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The Prize | John Power

The Prize | John Power

“We knew what we were doing was wrong, of course.”

Luke immediately knew that was a great opening line for a story. Its author did too. Freshman year Barry Lopez came and gave a reading on campus. The story was about horse thieves. It’s the “of course,” of course, that makes the sentence work. They knew what they were doing was wrong. They knew it was wrong when they started. It wasn’t wrong just because they got caught, and it wasn’t a grey area either. It wasn’t the kind of thing introduction to philosophy professors use on the first day of class to get eighteen-year-olds, sitting in a circle, to discuss moral relativism—is it wrong for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family? The “of course” does away with all of that silliness. The “of course” makes the story about guilt, and not about whether or not someone has done anything wrong. It also makes the story about consequences, and, of course, the consequences must be accepted. It’s easy to argue with consequences when you’re innocent, or when full guilt is in doubt. But once you’ve accepted that what you’ve done is, of course, wrong, then everything that flows from that transgression is just and natural.

Luke used the line to open his own story about two friends in the suburbs who decide to engage in a string of petty crimes just for the fun of it. He saw part of a documentary on Leopold and Loeb on The History Channel one night. If Luke was already stealing the basic structure and outline of his story, then of course it couldn’t be too much worse to steal the opening line as well. It was, of course, just one line in a story that ran to about ten pages. In percentage terms, it was not material.

Lopez said the line just came to him. He wrote it down in a spiral notebook and held onto it for years because he knew it was a line not to be spent freely. Luke couldn’t remember if Lopez said it came to him in a dream, but that seemed almost too good and Luke wouldn’t have believed that story even if it was true. It probably came to him while he was doing something boring like walking his dog. Regardless, Lopez didn’t want to squander the line. He didn’t want a character to utter those words somewhere on page 153 of a 487-page novel. It was an opening line, and Lopez just needed to find a story to match it. So, he wrote it down in a spiral notebook and kept it there, like a treasure trove hidden until after the Vikings had sailed on to their next raid, to be dug up and once again enrich its owner.

Professor O’Conner gave out extra credit to anyone who attended the reading. The exact details of the extra credit were imprecise, not unlike Professor O’Conner’s rambling lectures on Crime and Punishment. Why a Russian Lit professor gave out extra credit to attend a reading by a decidedly non-Russian author wasn’t entirely clear, but the various departments always wanted to ensure any guest speaker had a full audience. It wasn’t about rounding out the students’ education. Bodies in the seats were what the professors were after. The extra credit wasn’t even close to a full letter grade, or even to the bump up or down based on class attendance and participation. Attending the reading was probably worth one cut class, or two classes attended while being unprepared.

So one Wednesday night at 7:20 p.m. Luke left the dorms, walked to the Sorthen Auditorium on the second floor of the library, and settled in for a few stories. Professor Reed, the Chair of the English Department, gave a brief introduction. Lopez then stepped to the podium, opened his book, and said, “Stolen Horses. We knew what we were doing was wrong, of course.”

A year later Luke, in jeans that needed washing and a button-down shirt that needed ironing, sat at a round oak table listening to Mark explain that Holden, the main character in his story, was named after Holden Caulfield. Mark had an exceedingly deep voice that made anything he said sound profound, and he spoke slowly to suggest he thought deeply about every word he chose. His glasses had a dark frame to accentuate the fact that he was, in fact, wearing glasses. Mark apparently had a large vocabulary, or else a large thesaurus that he kept by his desk whenever he wrote a story. The convoluted vocabulary didn’t actually add anything to the stories other than a layer of confusion, which made the rest of the class think his stories were high art because they didn’t understand them. Mark also had a habit of naming characters after Salinger characters, or Roth characters, or using some allusion he found in a David Foster Wallace book.

Chris, a girl, wrote stories that suffered from her own name confusion. Darby was a boy.  Alex was a girl. Danny was a girl. Cory was a boy. You spent half the story just trying to figure out the sex of the main character, and then trying to determine if there were any homosexual overtones to Jordan having sex with Jaden or Avery. Her stories were almost all dialogue, and generally thinly disguised tales of campus gossip or her own sex life. But she was blond and thin and, despite a smooshed up face that made her look a bit like a fetus, she was hot and Luke spent much of class daydreaming about having sex with her.

