All Rights Reserved.
They had been at the job for two weeks, hired by Cornell University to paint most of the interior of Goldwin Smith Hall. Starting from the top of the three story building Chester and his colleagues were now working on the second floor of the old but strong structure in an office that looked as basic as the others they had painted thus far. Chester was third in seniority among the five-man team, having been a member for a whole eight months now, the turnover rate pretty high given the fact that the job of an apprentice painter was, well, as thrilling as watching paint dry, his job being to train Matty and Stefan, the two below him, in prepping a room, which mainly consisted of removing all non-essentials from it, securing the remaining items with sheets, washing down the walls before sanding them down with a piece of sandpaper to ensure all surfaces were evenly smooth. It would then be the job of the two actual painters above them to paint the room. A level Chester really didn’t see himself reaching, the thirty-year-old not quite ready to throw in the towel on his dreams.
While Matty and Stefan prepared the buckets of cleaning water Chester took a quick look throughout the office. Not much to see; one large space and one small closet. Nearly identical to the others they had finished.
“Ok, Matty, why don’t you take this half, including the closet and all the shelves inside,” Chester said, “and Stefan, you get the second half. I’ll go ahead and start taping off the windows.”
Trained to work from the top down it wasn’t long before Matty withdrew from the small closet with a question.
“Hey Chester, found this in the closet. Pretty dusty. What should I do with it?”
It was a thin leatherbound case, whatever inside being about an inch thick.
Chester stopped what he was doing. “We better take it on over to the main office.”
In their white hats and jumpsuits the two made their way down a hall of passing students and into a busy office, approaching the secretary overseeing it all. “Yes, can I help you?” she asked.
Chester gestured to the leatherbound case in Matty’s hand. “We just wanted to let someone know we found something in one of the closets.”
The secretary looked at it with curiosity but didn’t ask to take it, instead picking up her phone and hitting one button. “Mr. Epstein, do you have a moment?
“The painters found something.”
A couple of minutes later and a grey-haired professor-type came out of his office and joined them. “Gentlemen…” he greeted.
“Go ahead, Matty, tell him what you found in the closet,” Chester urged.
“Um, this was on the top shelf. Pretty dusty up there.”
He handed it over to Epstein. The educated man untied the leather string which looked like an old shoelace, raised the flap and reached in for whatever was inside.
A stack of bound paper, the top one only having two words centered across it.
The distinguished professor-type had the look of a man who had just looked down to see his lottery ticket matching the winning numbers of a mega jackpot, staring, blinking, then staring again to make sure what he saw was really what he saw.
“Did this come from the third office adjacent to the stairwell?” he asked.
“Ad what?” a dumbfounded Matty asked in reply, but Chester confirmed with a simple “Yes.”
“Please, take me to precisely, uh, exactly where you found this,” he said, still staring down at it as if it were gold. And so the two painters led the way, even though all three men knew where they were going.
In the office Stefan joined in gathering around that small closet as Matty explained to the professor-type they now knew to be the dean. “I had to use the step latter to reach this top shelf. So close to the ceiling I remember thinkin’ it must be useless, but we’re trained to cover every inch, leave nothin’, so that’s what I did.”
It was a shelf that appeared to have no purpose, no more than six inches before being capped off by the ceiling of the closet.
“Anything special?” Stefan asked of the dean.
The distinguished man was trying to hide his excitement but Chester could see that prominent air about him slipping away with the prospect of this find.
“Perhaps,” he finally answered. “We’ll look into the matter.
“Thank you, gentleman. Well done.”
And with that the scholar was on his way, leatherbound case in tow.
By the next day word had spread, the painters not needing to follow up to know that what Matty had found up in that closet could very well be something special. Turns out the office had at one time been used by one of Cornell’s most well-known instructors, who also happened to be one of the world’s most famed authors, Vladimir Nabokov. The campus was now abuzz with the news that what appeared to have been collecting dust for about sixty-five years was indeed a long-lost unpublished manuscript of a literary master, the media and other interested parties already beginning to descend onto the grounds of Cornell to inquire on this possible ‘literary find of the century.’ In addition to enthusiastic visitors the university was becoming inundated with phone calls, emails and the like, all wanting to know if the news was true, with the administration having no choice but to hold a press conference stating they were looking into, with fine detail, if the find was what it appeared to be.
Seven days later, just as the painters were finishing up the last floor of Goldwin Smith Hall Dean Epstein was standing at a podium stationed before the grand pillars of its entrance, media and scholars from far and wide awaiting word on the findings of the potentially unearthed Nabokov work.
Again unable to hide the excitement painted across his face, this time shadowed with pride, along with the fact that he had a couple of Nabokov’s descendants at his side, Epstein announced that after a week of intense investigation, which included but was not limited to dating the actual materials—the leatherbound case, the paper—along with the ink and typeface to determine the kind of typewriter used—and of course the writing itself, this was indeed an unpublished work by the late great Vladimir Nabokov!
The crowd erupted in cheers.
“From the exquisite poetic-like prose to the use of vocabulary arranged in a way as if he were writing at the same level as the cosmos of our universe,” Dean Epstein expressed, “there is no doubt that this work is indeed pure Nabokov!”
