Jeffrey S. Chapman: First Place, 2006 Utah Writers' Contest
Wainwright Exceeds Expectations, Becomes a God
These things are true. These are the stories the storytellers still tell us, to this day, about Anna and Wainwright: they met for the first time at lunch, when they both bought the same soup at the Soup Shop; the soup was good; their love grew strong; for six years Anna and Wainwright lived together in a small apartment up a tall, narrow flight of stairs; before that they had lived in adjacent apartments for two years without ever meeting, as though drawn together like magnets just out of reach. Their love was like the first love. Their love was known sometimes to scorch small objects—like butterflies— that got too close. Their love, it is said, broke dishes and then glued them together again better than they were before.
Often they lay outside under the dark desert sky, her arm under his head but not getting tired, both of them feeling vaguely sexy. She knew the stars and was teaching him; she would always try to point, and he would try to learn, but there were too many stars in the desert sky and she would have to navigate, in words, from the North Star, the one star he could always find. He remembered the Scorpion and also the Swan, flying straight into the Milky Way.
She showed him that there were stars that had prophesied their love and while lying in the western desert they could see all those stars. She showed him where it foretold they should get married. He loved the idea of marrying her.
“But your parents,” Wainwright said.
“Yes,” Anna said and chewed on her lower lip. “My parents have high expectations.”
Wainwright was not a doctor, not an architect, not money; he had little going for him except a fine heart and healthy skin. Her parents felt he had yet to prove himself.
“What can you do?” her mother asked, when they finally met.
He didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t do much.
“There’s only one way to tell for sure,” her father said. “There’s only one way to measure talent. He’ll have to perform twelve tasks.”
“Twelve tasks,” her mother said, slowly nodding. “Yes.”
“That’s fine,” Wainwright said.
“Each one will be more difficult than the last,” the mother said, warningly.
“They could last twelve years,” the father said and turned his head so he was looking out only the left eye at Wainwright. “You will likely die,” he said.
“Whatever it takes,” Wainwright said, although he admitted to himself twelve years seemed like a long time.
The tasks started out slowly.
(1) First, he had to show that he could spell his own name.
That’s easy enough, he thought. (He was insulted, frankly.)
(2) Then he had to demonstrate that he could take care of himself.
The parents said: “A man who cannot, to a large degree, take
care of himself will be a burden to our daughter, who is a person of great
As it was, Wainwright took exceptional care of himself. He ironed things regularly. He trimmed nose hairs. His hair was often neat and when not it was tousled expertly. His shoes were Italian.
He showed the parents his best quality.
“I cut my toenails every fortnight,” he said. To prove it he removed his shoes and pointed at his nails. They were well-groomed with a touch of growth. And then he demonstrated his technique with a pair of gold clippers.
Word spread. A crowd gathered. Confronted with abilities that were, truly, superior to all abilities they had ever seen—such accuracy! such grace!—the crowd had to sigh and swoon and weep. It was too beautiful, too beautiful. Even the parents had to admit they were moved. The mother wiped away a tear.
(3) Then they demanded that he prove himself as a cook.
“We cook before we love,” the father said.
“Yes,” the mother said. “We eat to love, and we love to eat.”
“Yes,” the father said. “First the pudding. . . .”
Not knowing what to cook, Wainwright went to the blind man and asked the blind man’s advice. And the blind man said to him, “You should, to impress those above you in station, cook bouillabaisse. It is delicate and trenchant. Beware, however: it is the most treacherous of all dishes.” He pointed at his eyes.
These are the things Wainwright knew:
He knew there were as many ways of preparing bouillabaisse as there were pebbles on certain beaches in southern France, but he settled on Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise because it was endorsed by the legendary Escoffier.
He knew that a whitefish was requisite to thicken the soup properly. The fish that Escoffier gives as the most “suitable and authentic”: rascasse (some argue that there is no bouillabaisse without rascasses (also called scorpionfish by some (generally more violent) people)), chapon, john dory, whiting, fielas, boudreuil, red mullet, rouquiers, crawfish or langoustines. None of those were available, so he used monkfish, a fine alternative. And large shrimp. And mussels.
He knew bouillabaisse had to be boiled fiercely in order to make the proper bond between the olive oil and the broth: the most important romance in a dish of many affairs. He knew it was key to get threads of the best saffron. More expensive than gold. But of course, he’d spend all his money on saffron and then ransom his own body for more if it would impress Anna’s parents.
He cooked hard. And he was sweating. And in the heat he was a
hero, the heat molded him, the heat hardened him, the sweat ran down his
forehead, down his nose, down his arms and knuckles.
