Being of Sound Mind and Body
My grandmother, who raised me, used to joke about the Will she’d leave behind. It would say: Being of sound mind and body I spent it all.
My father died this summer. We were and weren’t close. We saw each other maybe once a year. With the invention of email, we eventually kept up a regular correspondence, but only talking politics. He was a beautiful writer but his clean and concise prose went into translating technical documents from German into English. He wrote with greater clarity and concision than I do, but he had no gift for creative writing. (To his dying day he was correcting my grammar.) If there’s such a thing as tone-deafness as regards poetry, he had it. Might as well sell a raincoat in the desert than give him a poem. He may have read a handful of novels. I don’t know. He loved the precision of Kafka’s prose for Kafka’s flawless German. He also had a copy of the 1001 Nights translated by Richard F. Burton. As far as I know he didn’t read a single story. He kept them because of Burton’s introduction. Burton skewered the moral pretensions of translators who delicately edited out the best parts of the 1001 Nights—understood to be the uninhibited erotic parts. Of which there are many. My father, and his parents who raised me, detested nice people. I was never sure what they meant but they probably meant the kind of nice people who Richard Burton dismantled. To be on the safe side, I decided to dislike everyone; which is to say, I’m an introvert. I deeply get Wednesday Addams (if you haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Netflix series). People are exhausting, especially nice people.
When my father died I finally realized that I probably would too. I looked at my possessions and thought to myself: What in the hell are you thinking? Why am I buying anything? I’ll probably be dead in another twenty to thirty years—maybe sooner. Who knows? The thought of death doesn’t disturb me at all. The thought of all my possessions? Deeply disturbing. What’s the point? But my most valued possessions are my stories; and I’m going to give those away as generously as I can. Those stores include some from my family. I’ve already snuck some of them into my novels and poems.
Don’t you want to say, Hello?
My grandmother grew up in a family of ten children equally divided between girls and boys. Two of the boys, my Uncles, were bomber pilots in World War II. There was a rule that if a pilot flew ten or twenty (I can’t remember) sorties, then they wouldn’t have to fly any more. There was also a rule that relatives couldn’t fly on the same plane. My Uncles George and Bill both had one more flight and decided, violating all the rules, that they would fly their last sortie together. They were shot down by the Germans and captured.
Being Pilots/Officers, they were, initially at least, valuable POWs.
The German interrogator brought them in, one by one. You’re both Kremers he would say. Good German names! Why are you fighting against your fatherland? But George and Bill would only answer with their names, ranks and serial numbers. This must have gone on for several days and the interrogator decided that maybe he could play each against the other. Bill had the character of Bob Hope, ready with a quip, gregarious and a lady’s man. George was the quiet, serious and stone-faced brother.
The interrogator brought them both in.
He sat behind his broad desk. Bill and George were marched out and each stood quietly facing the interrogator. They stared straight ahead, neither acknowledging the other. They knew better. Behind the interrogator was a blond bombshell, the kind of uniformed blond bombshell that’s the stuff of Hollywood movies. The interrogator said to George, who was standing next to Bill: Don’t you want to say, Hello? George answered giving his name, rank and serial number. The interrogator impatiently turned to Bill and asked: Don’t you want to say, hello?
Bill turned to the blonde bombshell and said: “I’m Bill. I didn’t catch your name.”
And as the family story has it, George sighed heavily exclaimed in exasperation: “He means me, Bill!”
I decide to go for a walk and, wouldn’t you know, here comes the Devil the opposite way. That’s the Devil’s way, always to go the opposite way. He’s mumbling to himself and throwing up his left hand, now and again, as though shooing away whatever thoughts are nipping at his heels. For no good reason, he carries a cane behind his back.
“Up to no good?” I ask.
“You might expect as much,” he sighs.
“Best laid plans?” I ask.
“A mouse!” he shouts, then as though confiding: “There is not a single mouse in hell. Did you know? There are cats and dogs, but no mice. What does that tell you?” His expression changes to one of disappointment. “I nabbed another soul. A wretched soul. A selfish and petty soul. She loved no one and was a benefit to none.” He inhaled, held his breath, eyes closed, as though savoring a newly poured glass of chardonnay. “She detested children. Horrid little things. She lived alone, hoarded her wealth, hid it away where no one would find it. She was a mintage coined from my own heart.”
“You have one?”
“Does the nightshade have berries?”
“What about children?” I ask.
“Yes,” the Devil sniffs, “but only in hell to torment their parents.”
“Why so glum?”
“God!” shouts the Devil with a disgusted flourish of his hand, then calmly adds: “He of unbounded love and beneficence. Couldn’t leave well enough alone. What should happen to the old shrew’s house but God, in his bounty, makes a gift of it (of course the selfish old bat didn’t have an heir). A couple with their newly adopted child bought the house at auction—for a song and a dance. God’s reward for their good deeds. But that’s not enough. God elaborates. He sends them a stray puppy. A puppy! Nauseating. But it was the nice thing to do. And to celebrate their gratitude to God, they bake him a cake and light him a candle. The instant their backs are turned, the wretched little puppy eats the cake and knocks over the candle. God’s little gift burns down the house. Burns it to the ground.”
“One misery after another!” I say.
“The Devil’s work!—they say. The flames! The flames! The Devil’s work from beginning to end!”
“And you weren’t delighted by all that misery?”
“No,” the Devil sniffs. “The wretched little cheapskate. She hid all her money in the walls of the house. How was I to know? When the house burned down, there it all was. Piles upon piles. Silver coins. Gold coins. Bars of silver. Bars of gold. They built themselves a splendid new house. They gave to one insufferable charity after another. All my handiwork? They took it all. And what did they say? God works in mysterious ways! Praise be to God! To God alone the thanks!”
“Why don’t you like children?”
~ For my father, Gordon Gillespie, who detested nice people and who, when asked why he detested children, answered “sticky fingers”.