Cover Story: A Little Knowledge

First Place, Mercantile Library Fiction Competition

Editor's Note: A little knowledge can go a long way. Tom Cottingham can attest to that. Cottingham took first place in this year's Mercantile Library Fiction Competition, which just happens to be co-sponsored by us arts-loving freaks at CityBeat. His illustrious perks include admittance to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, a cash prize of $300 and, best of all, publication of his work in our little newspaper. (Finishing respectably in the competition were Michael S. Cody's "Fatherly Advice" in second place and Larry Dickson's "The Importance of Playing Cherokee" in third.) Coincidentally, Cottingham managed to fit in nicely to the theme of this year's Literary Issue. Everyone has their heroes. The sad truth of the matter, as Cottingham shows in the earnest and charming "A Little Knowledge," sometimes our heroes don't live up to the hype.

Stewart Patterson was a good man who was beset by one limiting character flaw. Stewart wanted to be perfect. Or it may be more accurate to say that Stewart wanted to be thought to be perfect.

Not in all ways, mind you; he was noticeably overweight, out of shape, and an indifferent dresser. But from his college days on, he had kindled within himself the necessity to know. It was gall and wormwood to him to have to say to anyone those three little words, "I don't know." This admission was shameful for him regarding most subjects, but particularly painful if it had anything to do with the more liberal arts, such as his personal twin favorites of literature and history. At times of deepest soul searching he would admit to himself that this was not an admirable trait, and would even go so far as to call it by its ugly name — intellectual pride. But there it was, and the next time the question came up in his little circle of friends as to just what century did Nostradamus live, or who wrote Nostromo, or who was the Roman god of agriculture, Stewart would go all cold sweat if he had to admit ignorance of the matter. His ready answers were a treasure to him, and one day when the question was raised in their crowd just what were the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Stewart proudly rattled them off. What should have been a magnificent Patterson moment was sullied when Andrew Abernathy casually posed the question, "Who gives a shit?" Stewart, who clearly gave a good many shits, henceforward labeled Abernathy anathema, and consigned him to the dung heap reserved for Philistines.

Now besides Stewart himself, no one was quite so familiar with this little foible of his than was his good-natured and charming life's companion, Melanie. But besides her good nature and charm, Melanie possessed another quality which Stewart, for all his ready information, sadly lacked. Melanie had not only a retentive, but an analytical sort of mind that could follow the twists and turns of a complicated story line in either a book or a movie, whereas Stewart frequently found himself befuddled and lost. He hid his confusion as much as possible, and on many of these occasions would compensate for this shortcoming by acquainting all present with the author's birth and death years or a litany of his other works, with an acumen that would have made Dickens' Thomas Gradgrind of Hard Times proud. But Melanie chose to overlook this little quirk of Stewart's. After all, he was a steady provider, he didn't run around, didn't do drugs or drink too much, and he was good to the kids and not abusive to the cat. If the truth be told she was even a little proud of him on occasion, such as when they easily prevailed in a game of Trivial Pursuit because Stewart knew the capital of Senegal or the poet laureate of England following Wordsworth.

But then a few months ago a curious event occurred in the life and cultural career of Stewart Patterson. Melanie had an uncle who lived in New York who was retiring and who wrote, somewhat out of the blue, to say that he was intending to move back to the Midwest. Guenther Bloch was Melanie's mother's older brother and only sibling, and since her mother had passed away several years ago, Melanie was his only living relative. Now Uncle Guenther, it should be pointed out, was not your average, run-of-the-mill uncle. For one thing, he was a bachelor who, Melanie remembered from several visits he had made to Cincinnati when she was growing up, could alternately alarm her and make her shriek with laughter with his bizarre and comical behavior. So now Uncle Guenther was retiring, and what he was retiring from was a professorship in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. There had been several occasions on which Stewart purchased literary biographies which were the work of Guenther Bloch. These he had happily acquired, and even now Rough Passage: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson by Guenther Bloch, and A Less Violent Man: A Biography of Sir James Matthew Barrie by the selfsame G. Bloch, occupied prominent spaces on the Patterson bookshelves. From their positions they were frequently brought forward for the edification of their friends including the boorish Abernathy. Now it seems this illustrious connection was to ascend to a new level of intimacy, and if the assumption is made that Uncle Guenther's arrival was regarded by Stewart Patterson with something like eager anticipation, that assumption may be considered not only accurate, but a monument to understatement. For here was a near connection of which Stewart could be justly proud, but what was even more, one which seemed to lend validity to his own deepest literary and cultural aspirations. Thus it is we may have some understanding of a few words Stewart had with Melanie the bright and sunny Sunday morning of Uncle Guenther's arrival.

