OBJECT LESSONS: Story Excursions in Prose & Verse

For my 13th birthday I hit my parents up for a motorcycle. A simple ask, so I thought. Having grown up chasing after my older brother Ric as he raced off on his numerous dirt bikes, it seemed like an inevitable rite of passage. Hit puberty, take the throttle. Tragically, however, my parents viewed such a transaction (or was it transition?) as the road to ruin. See, by this time Ric was doing his best Easy Rider impression to the point where he was on a first name basis with Johnny Law, and as I learned on more than one occasion, parents don’t particularly appreciate posting bail for their kids. Long story short, no Honda for this new-teen-rebel wannabe. But with a bit of my brother’s badass behavior mixed in with a whole lot of after school time, I came up with a plan to get my rightful gift. It all started when I happened upon these plastic motorcycles used to decorate cakes in our local IGA. A stroke of idiot luck, really. Because from there I got the idea to place these in spots where my parents would most certainly find: next to toothbrushes, alarm clocks, the telephone; on the car dash, the television, the liquor cabinet; in my father’s wallet, in my mother’s pocketbook, in their countless ashtrays – anywhere my message could be heard. I did this daily for an entire year. And wouldn’t you know it, that ridiculous object lesson paid off. I got a dirt bike.    



By appreciating the possibility of ordinary objects we can reveal our characters most intense fears and desires. Look no further than Jimmy Cross’ letters in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” or the volleyball in Cast Away or (as in the examples below) a ham or a wallet to see how common items can offer a unique story experience that transcends surprise to speak to us. In prose or verse form, write a story where an object plays a key role in the telling.


The New Year

It’s late Christmas Eve at Spinelli’s when Dominic presents us, the waitstaff, with his dumb idea of a bonus – Italian hams in casings so tight they glimmer like Gilda’s gold lame stockings.

At home, Gilda’s waiting up for me with a surprise of her own: my stuff from the last three months is sitting on the stoop.  Arms crossed, scarlet nails tapping the white satin sleeves of her robe she says she’s heard about Fiona.  I balance the ham on my hip and stuff my things – CDs, my weights, a vintage Polaroid – in garbage bags she’s provided free of charge.  Then I let it all drop and offer up the ham in both hands, cradling it as if it might have been our child.  She doesn’t want any explanations – of the ham.

Fiona belongs to Dominic, and we are a short sad story of one night’s restaurant despair.  But the story’s out, and for sure I don’t want Dominic coming after my ham.  I pack up the car and head west.  The ham glistens beside me in the passenger seat.  Somewhere in Indiana I even give it a seat belt.

I stop to call, but Gilda hangs up every time.  So I send her pictures of my trip.  The Ham under the silver arch of St. Louis; The Ham at the Grand Canyon; The Ham in Las Vegas.  I’m taking a picture of The Ham in the Pacific when a big wave washes it out to sea.  I send the picture anyway:  The Ham in the Pacific Undertow.  In this picture, you can’t tell which of us is missing.

– Pamela Painter


My Father’s Wallet

Small curve of leather that rode

on his backside in the pickup

to auctions every Tuesday,


that stretched and marked

the right pocket of his Levis,

that padded the wood chairs


of the café where he gossiped

with other farmers about

grain yields, corn futures,


that rests now in the cupboard

above the sewing machine

like an upturned turtle shell


abandoned among spools

of thread, jars of buttons,

where Mother put it after


she cleared away his fifteen

trim suits, his thirty shirts,

his pajamas and robe, his neat


row of shoes. His pickup

sits undriven in the left bay

of the garage. Only the wallet


remains, packed, as he left it,

with plastic cards, photo IDs,

gold membership numbers,


the unspent fifty dollars

and the unused lines of credit

we all hope will someday


save us. At the White Knights

Casino we plug the slots

for him, for the big lotto payoff,


waiting for his always earthly

luck to rub off on us.

But everything comes up lemons


oranges, diamonds, flags,

and rubies in the wrong

combinations—the mixed bag


of fruits and wild cards

that never fell in place the way

we’d always hoped or expected.

- Debra Marquart


PAMELA PAINTER has written two story collections, the award-winning Getting to Know the Weather and The Long and Short of It, and is co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and Quick Fiction, among others, and in numerous anthologies such as Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction, Micro Fiction, and Flash Fiction Forward. She has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s John Cheever Award for Fiction. Painter teaches in the MFA Program at Emerson College in Boston. Her new collection of stories, Wouldn’t You Like to Know, was published by Carnegie Mellon in August 2010.

An audio version of her story appears on WGBH’s “Morning Stories” (there it is titled “The Ham”)


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About the Author

Stace Budzko has been published or is forthcoming in Blip, Southeast Review, Versal, Upstreet, Necessary Fiction, Norton Anthology of Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Hobart, elimae, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, The Collagist, Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Flash Fiction Forward, Brevity & Echo, Quick Fiction and elsewhere. The screen adaptations of his stories have received numerous honors and showcases as well. At present, he is a writing instructor at Emmanuel College and writer-in-residence at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.

See other articles by Stace Budzko
by Stace Budzko



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