Author: Cornish, Rick

Too late
When I was twenty-one and enrolled in graduate school at San Jose State University I entered a short story in a writing contest. The short story was called ‘Just About Four Seconds Flat’ and the contest was called the Phalen Competition, which included entrants from San Jose State, Santa Clara University and Stanford. There were various awards for poetry, blank verse, essays and short stories, but there was an overall prize for the very, very best entry of all, regardless of the category. And the overall prize was $500 (a HUGE amount of money for a college student on loans in the early seventies), but even better, being the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by novelist Kurt Vonnegut.

After Hemmingway, Vonnegut was, and still is, my favorite American novelist, and the thought of hearing him speak at a banquet, much less sitting next to him at dinner, chatting with the guy, just looking into his eyes, was, well, almost more than I can describe even thirty-five years later. And yet, a week before the banquet, I received a letter in the mail informing me that my short story had one two awards: best short fiction and OVERALL GRAND PRIZE. I couldn’t believe it. I cried and danced around the apartment and my wife and friends and the whole neighborhood celebrated for two days. Lots of us in our little group were want-to-be writers, and the award was, in a way, recognition for our entire little artists’ community. And then, of course, I went out and bought a cheap suit and got a haircut and wrote and re-wrote and re-re-wrote an acceptance speech. And then I waited an waited for that Wednesday night when I’d meet Kurt Vonnegut and he’d say something like, ‘kid, I liked your story’ or ‘pal, you may just have what it takes’ or even just ‘hey, not bad’. It really didn’t matter what he would say, because I knew he’d be there, in San Jose that night, because of me. ME.

About mid morning that Wednesday the phone rang. It was a guy I knew from my Tuesday and Thursday morning writing class….not really a friend, an acquaintance. “Hey, man, we missed you last night. What a bummer. Vonnegut was great. He even made a joke about you. Said you stood him up. Where were you, man?”

I got on my motorcycle and drove the 12 blocks to the English Department in Thompson Hall on Seventh Street. I wept all the way, the chilly wind drying the tears almost as quickly as they rolled across my cheeks but, even though I stopped in the men’s room to wash my face, I knew that the secretary knew I’d been crying. She recognized me right off, shook her head as if to say, ‘there, there’ and handed me an enveloped. “You’d better check inside just to make sure,” she said softly. Yes, there was one check for $200 and another one for $500.

It’s right around midnight now. I got up because I couldn’t sleep. Hard to fall asleep lately. Checked my e-mail, our CBA web site and then CNN. The headline: Novelist Kurt Vonnegut dies. I know this is goofy, but I’ve sort of half believed, all these years since 1971 that someday, somehow, I’d get to meet that guy. And in my imagining he’d remember ‘Just About Four Seconds Flat’ and he’d say, ‘You know, pal, you shoulda stuck with it. You shoulda.’
Posted:  4/12/2007

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