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The Arc of a Word

By Alan GoldPublished about a year ago Updated 10 months ago 13 min read

At half-past six on a Tuesday morning in the winter of his thirty-second year, Harvey Lowe's eyes snapped open so abruptly his eyelids might have been spring loaded. That was the precise moment he realized he was going to die.

Normally, he dreamt about his job. He worked in Accounting in the home office of Hedlington's, a small, privately owned chain of hardware stores, so his dreams weren't much more exciting than his real life.

But that night, he'd found himself back in college, where he'd signed up for Intro to Brit Lit, but he'd skipped classes all semester. He gripped the sides of the podium and leaned slightly over it, squinting against the spotlight at the shadowy people who packed the lecture hall. He heard the dry rustle of papers, the faint scrinch of fabric shifting against leather. He caught the whiff of sweat, which could only be his own.

Lowe picked up the glass of water, but he was so nervous that its surface turned into a series of tiny, concentric waves. He put the glass down without drinking and tried to clear his throat without the mike betraying him.

There was an electronic squelch and a roll of static, like God clearing his throat, before the voice boomed through the hall from a thousand speakers, "Fifteen minutes, Mr. Lowe, on the Brontë of your choice."

He craved the water, but dared not touch it. He strained to discern a face behind the glaring light. He felt time itself slow down.

"The clock starts when you do, Mr. Lowe."

And that's when he jolted awake. He'd sweated so much it was no wonder he'd been so thirsty in his dream. But the message he took away was that his time was limited, and he'd done nothing. If he died today, it would be without leaving a mark on the earth. He would be not so much forgotten by the world, but never even known.

He had no family any more. He thought of his career as being a traffic cop for streams of numbers going in and out of a ledger book. No close friends, although he thought of himself as a friendly guy. No mentors. No protégés. No peers. No tears when they rolled him into the furnace.

Harvey Lowe needed to start the ball rolling on something right now --today! -- or none of that was going to change before he felt the reaper tapping his shoulder.

He was born in 1930, and much, much later he would calculate on an idle afternoon that he'd been conceived on the very last day of normal life and happiness before the onset of the Great Depression. His parents had owned a tiny grocery store, the proverbial mom-and-pop shop, and they'd gotten by alright. But by the time Harvey was old enough to start packing away memories for the future, that was all gone.

His dad did odd jobs for better-off folks, but there weren't many of them to be found. His mom took in laundry and sewing. They filled a dilapidated shed in the backyard full of empty jars, string, tin cans, scraps of wood and despair. You never knew when something might come in handy.

"Don't leave that go to waste, Harvey Lawson Lowe," his mother scolded him one day when she met him half-way home from the schoolhouse. She nearly lifted him up by his ear lobe.

"What, mom?" Harvey cried out.

"You walked right past that perfectly good jar."

Now he looked back at it on the shoulder of the dirt road. He fetched it in a dog-trot and took the lesson to heart.

Months later, he saw another jar in just about the same place on his way home from school. He bent over for it when the jar exploded, sending a wicked shard of glass into his left eye. The shock and pain meant that he never saw Shorty Simmons high-tail it into the woods with his slingshot.

In time, he wound up with a good right eye, and a milk eye that was only good for making out cloudy shapes and scaring girls.

His folks had scrimped to save enough to send him to the Preston Valley Academy of Business where he took two years of classes that made him employable in the post-war world. He'd been too young for WWII, and his milk eye kept him out of Korea.

As soon as he had his PVAB Certificate of Competence, he wrote to dozens of prospective employers. Hedlington's Hardware was first to respond. And he would work for them until the day he died.

His parents died much sooner than that. "Dad's down," his mother wrote in 1954. "He's got the chest fever and it's a sorry thing to see. Sometimes he doesn't make much sense, either. I wish you were here, but I know you can't be."

Dad lingered a few weeks, and then his mother followed six months later. The string and glassware they'd saved provided scant inheritance.

His paycheck at Hedlington's was modest, but not quite as modest as his lifestyle, so he was doing okay. He rose at six-thirty, kept his head down for eight hours, watched a couple hours of television and turned in for the night. Days into weeks into months into years.

