Thomas Barnard, writer


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Uncle John


            I was chatting with my cousin at Uncle John’s wake when I noticed a blond woman that I didn’t recognize.

            My cousin was saying, “I never knew if I should feel sorry for John, or whether I wanted to be John.”

            “Me, too.”  I laughed at the frank truth of her remark.  And after an interval sufficient to acknowledge the brilliance of her observation, I asked, “Do you know who that is?”  I was looking at the blond.


            Really, I didn’t expect that anyone but family would show up.  That must be a kind of family chauvinism, the thought that no one else would be interested.  Who else would be interested in my odd-ball Uncle John except his kin?  But curiosity got the better of my reserve, also a very strong force.

            “Let’s find out who she is.”


            “Hi.  I am John’s nephew.  How did you know John?”

            “Hello, I am Shelley Ostergard.  I lived next to John at the Homestead in Evanston.  I thought he was really sweet and interesting.”

            “Sweet, I’m not sure about, but interesting…Oh sure.”  I was just about to learn how interesting he could be.

            “Oh, no.  You are wrong.  He was very sweet, especially considering what a difficult time of it he had, as you must know.”

            “Well, we all have a difficult time of it.  I often tell my friends who are addicted to smoking that sometimes it’s hard enough to get through life, much less break habits that are a part of you like one of your organs.”

            “No, no, no.  You know what I am referring to.”

            I angled my head non-commitally in a kind of a shrug, suggesting that she bring me up to speed, because I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.

            “His wife and boy.”

            His wife and boy?  What wife and boy?  I wondered what the hell she could be talking about.  I looked at my cousin.  She maintained a poker face.

            “What happened to him was unbelievably sad.  That car accident must have destroyed him.  To suddenly suffer a loss like that.”

            John never had a wife and boy, and had never been involved in a car accident as far as I knew, but you invent yourself as you go along.  Mild-mannered and shy Tom Williams later became the world-famous playwright, Tennessee Williams.  I was ready to listen, but my question was:  Would it be wrong and nasty to become a co-conspirator, to egg her on to talk about John’s imaginary family.  Letting her to go on and on, only to have my brother Sam come along and say, “What are you talking about?  John never had a wife.”

            And I then appear as wicked and mean person, to have allowed her run on.  But you have to make decisions in life, and I decided to become a co-conspirator with John. My cousin was obviously enjoying the diversion, and she didn’t give anything away.  But ultimately, we must know a little more about John, and I back pedal to John’s European trips.


“Mind your own business,” that was what Uncle John said to Uncle Ray as he headed out to Midway Airport for his fourth trip to Europe in the last five years.  Uncle Ray had had the temerity to ask, “You’re not really going again, are you?”  No one had much sympathy for John.  But no one was going to offer to take him on the Grand Tour, so he had to do it himself.

            This was back in the late 1958 when people could still remember that the airport had been named for the battle of Midway.  The decisive naval battle of the pacific.  Our three flat tops took out their four flat tops, though we lost one in the process.

            Uncle Ray had gone on one of the trips with him.  They had started in Paris, where Uncle Ray and Uncle John were drinking coffee on the Champs-Élyseé when they spied coming towards them, walking straight-backed and gorgeous, Rita Hayworth.  Stunning.  And stunned were Uncle Ray and Uncle John.  It was as though the goddess Aphrodite had just walked by.  That was the effect of the Hollywood movie machine.

She was a 10, but then there were lots of tens.  Thousands and thousands of equally beautiful women, but they never made it to Hollywood.  They might be the beautiful woman in a small hamlet who is picked out by the richest man in town, installed in a big house with maids and large lawns with plenty to drink when she gets bored.  It’s all in the marketing.  Those others didn’t have the poster of posters.  The one that turns you into a goddess.

            Uncle John left in 1958 with his $25,000 letter of credit and two Hartmann suitcases.  He said he would buy what he needed.  Indeed he did.  He bought a suit on Savile Road where the tailors had fabrics on their fabrics.  Fabrics from India, Scotland, Hong Kong.  Stripes, plaids, herring bones, tweeds, solids.  Colours and colours.  Indigo, maroon, charcoal.  Samples on their samples.  He proudly informed me that tailors on Savile Road kept your measurements on file.  And you could order suits from a set of samples without necessarily returning to London.  He told me this in his reverie.  Because then he looked down and remembered that his middle had gone beyond the beyond, pounds on his pounds, and the measurements carefully recorded on a card and sitting in a file cabinet were now less than useless.

