We were just notified that Writopia senior Sam Levine (left, reading an excerpt from another award-winning piece at the 2010 Scholastic awards) won second place, and a $5000 Scholarship, from Random House's 2010 Creative Writing Contest! Please help him celebrate by reading his transporting prose:
By Sam Levine, 17
“All great writers have first names that begin with the letter J,” I said, checking for the twelfth time that my fly was zipped up all the way.
“ What are you talking about?” God said, wiping the snot that was already beginning to dribble down from his nose into his mouth.
“ Think about it---John Steinbeck, James Joyce, Joyce Carol Oates, Jack Kerouac, J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, John Updike. They’re all Js.”
“ John Updike is a wasp,” God said.
“ But he doesn’t sting people, or buzz,” I said back.
“ Not that kind of wasp. He’s a wasp like mom is a jap.”
“ But mom doesn’t like sushi.”
“ That’s racist.”
“ You’re the one who said she was a jap.”
“ Nevermind,” God said, taking my hand so that we could cross 53rd street, even though there were no cars in sight. “ Have you even read any of those writers?”
“ No, but I know about them, which is even better than actually reading them.”
“ You’re a moron,” God said.
“ Is that better or worse than being a wasp or a jap?”
God didn’t reply. Instead, he looked down at his watch and told me that if we didn’t get a move on we would be late.
Secretly, I wished that my name began with J. Instead, it began with Q. When I asked my parents why I was a Q, they told me that it was because I was unique. When I asked them why they chose to name my brother God “God” and they told me that it was because he was unique. When I asked them how two people could be unique at the same time, they told me that they didn’t know, but that God might. God told me that they did it because they wanted him to be in therapy for the rest of his life.
God could have gone to Harvard, but when he went to spend a weekend there he came back and said that Harvard hamburgers gave him The Worst Diharreha Ever and that he thought that spending four years there would be unpleasant for him and everyone else around him. My parents said that this was The Greatest Tragedy Of All Time, but God always corrected them and told them that it was just The Worst Diharreha Ever.
Even though God didn’t go to Harvard, he still knew the answers to all of my questions. I was constantly asking God how I could be The Greatest Writer That Ever Lived, and he told me that I had to write about The Greatest Things That Ever Happened. I had remembered this just as we were tiptoeing out of our front door and slipped my Great Ideas notebook into my fanny-pack. This adventure was going to be the Greatest Thing That Ever Happened, and I was going to be The Greatest Writer That Ever Lived.
The first time that God told me about M42, I thought that it was some sort of joke. I was going to sleep, and God had just tucked all of my sheets under the bed so tight that I could barely breathe. I always made him do this, in case anyone came in the middle of the night to kidnap me.
“ Do you know what the Fountain of Life is?” he asked, turning off the lights in my room.
“ You mean the vending machine at the Y that gives you two Snickers when you pay for one?” I said into my pillow, trying to fall asleep.
“ No, you idiot,” God said, even though I could tell that he wasn’t angry. “ If you drink from the Fountain of Life you live forever.”
“ What if you get cancer, or have a freak skydiving accident?” I said, wide awake.
“ You won’t,” God said, acting as if neither of those things ever happened, even though I knew that 1/3 of Americans had cancer, and 1/316,000 skydivers had faulty parachutes. “ The Fountain of Life is here, in New York. It’s in a secret basement under the information booth in Grand Central called M42.”
“ Who put it there?”
“ Who cares? It’s there.”
“ How do you know it’s there?”
“ I just know”
“ How do you just know?”
“ I just know, trust me.” God always wanted people to trust him, and only reminded people that they needed to trust him when something was really important. I knew he wasn’t lying.
“ Are you going to go and find it?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“ We’re going to leave in the middle of the night two nights from now. Make sure that you adjust your bathroom schedule,” he said, leaving my room.
