Friday, April 17, 2009

Smarty Pants

The young boy sits in his pastor's office, his ears and nose reddened by the chill, morning, April air. A thin, clear membrane of mucus careens out of his right nostril, then retreats with an obnoxious "Sniff! Snort!" as the boy jolts his body upward and stiffens, bracing himself with both hands in the old, wooden chair.


"Need a tissue?" the man asks.

"Nah," he says, wiping his nose with the full length of his long-sleeve T. He says it with an air of "older kid." "Nah," means you say it with a salient muchacho frown, and a crinkled nose with a slight, sideways shake of the head in five or six trifling movements. Cuz that's what snot on your sleeve is: a mere trifle. There are more important things...

"Okay," the man says with a smile. He leans back in his chair and folds his hands, analyzing the boy. "He's more aware than most," he thinks to himself.

After sliming a good portion of his long, blue sleeve, the boy leans forward, his hands clasped in the classic prayer position. The boy's weight shifts. The red leather grapples, smudges and reverberates a sound not unlike certain aspects of bodily noise that amuse boys. Noticing the sound, the boy offers a quick, furtive aside with his eyes. The man looks askance, pretending not to notice. "Eh-hem," the man says, looking at the window to his left. The boy can't help but crack a slight smile, noticeable only to himself.

The window is stained glass. They both look at it. It has the primary colors dispersed throughout encased in diamonds. Through the red, yellow and blue, glowing in the morning sun, a ghost of dust meanders, sways and flits in a million particles as one plume of a wondering, lone lost spirit in a desert. The boy looks at the ghost-dust, the dust-ghost. He figures it is many and one, all together. He tries to pick up a pattern of movement, but to no avail. "It doesn't know where it's going," he says.

"What's that?" The man says.

"The dust. It's just moving around in swirls, but it doesn't go anywhere. Why is that?"

"I don't know," the man says. "It's just dust."

"But God created it," the boy adds.

"Eh...I suppose he did."

"Isn't that what we are? You even say it every Sunday. 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.'"

"Yes. I suppose I do." The "Yes" is prolonged with a slight hiss. "What brings you by, Seth?"

Seth stops and stares. He looks at the man. He has on a white, pressed shirt. The buttons at the top near the collar are free, and the collar spreads out like a stiff tent. He doesn't answer the question. He's looking at the books on the shelf: faded, dusty tomes with cracked bindings, and old, English font catered with German names the boy knew how to read, but knew nothing about. Sir names like Hausmann, Von Rad, Keil & Delitzsch, Melancthon, Walther, Lehmann and Luther. First names like Otto, Karl, Max, and Helmut. The whole room is stacked with them from behind the pastor, along the length of the wall, bending the corner and carrying on through the next wall encapsulating the window. Even behind the boy are more books! To his left are open-faced holding cases for magazines, journals, and papers. Surrounding the room is an entire conglomeration of sets of books and volumes, dictionaries and encyclopedias, lexicons, grammar books of ancient languages like Hebrew, Greek, & Latin. There are German and Dutch books as well. Words vaguely familiar but awkward looking were: Theologie, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, & Luther's Werks. This largest set loomed on the top shelf and spanned two bookcases. It has a musky, faded red cloth cover with a thick, bold, black stripe in the middle of the binding. The writing,

"Uberlieferungsgeschichte der Werks" confused Seth--but he stares at the gold letters and moves his mouth silently and slowly makes the big word out:

"Oober...leefer...ungs...geshicht-ta." On "geshicht" he produces a perfect guttural--the kind you make a loogy with, but more with the tongue at the roof of the mouth and more of a cat's hiss than a deep-throated reach for phlegm.

"Nice!" the pastor says with a startle. "Where did you learn that?"

"My dad teaches me German sometimes," Seth says flatly. He looks at the ground. His shoulders are slumped. The carpet is a dark mosaic of blackish-blue squares with yellow borders. In the dark squares are reddish flames that look like small doves.

