was away and it said that she had died peacefully in her sleep and the funeral will be held in three days time. I thought how could they decide when to bury my mother?

My wife was pregnant at the time and she could not travel so I went alone. She kept on asking me how I was feeling and I found that to be odd. My mother had just passed away and I felt nothing, nothing good, nothing bad and the more my wife brought it, the worse I felt about my nothingness.

At the time I used to go running every now and then, whenever I felt like it, which was not often. The doctors had told me that strenuous exercise might trigger bad memories. So that was a comfortable excuse to stay in my bed or on my couch. But, for some reason, I brought along a pair of running shoes when I went to go see my mother. They were old, just a random pair that I had bought from the store one day, I couldn’t even recall how old they were.

Mother spent her last few years living in a home with her friends and others like her. My wife and I had tried to accommodate her with us but it was difficult when you took into consideration her condition. She had never been the same since my brothers passed away. After that, she would often look at me and call me by my brother’s name. First my older brother and then my younger brother and then a blend of both of them and finally she’ll remember who I was. She’d smile and say how much I looked like them and how I reminded her of them. At the time father was around and he could take care of mother but then he passed too and his name got added to the mix of names. Soon she started to forget more things than just my name. One time we found her walking down the side of the road near our home, still in her morning robe and slippers. She said she was just going to go see my brother off at his school. It was after that we decided to put her in a home where she could get proper care.

I took a bus which left the city at midnight. My wife came to see me off. I figured it’d be easy to just sleep the night and wake up in a different town but that wasn’t the case. The cool air that leaked in from the windows kept me awake. It was as if a fan was blowing cold wind right above my head. Instead, I tried to remember the last time I went to go see her and nothing came to my mind. I remembered riding the bus down another time but I couldn’t remember meeting my mother or talking to her. I remembered the small field outside of the home where the rose petals were and I could see the gardener watering the plants in his green overalls but I couldn’t see her there, nor hear her, I couldn’t even remember her.

There was a man waiting for me at the bus stop. He worked at the home and he tried to carry my one small suitcase for me but I told him I could manage and I placed it in the trunk of his old Volvo. The brown leather seats were cracked and the air conditioning didn’t work. We rolled down the windows. The man offered his condolences and that was kind of him. He asked me if my brothers were coming too. I couldn’t blame my mother for wishing they were still here. I just shook my head and told the man that they won’t be able to join us.

At the home, they settled me into a nice room. I could tell it had been cleaned that morning. The bedsheets were perfectly laid out and the pillows arranged in order, I felt as if I would be doing a disservice by sleeping here, by ruining their constructed image. A man came up and ushered me down to the hall where my mother was. Everyone was dressed in white, those were the mourning colors here, not black but white because they believed death to be pure, a part of a process, something one shouldn’t be sad about. For them, death was cleanliness and order because it completed one’s life, without death life would be incomplete, a singular wrinkle on a bedsheet that is otherwise perfect, that single wrinkle drawing everyone’s attention to the incompletion of the task, or something like that I guess. I suppose that is the attitude you have to have when all your residents are waiting for completion.

My mother lay on a white bed at one end of the room. White cloth covered the floor and the metal chairs, there was a narrow path in between the set of chairs so one could walk directly up to my mother. Few people sat on the chairs silently and I thought that to be odd. Couple of the women sat at the front row, crying without making a sound. I took a seat at the back and watched the side of my mothers face. The bed bent due to her weight in a manner that I could only see the tip of her nose and her forehead which was partially covered with her greying hair. I figured her hair would be greying, my own was but for some reason, I felt as if that was wrong. She shouldn’t be this old. I was but she should be younger like she was when she was waving us goodbye at the train station.

One of the women from the front turned around and saw me. She was old too. She came and sat down beside me.

“You look just like your mother.” She said.

I just smiled.

“I’m sorry for you and your family. She really was a great woman, always making us laugh. You can see how loved she was with all these people here. Not everyone gets the same attention.”

“That’s nice.”

“Would you like to go see her?” She asked.

“No, thank you.”

My answer seemed to surprise her.

