Palo Alto Weekly 34th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

Illustration by Amy Levine

Poetry from the Outskirts

by Sofia Lucas

Author Bio

Sofia Lucas is a Menlo Park resident who will be entering 10th grade at Woodside Priory School this fall. During the quarantine, she's enjoyed starting an online creative writing club at her local library. When she's not reading or writing, you can find her learning about foreign places, practicing a new language, or doing something Eurovision-related.

Sofia's inspiration for this story came from many places. The setting of the Italian port city of Bari came to her after she stumbled across a documentary series that focused on people who became successful despite growing up in rough neighborhoods, including Bari. Another influence was Italian music, especially the song "Figli di Nessuno (Nobody's Children)," by Fabrizio Moro. "This song was one that stuck with me for a long time. The singer described it as being about 'social unease,' which I thought was an interesting concept," she said.

"And of course," she added, "there's the fact that my mum's family is Italian and continues to stay connected to those roots."

Judge Comments

An angry young man from the slums finds his voice and peace of mind through poetry, while simultaneously lifting up his orphaned best friend and exposing injustices in their beautiful, troubled city on the Adriatic. This elegant story is exquisitely told by a writer worth watching.

— Debbie Duncan

"You wanted to see me, Signor Moro?"

Carlo hadn't thought much of it when he'd turned in his assignment to the school counselor. He'd thought the prompt was stupid in the beginning, but as he worked on it he found himself ... not enjoying it, but glad that he was doing it, he hated to admit. And he grinned to himself picturing Signor Moro expecting a full essay on Carlo's "issues," but finding 20 pages of poems about the reality of living in a neighborhood like Bari Vecchia — a neighborhood on the outskirts of society, ruled by crime and corruption. Although technically, he did answer the question: "What makes me angry?"

But when Signor Moro requested to see him earlier than their usual bi-weekly meetings, Carlo was worried. He knew it had to be about the assignment, but he couldn't think of anything other than Moro telling him he had to redo it.

"Hi, Carlo. Why don't you take a seat." He gestured to the chair in front of his desk, then folded his hands on his desk. "How's Andrea doing?" This was always how he started their meetings; Andrea had also seen Signor Moro, but even though he didn't go to school anymore, Signore was always concerned for Carlo's best friend.

Out of all the stories Carlo'd ever heard, Andrea Modugno's was the most tragic. But maybe that was what attracted Carlo to him in the first place. Maybe he'd recognized that look in his eye — someone who saw things, like he did. And like him, Andrea was considered an oddball, borderline creepy to those who didn't know him. He used to take pictures with his camera — not typical pictures, but of things that seemed ordinary to everyone but him, who knew they were unique: old women folding orecchiette in the blazing sun. An abandoned building. A girl he liked when she wasn't looking. At least he used to take these pictures until his camera was stolen. Then he started to paint them.

With no mother since he was only a few months old, Andrea left school that year so he could start paying the bills. Things were starting to get expensive now that his father's illness was progressing, so instead of accompanying Carlo all the way to the local liceo, he turned off a block earlier to the shoemaker's store, assisting customers when there were any and learning the craft when there weren't.

Despite most of their days spent apart, Andrea and Carlo remained tight, like brothers. Their families were close too — the Modugnos and Mobricis were each a broken half that formed a somewhat fractured whole.

Signor Moro pulled out a stack of papers and slapped them on his desk — it was time to get down to business. Carlo braced himself for the worst.

"Carlo ..." he started. "Carlo, these are very good. Better than good."

Carlo raised his eyebrow at the man. "'Scuse me?"

"Carlo, do you remember why you first came here?"

"Yeah." The question surprised him, though of course he knew the answer. "'Cuz my mom thinks I have anger issues." He remembered it well.

"Your mother was concerned with your recent behaviour. Do you remember why?"

Carlo shrugged. Everything seemed to concern his mother.

"She thought you were upset about your father."

Carlo rolled his eyes. How many times would he have to tell this man that his father serving a decade-long sentence had nothing to do with it? He didn't notice the absence of his father, not anymore. He was only 8 when the man suddenly disappeared from his life. His dad did something wrong, and was facing the consequences. That was the way he saw it.

"Carlo, can you tell me what this is about?"