Heather, stocky, was the best writer of descriptions in the class. She knew the right one or two details to paint an entire scene for the reader. But, she couldn’t write dialog, her people were not credible, and her narratives never went anywhere.

“So?” Luke said.

“Excuse me?” Mark answered in his condescending tone.

“So what? What does Catcher in the Rye have to do with this?”

“He just explained it,” Chris said. “Holden Caulfield is the main character in Catcher in the Rye.”

“Right. But your story is about two elementary school janitors battling for the right to clean the hallway outside of the principal’s office.”

“It’s about the external architecture of status, and how that cuts across all socioeconomic and ethnic groups, even for individuals who, in our society, may be invisible to someone like you.”

“He explained it already,” Chris repeated.

Luke decided to overlook the dig about who was or was not invisible to him. “My point is that by using the name Holden, which conjures up Holden Caulfield—”

“He said that.”

“That by calling your protagonist janitor Holden Rodriguez, you’re bringing a lot of baggage to this character that has nothing to do with your story.”

“Maybe we’re not supposed to understand it,” Chris said. “Like, I mean, how we all bring these things with us when we read a story. And maybe it means something and maybe it doesn’t, but we’re thinking about it, and that’s as close as we can get to it, so it doesn’t matter if it means anything or has any connection to Catcher in the Rye.”

“Ok, I think we can stop there,” Professor Stewart said glancing at his watch. “Chris, good comment. Everybody, swap your line edits. Heather and Luke are up for discussion next week. Thanks.”

Stories had to be emailed to the class by 9:00 a.m. on Monday. Luke planned to watch football for most of Sunday before studying Spanish conjugation, reading a few chapters of Emerson, and then reading about the battle of Sedan. Saturday would be spent recovering from Friday, watching football, and then partying. Friday would be spent at class, lunch, and class until 3:00, then pre-partying, partying, and post-partying. Luke needed to have his story finished by the time he went to bed on Thursday, but walking out of Creative Writing on Wednesday, he didn’t have anything.

After reruns of The Simpsons and Seinfeld, after dinner, after reading about Bismarck’s early efforts to unify Germany, Luke turned on the TV and began flipping around until he landed on The History Channel. Leopold and Loeb were two wealthy and brilliant Chicagoans who wanted to commit murder just to see if they could get away with it. “They knew what they were doing was wrong, of course,” Luke said to himself while watching the program. He thought back to the auditorium with Lopez at the podium. Professor Stewart wasn’t there. Luke was pretty sure Mark, Chris, and Heather weren’t there either. No one would recognize the line. When the show was over he turned off the TV, flipped up the screen on his laptop, pulled two cans of Diet Coke out of his mini-fridge, and by 2:30 in the morning had a very good first draft that he only edited minimally before emailing to the class.

“I really like the opening line,” Chris said. She had underlined, circled, and starred the first sentence on her copy. “Because they knew what they were doing was wrong. They were just like, whatever, we know it’s wrong, but we’re going to do it anyway. You’ve got the whole story right there.”

“Yes, the initial sentence is quite superior. It made me think of the fact that ‘sentence’ is a homonym. The first ‘sentence,’” Mark said raising his hands to make air quotes with his fingers, “shows that Linus and Larry’s ‘sentence’ is going to be knowing for the rest of their lives that they committed wrong acts. I might do more with the police, though. I feel like this story is a great indictment of capitalist America in the 21st Century. These two kids have all they could want handed to them by their parents, but they insist on going out and stealing more anyway. But despite the fact that they’re high school kids, the fat, doughnut-eating cops can’t find them.”

“I don’t think I have them eat any doughnuts,” Luke said.

“I know, but wouldn’t that be great if they did?” Mark said.

“It seems a bit cliché.”

“That’s the point,” Mark said. “This is such a great satire of capitalism and bourgeoisie suburbia. What better way to really stick it to America than to show that their ‘police officers,’ their ‘defenders of the status quo,’ are just slobs who can’t catch teenage delinquents because they’re more interested in eating crullers?”