I lay in bed for what seemed like a million years, but couldn’t fall asleep. I pulled out my laptop from the secret drawer above my headboard ( where I always kept it, in case I needed to refresh my memory on how to make a fire extinguisher using my snow-globe from Paris, which I had practiced successfully once, and unsuccessfully six times ) and Googled “M42.” God was right, there was a secret basement under Grand Central, but there was nothing about the fountain of life. The only thing that I read about the basement was a rumor that during World War II two German spies had been caught trying to break into it. I wondered why Germans would want to find the fountain of life. Did Scandenavians, Norwegians and Australians know about M42? Did they care? I wondered how you said fountain of life in German. I used an online translator. Quelle des Lebens—it sounded like something you ordered off of a menu when you were trying to impress someone. I closed my laptop. That night, I dreamt that on my skydiving expedition I was so distracted by a Snickers bar that I forgot to open my parachute.
Even though it was the middle of December, I was wearing my open-toed, Velcro sandals that lit up in the back whenever I took a step. I hated the way that normal shoes crushed all of my toes together and socks made my feet sweat. God made me take out the batteries from my sandals because he said that it would attract attention to us when we were hiding. I knew that God was right, but I still was carrying extra batteries in my fannypack because I thought that my sandals would send a strong SOS in case of an emergency. I was also wearing a suit. I always wore suits because no one ever asked a guy in a suit questions—they just assumed he belonged. God told me that my suit made me look like a real schmuck, but when I asked him what a schmuck was, he told me to forget about it. I told him that at least if we got caught, one of us would look like a sophisticated schmuck.
Grand Central closes when the last train chugs out at two, and since it was only 1:30 when we stepped into the terminal we had half an hour to spare. God was always saying that he had time to spare—he treated his whole life as if it were change buried in his pocket that he could give to a homeless guy. As soon as we stepped into Grand Central God said that he had to take a leak, and told me that I should scout out the main level of the station while he went to the bathroom downstairs. Even though I had to pee too--and the idea of being left alone in the middle of the night made me sweat--I agreed to God’s plan because I wanted to be tough, which is something that everyone has to be at the right time. God and I did our secret handshake—three slaps down low, then something we called “no fingerprints” in the middle—and then headed off in our different directions.
I sat on the lowest step of the staircase closest to the entrance to the main level so that I could hide from any video cameras hidden on the balconies. The greatest thing about Grand Central is also the one thing that tourists taking pictures of the big boring clock forget to look at: the ceiling. It’s painted green to resemble the night sky (even though everyone knows the night sky is dark purple, obviously) and is filled with stars that make up the Zodiac constellations.
According to God, until the 1930s, the ceiling was so covered in tar from cigarettes and smoke from the trains that people didn’t even know there was a mural under it all. When construction workers uncovered the mural and got rid of all of the smog, they left a little black square of tar so that people would always remember what the ceiling looked like. But the best part of the ceiling is the story behind it. God told me that the thing most people don't realize about the mural is that the sky is upside down and backwards. When the mural was first unveiled, everyone said that it was this terrible mistake, but the Vanderbilt family (who built Grand Central) said that it was no mistake at all, but simply showed the world from God’s perspective in heaven. If the Vanderbilts were right, and God was in fact sitting on top of Grand Central looking down on all of us--it meant that he saw our world reversed. For some reason, this always made me think about brushing my teeth. Whenever I brush my teeth I always look straight in the mirror to make sure that I get all the food out from under my gums and avoid gingivitus. The one time I had let my mom feed me something she called cauliflower ( but I insisted was simply just white broccoli), it had gotten so wedged between my teeth and my gums that it took me nearly an hour and a half to get it out. The thing was, all of the white broccoli was stuck on the right side of my mouth in the mirror, but on the left side of my real mouth. Each time that I went to brush, nothing came out. When I asked my mom why this was happening, she told me that I should just use dental floss. I wondered what God did when he got white broccoli stuck in his teeth? Did he resort to dental floss when he realized that he was doing something backwards and no matter how hard he tried nothing would change?
To tell you the truth, I had always thought that the Vanderbilt's story was a load of BS, but as I sat there waiting for God, I realized that the Vanderbilts were right.