"You know, Mel, I've been wondering what we should do to make your uncle feel welcome."

"I don't think we have to do a great deal. I told you he wants to get an apartment of his own, probably in one of the high rises. If my guess is right, he'll only stay with us a week or two at the most."

"That's fine, but I was thinking we ought to have a get-together, you know, some friends over. A chance for him to get to meet some people."

"Are you sure you don't mean a chance to show him off, Stewart?"

And so the conversation went for a while. But Stewart finally carried the day, and Melanie agreed that the Saturday night upcoming would be all right to invite a few of their closest friends to make Uncle Guenther feel "welcome." It was well that Melanie agreed, for if the truth be told, Stewart had already informally announced their intention to have some kind of welcoming bash. Now he would be able to name the day. One name he was sure not to overlook on the guest list was that of the snide Andrew Abernathy. Stewart was not a particularly vengeful man, but he did feel that displaying Guenther Bloch, PhD professor of literature, Columbia University, would not only validate his own cultural outlook, but might just teach old Andy Abernathy that every now and then he ought to give a shit.

The arrival was everything Stewart anticipated. Uncle Guenther was the image of his picture on the treasured dust jackets, with his modest and perfectly manicured white beard and mustache. He was perfect. He even had a tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches. Then in the car on the way back to their home he said something mildly disturbing to Stewart. He seemed to be apologizing for his perfect attire. "Didn't mean to appear so 1950s professorish, the old C. S. Lewis look and all," he drawled, "but the university gave me a sort of send-off brunch today, and there was nothing for it but to look the part one last time."

Stewart thought it quite strange and unnecessary for him to be apologetic about a thing like his perfectly wonderful garb, but on the other hand he was delighted to have him drop the name of the legendary Clive Staples Lewis so unexpectedly and so soon. Stewart was prepared to be captivated. When they got Uncle Guenther home, it seems all he was ready for was a lie-down, so whatever literary conversation Stewart had hoped for had to be deferred, and Stewart roamed the house impatiently while Melanie drove over to her friend's house to pick up Charles and Anthony, their 5 and 3-year-old sons, whom Stewart had talked Melanie into naming after two of his 19th century heroes, Dickens and Trollope. Melanie had advised him in the strongest terms, however, that she had agreed only because they were two of her favorite boys' names.

Not long after Melanie returned with the boys, Uncle Guenther resurfaced wearing a comfortable looking pair of jeans and something that resembled, of all things, a cowboy shirt. He was, of course, at once made acquainted with Charles and Anthony, and with them seemed appropriately delighted. Stewart, however, was the least bit puzzled by the strange look he felt Uncle Guenther gave him when he informed him of his sons' namesakes. But Guenther had obviously taken to the boys and that naturally delighted Melanie, and so all was well. Once his sons had been properly appreciated they scampered off, and Melanie turned her attention to preparing dinner. This was Stewart's opportunity, his long awaited chance to display his library to someone who could truly appreciate what he had so lovingly assembled. The room that housed his treasures was large, some 18-by-20 feet, and every square inch of wall space was given over to what Nicholas Basbanes in his bible for bibliophiles called A Gentle Madness. The shelves were arranged on Stewart's own highly logical and reasoned order, and, he was sure, would be a revelation to Uncle Guenther. As a matter of fact he could see him in one of the burgundy leather wing-back chairs perusing a fine turn-of-the-century edition of George Eliot from the 19th century English novelist shelves, or perhaps one of his newly acquired volumes of verse of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Stewart watched avidly as Guenther made his way about the room, a little quickly, he thought, past shelves of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Eliot, the Brontes and even Maria Edgeworth. Then through his Americana — of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson and the like. To fill what was becoming a somewhat protracted silence Stewart remarked, "Hopefully you can find something to curl up with at bedtime in here."

