Following is the continuation of the thirteenth chapter of Lars Gustafsson's novel The Dean, translated by Michael Meigs.
Chapter 13 (continued)
. . . .
Dad failed. He never got any further than boot camp, due to the fact that he had flat feet. That’s the condition when the whole foot, dipped in regular ink or India ink or blood, or whatever subtle juice you might choose, and then pressed down powerfully on a sheet of paper used for the test, does not leave that elegant kidney-shaped empty space in the middle that proper soldiers’ feet should leave. What happens to those who have flat feet? I have no idea at all. Maybe they break down at the beginning of an infantry march, maybe their feet hurt so much that they wind up sitting at the side of the road, objects of contempt and envy for fellow soldiers? Or maybe there was some sort of subtle discrimination against flatfooted persons back then in the 1950’s? Perhaps other individuals discriminated against them?
Some of our relatives made up a new name for him after that episode. They called him “the flat footed Indian.” Cousin Derek was particularly delighted by that nickname.
Derek was drafted into the Vietnam war, where it appears that he served a risk-free assignment in some sort of radio monitoring station. That was the basis for his later success, because once he came back as a veteran he had access not only to that huge government mortgage loan at a preferential rate but also to a series of academic grants not available to just anyone. They carried him from one laboratory to another, each better than the previous one, to Yale, Chicago and eventually to Princeton. That’s where he created his really most elegant innovations, the ones he took back home and used to establish Virtual Spaces.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I've jumped ahead in my story. Decades ahead, in fact. I was trying to set down the story of my dad, the so-called “flat footed Indian.”
Their nickname for him was related in part to the way he walked. It was a bit odd, no doubt about it. He always walked leaning forward ever so slightly, with a kind of bounce in his stride as if he was walking through quicksand.
As, in fact, he was.
Yes, that’s right. My dad screwed up almost everything.
Yes. He was weak.
When I came out here for my self-exile to the desert, for which I had prepared so long (perhaps my whole life was really a sort of preparation to go into the desert, in fact, into this very desert), I immediately began to dream strange, thoroughly frightening dreams, usually seeing myself in my dad’s odd little house down by the river in San Marcos. These days, a house next to the river is in an enviable location. Not so back then.
Back then it was fairly working class. Maybe even white trash.
My dad had an unusual life. He lost his own father at an early age. His childhood was marked, I believe, by a kind of boring monotony. Perhaps that was why he came up with the strange idea of going to a Methodist seminary to study to become a pastor. The notion didn’t fit him at all.
As I said, he almost always screwed up, and of course religion was no exception.
When I was born he was an assistant pastor in a very well regarded Methodist congregation located in the best part of the city. Those were the days of the Korean conflict, and many of the young men had left. Some never came back, but that was the how it was with the war in Korea.
One sign of all that was the fact that during church services the congregation members left a tremendous number of cars parked outside, so many and such large ones that the strong-willed and self-certain owners of the big houses around the tall white church would occasionally demonstrate in protest and send letters of complaint to the San Marcos municipal authorities.
It was clear that Dad was a great success at first. Members of our clan had a certain superficial ability to appear “endearing.” We have red hair, we’re thin and tall, and we are notably good listeners. That is one of the abilities we do have. But at the same time we are very shy.
My dad was shy. He married the ugliest girl he could find, Mary Rose, who would become my mother. I’m convinced today, as I always have been, that he married her because he had such low self esteem that he couldn’t imagine that anyone other than Mary Rose would consider accepting his proposal. She was a short, horribly near-sighted girl with untidy hair that she tried to keep in order with curlers, going around with them on her head half the day. At least, when she was young.
My memory is that in her later years she was simply untidy. Sour, bitter, and really impossible to talk with.
The fact is, I never heard her say a positive or approving word about my dad. She considered that he was “totally inept” and “a completely unbelievable numbskull from the countryside” (unable even to learn how to sort the laundry correctly and likely to blow his nose loudly on one of her grandmother’s fine linen damask napkins). What exactly caused his ineptitude, I could never understand when I was a boy. Perhaps even now I haven’t really figured it out.
Some of it had to do with the ongoing, persistent unfavorable comparisons with his brother the Korea veteran, who as time went on became ever more wealthy.