He looks at him. His eyes are covered with steel-rimmed spectacles, and his hair wanes thin in a fine, backward comb. It looks slightly greasy and wet, which makes the boy uncomfortable. But the pastor's face is ovular and healthy. His eyes are small, but keen. His skin is a near ghostly white but carries a hue that eliminates any sallow complexion. The lips are ruby red, wide, and full, like a plump plumb. Almost too red. His cheeks, upper lip and chin are completely hairless, and his teeth are slightly grayed from years of coffee and late nights swarming over other names like Kant, Augustine, Dante, Marx, Ursinus and Bonhoeffer. To his right, a number of pieces of paper with fancy, cursive writing on them rest like sentinels behind glass panes in cheap frames.

Seth sits even more forward. Nervous tension emanates from his furled brow and pursed lips. His hands are a pit of writhing snakes: agitated and flustered, melancholy and somber. He holds his head in his hands. The pastor moves forward, concerned. His eyebrows raise--then they lower: he knows what's coming....

"Klugschreiber," he states. "What does that mean?"

"You want to know the meaning of my last name?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure? You look like something is more pressing than that?"

"What do you mean, 'pressing'?"

"Something's more important to you right now than the meaning of my last name."

"Then why didn't you just say that?"

"Efficiency. It's a German pastime."

"What?" he breaks what is soon-and-coming sobs. Ducts of salty water well up...

"Efficiency or pastime?" he smiles, leans back and folds his hands. He admires his books. He looks at Philip Schaff's History of the Christian Church. How he'd love to know everything in there. If only...

"Stop toying with me."

"Where'd you learn that phrase?"

"My mom."

Now quiet, now ache, now throes of anguish. Sunken, it spreads out in a pulsating rush of deep, deep void. It lacerates the inner self, the heart. But the heart keeps beating, keeps pumping, keeps rapidly fueling life. It vies for a chance to scream, to wail, but it just keeps pouring on life; it swells and dilates, drawing out a death inside that spreads out like a vast desert dying of thirst. Seth is breathing heavy now. The hands writhe again.

"How is your mom, Seth?" The emphasis was on "is."

Silence. With his left hand, the pastor conceals his mouth, resting in thought. His thumb stretches over his left cheek; the fingers cover the right side of his placid face. His eyes dim, and he sighs through his nose. Sadness. The dust-ghost moves slowly, undulatingly, a dancer in preparation for a dirge, but she smiles gently to ease the despair of looming death.

Breaking the silence, the pastor clears his throat gently. "Well, efficiency means doing something really quick-like. And pastime is something that's your favorite thing to do."

"Like baseball," Seth adds.

"Yes. Like baseball."

"And efficient is how fast it took me to get here," he says.

"I don't know. How did it take?"

"Tell me the meaning of your name."

"Okay. Well," he stopped. "It's embarrassing, but I'll do it."

"Why would it be embarrassing?" Seth asks.

"Well, sit back and I'll tell you."

"Okay."

"Alright. Well, my name is Klugschreiber."

"Like Kugelschreiber? That's a pen."

"Close. But wait," he holds up his finger. He's going to make a point. "It means 'smart writer,' but originally it meant something, er--well, different."

The pastor sits eagerly forward, and excitement rises in his voice. "Back about 170 years ago in Germany, my family lived in a small village in the Rhine valley of what is now called Lahnstein. There's a large castle there today. It rests on a large hill overlooking a beautiful valley through which the river flows. Behind that castle are tall mountains covered with evergreen trees, that go up and up until there is bare rock that juts out and up to the highest point that pierces the very realm of heaven. Ah, the sunsets there..." he sighs. "Anyway, that's where my family is from--Lahnstein....Then came the war."

"What war?"

"A man named Napoleon from France came to make his own kingdom in Europe. He did some good things, like build roads and sewer systems, and banks. Notice I place sewer systems and banks close together in a sentence."

"What?"

"Never mind. So then, Napoleon wanted to keep tabs on all the people living in his conquered areas. So, for example, when he came to Lahnstein, he made people create last names for themselves."

