Rita Lomio is fascinated by history, a subject that has inspired many of
her stories, including "Master," her winning entry in the Weekly's Short
She got the idea for "Master" during an episode of "Antiques Roadshow" on
PBS. A guest on the program produced a violin that his father had received
from a tenant in lieu of rent earlier in the century. Lomio was enthralled
by the story and the glimpse back into the world of the immigrant factory
workers in New York.
"I just stopped watching and went and wrote the story," Lomio said.
In "Master," the protagonist's father, a New York landlord, accepts a balalaika
from a penniless Russian immigrant and his son as payment of their first
Lomio said she wanted to write her story about Russian immigrants but didn't
know of any Russian instruments. She looked on the Internet and discovered
the existence of the balalaika.
A senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, Lomio has been writing for as
long as she can remember. She enjoys setting her stories in the past because
"I'm interested in all the different historical time frames."
When Lomio sits down to write a story, she shies away from making outlines
and imposing structures. Instead, she just lets her thoughts flow freely.
This strategy works pretty well, she said, until she gets to the ending.
"I start a lot of stories," she said, "but not all of them have endings
Lomio plans to attend college next year but is not sure where she wants
to go. When she is not writing, she enjoys playing basketball, tennis and
by Rita Lomio
"Hello, Master Leonard."
My dad smiled smugly, his thick chin nestling in the flesh of his neck.
He didn't like immigrants, but he did like being called "master." I looked
again at the bowed old man before us. He was smarter than he seemed: He
must have gone to the Russian political boss who had told him what to
say. Of course, the man couldn't be that smart: Going to a boss was the
same as handing the boss a signed paper pledging your body and soul to
him for the rest of your life, your kid's life and, if your kid had occasion
to marry and father a child, your kid's kid's life. Still, many found
it preferable to starving. So the man was very smart, and very stupid.
My dad realized, after a long silence, that it was his turn to speak.
He quickly gave a nod and slowly cleared his throat. He drew a breath,
closed his eyes like he was listening to a distant conversation and said
in an affected professional tone: "Ahem, yes. What is it?"
"Master Leonard, I am looking for a house for myself and my boy."
My eyes scanned around. I saw two dirty, grimy suitcases and a big, dusty
hat. No boy.
I heard a small rustle, and reflexively shot my foot out to squash the
rat. Instead of a squish, I heard a yelp. I saw two blue eyes blinking
up at me from beneath the old hat. I snarled in return and grinned as
the boy cringed back beneath the hat in confusion.
My father flicked his gaze over to the boy hiding under the hat. "Come
out," he commanded, motioning with a fat finger. "I want a look at you."
The two large circular pools looked up at my dad, uncomprehending. My
dad's thick face became a splotchy pink as he felt himself without authority
over this 5-year-old boy.
The boy's father quickly stepped in and, still with face lowered, muttered
some gibberish. The boy quickly scurried from under the hat and stood
in front of my father shyly. My father looked up and down the boy. He
put a hand out to search for lice, then pulled back the boy's lips to
look at the teeth. The boy endured the overview well, as he had probably
gone through it several times since arriving in Schenectady.
You can always tell a good tenant by his wife's and kid's teeth. If a
tenant cares enough about the family, he will make them clean their teeth
at least twice a week. If he takes the time to worry about that, he will
take the time to worry about finances. Well, that's my father's theory.
I figure if they take the time to scrape their teeth, they take the time
to waste time.
Once my father had finished the inspection, he turned to the old man.
"We do have one apartment, it's on the top floor. No lighting, no heating,
no water. There are, however, stairs, so don't worry. And you'll also
get a bucket."
The old man bowed lower and waited.
"How much can you pay?"
The Russian straightened his back as he nervously looked at my father.
Standing straight, he was a good hand taller than my father. I felt rather
than saw my father frown. The old man recognized this too and quickly
stooped back lower than my father in a sort of pathetic supplicating position.
"We are poor, Master Leonard, just from Ukraine, and have little." My
father's frown deepened.
The man hurried to continue. "All I have is this--Yegor." He nodded to
All at once tiny Yegor was scurrying through the contents of a suitcase
packed tight with dingy clothing and rusty metal trinkets they probably
hoped to sell.
The boy stopped and picked out an object. With apparent sadness, the tin
boy held up a wooden contraption with a long stick coming from a triangular
body. On the squat triangular body were three short strings.
I eyed the contraption warily. "What--" I began, and felt my father's
stern gaze upon me, "is it?" I finished meekly.
The old man stood tall and fumed to me slowly, then looked down at my
father. "You do not know what this is?"
"Of course I do," my father snapped back quickly. "Yes, of course, it's--
"--a balalaika," the Russian man finished.
"Why, of course, a balalaika. What do you think? I have no culture? Why,
just the other day I was telling my boy he should learn an instrument
and become edug-- edut-- edu--," my father floundered, face flushed.
"Educated," the man finished.
"No, I told my boy it would help him become cultured, not educated. Cultured,"
my father snapped back angrily.
I remembered no such conversation, but watched in silent shock as my father
made the deal: a whole month's stay for the instrument. When the dingy
immigrants had left up the rackety stairs, my father scowled and thrust
the instrument in my hands.