Now, in 1962, he felt the sudden, desperate need to do something, to leave some mark that would survive him. But what? He was competent at work: Old Man Hedlington clapped a hand on his shoulder and gave him a hundred dollar bonus each year at the Christmas party, not bad for the times; but no path to fame.

He got to thinking about the Steve Allen Show, the way everyone used to crack up at the word "ferndoc." He makes up a nonsense word and Steve Allen gets on the cover of TV Guide. Millions of people watched his show. Maybe he was on to something.

Lowe finally settled on "schmoozle" as his vehicle for immortality. To make sure it wasn't a real word, he dropped it into casual conversations and received, without exception, a puzzled look. Now he was on to something.

Still, it was tough to get any traction. He didn't have Steve Allen's audience, and no one in his circle seemed inclined to spread the word, so to speak.

By the late 1960s, he started seeing handbills advertising rock concerts tacked to telephone poles, plastered across urban walls. The groups had weird names, like Oleander Jam, The Noxious Echoes, and Repercussions of Physics. So he had two thousand flyers printed with nothing but "Schmoozle!" in the baloony type face that was popular at the time. He papered the city. It struck the perfect balance, he thought, between humor, enigma and the human condition.

He scanned the Daily Clarion and watched the evening news for weeks, without any hint that his seed had taken root in the collective consciousness.

"What are all these Schmoozle posters about?" he asked, disguising his voice when he called the Clarion's city desk. The call was no more satisfying than anything else, and it ended after forty-five seconds. And then he wondered why he'd disguised his voice. He knew nobody at the Clarion. And obviously, they did not know him. That was the whole point of the exercise.

By the 1970s, radical bombers and serial killers grabbed all the headlines. Apart from mayhem and murder, they seemed to stay in the news by sending manifestos or cryptic messages to the authorities. The "Schmoozle Slasher" had a ring to it, but Lowe could never quite figure out how to pull that off without actually hurting anyone.

At the 1974 Christmas party, Simpson from the Scouting Department introduced his wife, Linda. Since Scouting spent a lot of time on the road, looking for the best locations to establish new Hedlington's Hardware stores, Lowe barely knew Simpson, but hey, they were all part of the Hedlington's family.

Lowe dropped a "schmoozle bomb" out of habit and one thing lead to another. It turned out Linda's British uncle worked as a researcher for the Oxford English Dictionary.

"Mum's family came from Leeds," she confided in Lowe. "Her sister married up." She blinked three times, fought a blush and added, "not that mum didn't. I love my dad."

"So how does a new word get into the Oxford English Dictionary?"

"I don't know much about it myself, but I did ask Uncle Earl about that," she confided. "He told me there are three ways . . ."

She let it hang there for a long, excruciating moment. "Yes?" Lowe prodded at last.

"Citation, citation, citation."

After a moment, Lowe realized this was a joke and he managed something like a laugh. He noticed that Mr. Simpson -- what was his first name? -- looked restless, scanning the crowd.

"Can I call you sometime?" He asked Linda. Her expression told him this had not come out quite the way he meant it. "About your uncle, I mean."

By now, her husband was shepherding her through the little crowd. She shot one last scowl over her shoulder, and that was the closest Lowe ever came in his lifetime to getting his baby into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Things took a turn for the worse -- the much worse -- in 1978. Albert Hedlington III -- everyone called him 'Trey" -- had developed a taste for nose candy while serving as Hedlington's Hardware's Vice President of Operations. He had no actual function in the org chart, and nobody seemed to know what his job description was. But that didn't matter much since he seldom dropped by the office in any case.

In fact, the first time his name came up was when Lowe finally discovered that Trey had embezzled more than six hundred thousand dollars in the past three years.

Since Lowe appreciated all those pats on the back and nice Christmas bonuses over the years, and he appreciated the sensitivity of the matter, he went directly to Albert Hedlington Jr. and laid out the facts.

A week later, Trey had been placed on paid leave. Walker from Legal nodded as he came into Lowe's office, closing the door behind him.

"Pack up your personal items, Harvey," Walker said, his eyes sweeping the room, looking everywhere but at Lowe. "You're terminated. Shipping is bringing up a box for you."

He glanced at his watch. "You've got half an hour. Understood?"

He dared a look at Lowe's stricken face for confirmation.

"What is this about?"