“In a little bit,” I added.

She pretended to understand, “okay, take your time honey.”

She went and joined the other women at the front.

I waited for a while and a few more people drifted in, all wearing white. They said their condolences to me, some asked where my wife was and I told that she couldn’t travel, many asked where my brothers were and I told them they couldn’t travel either. After some time I decided to go for a run. People didn’t notice me leave and I went to my room and put on my shoes. The home was a gated lot but the watchman at the gate let me out for I didn’t look like I belonged there just yet.

The run was simple and easy. I kept the pace light, there was no need to rush, I had nowhere to be and the path was simple as well. Flat and straight with the occasional little dip or small incline, nothing that I couldn’t handle. It took me a little while to get my legs loosened up and once they were loose I felt my strides lengthen and my lungs stopped to burn and rather, they took pleasure in inhaling the cold fresh air. I tried to think of nothing when I was running but I didn’t know how to do that at the time. I didn’t know how to get to the edge of the cliff and carefully run alongside it and wait for the perfect moment to step off and fall into the void. Now I had a better hold at getting to the void. The void was emptiness, it was without thought and without feelings. It was just alive and it took pain to get there.

At the time, I was just trying to be thoughtless. Whenever a thought came to my head I let it pass through like one of the cars on the road that seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere. There were no lights or stop signs for thoughts in my mind, it was an open highway for them to keep on going. It was the void that I was trying to reach but at the time I didn’t know that. Now, when I run I don’t think of anything and with it, I don’t remember anything either.

Like Bean, I don’t remember him either. Bean, that boy who I fought with, who was still a boy. His life already completed. He would tell me stories about his mother all the time. He would tell me how she had him young, too young and how she didn’t know anything about raising kids and she would slap him when he did something wrong and then she would give him sweets to make up for it. Bean would tell me how his mother shouldn’t have been a mother yet, she couldn’t handle the responsibility, she was a kid herself. Just like us, he would add. Bean would tell me how his mother was his best friend. How the two of them would tell each other everything. They would watch movies together, they would go on walks together, she would do his homework for him, he would do the dishes for her and the two of them were one. Bean talked about his mother until he was killed. Then, I remembered his mother. I remembered his mother when I saw my own. When I saw my own mother, I saw Bean’s mother and when I saw Bean’s mother, I remembered Bean and with it I remembered that look of surprise he had on his face when his life was completed. What I remembered afterward doesn’t let me dream anymore.

I kept running that day. Easy, comfortable pace and soon all I thought about was the sky or the tree that I passed by or the crack on the pavement.

Haruki Murakami On Writing

There are many articles written on the do’s and don’t’s of writing. I don’t know if such a thing exists for each person who wishes to write must write their own way. Through the act of writing, they will come to discover what they like and what they don’t like and in doing so, create their own do’s and don’t’s which may be contradictory to the public consensus. If that is the case then so be it. Contorting your writing in order to fit into how someone else thinks, takes away from the uniqueness of your own thought and style. So, one has to be comfortable with their own writing and write for the purpose of writing and not to become popular or to sell a bunch of books. At least that is how I view it. Writing for the sake of writing.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses similar notions. The book is a combined effort on his views on running and on writing and how the action of running has influenced his writing.

What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself. Failure to reach that bar is not something you can easily explain away. When it comes to other people, you can always come up with a reasonable explanation, but you can’t fool yourself. In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn’t seek validation in the outwardly visible.

It is an inner standard that one must aim for and not some external validation. In running, you are trying to beat your previous time even if it is only by one minute or trying to go further than you have gone before. Similarly, with writing, you are trying to create something that is approved by your own standards and limitations. Text that pushes you slightly further than your comfort zone and it doesn’t matter if one person reads that or a million, the inner validation is all one needs.

Specifically, when it comes to writing itself, Murakami believes that there are three important factors. The most important being talent and below it are focus and endurance. Talent being innate, it is something you have or you don’t have. Focus and endurance are what one can build and increase with time and effort. These two factors are in your control.

