Bear Paw Road: Excerpt

A couple students asked me once about my first kiss. I have to provide some context for that, right? It was an assignment for another class. They were to interview a few teachers, and the objective was to ask original and unique questions. I answered; I do have a story for that, and I hadn’t thought of it in a long while. The nostalgia in recounting it was nice. That recounting set me to thinking, and that thinking set me to writing a short story, and that short story became a novella (I really didn’t mean for that to happen, but, well, it did). I just finished the first draft, after months of work—half a year, maybe? I still have edits ahead of me and lots of submitting and rejection, especially for a novella, but I also have writing projects waiting in the queue. I’ve got plenty of ideas, and so I’ve been contemplating on where my ideas come from. I hate articles and writing advice that claim to provide some secret to idea mining, and that’s not really what this post is about. I do know what has worked for me, though. It’s just a simple question, a game that I’ve been playing with myself since I was a child: I just ask myself, “what if?” It’s daydreaming—moments when I’m not intentionally story seeking, just remembering and inevitably imagining (different choices, different outcomes). My memories become a fiction and then I write them. This novella, titled Bear Paw Road, is a product of that kind of daydreaming, but it still needs a couple more drafts before I can call it complete. Regardless, here is a short excerpt, the first three paragraphs—which are mostly true and right up to the point just before “what if” kicks in and fiction takes over:

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Down the street above my childhood home there used to be a black bear paw nailed to a telephone pole just off the right side of the road. It’s not there now, but the paw fascinated me when I was a kid. I would wonder on how big the bear was, and I tried to imagine it standing high on hind legs as some hunter aimed, fired, dropped it. I don’t know who killed the bear or who cut off the paw and nailed it to the pole, but I imagine they were the same man. The paw was high and I could never get a close look, but it seemed like a warning of some kind—of what I’m not sure.

That paw was at the end of the road where it dead-ended at a sandy and rock-gardened bank on the Tuckasegee River, just above the place where the Oconaluftee runs in. My brother and I called that street Bear Paw Road. That wasn’t its name, but that’s what we called it. No white or yellow lines—just aged, pale, bone-gray concrete. On the left, a little past the bear paw and before earth turns to river, there’s an old barn rooted in red clay and surrounded by tall unkempt grasses. I don’t know who owned the barn or who owns it now, but even when I was a child it hadn’t been in use for years. We couldn’t stay out, though our parents insisted on it. They said there would be snakes—copperheads most likely, but I never saw any. My brother and I spent our school-day afternoons and our summers in a kind of imaginative and fantastical daze that transformed our neighborhood and surrounding rivers into a world separate—something only childhood is capable of, I guess. The barn, with its dry-rot, must, ancient hay, rumored snakes, and emptiness, was at the center of that world. Imagined hunts, expeditions and sundry heroics began and ended there. The barn was also where she first kissed me.

I like to remember that I kissed her back, but I don’t think I did. Rebecca was a year younger than me, and I’m certain I was twelve at the time. We were alone in one of the old horse stalls. Her little brother and mine had run off. I can’t remember what game they were playing, but the point was to stay away from us. Becca had been waiting in the stall and called me in as I passed. Yellowed ribbons of sunlight leaked through the wide spaces between wall boards, and the dust we had disturbed rose and floated through, suspended. I remember that she didn’t say anything—just looked at me, grinning a little. Her hair was mousy brown and cut short like a boy’s, and her eyes were dark like soil with a small fleck of gold just above her pupil in the iris of her left. When we first met, not long after her family moved into the trailer park on the other side of the fence, she had told me she was Cherokee, but her skin was whiter than mine. That wasn’t uncommon though, and I had no reason to doubt her; the Reservation was just down the road a few miles. It was then in that horse stall I first noticed the gold fleck, and just after I noticed she jumped forward and smacked a clumsy kiss on my lips and ran. It tasted like peppermint and my lips were sticky afterwards. Yeah, I know—barn, peppermint, kiss-and-run, but that’s how it happened.

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Okay, so it’s cute and sweet, but the remainder of the story is not. This excerpt is from what could probably be called a prologue, but I hate prologues and refuse to call it that. The story quickly transitions to the summer of 1999. The narrator and Becca are teenagers (17 and 16), and a new character, Yona, moves into the trailer park, becoming both friend and conflict; however, it is not young adult lit. It is also not a love story, nor is it cute (maybe at times). Writing this novella was both wonderful and instructional for me; it was also unexpectedly emotional at times. I won’t be starting edits for about a month in order to create some distance and detachment—so I can really tear it apart like the dirty, shitty first draft it is.

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