When Mark said “police officers” and “defenders of the status quo,” he again raised his hands to make air quotes with his fingers. Luke thought his suggestion was terribly cliché and missed entirely the point of the story. Mostly, Luke was trying to figure out why Mark felt compelled to use quotes around “police officers” and “defenders of the status quo.”

“I wonder . . .” Professor Stewart began as he reclined in his chair, ran his right hand through salt-and-pepper hair, then behind his ear and along his jaw, before twisting his fist repeatedly on the point of his chin, as if it were a pencil being sharpened. “I’m not so sure about the police angle Mark is trying to work. But I wonder about these kids . . . Linus and Larry. I wonder if they don’t want some . . . fame, out of it. They want to get away with it, of course, and they don’t want their friends, and certainly not the police, to know it’s them. But, don’t they want the cops to know someone is committing all of these crimes? Don’t they want their friends to talk about it at school? Don’t they want some . . . signature . . . left behind at each crime scene, so that everyone will talk about the . . . oh, I don’t know . . . ‘coffee table bandits’ if they turn over every coffee table before they leave. Or maybe they could pop open all the microwave doors and be known as ‘the microwave robbers.’ Something like that might add a bit of . . . depth, to their characters, don’t you think? The knowledge that what they’re doing is wrong, but the desire to get away with it, but still the desire to be famous, even if no one can ever know it’s them.”

The group finished commenting on Luke’s story, and then moved on to Heather’s. Again, her descriptions were the best in the class, but the characters had no life and the story didn’t seem to go anywhere. It was if she was writing about a still-life painting of fruit and flowers in bowls and vases.

“Ok, guys, that’s class, thanks for your hard work,” Professor Stewart said at five-before-the-hour. “Next week we have new stories from Mark and Chris. Also, I want to remind you about the LeBlanc Prize for Creative Writing. Submissions are due by the end of the month. I don’t know if a sophomore has ever won, but you guys are great writers. Besides, it doesn’t cost anything to submit, and you may just win five hundred bucks. Last but not least, while the entire English Department is ultimately judging the submissions, I am technically in charge of this thing, and it always looks better for me if there are more submissions. So, that’s my request.  Now, go out and have behavior. And if your parents ask if any of your professors told you to behave, you can say Professor Stewart did. Luke, walk with me down to my office.”

Luke followed Professor Stewart down the hall, and Luke knew he was caught. Plagiarism in any class was bad, but normally you could say you forgot to drop a footnote. Besides, the whole point of research is finding out what other people said, and incorporating it into your report. All of research is plagiarism. A creative writing class was different. You could “take inspiration” from something like Leopold and Loeb, or even another work of fiction, but flat out stealing someone else’s opening line was not creative. That was just plagiarism. “Taking inspiration” was the rest of the story.

Linus and Larry were high school seniors in a privileged suburban setting. Luke described a neighborhood of verdant front lawns maintained by Mexican immigrants. For a few minutes, Luke considered making the story about Laura and Lucy, but quickly discarded that idea because he didn’t want to deal with figuring out motivations for female characters. He liked the L and L motif, however, so Leopold and Loeb became Linus and Larry. Linus became the shyer character with mommy issues because that’s what Linus was in Peanuts. Luke even considered giving Linus a security blanket and a pet beagle. The name Larry just sounded dumb and maybe a little thuggish to Luke, so that’s what Larry was. If the name Lawrence had popped into Luke’s head first, then the second character would have been preppy with bad acne, but Larry got there first, so he was dumb and a little thuggish.

Both Linus and Larry knew what they were doing was wrong, of course. They had their issues, but they weren’t psychopaths. They were raised properly. Primarily, they were bored. Luke wrote a lengthy paragraph describing Larry’s bedroom, listing videogame systems and dozens of games Larry had stacked in a corner, underneath an electric guitar hanging on the wall, which Larry had asked for one Christmas but never learned how to play.

One afternoon while playing violent video games Larry casually mentioned committing a crime like in the game. They both laughed, but neither could shake the idea of crime just for the sake of it. The next morning before school, Linus made a joke about robbing Policelli’s Pizzeria. At lunch, Larry made a joke about sticking up the Exxon station on Dalglish Avenue. After school, Linus’ mom dropped them off at Larry’s house to play videogames, but instead they came up with their plan. They’d break into the homes of their schoolmates. They knew who had good stuff to steal, who had a dog, and who was going to be away. They knew it was wrong, of course, but they wanted to see if they could do it.