"You mean people didn't have last names?"

"No, not really. You see, if you were from Augsburg, then you were Seth from Augsburg. Or, if you were from Wittenberg, and your dad was a shoemaker, your names was Seth, the son of the shoemaker, and so on."

"Oh," he sounds interested. "So where did last names come from then?"

"Ah," the pastor smiled, and pointed his finger again. This time, he shook it with an air a tad greater than mere casualty. "When Napoleon came to our city, and made us change names, the people were very upset--"

"Because people don't like change?"

"You're too young for this kind of maturity."

"My dad says that a lot."

"Mkay. Well, in order to spite Napoleon, the people would give themselves these crazy last names like "Nachtgeboren,"which means "born naked out in the wild"--

"Ha!" Seth rolls back in his chair and slaps his knee with his right hand. His head rears upward toward the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling. Laughter belches from him like a cannon. "Tell me more! Tell me more!"

"Well," the pastor sits back, relaxing. "There's 'Sohndikmann,' which means 'son of the fat man.' And, let's see..." More laughter. Tears. Red face. O's and haws fill the air like confetti.

"Oh, and there's my name, which is Klugschreiber. Now "Klug" means smart. And, uh...well you have to understand that my family in particular did not like a Frenchman like Napoleon telling us how to name ourselves. Rumor has it that my great, great, great, and so on, grandfather got together with his brothers and decided to take a real wisecrack at Mr. Bonaparte--er, Napoleon. Eh, maybe I should wait to tell this to your parents. Ah, well, they already know." Now, the pastor is merely thinking out loud: Do I tell him, or no?

"Uh," now he looks a little flustered, a little nervous. No matter, just tell him. He's a decent lad. "Originally," he adds, clearing his throat--there's nothing to clear, except nervosa. "The name my forebears decided upon was Klugscheisser."

Now, "Scheisser" is the stuff you shovel out from your grampa's barn after the cows have been in all night."

"What!"

"Yup."

"So your name means, "Smartpoop?" This time, Seth sits in mere shock, his mouth open wider than his eyes, his eyebrows raised high and his hands held out and open on his knees, begging for more etymology.

"Nn-no, not exactly," the pastor says.

"What then?"

"Well, 'scheisse' can mean a lot of things in German, and in this case it's the same as a certain animal used in Biblical times to carry heavy loads and even kings. Jesus himself rode into Jerusalem on one during what we call his triumphal entry.

"Oh, I know that story," Seth sits up. Like a good student, he's memorized a portion of Scripture. "'Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.' So, your name means Smartass?" He sits and stares at Pastor Klugschreiber, his hands held out on his knees, open to receive the answer. His mouth, agape, rests at the bottom of a face worn with stunned amazement. He shakes his head 'no' a few times. He doesn't know whether to laugh or just...he just doesn't know.

"Yes." He quickly takes control. "That's what it meant originally, anyway. We changed it when we came over to America, to 'Klugschreiber,' which means--

"Smartwriter."

"Yes."

"You're not going to be a pastor for very long, are you?"

"We'll see. Do you want to talk about your mom, now?"

Seth breathes a deep sigh, and exhales. He stares calmly at the blueish black squares with the red fire-doves and the yellow borders. "Nah," he says. "I gotta go."

Jutting out his lips and nodding in affirmation, Pastor Klugschreiber nods lightly, bobbling his head up and down, evenly and methodically, lost in time and thought. "Mmkay. Some other time."

Seth grabs his things and walks out. Pastor Klugschreiber grabs his Novum Testamentum Graece and stares at the ancient minuscules, bearing the words of a man who lived long ago.



2 comments:

corinthpastorbob said...

Great story - loved the reference to Schaff (maybe I'm the only one who would appreciate it). Does Van Allsburg mean Smart-anything? Just wondering.

chris van allsburg said...

Ha! Thanks Bob. Some peole might say Van Allsburg is synonymous with Klugschiesser!