Hovis won the contest for inventing a word. The rules stated that the organization would pay for his travels to New York City on April 1—the kickoff for National Poetry Month, plus April Fool’s Day—his hotel room, and meals. He would meet with the organization’s president and the panel of judges. There would be a banquet in his honor on the second night of his stay—they had been running this particular invent-a-word contest for 16 years and understood how meticulous and quirky etymologists could be, whether amateurs like Hovis, or professionals working in academe.
A hardworking word inventor needed the first day to acclimate and settle down. There would be the hotel continental breakfast, the subsequent meetings with the contest higher-ups, and then five hours to get lunch on his own and take either a guided tour of the famous New York City Public Library, or a nap. Then the banquet, wherein financial backers of the organization—who were subdivided into Soul Donors, Friends, Sponsors, Providers, Allies, Guardian Angels, Benefactors—plus everyday wordsmith aficionados from all walks of life (who could afford the $200 dinner) would mill around the marble ballroom, drinking gin, awaiting for this year’s winner to take the stage, say his word, give its meaning, and then use the word in a number of provocative sentences.
Only the judges knew the word. Hovis was to tell no one his winning entry, nor try the word out on unsuspecting listeners until the Night of Celebration. He would receive his prize check for $10,000. The following day was to be filled with meeting advertising executives who couldn’t wait to use the word in reference to cars, soaps, light beer, Colombian coffee, hand sanitizers, and a new mini-series on HBO. When the head judge called Hovis in order to inform him of saving April 1 on his calendar, the judge said, “It was a unanimous decision, which has occurred once only. We all feel as though you have invented a word useful and precise in each socio-economic class, that it will be employed freely and wisely among the youth, the elderly, the hip-hop culture, and among Old School jazz devotees.” The judge said, “Black and white, new immigrant and blue blood, athletic and quadriplegic, hetero- and homosexual, the South and the North, NRA members and Buddhists, men and women.”
Hovis wondered if this particular judge deserved such a prestigious position. Deep down, he wasn’t surprised that he’d won the contest, but at this point in the telephone conversation he questioned why a new word authority wouldn’t merely say, “The word shall be a panacea,” or “Your omnifarious winning entry will heighten our existence.” This, of course, would’ve been the perfect opportunity to utilize the near-extinct term “omnium-gatherum,” Hovis thought.
With all the weather-related concerns, he forgot to pack pepper spray, or something stronger. He forgot Band-Aids, Neosporin, and condoms—all increasingly necessary accoutrements for his trips to New York. He didn’t think to bring along mouthwash and deodorants, even; only later did he think, I have some kind of power—there should be a word for it. If he knew the word, he wouldn’t be able to use it.
An unpredicted late-season snowstorm forced the closure of airports in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Raleigh-Durham on the 29th of March. Coupled with college students stranded on either spring or Easter break, it appeared that travelers might clog the system until the fifth or sixth of April. Hovis could’ve taken Amtrak easily and arrived just in time to sit down with the judges—an executive assistant called to offer this change of plans—but Hovis smoked cigarettes. He could imagine not smoking for a two-hour flight, but not 14 hours seated in a bar car.
“What about I drive my old hoary truck up to see y’all,” he said. “It might take some time to hit West Virginia, but by then there’ll be snow plows. I don’t foresee many problems after reaching such purlieu.”
The executive assistant said, “I love your accent.”
Hovis didn’t say, “It’s more of a dialect than an accent,” for he didn’t like correcting women, ever. He said, “I can leave presently. Two days tops to reach Winchester, if I can’t go over 30 miles an hour. Then not half a day more. I’ve done it before, winter and summer, without consequences of tumescence.”
He cringed, hoping that she didn’t press him on the reasons he drove back and forth on I-81, or I-95, in the past. How could an etymologist of such repute explain the black market contraband he’d delivered over the years in order to live comfortably, in order to spend 10 months out of the year in his smoke-filled bungalow entering contests?
“You promise you’ll be here on time,” the executive assistant said. “If you don’t make it here, I’ll be fired for not insisting that you get on the train. To be honest, I thought they only had Greyhound buses down there, but sure enough, our travel agent says there are trains.”
Just to toy with her, Hovis said, “I tell you what. I’ll pull my horse trailer behind the truck. If the roads become impassable, I’ll saddle up my horse and ride her in.”
The woman paused for three seconds. She said, “I doubt we can put up your horse here in the city. I’ll check with the police department. Maybe they have extra stables.”
Hovis didn’t laugh. He said, “Y’all’s hotels don’t have a place to board livestock? How can you live up there?” He said, “If y’all had more stables up there, then I wouldn’t have had to invent the new word.”
The woman laughed, and hung up in mid-sigh. Hovis thought, If it weren’t for the black market cigarette industry, I’d’ve never understood all of this.
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