Samuel Gaslin stood up straight and tall as a mountain’s peak. In the same prideful stance his father had taught him on his first day of school. After which his old man went missing to the demon spell of ‘modern conveniences’, as that shadowy story went.

Mama turned to church after that. And Samuel, he turned to literature. He reserved his prayers for Hemingway, Chaucer, Morrison, Melville and Yeats. His church became the whole wide world, which was a sight better than Mama’s covered plate existence with those old biddies who got all dressed up for God.

So it was that Samuel Gaslin, age eleven, found himself tossed into the ring of fire known as the Silverside Elementary Spelling Bee. Expectations were high as St. Peter’s robe, and rumors were fire.

His word was purveyor, which Samuel knew from The Canterbury Tales.

Samuel imagined himself the noble prince of some epic battle from the way back of times. His journey having been forged by Mama’s yard sale book collection and a two dollar flashlight that brought those words to life on nights when the moon couldn’t match the energy of his young bones.

The stage was growing thin with each new word Principal Wilson coughed up. First it had been Becky from 4th grade, then Wilma from 5th. Then Edward, Hannah, Amy and Paul. The vanquished always carried an odd marriage of a smile as they staggered off- painted up from equal parts relief and heartbreak.

His word was suffused, which Samuel knew from Song of Solomon.

Next to go was Jeffery, from his very own class. He lost on alphabetize and Samuel didn’t dare make eye contact with him for fear Jeffery would cry after having lost to a word he knew backwards. Crying was a high crime for a sixth grade boy, worse than losing, it was.

A buzz ran through the crowd as Principal Wilson held conference with the English teacher, Ms. Wilkerson. Samuel took the opportunity to stretch his arms for the first time since what felt like the day he was born. He stretched his eyes more guardedly, careful not to make eye contact with his opponents. And that’s when he counted six shoes left inside the sea of burnished maple.

And now Samuel found himself alone in the worst of imaginable ways. Alone with two girls. Alone on a spotlight soaked stage. Alone with a muffle whispered crowd dipped in ink sitting out before him. Alone with Jessica Baine from 5th grade. Alone with Carolyn Buckwalter from 6th. Alone with these wordsmiths dressed all in pinks and yellows and confidence.

Those girls had more going for them than a bumble bee on spring’s first day. Jessica was a walking dictionary whose moody independence left her with a king’s ransom of time with which to track down even the stealthiest of definitions. Carolyn owned a photographic memory and to make matters worse, a Daddy who taught English.

And there was Samuel. Long on courage but weak on his consonants. He could almost find comfort in the certainty that he would be the next tail tucked, because with nothing to lose came the noble purpose. Character was borne out of the impossible tries. Mama was always preaching such lessons in her weeping biblical memorandums.

Principal Wilson quieted the crowd and then wished the three remaining contestants good luck. Ms. Wilkerson then took the opportunity to enlist an affirmation that might have grown hair if not for Principal Wilson’s exclamatory grunts for brevity.

His word was venerable, and it was one of Samuel’s very favorite words in the world from the first time he read it in Moby Dick.

When Carolyn Buckwalter danced through the word acknowledgement and Jessica Baine sliced through the word rhythmic as if it were a friendly pat of butter on flapjacks, Samuel found himself holding on for dear life, to the doubts. Because the doubts were the only things keeping his legs from going timber up on that stage. The doubts produced heat, out of nerves sake. The doubts were a reminder that winning was a never promised thing.

Confidence exhibited all those qualities of the dead. It was cold and it was certain. And the truth of the matter was that Samuel didn’t feel cold or particularly certain.

His word was indignant which Samuel knew from Yeats’s The Second Coming.

After which, Carolyn Buckwalter tripped and fell on the word spaghetti. This was a remarkable turn of events considering as how it was by far the most popular of the mostly forgettable school lunches. Carolyn left the stage in a tapering heave of black heeled clicks and elongated sniffles as the crowd shuffled nervously in their seats.

