A MOMENT OF PERFECT CONTEMPLATION

Submitted into Contest #3 in response to: Write a story about someone who wins a contest and the prize of their dreams.... view prompt

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A MOMENT OF PERFECT CONTEMPLATION 

By Andrew Paul Grell 

 

“It was a dark and stormy night?” 

“I think Snoopy owns that by now. Try again.” 

“It was the Jest of Times, it was the Wurst of Times: Mustard, Kraut, and Schtick?” 

“You’re not even making an attempt. Parody titles are beneath contempt in such a competition. You have to be part of this. I can’t just snap-snap-snap and make you a prize-winning author. I mean, I can, but that wouldn’t do anyone any good at all, at all. One more time, John-George.” 

“In the Beginning?” 

“Not bad, not bad. It’s public domain, so no legal issues. Where do you want to go with it?” 

“The End?” John-George leaned back in the easy chair, stretched out his arm, and gave the globe a spin. It stopped with Montevideo under the little lightbulb. “Uruguay. Latin America’s quiet success story.  Rio de la Plata. River of Silver. How’s that for a title?” 

“I’ll have to check the political correctness. Why do you people restrict Latin America to South America? Romance languages start at the Gaspe and roll down to New Orleans and then west to the Pacific. It’s almost pole to pole. You’re trivializing the French.”  The Grantor theatrically picked up a feather from the den’s flokati carpeting, examined it, and placed it on the clubhouse-style armchair.   

“Is one of us molting? You know, not for nothing, but this whole grant process would make a fabulous story. A fabulous fabulist story at that.  Whaddaya think?” 

“You know that’s off the table, John-George. But Uruguay is always good for a few laughs. So. You’re sitting here in the basement of your home in Cedarhurst and you want to be Gabriel Garcia Marquez?” 

“Who? Look, the globe stopped at Montevideo. What about a story if the Rio Plato was really silver or turned things into silver or whatever. How did Uruguay pull itself out of the shit when Brazilians are destroying the carbon sink and wiping out native tribes and Venezuela is bankrupt while being awash in zillions of dollars’ worth of oil? The globe isn’t loaded. It stopped were it did for a reason. Unless you had something to do with it.” 

The Grantor sipped his brandy and took in the artwork on the wall. All quality reproductions. La Joconde. Le Cri. Six Jasper Johns flags. On another wall, a sawed-out section of fence containing a Keith Harring. Four photographs of Samo quotes tagged inside telephone booths, including the only known photo of “Samo as an alternative to Ichthyology,’ ‘A Friend in Need’ on black velvet. 

“John-George, this was your proposal. No funny business on my end, buddy. Just opinions and information. You’re sitting at a high-stakes table, playing with a guy named Doc, your back to the door. How about you come up with your end of the deal?” 

“John! John-George Bauer! Stop screwing around down there and come up for dinner! And take care of Lucky!” 

“Coming, my one true love. Writing is hungry work. Must be why so many writers are hungry.” John-George turned back to the Grantor. “It’s too bad having you at the table is forbidden under the terms of our contract. But would you like one of Jim’s special biscuits before I go?” 

“I would deeply appreciate it. I know Jim bakes his crackers with love. Bon appetite, John-George.” 

“Jim, this smells fabulous!  What is it?” 

“Vietnamese duck. Recipe was in the paper. The trick is in the boning.” Jim waited for the laugh but it was a little weak and slow to come. 

“Ha. Very funny. What kind of beer is that?” 

“Saigon Beer. Marlinsville has a little boat people refugee neighborhood, Vietnamese beer for Vietnamese duck. And they had the armpit sauce, too.” 

“The which?” 

“Vets called it armpit sauce. You can eat anything if you pour enough armpit sauce over it. So, how’s the run for the roses coming, Hemmingway?” 

“The globe gave me some good advice. Uruguay.  Montevideo. Rio de la Plata.  The River of Silver.” Jim almost choked on his beer. 

“Uruguay? Who writes a book about Uruguay?” 