"That Trey business." He held his hand over his head and drew little circles in the air with his index finger. "The thinking is, you shouldn't have allowed it to go on."

"But I reported it as soon as I found it."

"Not soon enough." Walker shrugged. "Not by a long shot."

"So you're throwing me under the bus? I can't believe this."

Walker took a slip of paper out of his pocket and glanced at it. He cleared his throat. "You're lucky we're not prosecuting."

Lowe stared at him in disbelief. Walker's eyes looked for a safe place to land. "That box should be here any minute," he said.

"Forget it!" Lowe shouldered past him. "Just forget it."

His eyes stung in the elevator, and as he trotted through the lobby of the Hedlington Building. He wasn't crying -- that might have brought relief -- it was more like he'd been hit in the face with a dash of salt.

With his good eye burning and his milk eye on the traffic side, he jogged straight into the path of a city bus, which pasted him across the asphalt. The bus driver braked so hard he threw it into a skid, flattening a Ford Taurus before crashing into a utility pole.

Hedlington's Hardware sent a generous floral arrangement to Lowe's service, and a few acquaintances showed, but that was about it. Three or four people who dotted the pews came only because Lowe had become a minor celebrity because the accident he'd caused had claimed the lives of the young couple in the Taurus, while their toddler, Mark Clancy, was thrown from the back seat and miraculously survived.

It was all over the local news and pretty soon the wire services picked it up. Young Mark's aunt took him in and each year, ahead of the anniversary of the accident, reporters would line up to do stories about the Miracle Orphan. Lowe always showed up as a footnote to these progress reports, closer to fame than he'd ever been in his lifetime.

The thing was, little Mark seemed to have some issues. His Aunt Lucille -- she and her husband went on to adopt him, so now she was "Aunt Mama" -- didn't recall that he'd been quite so, well, dull, before the accident. The doctors weren't very helpful, so she chalked it up to head injuries and tried to make do, for her sister's sake.

Mark rarely spoke as a kid. He made few friends, and although he got good grades, his teachers grew frustrated. He got pulled out of class three times a week to glower at a speech therapist.

When Mark was seven, Aunt Mama took him to Valley Pines on her sister's birthday to visit his parents' grave. It was a beautiful day, sunny and crisp, and she held Mark's hand as they walked over the soft grass toward his parents' plot.

He pulled her up short at another marker. "Harvey Lawson Lowe," it read, "July 17, 1930 - August 19, 1978." And on the last line: "Schmoozle".

After maybe half a minute, Aunt Mama gave a little tug. "Okay, sweetie. Let's go see your mom and dad now."

Mark grew up growling and angry, and he came of age on the cusp of Punk and Grunge. He joined a series of short-lived bands. At least he was making some friends now, Aunt Mama thought. But what were these god-awful sounds coming out of the garage? And from the words she could make out, she found some solace in not being able to understand the rest of the lyrics.

Uncle Dad was not quite so charitable. "He's old enough to get a job," is how the drum beat went.

But those annual Miracle Orphan stories seemed to give Mark a leg up in the music business. He -- and whoever he happened to be jamming with at the time -- pulled in enough local gigs to make more than they would with real jobs.

The band's latest incarnation, Dead Messengers, got a manager who booked them everywhere in a five-hundred-mile radius of home. Good times.

Their debut album, Schmoozle Live!, had a picture of Harvey Lowe's gravestone on the cover. When it went platinum, Mark gave the award to Aunt Mama and Uncle Dad for safe keeping. "You never know what might happen," he pointed out.

Dead Messengers had a couple more hits before they broke up. Mark quit the music scene and reinvented himself in the vitamin supplement space. But the Schmoozle Live! cult following continued to grow, boosted by the Miracle Orphan stories being told year after year.

Adults who had grown up with Schmoozle Live! returned to their roots. Devotees left flowers on Lowe's grave. And disaffected teens who had never heard of Harvey Lowe, hardware chain accountant, aspirant to greater things, clung to the Legend of Schmoozle. The word screamed off their tee-shirts. They splashed it across social media. Memes were born.

And within a tight circle of etymologists, the word was that the Oxford English Dictionary was taking a look at the origin of "schmoozle."

Short Story

About the Creator

Alan Gold

Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.

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