This story is by mark heyer and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Today we celebrate the 155th anniversary of Murray Gribblestein Day. As present company are most acutely aware, Murray is, was, and always will be one of the true giants of our shared journey of trial and error.
To every creative who has ever sat alone by his candle, turning an idea over and over in his head, wondering if the world were ready for it, if they would see it in all its brilliance, if they were prepared to be captivated and forever changed by it….
But also to all whose lot in life is so often not to have someone to bounce those can’t-miss ideas off of. Not someone trusted anyway. I mean – what do they know? We’re all our best critics, right? Right…?
To all of us then, the mothers and fathers of both the world’s greatest and most deplorable works of imagination, who labor in seclusion and surface only when we hope we have something to say – Murray Gribblestein is our patron saint. Or one of them anyway….
The exact date Gribblestein’s feat is April 15th. But it’s traditionally celebrated for the entire weekend to fully honor the miracle of extraordinarily poor taste achieved by the magnificent Gribblestein.
For, as if seeking to have his confused but hopeful visage chiseled twice into our little Mount Rushmore, the “I bet this would kill with the right audience” Mount Rushmore of every basement-, attic-, and late night coffee shop-dwelling pilgrim within the sound of my podcast – the dauntless Gribblestein followed the catastrophe of the 15th with a second, deathless contribution to our canon on the following morning of the 16th.
To set the scene, it’s a cool, damp morning in Washington DC, a gloomy departure from the lovely spring day preceding. Raindrops pelt the freshly blossomed dogwoods along 10th Street, sending their petals to the muddy pavement as if to end that long-awaited spring as soon as it began.
Alone, ever and always alone, young Gribblestein toils in the flickering candelight of his cobbler’s shop a few doors down from Ford’s Theatre. A would-be thespian himself, he has had to satisfy his aspirations to the footlights by mending the various boots, clogs, and slippers worn in the period comedies and dramas at Ford’s. To his scarce and invariably disinterested walk-ins, he confides a belief that his failure to find success in his desired – nay, predestined! – vocation has less to do with his gifts as an actor than with bias against his ethnicity. Few hazard to tell him that his ghastly comic timing and unshakable confidence in the hilarity of such articles as dead cats lay at the root of his frustration. He remains convinced that, given the proper opportunity, he will one day write his name in the Annals of the Stage! And pronounces it “anals,” replying to each weary corrector, “I know, but it’s funnier that way.”
Gribblestein studies a poulaine from last evening’s delivery from Ford’s. The heel is completely snapped off. An overdone pratfall no doubt! He makes a note to speak with the theatre’s morose and impassive property manager and remind him that the true comic artist need not fling himself from the balconies to delight his audience.
“The right words at the right time, spoken just the right way. That is your answer! I know just the fellow if you’d like to start saving on broken shoes while selling more tickets than flies on a dead cat!”
By concluding with the dead cat knee-slapper, Gribblestein hoped the property manager would see him as both future playwright-in-residence and player.
He pauses at his window for a pipe before settling down to fashion a replacement heel for the poulaine. Up the street a large crowd has gathered across from Ford’s. Even at a distance, churning currents of anger and sorrow can be observed in their movements. The morning edition of the just-delivered Daily Chronicle tells the story.
Assassination of the President
Attempted Murder of Secretary Seward and Sons
Gribblestein tosses away the shoe he had meant to repair, for he knows that his moment has arrived! He will instead repair the broken heart of a nation. Somehow.
“The right word at the right time. It’s always there. Just find it, Murray, find it,” he commands himself.
He returns to his newspaper and reads the reporter’s account. A lull in the 3rd act. The report of a pistol. The murderer’s hat found and identified in the President’s box.
“Think, Murray, think!”
And then it comes to him! A night out in the theatre, the 3rd act, a pause. Of course!
“It was like a slap to the face with a dead cat!”
No, wait. How about… “It was like a slap to the face with a hundred dead cats!”
He is both planning his triumph and composing his memoir of it simultaneously. The right hilarious number of dead cats will doubtless come to him in time for the first printing!
He puts up his “Closed” sign. He only wishes he had a “Closed Forever!” sign, for he knows that to be the case. He is an artist now. He bolts directly toward the surging throng before the Peterson House.
With the borrowed strength that he supposes only the greatest of actors feeding off only the most desperately yearning of audiences must know, he plunges into the crowd, strangers all, and begins forcing his way forward.
As he struggles toward his objective anguished sobbing fills one ear, hateful rage the other. Yet never has he felt so certain of his purpose. Quoting the previously incomprehensible hymn he has heard spilling from church windows, he will be the Balm in Gilead to all.
“I have it!” he calls out whenever he is momentarily stalled. “I have it!” The repeated promise enables his progress until he reaches the steps to the second floor. “I have it!”
The prospect of a miracle – whatever Gribblestein’s “it” was – gains him entry past the last of the soldiers guarding the bedroom.
There he pauses, breathless from the greatest single physical feat of his life. “Of anyone’s life,” he mentally revises the nicely developing memoir of his master stroke.
The room is a tableau of agony, grief and mayhem. Rapturous, convulsive weeping, broken hearts in cataclysmic crushing pain. And the blood, the President’s blood, the nation’s blood poured out hopelessly in a bed too small for the man and too small for all the world’s grief.
When Gribblestein finally catches his breath, he takes hold of the moment as no one else ever could or would dare try. Cupping his hands to amplify his voice above to chorus of sorrows he cries out:
“Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
Silence, a welcoming blanket of stunned silence falls over the room. All heartache suddenly vanquished in the presence of The Artist. All eyes turn to him. Mrs. Lincoln herself, her face red and swollen from the worst of all possible nights, raises her distraught gaze to him. He knows in an instant that their bond is eternal. He will become part of her court now, her confidante and muse. And knowing that his all-comforting, all-delighting, all-saving expression is far from exhausted, he cups his hands and repeats it with full throat into the now completely hushed bedroom.
“I say – other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”
As he lowers his hands and stretches his arms out to his sides as if readying to catch the cascading applause of the multitudes and smiles beneficently upon the tragic accident that is his audience — the butt of a Springfield rifle crashes into the side of his head, sending his teeth flying in all directions.
The following morning when Gribblestein is once again lucid enough to be addressed, he is propped up against the side wall of Ford’s and blindfolded. A charge of hostis humani generis is read out against him. Enemy of the human race. No further legal niceties are deemed necessary.
Perfectionist to the end, Gribblestein uses his final breath before the order to ‘fire!’ is given to attempt to understand how he – and other great artists to come – might approach such moments more felicitously in future.
Calling out blindly to the firing squad and anyone else within the reach of his voice, he adds his second and final immortal contribution to the short but remarkable shelf of his genius:
Historians have noted that this last imperishable expression came out as “Too thoon?” due to the recent loss of numerous of Gribblestein’s teeth to the soldier’s rifle butt. It is recorded here as to his intention rather than form so that he may be remembered doing what he loved best instead of making a hash of it one last time.
So, here’s wishing a very happy Murray Gribblestein Day to everyone! Like our own Murray the Great, always trust your inspirations. I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? Whether in failure or success, may you nevertheless achieve the spectacular!