As far as park benches go, the one George chose was quite dirty. Most of the contestants chose cleaner, more refined benches, but perhaps that was what eventually became their downfall. For George’s bench was tried and true, padded even. Perfect for such a ridiculous day, ridiculous event and ridiculous group of boys.
The absurd idea to hold the competition came from an off-shoot of an off-shoot of a banal conversation. Reginal Malther III was discussing the history of matches with Bertrand Lewellon. From a comment made over the color of phosphorus, Nicholas Clegg began obnoxiously ribbing Lamar Wondrey. To wit, Paddon St. James Jr. leaned in to say to George, “Wonder how long you could sit on a park bench and listen to this dribble.”
That’s really all it took in the boredom of senior year, just at the point everyone had passed their classes and chosen their next phase. As such, the next afternoon, a sign-up sheet was tacked to the north hallway bulletin board, right next to Mr. Spillickers biology lab, offering sign-up for either talker or sitter. With sitter there also came a map of 12 benches surrounding a small nook on the southwest end of campus, near the boat docks, and each signing up must immediately claim his bench. No bench sharing was allowed. George had filled his in prior to hanging the sign-up. After all, one does not hang a sign-up sheet empty.
In the three days between the hanging of the sheet and the actual event, boys were regularly seen sneaking off to the lake, not for the usual reasons – swimming, swinging, general tom-foolery – but instead to inspect and test benches. You could also see boys walking campus, muttering ramblings of the oddest degree, monotonous and stupefying. The sheer overhearing of such vapid prose could leave one in a daze for the next two classes.
Of course, staff and groundkeepers were kept completely in the dark. As was the headmaster and upper board members, alumni visitors, and freshmen. One does not hold a clandestine competition with freshmen.
The night before, guards were placed near the benches to assure that there be no tampering or cheating. George ran a very organized, safe, fair event. He prided himself on such things. Perhaps a family trait. Perhaps just something he knew.
His attention to detail was second to none, having chosen only benches that are easily within earshot of the Echoed Statue that was said to look over the lake and all of its family. It wasn’t actually called the echoed statue, that’s what students called it due to the large drummed shield held by the nymph queen, which created a wonderful echo throughout the nearby wood. The statue was actually called The Strong Madame and was crafted by the first headmaster’s daughter, Nicole, nearly a century before.
George’s bench faced directly at the statue. Lamar and Bertrand teased. “George, you came up with this stupid idea, you couldn’t have picked a better bench?” Paddon chimed in, always a tick behind on his clever remarks, “Yeah, that’s clearly going to be the loudest spot.” George smiled, both at their lack of understanding and Paddon’s horrible attempt at mockery.
First up to speak was none other than Reginal Malther III, never one to turn away from an opportunity to orate. “It really wasn’t until my third reading of The Iliad I truly came to understand Achilles character and how his mind could work in such the way that it did.” His tone was drawl and long, more so than normal. Clearly drawing inspiration from his notable imitation of his grandfather.
Lamar’s head rolled back and suddenly the harsh edge of the seat of his bench pinched against his shoulders. The space between the planks was wide and drafty. His legs were falling asleep due to the slight upward tilt. His arms couldn’t find any easy resting. And he spent the rest of his twelve minutes in the competition squirming and shaking. Until finally, he stood and huffed off.
Some say they heard him cursing the bench as he limped away. But those that said it are not always to be trusted. And one cannot simply take the word of an untrusted man, can one?
Amazingly, Lamar was not the first up. That honor was bestowed to Kendrick Maxwell, who picked the bench nearest the large oak that’d been struck by lightning the summer before, and just as Reginal began his speech, a spider dropped onto Kendrick’s lap. A severe arachnophobe, he jumped to his feet and was disqualified.
The next six to stand went in this order: Walter Zwunt, Geoffrey Dunn, Bertrand Lewellon, Tristoph Opherall, Gerard Hont, and Oloph Johansson (who George had originally viewed as his stiffest competition; this was not based on anything other than Oloph being from Norway and George, for some reason, assuming he’d done this before). The speakers thus far had been a combination of boring and intense. The more boring, the more intense the competition got. And as more and more fell victim to uncomfortable seats, poorly positioned arm rests, difficulty hearing, or simply not being able to take it, patterns began to emerge. Suddenly, the smarter of the pack could see why George had picked the bench he did.
And it became especially important in the final moments, as only four remained. The soft layer of moss and peat that had formed around the entire seat made for comfy, cool seating. George’s body was not on harsh wood or course stone. He was on nature’s couch.
The rich, ornate, curved back, allowed for George to stretch his back far enough that nearly all echo passed right over him. He heard but a soft hum in the background. The large stone in front of the bench, which often made it uncomfortable for sitting (hence the growth of moss and peat), supplied a perfect ottoman. George felt as though he was back in his father’s study, watching him calculate the office worker’s yearly bonuses, wondering if he’d ever sit at that desk. He would.
As it came down to only Nicholas Clegg and George, with Yancy Allister speaking on the finer importance of placing forks not partially under the edge of a plate but between two and three centimeters away, thus offering the ideal grabbing distance, the morning bell rang out across campus. The few sophomores there began to make their way back to class. Not a single junior or senior moved. This was the possibly the most intense boring moment not just in St. Mary’s Preparatory’s eighty year history, this was possibly the most intense boring moment of human history.
Two men. Two benches. Neither allowed to stand. One speaker. Drowning the audience in the essence of mundane. But none looked away. None made a move. None disturbed this moment of sheer competition. Of what it is to strive to be better, to be ones best. And, one must always strive to be one’s best; to do otherwise is sheer folly.
“And when one places the fork, do not place it harshly or firmly. Set it down with deference to the respect for which you should have for such a tool that would allow you to place such delicious delicacies upon your tongue…” He continued on the tongue for a moment. It was there that Nicholas shuffled his feet and adjusted his trousers. That got quite a stir from the senior class, thinking that their brethren, their George had finally won. But Nicholas was careful and kept one cheek firmly planted.
George had not moved. Were it not for the slight lift of his chest expanding and retracting, his classmates would’ve thought him dead. But he was far from it. He was, what some would later call, “in the zone. It was like nothing I’d ever seen.” He was compared to alums who had trophies named after them; he was referred to as more than a man; he was praised for deserving more than any one should be deserving of. Of course, George, in his humility, knew, one does not assuage compliments of this nature but rather acknowledges his fellow combatants.
“Friends. Thank you. Far too kind. But, let us not forget the real champions, those without whom, none of this glory would be possible – the speakers. For had Yancy Allister, the silver king, not taken his detailed approach to table-setting as seriously as he did, perhaps Mr. Nicholas Clegg’s legs would not have fallen asleep to the extent they did, giving him no support to prevent sliding off his very polished bench. My hat to you, Mr. Clegg. Had we not heard such drawl and horrible descriptions of all of our least favorite books, perhaps we’d all still just be sitting. Still be in those spots, unmoving and unchanging. And so, a toast! To moving forward through the banality. To all who sat and all who spoke. You are all I hope to be and am proud to be one with you. To moving forward. Cheers and best.”