15 July 2011

Ovisi, Ovisi, that Toddlin' Town

When Uncle Tristan returned from his last safari, we all marveled at the wonderful gifts he had brought us.  My oldest brother received a floral-print beret, my older sister was the recipient of a roll of the finest Cuban cigars and Baby Lily was given a bottle of the finest Kenyan aftershave - an aftershave concocted of possum musk and plantain oil.  I was entirely baffled, however, at my own gift from Uncle Tristan.  He handed me a brittle, yellowed envelope, and I held my breath as I took it from his shaking, leprous hand.

Looking down at the brittle envelope that I held gingerly between my fingers, I wondered what could be inside.  Uncle Tristan had owned a spice company on the west side of Milwaukee when we were children, and I relished the many similar envelopes that he had given me over the years - envelopes containing stamps from far-off countries, still affixed to portions and corners of other envelopes or boxes that still held the scent of exotic spices he had received as samples.  I could tell this particular envelope was different, however.

I looked up into Uncle Tristan's eyes and I saw that familiar glimmer of mischief and I could make out the faint aroma of Bombay Sapphire gently cresting over his leprous lips that even now broke into one of his sly and sarcastic smiles.  He smiled a little too enthusiastically and the lower lip dropped off his face and onto the kitchen table.  He coughed nervously and replaced the lip with the small tube of caulk that he carried in his back pocket.  "Go ahead Tommy," he urged me, "open it."

I carefully slid my little finger under the flap and tore the seal.  Little bits of paper and dust broke free and drifted into the air.  It smelled ancient.

"Wisdom of forgotten ages..." Uncle Tristan whispered quietly.

I removed a tiny slip of paper that still smelled of the Orient.  My imagination ran wild, trying to think where this ancient and yellowed chit had been, where it had been inscribed and what emperors, sultans, sages and mystics had likewise held it in their hands.

"Turn it over...reeeeeeeeead it..." begged Uncle Tristan.

I carefully turned the ancient paper in my fingers, almost scared to read the wisdom inscribed thereon.  My eyes could make out the words, but my lips were almost unable to form them.  Finally I was able to read aloud:

"Look for new outlets for your own creative abilities.  Lucky numbers 2, 5, 18, 47"

The room was silent as I put the slip of paper on the kitchen table.  We all looked at Uncle Tristan.  His eyes were closed and he was not breathing, but there was a smile on his lip.  The upper lip, that is.

We buried Uncle Tristan the next day under the old ginkgo tree out back.  My brother and I poured toasts of cheap gin on his grave and Baby Lily sang a dirge.  Afterwards we all went out for a bite to eat at a new Latvian restaurant that had just opened down the block, but I could not eat a bite. While the others enjoyed their caraway cheese and tepid kvass, I sat and silently pondered the wisdom of the ancients.

That evening I wrote my first novel - a 380-page epic set in a Latvian fishing village.  As the sun came up the next morning I put the finishing touches on the tale, and made a pot of coffee.  I looked out the window into the backyard and watched a squirrel try to dig up Uncle Tristan.  Or a nut.

We all have our outlets, I guess.

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