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The Next Generation · Original Short Story ·
Organised by GaPJaxie
Word limit 3000–12000


Full details here!

This is a special event that looks to have writers create a polished entry. To that end, there's a lot more writing time. There's also a #mentors channel where you can get help and feedback from people that you are allowed to reveal your authorship to.


  • 1ˢᵗ place $200
  • 2ⁿᵈ place $100
  • 3ʳᵈ place $50
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Off the Cuff
My father was an odd sort. He had a habit of doing things Off The Cuff.

Off The Cuff was a favorite expression of his. When he was couple years younger than I am now, he was arrested by a local policeman. He'd been going around stealing street signs off the side of the roads. They found him with thirteen stop signs, five yields, and two speed limit signs in the back of his pickup truck.

They asked him what he was doing. He told them that he was sick of the signs cluttering up the place. Said they were like gravestones for the landscape.
So, they asked him what had prompted this. You know what he said?
He said: "I don't know. I did it Off The Cuff."

When I was a boy, he'd often take me off on little adventures. "Boy," he once said. "Today's a good day for fishing. You want to go fishing, Off The Cuff?"

I do not do things off the cuff. I don't say that, either.

We made it as far as the lake before we realized that neither of us knew how to work a fishing rod. “Can’t be too hard,” my father said. So, we got our rods from the man at the fishing shack, and a bucket of bait, little mealworms, and we went out to the lake and tried our best.
Our best turned out to be a lot of tangled lines, hooked skin, wet clothes, and one broken fishing pole which I had to pay for out of my allowance.
We didn’t catch any fish that day, and we never went fishing again, but that was okay. We’d done it Off The Cuff. You only need to do things Off The Cuff once, and then you can go do something else Off The Cuff.

Of the many things he did Off The Cuff, there was one in particular he was famous for, and it's the one that I remember the best because he did it when I was five. One day, Off The Cuff, he locked himself in the "study" of our house.

I say it's a "study", with the little quotes, because it wasn't more than a room with a little desk and a lamp, and a few plastic drawers of paper and pens and scissors and the like. Before it was the "study", it was the "craft room". I used to make little paper men in it, when I was little, and pretend that they were real.

He locked himself in the “study”, and five hours later, while the sun was dropping down in the sky, he came out again with a half-dozen sheets of paper, with his scrawled handwriting covering every inch, front and back.
I asked him what it was. He told me it was nothing important, and that was that. He gave it to the local newspaper the next morning.

It made its way to a man named Bill Carpenter, who was the editor of the paper for many years. I met him, once. It surprised me at the time to learn he was black.
He told me he had been the first one to read what my father had written. He told me he had had to stop reading halfway through because his heart was crying.

Bill and my father were of the same generation. Bill had been born in Louisiana, and my father had been born in Missouri. It was by complete accident that they both ended up in Indianapolis, my father when he was fourteen, Bill when he was twenty-six.

Bill told me that when he read what my father had written, he felt like he had been my father's brother all his life without ever knowing it. He insisted the paper run it the next day, and that they give it its own page, in between the sports and the funnies.

This was before everybody stopped reading newspapers. We didn't have the little screens that lived in our pockets yet. And so, what my father had written was read by most of our little town.

What my father had written, in those five hours he locked himself in the study, Off The Cuff, was a story.

A story about the Human Condition, as they said. But, specifically, about the condition of his generation, so perfectly captured in twelve thousand, four hundred and twenty-five words that everyone of his generation who read it said, "Yes. This is what it was like. This is what it is like."

And Bill knew that it couldn't be kept to this one town in the middle of Indianapolis, like so many things are. And so, he sent it to a man named Murphy. That was what he told me.

I never met Murphy. I don't know if that was his first or last name. I never asked.

But he must have been someone important, because within a week my father's story was being printed everywhere. Now people all over the country could go, "Yes. This is what it was like. This is what it is like."
Bill never asked my father if he could do this. I don't think he needed to.

I read the story, but only many years later. I wasn't from my father's generation, so I could not go, "Yes. This is what it was like. This is what it is like."

But it did make me understand.

I think the reason my father was an odd sort was probably because of my great-grandfather. You see, while my great-grandfather was the age I was when my father wrote his story, the world had decided to have a war. They called it the Great War. They promised they'd never have another one afterwards.

Then, when my great-grandfather was my age now, they decided to have another one anyway.

My great-grandfather had grown up on stories of the first war. So, when the second one came around, and America decided to join in, he tried to enlist. Didn’t even wait for the draft.
He was denied. My great-grandfather had a bad foot, and couldn't march. The people running the war didn't want people with bad feet. Only the best and the brightest were allowed to die for their country.
Which is probably why my grandfather's generation were the way they were. They were the sons and daughters of what was left over.

