At the story slam we were to be judged by the audience on a scale of 1-5 for categories such as structure, creativity, and presentation. There was a 6 minute time limit per person, so if the story was longer than that points were deducted. Theme didn’t matter so much this time because we were all getting accustomed to the format, which is a lot harder than it sounds.
6 minutes the way I read is about six pages double spaced or roughly 1100 handwritten words. This does not account for acting, audience reaction, forgotten lines, or glossophobia (the fear of public speaking). General nervousness was to be expected, but in addition to the fifteen death row prisoners there were eleven mental health and programs staff, two associate wardens, and three guests – one of whom was Allen Gurganos, noted author of Diary of the Last Confederate War Widow. Suddenly, that story you’ve told over the years to anyone who will listen just got a lot harder to tell.
I found this out when it was my turn. After weeks of memorizing my story about the Quarry and acting out certain parts to engage anybody listening, I found out there is a significant difference in practice and center stage. I am a poor public speaker to begin with, though it’s not quite the level of glossophobia, and this is why. I’m always willing to try things like speech and debate. Or Story Slams.
Fortunately, there were other stories much better than my telling and they rightfully won the top three places. At the next story slam in November the top winners will sit out and give others a chance to win. There will be a theme this time, however, though we won’t discover what it is until October. After three story slams we will have a “Slampionship”. If a best selling author is the first story slam’s guest I may develop a severe case of glossophobia for the Story Slam Championship. Though the general public is unable to attend any death row story slam I strongly urge you to check out the Moth on NPR radio to get an idea of what competitive storytelling is like.
The following is a version of The Quarry, which placed 4th at the First Death Row Story Slam.
In my hometown of Brunswick there was a crazy, glue huffing hobo named Calvin. He was frequently seen with a plastic bag attached to his face with model plane glue or begging. The story goes that Calvin used to be an honor roll student in high school before he attended a party at the Thopsham quarry and accidentally overdosed on LSD during a police raid. He aint’ been right ever since.
There were many such urban legends tied to the quarry – some even involved drownings, robberies, shoot outs and a few pairs of cement shoes. What was clear is the quarry’s murky green water was so deep and impenetrable nobody knew what was in there.
One summer a friend asked me to go swimming at the quarry. It was more of a dare really because who the hell swims at a place where people are alleged to have disappeared? 14 year old boys with nothing better to do. That’s who.
When we get to the quarry on our bikes, I saw the only way to get in the water was to jump from the cliffs. We started out at an 8 foot cliff and worked our way to a 20 foot cliff where my friend showed off his acrobatic skills and landed in the water like a pro. I was a mediocre swimmer at best and it took time to rally my nerve before jumping from the cliff while holding my nose.
About an hour or so later a couple of townies pulled up in their pick up truck and got out drinking some beer. One of them called over to us, “Hey! I bet you boys ain’t got hair enough on your nuts to try the 60’! I’ll bet a six pack of beer neither one of you can!” And with that he put a six pack of Miller’s on the ground in front of him, leaned against the truck and swilled a beer like some TV advertisement.
My friend immediately said, “Hell no! Lyle, we gotta get going” which should have been my cue to leave. He was the daredevil, not me. But that was a six pack of Miller’s -- more than enough for the two of us, not to mention the bragging rights to go with it. Without engaging my brain I opened my big mouth and said, “Sure.” Even the townie was surprised.
I ignored my friend’s protests and walked to the nearest path up the 60 foot cliff. Most of it had to be climbed and as I did thoughts of exactly how dangerous this was entered my mind. So did all of the stuff that might be in the water; cars, bikes, rusted scrap metal, jutting rocks and the bodies of everyone dumb enough to jump from this cliff. In my imagination I saw myself impaled on a piece of metal, held under by clutching skeletons, and my legs broken and spine snapped by unseen shallows. By the time I reached the top of the cliff, I was TERRIFIED.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you this monstrous cliff was six storeys above the water. Also, the area of water into which I had to jump was obscured by a large tree branch and more rock. I kicked a loose stone over the side and heard it strike the cliff all the way down with a clack. . . clack . . . .clack clack . . .! Unable to see anything through the leaves I yelled out, “Hey! There’s no damn water down there!”
“Yeah there is!” came a faint reply. “Jump!”
“I can’t see anything!” I backed away from the edge.
I instantly regretted the bet and wanted to climb back down the cliff and go home. I’ve done dangerous jumps from the walking bridge spanning the fast moving Androscoggin River but at least I could see the water. Dying for a six pack, even if it was Miller’s, wasn’t just dumb -- it was bat shit crazy.
I thought of Calvin then, even as the temperature seemed to have dropped this high up. He threw his life away in a single senseless act of . . . and then I understood. It had nothing to do with the danger – even if my future was about to be a whole lot shorter than Calvin’s.
Heart hammering in my chest I paced amongst the trees. This was about proof. For Calvin, it might have been to show his brother or friends he could be trusted during a raid. Me? The townies didn’t really matter. I had nothing to prove to anyone. I paused then, sick with fear, and heard a tiny whisper of disgust in my head “coward!” And so it was I needed to prove it to myself. That I could be fearless. I ran the, four long strides . . . and jumped.
When I crashed into the water my knees slammed into my chest and it felt like a giant has smashed me from the clouds back down to earth. Momentum carried me so deep in the water my feet scraped the jagged bottom. Fear of what it was propelled me upward as I swam, but it still seemed to take forever to reach the surface. When I did, sweet air rushed into my lungs.
I found a place to climb out on rubbery legs and saw everyone staring at me. The townie spoke first and handed me the beer. “Jesus H. Christ kid! I wasn’t serious. You’re a friggin lunatic!” My friend was smoking a rumpled Pall Mall and handed it to me after I dried off. I took a deep drag.
As we rode our bikes back to Brunswick that day we didn’t say much. I had silenced the doubt and there was no need to interrupt my cold Miller’s.