Samuel and Jessica behaved as islands of a different sea, until Ms. Wilkerson proclaimed herself an honored witness to this “truly inspirational display of bright young minds”. Good intentions aside, her sojourn was little more than a disquieting reminder that high noon had arrived.

Jessica Baine accepted her word- descendant– as if it had been dipped in nitroglycerine. She enlisted the full service of help accorded to Spelling Bee contestants by asking that the word be repeated, defined and used in a sentence. When she asked for the language of origin, Samuel knew she was simply laying it on thick for emphasis. And he came up right when she sped through the ten letters as if a trapeze artist with a mind to greet his maker.

Samuel’s word was disillusionment , and with this, Samuel breathed a heavy thanks to the soul of Hemingway for having introduced him to a love story gone wrong in For Whom the Bell Tolls. After which he gave a big fat licking to the word as if it were Mama’s pecan pie.

Jessica Baine’s answer fell short when she blew stratification by substituting one vowel for the other and then setting it in stone when she repeated the word. “That is incorrect” announced Principal Wilson, and Samuel could feel his opponent’s smile plummet as he tried his hardest not to show one inside the humbling moment.

The crowd had gone sick with quiet now, a rambling fever of anticipation awaiting the word that Samuel had to deliver up in order to win this Saturday morning. He could feel the rush of doubt attempting to swallow him up whole, but it was too late for that. He had come too far, traversed too many of those sticky lettered battalions . He had teased his doubts into a cage, and now he was busy exchanging them for the confidence that once earned, would from this day forward be owned.

Principal Wilson presented Samuel’s word as if a carrot with a trap door promise. Samuel held it firm to the heat of his tongue. And then he commenced with his slow and deliberate march of letters, each one part of a regiment of colors and purpose and skill.

All those practiced nights of shooting free throws in the dark with Morrison and Yeats and Melville and Hemingway and Chaucer provided the steady to his step as one letter joined the next and victory inched closer still.  And with each letter came the idea in Samuel’s brain that someone up high had been paying a mind to his hunger for words borne of wide awake dreams .

Samuel Gaslin was arriving. In his navy blue suit with the pinched white collar and crimson tie.

He was arriving. Indeed.


24 thoughts on “Arrival

  1. Let me guess Samuel’s real name…


    Ha just kidding.

    This was great Cayman. A beautiful tribute even to words themselves and how they can save us, lift us, and propel us forward into the unknown.

    I’m curious Sam’s victory word, but at the same time. I know it doesn’t matter. What mattered was he had arrived.

    Ah, but he had been there all along. That was only his moment of awareness.

    His awakening.

    • Yanno, I didn’t even think about what his word was. You’re right, it was his coming of age, his stepping out and doing it. The word was not the thing, it was his changing on that stage, moving from earning to owning. It’s the struggle in all of us, to overcome the number one obstacle…ourselves. And there was Samuel, fighting a past that was always busy tugging at him while holding to the words that helped him escape so many forgettable days. And in the end, the words unleashed him.

      True story. When I was a wee lad of a few years of age, mom couldn’t afford children’s books so she had this dictionary she gave me. I would page through it, scribbling gibberish on its pages. Fast forward many years later, words would come to me when I was writing and I would have to check them to see if they fit what I was trying to say and most every time, they did, even if I wasn’t familiar with the word.

      There is a unique mystery to taking a blank page and transforming it into something else. It comes from our past, it comes from our soul and I truly do believe it comes from the spirits who nudge us in the right direction.

      • Maybe his word was, “Arrival.” I like to think it was.

        Agree about the spirits who nudge us. Sometimes that’s the only way I can describe it. But like Glenn wrote:

        “Oh but she can’t take you anyway you don’t already know how to go.”

        In elementary school, we had these small Webster dictionaries we kept in our desks. Like 4 X 6, about 4 inches thick or so. I “borrowed” one from the supply closet to read at night.

        I still have it.

