The Ellipse / 22 September 1996

My family history is pure tedium except for two big days, and recently I’ve decided to live my life solely in relation to these days.

Number One: This was November 15, 1902, back in jolly olde England. My great-uncle Adrian was eight years old, my grandfather was two, I believe. Adrian knotted together a series of shoelaces and hung himself in the jar cellar. I first heard this story when I was eight, of course, I mean of course this is when the patriarchs decide to unearth this chestnut, and even though I’ve since seen photographs of said Adrian, I can’t erase the quick image I got after hearing hung himself, and it was of a shiny blond boy in a tartan tie and short pants, dangling from the rafters, the creeeeeak, creeeeeeak that foley artists invariably give the swinging dead and ancient pirate schooners.

Adrian penned a note, in an oddly formal, wedding-invitation hand. This he had pinned to his shirt (no tie), and it read: I shall eat carrots no longer.

Number Two: This is at the other end of life, also in November, the twenty-third in 1983. My other grandfather, on the Heffler side this time, on his deathbed, in Brooklyn, in the tiny, dark, knickknacked apartment. A brief prologue: that particular grandfather (I’ve had four because of steps, five if you count the not-quite-legal Mr. Danny) was of the quiet, sturdy stock that tends to show up in agrarian propaganda. Broad-chested, hard-working, big hands that hung slack from his knees, armrests, counters. Not much needed to be said. Momma, dawn, fixin, mmhm. It seemed like there was deep, flowing wisdom somewhere in there but it never surfaced. Grandpa did farm work in his teens, out in East Texas. He was frequently described as a “strapping young man.” Then to the Pittsburgh steel mills, then to Chicago for Business. I have no idea what he did except that it was nothing noteworthy. Something about port management. By then he was married with one son (Dad) and another on the way (equally tepid Uncle Morris). Life, life. The point is, nothing dramatic. Big decisions, say, the move to New York, college payments, the quick retirement tour of the Southern states, all were made with the utmost gravity and time. Slow deliberation.

He was on the aforementioned deathbed for six months. Again, nothing drastic. Doctors washed their hands of him and he wiled away the days by reading newspapers and watching TV. Grandma sat with him in silence except for when she needed help with a crossword clue. Jazz bandleader Kenton?

Then death started to hit. It was this fleshy, palpable substance that no one in that room could have any doubt about. And as it crept forward, my grandfather was struck, hard, painfully, with Inspiration. His hands shook with it. He catapulted himself out of bed, dragging IV bottles with him, towards the modest, simple desk that had served him for over fifty years. As my grandmother howled in alarm, he scrambled through the drawer and pulled out a handful of ballpoint and felt-tip pens. A highlighter. A number two pencil. And on a piece of stationery he began to draw, using both hands at once, sketching a line with one pen, shading with another, furiously scribbling.

When he was done, he slumped over on the desk and drifted away. What was left was an amazing piece of art, many things to many people, though most agreed that it was a neo-Fauvist rendition of his farmhouse back in Texas. It hangs in the MOMA.

Joshua Green Allen

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