Copyright © 2016 Jay Gershwin
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented without permission in writing from the author, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, online review, newspaper, or broadcast.
Michael Van Ingen
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The World Disappears
Click here to download:
The $1 Million Haiku
The Art of Delivering Chinese Food
The Grape Jelly Incident
Can Mustard Save Your Life?
The Brilliant Mr. Billings
The Perfect Short Story
About the Author
When my father was young and newly married, he decided to invent a new flavor of Kool-Aid called “Hemingway in New York.”
“If coffee can taste like raspberries and soda like licorice, why can’t a glass of Kool-Aid taste like Ernest Hemingway in New York?” he said.
He was fascinated by The New Yorker’s famous profile of Hemingway’s 1950 trip to New York City. He wanted to capture its ambience: bearded old Papa in his tweed jacket and wool necktie lumbering through the streets of Manhattan.
“You’re a fool. How can Kool-Aid taste like Hemingway in New York? How is that even possible?” my mother said.
“Just wait,” he said. “You’ll see.”
If he could invent a flavor of Kool-Aid that tasted like Hemingway in New York, he could sell the patent for millions and spend all day at his typewriter becoming a famous writer himself.
He began by looking through recipe books. Was there a particular spice that captured the smell of an important novelist on Fifth Avenue?
“Besides, why are you so obsessed with Hemingway in the first place?” my mother said. “Why can’t you be obsessed with your own God-damn life?”
It was a good question but my father made hundreds of concoctions till at last he produced a prototype. “I’ve done it,” he announced, running into the bedroom holding a glass of gray-colored Kool-Aid. “My God, we’ll make millions! Here, taste.”
My mother sipped and said, “Tastes like grape.”
“Grape?” he said, aghast. “It’s not grape. It’s Hemingway in New York!”
But others had the same reaction: “Tastes like grape.”
What I need is more information, he told himself. He reread The New Yorker profile looking for clues and learned that the author—Lillian Ross—was still alive and writing for The New Yorker almost fifty years later.
“I’m going to New York,” he announced at dinner.
My mother got up, carefully poured chicken soup over his head and threatened to end their marriage if he went. Most men in his position would have surrendered, but being covered in chicken soup was my father’s natural habitat in those days. He slicked back his hair, left the table and flew to New York the next day.
In Manhattan he made his way past skyscrapers and into a midtown café where Lillian Ross met him in a gabardine coat and old-lady gloves she removed while sitting across from the weird collection of sweat, typewriter ink and unwashed jeans that defined my father.
“The original profile was actually quite longer,” she told him without shaking his hand. “It was cut for brevity.”
“Yeah? Which parts?” my father half shouted. He could smell a breakthrough.
“When Hemingway was in town,” she said and glanced left, right and lowered her voice to a whisper, “he rode the carrousel in Central Park.”
My father was stunned and thrilled.
He jumped to his ruined sneakers. Finally! he thought. He’d uncovered the singular piece of information he needed. If he could translate “Central Park carrousel” into a flavor and add it to the recipe he’d already concocted, there was no question he’d get the taste he was after.
Sure enough, within a week of returning home and experimenting with hundreds of fructose varieties, he whipped up a batch of Hemingway in New York that tasted like no other.
He approached a man outside the supermarket. The man sipped and frowned at the glass and said, “Interesting. What flavor is this? I don’t think I’ve ever had this before.”
“You tell me. Describe it,” my father said, excited.
The man said, “Well, it’s definitely not the normal flavor of Kool-Aid. It tastes like… I know this sounds crazy, but it reminds me of this book we read in high school. A Farewell to Arms. Remember that?” He sipped and squinted, searching for an apt description while my father trembled with delight. “And you know what else? It reminds me of New York City.”
“Yes!” my father cried, raising his fists.
My father polled hundreds of others and got the same reaction, so that when he finally offered a glass to my mother, she too was charmed.
“My God,” she said smiling, “it does. It tastes like Hemingway in New York.”
Triumphant, my father said, “Just think! We’ll have every English major in the country drinking this stuff.”
He sold the recipe to a Japanese energy drink concern, who mass-marketed “Hemingway Kool-Aid” to creative writing students as a kind of Red Bull for creativity, complete with TV commercials of Hemingway sitting at his desk and cracking open a can. “Ahh,” Hemingway said. “A Farewell to Writer’s Block.”
One day my father came home from work in his moth-eaten blazer, threw his briefcase on the floor and announced he’d quit his job to become a haiku writer.
“We’ll starve,” my mother said.
He’d never written a single haiku in his life, but the next morning he holed away in the study with a borrowed fountain pen and began composing hundreds of haiku.
At day’s end my sister and I sorted through the crumpled paper in his wastebasket, fascinated. We figured we had six months before we all ended up on welfare. Other kids’ fathers were lawyers or doctors. Ours was the author of gems like:
The goddam neighbor’s
dog barking all night next door—
wish I had a gun
But a month later one of his best haiku—“Childhood”—was accepted by a literary magazine with national distribution. The magazine itself was just a xeroxed kitchen-sink production by an alcoholic in Florida, but its release marked the beginning of the weirdest phase of our lives.
Within twenty-four hours, a clothing manufacturer contacted my father and offered to print the haiku on a T-shirt. “We’ll give you $10,000 for a one-time printing right and a 15% royalty on all sales.”
My father hung up and whooped.
Over the following week he was contacted by a greeting-card company, an advertising agency, a calendar maker and a mug producer, all wanting to license “Childhood.” The week after that, the haiku appeared in Esquire. Playboy. Rolling Stone. Time magazine.
Overnight, “Childhood” became the rage of American pop culture.
It sneezed from one person to another at bus stops and office watercoolers. It was transformed into one of those cliché sayings that appear on everything from helium balloons to bumperstickers, like “Shit happens” or “Fuck you, you fuckin’ fuck.” It was recited at weddings and funerals, tattooed on people’s arms and scrawled in yearbooks.
Altogether, my father made over $1 million. “See, hon? I told you,” he told my speechless mother one night. But like the rest of us, he was overwhelmed by his own success.
“Childhood” is just nine words long, but the rights have since been sold to a German multi-media conglomerate who refused permission to reproduce it here. All I can say is that it’s a beautiful poem.
The real victory came when he was approached by a martini-and-cigarettes-era New York publisher who offered to release it in a hardback book with fifty of my father’s other haiku. To celebrate, we had dinner at a French restaurant where my father poured champagne and raised his glass. “Here’s how.”
When we finished eating, we walked outside past the white-glove doorman and were ambushed by paparazzi. “James, over here!” Cameras flashed. My father pulled his blazer over his head and tried running for the minivan.
He was mobbed by hundreds of shrieking fans who wanted to touch him. They ripped the blazer off his back and tore it into confetti. One girl flashed her breasts and demanded an autograph. Another girl leaped onto his back for a piggyback ride but knocked off his wire-frame glasses so that he ran the wrong way and crashed through the plate-glass window.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying across a platter of moules à la crème, covered in shattered glass.
The next morning we opened the paper and found a photo of my father lying facedown with the headline: “Haiku Genius Has Illegitimate Child with Michael Jackson, Attempts Suicide.” It was the first of many such articles. My father became an instant favorite of the celebrity scandal scene. Evidently the tabloid journalists, tired of the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians of the world, turned their attention to a tortured haiku poet instead. Over the following weeks I learned that my father was actually a woman who’d had an affair in the Bahamas with a Wall Street mogul, that he’d been a crack baby, that he ran a Taiwanese sweat shop.
But the biggest blow was yet to come.
“My book flopped,” he announced at dinner. He held up a copy of the New York Times Book Review, where his haiku collection had been panned. They called him a one-hit wonder.
“None of the haiku in this volume capture the grace of ‘Childhood’,” the critic wrote. “I can’t help but wonder if the author has been distracted by his numerous abortions in Mexico, his cocaine binging in Zurich, his extramarital gallops in Malibu. Nothing destroys a poet like success—which seems to be the only explanation for this sad, loose, deeply disappointing book.”
Like many celebrities, my father was ruined by his fall from grace. He bought a Corvette and totaled it the same day, was in and out of rehab, punched paparazzi and was summoned to court, appeared in a leaked sex tape, was thrown off a flight to Los Angeles, was arrested outside a nightclub, totaled his BMW, was parodied by late-night comedians.
One night we turned on the TV and saw my father on The Late Late Show. He sat in the armchair with a limp wrist, roaring with laughter. “Are you always this pretty?” the host asked him.
My father was missing his two front teeth after a bar fight in Malibu and he tossed back his head and roared with laughter.
But the fame didn’t last. “Childhood” was just a fad and it soon disappeared as untraceably as childhood itself. My father returned home and shut himself in the study, but with no money now, no fame and no way to earn a living, so that he sat alone in the afterglow of his own brilliance.
When my father was a hippie in the early 1970s he experienced enlightenment and got a job delivering Chinese food.
He worked for Mr. Yong’s Jade Palace.
“Here,” Mr. Yong told him one morning. “Eight-fifteen Maple Lane. Apartment two. Delivery.” He handed him a plastic bag containing shrimp with snow peas and General Tso’s chicken.
My father went outside, opened the takeout boxes and dumped the food into the street.
When he arrived at 815 Maple Lane, he climbed the stairs to apartment #2 and knocked. A man answered wearing only a condom.
“Fried rice!” the man yelled over his shoulder.
Behind him, my father saw a woman lying completely naked on the couch. She was so excited by the arrival of Mr. Yong’s that she kicked her legs in the air and whooped.
“Wait a minute.” The man felt something was wrong when my father handed off the bag. “Where’s the food?”
“Use your imagination.”
“I ordered General Tso chicken, motherfucker.”
“You don’t need the chicken to have the chicken, my friend. Close your eyes and imagine the chicken, and the chicken is yours.”
“Give me back my ten dollars.”
“Your ten dollars doesn’t exist,” my father said, tearing up the money.
The man pushed my father down the stairs. My father fell all the way and landed in a heap of arms and legs at the bottom, got up and checked his pulse, then returned to Mr. Yong’s Jade Palace.
“The customer say you deliver empty box,” Mr. Yong said, angry. “What hell happen? Where you put all the food?”
“I threw it away.”
“Here.” Mr. Yong refilled the order. “Try again.”
My father went outside and dumped the food into the street. Then he crouched over a rain puddle and scooped a handful of mud into each of the takeout boxes. Finished, he returned to 815 Maple Lane and knocked at apartment #2. This time he heard sex sounds through the door, which amounted to a knocking on a different door, the door of existence.
Footsteps. The door opened and the same man, still completely naked but sweating now, said, “That’s better. It smells great out here.”
He opened a box, jammed his thumb into the mud and licked it clean. There was a moment of confusion when the taste of dirt didn’t match up with his memory of General Tso’s chicken. “This tastes like shit.”
“Is that the shrimp with snow peas?” called a female voice.
“I should call the police on you, man.”
“I am the police,” my father said, which was very zen.
The man stared at my father, trying to understand what was happening. Poor guy. All he’d wanted was some after-sex Chinese food and instead he was getting a crash course in zen.
“What the fuck, man?” he said finally. “Am I on TV? How hard is it to bring me a box of General Tso chicken?”
“You don’t get it,” my father said. “You are General Tso. General Tso is you. These takeout boxes are a vision of you becoming General Tso and making chicken from the silence of your own mind.”
“Paul? What’s going on?” called the female voice.
“Dude, you’re freaking me out,” Paul said.
“I’m illuminating your mind. You can have Chinese food anytime you want, friend. You don’t need me to come over here and deliver it.”
It was a powerful lesson in zen.
My father left him there. But the lesson wasn’t over just yet.
When my father returned to Mr. Yong’s Jade Palace, three new takeout orders were ready for delivery: potstickers, moo shu pork, sliced chicken with orange flavor, honey dew shrimp, seafood delight, hot and sour soup, fried wantons, brown rice, sugar snap peas and grilled fish ball skewer—all boxed away.
My father gathered the takeout bags and pedaled back to 815 Maple Lane, where Paul stood naked in the doorway with a blank look. Without a word, my father handed him the bags ($39.95 worth of Chinese food) and left.
He returned to Mr. Yong’s Jade Palace and gathered another batch of delivery orders: tofu lo mein, pressed duck with pineapple, scallion pancake, sautéed prawns in Malay barbecue sauce, soft shell crabs, fried rice with pork, egg foo young, dumpling and noodles in curry soup, green jade delight, fried squid, banana tempura, mee fun Singapore style, cold noodles in sesame sauce, and General Tso’s chicken. Altogether it was $88.95 worth of Chinese food, seven different orders.
He delivered everything to 815 Maple Lane.
The door to apartment #2 was wide open. Paul and his girlfriend were now sitting naked at the cluttered coffee table gorging on Chinese food. They looked up in amazement as my father walked into the apartment and set down the takeout bags. The air reeked of soy sauce.
“What are you doing, man?” Paul said.
My father stood there with his hands on his hips.
“I’d like you to consider an old parable,” he told the naked couple. “There was once a fish and a fisherman. When the fish was caught the fish asked, What is the sea? The fisherman tried to explain. But the fish didn’t get it. And so I ask you both, Who is General Tso?”
Paul and the woman sat there open-mouthed.
For the rest of the afternoon, until he was fired at three o’clock, my father delivered all the takeout orders to Paul and his girlfriend at 815 Maple Lane so that by the time he walked in with the last sack of food they were bodily twitching in a state of neurological shock, teetering at the edge of enlightenment.
When she was a tiny kid about four years old, my little sister would dip her hand into grape jelly and write poems on our living room walls.
“Look at this stuff,” my mother said, amazed. “Your sister’s a little Shakespeare.”
Shakespeare wasn’t the right comparison but I knew what she meant. My sister’s work amounted to avant-garde poetry strangely beautiful in its way, like a sunset in the porthole of a sinking ship.
Meanwhile, my father emerged from the study one day with an armload of papers. “I did it!” he announced, triumphant. “I finished my novel.”
A pop of champagne sounded while he and my mother did the lindy. My father’s novel had been a work-in-progress for nearly twenty years. I’d been hearing about the legendary work since infancy: a novel destined to replace Moby Dick.
The doorbell rang. “That’s my literary agent.”
When the door opened, a potbellied man hurried in and grabbed the manuscript from my father’s hands, slipped on a toy and slammed his head into the coffee table. The pages flew. “I’m so excited I can’t even see. I’ve waited fourteen years for this,” the agent said.
“You sit here and read the novel,” my father said. “We’ll be back tonight to talk business. The rest of you, let’s go out to celebrate.”
We left the house in high spirits, although secretly I worried the agent would hate my father’s novel. But when we came home, the agent met us at the door, pacing and gripping his head.
“It’s brilliant. My God, I can’t even wrap my head around the imagery. I finished the whole thing a few hours ago and I’ve just been sitting here trying to bring myself back down.”
“Yeah? How much’ll we get for it?”
The agent wasn’t listening. “It’s by far the best poetry I’ve come across in my career. It’s like Dylan Thomas and—”
“Wait a minute. Poetry?”
We were puzzled until my mother’s gasp and outstretched finger alerted us to the couch. One look and my heart broke for my father. Over the past several weeks, my mother had been copying my sister’s jelly-poems into a wirebound notebook. It was lying opened now beside my father’s unread novel.
My father blew up. “Jesus Christ, Bill, are you kidding me? You spent the day reading my daughter’s poetry?”
“If your daughter wrote this stuff, she’s a prodigy. Listen. Let me call a guy I know in Wichita. Runs a little poetry press. He’ll cream his jeans when he sees this.”
“What about my novel?”
My father opened the grandfather clock and tore off the pendulum as if to freeze time forever, then stalked out of the room. We all felt bad for him, but when he was gone, my mother didn’t hesitate to proudly hand over the notebook to the agent. “We’d be honored,” she said. My sister calmly picked her nose.
Six months later, my sister became an overnight darling of the poetry world when her debut collection, The Grape Jelly Incident, was released by a micro press. It didn’t sell, but the critical acclaim was so gushy that, if she’d been older, she’d have landed a teaching job at any number of writing programs.
“I’m so proud of you, honey. Look, your first book!” my mother said and handed the award-winning volume to my sister. She dropped it into the toilet and flushed.
Meanwhile my father was rejected by every agent in New York. “It’s the publishing climate,” he told us at dinner. “They’re only publishing these mass-market bastards right now.”
I felt sorry for him. Worse, my sister had received a five-figure advance for her next collection.
My father’s jealousy simmered, especially as work on his second novel stalled and my sister’s smears of jelly on the living room walls accumulated into what would surely, I saw, be a powerful second book. Her voice was a kite-string instrument doing business with the raw light of summer sky and winter clouds. “Brilliant,” I said.
It wasn’t until we were having breakfast one morning that the reality of his failure finally hit my father. He flung a frustrated hand.
“How can anyone take her stuff seriously? Can someone please tell me that? And why does she write with jelly?”
“She likes jelly.”
“Jelly’s not for poetry. The only thing jelly’s good for is peanut butter. Not poetry. Peanut butter. Jesus. Hasn’t anyone ever—” He halted as if an idea had just occurred to him.
“Don’t you dare,” my mother said, turning pale.
The danger of my father’s idea was immediately apparent to all of us. Nobody had ever introduced my sister to the combination of jelly and peanut butter. For now, the only good use she’d found for jelly was dipping her hand in it and writing. But if peanut butter were introduced to the equation, by God, it would end her career.
My father ran toward the living room holding a jar of peanut butter. My mother intercepted him. There was a struggle.
The jar fell and my father lunged for it. My mother pinned his wrist, sending the jar on a climactic roll toward the refrigerator.
“Do something, Jay,” my mother cried but I knew better than to interfere. The fate of postmodern poetry hung in the balance and I’d be damned if I influenced it one way or the other.
My mother grimaced while she lay on top of my father who was bellydown and struggling to reach his desperate fingers across the inch of linoleum separating him from the jar of peanut butter. When he finally wrapped his fingers around it, he launched it into the living room in a Hail-Mary pass before he was tackled again by my mother. My sister opened the jar. “No!” my mother cried.
Would you believe me if I said I witnessed an entire school of poetry disappear as my sister dipped her jellied fingers into peanut butter and brought the award-winning combination to her mouth?
When my wife gave birth, I held our newborn baby girl at the hospital and named her Ron Loewinsohn.
My wife said, “No fucking way are you naming this baby Ron Loewinsohn. Her name is Jennifer.”
“Her name is Ron Loewinsohn,” I said, smiling into the baby’s squinted face.
“What kind of name is ‘Ron Loewinsohn’ for a little girl?”
“We’ll call her Ronnie.”
“You need psychiatric help,” my wife said. “This Ron Loewinsohn thing has gone too far, Pete. First the dog… Then the cat…”
Ron Loewinsohn was my favorite poet.
“Can’t you give me this one thing?” I shouted. “Jesus Christ, all I’m asking is for Ron Loewinsohn to be a part of this family.”
My wife started screaming. I couldn’t take it and handed Ron Loewinsohn back to her, then left the room to cool off in the hallway. When I shoved open the door it hit my father-in-law in the face. He’d been crouched outside with his ear to the door.
Straightening, he fixed his overcoat with no embarrassment and looked into my eyes. “She’s right,” he said. “Over my cold, dead body will I let you name my granddaughter Ron Loewinsohn.”
His face softened and he put a concerned hand on my shoulder, feeling sorry for me. “You know, Pete, we all have our dreams in life. But don’t you think this thing has gotten out of hand? This Ron Loewinsohn business?”
He meant my fascination with Ron Loewinsohn, a member of the Beat Generation. For reasons I can’t explain, I’d started calling all the people in my life “Ron Loewinsohn.” I’d lost all my friends by nicknaming them Ron Loewinsohn. “Put Ron on the phone.”
Gradually I’d started calling my colleagues Ron Loewinsohn, too. Walking past Ken Osborne on a Monday morning I’d call out, “Hey, Ron, how was your weekend?” I e-mailed Julie Sloane in Sales: “Hey Ron, can I get the GFE numbers from last quarter?” I gave Jonathan Lin a back slap in the men’s room and said, “What’s up, Ron?”
My boss called me in about it, steepling his fingers but I was too good at my job to get fired, so people solved the problem by avoiding me and falling silent when I entered the room. Big deal. If I was crazy to them, to me they were doubly crazy for not recognizing the brilliance of Ron Loewinsohn and accepting a Ron Loewinsohn reality.
“Listen, I know what you’re going through. You’ve been under a lot of stress,” my father-in-law said. “Why don’t you see someone?”
“I’m fine, Ron,” I said, squeezing his shoulder. “Really.”
He sighed, shook his head and went into the hospital room. I stood there in the hallway clenching my fists and thinking how little Ronnie would spend her whole life corrupted by bastards like my father-in-law who didn’t believe in Ron Loewinsohn. My wife too—planting little Ronnie in front of a TV without ever introducing her to Ron Loewinsohn’s work, washing all beauty from her life, destroying us both.
I shoved open the door and burst into the hospital room. My wife and father-in-law, who was holding Ron Loewinsohn, both turned and looked at me in surprise. I grabbed little Ronnie out of his filthy hands and carried her bawling out of the room, with my father-in-the law picking up the phone and calling security.
Next thing I was sprinting down the corridor with Ron Loewinsohn in my arms, passing the receptionist who slammed down the phone and shouted to the two security men by the sliding door.
Security yelled into their walkie-talkies and chased me down the stairwell. I turned and turned two flights ahead of them to make it down to the hospital parking lot so I could escape this life forever with Ron Loewinsohn. We would drive across the country and start over in San Francisco.
When I reached the parking lot, I stumbled over to my car, a ‘91 Ron Loewinsohn, unlocked it with the baby cradled in one arm and was about to place her inside when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned and it was Ron Loewinsohn.
I couldn’t believe it. There he was, with his spongy mustache and combed hair, grinning at me. “Let me have the baby, Pete.”
I handed little Ronnie to Ron Loewinsohn, overjoyed by his presence. In turn, he handed the baby to a worried-looking nurse who hurried inside as if the air were toxic. It was just me and Ron.
“Come on, Pete,” he said gently. “Let’s go for a drive.”
Ron wrapped his arm around my shoulders and we walked across the lot to a white van. “I know a place down the street where we can get a couple of watermelons,” I said. Watermelons was my favorite Ron Loewinsohn poem.
Ron nodded and patted me on the back.
When we arrived at the van there were two men in white waiting for us with their legs apart and hands positioned to hold an energy field—and that’s when I realized Ron Loewinsohn wasn’t Ron Loewinsohn at all.
I didn’t say anything. When I was seated, the van drove off with the man I’d confused for Ron Loewinsohn raising a hand farewell in the parking lot, growing smaller and smaller as I watched him through the rear window. After a couple blocks, I began to miss my wife and daughter. I began to miss a lot of things. I sort of wished I hadn’t started this Ron Loewinsohn business.
“Hey,” I called to the driver. “Who are you people? Where are you taking me?” I sat forward and worked my joined wrists up the small of my back so the cuffs wouldn’t dig into my flesh.
The driver looked at me in the rear-view mirror. “We’re going to San Francisco. I thought you knew.”
I squinted. “Ron?”
He nodded. “It’s me, old buddy.”
One day at lunch I bit into my sandwich and pulled back in horror. Fall of ‘84. I was in kindergarten.
“What’s wrong?” Shane said.
I lifted the top slice. “This sandwich has no mustard.”
I was surprised, because I’d made the sandwich myself. Usually I was surgically precise in the making of my sandwiches.
“You have to go back,” Shane said.
He meant I’d have to go home and put mustard on the sandwich right now this very minute. It was a question of zen.
“If you don’t take the extra step each morning to put mustard on your sandwich, pretty soon you won’t have time for anything anymore. It’s a downward spiral. You’ll quit taking care of the small things in life that truly matter and your heart will vanish.”
Shane was only five but he was a smart kid, possibly a reincarnation of zen master Baizhang Huaihai. I knew he was right. I stood up in my glow-in-the-dark sneakers, shook his unwashed hand and put on my backpack for the journey home.
The bell rang. The effect was like pulling a drain that sent hundreds of children throughout the playground swirling from ball games and tetherball matches to drown at the classroom door.
I rushed away in the opposite direction through mural-bright hallways and hopped the chain-link fence like a runaway prisoner. When I arrived at the edge of campus I lifted my sneaker over the last inch of lawn dividing School from the Outside World, breaking two cardinal rules in a single gesture: 1) Don’t ever cut class, and 2) Don’t ever walk home alone.
My plan was to go home, put mustard on the sandwich, eat the sandwich and return to my desk before Mrs. Kalvin in her polka-dot smock ever knew the difference.
But suddenly I felt a stinging pain. My ear was pulled off the side of my head and holding it between two of his disapproving fingers was Principal Norman in his tweed blazer. “Cutting school? Not on my watch, you little schmuck. Off we go.” And he carried my ear to his office.
Damn, I thought.
Next thing I was sitting in the principal’s office and he sat across from me at his desk with steepled fingers. “I’m only going to ask you this once,” he said mysteriously. His mustache twitched. “Are you or are you not involved in an underground network known as the playground mafia?”
“The playground mafia?” On the wall behind him was a bulletin board covered by a pyramid of mugshots: bullies with known histories of hallway terrorism. “No,” I said, panicking.
Principal Norman didn’t believe me and made me stand against the wall holding a nameplate while he took my mugshot. “There’s an organized crime network at this school,” he told me in his sheriff’s voice. “And I think you’re running the whole show.” He carried the photo to the bulletin board and pinned it to the top of the pyramid.
“You’re the godfather,” he said.
“No way. I was just—”
“Stay there.” He left the office.
While he was gone I studied the playground mafia and thought, Jesus Christ, all this to put mustard on my sandwich? Was the trouble worth it? But I knew the answer was yes, it was definitely worth the trouble of being falsely accused and punished to put mustard on my sandwich. The secret to zen is to place as much emphasis on life’s smallest details as the biggest, because all the big things are small things in disguise.
I climbed out the window and next thing I was running down Anderson Street, free. I kicked back my scraped elbows and thought, The hell with Principal Norman. If I want to put mustard on my sandwich, then God help me, I’ll put mustard on my sandwich any damn time I please.
When I arrived home I rushed up the driveway, excited. My mission was simple: Get inside, grab the mustard, eat the sandwich and leave. It was not complicated. It would not require the help of Green Berets. There was a slight chance my mother would come home and catch me, but I was willing to face the consequences. A man who forgets to put mustard on his sandwich is already dead anyway.
When I reached the shadowed porch, I stopped and noticed something unusual. A pair of human legs was lying in the bushes. I was confused. Human legs are usually attached to a human. I parted the bushes for a closer look and the legs were attached to our middle-aged neighbor, a man who always raised a friendly hand when I passed on my bicycle. He was lying facedown in his khakis and argyle socks.
I rolled him over and he stared at me with a helpless look that scared the shit out of me. Something had happened to him, which he tried to indicate with a trembling finger pointing to his chest. I ran inside and called 9-1-1. Then I called my mother at work.
The ambulance and my mother arrived at the same time so that for a weird moment I imagined there was a flashing siren mounted on top of my mother’s car and all this time she’d been lying to me about her life. She wasn’t my mother. She was an undercover CIA agent with a kick-ass recipe for mac-‘n’-cheese.
“Over there!” I said, pointing to the bushes.
The paramedics crouched beside our neighbor and he was bodily lifted into the back of the ambulance. It sped off before the doors had even shut.
“He had a heart attack. Come on,” my mother said and we jumped into the car. It was only after we’d reached the hospital that she thought to wonder what I was doing home so early. Sitting with me in the waiting room, she closed her magazine and gave me an angry look while I told her the story, a look that gradually softened and then vanished entirely when a doctor in blue scrubs came out from the ER and offered me his hand.
“You’re a hero, young man,” he said. If I hadn’t called the paramedics exactly when I had, our neighbor, Mr. Richards, would have surely died, he explained. But he was doing fine now and would make a full recovery.
“Don’t thank me,” I said, “thank the mustard.”
My mother was glowing and when the doctor left, she kissed the top of my head, as proud as I’d ever seen her.
It’s been my experience ever since in life that nothing is more important than taking an extra minute or two to put mustard on a sandwich that needs mustard. Shane, or perhaps the Chinese zen master Baizhang Huaihai, was right: Forget the small things, and sooner or later you lose everything.
I arrived an hour early for the job interview.
“Jay? Mr. Billings will see you now,” the secretary said. I walked into Mr. Billings’s office and he was a stuffed giraffe. There’s no simpler way of saying it. The editor of the best political magazine in New York was a carnival prize.
For a moment I thought someone had snuck into the office and put the giraffe there as a prank. That was not the case.
“Have a seat,” the giraffe said.
I glanced around the room, puzzled. I figured there might be a hidden speaker or a guy crouched beneath a table, throwing his voice. Nothing.
“You’re interviewing for the position of Junior Editor?” the giraffe said. “Tell me about yourself.”
I stared at the giraffe. Its eyes were made of glass.
“Well,” I said, sitting and crossing my legs, “I worked as a freelance editor for five years at the Post, and most recently I was copy editor for the Tribune.”
I was surprised when the phone woke me the next day and I was offered the job.
“You start at four a.m. Monday. I realize that’s a bit early—but we work like animals around here,” Mr. Billings said.
From the beginning, nobody at the magazine discussed the fact that Mr. Billings was a giraffe. It simply wasn’t mentioned. I’d walk past his office and see the Senior Copy Editor—a guy who’d been nominated for a Pulitzer—discussing edits with a stuffed animal. “Tell Jenkins I want a thousand words on the election,” Mr. Billings said.
This was strange even for New York City standards, but I knew enough about the eccentricities of magazine publishing not to ask questions. The most I’d been told was that Mr. Billings was a “troubled and deeply brilliant man.”
One evening when I was working late, the phone rang and Mr. Billings asked me if I cared to join him for a drink. I found him sitting at the bar over a plate of leaves and a bucket of water.
“Listen, pal,” the bartender told my boss, “it’s none of my business, but you seem a little long in the face.”
I sat down. “Gin and tonic.”
The bartender left and Mr. Billings stared ahead at the mirror. I could see that he was spotty. “I’ll be honest, Jay,” the giraffe said. “Sometimes I don’t understand these God-damn freelance journalists. This Jenkins fellow, for instance. He’s driving me crazy. He wants me to send him to New Zealand to write an article about meat pies. I said to him, how about you send me to New Zealand and write me something I can publish?”
“I mean, let’s be frank. I can’t just stick my neck out for every Tom, Dick and Harry, can I? Show me an honest journalist, and I’ll show you a monthly pass to the Bronx Zoo.”
If Mr. Billings was a real person, I never saw him. Why did he hide himself? Was he hideously deformed? Phobically shy?
I was about two months into the job when I got an angry phone call one morning from Jenkins, the freelancer. He’d just had a third story rejected by Mr. Billings. “Give me a break,” Jenkins said. “How can I survive on kill fees?”
I knocked on Mr. Billings’s door. When I entered, someone had placed Mr. Billings sideways so that he was staring in the wrong direction. There was a stack of manuscripts on his desk and a corned beef sandwich.
“Sir? May I have a word?” I sat down. “This Jenkins character is pretty upset about our handling of his recent work.”
The giraffe stared at the wall.
Jenkins started sending threatening e-mails.
“For three years I’ve worked for a fucking GIRAFFE. If you people want to play mind games, that’s your business. But don’t reject my stuff because you have a fucking stuffed animal running your company.”
Mr. Billings replied back and CC’d the entire company: “Good luck with your psychiatric care, Mr. Jenkins.”
It was a mistake to CC the entire company. Staffers began exchanging wary glances. Whispers sounded at the watercooler. It was understood that Mr. Billings had finally gone too far.
Sure enough—days later, we heard a piercing scream from the secretary.
We burst out of our cubicles. She was standing in the opened door of Mr. Billings’s office, aiming her red fingernail inside.
We looked and saw that Mr. Billings had been decapitated. Someone had snuck in with a chainsaw and severed the giraffe’s neck, so that the stuffed body was still sitting in the swivel chair but the head was resting on the desktop, cheekdown, staring up at the ceiling with a terrible glass eye.
I never heard from Mr. Billings again, but whenever I visit the zoo with my daughter I always make a point of stopping by the giraffes, half expecting to find him alive and well, turning away from a treetop with a mouthful of leaves to tell me, “Have it on my desk by nine a.m. tomorrow, Jay.”
Emily never left the apartment because she was too busy writing the perfect short story. “Why don’t you ever go outside?” her roommate asked. Emily fixed her hair on top of her lovely head and said, “I’m trying to write the perfect short story.”
In her room she sat by a window overlooking a brick wall with pencil and notebook writing hundreds of short stories. The phone rang. It was always young men asking her for a date. “Want to have dinner?” which she always refused by saying: “Not unless you’re the perfect short story.”
But nothing she wrote was perfect. “I don’t get it,” her roommate said, watching Emily crumple a new story. “Why do you keep trashing all your stories?”
“I’m only interested in the perfect short story,” Emily said, making a fist. “Not a good story. The perfect story.”
