Palo Alto Weekly 18th Annual Short Story Contest
Child Third Place

Better A Man

by Carolyn Rennels

About Carolyn Rennels

When she started writing "Better A Man," the third place winner in this year's fiction contest category for children 9-11, Carolyn Rennels, had two conditions.

"I wanted to write about a boy because I hear so many stories about girls," said the Castilleja sixth grader. "And I just wanted to have a story that wasn't really bloody."

Rennels succeeded on both counts. Her story is about a boy who dreams of going to art school, but desperately wants his hard-working parents' approval before he goes. With the help of his grandfather, he succeeds.

Rennels said she had been thinking about her story idea for a long time, but finally wrote it down for the contest. She writes slowly, just a paragraph at a time.

"I didn't expect to place," Rennels said. "I just wanted to do it."

Rennels got her start writing in the first grade when her teacher asked the class to write two stories a week. She enjoys reading books with female heroes, especially books like "A Wrinkle in Time." Beyond her writing life, Rennels is a fraternal twin, animal lover, cat owner, actress, vegetarian, swimmer, and soccer player.

"I'm a sports person," she explained. "I don't like Barbies or anything like that."
Rennels said she plans to continue writing, but might want to follow in her parents' footsteps and become a doctor someday.

--Lorraine Sanders

He carefully sketched a jaunty cap atop the woman's flowing hair. There. She was finished. Carlos stood back to survey his work, dark eyes narrowed in concentration. Not bad, he finally decided. Not a masterpiece, but not bad.

Of course, nobody in his family would care about his art.

"They would be more concerned with their stupid bread," Carlos thought bitterly. The Vensuelas were bakers, and had been for generations. A Vensuela put bread before everything. That was what was said, at least. It was true of every member of Carlos's family except two. One, of course, was himself. The other was his grandfather.

Francisco Vensuela had come to America when he was only eighteen, leaving his mother and eight siblings in Mexico. He had a guitar slung around his neck and six dollars in his pocket. Francisco's dream of becoming a musician never worked out, but as he frequently told Carlos, "Better a man with a shattered dream than a man with no dream at all."

"Well," thought Carlos, "My dream doesn't have a chance to be shattered. Not with this family, anyway."

Carlos's dream, as it had been for years, was to attend the Art University of California. The university was ancient, and had been running for over one hundred years. The instructors there were legendary, many of whose names had appeared multiple times in the text of the local paper. If Carlos could only attend the university, even for a year.

"Carlos!" His aunt's syrupy voice floated through the house to his room, breaking through his thoughts. Hurriedly, Carlos grabbed the drawing and thrust it in a drawer beside his bed. It was an old drawer, it's hinges rusty with age, but it would have to do. The last thing he needed was for Aunt Rosa to find his work. Meanwhile, his aunt had appeared in the doorway. She was a short, rounded woman, black hair piled on the top of her head in a large, messy bun. Her mouth opened in dismay when she saw Carlos.

"Carlos! I look for you everywhere! Why you not with your father in bakehouse? You sixteen, but can't bake even a roll!" Aunt Rosa rambled on in faulty English until finally Carlos gave up and walked dismally towards the bakehouse.

He couldn't bake. He just couldn't. Carlos lay sprawled on his bed four hours later, his father's exasperated voice still wringing in his ears.

"No, Carlos! This bake for ten minute, not twenty! What we do with you?" Carlos didn't care what they did with him. He sat, lost in thought, until a voice broke through his thoughts.

"Carlos?"

Carlos looked up, startled, and found himself gazing into his grandfather's kind face.

"Oh, grandpapi, it's you," Carlos muttered.

It was a child's name, but Carlos knew he would never call his grandfather anything else. Out of all his relatives, his grandfather was the only one who understood. Suddenly everything that was troubling him burst from his mouth.
"Everyone thinks I should bake, but I just can't, grandpapi, and nobody cares about my art, or about me, only about their old baking!"

Carlos knew that he sounded like a child, knew he was screaming, but it didn't matter. He raved on.

"They expect me to be like them, but I hate baking, I hate it. And I hate them, too!" Carlos didn't know if he really hated his family, he only knew that everything was going wrong. He looked up into his grandfather's face, desperate, and yet not knowing how he could be helped.

"Let us talk," said his grandfather quietly.

Hours later, Carlos lay on his bed, his grandfather's weathered face pasted in his mind's eye, his words still circling through his mind.

"Carlos", he had said, "I have heard of your dream of the university. I have talked to your parents. You may go, they say, although," with a slightly pained look in his eye, as though remembering a bad memory, he continued, "they were not especially pleased. The choice is yours, Carlos. I cannot help you make it. Think about it."

Carlos was thinking. He had lain like this for over five long hours, and still he felt like a feather floating in the sea, lost and alone.

The next day, it was as though he was a different person. It was typical of his family to be impatient with him, but was it his imagination, or were they sharper than usual? Papa could have asked more kindly. Aunt Rosa could have waited a little longer before starting up on him again. Then there were the looks.

 

Throughout the day, Carlos's family continuously threw him sharp, shifty glances, as though observing a possible enemy. It was as though he were a stranger in his own home. By the end of the day, Carlos was just as mystified as he had been the day before.

Sunlight pounded through Carlos's closed eyelids, waking him. Slowly he opened his eyes, dread seeping through him. This would be just another day of feeling like he didn't belong. Quietly Carlos slipped into his clothes and trudged his way downstairs. Upon reaching the kitchen, Carlos didn't even glance at his mother and father. What was the use? Mutely he crossed the room and reached for a ceramic bowl to hold his cereal. It was only then that he noticed how quiet the kitchen had suddenly fallen. Startled, Carlos spun around to face his parents. Nothing could have prepared him for the sight that greeted his eyes.

Carlos's mother was slumped on a wooden chair, tears pouring down her face, leaving trails of makeup in their tracks. His father sat with his arm around her, trying to comfort his wife, a grimace of sadness on his own face. When she saw him staring at her, Carlos's mother wailed and ran to throw her arms around her son. By now Carlos was thoroughly puzzled.

Looking desperately around, he caught sight of his grandfather leaning against the white plaster of the kitchen wall. Looking up, the old man gave Carlos a happy smile. All at once, Carlos understood. By now his father had joined his mother in locking his arms around his son, the three of them forming a tight triangle.

"Please forgive us, Carlos!" sobbed his mother. But Carlos didn't need an apology. Wordlessly he hugged his mother and father with all his strength. He knew now that he would go to the university. But right now, that didn't matter. They were all thinking the same thing. No matter what happened, no matter how different they were, they were family.