  2. Arrival, you claimed it.

    See, that right there is what I love the most about writing. Giving the reader something, but not every single thing. Allowing them to roam and find, and claim. It’s theirs every bit as much as it’s mine. I am absolutely in love with that kind of transaction.

    I don’t know how many times I used that line in my life “Oh but she can’t take you anyway you don’t already know how to go”, but it was many, many, many times. And man, if it ain’t the whole truth.

    I love that you borrowed the Webster dictionary. It’s something I would have done, and like you, I never would have let it go. Beautiful stuff, C.

  3. I am always in awe when I take the time to digest your writing. The sad part for me is coming away with the thought that I should try to do better than the stuff I produce. It just ain’t going to happen pilgrim and I gotta come to grips with the fact that you are a genius. I can live with that and take pleasure in everything you write.

    • If most anyone else had said this, I would have replied with a “That’s so nice of you, thanks!”, but when it comes from you, it gives me pause. I look up to you, because you understand what this writing thing is all about. Writing is hard So why do we do it? Because we can’t imagine NOT doing it. You understand this as well as anyone because you’re a writer.

      I don’t believe what I wrote is genius. I do believe it happened to hit you that way because I really loved creating this story. You see that, you get it. And it’s no surprise because you do it too.

      I rambled, sorry. But only because I admire you this much, and your comment only serves to inspire me. Which is what writers do for each other. All the time in fact.

  4. Love this story! My oldest daughter won a local spelling bee when she was in the eighth grade. She missed a word at around the halfway point of the regional. When we went into that spelling bee, we joked about trying to relate her words to what was our favorite TV show at the time, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was all we could do to not laugh out loud when she drew the word “refulgent.” It wasn’t exactly the same word, but when William the Bloody wrote a poem for his love interest (he turns into Spike, the vampire, later), that included the word “effulgent.” Her next word was “bronze,” which, of course, was the name of the club that Buffy and all of her friends went to on a regular basis. Sadly, she lost on the word “wainscot.” I would have missed that word, too.

    • That’s a great story, Jeff. And how fortuitous that she would draw those words. Although I think luck happens to those who are prepared, as she most certainly was.

      Wainscot? Yikes, I would have been hard pressed to get that one!

  5. You are a master spinner, C. This story gripped me, and I held me hostage the entire way through. Loved how you described the process of each spelling – a true view of showing not telling. To me, masterful writing can take the reader to the stage, the arena, the playground just like you did and then make it feel memorable or applicable on some other plane.

    Once I breathed again, I remembered why this had me so enthralled. You are looking at the Mitchell County 1980 spelling bee participant. After successful moments with words like chrysanthemum, and accommodation…I was brought down by a word I should have know in my sleep.”Beeline.”

    The self-doubt, the ‘trying not to lose it’ popped into my head as I remember standing on stage for the longest time “Two e’s or one? Two e’s or one? It’s TWO…no, it’s ONE!” “Go, Michelle…people are waiting on you. You don’t want them waiting on you.” You guessed it…I chose only one e and was out after the fourth round. The cute boy from the neighboring town won with the word “soliloquy.” Perhaps, his name was Samuel, but I think it was Curtis.

    The power of words will long continue to amaze and inspire me – just like this guy, Cayman, I know.

    PS: I sent you and the sexy mad scientist a picture via e-mail; I think it’ll make you chuckle.

    • M,
      It seems we are comrades of Spelling Bees past, because I was in the Silverside Elementary Spelling Bee. I represented the fourth grade, but for the life of me I cannot remember the word that brought me down. Had to be a consonant heavy word though, had to be.

      Writing is like being a guide. You welcome the visitor and then you walk them through a place they are not familiar with, allowing them to learn and discover at their leisure. You found familiar spots and this added to your ‘walk’, which is what really excites me about writing. I love that, I truly do.

      I have to check this email now….

  6. great story…
    captivated. I can just see Sam under the covers, flashlight in hand, way past his bedtime and saving his own life with those books.
    or maybe that was me.

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