“Damico,” the winning story selected by Aimee Bender for our 2018 Winter Short Story Award, was published on Monday. Read it in its entirety here. Assistant Editor Melissa Hinshaw caught up with Joe Bond to discover a little more about this story’s history. Read on below.
What was the inspiration behind “Damico”? How did this idea come to you?
I grew up around boys homes and residential treatment programs. I’ve always been interested in how kids without families cling to each other. Of course, they also terrorize each other, but the image of one desperate kid comforting another was what I wanted to write toward. In the homes I was around and later worked in, actual physical comfort—one teenage boy holding another—would have been a rare event, to say the least, and so I needed a story worthy of that moment. Damico is separated from his child, but in fact all of the boys at the home are cut off from the people they were supposed to love and who were supposed to love them. I wanted this story to give something back to them. I wanted it to be true to the kids I knew who had lost almost everything but somehow held on to their humanity.
What is this story’s development timeline like—is it a fresh new story, something you’ve been working on or a while, something you finished a long time ago and finally decided to submit, etc?
I think of it as a new story. I wanted to write about a boys home; I just didn’t know how exactly I should go about it. I burned a week writing poems about teenagers who had fired rifles at the Goodyear Blimp and who had eaten light bulbs and huffed gas and called begging for someone to come check them out of the psych ward so they could play in a basketball tournament. These things actually happened. The trouble was, I’m not much of a poet. I didn’t recognize what I was doing until one poem began to transform itself into a story, and at that, a work of fiction. The next turning point was locating the narrator inside the home. Once I realized he had been one of the kids there, the voice came to me almost instantly and the story ballooned into something that wasn’t exactly a story anymore so much as a map or master document. Suddenly I had twelve thousand words filled with the backstories and interlocking presents of at least a half-dozen boys. I picked out one moment—the moment I mentioned above, where one kid consoles another—and developed it into “Damico.” I’m working on the other boys’ stories now.
I appreciate the way you capture unique voices without dipping too deep into cheesy colloquial language. Were you able to pick this up naturally just from listening to people in real life, or did you have to work these voices over several times to find that balance and get it right?
I listened to these voices the first twenty-two years of my life. My dad ran a group home and later a couple of other programs with more than sixty teenagers at each place. I was just always around, especially when I was a kid. I’d sit in on group counseling; I’d listen to their stories. If the boys were going camping or cave exploring, I’d cram myself onto a van and go with them. They didn’t mind me, as far as I could tell. It helped that I was quiet—you could forget I was there. I heard some things I probably shouldn’t have, but the benefit was that even from a young age, it was impossible for me to see the world in a narrow or simple way. As for getting the voices down in a story, I tried hard not to screw them up. The confined setting of the boys homes I knew, which gathered teenagers from all over, produced its own blended vernacular with strains of street, country and what I would call Appalachian treatment speak (the homes were in Kentucky). Honestly, I loved listening to it. It was fun to write, too, but I revised with an ear for toning it down some.
One thing I love about this piece is how it doesn’trely on setting so much. It does so much without big old descriptions of landscape and somehow you always know exactly where you are. In what ways do you see this as an “everyplace” story? Or, is it connected to somewhere specific?
I suspect readers have a notion of a group home—a reference point gleaned from TV or film or perhaps personal experience—that makes it unnecessary to describe every crack in the wall plaster. I needed a fire escape, a shower and a room for visitation and counseling. In the other stories I’m writing, I do let the home itself come a little more alive with its drafty windows and clanging radiators, with its condom-clogged toilets and smoke-stained ceilings and malfunctioning popcorn machine that sets off the sprinkler system every Saturday night during movie time. But descriptions of the outside world are intentionally limited because the boys have been removed from it. They see a highway and the woods they’ll have to run through to get there—that’s about it, and still, I think there’s great potential in the starkness of their isolation: imagine if, say, in another story a rogue counselor were to pack the boys onto a van and drive them five hundred miles to see the ocean. To get back to your question, though, I think the home in this particular story could be anywhere in America, absolutely, as long as it’s ten or fifteen miles out of town. People are happy to let a group of juvenile delinquents rake their leaves and clean up their streets, but they’d rather the boys be housed elsewhere.
Which of the characters do you relate to most? What’s your authorial stance on whether characters do, don’t, can, or can’t relate to an author?
I feel the most for Damico, but I can’t say I’ve suffered in the ways that he has, and yet I do feel connected to him in that he reminds me of the boys I knew and cared about. That said, I probably relate most directly to the narrator through his voice and the perspective he’s gained having been at the home for so long. I never beat up anyone in the shower, but if I were him, I might have. I think if you can’t relate to your characters in some way—on a basic human level if nothing else—you’ve got a problem.
If this story had “parents”, what/who would they be (i.e. certain authors, books, or movies)?
The voice in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs, which echoes through Wildlife and Canada, certainly is an influence. The dialogue in Richard Price’s Clockers. The kids in the fourth season of The Wire—they could have been some of ours in the weeks before they were sent off. But at the risk of going on and on about them, the boys in the homes I grew up around were the truer inspiration. They were no angels, trust me. Their situations—where they were from and where they were—could lead them to acts of terrible cruelty, and yet many of them, in other moments, were also capable of profound kindness and compassion. Something happened with my sister once. We were in a park with my dad and a group of boys. We were leaving, and my sister—seven years old, impulsive, excited about something—darted across several lanes of traffic and was struck by a pickup truck. One second we were all standing together waiting to cross, and the next, tires were squealing and there was a thump and my sister was skidding along the asphalt. By miracle, her injuries, however painful, proved mostly superficial (head-to-toe abrasions, a broken tooth), but in the moment you assume the worst. I mean, she was lying in the street in her socks. Her Keds were twenty yards back, near the point of impact. People were screaming, jumping out of their cars. As my dad and the other adults ran to her, suddenly the boys were without supervision. Most of them you didn’t have to worry about, but the newer kids, if you gave them an opening, they’d steal a car and turn up a month later in custody in another state. In this instance, their shock held them there on the sidewalk, except for one boy, who might have been fifteen or sixteen years old, whose immediate response to having just witnessed what appeared to be the death of a child was to grab the child’s little brother up into his arms. This was a kid who, I don’t even remember his name, and God knows what else he’d seen in his life, God knows what all he’d been through or done—I just remember him running with me, back into the park, trying to get me away from it all. These are the kids I’m trying to write about.
Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw