Most stories I’ve written started with a character in a situation I wanted to explore. This one was different. For nearly twenty years, I had the story in my head of a teenage boy listening to the first heavyweight championship fight between Mohammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) and Sonny Liston on an old radio he’d reclaimed when his father threw it out. The boy and his father had a difficult relationship, and the boy identified with this brash young fighter.
That story stayed in the back of my mind until about two years ago, when I discovered the original broadcast of that fight available on YouTube. Another year passed before I watched it. I still hadn’t written anything down, and I had no sense of the characters other than a father/son in a “difficult” relationship.
Watching the video of the fight changed that. I found myself writing down quotes from the announcers, and the story began to take shape in my mind. I saw parallel stories emerging: the literal fight between Clay and Liston, and the more subtle battle between father and son. A few details made themselves clear to me: the son would have been close to his mother, but his mother was dead, these two males left alone together. The boy would be about sixteen, no longer a child, not quite an adult. I saw the story taking place in a small town, in a remote area, the kind of place a sixteen year old might feel trapped in.
But I still didn’t have a strong sense of the two main characters. I sensed that the father had to have some cruelty in him, and I didn’t know if I could write a cruel character convincingly; my father and I had differences, but he was never cruel. I also struggled with why this mother (who is something of a saint, to the boy at least) would marry a man like that.
I sat with these questions for a while, and I began to wonder if this was one of those stories I would carry in my head forever, and never write. Then a line came to me: “People said the war changed him.” With the fight taking place in 1964, the timing worked perfectly: this father would have fought in World War II.
I never tried to pin down if the war really did change the father, or if, prior to going to war, he’d been trying to be, or pretending to be, the sort of man this woman could fall in love with. The mother’s belief was that he simply gave in to his indulgences.
I was beginning to know the father better, but I worried about him becoming a cliché. I tried to keep in the moment—not in my “vision of the story” but in the visions that came to me as I watched the story unfold. Many of the details I like most (such as his broken middle finger) came about because, at that moment, I could “see” him standing there, bent middle finger beckoning.
I also didn’t want the father/son relationship to be only antagonistic. I stayed alert for details that might show a more complex relationship, and when they appeared, I tried to bring them to the forefront. When the boy tells his father the fight “starts at ten,” there’s “the hint of invitation” in his voice; this boy would still welcome a more loving father/son relationship. After the father made it seem as if he and his woman visitor would control the radio forever, the father returns the radio to his son at “exactly ten” o’clock.
The woman visitor truly came out of nowhere, but I’m glad she appeared: the story needed the father to throw up one more obstacle. Although I’ve had this kind of experience before, this might have been the purest moment I’ve ever had of simply “observing” my characters living out their story. I was just as surprised as the boy when the woman showed up, and like a reporter, I simply described the woman as she presented herself in that apartment.
Once the bulk of the story was written, I began looking at how to use the quotes from the broadcast of the fight. I chose not to put them all together at the end, fearing the story would be unbalanced. Instead I broke them up, re-ordered them, and sprinkled them throughout the story, in what I saw as a loose connection to what was happening at the time between the father and the son. I hadn’t planned to end with Clay’s voice, but when I got there, it felt right.
I should also mention the second person point of view. For a long time, I disliked second person, and I never imagined I would write a second-person story. Yet the last two stories I’ve published have both been in second person. I’m not sure why; something about being able to speak through the character, about the character, and “to” the character all at the same time, perhaps. I tend to take something of a “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” approach to point of view; I’ll try all possibilities until I find the one that feels just right. For this story, “just right” meant second person.
MARK FARRINGTON is Director of the MA in Writing and the MA in Teaching Writing programs at Johns Hopkins University, where he has taught for fifteen years. He has an MFA from George Mason University, where he studied with Richard Bausch. His short fiction has won an Editor’s Choice Award in the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, a Virginia Commission on the Arts Individual Artists Fellowship, the Dan Rudy Fiction Prize, the Metroversity Fiction Award, second place in the Dame Alice Throckmorton Prize, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Carve, The Valparaiso Fiction Review, The Louisville Review, and other journals and anthologies, while his articles on writing and the teaching of writing have been published in the Quarterly of the National Writing Project and other journals. He has recently completed a novel, Manion in Darkness, and is currently at work on a second novel, Loss of Life. A native of New England, Farrington now lives in Alexandria, Virginia.