“For the work of the pen let the writer be sent a beautiful girl.”
–anonymous inscription in 12th c. Latin bible
When Jerome Pilkie was young his father told him that real money was to be made in inventing, in creating something out of nothing.
“Patents, son,” he said, his gin-blossomed face serious and parental. “Think of the man who came up with the paper clip. A simple twist of metal that meant millions to him. Millions!”
Jerome didn’t ask his dad why they lived on Morrow Street in a particularly bleak part of Memphis. His father was a butcher and a drunk.
Yet, the advice took root.
All through his teen years Jerome Pilkie kept a journal in which he wrote down dozens of ideas, which were either (a) impractical, (b) already invented, or (c) downright fatuous. But it never left his mind that he was destined to create something that had never before existed.
Jerome, also, had another virtually furtive vice. He was a reader of novels. Good novels, bad novels, it didn’t matter, as long as he could live for a while in a fictitious place. So, naturally, he was a bit moony. It was while he was reading Just William by Richmal Crompton that the brainstorm hit him that would transform his workaday existence into something grand, something heroic, something inspired and transcendent.
Jerome Pilkie was going to invent a word.
It would be his alone and, it will be recorded that before him the word did not exist.
How to start? Pilkie pondered. He owned an unabridged dictionary, of course, so he could make sure that he hadn’t been trumped before he even began.
The utilitarian method? The word had to fit and be useful and name something formerly unnamed?
The blind faith method? Pull some letters from the unconscious, shake them up and see what happens?
The poetic method? Make a word that sounds appealing, like mumpsimus or birdlime?
The “just connect” method? Make a word that seemed to naturally follow a sequence of already established words?
The viral method? Put anything together with any definition, put it out there and see if it, like chum, draws word sharks?
Long into his mulish midnights Pilkie worked with the 26 letters of the Latin-derived alphabet. His method did not consist of simply combining letters into a billion variations. It was a divine alchemy Pilkie was trailing. He knew not where he was heading but he was confident that he would get there and know the place as his alone. He slept little. He ate only bits of bread and cheese left out on the sideboard.
Pilkie’s boss at the stationery store stopped calling after a week and sent him a letter of dismissal that Pilkie never read. He also never opened any of his bills received during this time. The mail piled up. The newspapers piled up. The neighbors debated about calling the police. “He was always an odd duck,” they prepared in advance of the “shocking” revelations, whatever they may be. They longed for figures of authority to appear.
Pilkie worked at this feverish pace for 21 days, at the end of which he collapsed at his desk. A swoon of sleep overtook him.
He woke 28 hours later, his head full of floss, his eyes crusted over, his body rank. He was stiff and stood tentatively, bones cracking. He shuffled like an automaton to his living room window and opened the drapes. The sunlight went through his head like a song made of glass.
Who am I? Pilkie thought. The answer Jerome Pilkie did not satisfy. What am I? he asked further.
A man. A searcher. A utopian. A fool.
He walked to his desk with failure hanging from him like crepe. The room resembled a prisoner’s garret. He was tired, tired. His escritoire was a shambles. There on the desk, amid crumbs of dried crust and hard cheese, lay his worksheets, the topmost stained with saliva where he had slavered in his slumber.
He picked up the soiled sheet and read what he had written there.
He shook his head and read it again.
About halfway down the paper, after various doodles and scrawls and crossed-out alphabetiforms, half-obscured by his blob of leaky spittle, was a combination of letters that Pilkie did not remember putting together. He gingerly wiped the drool spot away so as not to smear his results.
Jesus, Pilkie said to himself. Holy Mother of God. Did I write this?
Pilkie moved to the couch, turned on the nearby floor lamp, sheet in hand. He sat and read it over a number of times. His neck tickled. His thumbs pricked. Holy Mother of God, he repeated. This is it.
Jerome Pilkie had created his new word.
Pilkie took a hot bath. He found a steak in his freezer and grilled it in a frying pan along with some instant potatoes and baby green peas. He made coffee conscientiously, treating himself to a rich brew. He ate alone at his dining room table, his head awhirl with new planets, himself the sun. In his mind he was tasting success, the first of his life, and it felt heady. It was the most important thing he’d ever done. He must now be careful. He felt himself on the brink of great good fortune, and the fall from such optimism could kill.
He dressed with care. He put a single sheet of foolscap into the typewriter and carefully typed out the few letters that were his new word, and after it a concise definition.
Then he called his friend, Mike, who was a writer. Briefly he described to Mike what he had done, without actually telling him the new word.
“Jeez, Pilkie,” Mike said. “I don’t know, you know? Are you ok? I’ve called a dozen times.”
“Fine, fine,” Pilkie said. “Please, the word. What do I do next?”