“Well, they could have made me a suit for, well, a few months after I came back.”


            I remember extremely well when John came back from that trip because he drove into our driveway all the way to the back porch in his black Mercedes 300D.  That was where $10,000 of the letter of credit had gone.  It was a very large car, in a way a Mercedes today is not.  He opened the door to reveal spilt blood leather seats and walnut dashboard.  I had never seen a car like this in my life.  I loved it, of course.  I was the one who watched Burke’s Law for the Rolls Royce he tooled around in.  But I had never seen a Rolls in person.  Nor a Mercedes Benz like this one.

            Maybe he would have bought a Rolls if he had the money, but he had a bad experience with his Sunbeam, and held the English in low regard as automobile makers.  For the kind of engineering he wanted in an auto, John would insist German was the way to go.  And Mercedes was the best of the best of the German automakers.  The English didn’t do much better in the food department, English fish and chips together with a warm Bass ale was only a slight enducement.  You were better off with the French.  For great symphonic music, the Germans and Austrians.  For great seventeenth century painting, the Dutch.   And so on.

            My father thought it was more of the extravagance that he had come to expect from his younger brother.  My father was always a little bit suspicious of extravagance.  When queried on the subject, he would simply say that it was bad form.  But really it went probably deeper than that.  The problem with extravagance isn’t that you don’t like it, it is that it might be removed, withdrawn, taken away at some random point.  And that would just too painful.

            John had native, inherited gifts but he didn’t do anything with them.  Dad worked.  Everyday, he bore down on something practical.  Going to law school at night while John played chess.  Let’s get serious.  My father knew that no serious businessman played chess; moreover, nothing serious existed beyond business.  That was the ultimate game.  Why waste your time on anything else?


            And it isn’t quite true that John did nothing with his gifts.  He played the piano from the age of 6.  He composed music.  He got his chess skills up to the high master level, not quite grandmaster.  But with all of these things, he took them only so far, although that level could be pretty rarified.  He took lessons at the Art Institute and could draw.  He only did a few precocious, brilliant paintings and then he stopped and moved his attention to other things.  Composing got the same treatment.  John wrote one very nice piano sonata, then he changed channels again, writing a brilliant short story.  And in between all these endeavors he would tread water in front of a chess board.  Eating.  Pursuing the family genealogy.  Collecting.  A dilettante in the original sense of the word.  He delighted in all the arts.

            Collecting was one of  his most natural activities.  In books he collected modern firsts, but he also collected nautilus sea shells, butterflies and moths, and record albums.  He had enough vinyl to cover walls of grandma’s apartment twice or thrice with the yellow Deutsche Grammophon record covers. 


            How did I figure in this picture?  I was the wayward eldest son of the usurper second son.  I myself was also usurped by a second son.  It was fine.  I didn’t want the mantle of eldest son responsibility.  I was perfectly happy as a feckless younger son.  I would never follow the program, anyway.  When my father suggested economics, I high-tailed it over to psychology.  And perhaps it was this that Uncle John connected with.  He, too, was lousy about following the program laid out by his father.

            My grandmother, in her senility, would remark that her son had a fireplace just like the one in front of her.  Yes, grandma.  It’s my father’s.  Your son’s.  Then she would go on about how her husband, Henry, and John simply did not get on.  Henry was terribly blunt, and once asked, “John, why don’t you like me?”  Even in her mental incontinence, Grandma was still stunned by the horrific insensitivity of the remark. 

John stumbled back into acceptance.  “I love you, Pop.”

“If you love me, then give this Trigonometry class your full effort.”  John had no aptitude for math, and you had to wonder if that wasn’t more rebellion against his father, who could do all kinds of mathematically gymnastics in his head.

            But Henry conveniently died when John was 21.  And my grandmother made living with her quite attractive.  She bought him the new shiny ebony Baldwin upright to play around on.  And gave him a wonderful bedroom with adjoining bathroom.  A spectacular view of Lake Michigan.  The thing about seduction is that it often works.


            “John, you’re wasting your talents.”  I said this to him when I came back after my sophomore year at college.  I meant it as a friendly upbraiding to nudge him in the direction of his better instincts, but it didn’t work. 

“I guess my life has gone rather hodge podge, hasn’t it?”

            Even with best intentions, I had hurt him, so I turned to one of those familiar things that brought him comfort.  I asked him what he thought were the ten best musical compositions.  It is a pointless question in a way, because we are, after all, emotional creatures always in some kind of flux.  And we can find even genius compositions grating on us, if our mood is not in synch with the music.  If we are in the mood for the jazz of Charlie Parker, the brilliant Baroque improvisations of Bach will not do, and I think he’s the best.

