Michael Kardos is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time and three novels, the most recent of which is Bluff (Mysterious Press). His short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies and have twice won the Pushcart Prize. He co-directs the creative-writing program at Mississippi State University. Michael’s first story for EQMM, “What You Know, What I Know,” appears in our current issue (March/April 2023). In this post he talks about two real-life mysteries—and what fiction can do that real life often cannot. —Janet Hutchings
The first mystery:
When my sister Julie and I were kids, my parents would host dinner parties for their friends. Sometimes Julie and I ate ahead of time; other times we were allowed to eat with the grown-ups. At some point in the evening, once the eating slowed down and wine glasses had been refilled a couple of times, the grown-ups sitting around the table would begin to tell jokes. My parents loved joke-telling. They especially loved jokes with long set-ups. “I can never remember jokes,” people have told me my whole life. My parents remembered them. Or at least my mother did. My father was—is—someone who wants to believe he’s a good joke-teller. In practice, he’s the guy who gets almost to a punchline before frowning and saying something like, “Wait—did I mention he had a wooden leg? Well, he has a wooden leg. That’s important.”
Usually, the jokes at these parties were clean, or clean-ish. But one joke was not clean. It was so not clean that my parents always made Julie and me leave the room ahead of time. All we ever learned was the punchline: “If I were a rich man.”
But we never learned the joke leading up to it. For years, we wondered: what could possibly be the very dirty set-up to a lyric from Fiddler on the Roof?
The second mystery:
My mother was a high school English Teacher in Brooklyn. Early in her career—this would’ve been in the late 1960s—her school sponsored a poetry-writing contest for which she was the judge. The winning poem came from a student she never liked, a student whom she believed could never write a poem like the one he submitted. I say submitted, rather than “wrote,” because that’s precisely the point. She believed he plagiarized the poem. But this was decades before the internet, and despite my mother’s vast knowledge of poetry, this poem wasn’t familiar to her. It simply struck her as something a high-school student—and particularly this high-school student—wouldn’t have written. Without evidence of plagiarism, though, she had no choice but to go ahead and select the poem as the winner. It was, after all, the best poem.
Growing up, I heard the story about this so-called poet several times. Even decades after the fact, the whole episode still nagged at her, so much so that she still remembered a couple of the lines from the poem. Had he written it? Had she failed, as a teacher, by assuming, without any evidence, the worst about this young man?
No. There’s no way he could’ve written it.
Unless, of course, he did.
One day, about ten years ago, my own family happened to be visiting my parents back in New Jersey, and the subject of the old high-school poetry contest came up. My mother recited a line from the poem, and my wife asked, “Why don’t you just Google the line?”
And for the first time, she did. Seconds later, she was staring at the answer to a fifty-year-old mystery. I don’t recall the poem—it’s been ten years, and my mother is no longer alive to ask. But suffice it to say, the kid had, in fact, half a century earlier, plagiarized the poem to win his high-school writing contest. The mystery had finally been solved; my mother was right to have been suspicious all along.
But she didn’t feel vindicated. She just felt sad, and she later confided that she would’ve been happier not to know—to keep alive the smallest hope that this unexceptional student, for one particular moment on one particular day, had risen above the limits of her expectations.
The problem with my mother’s situation was that either her former student had plagiarized, or he hadn’t. One or the other. And because of my mother’s limited understanding of this student, the answer reduced him to one sort of kid or another.
But what if she—and we—knew more? What if, yeah, the student had plagiarized the poem, but here’s how it went down: The kid (we’ll call him Ben) was well aware of his lousy reputation. He could do no right at school or at home. He kept getting in trouble. So one Mother’s Day, he finds some nice poem in a book and copies it onto a piece of paper and gives it to his mother, who loves it so much. “Did you write this, Ben?” she asks. And because of the look in his mother’s eyes, and because what could be the harm, he shrugs and mutters, “Sure, I did.” Unbeknownst to Ben, his mother enters the poem in the school-wide contest. (She knows Ben would never stoop to entering a writing contest himself.) Ben has no idea the poem’s been entered, but then he wins. And so now he’s terrified of being exposed. But the teacher, a nice young lady, Mrs. Kardos, she seems content with giving him the prize even though he’s getting a D in her class, and surely she must know he couldn’t have written the poem. Days and weeks and years pass. And although he always feels a twinge of guilt about it, there’s no denying the much-needed lift it gave to his mother all those years ago. And not just then. For decades. Even now, when she’s in her 80s and he’s approaching 60, she’ll sometimes refer to him as “my poet.”
That’s not what happened. But it’s what fiction can make happen.
In the realm of fiction, mysteries exist to get solved. But the solution itself isn’t enough, and sometimes isn’t even the point. What fiction can do—and what “real life” often fails to—is to bring a story to its conclusion, to solve the mystery, in a way that enlarges our sense of wonder and possibility.
Which brings us back to that long-ago joke my sister and I were never allowed to hear. Many years later, I said to my parents, “Remember that dirty joke you always kicked me and Julie out of the room for with the punchline ‘If I were a rich man’? What was the joke?”
My parents looked at each other. They vaguely remembered the punchline. Neither one remembered the joke.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I said.
I’ll admit, after that I looked online for the joke a few times, to no avail. But this incident wasn’t so long after the plagiarism mystery got solved, and pretty quickly I stopped searching, deciding it was better not to know. Maybe one day I’ll change my mind. For now, though, I prefer to imagine my parents and their friends young and red-faced and doubled over in laughter after hearing the best, dirtiest joke there ever was, a joke that will always live tantalizingly just out of reach.
Great post, Michael—and I’m looking forward to your story as well! I rely heavily on your book The Art and Craft of Fiction in my own teaching—both in fiction classes and in creative nonfiction, in fact. A fan of you and your work!