Writing inspired by the following SWC prompts:
The School of Magnificent Lies
Who runs The School of Magnificent Lies? Who gets to enrol? What does it take to pass the year?
The Little Bookshop of…
What makes this bookshop so special? Why has your protagonist come to browse in it? What do they buy?
My Cousin Roger
by Connie Phlipot
I hadn’t seen Cousin Roger for a few years. He was not, for a variety of reasons, a favourite of the family. I was the only one as far as I knew who kept in touch with Roger, albeit sporadically, usually meeting when we ended up in the same city. My siblings considered Roger a first cousin twice removed. Not in accordance with the technical definition of the term which would have meant he was two generations ahead of us, our grandparents’ cousin. He was my father’s brother’s son—more or less our age. According to the legend, he was removed once by my father for not showing up at our grandmother’s funeral, the second time by my mom for getting drunk at my sister Julie’s wedding.
Someone in the family, however, must have been in touch with Roger because he knew I was in Vienna. Or maybe he learned it through his intelligence network. He was like a mushroom, growing unobserved in the woods under an oak, but aware of what was going in the rest of the forest through some cellular connection commanded by the trees. He looked a bit like a mushroom, sitting at the cafe on Am Markt, his straight, blunt-cut hair framing his head like a Boletus cap, his baggy shirt the off-yellow color of chanterelles. We hugged lightly, his skin emitting a dank, woodsy smell.
“So, how long you’ve been in Vienna?” I asked.
“Four-five years, I guess. Long enough to remember to look both ways for trams when crossing the Ringstrasse.” He guffawed.
“And you are doing….” I let my question trail off. I wasn’t sure if Roger ever did anything.
“In between ventures, you could say. You might have heard about my first one, the Gratis WC or as I prefer, “Bezplatniy Tyalet.”
“You made a business out of free toilets? Isn’t that the job of the city?”
“I had an angle.” He swirled the milk foam in his coffee with his pinky finger. “I found this basement space, a keller, near the Hunderwasser Museum. The door was ajar, so I walked in. It had a row of urinals one one side, ladies’ toilets on the other; plus a large empty area with a cool black and white tile floor in tip top shape that just cried to be put to commercial use. I thought, wow, this area is always thronged with tourists… they must have to go to the bathroom… and they’re addicted to trinkets. Why not combine the need and the passion? I made the toilets free, and the mark-up on the souvenirs just a little bit higher than in the nearby stores to pay for the WC upkeep.”
“Did it work?” I suspected not. He had said he was in-between ventures.
“It was a good concept. I broke even with a few weeks. But I forgot about winter. No heat in the place, you’d freeze your dick taking a leak; the pipes broke; and few tourists wandered more than a few meters from the Hunderwasser apartments. I cut my losses and sold my excess wares to a Chinese shop on the Embankment. The toilets are still there by the way. Keep that in mind if you are ever in need in the neighborhood. At one point, I though maybe I should open a bar/toilet. The name’s catchy, right? But it didn’t make sense. A piss is always free in a bar, isn’t it?
“And your next gig?”
“It was a low day for me when I closed the door on the WC. The thick cold fog hovered over the city, clinging to the banks of the canal like old wool. Kind of day you want to leave, but don’t have enough energy to make a move. I trudged around the neighborhood. Then inspiration hit me like sun piercing the clouds. The museum of Fakes was staring at me. I really love that museum — the skill that went into copying masterpieces — skill that could have been applied to original, honest creations.”
“You decided to become a forger?”
Roger pouted. “Come on, I know I’m not the favorite of the family, but I’ve always been honest. Right?”
I patted his hand. “Yes, of course. I just didn’t know where else this was leading.”
His eyes re-gained their entrepreneurial gleam. “Remember I was a lit major in college?”
I didn’t remember. All I knew was that he and university didn’t do so well together.
“I didn’t go in for that critical analysis stuff. Takes the fun off a good read. But it did give me the reading bug. Especially biographies, autobiographies, and histories. Popular histories with stories, not the theoretical stuff.”
This was going to take awhile. I ordered another coffee.
“I came up on a really interesting biography of an early explorer. I can’t remember what he discovered, maybe some island in the Caribbean, or south Pacific. Anyway, I was entranced. Did some research and found out this guy never existed. The author made him up out of whole cloth. I woulda wrote to the author, but he was long dead. Then I read two histories of the same area in northwestern Poland that were absolutely different. Dates of events, names of leaders, lifestyle. I never figured out which one was more accurate, but I got a hunch both were lies.”
“That’s not exactly news, authors making things up.”
“Sure, but why not admit it’s fiction?”
“They think it will sell better?”
“Yeh, like the fakes in the museum. Some artists got really rich on their forgers.”
“But I still don’t understand where you’re heading.”
Roger slapped the top of his mushroom hair. “What if I collected these “fake”books. I could employ research interns to suss out the true histories from the untrue. I expose them as fakes. The price of their books drop and i buy up all the remaindered items for cheap and open a bookstore. “
“Why would people want to buy them after it was known they were fake?”
“You really don’t get it, do you?” Roger pushed his boletus bangs over his head. “Everyone is looking for a new trend, an angle. They’ll come. Believe me. And I’ll develop a line of merch. Coffee mugs, Tee shirts. I haven’t yet got the catchy phrase …. maybe you help me on that.”
“So, it’s your bookshop of Little White Lies?”
Roger gave me a thumbs up as my Wiener Melange arrived.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.