The result was beautiful. A giant bowl of sunset colors: amber and russet. Indeed. Everyone felt new things in the mouth. Tongues were introduced to new emotions and with every bite worlds opened up. Oh, people said.
(4) Then he had to demonstrate his athletic prowess.
He had always been middle-of-the-road, athletically. He was
never the superstar, but he was not the last kid chosen in elementary school for
games of kickball or fishsticks. He was never the best runner or diver or
swimmer in high school, but he still was on the teams for the entire four years.
He exercised irregularly, but wasn’t fat; nor was he slender, having sported a
bit of weight around his middle for years now. He believed he was about ten
pounds off his target weight. Could he not jog two more times a week? No, he
couldn’t. It was too boring for him to be exactly disciplined. Nonetheless, he
held his own at games of pick-up soccer in the parks and he felt he could excel
if he put his mind to it and if the stakes were high enough. Which, of course,
He told Anna’s parents that he needed three months’ time to train. Then he gave Anna a kiss (with tongue), told her he’d miss her, and went out into the desert with nothing but a canteen and a bedroll. The storytellers don’t say what he did out there, alone in the desert. It’s shrouded in a cloud of secrecy. However, we do know that he returned having lost something of himself: his extra pounds. He was within two ounces of his ideal weight. He came back trim and sleek, with a slightly haunted, sunken look in his eyes.
Then, with little fanfare and much professionalism, he got to work.
First football. He rushed for 2,659 yards and accounted for 3,122 yards from scrimmage, both single-season records—far exceeding the low expectations created by his late position in the professional football draft. Then basketball. Despite playing undersized point guard, he scored one hundred-and-one points in one game. All season long he set picks so rock-hard they induced raptures in the faithful. In baseball, he hit close to .420, without a single defensive error, and he won 58 consecutive wrestling matches, irritating some purists, who felt he no longer had high-school eligibility.
No one—not even Anna—knew he had all that in him.
For his final athletic feat, he struck a yoga pose so exquisitely difficult and so minutely contorted, they say that every muscle in his body, including the heart, had to be flexed individually. He balanced upside down on the point that was the precise mathematical midpoint between his navel and his left scapula; his right arm and left leg pointed due west, his left arm reached to the sun’s zenith, and his head was oriented back towards his ancestral home; his right leg tied them all together, literally. Anna’s parents had the vague sense they had seen something similar in their childhood, when yoga was more widely practiced competitively, when the masters like Chuck and Rosenschantz were still at their peak.
Wainwright held the pose for a week. Is it not an ultimate expression of athletic willpower to form a human sculpture with your body and to hold it for exactly one week, without eating?
Yes. Yes, it is.
(5) Then he had to distinguish between their daughter and her impostors.
Because they had heard of a princess who once proved her
legitimacy by being sensitive enough to detect a pea through a stack of
mattresses, Anna’s parents were convinced that mattresses were the true test of
sensitivity. So they stood a mattress on its end and, with a blindfold on,
Wainwright had to kiss ten women through the mattress, all of whom were named
Anna but only one of whom was the true Anna. If he couldn’t tell which was the
true Anna, he would fail the test and be sent packing.
When he heard of this task, he wailed and gnashed his teeth. He covered his eyes with his forearm and fell into a swoon. He begged, he pleaded, but the parents—pleased with their ingenuity—stood by their guns.
They put the blindfold on him and lined up the Annas.
What he knew and what Anna True knew, but what the parents nor no one else knew, was that this was in fact the easiest of tests for him. For the two years he and Anna lived in adjacent apartments, their rooms lay back to back, separated by a concrete wall. By the end of the two years they would both inevitably roll over and end the night pressed up against the wall, pulled together by their fate lots. When they finally met and slept together they both knew the other person’s body already because they had pressed into each other through the fabric of the concrete. He knew her body, even when it was translated into the smallest waves and signals.
And if you can know a body through concrete, you can know it through five mattresses. Six even. Maybe.
There was never, not for one second, any doubt. Nonetheless, he made a big show of deliberating.
(6) Then he had to prove he could satisfy their daughter.
“It’s not enough just to recognize her,” her mother said. “You
have to please her.”
“Do they mean what they seem to mean?” Wainwright asked Anna.
They did. Three aunts would watch to verify.
“Doesn’t that bother you?” Wainwright asked.
The aunts led them into a back room. They closed the door and the door remained closed for six hours. Then the aunts came out of the room biting their lips, a little shaken. “Such creativity,” the aunts said.
For a year Wainwright had been eating two yogurts a day without using his hands at all, only using his tongue. His tongue had subtle strength and dexterity.