She was fascinated by the slogan “15 minutes could save you 15% or more on car insurance” and wanted her stories to have the same singsong impact. She wasn’t interested in the typical short story, the sort of touch-yourself piece that follows a richly drawn character with breathtaking language and heart-stopping revelations. She wanted her stories to function like an advertising jingle.
Her roommate suspected Emily might be crazy. But she knew that Emily was a talented writer, so one morning when Emily was in the shower, her roommate tiptoed into Emily’s room and fished through the wastebasket. She found five recently crumpled stories, chose her favorite and mailed it off to The New Yorker.
Emily was stunned and confused when she opened a letter two weeks later and learned the story had been accepted.
When her roommate confessed, Emily was furious. “How dare you! It’s not even the best of what I’ve destroyed.”
“I’m sorry,” her roommate said. “Really.”
Even so, Emily allowed the story to be published. When the story appeared, she was surprised to hear from a liberal arts college who offered her a Fiction Fellowship: a grant to live rent-free at the college for one semester and receive a $10,000 stipend—all on the strength of her story. She accepted.
The college was in a farmhouse community hundreds of miles from the nearest city. Emily lived in a monastic little room with a green field outside the window, ideal for writing the perfect short story. She set to work.
As a condition of her fellowship, she was required to give a public reading of her story and she reluctantly took the podium one night and read. The audience roared with laughter. Afterward a bearded professor came up to her with his plastic cup of wine and said, “You’re the new Thurber!”
Emily was devastated.
The story was not meant to be funny. Pacing her room with her hands in her hair, she realized it was hopeless. She was nowhere near perfection. Maybe my stuff’s too long, she thought. Too much context. Too much explanation. The message gets lost in all the prose. It should be shorter, like “15 minutes could save you 15%.”
But how short could it be?
Over the following week she sat at her desk and shrunk the average length of her stories by 25%. Usually they were four pages. Now they were three.
Nothing. I’ll have to write them even shorter, she thought.
She shrunk the stories down to two pages.
“Are you having trouble?” a friend asked. “I walk past your room and all I ever hear is the sound of crumpling paper.”
Desperate, she tried shrinking the stories to one page.
The stories were so short they were like fireflies in a jar: flash and they were gone. All were masterpieces. A collection of the little stories Emily wrote would have won every prize in America and sat atop the bestseller list had they been published.
But she destroyed them all. Too long.
So she cut down the stories yet again, taking three agonizing hours to choose a single perfect sentence and writing only one story a week now, half a page long, so that every word shimmered. Still too long. Her next batch of stories were just a quarter page. Then a paragraph. Then a handful of lines.
Finally she was writing what amounted to haiku. She once spent a week on a single ten-word shooting star of a story that vanished as soon as she finished it.
Within a month she’d reached a point of such minimalism she dangled her pencil above the paper without even making a mark. And that’s when it happened.
It suddenly occurred to her that perfection was the moment between lifting the pencil and marking the page. Perfection was all the stories that could happen outside the boundaries of paper before they were ever fully defined—and that’s when Emily finally wrote the perfect short story.
On a trip out West with my hard-drinking college buddy last month, we discovered something called “penny cities.” Entire forgotten communities exist among the postcard-vivid cliffs of Arizona and New Mexico that can be bought for only a penny. When you buy the city, you get everything it contains.
I lit a fresh cigarette in our dying Buick, bare feet perched on the open window sill, and thought: How strange that for just 1 cent, we can own the unhappy teenage girl painting her toenails on that front porch or the water balloon fight in that vacant lot or the white piano in that cluttered yard. “What do you say? Should we buy one?” my buddy asked.
“Hell yes,” I said. I dug into the soda-sticky cup holder and came up with a nickel, enough to buy five.
We completed the transaction in a dim garage where a sunburnt old man whose head wouldn’t stop nodding pocketed the nickel, produced ownership papers and continued nodding without a word. I held his shoulder. He was so ancient I wondered if he understood what he’d just done, that he had sold off the kids blowing soap bubbles outside the grocery store, sold off the barefoot bum singing opera, sold off the sunflower fields.
One morning I was pedaling to high school half asleep when the air trembled and a roaring engine shook the trees. I looked up and my friend Oliver was flying to school in a World War Two airplane.
It was incredible. The rest of us pumped away at our Schwinns while Oliver cruised overhead in a one-man propeller craft modeled after the Grumman Tigercat. He looked down at us and raised a friendly hand.
He was wearing goggles, a leather cap and a fluttering scarf.
“Holy shit, man, where’d you get it?” people asked him at school.
He always landed next to the football field and was surrounded by admirers while he squeezed out of the cockpit and hopped down to the grass in his leather flight jacket. “I built her in my garage. Took me a year.”
It changed his life. Overnight, he went from being a runny-nosed outcast to a glowing teenage legend.
Every morning he cut class with a different girl, holding his gloved hand at the small of her back while he led her out to the football field. “Here, wear this.” He’d hand the girl goggles and a leather cap, and she’d toss her hair as though auditioning for a shampoo commercial, fold it into the cap and climb into the green-leathered cockpit.
Next thing Oliver stomped on the gas pedal and the propeller began spinning. The roaring plane bounced a few yards and then raced ahead. As it gained speed, the football field flashed alongside them and baffled freshmen paused during laps to watch. Finally the propeller disappeared. Oliver yanked back the throttle and their knees blocked out the square of sky in the windshield.
It was rumored that Oliver lost his virginity at 4,000 feet with Audrey Jasmine, which was probably true. It seems that once they reached a cruising altitude, girls found him irresistible. Some magic combination of thin air, passing clouds and Oliver’s cologne made it impossible for girls to keep their panties on.