Luke sat in a wooden chair with a vinyl seat across a cluttered desk from Professor Stewart, who settled into a rolling desk chair with a high back. Even the printer on the desk was covered with papers. The walls of the office weren’t walls but built-in bookshelves, and they too were overflowing with loose papers of one sort or another. Periodically a bust of Shakespeare or Milton peered out from a shelf, and the loose papers undulated in and out enough to suggest that somewhere back there, hidden by an indeterminate number of books, essays, and old exams, were more busts.

Luke could feel his face become warm and flush at the thought of Professor Stewart accusing him of plagiarism. Luke found himself drying his sweaty palms by rubbing them on his dirty jeans.

“Well, Luke, I’m sure you know, of course, that, even though, theoretically, the entire English Department is the judge for the LeBlanc Prize, really, it’s just the creative writing professors.”

Luke nodded his head.

“And, as the Chair of the Department, well, Professor Reed holds a lot of sway in the decision-making.”

Luke nodded his head again, and thought back to Professor Reed’s introduction for Barry Lopez. Could Reed already know? Luke didn’t think Professor Stewart was at Lopez’s reading, but maybe Stewart knew the line. Maybe Stewart already brought it to Reed’s attention. Professor Reed, of course, would know Luke stole the line. Christ, he’d have to change his major if Reed knew.

“Well, frankly, Luke, I feel a bit awkward about this. But, believe it or not, the LeBlanc Prize is actually taken quite seriously in the Department. I mean, lots of professors don’t get involved in the decision process, but once someone wins, everyone pays attention to that student’s professor. It’s kind of a plum in the professor’s hat . . . guiding a student to a well crafted story. Luke, I’m going to be completely honest with you. I’m up for tenure this year. If one of my students wins the LeBlanc Prize, well, it wouldn’t hurt. Especially if it was a sophomore. I’ve never seen a sophomore win. This story of yours about Linus and Larry . . . it was a great jump for you.”

Luke was confused, primarily about the fact that he wasn’t in trouble for plagiarism. He was also wondering how Professor Stewart’s office had gotten so messy if he didn’t even have tenure yet.

“I want to encourage you to submit this story for the LeBlanc Prize, Luke. It needs some work, of course. Like Mark said, maybe you should add some sort of signature for Linus and Larry to leave behind. It needs some work, but you’ve got a month. And that opening line. ‘We knew what we were doing was wrong, of course.’ I mean, that’s just a great line. Great. But, if you punch up the rest of the story, well, I really think you’ll have something. I encourage you to submit it.”

“Oh. Ok. Sure. Is that it?”

“That’s it.”

Luke used his sleeve to wipe the sweat off his forehead as he walked out of Professor Stewart’s office. He realized he didn’t have the stomach for petty crime, even if his characters did. Plagiarism was wrong, and Luke knew it, and almost getting caught was enough for him.  He felt like he was on the verge of throwing up for the entire walk back to his dorm.

Luke had to revise and resubmit all of his stories to Professor Stewart as a “portfolio” sometime during Finals Week anyway. Submitting one for the LeBlanc Prize just meant he needed to revise one story about a week earlier than the others. Plus, Professor Stewart practically just begged him to submit. He’d probably give Luke’s grade a bump just for submitting, even though sophomores never won.

Safe in his dorm, Luke flipped open his laptop and deleted his first sentence, and then began entering line edits and fixing the typos that Mark, Chris, and Heather had found. As Luke slowly worked his way through the edits he thought more and more about what Professor Stewart had said. A sophomore had never won the LeBlanc Prize. Stewart just wanted to get a lot of submissions. There was probably some unwritten rule about sophomores winning, like the Heisman Trophy before Tebow. And since Luke didn’t stand a chance of winning, what would it matter if he plagiarized one line? Besides, he’d already stolen the line when he submitted the story to his creative writing class. The plagiarism had already happened. Morally, submitting it to a contest he had no shot of winning wasn’t any worse.