            Uncle John reflected, and said, “Well, that’s a difficult question, but there are some things that I think will hold up pretty well.  Bach’s Mass in B, the Concerto for Two Violins, Beethoven’s 7th and 9th symphonies.  Something from Mozart.  The piano concertos, maybe, K. 488 and K. 492.  Brahm’s 3rd and 4th symphonies.  How many is that?”


            “Eight already?  And I have only just begun.  I haven’t mentioned Schubert or Schumann or Mahler or Vivaldi or Haydn or…  I think it’s impossible.  There are so many things that I like.”

            “And that’s not even including any operas.”  I said annoyingly, to trip him up over the fact that he had never much cared for opera.

            “Or chamber music.  Of which there are many great pieces.”

            “What are you listening to these days?”

            “Delius, Vaughn Williams.”  Not the aforementioned greats.


            I didn’t know then that I would ever pursue anything artistic.  I thought that I would end up a businessman of some kind, I was too much of a plodder to be anything else, but when I was 20 he offered me a warning anyway, “Listen, don’t be like me.  I’ve turned my brain into a garbage can.  A little bit of this and a little bit of that.  It’s nice if you have a talent for something, but that’s not enough.  You have to push that talent, nurture it, practice until it hurts.  I learned this too late.  I never focused in on anything.  You … have a talent for painting.  I can see that.  I can recognize talent when I see it.”

            Later I learned to say “Thanks” because it would dismiss the subject.  It’s not a conversation continuer.  It kills it.  What I said was:

            “Well, I like to draw.”

            “Yes, you do.  But you should do something with it.  Go to the Art Institute.  Learn from the best you can find.  Look at Picasso.  Not my favorite, but you can see the talent for drawing.”

            “Not my favorite either.  I like better the drawings of Toulouse Lautrec and Degas.”

            “Yes, there it is.  See, you don’t even need my help.”

            That hurt me.  Because it was all Uncle John had to offer.  He offered it, and I trumped it.  And that was that.  Except for me it was more important to secure Uncle John’s help than it was to draw well.

            I wondered how many protégés were more motivated by their love of their teacher, professor, maestro than their area of special promise.  Their Uncle John, for example.  On his account, I could play better than passable chess, getting to the Expert level.  I played piano well enough that I ended up on keyboards for a rock group, and wrote them some songs.  And I could keep up my end of a conversation.


            I got a few helpful hints from him in chess.  He said to me.  “Start by learning one basic opening for white, and one for black.  By doing this you concentrate your forces.  To paraphrase Bismarck, you don’t want to fight a two front war.  If you try to learn a  King pawn opening for white and a few things to defend against a Queen pawn opening, and already you are doing more than your brain can handle.

            “Eliminate all that work.  Learn the Sicilian for white, and the French Defense for black.  It’s enough.  That way you know the first few moves for white, and the first few moves for black.  Of course, you have to know the French for white also, because it will be played against you.  Same for the Sicilian.  And you’ll have to learn to defend against a Queen pawn opening, but maybe you can convert that to the French.

            “Is that how you did it?”

            “No, I learned all manner of openings.  But then, I didn’t have anyone to light the way.”

            I followed the advice.  I got to know the French Defense decently, and the Sicilian for white.  I never got to a Queen pawn opening except to defend.

            My computational abilities were challenged enough with this.  The thing I couldn’t decide was if this really was the limit of my computational abilities, or that this was the limit of my interest.  Because when you are interested, you can do impossible things.  Climb towering mountains like Everest and K2.  Run the mile in less than 4 minutes.  Figure out how to convert mass into radiant energy.  Write great long novels like Tom Jones


            “We got Bobby Fischer,” I complained.  “Why couldn’t we get a Michael Jordan, who had a sunny disposition, who was a star but who could still get along on a team?  We got Bobby Fischer, who didn’t get along with anyone.  What could we expect?  Chess is not a team sport.”

            “Bobby is a rimless zero, and that’s a real nothing.”  A favorite expression of Uncle John’s, which he followed up with a soft, “Ho ho ho.”

