I am trying to think of a story. I do this in a sitting room off our kitchen where a Macbook is on my lap and moving boxes of various sizes lean against the wall. Through the window, I see what my wife calls a fond, a made up word from fake pond, one of those subdivision ponds with a fountain in the middle that seem to be so popular here in the Midwest. A tiny ant makes its way to the center of my computer screen, and I smush it with my thumb. What I’m doing now is not the way I’d advise anyone to look for a story, but for a couple of years now the stories have not been coming for me, and so now this is where I am.
The door in the kitchen that leads to the garage opens. There is a moving sale going on out there. The weight bench, the breakfast table, and stacks of my daughters’ clothes that don’t fit anymore are all gone. My 10-year old daughter Josie comes walking through our kitchen into the room where I am. She wears a pink t-shirt and blue-jean shorts. “Hi Dad,” she says, popping into a handstand. Out of nowhere this year she started doing at least fifty of these a day. She walks a couple of steps on her hands and asks, “Whatcha doing?” She sounds exactly like her mother sounds to me when she asks Isabel that same question.
“Why are you always doing handstands?” I ask, thinking maybe there’s a story in her compulsion, but I suspect she doesn’t know why she does them anymore than I understood my own need for constant movement as a kid. I’m struck that all of that physical movement of mine as a child may have evolved into my now current habit of changing the place I call home. My oldest daughter will be a seventh grader next fall, and she has not yet returned to the same school for consecutive years.
“I don’t know, Dad,” Josie explains about the handstands. “They’re fun.” Unlike her sister Charlotte, Josie is not an elaborator. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for her to give no response to something said to her. Your hair is beautiful, someone might say, or you played a great game. Josie’s response to such a comment would be to at most look away with only the start of a smile to signal she may have heard.
She does another handstand and this time walks a few steps toward me on her hands, something I see her getting better at. Upside down as she is, her shirt nearly comes off and that exposes her stomach and chest. I’ve so often asked Josie to tuck in her shirt when doing handstands that she does it on her own this time, coming down to her feet and then jabbing a parcel of her t-shirt inside the front of her shorts. I try a different question. “What are your favorite stories?”
Josie’s face reddens. She doesn’t like to have her picture taken or—unlike her sister—post videos of herself to the Internet. She is shy about attention and knows something is up. “Why are you asking me so many questions?”
I come right out with it. “I want to write a story. Actually, the people who have asked for stories say they want ones that appeal to adults and kids as young as ten years old. Since I know a ten year old very well, I thought I would enlist her help.”
“I like graphic novels,” Josie says. “I like pictures and words.”
“I know you do, but what are those stories about?” I can think of one called Roller Girl and another called Smile, but I am not sure what happens in those books. I wonder if a father can call himself good and not know what the stories are about that his daughters read.
“I like stories about people who don’t fit in,” Josie explains. “I like stories where people are bad at something, they practice, and then they get really good.” Josie does another handstand. Upside down, she adds, “But it’s got to be a graphic novel if you want me to like it.”
“I can’t draw,” I tell Josie, feeling disappointed, as if I’ve let her down. Josie’s face reddens again, but this time it is because she has been able to hold her handstand for so long.
“I can draw, Dad,” Josie says. No problem, I hear her saying in my head. We got this. Josie comes back down to her feet and then over to sit with me in the big white chair so she can see what’s on the screen of my computer. “We can make a story together.”
Image below was drawn and colored by my daughter, age 10.
Bill Torgerson is the author of three books of fiction and the director of four documentary films including his most recent, On the French Broad River. His work Love on the Big Screen was awarded the grand prize of the Rhode Island International Film Festival Screenplay Competition. Bill teaches in the English Department at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and he can be reached at his website TheTorg.com.