In every interview I’m asked what’s the most important quality a novelist has to have. It’s pretty obvious: talent. No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent you can forget about being a novelist. This is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality. If you don’t have any fuel, even the best car won’t run.

If I’m asked what the next most important quality is for a novelist, that’s easy too: focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment. Without that you can’t accomplish anything of value, while, if you can focus effectively, you’ll be able to compensate for an erratic talent or even a shortage of it. I generally concentrate on work for three or four hours every morning.

After focus, the next most important thing for a novelist is, hands down, endurance. If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work. What’s needed for a writer of fiction—at least one who hopes to write a novel—is the energy to focus every day for half a year, or a year, two years.

Naturally, in order to increase one’s focus and endurance, you have to be patient. It takes time and effort to develop these two qualities. Murakami relates these factors to running throughout his text. The idea is that just how one works his or her way up from being able to run 1 mile and then 2 miles and then 3 miles as their muscles adjust and grow and their cardio improves and their running technique gets better and so on. Similarly, one has to slowly work the focus and endurance muscles for writing. Perhaps you may have to start with 30 minutes of pure focus where all you think about is writing and then after a week of that, you increase that to 45 minutes and once your body adjusts to that speed, you increase your focus time to an hour. Endurance works the same way. Three days out of the week for writing and then four days and then five days and you may keep the five days for a few months until your body and mind have adjusted to this new level and then you increase it to six days.

It is in the practice of your routine that you get better as a writer and also as a runner. Murakami shares a funny story about the writer Raymond Chandler who seemed to share Murakami’s belief in endurance and focus.

In private correspondence the great mystery writer Raymond Chandler once confessed that even if he didn’t write anything, he made sure he sat down at his desk every single day and concentrated. I understand the purpose behind his doing this. This is the way Chandler gave himself the physical stamina a professional writer needs, quietly strengthening his willpower. This sort of daily training was indispensable to him.

In doing so, writing then becomes a form of manual labor and not some creative output that seeps out of your pores and that one just needs to write it all down and that’s it. Furthermore, it may be through the grueling task of focusing every single day for weeks on end that one may discover that they have some talent. Your talent may not be known to you until you start your work. Murakami himself is an example of this. It was not until he was in his late 20s that he even got the idea to write and it would not be for a few more years until he discovered his own writing style and understood what kind of novels he wished to write.

This discovery was simply aided by writing. The more effort he put into his work the better he understood it and clearer his vision became. He had an understanding that his talent was not enough and that he needed to supplement the talent he did have by building up his focus and endurance. Murakami gives credit to running for building these two qualities that could then aid the talent he did have.

Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate—and how much is too much? How far can I take something and still keep it decent and consistent? When does it become narrow-minded and inflexible? How much should I be aware of the world outside, and how much should I focus on my inner world? To what extent should I be confident in my abilities, and when should I start doubting myself? I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.

Talent may be out of your control but focus and endurance are not. You can set yourself up for success if you build up those two qualities. Furthermore, the action that aids in this growth will help your understanding of writing, what you wish to say, what you wish not to say, your own do’s and don’t’s and perhaps even discover that talent that is within. In fact, such an action will benefit you in all aspects of life and not just writing.

For me it is hard to say if I have a talent for writing or not, I just simply know that I enjoy it and that it brings a sense of fulfillment and achievement into my life. It is a freeing notion, knowing that focus and endurance are under my control. If I am able to improve these qualities perhaps then my writing will continue to live up to my own standards.

Charles Bukowski & The Use Of Conflict In Storytelling

Conflict is typically central to a story. It can be some internal conflict that a character is trying to resolve, it can be a conflict with another character that needs to be addressed or it may even be a conflict regarding meaning or purpose in life that the character is trying to figure out. It is a need that the character must face and has to face.

In some ways, writing is about having a character and understanding what the character dislikes, hates, what he doesn’t want to happen, what he is avoiding, what makes him uncomfortable and then, having the character confront all of these things constantly throughout the text and see how he reacts and changes.