He slid the stack over to Carlo: his poems.

He knew them well. "Sure. This one's about my sister's bike getting stolen, and how she cried because we couldn't afford another one."

"And the next?"

Carlo flipped to the next poem. "This is about visiting Papa in Milano. I heard some really interesting stories from the other inmates there." He couldn't help himself — he started explaining each of the poems he wrote, finally having someone to listen to him. The topics ranged from a fight in the hallways to seeing a Sacra Corona Unita symbol on the walk to school. "This is about how the news is all wrong, this is about how our city isn't working, and this is about how someone needs to speak for us."

Carlo had an interesting connection with his city, to say the least. Like a bad relationship, no matter how badly it treated him, he couldn't stop loving it. He didn't hate his city; he just hated what went on there. Sometimes he wished he could see what the tourists saw, but those thoughts always were chased away with the voice deep down telling him that it was right to see the truth no matter how ugly it is. But then again, among brokenness beauty is always hidden.

The truth was, he was pissed off. There were so many injustices happening all around him that he could do nothing about: The gap between the rich and the poor. His classmates who were giving up on their futures before they even started. The fact that his father was locked away for dealing, yet people who killed roamed the streets free because the justice system was something that could be bought. Having to watch his back whenever he stepped foot outside. He hated how his neighborhood had so many obvious problems, and yet, while the whole country knew it, they were being ignored.

Nothing was fair. And every time he heard another story that proved it, he felt little pieces of himself slipping away and being replaced by something terrifying. It started out with a little attitude toward his mother, and a few slammed doors, but then he'd started breaking things, and most recently, punched a hole in the wall.

He just wanted someone to notice that they were troubled, yes, but could still be saved.

"Carlo, do you realize a pattern?"

He thought. "It's all true?"

"This is everything that you're angry about, and you got it out and turned it into something beautiful. I'll bet it felt good, didn't it?"

Carlo shrugged. "Guess so."

"Carlo ..." Signor Moro reached for the packet of papers. "You're a fantastic writer, Carlo. You have such a way with words. You're a natural-born talent. You truly have a gift."

"Okay ..." This certainly wasn't what he was expecting. He'd come in here ready for punishment, not praise. The only reason he wrote the poems because they were fast, unlike an essay. They just flew from his pencil, without much thought. He hadn't taken the assignment seriously at all ... or had he?

"Carlo ..." The number of times Moro was saying his name was unnerving to Carlo. "I hope you don't mind — I sent these to a friend of mine who's a publisher."

Carlo's jaw dropped. "You what?!!"

"Hold on. Just to read. But she said she wanted to feature them in the paper, if you were okay with it."

"I ... I ... I don't know, Signore Moro."

"It's your decision, and whatever you choose, I'm very proud of you, and you should be too. But keep in mind that she works for La Repubblica. Hundreds of thousands of people would be reading your work. You could be the one who speaks for us, Carlo. People all over the country."

"Okay."

"You'll do it?"

"You said it yourself. I'm tired of waiting for someone else to be our voice."

"Do you think you can write more?"

"Sure." Of course he could. There was an endless string of wrongdoings for people to hear about — if not things he witnessed himself, then things he heard from other people or on the news. Or just the general state of things.

"Alright. You can go home now. And be sure to get started on those poems. Grazia wants a selection of at least 50 to start out, and hopes to publish one a week for now."

But Carlo was hardly listening anymore. The only thing going through his mind was: We have a voice. A voice, a voice, a voice.

Carlo remembered well the day Andrea came to his house in the night with stolen Peronis. It was last year, when he was still in school. A Friday. He wished he didn't have to — he never wanted to remember Andrea how he was that night. The wild, frantic look in his eyes ... the burning feeling desperate to escape.

Carlo's first instinct was to scold Andrea for being so stupid, which made Andrea frown. "Why do you always have to be like this? Why can't you just act your age for once? Let me have my fun — I need to forget for once." He popped the lid off and took a swig. "I never get to forget." And another. This was not like Andrea. Not like him at all.

Instead of vomiting up cheap cafeteria food, Andrea vomited up words that night. He said things he'd never admitted before: That he wished his father would die so it would just be over. That the new girl at school was hot. That he no longer believed in God. Eventually he collapsed into mumbled ti voglio benes, repeating it dozens of times before his eyes fluttered closed and he fell back on Carlo's bed, snoring loudly.