(7) Then he had to track down and slay a wild beast.
“There’s a wild creature running around the country,” said
Anna’s mother. “He’s been destroying people like he’s a carnivore.”
“Like he’s a cannibal,” said Anna’s father.
“Like he’s at a carnival.”
“We want you to stop him. We want you to vanquish him.”
So, he set out into the heartland of the country, the area most ravaged by the monster. He didn’t have much of a plan; he thought maybe he could reason with it. Everyone, he firmly believed, could be reasoned with if you found the right terms.
In the heartland of the country he found a valley the tones of amber and grey, as though it were perpetually one hour before sunset, when the sun lay flat on the horizon and betrayed the colors things would be when they died and passed into Hades. A din grew as he drew closer. A dry wind slipped over the edge of the valley, carrying the smell of sandalwood. The valley was filled with dusty people, a cult of followers who alternated between rapt attention and scratching at their neighbors’ eyes. At the center of the empty-mouthed admirers, in a clearing, an ogre rushed about, frantic as a wild boar. He screamed and fumed; and the crowd grumbled and mumbled in response, adding to the ruckus. He stomped around with both feet, jumped up and down to shake the firmament, pounded the ground with two fists and then jabbed with a finger at the heavens. He tore into whatever he could reach with his bloody maw. Corpses of his admirers littered the ground.
Wainwright pushed through the crowd into the center. Wide eyes turned to him as he passed. When he got to the middle he stood calmly until the ogre stopped feasting on a dead topic, sniffed at the air, and swung around on all fours. His muscles were tense and quivering. Wainwright could see the whites of his eyes under his irises. His tie was loosened at the neck and his white, button-up shirt was unstarched and unironed. His cheeks and forehead were greasy.
“I know you!” the ogre bellowed. He leaned forward into the yell, so it would be louder. He pounded on his thighs. “I’ve heard about you and I know your type. Faggot!”
He leaped forward and swiped his meaty paw at Wainwright, who hopped back.
The ogre blustered. “You’re the problem,” he screamed. “You are the problem with this country. Don’t you see what you’re doing to this country! You’re the problem.”
“You’re a masturbator. And a baby.”
The ogre inched closer and closer to Wainwright. His breath smelled like old lamb chops and onions. The ogre stood eye-to-eye with him for ten seconds and then spun around and started stomping around the circle, knees kicking high.
“We’ve got to make Armenia Armenian again!” he bellowed. “We’ve got to make Hibernia Hibernian again!”
“We’ve got to make Helvetia Helvetian again!”
The crowd murmured yes yes yes. Helvetia Helvetian again, they mimicked. It was so true, they said. There’s never been such a great truth.
The ogre, bull-like, charged Wainwright again and pulled up just short. “Do you agree?!” he yelled. “You have to agree or disagree. There is only right and there is only wrong. There is only good and there is only evil. There is only ever white and there is only ever black. There is only glass and there is only stone. There is only curd and there is only whey. There is only pancakes and there is only French toast. Do you agree?”
Wainwright blinked. The ogre paced circles around Wainwright as he talked. “Do you see what I’m saying? There is only agreement and there is only disagreement! You have to take a side! Tell us, are you anti-Helvetian?”
A gasp and a shiver ran through the crowd. Somewhere a baby and an old man started crying. Wainwright trained a disinterested eye on some point along the horizon. He was, in fact, becoming less and less interested by the minute. He was utterly opinionless.
“Tell us! Are you against Helvetia?”
The ogre had been bristling, frothing, jabbing; he calmed down suddenly and leaned, looking over his glasses, toward Wainwright: “It’s all very simple. There’s right and wrong. The world is simple.”
It was then that Wainwright lost all interest; he didn’t know many things—he knew nothing about Helvetia—but he was fairly certain that the world wasn’t simple. He knew at least five things that weren’t simple. And that wasn’t including the things he just didn’t understand but some people did, like quantum physics and super-string theory, Latin, organic chemistry, computer programming, poetry, bonsai trimming: small, good, difficult things. But there were, more than that, things in the world that couldn’t be explained or comprehended. Not by him. In fact, he was often boggled by the convolutions of the world and would fall quiet for days; Anna called it his complexity coma. Now his mind wandered again and he disappeared into the deep pan of his brain. His jaw set hard.
The ogre saw the change and realized he was losing Wainwright as an audience. He’d never lost an audience before. “It’s simple!” he yelled. “It’s simple!”
The crowd leaned forward to catch what was happening. The ogre tore at his hair. He tore his hair out of his head to get Wainwright’s attention.
