Erudition (Story)

He was not tall, but he was a thin man, narrow in most respects. Even as he spoke, one had the impression of thinness. I cannot say that he was a friend, but he was undoubtedly not an enemy. No, not an enemy at all. I’d say far from it, as we spent a great deal of time in clear-headed conversation, sharing opinions on the state of the world, our world, as there was no other, at least not in the narrow reality that we shared. We both held strong opinions, and these emerged at times as if they mattered even more than we professed. Energizing, challenging conversation is how I would describe it.

I don’t know if he worked as hard as I at making sense of it all, building strong arguments for his side as I did for my own. I should say, for his position, or point of view, as I conceived for my prosecution or defense, no matter what theme emerged on any given night. But, I am confident he did, as he always kept things lively and transformative. Yes, transformative describes it nicely. Each conversation led one or both of us to new learning.

I may not have mentioned that he was a professor of the Psychology of Anglo-American history (I am certain there is no such thing). It seemed important to him to emphasize this subtle consideration at critical points in the discourse where he could use it as a blunt object to pound home his position. I, on the other hand, would carefully, though often not as articulately as hoped, provide subtle gradations of meaning, moving ever so gingerly toward the side of my defense.

The bond between us mirrored friendship . . . I suppose, except we had no contact or interaction outside of our periodic conversations. I can remember the day we met. I was walking hurriedly on my way home, not two blocks from my apartment when I caught sight of him sitting on the front porch of one of the boarding houses frequently found in our neighborhood. There was something about him that attracted my attention, and as I came closer, I noticed that he was intently watching me as I approached. It was unavoidable. So I stopped. Doffing my hat, I offered a sincere greeting, wishing him a pleasant evening. Before I realized it, we were deep in conversation and had moved inside where we could both sit in greater comfort.

His sitting-room was small, but there was adequate room for an equally small round table and two chairs where we sat and continued our conversation. The walls were bare, except for a small picture of a young couple I later learned was him and his wife of 42 years. He never spoke of her, but, it was apparent he was a widower, and this was not a subject about which he was ready to talk. I came to this conclusion as I would consciously glance at the picture on occasion, hoping to solicit an explanation. But none came.

We soon established a habit of conversation. I would stop by whenever he was sitting on the porch. Stopping by was not a daily routine, as he was there less frequently than not. What I mean to say is, he was not sitting on the porch as often as one might expect over a week or two, or a month, say. And I never interrupted his privacy by knocking on his door, or any other such intrusion.

It was clear to me that he was a man of learning, but I could see no books. There were none to be seen. Perhaps he kept them in his bedroom. But, when I caught an occasional glance through the opened door, only bare walls were visible, and this astonished me, as I was proud of my books and they were displayed on shelves and stacked on tables, surrounding me at every turn. I lived in my books. Or more accurately, I lived with my books. They were my companions and my allies in a life that would otherwise be too challenging to endure.

At a point in one evening’s exchange, he made a statement, not like others in the past. He seemed to be in an unusual frame of mind, distracted by something internal—wanting to pull back from earlier positioning, and now, almost apologetically, as if embarrassed by his thinking, he asserted that the condition of this land seemed somehow degraded.

“It seems less than what it could be, or could have been, or absolutely should have been by now.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting at so I waited for him to continue.

“It is a disappointing thing to witness,” he said. “Especially for someone with such heroic vision, the loftiest of expectation, and such high-minded anticipation.”

He sat there pondering what to say next, or how to say it.

“By now, before the ending of my days, before so many decades could grind unbearably past. I expected all to rise high and build upon our imperfections, an even higher glory. In my youthful heart, I knew there could never be—aside from God’s creation, the heavenly kingdom, the new earth—a better place upon which to stamp one’s mark.”

I was shocked by this stark change of flow in our conversation. It was as if the tide had suddenly shifted, the seasons had gone in reverse, with winter following spring, and all the trees had put on new leaves in the middle of winter. The summer was barren. All green had turned to brown.

