Not figuring on too many people reading this one, so I’ll just go balls out and cut it loose here…
At Halloween I posted a true story about a house I once lived in; an old place where things went bump in the night, doors slammed shut and potted plants moved before one’s very eyes. Once in awhile (and this is really creepy), mice would finish your dinner if you left it sitting on the kitchen table overnight. Now, I still don’t believe in poltergeists or any of that stuff, but I DID move out of the place. Like an agnostic who secretly prays a little bit every night, it’s better to cover all your bases, right?
The ghost folks, they claim the spooky stuff is energy; the ectoplasmic, electromagnetic, superfunkadelic residue of lost souls. Could also just be a poorly insulated, mice-infested structure, shifting on its crumbling limestone foundation. But what do I know?
Although I’m not entirely persuaded by hauntings of the Amityville variety, I’ve come to embrace the spooks of a different sort. I’m referring here to the ghosts of essays past. More specifically: old entries in writing contests.
Back when we lived in the old house where strange things occurred, we bled money. Not to fend off spirits so much as fending off crumbling lead paint-covered walls, a dangerously obsolete electrical system, decaying porch, faulty water heater, moldy bathrooms, decrepit floors, yellow well-water, and… spiders. Big, hairy, cigarette-smoking spiders. This is about the same time a group of jihadists flew airplane tours of Manhattan and the Pentagon, or shortly thereafter. The little business I’d been running out of a small office upstairs was in a free-fall and we needed cash…fast.
Having run short of notches, we really couldn’t tighten the belt any further, and the only plastic card we had was pushing the saturation point.
Every morning I’d walk a block to the Marathon gas station and pick up a newspaper, to stay in touch with what was happening in the big city. What was happening one day, according to an article in the humanities section, was the answer to my secret little agnostic prayers.
There was going to be a writing contest….with a CASH PRIZE!
I’m Jethro Bodine, now, in the well-worn ruts of a stale Beverly Hillbillies TV plot. My little acorn brain has dun come up wit a plan to get us outta this here crazy money mess! I’ll win the writin’ contest and everythin’il be o-kee do-kee! Maybe we could even buy a see-ment pond fer the backyard!
This was at the very height of the Harry Potter craze, and like every other business which depended on marketing at the time, the Chicago Tribune decided to clamp on to J.K. Rowling’s titties and milk em for all their worth.
There was another Potter book set for release, and the premise of the writing contest was to creatively explain (in 250 words or less) the “secret” Dumbledore was going to reveal to young Harry. I’m not exactly sure which book it was, but I want to say “Harry Potter and the Temple of Beaver.”
Anyway, although I’d never read the books, I put in an entry. They never really specified the prize, but I figured I could win $500 or something.
I’m a little bit smarter than Jethro Bodine, and I knew the contest wasn’t going to solve all of our problems, but I was still dumb enough to think I’d succeed in everything I tried.
So what happens is, I send in the entry and I win.
Okay, there were several winners. They had different categories, and my piece got tossed in the “humor” bucket. No big deal, I’ll take it. My head starts swimming with the possibilities, five-hundred dollars is now seven-fifty. I mean, they were very vague on the entry form, but the Chicago Tribune is part of a major media conglomerate, right? Maybe the prize is a thousand bucks! With a thousand bucks, I could pay a bill, buy us groceries for a month and score us some additional time to get the business back on track.
Fast forward a couple weeks and I get an envelope from the Tribune. It’s the prize all right: Inside, a photocopied certificate of congratulations (off-center) and (drum roll please)… a fifty dollar gift card to Borders Books.
Insert your own fart noise here.
Long story short, the fam and I dine on stuffed pretzels and Seattle’s Best Coldbrewed Caramel Mochas at the Borders café for three or four straight days. Life in the fast lane for a cham-peen, short story scribbler.
Now what sort of frosts my nuggets is that this contest winner is still out there, floating around the super-magnetic-inter-highway. Fifty lousy bucks and almost six years later, it rears it’s ugly head, reminding me of those awful days gone by.
If I can’t stop those old essays from haunting me, I figured I might as well reclaim it. Take ownership of the thing and re-post it here, at my own site. Maybe it’ll lead to some of the same magic dust J.K. Rowling caught wind of.
Here it is… in its entirety, the $50 winner…
Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, early 2003-ish.
By Scott Simkus
Harry shifted in the chair, blinked his eyes, then lifted his hands onto the wooden arm rests, trying his best to remain calm.
“I wanted to wait for the right time,” explained Dumbledore. “I’ve seen too many children in your position — with your gifts — crushed under the pressure of such revelations.”
Dumbledore turned and shuffled toward the corner of the room.
“It’s come to my attention,” the Supreme Mugwump continued, his raised voice echoing off the walnut panels encasing the study, “that you’ve begun to suspect you’re not a real boy, after all, but rather a fictional character.”
The aged wizard twisted around to look at Harry.
“Is this true?”
“Yes sir, it is,” Harry replied, not knowing whether an honest response was in order at this juncture.
“Well, that’s good, son.”
Harry exhaled, not realizing he had been holding his breath, and felt the muscles in his back relax.
“Because the truth is,” Dumbledore continued, making his way toward Harry’s chair, “we’re all fictional characters here . . . but you’re the one who has made us immortal. Our legacy has been etched in stone, for we’re destined to enchant the imaginations of boys and girls — and adults, for that matter — for countless generations to come.”
“But you must realize you are more than a mere fictional character, Harry. You are video games, Halloween costumes and birthday theme parties. You are an action figure (a doll, really, but boys don’t go for such labels) and trading cards. Your magic sells not only books, but magazines and movie tickets.”
“Harry, you are more than just a literary figure.” Dumbledore knelt down and gently grabbed the boy’s forearm. “You are the most supreme of modern human creations –.”
Dumbledore paused to consider the gravity of what he was about to disclose.
“You’re a COMMODITY!”