            I could understand Bobby.  Just him and the board, him and his books.  Finally, him and his opponent.  I could understand him because one of the things I later did was program computers, it was just me and the computer.  Me and the language I was learning at the time:  C, C+, C++.  My grades in school.  Little wonder that programmers were seen as geeks.  All this time spent in non-social work.  Perfecting code that would eliminate so many accounting jobs.  Perfecting code that would do vision better than an eagle.  Probably working, unwittingly for the good of a computational intelligence which would make all of us useless. 

            “Well, tennis is also a one-on-one sport,” I said.

            “Yes, I guess that’s the best we could hope for.  We could get a McEnroe or Jimmy Connors.  Some unsocial monster who somehow gained the interest of the public.”  Which always seems to get a charge out of selfish, unsocial monsters.  A friend of mine was crazy for Bush’s tax cuts, even though he had lost money in his business for years, because he was in love with the idea that if he did make a lot of money like one of these unsocial monsters he would benefit, and that’s where his support comes from.

            “The thing was not that Bobby Fischer grabbed the check and ran off.  It’s that he grabbed the check, ran off and never played again.”

            “Probably.  Probably the media would have been consumed with interest for the psychic oddity, Bobby Fischer.  Another outrageous bad boy.  Sure they would.”

            “Think about what chess could have become if Bobby stayed in.  Tournaments might have been as common here as they are Russia.  There might have been televised matches every week.  Monday Night Chess.”

            “Monday Night Chess?”

            “Okay, pick another night.  Sunday, maybe.”

            Bobby Fischer was a college dropout.  But who needs school if you have a talent, especially a talent you have nurtured with practice and learning to the exclusion of any kind of normal life.


            Contrariwise, my great grandparents came to Chicago precisely so their kids could to the great Baptist university endowed with largess of that great Baptist, John D. Rockefeller.  That is, The University of Chicago.  My grandfather studied political economy with Thorstein Veblen, and acquired his B.A. there.  Little did he know that he would father one of the monsters of the leisure class.  Years later Grandpop was asked to join the Board of Trustees.  As a matter of course, my grandparents joined the Englewood Baptist Church on the south side of Chicago, and that’s where my father met my mother.

            And so it was that John felt a strong sense of ownership with regard to the U of C even though he was having a difficult time of it there when his father died, and in his absence there was no need to continue, so he didn’t.  Nevertheless, he felt a closeness with the school based vicariously more on his father’s curriculum struggles with Hutchins than on his own struggle with mathematics.

            “The University has gone down hill ever since the Jews took over.”

            Oh my God, I couldn’t believe my ears, but I kept my tongue.


            “They’re all over the place over there.”

            Well, I was afraid of where this conversation might go.  Even though I was younger and dumber, I could see it was time to re-direct the conversation.  I wondered…

            “John.  I’m just wondering, are there any Jews in the genealogy?”

            It was one of John’s self-appointed jobs to be the keeper of the family tree.  He augmented and expanded work that my grandfather had done as a hobby, back in a day when scrapbooks and genealogies were popular.

            “Well, actually, on the Swedish lines there was a certain Bodfisch, who was a Jew.”

            “No kidding.”

            He got out his manuscript of the genealogy, and paged through in excitement.  “I think it’s – right here.”  With me looking over his shoulder, he put his finger underneath Carl Bodfisch.  Married to Gertrude.  Sons, Peter and Frank.

            “Damn Jews,” I said facetiously.

            “Well, they may be damned, but I always liked Mahler.”

            “Yeah, I listened to his first symphony quite a bit, which you gave me, and also the fourth.  And it was you who put me onto the ironic second movement of happy waltz-like music of the 9th.”

            “And Einstein was, well, quite brilliant.  There’s a signed letter of his in one of your grandfather’s scrapbooks.”

            “No kidding.”

            “And I don’t think Marilyn Monroe was nearly as sexy as Hedy Lamarr.”

            “I think you would find a lot of disagreement there.”

            “Why don’t you watch Comrade X sometime?”


            When I had learned how to drive, but was not yet legal for drinking, my pals and I went from our far outpost in the suburbs into the city because I had called John, and he had agreed to buy us beer.

            I buzzed the apartment, and he said he would be right down.  He came down in a few minutes with the miniature poodle Lisu in tow.

            “So, beer is it?  Beer is for the plebes.  You should drink wine.  It’s impossible to be a connoisseur of beer.”

            My friend Maurice reflected on this, “He’s right you know, but of course, after the first one or two, it won’t matter.”

            “Well, that’s true enough,” said John.

            “What are you talking about?”  Me.

            John said, “The alcohol deadens your sense of taste, so that gradually you lose your ability to distinguish.  Hence the expression, beer after wine, just fine.  Or conversely, wine after beer, never fear.  So, what will it be?”

