Palo Alto Weekly 31st Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Teen

The Walking Man

By Benjamin Stein

About Benjamin Stein

Benjamin Stein is a reminder that talented writers can be teenagers, too. Shortly after graduating from the eighth grade, Stein met with the Weekly to talk writing and life as a soon-to-be freshman at Palo Alto High School.

With the summer stretching before him, he talked of looking forward to playing soccer, joining the summer swim team and taking a trip to Europe with his family — oh, and entering a New York Times writing contest whose winner gets to write a guest column. We think he has a pretty good shot.

Stein, who said that he wants to be a lawyer and go into politics someday, is a self-proclaimed "news junkie," turning to The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" and "A Prairie Home Companion" (he specified that he's a fan of Garrison Keillor, the show's previous longtime host.)

Stein said that before he started writing, he was a "big reader" and has been particularly inspired by J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series, Rick Riordan's "Percy Jackson" series, and Trenton Lee Stewart's "The Mysterious Benedict Society." Stein, who also mentioned an interest in history, said that he's a fan of nonfiction works like Laura Hillenbrand's book, "Unbroken" and Daniel James Brown's book, "The Boys in the Boat."

Stein's foray into writing for fun first started in the fifth grade, when he read the first paragraph of a story that his friend was writing. They started to work on the story, and a love for writing was born. That story since has been abandoned, but Stein continues to write. In fact, last year he was garnered third place in the Weekly's annual short story contest.

Stein doesn't have a limit to what inspires him to write — the world is his muse.

"I draw a lot of inspiration from the world around us. There's just so much going on — there's so many places, so many people, so many different things in this world that it's like you'll never run out of things to write about," he said. "If you just look closely to one thing for a while, then a story will just come to you."

While he usually gravitates toward writing fantasy, "The Walking Man," (the story that garnered first place in this year's contest) is realistic.

"This is my first time trying to write a realistic story," he said, adding that it's both easier and harder to write realistically. He said the challenge is actually making the story realistic. The easy part is that reality is literally all around you, he added.

"You can take a story from your memory, which is what I did this time," he said. " You can take a story that you read somewhere and basically go on that and evolve it into something new that's also realistic."

Writing fantasy, on the other hand, "takes a lot of imagination."

While Stein didn't set out to incorporate particular themes in the story, upon reflection he said that "The Walking Man," which is loosely based on his own bike-riding experiences, includes a message about not judging people, and always being open minded. He added that there's a "circle of life" element to the story as well.

Stein said that he enjoys writing in part because it calms him down and serves as an escape from the world.

"(Writing) is an opportunity to make your own story. It's cool — putting your imagination into words," he said.

— Anna Medina


Judges' comments

This well-crafted, poignant story grabs us from the first sentence to the final image. With abundant sensory details the writer invites the reader onto a bike, then into a neighborhood and makes us wonder about the mysterious walking man.

I first saw the Walking Man in fourth grade. That was the year I got to bike to school alone. I remember the exact route I took; down Grove Street, left on Lorran, right on Jefferson. At first, my ride to school was uneventful. However, my fourth-grade teacher wanted us to get to school early. She thought we'd drain some of our excess energy before class officially started at 8:05 am. Back then it was not difficult to wake up early (or at least not as difficult as it is now), so I started leaving my house earlier and earlier.

My original departure time was 7:55, but soon I was leaving at 7:45. Somewhere in between those times came a specific departure time: 7:48. That meant I would hit Lorran at exactly 7:49. That's also the exact time the Walking Man turned onto Lorran.

I first saw him on a windy day in late February. As I raced to school, he rounded the corner right in front of me. I swerved to avoid him, paying no attention to who he was or what he looked like, and rode off to school.

The next day, I saw him again. This time, he had already turned the corner and was fast-walking down the street. The thing about him that stood out was the way he walked. He walked considerably faster than the average person, hunching his shoulders forward and taking long, sweeping strides. I quickly passed him and raced off in the direction of school, trying to steal glances back at him as I went.

The next day was a Saturday. I woke up early to get to a soccer game. As I sat in the backseat of the car driven by my grumpy, tired father, I found myself looking around as we drove down Lorran. I realized that I was subconsciously looking for the Walking Man. After the game, we drove back home on that same street. My father was still grumpy, but at least more awake. We had been beaten badly in our soccer game, and despite the fact that I was disappointed and tired, I still scanned the sidewalk on Lorran, looking once again for that curious man.

Monday rolled around, and I saw the Walking Man again. This time, I noticed something peculiar. He was wearing the exact same thing he wore the previous two days. He wore old khaki pants with black overall straps over his faded yellow and green plaid shirt. His face was barely visible under his large, tortoise shell horned rim glasses, and his gray hair crept back to the edges of his balding head. In his shirt pocket there was a single ballpoint pen. It shone bright against his shirt, reflecting the light that wavered in and out of the shadow of the canopy of leaves overhead. The pen was black with a streak of brilliant gold that shone like so many rainbows, light dancing up and down the lone vein. For the rest of the day, whenever I closed my eyes, I saw light flickering up and down a streak of gold.

- - -

For the rest of the year, I saw him as I biked to school. My imagination ran wild with different theories about him. Was he was a mad scientist? A treasure hunter? A retired superhero?

Slowly but surely, winter turned into spring, spring turned into summer. School ended, and with it, the need to ride down Lorran at such an early hour. I never so much as caught a glimpse of the Walking Man for that whole summer. Between tennis and soccer and swimming and reading, there simply was no time to even think about him. When school started up again in fifth grade, I had no recollection of the man who once occupied all of my thoughts. However, I finally saw the Walking Man again in late October of that year. Suddenly, a tidal wave of memories washed over my brain. That whole day I was unable to focus on anything. My thoughts kept drifting back to the Walking Man.

Over the course of that school year, I saw him time and time again. I often considered talking to him, but, to the regret of my later self, I always decided against it. The Walking Man became part of my routine, just as eating and sleeping are. It was near the end of fifth grade that I realized I might never see him again. That realization occurred to me on a bright and warm Saturday in early May. I was taking a trial run on the bike route that I would take to my new school for sixth grade. Down Grover Street, right onto Creekview, left onto Utah, and straight to Pierceson Middle School. No Lorran Street. No Walking Man. As I biked to school on the last day before summer vacation, I studied the Walking Man one last time. He still walked with his eccentric gait, and he still wore his eccentric clothes. And in the breast pocket of his faded yellow shirt, he still had the same black pen with a streak of gold.

- - -

The Walking Man eventually faded from my memory, and I never thought about him over the next few years. In middle school there was no time to reminisce about the past, no time to relive days that came and went, as ephemeral as sand slipping through your fingers.

I did see the Walking Man one last time. It was the day before a long weekend, and school had ended early, at noon. I went to a restaurant with some friends to eat lunch, and I biked down Lorran on my way home. There I saw him, walking as usual, except for one difference. He was holding hands with a young girl, perhaps his granddaughter, who was happily walking at his side. Looking closer, I saw another thing out of the ordinary. His pen was not in the breast pocket of his shirt. It was in the small hands of the wide-eyed girl, light still engaged in an endless dance up and down its gold streak.

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