Guenther softly chuckled and then replied, "Well, my boy, this was all my work, you know. When I 'curl' I generally look for something a little more fun."

"Fun?" repeated Stewart a little stupidly.

"The past couple of years I've been on a western kick. Before that it was mysteries: Tony Hillerman, Rendell, Dick Francis, you name it. My new thing is science fiction. I picked up a couple of Clive Cusslers in the airport, but they won't last long."

"I'm afraid I can't help you there," Stewart mumbled.

"Think nothing of it. I can always pop in a Wal-Mart and pick up a few. They're always well stocked."

Stewart felt he had to change the subject and brought out his heavy artillery. "Recognize these?" he asked, scooping up his copies of Rough Passage and A Less Violent Man.

"Oh good Lord, you have those! Then you contributed to my retirement. Thank you, my boy, I'm deeply appreciative, but don't tell me you've actually read my Scottish antiquities?"

Before Stewart had a chance to respond to this query, Melanie popped in to announce that dinner was served. Stewart trailed behind the two of them and sat quietly down to his salad, pot roast, mashed potatoes and veggies, feeling vaguely out of sorts and discontented. A science fiction section had never occurred to him, nor did it hold much appeal now. He did have a few nice editions of some works of H. G. Wells, but he had an odd feeling that these would not suit. After dinner he made several feeble attempts to lure Guenther back to the sanctum, but with no success, and had his suspicions confirmed about H. G. Wells. It seemed that Uncle Guenther had read everything Wellsian long, long ago.

The first thing next morning Uncle Guenther was on the phone making arrangements for a rental car. It seems he had sold his car in New York and would be buying a new vehicle in the next several days. Between Guenther Bloch's car shopping and looking for his own "digs," Stewart and Melanie saw very little of him until the Thursday afternoon before the party, when he arrived around dinnertime with the announcement that beginning in about a week he would be parking his brand new BMW convertible at his newly rented Mt. Adams apartment. It seems he had acquired both items within a few hours that very afternoon.

"The car will be ready tomorrow, and I can take occupancy of the apartment by the end of next week, so you see, I'm making some smart progress," he proclaimed.

Melanie laughed. "Mt. Adams, Guenther! That's a pretty with it neighborhood."

"I asked around. It seems there are a lot of young people, it's close to town, great view, and outstanding watering holes. What more could you ask for? Well, I'm off again. I've made arrangements to meet several old friends for dinner. I may be a bit late, so don't wait up."

"Don't forget about your party Saturday night," Stewart called after him, and added after he was out the door, "in case we don't see you before then."

Saturday night arrived right on schedule and so did the guests. And Uncle Guenther didn't forget. Stewart reserved for himself the role of making the introductions. Despite having seen little of the man all week he was still Guenther Bloch, PhD Columbia University professor and author, and a rather close Stewart Patterson connection. It was a golden moment. And the keenest pleasure of all was when it was time to introduce this literary lion to the cynical Andrew Abernathy. This was a moment Stewart had anticipated all week. But as the handshake was still in progress things took an unexpected turn.

"Say, professor, Melanie tells me that is your Beamer in the driveway," remarked Andrew.

"I plead guilty," laughed Guenther.

"Too cool," shot back Andrew. "A buddy of mine at work has one, and he was saying the other day he got it up to 135. I said 'no way.' I haven't seen his yet."

"Would you care to see mine up close and personal?" asked Guenther, beaming. "I mean, like take it out for a crawl?"

"Awesome. Are you serious?"

"Of course. Stewart, Andy and I are going for a bit of a joy ride. Shouldn't be long."

And they were off, leaving Stewart with his houseful of guests, a funny little empty feeling and the bitter realization that Guenther had never once called him Stew.