            “Colt 45.”  Malt liquor, which contained a little more alcohol.

            “How much?”

            “Oh, a couple of six packs, maybe three.”  There were three of us.  Me, Maurice, and Malcolm.”

            We walked to the store.  There were a lot of dog walkers in this neighborhood, which was on 7200 block of South Shore Drive.  The neighborhood was a changing neighborhood at the time, in the late 1960s.  And there was so much dog shit on the sidewalk that, walking single file, we looked like we were walking through a mine field.

            “Colt 45, is it?  Three six packs.  Who has the money?”           

I handed him a twenty.  He walked in.

“You guys owe me,”  I said.

Maurice, “Of course, we’ll split it.”

“Do you suppose he knows why we wanted Colt 45?” said Malcolm.

“Because of its alcohol content?  He will if he thinks about it,” said I.

“You don’t think he will think about it.”

“Nah.  It’s not a worthy subject of contemplation.”

John brought out a brown paper bag stacked with beer.  “I’d invite you back, but you have to throw up on your own time.  And in your car, for that matter.  Though I doubt your father will appreciate it.”

“We’ve never thrown up.”

“Well, then you haven’t lived.  That’s an experience I thought everyone had.  Though I never got that drunk until I was in Greece, and got drunk on ouzo.  Not a great thing to get drunk on.  My God, I was sick for a week.  Poisoned by own hand.  That was it for me.  But you have to find out these things for yourself.”

That was the nice thing about going to John.  No parental warnings, just a story about his own drunks.


            So, what was John to look at?  How did he manifest?  Name, for example, an actor he was like.  I would pick the actor George Sanders, now mostly forgotten.  He was smug, vaguely sinister, but also somehow amiable - cheerfully, cynically smiling.  John wore a pair of hyper-intellectual plastic tortoise shell glasses.  Pictures show that he had very red hair as a young man, but I remember hair that had turned a faded sandy auburn with reddish highlights, even the balding crown seemed intellectual.  His laugh was always that controlled, “Ho ho ho.”

            George Sanders was famous for his marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor, and to prove that nothing pro-pings like propinquity, he later married her sister, Magda Gabor.  The comparison with Sanders is, I am sure, one that John would have approved of.  It was Sanders who left the famous suicide note:  “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.  I feel I have lived long enough.  I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.  Good luck.”

            John, too, was bored, which I think explains how he went from the study of one thing to another.  But boredom is a bit of a luxury.   Who but someone with time on his hands can afford to be bored?  Sitting on his Queen Anne wingback chair, his feet up on a matching hassock, he would say, “Oh, I am so bored.”


            When I went off to university, John gave me two albums, The Heart of the Symphony and The Heart of the Piano Concerto.  It was his idea to infect me with the best of classical music, and it worked.  The thing is - you can almost always count on boredom to kick in eventually.  And when I got sick of Rolling Stones Flowers and Vanilla Fudge, I did listen to them.  If he had bought me the Heart of the Opera, I might be a different person today, but that’s the problem with mentors.  You often reflect their prejudices.

            The infection took, and I came back that Christmas keen on the second movement of Prokofiev’s 3rd Piano Concerto.  He pulled out from his monstrous collection the entire piano concerto.  “This is on the RCA label, but Graffman does a good job, which only proves that you can find good things in the bargain bin.  The trick, of course, is that you have to know what you’re shopping for.

            “Prokofiev has some really sweet melodies, but then he’ll mix it up with these really gnomey, ugly things.”

            With that he opened the door to the short hallway between grandma’s bathroom and the study, and pulled out Romeo and Juliet, and he put the first side of the Mitropoulos recording on the Bang & Olufsen platter.  It begins with the severe dissonance of the Montagues and Capulets.  I wondered where the hell this painful noise could be going, but it ended in a strong melody, and I was hooked.

            Both that and the 3rd piano concerto I played until I had to tape the album cover at the bottom to keep it together.  He also gave me albums of his aforementioned 8 best, probably just to make sure my taste was aimed in the right direction. 

            But he also clued me to the best places to buy albums.  At the time, it was E.J. Korvette’s, which had a superb record department.  Korvette’s was later bested by its own creation Kmart, which was later bested by Sam Walton’s Walmart.  Though the recordings departments headed steadily downhill into a regression toward the mean.

