Ashley Cowger is the author of the short story collection Peter Never Came, which was awarded the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize for 2010. She holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals. Learn more about Ashley at www.ashleycowger.com.
The Number One
On Friday, November 30th, 2007, at precisely 7:48 in the morning, Eastern Standard Time, Anna Kelsey McMillan became, for the duration of 5.3 minutes, the number 1 most beautiful woman in the world. 3 of those 5 minutes Anna spent in her car, alone, where nobody saw her in all of her splendor. But Anna spent 2 of those glorious minutes traversing the parking lot of the large business complex where she was expected, at 8 o’clock, to commence her presentation on farmed salmon.
3 people were in the parking lot with Anna during those 2 minutes. The first, Charles B. Abrams, was on his cell phone and hardly even noticed Anna as she passed by. The second person, Clarice Mandle, who was, that morning, having a self described bad hair day and believed herself to be the number 1 ugliest woman in the world (though she was actually number 1,346,412,912 at that exact moment) noticed Anna and responded with an instinctive twinge of jealous spite. Fortunately, the third person in the parking lot that morning, John Quinn, not only noticed Anna but appreciated her dazzling beauty, her resplendent loveliness.
John was on his way to a meeting and his mind was bogged down with the endless streams of data he would soon be discussing with his coworkers. He had only just parked, just climbed out of his car, when he was blindsided by Anna’s beauty. As Anna passed, John mentally acknowledged that she was the most beautiful woman that he had ever seen (not knowing that she was, at that moment, the most beautiful woman period). Mesmerized, he dropped the briefcase he had been about to pull from his backseat and, instead, watched Anna strut away. No thought of his wife and how she might feel to know her husband was at that moment in a parking lot ogling another woman entered his mind. But his wife didn’t know, and anyway, it wasn’t as though there were anything sexual about it. No. John wasn’t admiring Anna’s plump frame, her soft brown curls, and her pale pink cheeks out of some animalistic response of sexual arousal. She was simply beautiful; surely his wife wouldn’t mind another glance.
John allowed himself to gaze for 4.6 seconds at the back of Anna’s thick curls as she made her way towards the building before he climbed right back into his car and drove straight home to his own, he suddenly remembered, very attractive wife. When he would arrive home, 32.8 minutes later, he would take his wife in his arms and carry her to the bedroom, where they would have the 3,489,674,123rd most passionate sex of all time. Afterwards he would call in sick to the meeting, but first things first.
John’s wife would never know that it had been Anna that reminded her husband how much he loved her, nor that 43.7 seconds after John turned away from Anna, a swift breeze blew a mocha colored strand of hair into Anna’s right eye (the same strand of hair which had, 5.3 minutes earlier, been wafted by her car’s rogue air conditioner precariously close to her eye). Without missing a step, Anna puffed a blast of air from her lips upward, driving the hair out of her eye and making her the number 500,250,009th most beautiful woman in the world, still no small accomplishment.
Anna didn’t know that for 5 brief minutes she had been number 1 and so she didn’t miss it. Instead, she made her way towards the building where she would demonstrate for her boss and a small committee of investors that she was the number 4,300,979th most knowledgeable person in the world on farmed salmon. Just that morning, she had been the 4,300,978th most knowledgeable, but as Anna was making her way to the parking lot, fiddling with her air conditioner and being beautiful, 15 year old Suzie Ann Canfield of Phoenix, Arizona was looking up information on farmed salmon for a school report and had surpassed Anna in knowledge on that particular subject.
Had Anna known that a teenager knew more about her field than she herself did, she may have lost the resolve to give her presentation to these investors, whose money Anna’s company very badly needed. She may have just not shown up, because she wouldn’t, probably, have also known that Suzie would only remain ahead of her for 4 days; once Suzie handed in her report on Monday the facts would begin drifting their way out of her brain, as facts are wont to do when they are being ignored.
But Anna didn’t know and so she continued her confident stride to the building’s entrance, as well she should have, because, after all, Anna was the world’s 800,239,438th best knitter, the 4,124,345th most accomplished backgammon player, and had the 1,897,763rd largest collection of greeting cards.