It made sense that God saw our world backwards; no matter how hard he tried to make things perfect, he would always get his right mixed up with our left, and his left mixed up with our right. That was why 1/316,000 skydivers had bad parachutes, and why an average 1,264 children were kidnapped right from their bedroom each year, and why 1/3 of Americans had lumps they didn’t want and why fires break out in the middle of the night when there's no one awake to extinguish them. I realized that the black patch in the sky was there to remind God that not even he was perfect and that there would always be things that he couldn’t see, and couldn’t understand. Sure, I thought, it was possible that the ceiling was a mistake after all, but that would mean that all we had were giant trampolines and chemotherapy, both of which could backfire tremendously. Plus, if the Fountain of Life was in Grand Central, it made sense that God would always want to keep an eye on it. I told myself that if I ever met God, I would be sure to teach him that if you just make an L with your left hand, you can always tell right from left and won’t always get things so mixed up.
I had been looking at the ceiling for so long, that I didn’t realize nearly 10 minutes had gone by since I left God. I figured that he was either peeing out Niagra Falls or a kidney stones, but I didn’t want to go check on God because no one should ever be rushed in the bathroom, ever. I pulled out my Great Ideas notebook to begin to brainstorm titles for The Greatest Story Ever Written. I began to think about John Steinbeck. Did he come out of his mom's stomach knowing he was going to be a great writer? He must have, after all, his name began with J. I thought about John Updike. How did he feel about having the same first name as John Steinbeck? I thought about J.D. Salinger, James Joyce and Jack Kerouac. Did they wear Velcro? How did they know what to write about? How did they feel when other people told them that their writing was lousy? Did it change what they wrote about? I thought about Joyce Carol Oates and Jane Austen. Did they wear bras? Was it harder to write with a bra on?
I was writing all of these questions down in my notebook when I felt a hand grab my shoulder. I mentally prepared to do a sitting backflip and kick my enemy in the family jewels, but when I looked at the hand and saw unevenly cut fingernails, I knew that it was just God.
"How'd it flow?" I asked, readjusting my fannypack as I got up.
" Terrible," God said, already three steps ahead of me and moving quickly towards the information booth. " There was this guy in there washing his hands for five minutes. How was I supposed to go while he was right there?" Even though I could tell that the man in the bathroom bothered God, I could tell by how quickly he was speaking that there was something deeper eating him: he was nervous.
" Whenever I have trouble getting things started, I try to think of a running stream," I said, trying to make God laugh.
" Then you must think of streams all the time," God said stopping at one of the doors to the information booth. " Stand guard, I'll pick the lock."
As God began to pick the lock, I ran laps around the information booth. I ran laps and didn't walk, because if someone appeared on the side of the information booth that I wasn't on, I figured that I would spot him faster if I was running. God hated this idea, but once I explained that the fraction of a second saved could be the fraction of a second we used to get away, he shut up. Because I was running so fast,and had to pee so badly, I didn't have time to think about being nervous. The thing was, I didn't feel nervous at all, I felt like a man in a suit---like I was meant to be in Grand Central with God at that moment. I felt like my name began with the letter J.
I had done 15 3/4 laps when I heard the information booth door squeak open. God didn't say anything, but just stepped inside. Holding my breath for good luck, I stepped inside after him.
Surprisingly, it wasn't dark at all in the information booth. Instead, it was as if someone knew we were coming and left the lights on for us. Inside the information booth were train schedules scattered everywhere on the floor giving train times to places like Poughkipsee, New Haven, Stamford, White Plains, Scarsdale, Westport, and Rye. Each one of these schedules was a different color, and together they made the most beautiful collage I had ever seen of places visited and fares by the passengers of Metro North Railroad. In the middle of the information booth there was a giant golden pillar. At first, I thought that the pillar would surely mean the end of our adventure, but God walked right up to its side and parted two hidden doors as if he was opening up a hot dog bun. God didn't even look at me, or look around him, but simply stepped into the pillar as if he were stepping into his bedroom. I looked inside the pillar, and realized that it was completely dark. Even though I couldn't see what I was stepping into, I followed God into the darkness.