At the time he took me there, we were hunting down a couple of other Prokofiev items.  We got an Angel recording of his violin concertos by Milstein, another inexpensive recording although Uncle John certified.  “Milstein is brilliant.  Can’t do better than that.”  And then we looked for the 5th symphony, which had less cognitive dissonance associated with it because it was on his favorite label, DG, with his favorite conductor, Herbert von Karajan.

Later, I developed a liking for Toscanini’s speedy but precise interpretation of Mozart’s 40th symphony.  John didn’t dismiss Toscanini but instead gave me the DG version with Karl Böhm and Vienna Philharmonic.  A slower, more relaxed version that I, too, came to prefer.  Then he gave me the Böhm recordings of his favorite Mozart piano concertos with Wilhelm Kempf at the keyboard.  Wilhelm Kempf was the best.


            When John started to collect butterflies, he became friends with one of the experts in the field, a man named de Loui at the Field Museum. 

He collected this butterfly and that.  De Loui looked through John with x-ray vision.  I never met the man myself, but John reported to me:  “De Loui said to me, ‘Look John, I’m not getting any younger, who’s going to do these mountings when I’m gone?’

            “I said, ‘Oh, that will be a long time from now.’
            “Then he said, ‘But you could make money doing this.  John, I can get you a job here at the Field Museum.  They’re a good employer.’

            “I said, ‘De Loui, my good man, I pay you to do this.’”

            At moments like this, John seemed to be completely separated from the reality.  Did he think he could live off Grandma forever?

            When I related this conversation to Uncle Ray, he said, “That’s it.  I’m going to petition Federal Family Court for a divorce.”

            He said this so adroitly, that I had to ask, “Is there such a thing?”

            Ray chuckled, “There ought to be.” 


            Meanwhile, the apartment with the great view of Lake Michigan began to smell of arsenic, which he used to preserve his collections of butterflies and moths.  It was a great view, but I was frequently disappointed by it.  The lake never looked beautiful.  It looked a hideous, puke green most of the time, as opposed to a deep Mediterranean blue, which I only came to know much later.  We would stare out at the pumping stations.  Count the pumping stations.

            Then coming back into the apartment I would play with the brass turtle John brought back from India.  This was when I was just a child.  In my baby journal, my mother taped in a post card from his first trip to Europe.  It finished, “My regards to Rollo.”  That’s what he called me.   


            John was one of those subjects on which people speculated endlessly.  My mother used to say:  “It was your Grandmother’s fault.”

            “Why’s that?”

            “Well, she had had all these boys, and then years later along came John.  I think, no, I know, she wanted a girl.

            “He would be in her room when she was dressing.  It wasn’t right.  And then she let him pick out that apartment on South Shore Drive.   She got him that piano.  She bought him, lock, stock and barrel.  A parent should never do that.”

            “If Grandpa had lived, I suppose things would have been different.”

            “Oh yes, he never would have allowed the shenanigans that went on with John.  He never would have taken all those trips to Europe.”


            One of the speculations about John was about his sex life.  As far as I know, he never had a real girl friend.  He had friends who were women.  But neither did he seem particularly gay, but maybe it was just one of those things that was kept in the closet.  Maybe he was ready to go that way, but the opportunity never arose.

            I remember seeing a copy of Lolita on the bookshelves next to some stunning butterfly mounts.

            I pointed to it and said, “Another butterfly collector.”


            “Did you like it?”

            “Humbert Humbert.  How could you not like a novel having a character with a name like that?”

            But he didn’t offer anything more.  I once thought I might get a rise out of him by mentioning the movie, The Collector.  But that didn’t much of a rise either, except the rueful remark, “My God, Samantha Egger was stunning.”


            “Your father thinks I’ve wasted all my time, which maybe I have.”

            “John, don’t say that…”

            “Let me complete my thought, which is this:  if Bobby Fischer had become a regular match player, then chess might have done very well.  I might have gotten a decent income from my pastime.  And I wouldn’t have looked like such a dunce.  As it was, Bobby dropped out, and chess never went anywhere in the U.S.  And now we have to contend with Deep Blue.”  IBM’s human defeating chess machine.

            “Where would McEnroe be if tennis was like badminton?”

            “Exactly.  He would be like me with a great skill no one has any use for.  But it’s an interesting thought.  If I were a McEnroe success, I would be able to afford the best quality.  A BMW 7 series would be nice.”

            “You wouldn’t prefer a Rolls?”

            “Ordinarily, yes, but I think the quality has dropped over the years; and moreover, I don’t know if you can rely on the English when it comes to cars.  But think of the real estate things you could do.  A co-op on 5th Avenue would be nice, somewhere between the Metropolitan and the Frick.”