Luke added back the opening line. Over the course of the next few weeks, he also gave Linus and Larry their signature. They now removed a bottle of salad dressing from the refrigerator and left it on the kitchen floor of every house they robbed. They became known as the “condiment culprits.”

After submitting his story, Luke revised the rest of his portfolio. He turned that in on the first day of finals, then spread his other three exams out across the next week-and-a-half, then went home for almost a month of Christmas vacation. When Luke returned to campus he enrolled in Modern Irish Literature, African-American Literature, a survey of the history of Colonial Latin America, and a Philosophy and Literature course that didn’t count toward his major because it was taught by a Philosophy professor. He hooked-up with Heather at a party, and then tried to avoid her for the rest of the semester. He started dating a girl who had been in a psychology class he took freshman year. Luke met her at a party he only went to because he knew Heather wouldn’t be there.

Sometime in the middle of the semester, Luke received an email from Professor Stewart, congratulating Luke on behalf of the English Department for winning the LeBlanc Prize. Luke would collect his $500 check at the Department’s end-of-the-year reception. There would be drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Professor Cressato would be honored for his years of service before his retirement. Graduating seniors would also be honored for their theses. Luke would read his LeBlanc Prize winning story at the reception. Luke read that part of the email again.

He wasn’t supposed to win. He only submitted to make Professor Stewart happy and maybe get a bump in his grade. Now he had to read to the entire Department and graduating English majors. Luke pictured the auditorium with Lopez at the podium, and he knew there were plenty of now-graduating English majors, in addition to Reed and O’Conner, in the audience. Now, Luke knew he was caught. Most likely, some of those seniors had also submitted a story for the LeBlanc Prize. They’d be pissed-off when they found out they lost $500 to a sophomore who stole his opening line from a lecture they’d attended little more than a year ago. Luke realized things could only get worse. He walked to Professor Stewart’s office.

“Luke, come in, congratulations,” Professor Stewart said looking up from his computer screen after hearing Luke’s knock on the door.

Luke closed the office door and sat across from Professor Stewart. “I never expected to win.”

“I’ve never seen a sophomore win. But, I saw something very fine in your story. Very fine. I noticed you also made a lot of the changes I suggested. It makes a teacher feel good to know he helped guide a student.”

“Right. Well, I guess that’s the thing. I never expected I’d win. And I really didn’t think I’d have to read to the entire Department. You asked me to submit something so I did, but . . . it’s not entirely . . . original.”

“Leopold and Loeb? I know. That’s fine. You’re allowed to take inspiration from real life. Homer did it with The Iliad.”

“ That’s not what I’m saying. I think Homer at least came up with that line about the wine dark sea. I guess . . . well . . . the opening line wasn’t mine. I took it from another story.  From Barry Lopez, when he spoke here last year.”

Professor Stewart paused for a time, and as he reclined in his chair, he said “the opening line is important to any story. Especially in your story. It sets up everything that comes next. You can’t take a line like that from someone else.”

“I know.”

“I missed Lopez. Last year. I wanted to go . . . I forget what I was doing . . . something came up.”

“That’s where I got my opening line.”

“The idea of the line? Did you change it around some?”

“I kept it the exact same. I don’t know why. It was a good line. And it was just one line.”

“It is a good line,” Professor Stewart said, running his hand through his hair, along his jaw, and then twisting it around his chin.

“And Professor Reed and O’Conner were there last year. They heard Barry Lopez speak. I kind of thought I would have been caught when they read my story. I never expected to win.”

“They were there last year?” Professor Stewart asked sharply, sitting up in his chair.

“Yeah.”

Professor Stewart leaned back in his chair again, and again ran his hand through his hair, along his jaw, and twisted it on the tip of his chin. He looked around his office at all the books and busts on the shelves, all the papers and piles, and Professor Stewart seemed to grow larger in his chair, as if he was drawing from the life-force of the cumulated centuries of literary wisdom in his office. “You know what you did was wrong, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Well then, you’ve learned your lesson. You won’t do this again.”

“No,” Luke said.