Another round of applause.
As he continued to excite the literary world while at the same time giving praise to this institution the master writer had chosen to educate at, Chester, in his simple white overalls and cap made his way through the crowd and up towards the podium. Epstein was quite taken by surprise, attributing the move of this simple painter as merely wanting to be part of the spotlight. Not wanting such a disruption to ruin such a prestigious gathering he decided to go along with it and give this simpleton his fifteen seconds of fame.
“Ah, and here is one of the gentleman who discovered the literary treasure. Doing his job of painting our grand ol’ Goldwin Smith Hall, surely he couldn’t have known what he and his colleagues had unearthed. I wonder, kind sir, if you may indulge us in just how you did come upon this fine manuscript that has brought us all here today.”
Chester took to the podium, humbly removing his hat and looking out to the large assembled crowd.
“Wow, looks like they all did come on out for this special occasion. Looks like you got all the major news networks, fancy book clubs, big wig publishing houses, even a few famous faces.”
“That’s right, sir,” Epstein answered in a kind of condescending tone. “The whole world is awaiting with baited breath to hear your tale.”
They all laughed.
“Holy cow!” Chester said, playing along as the city dwellin’ bumpkin. “Who would’a thunk it! A plain ol’ hick like myself not only stumblin’ on the campus of one of the greatest learnin’ schools this side of the Mississippi, but comin’ across some book treasure too?!”
The crowd laughed, not really knowing what to make of it since the first two sentences to come out of this man’s mouth had not been filled with such a thick southern drawl.
“My tale,” Chester went on, this time in his ordinary everyday voice, giving the audience a feeling of both curiosity and awkwardness. “My tale. Let me go ahead and start from the beginning. Don’t worry, it’ll be in brief.
“Like all little boys and girls in the American education system I grew up being told I could do anything I set my mind to, and so I did. Moved by the magic of story I spent my childhood and adolescence engrossed in books, and yes Mr. Epstein, this includes the great prose of Nabokov. All eighteen of them.”
The dean could only respond with an uncomfortable smile.
“But what we are not told is just how obstinate the world can be once we actually get out into it,” Chester continued. “That no matter how hard one works at making a dream come true, in my case seeing my work in the same libraries, the same book stores as my literary heroes, opportunity is anything but equal, with those capable of changing a person’s life oftentimes incapable of actually recognizing true talent when it’s right before their eyes.
“Many of you here today have received some of the countless queries I have sent out over the years, only to ignore them. That’s right, I did my time, and then some. Years, decades, reaching out with my gift to the world trying to get someone, anyone to notice. Contests, publishing houses, media outlets, learning establishments, and so on and so on and so on. All too full of your superior smug ways to allow some no name like myself into your precious inner circles.
“So what was left to do but disguise myself as one of the past greats, and now here you are, finally giving Chester Harding, the true author of this work you have all gathered to celebrate, a chance to be heard.”
Epstein stepped up to the microphone. “Do you really expect us to believe you orchestrated this whole affair? My dear fellow, your declaration is ludicrous. Anyone can lay claim to having authored another’s work, but where is your proof? Nabokov had a certain brilliant style, with experts and his own family identifying that this work indeed originates from such. Can you stand here before us today and produce actual writing of this calibre by your own hand?”
“Great writing is not performed like some circus trick,” Chester replied. “It takes time, patience, soul. The latter of which, also known as talent, is something most of you here can’t even discern unless it has a famous name dangling from it.
“What is instant though is the replaying of video, which I was sure to use while documenting this journey.”
Chester unfolds and holds up a banner that displays a website on it.
“If you all will go to this site you will be able to watch the two-minute clip which explains everything. From the footage showing me writing the actual manuscript, which by the way was mailed to all the major publishing houses two weeks ago, the postmarks serving as ‘proof’, Mr. Epstein, along with the video footage from a small camera attached to these glasses I’m wearing, showing in plain detail as I first come to this building as a simple painter soliciting work, a couple of days later the secretary contacting the company I work for to notify us that Cornell is interested in our offer, at which point, I, who landed the gig on commission, was entrusted with the task of surveying the space before work was to begin, giving me the opportunity, as you will see in the footage, to plant the manuscript on the top shelf of the closet it was found in.
“This whole ordeal took two years of planning. Researching and tracking down the right kind of supplies, typewriter ribbon from the 1950’s is not easy to find, casing out this great hall here at Cornell, taking a job with a local painting business, all while writing in what Mr. Epstein here calls a ‘certain brilliant style.’ Thanks for the compliment, chief!”
The dean could only stand there, perfectly hating how the tables have turned so dramatically.
By now the media was as lively as the New York Stock Exchange, some watching the video, others on their phones with their mailrooms confirming they were in possession of the manuscript, with one young reporter setting off a flood of questions as she asked the first.
Chester didn’t answer any of them, just staring out at those who had ignored him for so long, now all vying for his attention. He turned to Epstein while removing a Sharpie from the chest pocket of his painter’s uniform and took the manuscript out of the dean’s hand long enough to autograph it before handing it back to him and walking away.
And thus was how Chester Harding found, no make that paved his unique path into the world of traditional publishing.