            “You are really old guard.  Anyone who was with it would get a place between the Metropolitan and the Guggenheim.”

            “And then you could get a place in Paris.  There’s a great city.”

            “Why not London?”

            “Too cold.  Although Rome would be a great place to be.”

            “Or the Côte d’Azur?”

            “Maugham had a great place there.  Or one of those islands where Gauguin did all those wonderful paintings of the natives.”

            “There’s a thought.”

            “But you don’t want to be too isolated.”

            “Go there for a month, and then on to some other favorite locale.”

            Well, that was pure John.  In the dreamland of his favorite real estate.  But preparation is everything, and when his chess ship came in, he would be ready.


            Food for thought:  Food did John in.  These things are complicated.  If John had been more interested in sex, maybe he would given more thought to his appearance.  Or was the eating and the unattractiveness of the weight designed to make himself more unappealing sexually?  So he could avoid all the problems with sex.  My memories of him in the early 1960s have him just a little overweight, and this he hid under solid cashmere V-neck sweaters that completely covered his plump middle.  Maroon was the color I remember.

            Gourmet that he was, he preferred to go out for dinner, although he was perfectly competent with the things that he did make. 

            The restaurant scene in Chicago back in the 60s and 70s was nothing like what it is now, at the turn of the century, where Chicago has most everything one could ever want in eating.  There was Don Roth’s steakhouse, The Empire Room, Henrici’s.  Mostly, John and Grandmother would drive the few blocks to the South Shore Country Club for a meal. 

            Gourmand that he became, an extra order of potatos or pasta would fill the hunger or desire, and would aid in the job of maintaining his large bulk.  Because when you think of it, if you don’t eat a lot of food, it is hard to stay that big.

            If you asked him why he was eating so much, he would say, “Well, I’m eating for two.”  Who could the two be?  Was this a pregnant John?


            “Yes, me and my tapeworm.”

            The tapeworm became a recurring subject of conversation.  If you asked him why he had to lay down, he would say, “The tapeworm got more out of the meal than I did.”

            John used to speculate about the tapeworm, “Do you suppose if I ate more garlic and onions, the tapeworm would skedadle?”

            “There’s a thought.”

            “Or do you think it would just serve to make the Nietszchian tapeworm?  That which does not kill me makes me stronger?”

            “Well, surely, there is something that would be unpleasant for the tapeworm.”

            “Then it’s like cancer.  They have plenty of things that will kill cancer.  The problem is that it kills the host, too.”

            “That is, if you have a tapeworm.  Have you ever seen a doctor about it?”

            “I think the larger question is:  have I ever seen a doctor?”

            “Have  you?”

            “Not since my pediatrician.”

            “What have you got against doctors?”

            “Well, I don’t think they understand medicine very well, really.  They find some panacea cure – aspirin or penicillin or some other damn thing, and that’s it.  I don’t think they understand why penicillin works.  They saw some Petri dish where the penicillin knocked out some bacteria, so they knew they had something that could kill bacteria.”

            He paused and thought for a second, “Really, I think it’s just some advanced form of monkey see, monkey do.”

            “It’s helped a lot of people.”

            “Well, I don’t have anything against monkey see, monkey do.  That is learning, after all.  I just think I’ll wait until I have to before I let some quack begin learning on me.”


            And somehow, I think all the food was connected with his adult onset diabetes.  And all the horrible consequences of this - the problems with his circulation, vision, removal of a few toes, and finally the morphine drip, I don’t have the heart to commit to paper.  You can read about it anywhere, you don’t have to read about it here, too.  I will only mention that he compared himself with the velvety-voiced Ella Fitzgerald, who also suffered from this same diabetes curse. 


            Well, I guess there is an inevitability to these things, after all.  And when Grandma became senile, he sued to become her caretaker, and was paid for his services.  In this period I remember him remarking about the significant market there was for adult-sized diapers.

And then Grandma died and he got a piece of what was left.  That lasted for several years, and then one ineluctable day in February, he ended up sleeping in his Audi behind the Art Institute on Columbus Drive.

            He ran the engine all night for the heat.  Finally, the car ran out of gas, and it became cooler, and then, finally, cold.  John walked over the lobby of the Palmer House at five thirty.  But he wasn’t alone, there was the activity of the early rising businessmen who grabbed a breakfast before they went to their meetings.  By seven o’clock the urgency to deal with the situation became paramount.  He called his Uncle Ray, who said he should call my father.

