The Story of Man
Fiction by Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle
My father died a week ago, on the same date and at same hour as my mother had, 20 years before — and at the same spot.
“Not precisely the same spot,” my father would have corrected me. He was meticulous about accuracy in language. Forty years as an English teacher on a Spanish-speaking island will do that to you.
He was right; he was always right. The kitchen had been “updated” (my word choice). The gas stove had been replaced with an electric unit, not only out of respect for the memory of my mother who committed a Sylvia Plath in it, but because it became obsolete. I couldn’t help consider — I am always thinking odd things — that my mother, by offing herself while still young, prevented her own obsolescence.
An ugly Formica table that had floated like a rusty raft in the center of the room throughout my even rustier adolescence had been replaced by a large “island” that housed beneath it a toaster, a blender, a coffeemaker and a sparse collection of pots and pans. My father, who never had much use for any of these items, preferred to have them invisible.
The island looked like a tomb (a sarcophagus, he would have said). Our meals, taken separately or together there, were often funereal. He rarely spoke but often lectured. All the English I know, I learned from him, mouthful by mouthful. It was here that Don Manuel — that is what I called him — chose to expire, or as I would say, “do himself in,” in the colloquial English he deplored.
His own English tended to be of the “If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it is good enough for me” school. His stilted language and tendency to speak in aphorisms made him anathema (a big word I learned when I was very small) to his students — and, sometimes, to me — but you can grow accustomed to just about anything. Believe me.
If there was such a thing as ghosts and my mother had had the bad fortune to become one and she materialized here for a moment — I picture Betty Furness leaning on our Frigidaire — she may have reconsidered her decision to suicide, if only to rescue me. But I don’t think it was me who was on her mind. There had been moments in my monkish life with father that made me consider that her choice was not altogether a bad one.
After the cremation and the remembrance ceremony attended by his close family (me) and two of his colleagues from school, and after announcing the sad event in a newspaper ad the funeral parlor foisted on me, I put the house up for sale. I was 23 years old. I was officially an orphan. I was, perhaps, the oldest tabula rasa on the island as far as socialization was concerned, but I was also off to grad school in the states, a fledging anxious to fly.
The house was promptly sold to a woman I had never met — my aunt, my father’s sister. She told the realtor that she planned to restore it to its former glory (pre-Don Manuel) as a museum. My grandfather — a man I had never met — was a major hero of a minor revolutionary event in Puerto Rico that few people had ever heard of. My father’s ferociously Roman Catholic and Independentista family had disowned him as a heretic and an asimilista long before I appeared on the scene. He revered the English language, which made him in their minds pro-U.S. statehood and a traitor to la patria — and he rejected anything supernatural, which pretty much checkmated the Trinity and the Virgin Birth. “What is food to one man is bitter poison to others,” my father might have said, if Lucretius had not beat him to it. My thought — there was no one to express it to — was that the house would be more of a mausoleum than a museum; he was my grandfather and even I had never heard of him.
It was time to move on. Almost all of the things that I wanted to keep were packed including Don Manuel’s books. I really didn’t want to take all of them, but I was afraid my resurrected aunt would burn them. I spent my last afternoon wandering about like Lord Byron, contemplating the ruins of the garden and the back of our neighbor’s house, another suicide. I pretended to sweep out the ghosts in the kitchen like cobwebs, wondering if my grandfather had also expired there (Was it a family tradition? Would it be my fate? Should I dress in black and measure out my life with coffee spoons?)
I was in fact about to determine the fate of one of the last unpacked books, The Story of Man: A History of the Human Race From the Creation to the Present Time (copyright 1889). It was huge and heavy, more than 700 pages, and it was bound in garish green, gold and silver vellum depicting primitive murder and mayhem committed by mostly naked natives. The story of man, indeed.
I couldn’t have been more than six or seven when I first saw it. The book was in English and I was just barely becoming literate in Spanish. Almost all the books were in Spanish then, at least the ones I could reach. They were gone by the time I could read them, but by then I could also read English and the empty shelves seemed to fill up magically with volume after volume of books that made life in my secular seminary not only bearable but illuminating. I guess it is true that the child is father of the man — if that means what I think it does. I didn’t need to read. It was lavishly illustrated “more than 600 splendid engravings” and a handful of full color plates.
As I paged through it, I remembered the dozens of nights that I would slip into the library with Don Manuel’s lupa, the antique magnifying glass he kept in his mahogany desk, in order to see more clearly the perfection of the native women’s breasts. He didn’t subscribe to National Geographic.
I am getting ahead of myself. The oldest, strangest, and perhaps most delusive recollection I had in those final moments in the house was of my father, discovering me on the library floor buried under The Story of Man, totally absorbed in the belligerent actions and extraordinary headdresses of the human race all across the wild and wooly world.
He sat beside me, and in one of his rare moments of intimacy, told me that his father had done the same with him. I can recreate the spirit of the thing:
“You have a father?” I asked, astounded at this revelation.
“Everyone has a father.”
“And he is like you?” It just slipped out. I still had not learned to dissimulate.
“Tiger father begets tiger son,” he said, “A Chinese proverb.”
“Where does he live?” I assumed everyone lived somewhere else, since no one lived with us.
“Nowhere. Maybe in the seventh circle of hell. I jest. There is no such place as hell, except in the poet Dante’s imagination. He is dead.”
I pondered this. I knew about death. My mother was dead. It meant we would never see each other again. “Do you miss him?” I picked up the lupa and held it before his face. I missed my mother and I wanted to know the truth.
“You can’t miss what you don’t know.” He said.
I handed him the lupa, I had seen what I wanted to see. I struggled to remove the book from my lap. He picked it up.
“This was his house. This was his library. This was his book. He didn’t read English, but he saw what he wanted in it. Libraries are the hospital of the mind. Some books will alleviate suffering; the best will make you suffer more. Be forewarned, son, it may be contagious.”
He was right, I suppose; he was always right. I never saw him vulnerable again until recently when his ascent from primitive savagery, like that of the cave, lake and tree dwellers of The Story of Man, had reached the summit and he was precipitously in decline. He chose his path down carefully. I’m sure he sidestepped the seventh circle: he was no thorny tree to be ripped apart by harpies.
Or was he? On the endpaper of the book, Don Manuel had written a quote by André Malraux: “Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.”
I closed the book and packed it carefully into the last box.