And there was something with the fact that my dad never managed to stay with anything for very long. I don’t think that I've ever known anyone as impatient and as easily discouraged.
How he managed to pass the Methodist seminary course in Greek I cannot imagine. I will never believe that he could have at any time been able to teach himself a Greek verb in all its forms, from the present progressive tense to the perfect aorist tense. Perhaps they didn’t teach Greek in that Methodist seminary in Andover? What were they studying, then?
And why in the world was he going to become a pastor?
What he told me was that one time when he was suffering from some childhood sickness with high fever, he had a strange dream in which angels lifted him higher and higher, up to the highest heights. A remarkably hierarchical dream, you might think. But it was some kind of dream of eternal bliss. Was that what made him a Methodist? No one ever said that anyone in his family had such a deep interest in religion.
Afterward came one of those catastrophes that were so typical of my dad.
The origin of the disaster was his boss, Superintendent Stan Sanders. A big, heavy, melancholy man reputed as the hell-on-wheels leader of the church.
Which admittedly he certainly was. A great deal of the fiercely envied economic success of the Church of the United Brethren was certainly his doing. The problem was only that he began to get entirely too successful. When as a little boy I read in the history books about Napoleon Bonaparte, I often thought of Superintendent Sanders. He was a marvelous success. Residents in the neighborhood around the church complained, as I mentioned, about the excessive number of cars parked there on Sunday morning and about the fact that the church (despite their equally vehement protests) enlarged its holdings by building a multiplicity of annexes – a home for youth, a library for the congregation, a gymnasium, I don’t know what all.
My dad would preach sometimes, with his diffident mannerisms and his terribly faint, slightly nasal voice, but most of the time he was busy with other things – the youth ministry and Bble studies and everything else – to earn his very modest income.
Superintendent Sanders had a problem. His pancreas wasn’t functioning as it really should. It's not clear whether that was a sign of a still undisclosed alcoholism or due to some congenital failing. That strange organ has fascinated me ever since then. Maybe because as a child I mixed up the words pancreas and pan-creator.
In any case, from time to time Superintendent Sanders' pancreas would act up. On those occasions my dad would be called to assume some of his duties. And wholly unexpectedly he would move from his unassuming little office with the steel filing cabinet and the old table marked with hundreds of rings left by coffee cups, into the superintendent’s more fashionable domain.
There my dad found a good deal of bookkeeping that his boss hadn’t managed to get wrapped up before he went to the hospital, and my dad, efficient and impatient as always at the beginning of a job, rolled up his shirtsleeves and sat down to enter a long series of invoices and payments into the congregation’s account books. Sitting there, he felt really important and responsible. And helpful. He was going to polish off that pile.
Und der Täufel lacht dazu, as it’s written down in some satirical poem in Old German. And the Devil laughed himself silly.
The pile contained a number of transactions that puzzled my father. It seemed as if a number of the deposits had actually gone into the superintendent’s personal bank account. Marked as contingency payments, and in amounts that were not so small, either. One was $7000 in connection with the real estate business that the Church of the United Brethren had undertaken during the previous year. The pious superintendent had accepted some non-trivial commissions for his assistance in arranging real estate purchases by the congregation.
And the consequences of all this you can imagine for yourselves, you shadows out there who may some day read through these notes.
Of course my father was fired in the twinkling of an eye. There's a hallowed old rule that ambitious young men should apply their zeal and their energy to some things, while some others they should avoid like the plague. Things they have no business with.
He was dumb enough, or maybe I should say innocent enough, not to consult an experienced lawyer or possibly the local district attorney, but instead to go to the superintendent himself upon his return.
And he confronted the man with the truth.
Not even a week was out before poor dad was out on the street. Accused (as one might have expected) of groping young girls in the confirmation classes. A charge that I do not believe for an instant. But the clever leader of the church quickly convinced his church board.
For the rest of his life my dad bore the stigma of being a dismissed preacher. He got by, resorting to several different jobs. None of them was really shameful but many of them were completely menial. I remember one fall, maybe the fall of that same year, when he was Santa Claus for a department store.