            He called from a pay phone in lobby of the posh Palmer House, a lobby which included the entrance to the Empire Room, where he had eaten grand meals years before, and threatened my father with suicide.  My father was the de facto eldest brother, and the wealthiest.  He and Uncle Ray, who always ended up cleaning up John’s messes, agreed to find him a room in Homestead.  It was a room with a bathroom.  That’s all.  No kitchen.

            They sent him a check every month until the time when Uncle Ray hit a difficult spot in the 1980s and then my father continued the payments by himself until the end of John’s life.  For which, thanks were never received.


            There were tipoffs.  Things which should have made it perfectly clear where this yellow brick road was leading.  His imaginary family shouldn’t have been such a surprise.  There was, for example, his correspondence with David Kingston, an Englishman that he met in Greece.  Surprisingly, he showed me one of his letters.

                        Dear John,

Good to hear from you.  Sorry to hear you gave up that lovely Mercedes for one of our perennially problematical expensive Jaguars.  Though they always look great!  I will never forget touring around Greece in your gorgeous Mercedes.

I’m driving a car courtesy of Henry Ford, much more plebian than your august family.  What with your mansions and whatnot…


Needless to say, the Mercedes had actually been replaced with an Oldsmobile not a Jaguar, and it was purchased by Grandma since by then John’s money supply was running thin.  The Jaguar was merely an attempt to be social.  He never liked English cars after the Sunbeam.  The letter continued with references to immense wealth and connections.  I was afraid if I read on that I would learn that we had a red phone with a direct connection to the White House. 

I was so surprised that I didn’t question it at all.  All I said was, “So, you met him in Greece.”  And John went on to provide an itinerary of his Grecian travels, and a listing of all the monuments he saw.


            It turned out the blond, Shelley, had been the comfort of his last years.  The years of his greatest creation – his imaginary family.  His son it turned out was a painter, who he had lovingly educated in all the arts.  Who was an expert chess player (“Who knew I had chess genes to pass on?”), who had a good ear for music, who could tell his Bach from his Bartok.  Who had this thing for Prokofiev early on, which could be forgiven.  And the son could also be forgiven for not liking opera.  After all, his father had never gone in for opera.

            I didn’t entirely recognize the wife, but she was blond.  Who was a nurse like Shelley Ostergard.  But Shelley was an intensive care nurse, and his wife had been more of an administrative nurse.  A head nurse, which one of his favorite sister-in-law’s had also been.  That would be Uncle Ray’s wife.

            Shelley had gotten him to like The Magic Flute, but this was not such a hard thing to do.  It was Mozart, after all, and he shared a birth date with Wolfgang Amadeus.


            John had already separated himself from me long before, in the 1980s.  He had convinced me to let him store his various collections in my basement.  That part was okay, but then he peppered me with calls to make sure I would be there so he could deliver things and take things, and it became a little too much.  He was turning me into one of those clerks who checks signatures of safety deposit boxes and admits entrance into the vault.  And this annoyed me greatly.

            My mother thought he wanted to live with me.  And I thought that would not be so good, because I knew I would persecute him over his lack of a productive life, because no matter how much I had rebelled against my father, ultimately I subscribed to that part of the program.  They were in my articles of faith, too.  Though I took Uncle John’s advice and was focused, and kept bearing down on my art even though I was ignored, even when boredom crept in.  And even though my paintings never sold, I produced quite a decent inventory of the stuff against the day when the kind of thing I did became popular.  And I did enough programming to keep my head above water.

            But of course, I have mixed feelings about all of this.  Maybe I could have brought him on board on as a butler.  This was probably the job John was meant to occupy.  But we weren’t in 19th century England, and no one could afford a gentleman’s gentleman anymore, and that was John, a portly courtly well-mannered man.  I was concerned that he would interfere with my sexual growth.  I viewed him as speed bump, but as it was, I was going at a snail’s pace anyway.  So, I could have brought him on board as a butler-mentor, and suffered nothing for the act of kindness.

            But that was not the way it played out.  One day when he came by to remove a box from his collection, I said, “My mother thinks you want to move in.”

            He was incensed.  He was outraged.  He vehemently disagreed.  He never had this in mind.  Shortly thereafter he cleared out his collections of snails and butterflies.  This involved quite a few trips, which was fine.  I never cared for the smell of arsenic.  But when he was done, I never heard from him again, and that was kind of sad.  He never came back for the records, and I still have them.