“It’s simple! It’s simple!”
The ogre slapped his own arms and belly. It’s simple! He started clawing at his own eyeballs but Wainwright gazed into the distance. It’s simple! The ogre wrestled himself to the ground and threw himself in the mud. It’s simple! It’s simple! He shoved his foot into his mouth and bit down on his patent-leather Italians. It’s simple! He tore off his muddy suit-coat, rolled up his sleeve and gnawed at his own arm. It’s simple! He tore up his own flesh with his teeth. It’s simple! He fit his entire fist in his huge mouth and swallowed the wrist, then the elbow, up to the shoulder. He continued eating until all of him was gone but the frenzied teeth, chattering away in the mud. The ogre had destroyed himself.
When Wainwright came out of his complexity coma two hours later, people were still milling about, dazed and lost. The teeth had finally died, so Wainwright shook himself out and headed home.
(8) Then he had to sort one thing from another.
“You have to sort the wheat from the chaff,” the father said.
The mother nodded. “And by wheat,” she said, “we mean the fragiles and colors, and by the chaff we mean the white cottons.”
“Blindfolded,” she added.
“Oh,” Wainwright said.
They took Wainwright to a cavernous hall with a virtual mountain
of laundry in the center. They folded a bandanna twice and tied it over his
eyes, then left him alone in the room with one vigilant guard from the Laundry
Guild to make sure he didn’t cheat by taking off the blindfold. Wainwright
approached the heap and stood there for a long time, picking up one piece of
clothing at a time and holding it in his hand for minutes. He was trying to get
a blind feel for the clothes. Many things were easy, and could be separated out
with simple reason: the fabrics with textures, silks and furs, underwear and
bras. But it took a more subtle genius to separate colors with no resignation to
eyesight. But, ultimately, Anna’s parents had underestimated his domestic
endowments, his genius with fabric. After two hours of patiently lifting one
T-shirt after another, he felt he could detect a difference in weight, that when
taken independently from the variation in quality in the clothes—a difference he
could easily isolate by rubbing the clothes between his thumb and
forefinger—must indicate discrete dye types. After he realized this, the sorting
went fast. Anna’s parents had hardly sat down to supper when Wainwright entered,
followed by the laundry guildsman, who shrugged in wonderment.
When he returned so quickly Anna’s parents glanced at each other. They’d forgotten Wainwright’s domestic genius. It was all too easy for their tastes.
“There’s been,” the father said, “a mistake,”
“Yes,” said the mother. “Yes, there’s been a, how do you say, mistranslation?”
“We checked the ancient texts. We got it wrong. We’re very sorry. By wheat we actually mean a nail, and by chaff we actually mean alfalfa. What we mean by sorting the wheat from the chaff is that you have to separate one ten-penny lost-head nail from a stack of alfalfa. Many alfalfa stacks. A field of alfalfa stacks. Again, blindfolded.”
Wainwright had no skills which could help him find a nail in
multiple alfalfa stacks. He’d once done a puzzle that showed an egg, sunny side
up, on a white table. Almost every piece was the same exact white. It was the
hardest puzzle he’d ever done. This task was harder. He kneeled in the field
next to the first alfalfa stacks and, one by one, started moving alfalfa stalks
into a new pile, feeling each one for a metallic rigidity. This was the only way
he could see to do it: methodically feel each individual piece of alfalfa until
he found one that wasn’t. But there were hundreds of thousands—millions,
perhaps, or billions—of pieces of alfalfa in this stack. And there were so many
stacks. It could easily take him one hundred days to feel each piece, if he
didn’t sleep; a year, if he only worked nine to five without a lunch break.
After the first ten hours his fingertips were so numb, he might not have been
able to distinguish between a banana and alfalfa.
He heard thunder in the distance and soon rain began to patter around him. In minutes he was soaked and cold. He threw himself, weeping, on the alfalfa stack, which seemed completely unchanged from when he first started. This was it then, he thought. He turned his face up to the rain, and threw his hands to the heavens in supplication.
Whether the gods took pity and intervened that day is the subject of intense speculation. Some argue that the world is a surprisingly complicated place and there’s no way to anticipate when and where goats will wander. Others argue that goats only wander here and there pushed by the winds of divine will. All we know for certain is that a herd wandered into the pasture at that moment and flowed around Wainwright, while he kneeled with his face to the firmaments. They ate all the alfalfa and drifted on their way, and all Wainwright felt was a light rustle of goats brushing past his arms, and all he heard was relentless chewing. When the goats had finally wandered away to other pastures, when the sun had long since set and the moon was high and bright, Wainwright lowered his hands and placed them on the ground by his knees, right on a ten-penny nail. There was the nail, right in front of his knees.