“Well, me, I guess. Don’t you have any confidence in me? Besides, the globe picked it.” 

“Oh. The globe. Haven’t you learned your lesson? It picked Grozny for our vacation. I still keep the luggage with the bullet holes in case I have to prove a point with your globe.” 

“Jim, c’mon. Wasn’t that the most exciting vacation you ever spent?” 

“Eat your duck. Drink your beer. Then tell me about the book idea.” 

“A young widow has discovered that a certain class of objects, when placed the correct way in the current of the river actually turn into silver. And then tries to save the world. That’s gonna be the elevator pitch.  Whaddaya think?” 

“I think I’m married to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that’s what I think.  Here’s dessert. Rice dumplings and pearl tea. Oh, I may be on the road for a few days next week.  Can you make sure to take care of Lucky?” 

“Of course! I love Lucky every bit as much as you do and maybe more than I love you.  So watch out!’ 

# # # 

“Well, John-George. It’s been a year, how did you do?” 

“Wouldn’t you know that?”   

“Of course I do. But that’s no-go territory covered in your grant proposal. Besides, I want to hear it from you, from you.” 

“It’s too bad I can only talk with you once a year.” 

“There are other people in the world seeking grants, I’m sure you’re aware of that. But let’s hear about the book, the book!” 

 

“I have a protagonist. A maid, a washerwoman, a nanny in a middle-class home in the Santiago Vazquez neighborhood in Montevideo.  The lady of the house hands Dulcinea her five-year-old son and tasks her to go to the beach and throw the child’s bottle into the sea, because it was ‘time for him to grow up.’ She drives little Moises to Colorada Beach, they play in the sand, she feeds him grownup empanadas and churros, leads him to the water and has him throw his bottle into the Rio de la Plata.  They wade for a while and lay on blankets on the sand. As the tide goes out, she sees the bottle. The bottle has become solid silver. How’s that?” 

“That’s some year’s work, John-George.” The Grantor looked bored, barely pecked at his brandy. There were two feathers on the rug. The Grantor and John-George were in competition to see who could ignore them more theatrically. 

“That’s the setup. It goes on from there.  Dulcinea figures out that when things no longer needed by a child are thrown into the estuary, they turn to silver. She sets up a little Tooth Fairy program; the kid gets 20 pesos and Dulcinea converts the tooth to 100 pesos’ worth of silver, which she shares when the opportunity arises. What do you think?” 

“I’m trying to think of the word. Cyclamates. Oh, that’s not it. Saccharine. That’s the one.   You don’t have a book, you have a Hallmark greeting card. John-George, you have to hold up your end. The premise is good. Take your manuscript to the gym with you, put it on the elliptical, then some weight resistance training. Be prepared to be disturbed.” 

“John-George! John-George! Ellen’s on the phone!” 

“Our daughter. She’s at Princeton. I must depart. Would you like another biscuit? 

“Certainly, thank you very much, very very much.” 

John-George, possibly in prep for an exercise regime as suggested by the Grantor, sprinted up the basement steps to the newly-decorated kitchen, an island in the middle, a mauve paint job. He grabbed the handset of the princess phone from his husband’s hand. Jim mouthed “Tech support.” 

“Hi, bubeleh.  How’s New Jersey?” 

“This part of it’s fine. I need help, dad. The experiment enclosures aren’t enclosing properly. Dad, I’m so close. The computer model shows I’m almost there. I just need to isolate the reaction vessel from the rest of the universe. Dad, can you come down and take a look? I’ll be your best friend!” That line always got to John-George. 

“BFFs, Sweetie! See you in time for lunch tomorrow.” He handed the phone back to his true love for to hang up. 

“I guess that’s the price we pay for having a daughter at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Where Einstein and Godel were. Where did we go right, John-George?” 

“It’s like Chris Rock says.  Keep your daughter off the pole and she can accomplish anything. Can you take care of Lucky for a few days?” 

“Don’t you worry. Lucky’s going to be the most pampered pet in Cedarhurst, I promise you!” 