Knowing this, when one reads The Post Office by Charles Bukowski, the simple narrative structure gives rise to constant conflict, resolution, conflict, resolution cycles. As the reader, we follow the life of the main character, Chinaski, who attempts to find a stable job, a good relationship and to do something meaningful in his life while his self-sabotaging tendencies create conflict with other characters and ruin different aspects of his life which he then attempts to either mend or simply move on to some other woman or line of work, while still harboring conflict creating attitudes.

The idea of conflict is what sticks out as you read the text. Sometimes the conflict is resolved in a single page and other times the conflict runs the course of the text. Whether it is Chinaski’s conflict with the Jonstone, his boss at the post office, conflict over the placement of a hat at the workplace, conflict with his girlfriend’s father, conflict at the funeral over flowers, conflict caused by the schemas he has to learn, conflict with his coworker Janko, conflict with a pimp, conflict when he gets his girlfriend pregnant, the fire at the workplace is another conflict, the decrease in water fountains acts as conflict too and so on.

The text is riddled with minor and major issues that the character has to deal with and confront. These conflicts are either caused by other characters or they are a result of Chinaski’s character flaws. An example of such a flaw being the issue of the hat. Whether it is Chinaski’s attitude, pride or ego, he rather come into conflict with his supervisor instead of abiding by the new rule of placing hats in one’s own locker.

The story is driven by the main character but, it is the interaction of that character with people, things, feelings, emotions that cause conflict that fills out the text. In the Post Office, one is reading about a degenerate womanizer who is drunk most of the time however, it is still interesting and captivating because, through the resolutions or the lack of resolution of these conflicts, the reader can reflect on their own choices and decisions and take away either how to act or most likely in this case, how not to act.

Short Story: Could Have Been A Boxer

Jack was leaving. He wasn’t dying or anything, he had just got another job in a different city and all of us were going to go have some drinks later and say our goodbyes. I didn’t care much about Jack. He talked a lot but he was a good guy, I guess. I rather go home but I had gone home one too many times and now they insisted I should come. Besides, its good to see people off, I heard.

I waited for the clock to let me out. My thoughts are so meaningless, I think. They are always the same ones and I try to think of different things, try to imagine a different life, a life in which I did not rest as much but then soon, my thoughts regress and settle back to what I want for lunch. That question took up much of my time, especially when the work becomes tiresome. I can sit in my work chair and stare at the same spot on my desk and think about all the different things I could eat for lunch. The forty-five minutes that I have to eat. I thought those forty-five minutes to be so precious before I got to them but when I get to them, those minutes seem to go by so quickly, as if I forgot to use them. But before I get there, I think and think of what I want to eat and always after so much of my time has been wasted, I settle on the same meal and then I go on with my day.

I eat with my coworkers. Usually the same three. They would talk and I would sit there and eat, occasionally agreeing with something one of them said. It was not that I did not like them but rather, I could care less if they were there or not. Either way, I was always thinking. I thought of all the other things I could be doing with my life. I thought of the work I still had to do. I thought of how much I hated my work and how much I hated myself and my life and I thought that I should have gotten something else to eat. At least the bar had the television working and I could stare at the men playing football or tennis. Sometimes the television showed the news and I would read the lips of the anchormen as the news headlines crawled at the bottom of the screen.

The clock told me I could leave and Jack and the guys put on their winter coats and stood talking to one another by the exit. When I approached them, Jack confirmed with me the time and place and I nodded.

Glad you can make it today, he said.

Wouldn’t miss it for the world, I replied.

Jack patted my shoulder and he and the others left.

I waited a few moments, pretending to have forgotten something on my desk so I didn’t have to walk with them and keep the conversation going. When I was sure the guys were far away, I followed their path to my car.

My coworkers were good people. At least I thought them to be good. None of them had killed anyone or anything like that so, they had to be somewhat decent. I always thought about what they really thought. I heard them speak about clothes and who slept with who and who bought what and heard them make jokes that weren’t that funny but people smiled anyways because why not, better than not smiling but then, I would think, what did they think about when they were alone?