Mike exhaled. “I’ll call my agent. Maybe he’ll know.”
“Thank you, Mike,” Pilkie said and hung up.
A few days went by. Pilkie had almost talked himself into another route, bypassing Mike’s agent. Perhaps he should go straight to a copyright lawyer, or perhaps the Library of Congress.
Finally, Mike’s agent, Gilberte Sans, called. She had a voice like the mother in a TV sitcom.
“Jerome,” she began. “May I call you Jerome?”
“Yes, yes,” Jerome said, impatiently.
“Mike told me your—ahem, discovery.”
“I didn’t discover it. It’s not like the Pacific Ocean. It never existed before me.”
“Of course,” Gilberte Sans said. “Would you tell me the word?”
“Absolutely not,” Pilkie said.
“Ok.” Gilberte Sans paused. “Fair enough. Can you come into the office and I’ll get our lawyer to meet with us? Say tomorrow at 11?”
“Can’t it be today?”
On the other end of the phone Pilkie heard breathing, either in exasperation or perplexity.
“I could move some things around, I suppose.”
The meeting was set for 2 p.m. that afternoon.
Jerome Pilkie arrived at the office dressed in his best suit. Under his arm was an envelope. Inside the envelope was the single sheet of paper containing his word and its definition.
Once in the office, Pilkie began to get nervous. It was all so weighty and official looking. The secretary smiled at Jerome and asked him to have a seat.
Finally he was shown into Gilberte Sans’ office. She stood and extended her hand. Gilberte Sans was the most beautiful woman Pilkie had ever seen. She was almost six feet tall and her hair was the color of loam. Her cheekbones were wings. Her hand, when Pilkie grasped it, was as warm as breast milk.
The other person in the room was a small bald man. He was about the size of a broom.
“Grif,” the bald man said.
It might as well have been a dog’s bark. Pilkie could not take his eyes off Gilberte Sans.
“Sit, please,” the siren spoke.
Somehow Pilkie lined up his rear over a chair and sat.
Pilkie imagined that the envelope in his lap was about to make a break for it, muscle the window open and fly away.
After some preliminary talk about what led them all to this meeting the lawyer spoke.
“Mr. Pilkie, although this is unprecedented, I believe we can try to accommodate your desires, if I understand them correctly.”
Pilkie was growing uncomfortable. Was he crazy? Was he doing the right thing? What if they fleeced him?
They did not fleece him. They drew up a contract that very afternoon. At the bottom of the contract, as if at the mystical consummation at the end of a pact, Jerome Pilkie wrote down his word and its definition.
Now, he thought. Now, I am sending my child out to the world. Now, this word goes forth and becomes whatever it will become, part of the world’s syllabary, part of advertisements or handbills, dissertations or epic poems, journalism or the next War and Peace. Jerome Pilkie’s word, the one he gave to mankind. Pilkie allowed himself some hopeful daydreams.
It is well-known what happened next. Pilkie’s word did indeed make a splash and that splash made Pilkie sopping rich. Coca-Cola alone paid him millions for its use. An obscure poet in Goodland, Kansas paid him $100. Pilkie was open to every negotiation, large or small. He gifted the word to Memphis poet John Reed, because, Pilkie reasoned, Memphis artists look out for each other.
And Pilkie’s patented word did indeed make its way into one of the crowning achievements of late 20th century American fiction. You know the author and his magnum opus, On to Rio Boho, which used the word 127 times. At the time of this writing it is still on the bestseller list.
Jerome Pilkie and Gilberte Sans were married and moved into a Beaux-Arts villa in the South of France. Their personal library is said to exceed 25,000 volumes, everything from Proust to Just William. Pilkie’s word was translated first into French and then into all the romance languages and is, as we speak, being converted into Farsi, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Finnish, and Twi.
You know the word and you may even use it daily. Do not write it down, of course, or attempt in any way to make a profit from it. Pilkies’ team of lawyers will be all over you like a tempest after a flame.
The Pilkies, Jerome and Gilberte, raised three children, two boys and a girl. The oldest son, Gulley, was often in trouble with the law, though he had a good heart and a sweet disposition. He looked like a young Mickey Rooney, with a cowlick that seemed defiant. After the third time Pilkie was called to the police station, he took Gulley aside and spoke to him, man to man.
The boy hung his contrite head yet his eyes sparkled with chicanery.
“Gulley,” he said. “Find your way. You have your own destiny. You’re going to have to have faith in what I am saying now. Listen to this part carefully. The world is not yet full—not by half–and there will be room and time for you to make something out of nothing, something all your own, something only Gulley Pilkie could have made. And making something out of nothing is, ah, Son, Man’s most honored and exalted aspiration.”