# # #  

“Hail, John-George. Another year for both of us.” 

“How many is it for you? Let me guess.  6,023.” 

“Very funny, John-George, perhaps you should write a comedy, you know, always leave ‘em laughing. John-George, John-George, have you given any thought about what the prize should be if your book wins? Either with my help or without.” 

“Of course, there is only one step up from a Nobel in literature. The winner should be frocked in the raiment of the King of Sweden, mounted on the King’s horse, and led around the streets of Stockholm with agents, publishers, and academic literary critics with their formalistic lenses all clamoring for bits of wisdom from the prize winner.” 

“Your Queen is in danger, John-George, Guard your Queen! If you know the origin of that prize, you must know how dangerous it is to submit a grant proposal to me, don’t you? Brave man. A hero. But very beneficent of you, yes, beneficent to feed the clamoring scribes, and I note you left out the part about seeing your enemies hung on the highest scaffolds.” 

“Punishing other people does nothing for me. There’s no finish line in this race.  Maybe an enemy will come out with books of deeper meaning and twistier turns of phrases.” 

“So, John-George, tell me about the book, the book.” John-George set the drinks down on the charting table but put his Jameson and soda by mistake before the Grantor, who quickly batted it away, a honey- colored stain encroaching the whiteness of the sheep’s wool, slaughtered for the comfort of the feet of the people. “My apologies, John-George. Bit of a panic reaction, yes, panic, an allergy of sorts. Do forgive me, won’t you?” 

“You are blameless in this, of course. I’m the one who gave you the wrong drink.” 

“John-George, you might want to check on the kitchen for a few moments.” 

“Sweetheart dear, have you emerged early from your troglodyte subterranean labors?” 

“Jim, what’s going on in that oven? John-George leaped toward the fire extinguisher and foamed down the whole oven and the wooden table. 

“Butter.  Sorry about that.  Too much butter in the baste, the skin must have caught on fire.  Pizza tonight?” 

“Sure.  I came up to grab some salt.  Did I mention I was working my way through every cocktail?  Cocktail of the day. Maybe one will summon my Muse.” 

“Good luck with that, my love. Make sure you run anything you write while drunk through Grammarly.” 

John-George was just a touch tipsy and made a semi-clumsy reappearance in the den. “I got some salt; salt and club soda can clean anything. Wait, it’s become clean..” 

“Of course, I spilled it, I cleaned it up. Shouldn’t that be the way it works? But let’s get back to the book.  I have someone in Burbank in an attic I’m meeting later on. Burbank, beautiful downtown Burbank.” 

“The book is now an allegory for latifundist mineral and resource policies.  Dulcinea walks through playgrounds by night, picking up lost toys and balls, but only broken toys and under-inflated balls. She takes the ferry to Argentina once a week to sell the silver and comes back and gives out micro-loans and small scholarships. And then. And then Dulcinea comes to the attention of the authorities. She was arrested stepping off the Sea Cat Ferry at Colonia with 50,000 Argentine Pesos, far above her monthly nanny salary, and hauled into court. The Judge did not know what was coming. Beneficiaries of the Rio de la Plata micro-loans, now successful business women, and De la Plata scholars, now educated adults, and maids, washerwomen and nannies from Carmelo to Playa Ramirez and the chic set from Montivideo who wanted to see a real-life folk heroine fell about the Montivideo Department Courthouse. Nobody could say that there was any silver missing, every pawn shop had she had transacted with had records with appropriate tax payments. The word ‘bruja,’ witch, circulated among some of the older women, but that quickly fizzled. No police officer could point to an actual crime. Who makes a sculpture in silver of a flattened football? People were calling her the Lone Ranger, since she must have had a brother who owned a silver mine.” 

“Very good, very good indeed. You’ve driven to the golf course, had a drink in the clubhouse, walked to the tee, put down the ball and addressed it. Now let’s see what you can do with the par 5,” the Grantor challenged. 