"There," he said. "Don't say I never did anything for you. I'm going to
see the son of mine get some culture." With that, he spun on his heels
and left me in the lobby of the dirty apartment, staring in wonder and
horror at the wooden contraption in my hands. What was I supposed to do
with it? I had never been given anything of value before, and here I was
holding something worth a month's rent. With soft feet and holding the
instrument like the freshly inked Declaration of Independence, I slowly
made my way down to the basement and wrapped the instrument in my bed
sheet. I sat all night staring at it, wondering what to do.
The next day I found that my father's proclamation of my getting culture
was not one of the drunken ramblings he made. He took my getting culture
seriously and declared that I would no longer work during the day at the
apartments and would master the balalaika, though I still would be responsible
for killing rats.
I couldn't imagine how to get culture from the wooden triangle-and-stick,
and was even more incredulous at the idea that culture from a wooden triangle-and-stick
would be of any use to me. But if the contraption could get me out of
emptying all the buckets of waste from all the apartments, a hornet's
nest couldn't keep me from trying.
I sat under a tree on the bank of the creek, clutching the wooden thing
and trying to soak up some culture from it. I saw the doors to the textile
factory open, which was a little way down the road. Streams of women and
young children exited, heading for spots to eat their lunch. I saw Yegor
stumbling about the feet of the workers, trying his best not to get trampled.
Yegor spied me and I watched, amused, as he crept closer and closer to
me, eyeing me warily and trying to gain courage. As I watched him from
the corner of my eyes, I threw stones nonchalantly into the creek. Each
time they splashed into the water, he cringed. By the time he had managed
to come within arms' length, a bell rang the end of the 15-minute lunch
break for the textile factory workers. Yegor, who had been devoting all
his attention to creeping toward me, was startled by the noise and quickly
raced back to the factory.
The next day I made it a point to sit one tree closer to the textile factory.
At lunch I watched as little Yegor crept toward me again. He reached me
within 10 minutes (though the walk should take only two) and plunked his
little dirty self next to me. I glanced at him as if surprised, but his
eyes and concentration were not on me. The tiny, grimy, overworked little
immigrant was staring woefully at my hands. Puzzled, I looked down to
see that I was holding the balalaika.
Slowly, paying care not to frighten, I lifted the instrument toward him.
Startled, he looked at me and I nodded back authoritatively. When I realized
he was not going to take it from me, I threw it at him angrily. Instead
of running away, he picked up the instrument, brushed it off and, casting
a quick, furtive glance at me, placed it in his lap with one hand on the
strings. Afraid he was going to break the strings, I said commandingly,
as if chastising a dog, "No."
But the little boy seemed to have gone deaf. He muttered, "Da," and altered
the instrument's position in his lap. I sat in shock at the little boy's
defiance of my order. I raised a hand to smack the ill-bred urchin.
Then, suddenly, I heard the purest noise I had ever heard. Yegor was dancing
his fingers against the short strings of the balalaika. I let my hand
drop, and sat back against the tree. It wasn't the rowdy organ music you
hear at bars--it was sweeter, cleaner, crisper. It was wonderful. I forgot
to be jealous at the tiny immigrant for taking what was mine and displaying
talent and intelligence. I forgot to be angry. I listened. And all those
women and children within earshot softened their conversation respectfully.
I stared back at the creek as the water ran among the stones, played with
the reeds, lifted fallen leaves of gold and yellow and crimson. The music,
too, ran and played and lifted.
The bell clanged.
Yegor fell from his trance-like state and remembered where he was. In
horror, and with shaking hands, he flung back the balalaika and fled to
the factory. For the rest of the day I sat clutching the balalaika in
wonder, and watching the water flow toward the woods.
The next day Yegor didn't come, nor the day after that. Finally, I decided
to go in search of him. I found him sitting alone under a tree on the
other side of the creek, gnawing a bread chunk.
"Hello," I said.
He nearly jumped high enough to crack his skull on the tree's branches.
I grabbed his arm to keep him from running away.
"Shh, shh, it's OK. See? I'm not going to hurt you. It's OK." Slowly I
pulled the balalaika from my satchel. "This was yours, wasn't it? You
play it very well. Shh, stop fighting me, I'm not going to hurt you, I
want you to teach me." I motioned with my hand at him, at the balalaika,
and at me, trying to get him to understand.
At length he did, and his dirty face spread into a grin. His impish eyes
lit up and he held out his hands expectantly. I released his arm and grinned
with relief as I handed the balalaika to him delicately. He motioned for
me to sit, and I did obediently.
There, under the shade of a tree speckled with leaves of all sorts of
colors, near the creek bed, and under the midday sun, the tiny Russian
urchin Yegor showed me the fingerings for the balalaika.
After several weeks my father thought better of my becoming cultured,
saying that he was cultured enough for the both of us and dared me to
dissent. So I went back to work cutting wood, emptying waste buckets,
doing all the normal chores. But each day, when the sun was midway across
the sky, I would steal away for the textile factory and meet Yegor and
we would sit under a tree and move our hands against the wooden triangle-and-stick
until the factory bell rang.
I can't wait to meet this young writer! I'm so impressed by the very bold
vision, by the finely honed writing skills, by the ability to tell a fascinating
"Master" surprised and pleased me on a number of levels. I particularly
enjoyed its period/folk tale tone, but also its sly and somewhat cynical
humor. Most of all, though, I was heartened by the path Yegor and the
narrator found to bring pleasure into their world.
Here's a story which achieves characterization through dramatization.
--Kim Silviera Wolterbeek