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.