Josiah, age 11: take two / by Vanessa Fiola

**The next 21 days I’ll be posting 500 words a day as part of a creative writing challenge. You can join the fb group here. **


The previous 500 Words A Day experiment was an exercise in fictional narrative based on an interaction with a stranger. The practice lasted only ten days, but I lasted only one. I am not a writer.

My sole entry attempted to capture the story of Josiah, an eleven-year old boy traveling alone from Tennessee to Los Angeles. He struck up a conversation before we even took off, and our brief time together has remained with me since.

Often when I do these 500 Words exercises, I look forward to rich, unexpected experiences, because I find it much easier to write about the anomalous than to jot a page’s worth about the time my two-year old told a joke without a punchline and laughed until he peed. My first 500 Words, I downloaded an app to hand-deliver messages to strangers in an effort to create actual stories in an otherwise rote life. In retrospect, I’m lucky I didn’t get mugged.

But when I tried to fictionalize that flight and the utterly nonplussed way Josiah recounted the time his mother needed time on her own and put him and his sister on a cross-country train to visit a dad they hadn’t seen in four years, I fell short. My own creative inabilities reduced the profound loneliness of his words into a lifeless exchange. And Josiah’s story deserves to be told.

In Nashville there is a wine bar in front of the Southwest Airlines gate to Los Angeles called Vino Volo. I think it’s a chain, so that part isn’t special. What is special is that when I was traveling back and forth to Tennessee, I regularly treated myself to a glass of wine waiting for the flight home, and usually ordered a piece of lemon-raspberry chess pie to go. If you find yourself at BNA, that pie is really good.

I boarded and took an aisle seat next to a kid who told me it was his first flight as I sat down. I smiled at him, nodded, and answered, “Cool,” placing my piece of pie on the empty seat between us. I am really awful at small talk, especially with strangers. But if we were truly strangers, Josiah fixed that before we ever took off the ground—he asked me if we were going to die.

Eventually I learned that Josiah had been shipped off to stay with his dad in Knoxville. His mom put him on a two-day train with only two Slim Jims in his pocket, which he and his sister rationed out. He told me that “after a while you just forget about being hungry.” My heart nearly split in two. Originally he was supposed to stay for the summer, but that train ride was almost a year earlier. In my life I have found that the people who have the least are often the most generous. Josiah offered me his last piece of gum from his pocket. I returned the gesture and offered him my lemon pie, which he ate voraciously.

I thought of my own little boy as we traveled westward. My heart ached for both him and my new friend. As we sat next to each other over plains and rivers and desert, I dreamt of adopting this kid I had only just met. I didn’t want to think about him going back to a place where he might not be needed in the way I know a mother needs her son, even the tiniest ones. When we finally pulled into the gate, I said goodbye to Josiah and wished him well; I couldn’t stay to find out.

In the months since, I’ve wondered what has happened to him. Is he in school? How are his grades? The image of two measly Slim Jims will sometimes appear in my thoughts and I know that Josiah is still with me. And while I don't think I'm a writer per se, I believe I am a storyteller. This was a story that I needed to tell.