As for my mother’s comments – I won’t repeat them. I've simply never understood why she put up with that man if he was so obviously incapable in all respects. Why not just let him go his way in the Peace of the Lord?
# # #
Those events I experienced only indirectly, as they hovered like a sort of vague, grim threat of thunder on the horizon of my teenage years.
They became clearer to me later. Much later.
The truth is that my dad would have been much better as a follower of Nietzsche than as a good Methodist pastor. If he could have gone out and converted people to Nietzsche using Methodist techniques, I think he would have been a real success.
He managed to come up with the money to support his large family, and I suppose that wasn’t really so remarkable. But he spent up much more money than what by all rights he would have needed just to pay the rent on our modest house, to cover the gasoline bills, the telephone bill – I don’t know what all. But our expenses didn’t really amount to very much.
For example, we had no health insurance. We just didn’t have the means for it, and there was always a problem when one of the children broke an elbow or needed dental work or for one reason or another had to go to the doctor.
But none of that explained why he had to have such a huge amount of money. Whatever for?
To tell the truth: I don’t know. Was he a secret gambler? If so, on what? On greyhound races? Poker? Did he drink? (Drugs were practically non-existent in central Texas back then.) It was really a pious agrarian society, and San Marcos was almost the most pious of all.
Did he have a lover? But when could he have had time for her? The only time that I could imagine would have been between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. If so, he would have had to keep astonishingly quiet when sneaking out of the house.
In any case. There he was, without a job and without a clerical title. Suddenly he needed money, scads of money. And he came across something that in his eyes appeared to be a brilliant solution.
He started a charitable appeal. Yes, that’s right. My God. He started to collect money from people. Do I need to tell you any more?
He wound up in prison.
But I’ve scarcely mentioned my mom. I probably should have said something about her.
In fact she's actually much more interesting. After her fourth child she began to develop migraine headaches. None of your little, niggling, throbbing pains on one side of the head. No, instead of those, they were the enormous, classic migraines, the sort that scientists have never really understood. I can remember her lying there day after day in a dark room, quivering with pain at every noise from outside. It often started with a sensation that she herself described as a heavy load of indescribable dread.
No. I'm remembering that wrong. She described it by saying, “Reality was relentlessly draining away through a hole in me.”
That is word for word the way she described it.
It always started with something odd with her vision. On one side. Always on the same side. It wasn’t as if she suddenly couldn’t see well. She couldn’t see anything at all. There was nothing there.
Sometimes she would get her migraine when I was home. It seemed to come without warning. No. No, that’s not right.
There was a kind of warning. She started to get restless, sometimes almost exhilarated, completely unlike herself earlier that day or in the days before. But it took time for me to learn to recognize it. From about the time that I was eight years old I began to be able to predict it. It scared the wits out of me. Partly because someone so normal and so close to me could become so terribly absent and distracted. But later also because she did exactly what every child psychologist would certainly try to dissuade her from doing: she talked about what she called the Nothing and about her fear of that nothingness.
The strange gap in her vision that, it seemed to her, was ready to start expanding at any moment and would gobble up all of reality as if were only a morsel. That hole.
Exactly what you would call un séjour en enfer. A stay in hell.
No, I'm certainly no geologist, but there have been times when I wished I could have become one.
To which layer of the earth, which stratum would I have devoted myself?
The Cambrian, perhaps, with its outburst of bizarre creatures. That sudden, cascading outbreak of completely exotic life that disappeared as quickly as it came. And the likes of which we have never seen again.
But that's enough for now: I hear the clanging of that horrible cowbell that Mrs. Primrose uses to announce to her guests that their fried bacon and eggs are ready in the breakfast room. It’s already beginning to get too warm to write here upstairs just under the roof, even though it’s barely nine o’clock. And in any circumstances I have no desire to continue this account today.
Because I just don’t want to. Isn’t that enough?
I believe that I loved my dad.
© Lars Gustafsson, 2003, translation by Michael Meigs (© 2010)
[Click to go to Chapter 1 - One World, Seen from Another]
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The American-Scandinavian Foundation selected this translation as the winning entry in its 32nd annual Translation Prize competition. Selections were published in the spring 2012 issue of the Scandinavian Review.