It has been duly noted over the centuries that the Great American Novel has yet to be written. But I, even though admittedly innocent when it comes to literary pursuits, must beg to differ. But considering that the average critic knows nothing of a certain Harry T. Belfunk, it is a charge most understandable.
For, you will see, I have met a man named Belfunk and his work. Now I’ll be the first to admit that almost all of his literary efforts were a great waste of time and ink. However, it happened one day that Mr. Belfunk wrote what had to be…
But look at me. I delve immediately into the meat of the story.
One autumn day I was busy arranging my Sunday ties according to size and color. The largest went to the right and the smallest to the left. Anyway, I was so engrossed by my organizing that I didn’t hear the sound of Harry’s rather large feet slapping the cobblestone road. What I did hear, however, was the knock on the door.
For those who have never heard Belfunk’s knock, a bit of explanation is in order. His knocks may not awaken the dead, but I am certain that they rattle the elderly. And since I knew the price of new oak doors (they aren’t cheap), I decided against acting as if I wasn’t there. So with a smile one usually reserves for the deaf and dumb child, I opened the door.
Harry simply marched in, paced around a few times, and said, “I need capital.”
A few more words concerning Harry: he was never one to mince words, seeing anything superfluous as wasteful. Furthermore, it was understood among his friends that he wasn’t exactly of the same financial breed as they were, and I always thought that this made him slightly insecure. But for one reason or another, Harry was always busy cooking up get-rich quick schemes.
Of course, I did what any noble man would do- I turned my pockets inside out to show him I was in no danger of sinking in a river, were I to be pushed.
But with a wave of his hand he canceled my offer, stating, “No man, I need real capital. Something to live off of, not pocket change. What I need from you is a plan.”
“Sure thing, Harry. But why?”
“I’m in love. And it would…”
“Say no more,” I interrupted, “For now I see your plight. You need money to marry the girl, for she says she needs security.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong, old chap,” Harry countered, “You see, I truly think that she is the most wonderful dame in the world. She never asks for anything, and that’s what breaks my heart the most. I want to buy her things, put her in a nice house. I have too much pride to ask her hand in marriage before I’ve earned a living.”
At that moment, I could predict me and Harry staying up all night, drinking tea and formulating a suitable plan. But I always love an opportunity to tease him whenever I can, and it would seem this time that Fate wasn’t about to allow me to forego my future.
“The answer is simple,” I declared, waving my hands emphatically, like a circus announcer. “Just sit down at a desk and write the Great American Novel.”
There are seasoned veterans who have found glory on the battlefield who cannot stomach the sight of Harry’s mug catching onto an idea. He starts to sweat profusely, his eyes grow to hideous proportions, and saliva escapes freely from his open mouth. In fact, he closely resembles Secretariat coming down the home stretch.
If there were one good thing that could be said about Harry, it would be this- that he always follows through with an idea, once it has caught his eye.
This one had obviously caught his eye. For a moment, I debated whether or not to call the carpet cleaners, so great was the flow of saliva, but I quickly decided Harry was more important. So I said what I thought I had to say.
“Harry, you can’t. It’s preposterous! Okay, I concede that in a couple of years maybe…”
“I have three weeks,” Harry announced quietly and solemnly, his eyes now glazed over, the rusty wheels starting to turn in his head.
And with a glance, I could tell he was no longer paying attention. He was lost. So with a heavy heart, I decided to let Father Time teach him a worthy lesson.
Without even a word of parting, Harry was gone.
Three weeks later, I was organizing my pots and pans according to their respective sizes and uses when I once again heard the booming sound of Belfunk’s knock upon my door. As I started to let him in, I could almost picture the look of disappointment on his face. But what I actually saw touched my heart and broke my soul.
Looking back at me was a man changed forever. His eyes were the blackest black, his hair whiter than lightning, and his face heavy with unshaven hair. His clothes were filthy, and in his ink-stained hands he carried a large parchment, which I assumed to be his Great American Novel.
I stood in the doorway for a few minutes, letting this awesome sight sink in. But I quickly came to my senses and ushered him inside. Without a word, he walked over to the fireplace, and tossed the papers into the blazing fire. I was speechless, as was he.
He watched the fire for a few moments, turned to me, and said, “It’s finished.”
Dying with curiosity, I fixed a pot of coffee and begged him to share his story. He acquiesced and began.
Immediately after leaving your house, I headed straight for my home, intent on writing the story. I gathered up some paper and some quills (everyone knows you must use authentic goose quills if you’re attempting to write anything great). And there I sat.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to write anything but your name, but let me tell you, it’s a lot harder than it looks. After staring at a blank piece of paper for two straight hours, you’re not exactly brimming with confidence. I decided I needed something to write about.
And then it hit me- I would write about my love for Sylvia! And with a brush of my hand the ink started to flow. I must have written over thirty pages the first hour alone! What I wrote was pure, and honest. Whereas my predecessors had materialistic motives, I wrote for another. Shakespeare’s greatest works are sonnets- sonnets about love for another. And so it was with me.
Love is a liquor that produces varied emotions- some men fear ardor; others practically swoon at the notion. However, love mixed with madness is the greatest catalyst known to man. Money and power, when all is said and done, fall far short.