Still, my great-grandfather bought his war bonds, same as everyone else, and he found a job in a factory making airplane parts. He ran a riveter, right beside some of the wives of the soldiers who didn’t have bad feet.

My grandfather was one of three siblings. He had one brother and one sister. The sister was named Ruth, and she became a schoolteacher. She married a man named Wilson, and they had kids of their own.
I have never met their children, or their children's children, if they have any. Their branch of the family tree fell off of ours before I was born. Or, at least, that was how my father put it.

My grandfather's brother was named Clyde. He married his work.
Clyde was a car salesman. He sold AMCs. His favorite car was a '63 AMC Ambassador, and he drove my father around in one when he was a child. I have never been in a '63 AMC Ambassador, but I have seen pictures. It's nice enough.
Clyde was a very good car salesman, and he made a good bit of money. He had the face for it, my father told me. The sort of face that made you put your trust in the person wearing it.
When my father was thirteen, Clyde decided he didn't like looking at that face anymore. He decided it would look better with a nice round hole through the middle of it. He did the remodeling himself.

And then there was my grandfather.
My grandfather's name was Ted.

Ted was, according to my father, a very quiet man. He spoke only as much as he needed to. He told my father once that he'd gotten in trouble before, running his mouth more than he needed to. My father didn't know what that was about, but I think I do. It's much easier to find things like this now that we have little screens living in our pockets.
When Ted was a bit younger than I am now, America was at war again.
This time, the rest of the world wasn't playing. Instead, America was at war with Communism.

Communism was a system where everybody got a little bit of everything, and it sounded really good on paper. It never worked, but it sounded so good on paper that a bunch of countries tried it anyway.
America hated Communism. Spitting, outright hatred. But the problem was, those countries that were trying it out? They had a lot of bombs. So did America. These were called atom bombs, and they made cities disappear. Neither side wanted all their cities to disappear, so they didn't fight each other.
Instead, they played checkers with each other on a board in Southeast Asia called Vietnam.

A lot of people didn't like that America was playing checkers in Vietnam. My grandfather was one of them.
These people made a habit of showing that they didn't like America playing checkers in Vietnam, through marches and protests and by raising a ruckus. Ted helped. One day, they raised too much of a ruckus, and the police came with batons and handcuffs.
Ted got knocked down, and then he got trampled by other protestors, and then the police put handcuffs over his wrists and put him in a dirty cell while he was still bleeding. He stayed there for two days before my great-grandfather came to get him. He'd probably stopped bleeding by then.

Ted didn't go to protests after that. Instead, he started writing letters. I think this might have been where my father got his talent from. Ted wrote a lot of letters to a lot of people. He signed every one, "A Conscientious Objector".
Ted didn't talk a lot, but he had plenty to say. I would know. I've read some of those letters.

Twelve years before my father was born, Ted met a woman named Angie. I don't know how they met. I do know that they were never apart for very long after that. Apparently, they found in each other the two things they'd always wanted: unconditional love, and meaningful conversation.

It has been a very long time since I last had a meaningful conversation. So long that my name has begun to sound unfamiliar from disuse. I’ve started talking to myself again.

I imagine they had a lot of things to make meaningful conversation of. Vietnam wasn’t the only game America and the USSR were playing. Another was called ‘Space Race’. America won that one when a man named Neil Armstrong became the first person to make footprints on the Moon.
Ted and Angie watched it on their television set. Ted had bought one especially for the occasion. It was big and boxy and had wooden paneling, and you changed the station with a dial on the front. I know this because we still have it. It’s in my father’s garage. His brother was going to have it thrown away.
We hooked it up once, to see if it still worked. The picture on it is terrible. You get better picture on the screens you put in your pockets.

Ted and Angie had two children, both boys. My father was the younger. His older brother, coincidentally, was named Bill. Bill went to a big college and became an accountant. He retired fabulously well-to-do.

My father dropped out of high school and became a carpenter. He died before he could become even moderately well-to-do.