"Ti voglio bene. Gli voglio bene. Ti voglio bene." I love you, I love him, I love you.

"I love you too, amico mio," Carlo whispered before tossing a blanket over him and going down to sleep on the sofa.

Carlo thought of it because that was how Andrea looked now. He had the same desperate look in his eyes, only this time his hands were empty.

He'd jumped upon discovering Andrea crisscross on his bed when he came back from school. He was about to ask what he was doing off of work so early until he noticed the look on his face.

"My father's going to die," was the first thing he said. "It's incurable now. He's going to die."

Carlo was surprised that there were no tears. While he was the one who always held it together and put on a stone face, Andrea was the emotional one, never afraid to cry on the shoulder of one of the Mobrici family. And Andrea had always been so hopeful, always trying to replace "ifs" with "whens." But now... Carlo didn't know what to do, if there even was anything he could do for his friend.

"Tell me something, Carlo." Carlo was surprised at the request. "I don't want to think about this anymore. Tell me something beautiful. How's school? Does Annalisa still go there? Is she still as pretty?"

Carlo thought of what he could tell his friend. Then he remembered his conversation with the counselor.

"Actually ... I think I'm starting a project. One that might be able to tell the whole country that we're here. And I think you can help me."

One year, 52 poems in the newspaper, and a book combining them all later, Carlo sat at his desk with his pencil hovering over his paper. This was always how he started out — typing felt too artificial. Plus, he didn't want to wake Andrea with the clacking noise the keys made.

The book was called "Poesia dalla Periferia," and came out last week. Thousands of copies had been sold already, and not just in Italy. He could now afford a future for himself and his family, and had made something of himself, like he'd always wanted.

A copy lay on his desk. He picked it up.

Inside Andrea's watercolors were scattered. Every few poems had a painting where Carlo thought his words weren't sufficient. Even though Andrea always told him they were, he painted Bari anyway, both with beauty and darkness. Both realities. He wanted him to have some money, for when... Well, for when this happened.

Andrea's father had died a few days ago. Now the boy was asleep on Carlo's bed. He didn't want to be in that house all alone. Carlo's mother was more than willing to offer her son's best friend a warm bed and hot meals until the distant uncle he had never met came to Bari to sell the house, sort the finances and snatch Andrea away.

The familiar itch in his hand wasn't there yet, so Carlo laid down his pencil, kneeled by Andrea, and wiped away the tears in the corner of his eyes with his thumb. He knew it wouldn't make a difference — as soon as Andrea woke up he would remember and the tears would fall again — but for now they could be dry, even if it was only Carlo who'd know it.

He headed back to his desk and touched the tip of his lead to the paper, but his hand stayed still. Nothing.

He searched his brain for what had given him ideas before, when it hit him: anger.

Carlo's mother had recently been remarking how he seemed much calmer nowadays, and he hadn't gotten into trouble for outbursts recently.

His anger was gone. He had taken all that bundled-up rage that was trapped inside his soul and transformed it into something useful. Each word he wrote released a tiny piece. And now it was gone, and he had no more words.

He was sure it would only be a matter of time before another car bomb went off and killed children like him or another attempt for justice would be thwarted, whether it was miles away or in his own backyard.

But for now he would enjoy the quiet in his mind. He would take his sister out for a gelato, then walk his elderly neighbor's dog. Maybe he would witness something even in the short walk to the gelateria, but until then, he would be without the burden of caring so much. He savored the brief state of inner peace that — he realized — his poetry had brought him, after years of torment in his mind.

He wanted to cry. He felt tears well up behind his eyes, tears of relief this time, not sadness or anger. But he was so damn sick of crying, so sick of it. No more tears, none. So he did what he did with his poetry: turned something negative into something positive.

He went outside, kicking a stray stone as he walked down the street. No danger of cars — few ever came this way. He shivered as a cool gust of salty sea air blew through. When he arrived at the docks, he realized how truly magnificent the shimmering, turquoise Adriatic was for the first time in his life. He turned around and looked upon his entire city, hundreds of white plaster houses with orange tile roofs, each one unique because of its imperfections. Bari was beautiful.

And he laughed.