I thought when I was with people and maybe that’s why people didn’t really like me. They could sense that I was never there. But these people were there. They were engaging one another, building upon the conversation, being human beings. But when they were all alone, driving home, taking the bus, walking, whatever, whenever it was just them and their thoughts, did they hate themselves too? I didn’t hate myself because I didn’t achieve what I wanted in life. I learned long ago that there was nothing that I really wanted in life. Of course, money is good and expensive cars are nice but I didn’t work hard enough to get them, so, I didn’t really want that stuff. These people were living the same life as me so, did that mean they were as hopeless too? If they were hopeless then why did they talk so much?

Perhaps what is my permanent, is just there temporary. They were not like me. They were better and that’s why Jack was leaving. I was here because what else was I going to do with my life? You had to do something.

I thought about the bar we were meeting at later and I thought about how crowded it would be because it was Friday. I thought about the drinks and I stopped thinking.

They called me the silent type. At least one of my coworkers did. He had read some personality test and forced the rest of us to take it too and I got the silent type and they all agreed that the test must be accurate but then, some of the others got told they were something that they were not but they believed it because they wanted it to be true. I thought then that either I was too honest with my test or that I was even more disconnected with people than I had believed myself to be.

But because the test proved what they all thought of me, they did not bother me much when I didn’t talk. They probably thought I was just being me. However, I wasn’t being silent for the sake of silence. I didn’t know what to say. All I thought about was how I wish I had done something different in the past. No, that’s a lie too. That thought came and went but it never lingered. What lingered was my memory of me hitting the punching bag. I did that every morning and then, the rest of the day I would think about myself and visualize myself hitting the bag as if I were watching tape on myself. I would imagine my foot twisting, my hips turning, my fist connecting with the bag and feeling the bag wrap around my strike and then hear the metal chain creak as the bag swung and I hit it again and again. I don’t know why but I thought of this often. I thought of the different combination I can throw, about my foot placement, about my head movement and all this shit that didn’t really matter but I couldn’t get it out of my head. The one-two combination, I told myself I needed to use my jab more, use it to set up the combination and don’t forget the body, you never dig those hooks into the body, you gotta start practicing that, getting better at that. It always came to me. When I showered, when I drove, when I worked and when there was silence. Always these useless memories of me playing some game or doing nothing and a thousand different ways to become better at being useless. Yet, when I did improve, when I did strike the bag better, I felt some surge of accomplishment.

This accomplishment was just a joke. I would think how pathetic my life must be to feel good about something so useless. I should be doing something else with my time. Getting more work done. I should care about my future. I should be a good boy and overachieve so I can get promoted and make more money and move to a better neighborhood and make my parents proud and buy Anne some nice diamond earrings. She would be working late tonight and sometimes I thought she was cheating on me and I don’t even know why I thought that. It just came to me when there was silence and then I would start hitting the bag in my mind.

That evening I joined my coworkers at the bar. Jack embraced me like we were old friends, the kind who knew everything about one another but I barely knew his last name. I suppose leaving does that to people. Or perhaps it was just what his personality test told him. Maybe it said he was a hugger, a good guy, so he’s playing his role. I thought I should play mine so I started drinking.

I didn’t think much that evening for the liquor kept on coming and when I drank I did not think. That was a good night. We drank and we laughed about things that I can’t recall and then when it came time to say our goodbyes, Jack took me aside and said that he can get me a job at his new place as well. To think, he had seen me staring at one place for hours and believed I was hard at work the whole time. He listed the benefits, the pay increase, the better neighborhood, the school district, he said he knew Anne and I want children someday and I thought how the hell did he know something I didn’t even know.

I said I would love it and I thanked him.

When I got home, Anne was already asleep. I thought even if she were cheating on me she’s still a good person. Most cheaters keep their partner up all night worrying about where they are but not mine, mine is sleeping safely. I went downstairs and had another drink and when the drinking stopped I started to think again.

My life wasn’t so bad. I had a good house, Anne was good, had some friends and work wasn’t overbearing. I thought how it would be if I went to the new city. What if Anne couldn’t make any new friends there? What if she made too many new friends? Then, the new house would need new furniture and I liked the furniture I had for it knew me and I knew it. I also liked the painted walls and the wooden floors, I had gotten used to the creaks of the floorboards, I knew which ones to avoid in the middle of the night when I went out for a quick smoke so as not to disturb Anne. I also was used to the work. It was the right amount for me to spend most of my time thinking and dreaming.

