I have a confession to make: I am a fraud. This whole thing is a fraud, a facade. It's a big smokescreen, a mask, a disguise, a sham, a hoax. There, I've said it. (That's what fiction is supposed to be! -- Ed.)
Let's get back to the story of James M. Reynolds and his shoelace-tying machine:
It's the summer of 1924. Calvin Coolidge or Herbert Hoover is in the White House. (It was Coolidge. Don't you check your facts? -- Ed.) A small crowd has gathered in the workshop of eccentric inventor James M. Reynolds, a man known for eccentric inventions. (! -- Ed.) In the small crowd, some very important officials and businessmen, among them, Joseph P. Kennedy. A movie executive from Boston, Kennedy had money and he wanted to invest it in just the right product or service.
Reynolds asked for a volunteer. Kennedy stepped forward immediately -- one reason he was so successful. Reynolds then, with the audacity of a single-minded non-genius, bent down and untied Kennedy's shoelaces. Dumbfounded, Kennedy leaned over to re-tie his shoelaces but, before he could, Reynolds grabbed his invention and gave a stunning demonstration of what it could do. The working model was bulky and required a good deal of winding and pumping to get it going but, right there, before Joseph P. Kennedy's eyes, and the eyes of some of the country's most influential figures, shoelaces were tied, automatically, without the aid of human hands, or chimps. (See "Monkey-Matic Machine Amazes" story in Necessity is Not Necessarily the Mother of Invention, page 303.) It was a miracle!
The rest of the story is kind of hazy, since Reynolds soon disappeared and was never heard from again. (What? That's it? -- Ed.)
Well, that's about as much as I know. I'd have to make the rest of it up. (Good! That's the whole idea! -- Ed.)
"He's right, Jim. Keep going."
Well, okay, I will. (Maureen! Talk to this guy for awhile! Distract him.) ("Okay.")
Needless to say, Reynolds had won over some of America's most influential business and political leaders, but one person he had not won over was a young woman he once met on a train. She said she was from Youngstown, Ohio, and, ever since, he had thought about going to Youngstown some day.
The 20th Century Limited lurched forward tentatively, throwing the young woman off balance and nearly into his lap.
"Thanks," she said, as he made room for her to sit down next to him. Nice fellow, she thought to herself. Well-mannered, considerate, good looking. Certainly not an oddball.
"Let me guess," he asked her. "Your name is Maureen."
"Why yes!" She was astonished. "That's astonishing. How did you do that?"
"Just a lucky guess. I'm as surprised as you. Every time I meet a girl I call her Maureen, and this is the first time I've ever met anyone actually named Maureen."
"No, I'm not. May I offer you some cod-flavored candy?"
"This is Jim again, isn't it? Jim, what gives?"
Come on, Maureen, play along, will you? I've got a seventy-five hundred dollar advance riding on this.
"You do? You mean, they'd take back your advance?"
That's what I've been told. I signed a contract in April of 1993 promising to deliver a novel, narrated in a jarring, stream-of-consciousness style by a confused individual who can't seem to get it together.
"And what do they think you've given them so far?"
Apparently not what they were expecting.
"And what are you supposed to 'expect' in fiction? Fiction is surprise, isn't it? Fiction is fantasy. Fiction is the abstract, the improbable, the impossible."
"No. Not the impossible."
Yeah. Who said that?
"I won't go into any detail, but an editor friend of mine -- I teach writing -- turned me on to this little experiment, and I must say -- "
You've read this far?
"Yes, I have. But, before you get your hopes up, I must cavil."
He must cavil! Give me a break. Did you hear that, Maureen? He must cavil!
"Yes. What's your name, mister?"
"My name is... Greg Farley."
"And where do you teach, Greg Farley? At Abe Lincoln College?"
"No. I'm a visiting professor in creative writing at either the University of Maine or the University of San Diego."
"You're not sure?"
"It's not up to me."
All right, so what's the big critique?
"The big critique is, you're not scattered enough. You're intending to build an artistic junk pile, and it's just a little too neat and planned-looking up to now."
You mean, I need more confusion, more digressions?
"Oh no. Bad advice, Jim."
Wait, Maureen. I think he's right. What else, Doc? Are you a Ph.D.?
"No, not yet. I haven't even graduated high school."
There was a pause, a long pause, as I pondered what he meant by that. Then everything returned to normal.
"Why don't you get your high school equivalency diploma?" Maureen asked.
Yeah, why don't you?
"I can't. I'm not... smart enough."
And yet you teach creative writing at one of either two large accredited universities?
I don't know about you, but I could use a chapter break right about here, or at least a glass of ice water, or something.
(This ends Chapter Ten. Could you hand me that glass of ice water, please?)