It was another mammoth mob, larger than last month’s Metallica concert in London. This crowd much rowdier. They poured in from Boothapandi and Vyaspur, and just about every basmati-sized village you can think of, and many big cities too. Even the toll booth collector called it quits, letting the expressway to the bridge clog in a state of permanent gridlock, a schoolboy’s Matchbox mashup. They were there to watch two strapping, not-so-young, unemployed semi-conductor engineers chuck a lightbulb into the stratosphere (150 feet anyway). Corny as it seemed, this particular stunt had been broken, and re-broken by the same two unemployed semi-conductor engineers, all summer long. They’d been rivals since kindergarten, Erector set protégés back then. Now, closing in on 28 and 29 respectively, single, and hankering for the juju to put their futures into orbit.
Gautam was the adjudicator. One part referee, master of ceremony, shepherd, and often a baby-kisser. Each time he made a precious visit, he swore it would be his last. There were so many better ways for him to waste his life, but when he got a whiff of the spectacle, any spectacle, he got juiced, fed off the crowd’s energy. His aunt had recently given him a shoebox full of Polaroids from his childhood, a zillion hammy poses, flexing muscles that hadn’t chiseled, pictures of the pint-sized Gautam barking into a banana as though it were a microphone. When he thought of that long lost schoolboy, he knew he was living the dream, a seven-year-old’s dream, and this drove him on.
It was a scorcher, anybody smart enough to tote a cooler of bottled water made himself a pretty rupee. The erstwhile kindergarten rivals prepped, dusted their hands with soil, limbered their legs with short sprints.
Showtime. The first contestant stepped up, cocked the bulb behind his ear, then spun himself around, once, twice, then hurled it. What a beautiful, nutty arc, soaring in the powdered blue sky. A sunbeam bounced off the white glass and Gautam was blinded, totally missed the spot where the bulb kissed the dirt. Some thunderous applause erupted after the toss, and Gautam suddenly felt a fat knot of pressure, right below his sternum, the very unruly knot he used to get as kid during a test, when he blanked out on the answer.
Then the other guy got up, clutching the lightbulb like his lucky rabbit’s foot. Gautam took a deep breath and got as vicariously close to the contestant as the true blue metaphysicians of lore would permit a Mind/Body experience to alley-oop. The other guy must have had his whole extended family clapping for him, and one of his second or third cousins or one of his uncles twice removed had probably paid a premium to get a bigger cheer.
Then it happened again. What were the odds? Did the Guinness Book of World Records Adjudicator know, and more importantly, did he know the ramifications for such a faux pas, his double doozy. As he tried to peer past that kaleidoscope of swirling colors from his momentary blindness, he imagined himself the regular schmo he’d once been. He’d never allow it, couldn’t bear it. There’d be bedlam if he didn’t handle the snafu just right. He took a deep breath, which wasn’t easy given the stifling heat. Beads of sweat dripped down his double chin. He loped with purpose and a giddy impulse gave him his perfect answer, get him off the hook and make this the most heated rivalry ever. Both mopes would hold the broken record together. A tie it was. Gautam cleared his throat and the gargantuan crowd came to a menacing hush. He palmed the lightbulb, the whole fragile world cradled in his fleshy palm.
Before his words found their way into print, John snapped the Eyesore of the Week for the Queens Ledger. Now he spits wine for a living. His stuff has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Word Riot, Writer’s Digest, The Helix, Newtown Literary, Gravel, and elsewhere. He is the author of the novels Shades of Luz and Disposable Heroes. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. You can read more of his stuff here.