“I think I’ve got a shot at a birdy at least, maybe an eagle. The book challenges the lip-service South American latifundist distribution of mineral wealth which in practice means selling mining contracts to not the highest bidder, but the highest kick-backer. This story will disrupt crooked leases and fly-by-night, environmentally devastating extraction practices. Everyone will get a share of the wealth they live on top of.” 

“John-George, John-George, you’ve become the idealist, the crusader, you’ve put your desires into a work of fiction, but will the reader know Dulcinea, who she is, what she wants, what motivates her, motivates her? There’s a reason they call them novels, you know, a reason. They have to be novel, to have something new, a new way of showing and telling, telling and showing. Pull your weight, John-George, pull your weight. Unless. Unless, you know, you want to exercise your option. Snap-snap-snap, you know.” 

“I think I’m good.  Dulcinea is compensating for a perceived wrong and cowardly act when she was nine. We’ll see if her actions result in expiation, even if only internally.” 

“Have a care, John-George, have a care. You’re poaching on my territory now.” John-George had never seen the Grantor look menacing before. 

“Jim has a new biscuit recipe, devil’s food cake twice baked. They’re quite tasty. Would you care for one?” 

“Certainly, John-George, certainly. Jim never disappoints.” 

# # # 

“Dad, I think I did it. I’m not sure what I did, but I did it. Put me on speaker, Pop should hear this too. No, FaceTime. I want to see the expressions on your faces.” Ellen, always a bubbly child, sounded like she was begging her parents in a park to look at how high she was going on the monkey bars. “This is L-cisteine from a pig. An amino acid that’s useful but not essential. It links to other amino acids to make proteins.” Ellen held up a test tube. “And this is synthetic  L-cisteine. They use it for feedstock. No part of the stuff in the second test tube has been inside a living organism. The stuff in each test tube is chemically identical. The pig amino acid easily connects up to other amino acids to make proteins. The synthesized amino acid has difficulty hooking up and sometimes makes mistakes. There is something special going on in living organisms which changes the actual chemistry.” 

“What does this mean, sweetie?” Jim needed things outside of the theater world to be a little simple.” 

“Pop, it means I’m going to get my PhD and a teaching position and have a crew of grad students find out what it means.” 

“Honey, I’m coming down. This I’ve got to see. Jim, can you take care of Lucky? He’s getting a little old, you know.” 

# # # 

“Well, John-George, you’ve done it. Reviews in the Times Book Review, Kirkus, Christian Science Monitor, New York Review of Books. You’ve taken literature to new heights, they say. And you’ve sold 3,000 copies. And nobody is taking anything from it about how to use wealth to make happiness. What say you, John-George? Do you want to go wide?” 

John-George’s answer was simple. “Snap-snap-snap.” 

# # # 

“John, what the fuck is this?” Jim was holding a piece of parchment. John-George never lied to his true love and he wasn’t going to start now. 

“You found it under the Lucky’s cage in the den, I’m guessing. It’s a grant application. There’s an option to exchange my soul for the book going to the top.” 

“Since when did you start believing in religious stuff? You know, they still throw people like us off of roofs, or stone us to death.” 

“I started believing when Lucky started giving me editing tips. We negotiated the terms, I wrote it down and signed it, and there’s his footprint.” 

“Our parrot. Lucky. Lucky is the Devil?” 

“Of course not. One day a year Satan speaks through Lucky to me, then moves on to the next person who needs a favor. He enjoys your biscuits, by the way. I exercised the option to make the book go all the way in exchange for my soul. The ideas in it will make the world a better place, if the ideas get out. Well worth giving up my soul, which neither of us believes exist, no?” 

It took ten years and a lot of wrangling, But John-George Bauer became the first man to simultaneously win the Nobel Prizes for both peace and literature. The King of Sweden arranged a special ceremony; he was dressed as a royal and driven around Stockholm in the Glass Coach, pulled by two big bay stallions. the streets lined with cheering Scandinavians. John-George looked out from the clear coach and for the first time ever he enjoyed a single moment of perfect contemplation. 

 

 

 

 

August 22, 2019 19:49

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