Here people already knew me. They knew not to talk to me. They didn’t think it odd that I didn’t talk much because they knew I was the silent type. Everything was routine here to my liking. Then, why did I hate it?

I turned the television on and switched to the sports channel. They were playing some old boxing match. I vaguely remembered seeing it and I knew who won but I watched anyway. I turned the volume down so Anne would not wake up. I got another bottle out from the fridge and sat back and drank as I watched these two men beat on one another for my satisfaction. Once the bottle was finished I was on my feet. I thought I was one of them. A fighter that came from nothing who had everything going against him and yet, he made it through, he fought through it all and won. That man was prideful. He had accomplished something and I mimicked the footwork of the boxer and I threw a jab when he did and I ducked when he did and I put up my guard and eyed my opponent over my knuckles, eyeing my opponents movement and I slipped and countered and I slipped and countered and I was thinking how great I am, that this man doesn’t know me, that I got some fight in me and he could never match my fight.

The round ended and the channel cut to a commercial break. I was breathing hard so I sat down. I thought about how I should have gone for the body.

Short Story: The Servant’s Son

He stood in front of the mirror and put his hand out by his shoulder. He was this tall the last time he saw him. This time he might be…he couldn’t see how tall his boy could be for the mirror was not long enough for him to see his own face if he stood up straight.

You’re so old now, he will say to his son. No longer a boy but a man, he will tell him when he sees him. He will praise his boy for graduation as he was the first one in his family to do so.

How many years has it been? No, he won’t bring that up. That isn’t something one should talk about. He went back to his bed where his boys’ letter lay. By now he had it memorized but he still liked to see his handwriting. It was so neat and professional. It resembled the writing of his sir. He picked up the letter and folded it neatly and placed it in the drawer beside his bed, on top of the other letters from his boy.

He will see his boy get his diploma. The first one in the family and it’s all thanks to sir.

The sun was rising, its morning touch fell upon the fresh-cut grass which still had the dew from the night showers. He went downstairs and proceeded to go outside to the front gate where the morning paper lay. Sir liked to read it with his cup of coffee. He dusted the paper off and brought it inside and laid it neatly at the breakfast table. He went to water the bed of flowers outside sirs room. The water sprinkled onto the flower heads, they bowed their heads each time the drop fell upon them.

He’ll get him a new shirt. For the longest time he had sent him my own size but by now he must have outgrown it. Maybe that’s why he asked him not to send him shirts anymore. He’s a good boy. He must think it a burden for him to do something like that. This time it’ll be new, the newest in style, what every young boy wears, no, what young men wear. A nice white shirt. Collared one too, look professional to match his handwriting.

He rolled up the garden hose and tucked it away in its proper place. Sir liked everything clean. He checked the watch sir had gifted him and it was time to make coffee. Sir never got angry or upset if it was late, he was understanding but when a man is that understanding you don’t want to take advantage of it especially when he has been so good to you and your family. That’s something his boy ought to know too. He needs to be understanding. He can tell this lesson in person. That is something one needs to hear not read.

He made the coffee as sir liked and also got a cup of almonds and other nuts and set them at the table beside the paper. He knocked on sirs door. He slowly opened the door and sir was at the study table, reading like he always did. The dim hum of the electric fan interrupted the rhythm of the pages or the ink on paper.

Coffee is ready, sir, he said.

Sir closed his book and placed his pen and paper in the drawer where it belonged. The wooden chair scratched the floor as he rose, book in hand. He pushed the book into the cabinet, in its proper place. He held the door open for sir as he walked to the breakfast table and sat down.

He went into the kitchen and waited for sir to call.