“Luke, I think that settles it, and I think we should keep this between us.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I think I told you I’m up for tenure. It would look pretty bad for me if the one year I was running the LeBlanc Prize, I picked a plagiarized story for the winner. Especially if the plagiarism came from a lecture I was supposed to be at.”

“I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”

“Now, Luke, I don’t want you to think I’m trying to cover my ass. I’m not trying to cover my ass. It would look bad for . . . well, it would look bad for . . . the Department.”

“It would?”

“Yes. Yes. Now, think of it, Luke. Right now, a sophomore is going to win the LeBlanc Prize for the first time in at least a long time. That’s a great story. Everyone likes that story. But let’s say we announced that you were giving up the Prize because you stole an opening sentence, from a guest of the Department, who spoke here just last year. And let me, also say, by the way, that I find what you’re doing to be very admirable. You’re owning up to doing wrong, and you’re accepting the consequences, and that’s very admirable.”

“Thank you.”

“And, you see, people would start asking questions, Luke. How did your story get through the review process with a stolen opening? Questions like that. I’m going to be honest with you, Luke. Maybe all the professors were supposed to read all the submissions, and maybe all of them said they did, but a lot of professors are very busy. This is the sort of thing a lot of professors hand off to grad students. It would be very embarrassing for some professors if it came out that they didn’t really do what they said they did. Are you following me?”

“I think so.”

“I mean, I wasn’t even at Barry Lopez’s talk. But, you said Professors Reed and O’Conner were. People would wonder why they didn’t catch that even though they said they reviewed your story. It wouldn’t look good for them. Do you understand?”

“I think so.”

“Good. Good. You’ve learned your lesson, and you won’t do something like this again.”

“No.”

“And, Luke, just so I’m clear, this isn’t the kind of thing we say we keep between us, but then I go tell everyone in the faculty lounge and you tell everyone at a frat party, do you follow? I think I gave you an A last semester. You’ll be the first sophomore to win the LeBlanc Prize, and you’ll get five hundred bucks to boot. That’s pretty good, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“Good, Luke. Good. Well, I think that settles it, and I don’t think anyone else needs to know about this. I don’t see why it would come up again, and I think that settles it. This will stay just between us, won’t it Luke?”

“Of course.”

“Good.”

As Luke walked out of Professor Stewart’s office he still knew he was wrong, but now he knew Professors Stewart, Reed, and O’Conner were also wrong. A few weeks later, though, when Luke read his story to the Department, the graduating seniors didn’t seem to pay any attention. Professors Reed and O’Conner either didn’t recognize the opening line, or didn’t care enough to say anything. For the most part, the focus was on Professor Cressato and his years of service to the Department. Luke was happy to get his check for five hundred dollars.

 

John Power was born and raised in and around New York City, graduated from college in rural Virginia, lived and wrote for a year in Warsaw, Poland, and currently reside in Chicago, where he is an attorney.  His short story Dayhawks was published in The Great Lakes Review, and his story Trusts was named a winner of The Journal of Legal Education’s Legal Fiction Contest. His self-published first novel Golden Freedom is available on lulu.com, and he just published a second novel, Toy With The Flame, available on amazon.com.

5 Questions for John Power:

TD: Tell us a little about this story? Where did the idea come from?
JP: This story had a very long germination process, and I can’t remember the exact origin right now.  It was pulled together from memories of various college creative writing classes I took, although my experience with those classes was more positive than I think it was for the main character in The Prize.
TD: Who is your greatest writing influence?
JP: Hemingway.  I think my style has moved away from his, but when I first discovered Hemingway it was transformative experience, and I remember sitting down on my bedroom floor going through story after story in one of his collections, oblivious to everything else around me.  Also, Batman.  The first Batman movie with Michael Keaton came out when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I immediately created Tiger Man, and would write and read one page stories in class.
TD: What is your favorite place to write and why?
JP: My desk in my apartment. I need to schedule time and sit down and write in order to make it happen.
TD: Do you hand write your work or go directly to the keyboard?
JP: I do a lot of brainstorming and outlining by hand on scrap paper, and I do that on the bus or in bed or wherever I may be.  The actual writing I do right onto a keyboard.
TD: Give us the name of a book you’d want on a desert island?
JP: Can’t go wrong with Moby Dick.


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