Jason Walker studied the small, motley gathering from behind the final standalone shelf at Scuppernong Books, just before the short hall leads into the large meeting room at the back of the store.
A performing poet and musician, Walker is familiar with being on stage; lured by the unexpected discovery of Triad Storytelling Exchange and its Story Slam, he quietly signed up and joined the audience.
A score of storytellers and enthusiasts had assembled on one of the chilly, final days of 2016. Much like those who tune in to the popular podcast “The Moth,” attendees had arrived to hear a true and personal five-minute story without notes or props. Or in this case, maybe to present.
The competitive aspect of Triad Storytelling Exchange is actually pretty involved. At the outset, the evening’s emcee and exchange President Laksmi Devi explained to volunteer judges that stories should be scored from 1 to 10 based on posture, poise, eye contact, introduction and conclusion, adherence to the holiday theme and more.
As the new Bon Iver album and the cackle of a distant patron poured in from the front of Scuppernong, the storytelling began.
The tales themselves progressed with well-timed humor, apt nostalgia and seasoned gesticulation. The holiday theme tied most of the stories to tradition, though unsurprisingly the anecdotes endured through the arrival of the unexpected, a tradition disfigured.
Throughout the night, the audience encountered a growing cast of farfetched and farcical characters: a policeman father who shot a frightening bug with a handgun, the kindred devotees of a K&W Christmas and a Dalmatian who knew not only how to remove rocks from the lid of an old milk locker full of meat, but to put them back to delay any suspicion of quadruped culpability.
But it was first-timer Jason Walker who stole the show. As the final presenter, he began: “On Christmas day, when I was 6 years old, I almost lost my life.”
Walker’s father — a drag racer and ruffian — had decided to purchase (and physically bring into the apartment) a bright-red Honda 50cc dirt bike for his son.
That Christmas afternoon, 15 minutes after tearing around on the bike while sitting in his father’s lap, the young boy was allowed to ride it alone with only the inheritance of his father’s rowdy spirit, a helmet (thank God) and some advice: “Don’t get on the throttle that hard.”
As it tends to do, the inevitable happened. Having accidently kicked the bike into third gear and figuratively losing his 6-year-old head, Walker’s next memory is coming to, briefly, on a boulder in a creek, the bike’s submerged back wheel splattering up “water and mud and sticks and frogs and lions and tigers and bears.”
As Walker continuously reminded the already hysterical, sickened audience, it could still get worse, and it was about to.[pullquote]Triad Storytelling Exchange’s next Story Slam will take place at Scuppernong Books on Jan. 27 — its theme: close calls.[/pullquote]
Young Jason Walker passed out again, this time wakened after his father rushed him to the car and readied a mechanic’s approach to his son’s bleeding knees and thighs.
“You know those dirty, oily rags that all mechanics have in their cars?” Walker asked.
Yes, it gets worse.
“My father grabbed a pint of Crown Royal, doused the rag and began roughly wiping at the blood and wounds.”
Even now, Walker can’t comprehend that searing pain.
Around the time the wounds were “treated,” Walker’s father had a sudden epiphany, thinking of the boy’s mother back at home: “I’m gonna die, too.”
That night Walker remembers hearing the glass-shattering reaches of a woman’s voice and a bounty of unknown obscenities.
A month later with the bike fixed, Walker was on it again. But this time, he was back in his father’s lap.
The evening’s Cinderella candidate didn’t win — first prize went to Charlotte Hamlin’s humorous story of her childhood cat Wissahickon and his annual tendency to nap upon the nativity scene — but Walker’s anecdote generated by far the most laughter, awe and veterans’ encouragement to return again.