It was not that I had any particular disagreement with what he was saying, but there was no ready argument proposed in my mind, though my habit was to begin to frame an opposition even while he was speaking. But I was mute, dumbfounded, thunderstruck, and speechless. I cannot find the words to explain my predicament. I would seem to have a word or two forming in my mind, but they would stick, and I could not lift them up out of the mire, out of the hardening concrete . . . and then, as if he had not paused, he spoke again.

“And imagine those who adopted this country based on the fabricated imaginings spread feverishly over time through many means. The value, the freedom, the fruit that one can pick from this land.”

As I mentioned, even in his speaking, there was a kind of thinness, a weak strand would somehow show itself, and I was often unable to draw the fragments together.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” he continued. “Such was the dream. How painful it is to see that dream reduced, degraded, to see that dream tainted by the arrogance of madmen unaware of, or uncaring about, what they have done, or are doing. Where has the vision gone?”

Once again, while I could not organize a meaningful retort or even a thoughtful question to move this conversation on, I could not disagree with his premise. As a young man, I remember feeling the joy of freedom, especially in the summer sun, playing ball, or going fishing with my buddies. Not a care in the world. The books we read in school and the stories told by our teachers, how all the American heroes had purified this land of ours and sanctified it for all those who were fortunate enough to be born here—or to reach its shores. And I knew from family stories and things I overheard when I was supposed to be sleeping, about my grandfathers and fathers, and uncles, and cousins, and many others like them who had fought in many lands over decades of our history to preserve this land, this freedom . . . for me.

Finally, I found my voice and began to ask questions crafted from these memories, and spoke the words with an undertone of confidence and surety. I watched his thin face change only slightly as I spoke. And his eyes, though narrow, began to soften with understanding and he said,

“It is important for you to read your books, not just look at them, stacked on their shelves, so you can understand that everything was not as simple as your teacher’s stories. There were many hard times. All those times were hard. You should read about how Adams doubted himself, his professed beliefs, and Jefferson’s immortal declaration that all men are created equal, were not matched by his own actions, and in his time there were others bent on treachery and sedition, and on deceit for self-gain.”

I countered, now on firmer ground, and began to build my argument. I started to expound on how there had been no time, no time at all, in human history, when we, the universal we, were free from greed and avarice. I was building my case in slow, carefully framed steps, not wanting to allow even the slightest opening to undermine my argument before I could tighten it thoroughly. I continued to explain how, from Adam and Eve, who sought to gain an advantage from the knowledge of good and evil and the benefit of eternal life, on through the next generation as Cain slew Able out of jealousy for God’s favor, we humans have had to contend with our abhorrent nature. I felt I was on firm ground.

“And there was Lilith,” I continued. “That dangerous and sexually wanton demon of the night who stole infants from their beds. For over four thousand years, she was the progenitor of chaos, seduction, and ungodliness.”

Energized now; I could feel my confidence growing in strength and power. I felt like a preacher, filled with the spirit. I was elated.

“And there was Asmodeus, the king of demons, who plotted against the newly married, or those intending to be married. He corrupted husbands to violate their marriages and commit other blasphemous deeds.”

His eyes widened slightly at this, but I went on madly recounting all the evil I could dredge up from human history. I wondered to myself, shocked at how I could remember all these horrid examples of malevolence?

“And then there was Vlad III, ‘Vlad the Impaler,’ a creature of pure evil. I cannot even describe his atrocities and the great pleasure he found in prolonged torture of his victims.”

I was confident in my defense and began to wrap up my argument.

“And on down through history. We have been plagued by corruption and all manner of iniquity. It seems a uniquely human trait, perhaps a built-in genetic weakness. It is not new to this generation. It is not new to America. It has been with us from the beginning.”

Ah, yes. I thought to myself. That should do it. That should lock it in on my side of the ledger. Sitting there, patiently, listening to me as I made myself sick, thinking of all the disgusting, malicious, and wicked things I had somehow sequestered away in the dark corners of my mind. When I finally wound down and sat there looking back at him, he moved his thin frame just slightly in his chair, just enough so it was a perceptible movement. And then he asked,

“Where did you learn all this?”

“From books,” I replied.

He just smiled and quietly took a drink.

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