But remarkably, he wasn’t satisfied.
In fact, Oliver was the unhappiest student at Roosevelt High.
It was all very simple: He was in love. Her name was Ellia, and he’d loved her since the day in kindergarten he’d been seated with her at Snack Time. He’d worshipped her from a nervous distance ever since, growing up in the same one-pharmacy little town for eleven years without ever exchanging even a passing hello.
She was beyond Oliver’s sense of reality, a blue-eyed ballet dancer and the only girl in school who’d heard about the plane and didn’t seem to care.
“He flies to school?” was her reaction. “God, what a joke.”
Oliver suffered. He’d been continuously pushing love notes through the slats of Ellia’s locker since seventh grade. At first he tried to forget about Ellia. He cut class, removed the panties of sophomore and junior girls and discarded his swollen heart among the clouds so successfully there were moments up there in the plane when he wasn’t sure who he was as he humped away at his passengers.
Then one day he was walking out to the plane and saw Ellia standing alone by the parking lot. She stood with folded arms and mascara tears, badly shaken and struggling to catch her breath.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“I need to get out of here.”
Without taking her eyes off the passing cars, a panicked Ellia told her story in a shaky gust of mint gum. She’d just received a call from a ballet company in San Francisco. She was the understudy in Swan Lake. A performance was scheduled to begin in two hours, but the lead dancer had fallen ill, which meant that if Ellia could be in San Francisco by 3 p.m., the role was hers. It would be the biggest break of her career.
“But I can’t get a ride,” she said, stung. A fresh set of tears threatened to spill from her Kool-Aid-blue eyes. “My parents are out of town and my sister’s in Sacramento. She’s on her way but won’t be here for another fifteen minutes, and from here it’s two hours to San Francisco assuming there’s no traffic—which isn’t likely given that it’s Friday, and—”
“Let’s go,” Oliver said, cutting her off. “I’ll fly you there.”
She looked at him for the first time. “You’re the guy with the plane?”
“I can get you to San Francisco in forty-two minutes.”
Instantly they were running for the plane with an astonished Oliver leading the way. He handed her the cap and goggles, she climbed into the passenger seat and Oliver’s bruised heart skipped with delight while he hit the colored flight buttons and flipped the controls. Next thing the school fell away among Lego-set treetops and rooftops, and they bounced among the clouds.
When they’d reached a cruising altitude, Oliver remembered to check the fuel gauge. Panicked, he tapped the glowing dials and realized he was low on fuel. He would need to land in Fairfield, which would cost them precious minutes.
Damn. What should I do? he thought.
Being low on fuel was highly unsafe—but if he stopped, they would lose twenty minutes, at least. Ellia’s career would be finished.
Meanwhile a wall of silence had built between him and Ellia. He wanted to lean over it and tell her he loved her and that he’d waited his whole life for this moment. But the engine’s roar made conversation impossible. It didn’t seem quite romantic, for instance, to yell, “I love you” at someone and the person to cup their ear and shout, “What?” and then yell it again and the person to squint and shake their head saying, “I can’t hear you.”
He decided to forge ahead.
Within thirty minutes, fog appeared. Then a row of windows. The windows expanded into a skyscraper and were joined by a second skyscraper and then a third and fourth until the patchwork complexity of San Francisco appeared below them.
“It’s beautiful,” Ellia said, wide-eyed.
“Where’s the theater?” Oliver shouted.
It was illegal to fly so close to the city and Oliver knew he’d be fined $25,000 if he were caught and pay it off next summer by flipping burgers in Woodland, but who cares? Anyway he faced a bigger problem: He was now completely out of fuel.
“What’s wrong?” Ellia shouted.
The engine was coughing. Each fresh shudder dropped the plane by ten or fifteen worrisome yards while a panicking Oliver scanned the geometry of streets below for some sign of where he was.
When Coit Tower appeared, he reached his arm around the seatback and handed Ellia a parachute.
“Put this on. Then jump out and pull the cord,” he instructed her. “Wind’s moving north. You’ll land right outside the theater.”
Ellia trembled. “Are we going to crash?”
“Just put it on.” She did.
“What about you? Where’s yours?”
“Don’t worry about me.”
Meanwhile the plane had stopped in mid air. They were hovering on fumes.
“Oh shit,” she said, turning to him. “We are going to crash, aren’t we? Something’s wrong with the engine.”
He leaned over and grabbed her face and kissed her. “Just go,” he said. “And listen. I want you to know something. I love you. Don’t worry about it, I just want you to know. This was the best day of my life.”
Stunned, she said, “I don’t know what to do.”
Ellia climbed over her seatback and jumped out of the plane.
She immediately stopped in mid air as the parachute erupted into a colorful mass that safely floated her down toward the city. She looked back at Oliver, who turned in his doomed cockpit and raised his hand. She just managed to raise her own small hand before he disappeared.
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If you like my work, I have exciting news to share.
After seven years, I recently completed a new novel, The World Disappears.
It’s a full-length, coming-of-age novel about a piano prodigy and a video game inventor, set in Japan and California.
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Jay Gershwin lives in New York City. He is the author of Poor Man’s Autumn. For a limited time only, you can download his newest novel, The World Disappears , for 50% off the normal price. Go to www.JGershwin.com/50
A man looks for the meaning of life by delivering Chinese food in this magically brilliant story collection. A man writes a haiku that nets him $1 million. A man invents a new flavor of Kool-Aid that tastes like Ernest Hemingway. The whirligig stories in Zen Parachute are hilarious, sad takes on man's desperate search for purpose. Featuring two stories that went viral online in 2014 and 2015, this book could change the way think, speak, and dream.