(9) Then he had to prove that he was bold and warlike.
“At times of duress we must become warriors. We must protect
what is ours,” the mother said. “For your next task you must enlist in the army
and go fight in the wars on our northern and southern borders.”
Fight fight fight. A low chant rose up in the crowd. Fight fight fight.
Wainwright sat still for a while. Then he stood up and said, “No.”
“No?” the father said.
“No,” he said. A murmur threaded its way back through the crowd, as one whispered to another, He said no.
“I’m sorry. I’d do almost anything for Anna, I really would. But I won’t kill people for her. Not like that. There will always just be another war and another war and what change do we make for going back into war with enemies with no end? It’s all just death.”
“Sorry. It’s just death.”
And with that he turned and walked away from everything he wanted.
And Anna stood there with her nose twitching. And her parents stood there in disbelief. And the crowd stood there. And at first there was a silence that people thought would give way to confused muttering and outcry, but the silence never broke and instead it settled into the little nooks and corners of the valley until even mice felt uncomfortable making sounds.
On the northern and southern borders, night covered battlefields and fires sprang to life, and around every fire fifty men sat silent, looking into the fire, or into the sky at the stars, or across the fields at a thousand other fires. And the world around them—gulleys, forests, deserts, peaks—shone red with the shaky firelight and they were dumb contemplating the morning to come when they would again take to the field. The furious war-god corpse-stealer stood at the edge of the circles of firelight, never invited in, dreaming of the treasure in fleshgold to be made on the morn, and licking his fingernails in anticipation. The night was cold and everyone drew their blankets closer.
In his apartment, stretched out on his couch, Wainwright stayed awake through the night eating small pints of ice cream in the static blue from late- night television reruns and wondered if he had made entirely the wrong decision. He covered his head with a towel when the thought became too much for him.
In the streets around his building, people gathered in support, holding up candles in a vigil of support. For three days the crowds grew until the hotdog vendors had difficulty getting anywhere near the apartment to keep the people fed.
At six o’clock in the morning of the fourth day, the crowd
murmured and rustled and then parted. Anna was approaching, followed by her
parents. The parents stopped at the front door, but Anna came up the several
flights of stairs to find Wainwright still on the couch. He sat up when she
entered, desperate in his love for her.
She kissed him on the lips and mouth. He pushed the loose hair out of her eyes. They stood silent for fourteen minutes.
“You were right,” she said finally.
“I know,” he said.
“Just so you know,” she said. “I’m proud of you and your convictions.”
“I knew you would be.”
“We’ve been thinking about it, my parents and I. They’re okay with your conscientious objection; they realize it’s a kind of strength too. But they also want to know that you’d kill for me, if need be. That’s what they want. Just some killing.”
“Would you kill for me?” he asked her.
“Tell them you’d kill for me,” she said. “Just tell them that.”
And so he did. He walked down the stairs and out the front door and told them that, if it came down to it, he would break people’s necks off if they tried to hurt her. He’d break their necks with his teeth if he had to. But he wouldn’t invade other countries for no reason.
To prove that he could kill things for her he set three mousetraps around his apartment because he knew she hated mice.
(10) Then he had to perform seven miracles.
1. He grew a watermelon the size of six ordinary watermelons.
2. He whistled in three-part harmony.
3. He invented porcelain that couldn’t break.
4. He lit candles by looking at them very hard.
5. He turned water into origami.
6. He healed the asthmatics.
7. He saved a village from imminent destruction by eating a massive mudslide.
(11) Then he had to defy time.
So he stopped aging.
(12) Then he had to become a god.
It wasn’t necessarily what the parents wanted but what else
could they still ask for?
People organized, full of awe. They’d seen his miracles. They’d seen him stop aging. People wanted to make him a god. At first they thought they could vote, give him a mandate, but that didn’t seem enough. So they built a temple and filled the temple with belief. Once the belief was so thick that it became palpable, one corner of it got ignited (accident: cigarette) and the flame fed outwards as in a room full of gas. That did the trick. Hot, fervent belief.
Wainwright, as a god, found he had little desire to meddle with human affairs, their wars, their religions, their governments, their idolatry. That wasn’t the kind of god he was. He was a more casual god. He didn’t want to be worshipped, and together with Anna he withdrew from the public. Even then, after he left the public eye, after he had no longer been seen among mortals for decades, his name was still invoked to explain phenomena: lightning, wind, the sun rising and falling, death.