A friend of mine found the meaning of life in a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich when we were in grade school. One day at lunch he reached into his lunch bag and took out a sandwich so beautiful it breathed the same dust and silence as the Mona Lisa.
"Christ," he said. "Look at this sandwich my mother made."
He held it up and we all stopped eating to admire it. The crusts were cut off as though Da Vinci had measured the angle and the peanut butter described a gold frame against the jelly. "This sandwich should be in the Louvre," he said. "It would be a crime to eat this sandwich."
I remember thinking it was a joke. There's nothing beautiful about a sandwich except for its taste. A sandwich has no place in the world's great museums and galleries – but I was wrong. John Thomas didn't take a single bite and when the bell rang, he carried the sandwich across the playground and into our classroom, where he carefully set it on a corner of his desk.
At first no one noticed. It's not uncommon to find a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a child's desk and it merged with the half-light of all the sunsets we'd ever ignored. But the next morning, it was still there and I kept glancing at it. It bore a solitude strong enough to survive a year of camping at Walden Pond. "Aren't you going to eat that sandwich?" I said.
"It's not a sandwich, Sebastian."
"What is it, then?"
He ignored me. I spent all morning wondering about it when at last our teacher noticed and said, "John Thomas, why is there a sandwich on your desk?"
He settled back comfortably in his seat. "Actually it's a funny story," he said. "For the past four years, my mother has been fixing me sloppy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. They either have too much jelly, too much peanut butter or the crusts are messed up. But this one has a perfection I can't help but appreciate. I'm going to keep it on my desk for the remainder of the year."
"Throw it out," the teacher said.
There are, of course, millions of things in this world more beautiful than a well-made sandwich. How the tops of buildings disappear in the fog. A tree that turns gold except for a single pink leaf. A lake that doesn't appear on any maps. But the truth was simple. The sandwich was a masterpiece.
The teacher left it alone. She didn't mention the sandwich again. A hush worthy of a Greek temple fell over the classroom and when school got out, John Thomas covered the sandwich with a little paper sarcophagus, a note for the janitor:
I am the Mona Lisa of sandwiches.
Do not throw me away!!!
There was no one else in school more likely to find the Mona Lisa in his lunch bag than John Thomas. He created his own boundaries in life. He wore his socks on the outside of his pants in the style of old-fashioned baseball pitchers and combed his hair into a three-inch-high tidal wave that almost but never quite crashed onto his forehead. When he talked on the phone he used a fake British accent and said, "Delightful" when he hung up. He was the kind of oddball who had no qualms about leaving a sandwich on his desk for weeks at a time.
By day three the sandwich had molded. Its perfection was spotted by green patches and the teacher said, "Get that thing out of my classroom, John Thomas. It's attracting bugs."
"I don't see any bugs. You're the bug."
Incredibly, the teacher left it alone. Even the most revolting works of art command some respect and the rest of us didn't touch or mention it, either. There was something religious about the sandwich.
By day four the bread wore a fur coat and an ant had committed suicide by eating his way through the peanut butter. He didn't leave a note. By day five the sandwich had turned entirely black. It could have been a lump of coal or a shadow left behind and forgotten by the dawn. By day six the sandwich had caved in on itself, bending time and space to form a new reality.
"Isn't it time you throw that thing away?" I said.
"I can't," John Thomas said. "This sandwich is the only real thing that's ever happened to me. Until now everything I've known has been meaningless. This is the first time I've ever understood who I am and where I belong in the world."
When we arrived in class on day seven, the floor had changed overnight. A long black thread ran from the doorway all the way up the center aisle to John Thomas's desk. At first we thought someone's sweater had snagged and unraveled into nothingness. Then we looked closer and saw millions of crumbs gently bouncing at our feet.
The girl next to me held her face to keep it from collapsing under the force of the most piercing shriek I'd heard in my life.
"That's it," the teacher said. "Toss the sandwich, John Thomas."
"Fine. I'm calling the principal."
Five minutes later the principal arrived. As he entered the room he stepped on about 10,000 ants without realizing it. It was a massacre. If ants can talk, they almost certainly tell each new generation of ants about it and hold a tearful memorial every year to never forget the events of that day.
"Toss the sandwich, John Thomas."
"It's not a sandwich. It's the Mona Lisa."
"It's disrupting class. It's making people sick." He stepped back and killed an additional 30,000 ants while the others hurried off for cover. "Why don't you just take it home with you?"
"The beauty of the sandwich comes from its surroundings. The moment I take it out of this classroom it becomes irrelevant."
"For Christ's sake, it's covered in ants," he yelled suddenly, noticing the swarm of ants running up his legs.
They argued then, shooting back and forth for five minutes till at last there was a ceasefire. Someone had found a solution. It might have been the teacher or it might have been a student – all I remember is a voice saying, "Sell it."
John Thomas was silent. It was the silence of all the nights he would ever spend alone and he stared off into space through the walls of his own museum. I like to think that in those final moments he came to peace with the Mona Lisa sandwich. Some things simply don't belong in this world.
Someone handed him a plastic knife. He pulled the sandwich close for the first incision, hesitated, and quickly began. By the look on his face, he could have been cutting into his own arm. He cut thirty-two pieces, one per student and two more for the teacher and principal, then threw aside the knife.
"Everyone form a line," the principal said. "The price is one penny."
One by one, we each dug out a penny and handed it to John Thomas in exchange for a piece of his ruined sandwich. It took about a minute. When the last piece had been sold, a loud silence followed driven by the feel of an unwritten symphony and John Thomas began crying. The principal patted him on the shoulder and left.
As you might expect, no one could really focus much after that. The day passed and the teacher finally excused us three hours early. We all went home. What remained of the Mona Lisa sandwich scattered across town with the grace of a blown dandelion. Most of us threw our piece away. A few hid it. One boy ate his piece and had explosive diarrhea for the next three days.
When John Thomas came to school the next morning he was smiling a flat little smile colored by a secret world of possibility, and he's been like that ever since.
BIO: Justin Gershwin is from Davis, California. His story, The Mona Lisa Sandwich, is the first chapter of a novel he recently completed.