Bill and my father were apparently very different from each other, growing up. My father was a curious sort. He was always asking questions. Bill was not a curious sort. He was the one who always went and found the answers.
One Saturday morning, when he was young (I do not know how young), my father discovered a package of firecrackers in his garage. He decided, Off The Cuff, that he was going to take these apart and make them into a moon rocket. He enlisted Bill’s help in this, because he needed supplies for the rocket and Bill was the one with the allowance.
They built the rocket out of card, sealed it, then filled it with black powder from the firecrackers. They poked a few holes in the bottom, my father said, “So the fire could shoot out.” Then, they stuck the end of a piece of string they’d dipped in kerosene in through the top and taped a water funnel to the top. Bill suggested they add fins on the sides. My father agreed. “All good moon rockets have fins,” he reasoned.
What they didn’t realize when Bill, who didn’t trust my father with a match, lit the fuse, was that they had not built a rocket. They had built a bomb. Not the kind of bomb that makes cities disappear, just the kind that burnt Bill’s arm so bad that there isn’t any hair on it anymore and makes the entire neighborhood come running out in their bathrobes.
Well, Bill and my father both got a good talking-to from Ted and Angie, and from the local policeman. The rest of the firecrackers were confiscated, and the two were told never to do anything like that again. Well, I think Bill must have taken that to heart, because as far as I know he never did anything Off The Cuff again.

Then again, I wouldn’t know. I barely hear from him. Last time I saw him was at the funeral, and we didn’t talk. I don’t think he stayed very long, either. Probably had business to take care of.

Ted died before Angie did, but not by much. They share a grave in a cemetery twenty miles to the east of here.
As I said: never apart for long.

And then there was me.

I never met my mother. I don't know her name. My father never told me.
I was born just before the new millennium. Everyone else was very excited, I'm told, for the calendar to clock over. Some people were very scared, too, that all the screens on their desks would break.

They didn't. I bet some of them wish they had.

I wasn't very excited about it at the time. I wasn't old enough to be excited about anything.
I was old enough to be excited when two planes crashed into the side of the World Trade Center, but that was a very different type of excitement. A very numb one.
I was old enough to get excited when America decided it was time for another war. I wasn't old enough to try and fight in it. By the time I was, I was old enough to know not to get excited about that sort of thing.

I'm still waiting for that war to end. It shows no signs of happening.

My father never wrote a darn thing after that story he sent to the newspapers. He didn't have to. He'd already written a masterpiece, everyone said so. After that, he did other things Off The Cuff.
I wonder if he said that before he drank himself dizzy and drove over the side of a bridge onto an interstate full of oncoming traffic.

I bet he did.

I was away from home when it happened. I was at college. My father insisted on it. “You can't drop out of high school and become a carpenter anymore,” he told me. “That's not how it works these days.”

I came home for the funeral. I still haven’t gone back to college. I don’t know if I will.

I read my father’s story for the first time ten days after the funeral. I found the originals, the scratch-written pages he'd given to the paper. Bill had given them back afterwards, it seemed. My father had signed them, “A Conscientious Objector.”
They were at the bottom of a trunk, crumpled up and forgotten. I only found them because I was looking for a picture of my father.

My father was famous for not liking having his picture taken. He didn't like the idea of leaving other hims behind.

I took the pages, and I smoothed them out as best I could. Then I went to the study, and I laid them down on the desk in the same place he probably wrote them, and I pulled the lamp over so that it shone right on to the paper, and I began to read.
I did not go, "Yes. This is how it was. This is how it is." I was born too late for that. I was born too late to make that connection that so many others had.
But it did make me understand.

People talk about the Human Condition like it's some universal rule, some enduring, all-encompassing breadth of human experience. It isn't. The human condition changes constantly. It changes every time a baby is born, and it changes every time a drunk man causes a seventeen-car pileup on the interstate.

My father's story made me understand his condition. I never had before. I'd never cared to.

It also did something else. It gave me the idea to do the same.

And now I'm sitting here, in my father’s home, at the same desk he sat at for five hours all those years ago, and I have my sheet of paper lined up just-so, and I have more sheets to my right and a pen in my left hand, and the weight of history has settled on my shoulders.

And I can’t get down a single word!

And there's already another generation past me, with their own condition!

Off The Cuff, indeed!
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#1 ·
I'm not one much for politics. But the author knows how to geezer, and as a semi-geezer I can respect that.

Somehow, despite all the tragedy, I managed to smile. I think that was the intention, anyway. So perhaps I'm smiling merely out of politeness? This is an awkward feeling; you're not supposed to smile at funerals.

I think a funeral for a generation or two counts doubly so; that's a lot of people.

More to come, maybe. Working my way down and through. Someone, please do better. Give it justice.
#2 ·
Some editing flaws, and it sorta alternates between really good lines and kinda ackward ones.

It sounds like something an old geezer would right, and I love geezers.
#3 ·
This is the type of story you hear late at night, at someone else's party, when the fire is dying down and your buzz isn't. You don't know why you're still listening, and you don't know why you're interested, and you don't know why he's talking.

I found the inconsistent paragraph breaks to be a bit distracting.

I enjoyed the rambling style, and the family history. It definitely had an autobiographical feel to it.