As soon as I stepped inside, I pulled the lights from my sandals out of my fannypack and turned them on. I realized that I was standing on a ledge, but that there were steps to the side that I could walk down. As soon as I stepped on the first step, I began to smell something that smelled like BS, literally. As I walked down the steps, I began to feel as if I were a prince making a grand entrance at a ball. After 32 steps ( I counted them so that I could keep track of the detail in my Great Ideas notebook later), I finally reached the bottom floor. I turned the frequency on my lights from MED to HI, and looked around a room that looked like a library. I looked around for God, but couldn't find him anywhere. I went over to one of the shelves and grabbed one of the books, hoping it would contain instructions for the next steps of our adventure. When I opened the book, I only found a list of town names and times that corresponded each name. I was confused at first, but when I looked at the top of the page I realized that I was looking at a record book of every train that had left Grand Central in April of 1986 and the time that it had left the terminal. I realized that I was standing in a record room, and that these books were the timetables of all the trains that left Grand Central. I thought about all the people on those trains. Did they have to adjust their bathroom schedules for their trips? Did they know they were leaving God in Grand Central? Did they ever come back? They must have, I thought. That was the thing about trains, they always came back to where they started from.
I put the book back on the shelf and looked around the room for God. Under normal conditions, I would have done our ultra-emergency distress call---three clicks, a whistle, and a howl---but something in my throat wouldn't let me do it. I didn't need to see God, I wasn't even sure if he existed. What mattered was that for the first time I felt like me. I unclipped my fannypack. I realized God didn't need the Fountain of Life, he would live in the Zodiac forever anyway. But I also had this feeling in the bottom of my stomach that I didn't need the Fountain of Life either. No, I was sure of it. If I lived forever, there would be no reason for me to get out from tightly wrapped sheets or go skydiving. This made me feel incredibly brave, and for the first time I could remember, I knew I wouldn't have to explain the why there were yellow stains in my underwear to my mom.
I turned my light and saw a man sitting on the ground, huddled in blankets squinting at the light I was shining on him. He smelled like someone had given him six swirlees in an unflushed toilet. He was sweating, even though it wasn't hot. He was buried beneath two layers of cardboard boxes, as if his mom had just tucked him in for the night. I wondered if God could see this man this far below the information booth. He must have been able to, I thought, because we're standing right above the Fountain of Life, and God must closely guard the Fountain of Life. But did this mean God could smell the swirlees? If God could choose to smell anything in the world, why would he choose to smell BS? Then a thought hit me so quickly that I didn't even have time to pull out my Great Ideas notebook. Maybe God wanted to see this man. Maybe having this men directly under him was God's way of punishing himself for all the things he couldn't fix. But was this fair for the man under the cardboard? Why should he have to suffer for God's mistakes? I felt as if I were standing in the dark smudge on the Grand Central Ceiling. I felt closer to God now than when I went to the top of the Empire State Building all by myself, or when my mom and dad took me to do Jewish things.
The cardboard man, getting angry that I was holding my light in his face finally said: "What the hell are you doing here alone kid?"
"I'm not here alone, I'm here with God," I said, pretending that I was a prince again.
He laughed. " What are you doing here with God?"
"We're looking for---," I caught myself, not wanting to share any of the details of our adventure. Instead, I told him something that I couldn't explain, but just felt right, the way that a cup of hot chocolate does when it's -7 degrees celcius outside. " I'm writing the Greatest Story Ever Written."
According to God, until the 1930s, the ceiling was so covered in tar from people’s cigarettes and smoke from the trains that people didn’t even know there was a mural on the ceiling. When construction workers uncovered the mural and got rid of all of the smog, they left a little black square of tar so that people would always remember what the ceiling looked like.
The best part of the ceiling isn’t what’s really there, but the story behind it. God told me that the thing most people didn’t realize about the mural was that it was upside down and backwards.
(which is something God insists is Chinese but "doesn’t have MSG")