I figured out what I wanted that summer, really what most any guy wants: a place of my own, a hot girlfriend, a chance to be a hero. For a while, I had one out of three, a batting average that would get you paid millions in the major leagues. But it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

I was fourteen, out of middle school in San Francisco, when my divorced parents—engrossed in lawyers and custody hearings—were able to agree on one thing: sending me to spend the summer with my mom’s folks in Ohio. My parents felt it was best if neither had me at home for the summer, each afraid that time spent with the other might lead to brainwashing and bribe-taking. I was not consulted.

I arrived in Ohio in late June, and on my first night in my grandparent’s trailer, my body on California time, I had trouble sleeping. I awoke to a rhythmic clicking. I walked down the hallway to peer into the living room. With the lights off, my grandfather sat in a rocking chair, staring at a powered-off television. Outside, wind rattled branches, a distant dog barked, katydids called to one another. My grandfather rocked. I wondered if he was a sleepwalker. His chair clicked with a precise cadence. I returned to bed and tried to sleep to the steady creak of his chair.

Alain Kerfs

Alain Kerfs’s fiction has appeared in Foliate Oak, Red Wheelbarrow, Reed and elsewhere. He won the Jack London Writers’ Conference and California Writers’ Conference Fiction contests and was nominated for the 2009 Million Writers Award. He attended the MA Creative Writing program at San Francisco State. Born in Brussels, Belgium, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, three kids, and one devoted and slightly irrational Black Lab. He is finishing a novel.

Patrick Ryan on “Homes for Heroes and Hot Girls”

It’s bad enough to feel like an outsider in a familiar setting. That’s what much of the teen experience is, right? Feeling like a loner—if not an outright freak—as you move through your days. But what happens when you’re plucked out of the life you’ve come to know and dropped into an entirely new existence? Just as you’re starting to get used to your parents’ divorce, no less. And just as your summer is getting under way.

The new issue of One Teen Story is called “Homes for Heroes and Hot Girls.” It’s about a teen who lives in California but whose parents have sent him away for the summer—to a small town in Ohio where he knows no one other than his grandparents (and he doesn’t even know them that well). Why do his parents want him out of the picture for a little while? So they can argue about him—about who gets custody of him—without his getting in the way. Which is kind of jacked up.

Now imagine yourself suddenly relocated from the hills of San Francisco to a trailer park in the Midwest. Imagine how foreign everything would seem, and how guarded you would be. Then add to that a pack of local kids who aren’t exactly welcoming. Alain Kerfs has brought all of these elements together in this wonderful story. I was hooked from the first page—both by the narrator’s voice and by his preoccupation with the texture of his new surroundings—and I’m excited to be presenting it to you as the next One Teen Story. Whether or not it contains a home and a “hot girl” is up to the narrator; whether or not it contains a hero is up to you to decide.

Q&A by Patrick Ryan

PR: Where did the idea for this story come from?
AK: Some of it is autobiographical. I spent summers in Ohio, there was a big rock with kids on it, there was a sun-bronzed enigmatic girl. My grandfather’s real life experiences have been mined for the story, and he built a windmill that today sits in my backyard. The rest is fictional lubrication to move the story in a more interesting way than life did.
PR: Your narrator has been sent from California to Ohio for the summer, to live with his Dutch grandparents while his divorced parents fight for custody. Pulled so far from his home life (which has been pretty shattered), why do you think the narrator becomes so interested in his grandfather’s past?
AK: The narrator is seeking guidance to help him make his own difficult choices. His grandfather evolves, though the experiences of being a solider and a resistance fighter, into someone he hopes to emulate and learn from.
PR: The narrator is a kind of pioneer in the story: he’s in new territory; he goes exploring; he finds the remains of an old settler’s cabin and wants to make it habitable. Is he the “hero” and is the cabin the “home” in the title, “Homes for Heroes and Hot Girls”? Or is the title more expansive than that?
AK: I think the title stresses what he desires. He wants to be a hero like he thinks his grandfather has been. Given what’s happening between his parents, he wants a place to call home, and for a while the cabin provides that. And, of course, he wants a hot girlfriend.
PR: The local kids he encounters in the trailer park are, for the most part, horrible to him. And their behavior rings absolutely true. Why do you think kids do this to outsiders? And have you experienced this yourself?
AK: The optimist in me thinks that sometimes people try to be funny or cool and don’t realize that their actions are hurtful. The pessimist in me thinks that sometimes people are, well, just mean. When I was 14, I moved from urban San Francisco to suburban Concord just across the bay. But I might as well have moved to Peking or Delhi, the cultures were so different. It was difficult to fit in.
PR: I know this question steps outside the parameters of the story, but have you given any thought to which parent the narrator ends up with, when he returns to San Francisco? And would part of him really want to stay in Ohio?
AK: I think my 14-year-old self would be swayed toward the fun parent over the responsible parent. But I think everyone in that situation would have a different set of criteria to balance the scales one way or the other. Funny you should ask about him staying in Ohio. Yes, he did. That was in the story at one point, but it got cut out during the many revisions.
PR: What are you working on now?
AK: Several YA short stories and a YA novel.
PR: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
AK: “Allow yourself to write garbage.” Followed by “Writing is rewriting.” To me this means setting aside perfection, just throwing some words on the page to get started. Any words. It’s liberating. Then, later, you revise it till it shines. You can get help from classes, writers’ groups (I’ve been involved with the same awesome group for two decades) and patient, talented editors. While writing is a lonely endeavor, you don’t have to go it alone.