I don't think this is the kind of story I'd go out of my way to read, but it was pleasant enough and I never felt like it was a chore to read.
#4 ·
This was a fascinating read. You've certainly taken a fairly simple prompt and stretched to a pretty profound level. The human condition is changing, all the time, and I wonder how many generations of people have had issues in their lives thanks to their parents trying to imprint their own conditions on to their kids without realizing that the world has changed, and it is changing, faster and faster by the day.

You're makin' me think! Awesome!

I almost don't want to say my two concerns with the story, because I feel to change them may defeat the entire purpose. But I'll still bring them up. One issue was that this style of writing can get... I won't say old, but hard to follow. We're jumping around the family tree a lot and I'm not that nimble, so to speak. I had a hard time remembering everybody's names.

This narration is the type you see scattered around a much longer story. One where the different periods of a family's history get told with similar poignant ease, but only as they become important. And for such a short piece, it all becomes hard to follow when it's squished together like this. But as I write this... I guess where each member sits on the tree isn't as important, so long as the generations are clear. But sometimes I got them mixed up, so it's something to work on, I think. The focus of the piece is the time periods of the people, after all, so if you can make that clearer I think you'll be in good shape.

My other concern was that the ending felt like a non-sequitur. I have two guesses. One, you ran out of time and stamina and just needed to cross over the finish line. The word count definitely supports this. My second is that it's a commentary on the condition of the current generation, to be unable to focus on heavy tasks anymore—thanks to our little screens which have dulled our senses with instant gratification on steroids. In which case... I can't say I disagree. Still was a jarring ending though. Perhaps don't use three! exclamations! in a row! when they're the first time the narrator has shouted anything in the story.

That's all I'll say. Good luck in the contest! I think this should make finals for sure.

Oh, and one last note:

"it's the one that I remember the best because he did it when I was five"

...Is the age of 5 famous for being well remembered?
#5 ·
I can't really sink my teeth into this one.

I think part of what's going on is that I want there to be some sort of theme; the Off the Cuff thing reoccurs enough that I feel like it should be meaningful and thematic, but it doesn't really tie into the ending, and even analyzing the ending, I'm not sure I can grab a theme for this story.

The 'condition' of our generation is that we fail at being spontaneous?

...that's all I got. It doesn't feel right, though.

Anyways, as long as I'm missing the point of this story completely, I might as well go all-in. I'm pretty sure that 'The Human Condition' is about being a human being, not about humans being in specific places or times or whatnot. Like, the reason he can connect with his father's story is because they both have The Human Condition; they're both human despite their vastly changed circumstances. The Human Condition doesn't really change, unless the point of the story is that we're not human anymore or something.

Well, I might be wrong about that. That's just how I've understood it sometimes.

Um, I'm also not sure what you're doing with all the family history. I found the middle of the story a bit of a slog to read because of that.

The mood and tone here are pretty good, though. It was a pretty nice read? I'm just not connecting with it at all on a plot or theme level, for some reason.
#6 ·
This is an interesting story. The whole thing, from beginning to end, felt familiar. It reminded me of a story I'd read once, or several stories, or conversations at bars and parties. The narrator's voice was a little odd, but completely believable, I guess in the way that sometimes you can't be sure if someone is consciously trying to strike a particular tone or if that's just the way that they naturally talk.

Some of the details in the story hit close to home, as well--my grandfather was a foreman at a factory making airplanes for the war (Baltimore Assembly, building TBM Avengers for Grumman). He got to keep a toolbox full of drill bits after the war ended and the plant went back to building Chevrolets.

When my father was thirteen, Clyde decided he didn't like looking at that face anymore. He decided it would look better with a nice round hole through the middle of it. He did the remodeling himself.

I had to read this line twice before I got it. I read it, and then I said, 'wait, what?'
#7 ·
This is a rather eccentric and rambly story, but it actually manages to capture the sort of rambling quality I hear sometimes when someone is telling a story out loud about someone – it is just a kind of random mish-mash of things, all sort of tangentially related to each other, one flowing into the next.

This story doesn’t really feel like it has much of a point, instead trying to evoke a certain feeling, that feeling of being rambled at, of various things happening that don’t quite touch you but don’t quite not, that you don’t really care about but you still kind of do.

But I also have to admit that this story never really grabbed my attention – I kept drifting away from it as I was reading it.

The paragraph spacing in this was inconsistent, and that bothered me; it also made it kind of harder to read for no good reason. I think this was probably a result of copy-pasting out of another program, but still, it ended up putting me off.

Overall, this was rough, but it did manage to transmit the feeling it was going for, I think. But on the other hand, that feeling was the sort of thing that makes me stop caring about a conversation and want to go drift away to do something else.