Yet love is also a fleeting thing, to be sure. So, I had to act fast. I ignored both the telephone and the doorbell, my ears simply refusing to hear that which would halt my writing. For days at a time I went without the company of food, only allowing myself a boiled egg and toast twice a week. And when I didn’t write, I slept; but that was from only the greatest physical exhaustion. I contend that only Atlas himself could bear my weight on his shoulders.
But perseverance always pays off. Exactly twenty days after we met, I finished my novel. It was a masterpiece of construction. Every sentence had a meaning, every word a certain nuance. I tell you, man, it had words that would move the hardest heart, entrance a man to move the stars, or even make men forget their lesser gods… I knew this would gain me Sylvia’s love, for if it didn’t, nothing would.
The instant I put down my quill, I marched over to Bumbleman’s printing company, threw open the door to his office, and placed the manuscript before his hands. From somewhere deep within, I heard myself utter a terse phrase.
Bumbleman is the type of man who could pass a child dying in the street and check his pockets for loose change. His heart was last seen being traded in for gold bouillon on the common market. But then again, you get the idea.
To this day I know not whether it was the wild look of poets in my eye or the fierce consternation of a novelist, but something greater than the both of us forced him to read my tale. You may ask why he didn’t throw me out on the spot, casting my papers and me in the gutter. But you must think the whole thing through. Publishers don’t get rich without some sort of sixth sense, some sort of gut feeling. He also knew, in his own corrupted way, that passion inscribed on paper equals dollars. Perhaps he learned it from me.
So he read it. And he paid.
After a brief stop at the bank, I set off for Sylvia’s. Knocking on the door, I was so excited I almost knocked it off the hinges. Her door slowly opened, inch by excruciating inch. Instead of a hug and a kiss, I received a magnificent slap to the face, and her tears to boot.
I’m sure stars have fallen from heaven and crashed into the hissing sea, but no one could have felt worse than I did right then. After I picked up my heart and dusted it off, I considered joining a circus troupe far, far away. Perhaps the chimpanzees and lions would appreciate my love more…
My thoughts were banished at the sight of Bumbleman’s little, bald head popping up over Sylvia’s shoulder. He looked surprised- because of me, or the vicious right hook I threw, I don’t know. So it ended up with Bumbleman and me wrestling on the veranda, Sylvia all the meanwhile beating me unmercifully with a wicker broom. Wicker brooms hurt. I made a solemn oath that day never to sweep a rug again with rage in my heart.
For the record, my ambition was to make Bumbleman eat dirt and yell “Uncle!” which is quite hard to do at the same time, I would soon realize.
Finally- I’m not quite sure when- we quit wrestling, dead tired on the front walk. For a long period afterward, we were all silent, too busy sucking air. But eventually, I had to speak.
“Why, Sylvia, why?”
“Why?! I’ll tell you why! For three weeks, you don’t call, don’t visit! You don’t even answer your door, even when I begged and cried. And worse yet, I knew you were in there. I could hear you munching on your toast, with more than moderate delectation.”
“But Sylvia…” I tried to stand, my legs threatening to buckle at any moment.
The wicker broom bade me sit back down, and I obeyed before I knew it.
Meanwhile, Bumbleman had finally removed most of the dirt from his mouth, and he opened it as if he wanted to speak, but no words would come.
I also tried to speak, but Sylvia, who was now on the verge of tears, wouldn’t hear of it.
“Go, Mr. Harry T. Belfunk. I shan’t have anything else to do with you. There is no reason for your absence. Mr. Bumbleman has shared the whole story, and the idea makes me nauseous to a frightening degree. If it is truly love you seek, Mr. Belfunk, I suggest you stain the pages of your novel with the moisture of your lips. In any event, you will find your novel more receptive of your attention.”
I knew then all was lost. Bumbleman would get the girl, Sylvia would get the love, and I would get paper cuts in cumbersome places.
Resigning myself to my fate, I stood up, dusted myself off, and walked out away. I shed no tears, spurted no words of bitter remorse (though my poetic should was tempted), but simply strode away, with all the dignity a broken heart can hold.
I did, however, suffer myself one glance back. I saw Sylvia, blessed Sylvia, helping up Mr. Bumbleman. I also saw love. I think it was then my hair turned white. A meager recorder of fervid dreams was never supposed to be a witness to true love. The only thing that spared my life from such an awesome sight was the intense burning in my heart.
So I walked to Bumbleman’s company. I gave back all the money owed, and his secretary gave me back my manuscript. Mr. Bumbleman is a gentleman, I’ll grant him that- he knew how to win gracefully. My next stop was here. And so you now know the story…
At that point, the exhausted Belfunk lapsed into a deep sleep. I watched the light from the fireplace turn cartwheels upon his sunken face. What price had love paid to buy a man’s work of art? I slowly shook my head, letting it all sink in. And then I smiled. I suppose it is fitting that his sacrifice should warm him, at least for a while.
My curiosity assuaged, I let him snooze, for there are only two temporary cures for a broken heart- unconsciousness and liquor. The man who can drink while he sleeps never regrets falling in love.