He knew the exact store where he would go to get that shirt. As sir slept in the afternoon, he would go make that quick trip and while he’s out, he’ll even check to the bus prices. He’ll ask the store owner for what is in style and get the nicest one for his boy. Maybe they can wrap it in a nice wrapping paper too. Giving a gift in person means more than giving one over mail. There is something about mail that just makes people acquaintances, just above strangers but in person, one can show love and feel love and his boy was so loving. Not a month goes by where his letter does not come. Even if he doesn’t write back straight away he never forgets.

Sir called from the breakfast table and asked for some oatmeal and toast both of which he had already prepared and he quickly brought it out for him. He stood by for a second waiting for the time to tell him about his boy but it was he who asked first.

How is your son doing?

He could not help but smile as he stared at the table.

Really good, sir, he said.

Sir nodded. He asked for some water and I went and got him some.

He is graduating, he said as he poured the water.

Who is?

My son, he’s graduating next week.

You must be proud.

Yes sir, very happy. It’s all thanks to you for getting him into the school.

That was simple. Learning is the hard part and he did that on his own.

He only smiled.

He felt it was not the right time to ask if he could go see him graduate next week so he took his place in the kitchen and waited for sir to finish. Once sir was done, he cleared the table and afterward, he ate his breakfast in the kitchen.

He made sure to remember to include in his letter sir’s praise of his boy too.

He went upstairs to his room and read the letter once again. His handwriting was so neat. After he went to the store on his bicycle, which was old and made a creaking sound each time he peddled but it did its job. At the store, he looked around at the collections of shirts they had and he asked the store clerk for the most popular one and if he could get it in white. The price was higher than he had expected but his boy was graduating so he bought it and thanked the clerk.

Before going back he stopped at the bus station and asked for the ticket prices next weekend and he got an estimate. It was also more than he had expected but he figured if he asked sir for an advanced he would get it. He was always understanding.

He got home just before lunch and sir was still sleeping. He made his favorite meal, beans, and rice along with a potato dish and he had it ready by the time sir woke up. Sir washed his face and hands and took his seat at the table. He served him the meal and as he ate he stood by, looking for the moment to ask for a leave.

Sir was the one to start the conversation.

Is there something the matter?

I shook my head realizing that he usually sat in the kitchen and waited and how odd it must look for him to break that routine.

Well, he said, there was something I like to ask.

Sir nodded as he ate a spoon full of beans.

My son’s graduation is next week,

Yes, you already told me this.

And he is the first one in our family to graduate and I was hoping if I could get some time off so I can see him in person.

Next weekend?

Yes, sir.

Sir thought for a moment and then shook his head.

Next weekend is the gathering, have you forgotten.

He had but he didn’t tell him that. He slowly nodded.

That is next weekend, he added uselessly.

I need you here for that.

That was that. He nodded once more and refilled his cup of water and went back to the kitchen. Once sir was done eating he had my own meal and he didn’t realize when he had finished eating it. His mind was set on finding the proper words that would allow him to see his son. They seemed so lifeless now. Nothing he came up with revealed anything of his boy. The words were just words and they couldn’t form his son’s shape. What did his eyes look like? How was his face shaped? What did his hair feel like? What did he smell like? How strong was the grip of his hand or his embrace? How tall was he? The words he tried to make up could never answer any of those. All they would do was comfort a formless thing. If he saw him he would be real. The pictures he had of his boy were lifeless too. He wanted to see life and words and still images couldn’t help him.

Sir called me into his room. He had a few shirts laid out on his bed along with two trousers and a pair of old boots.

You can have these, he said, or give them to your son. I figured these shirts should be his size and maybe the boots too.

He gathered the shirts in one arm and picked up the boots.

And take this, sir gave him some money, it will cover the cost of the shipping.

He thanked sir and took the boots, shirts and the trousers and brought them all to his room. The new shirt was there too. Still in its packaging. He folded the shirts and the trousers and laid the new shirt on top of them. The boots on the ground. He tried to imagine the figure that would fill them all out but it only seemed to be a shadow of a being. Something but not someone. He took a piece of paper and wrote, that he will see him soon. He hoped he didn’t remember the past times he wrote that.

He looked at the watch sir had given me and saw it was time to water the plants in the front yard.