— Chapter Seven: Genius —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne,
His mother had graduated from art school with a degree in fashion design and after nearly 30 years she was only earning a meager salary as a department store illustrator of shoes and handbags.
Stewart’s father had spent his pointless days creating hand-drawn postcards as far back as Stewart could remember, and yet never made a cent from his abundant output. So the directive from Stewart’s mother to her son was: Don’t ever try to make a living with your talents. There’s no future for anyone in the arts.
Stewart’s only ambition was to own a car, a vehicle that would provide not only simple transportation, but would give him wings as well as an outlet for his creativity — a template in which to integrate his desires, taste and spirit. At the age of sixteen, he had little money for a car, or the funds to pay for the upkeep required. But the opportunity presented itself in ‘64 when his grandparents moved to the Masonic Home in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and Stewart inherited a beige 1952 Plymouth taxicab converted back to a car that was offered by his uncle to Stewart’s mother, who didn’t drive.
After many compromises by Stewart, Dottie accepted the car from her brother, and her son used every cent he’d saved for insurance, tags and working capital to keep the taxi roadworthy.
Stewart knew that he should aim for college, but his grades were poor and his mother had meager savings for a higher education, so Stewart stumbled aimlessly through high school, earning small amounts of cash by washing cars and charging fees for rides from classmates who saved change by traveling with Stewart rather than paying a higher fee for public transportation. His taxi service often shuttled eight boys, but was legal for only six. Their coins kept the gas tank partially filled and the car minimally maintained, just enough to keep it on the road.
It was during this time that Dottie needed help raising her adolescent son, and so invited Jim back into her home to help with the shopping, maintenance and teaching Stewart how to drive. In exchange for a place to live, Jim was required not to drink, but every now and then he’d fall off the wagon and berate Dottie for his own failures.
One night, when his father hadn’t come home, Dottie asked Stewart to track Jim, going from taproom to tavern. He found him at the G.I. Joe Bar on Market Street holding court and drawing postcards, but Stewart returned home without confronting him.
Later in the evening, Jim returned drunk and began his tirade, haranguing his wife for all her flaws, when Dottie, for the first time responded by slapping Jim as he stood close to her, shouting with his liquored breath. Surprised by her physicality, Jim lunged forward and fell into a chair, breaking the only decent piece of furniture in the apartment.
Stewart watched as Jim tried to piece together the chair, but soon pushed his father out of the way, smashing the spindles into pieces as his parents watched their son, with tears in his eyes, losing any control he had and screaming, “We have nothing and never will. You’ve ruined everything,” after which he went to his room and slammed the door.
Stewart’s outburst was directed at both of his parents, but resulted from his mother’s statement when he’d returned home from the bars without Jim.
“You know that you’ll be responsible for all of his debts, Stewart. That’s all you’ll ever get from him. He’s worthless.”
That remark Dottie made weighed heavily on Stewart for years to come. He knew his father owed a lot of money to many different people, and he couldn’t imagine ever making enough to pay back all the man had borrowed. It wasn’t until he turned twenty that Stewart was assured by his uncle that what his mother told him was in error and that his father’s debts were not his problem.
While still in high school, Stewart was burdened by his imagined obligation and so he focused only on short-term goals, such as buying parts to improve his car, or winning an award for service at his church, the place where he felt most at home from his sophomore to senior years. He washed cars, delivered groceries, mowed lawns, and shoveled snow for anyone who would hire him. He gave little or no thought to the meaning of life, or to any hope for a better life, and avoided the harsh realities that he was certain he’d have to face in the years ahead. He had no desire for intellectual development, and was neither guided to a trade after graduation, nor in any kind of direction, unlike most of his classmates.
It was not until his final semester that Stewart began to open his eyes to the world around him. His introduction to self-awareness came from a girl, Becky, who he’d dated briefly when he was just 15. She was a year younger than he, and also member of his Youth Fellowship.
Though the attraction didn’t last, the two remained friendly, and one Sunday, at the end of the Fellowship meeting, while enjoying donuts and Cokes, Becky remarked to Ronnie Allen, within earshot of Stewart, “Stewart’s a nice enough guy, but he doesn’t have much depth.”
Stewart wasn’t aware of Becky’s reason for the comment, but it struck Stewart hard, and it hurt him. He hadn’t remembered anything he’d done recently that would warrant such a response, or anything that Ronnie said that would even provoke Becky’s comment.
For days afterwards, Stewart mulled over the words, not really sure what she meant by “depth.”
The following Sunday morning, after church, Stewart asked Sharon MacArthur, a girl he’d known for many years, what Becky meant by her statement.
“Becky’s a reader,” answered Sharon. “And I think she knows that you don’t read books, and because she does and you don’t, that she’s more mature than you, and possibly more intelligent.”
“I read!” declared Stewart.
“What do you read,” asked Sharon, “besides what you’re made to read in class?”
“I read Hawaii, and last summer I read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.”
“Anything else?” responded Sharon. “More serious...writing?”
“I’ve read Little Women, Black Beauty and Stuart Little...”
“And that’s it?” said Sharon.
“I’ve also read the essays of E.B. White.”
“E.B. who?” asked Sharon.
“E. B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little.”
“Why him, and not something by somebody who writes adult books like Sylvia Plath or J. D. Salinger?”
It was too complicated a question for Stewart to answer. He’d have to explain his entire life to Sharon, so he simply answered, “I learned a lot from Mr. White.”
Tossing off Stewart’s answer, Sharon, somewhat smugly, said, “I think that what Becky was trying to say is that you haven’t begun to think.”
“I’m thinking all of the time, Sharon,” said Stewart, as he reflected on his parents and their problems, one of which was his father, who was losing all of his teeth, and had no money to buy false ones.
“So what have you learned about yourself from Mr. White?” continued Sharon. “Has his advice helped you select a school to attend after high school? Has he made you think about the existence of God? Has he pointed you in the direction of what you want to be when you finally grow up?”
Stewart thought about her questions and, though angered by her remarks, answered, “I don’t really know. But I’m sure I will, when it matters.”
At that point, Sharon rolled her eyes, smiled and changed the conversa-tion to offer Stewart a glimpse into her own plans for the future. Since money was tight at home and she excelled in English, she’d applied to the Charles Morris Price School of Advertising and Journalism, explaining to Stewart that it was only a two-year program, and affordable.
“When I complete my courses, I can get a job writing for a newspaper, magazine, or maybe an ad agency, writing copy, developing marketing programs and creating headlines for PR campaigns and TV and radio commercials.”
Stewart knew that Sharon was a smart girl and got all A’s in her classes at Lansdowne High. She and Stewart had met in their fourth grade Sunday school class. Her mother taught an adult group and was extremely well-spoken, as was Sharon’s younger brother and both of her first cousins, who all attended Upper Darby High and also got straight A’s.
Stewart always cared for Sharon, and considered her a close friend, but he liked her cousin, Nancy, better, since she was funnier, happier, prettier and thinner than Sharon.
Following his talk with Sharon about her goals, Stewart could understand what she saw as his lack of motivation as well as what Becky called an absence of depth, a quality that Sharon apparently found missing in him.
Until Sharon brought up the question about his belief in God, Stewart hadn’t even thought about the possibility that God might not exist. Since he prayed to God, and most everyone he knew believed in God, he just accepted that God was, indeed, there, somewhere — in heaven!
Along with his belief in God, Stewart also believed in Jesus who, in actuality, was the son of God. Just thinking about his beliefs made Stewart feel weird, in that he had never even questioned the story of the virgin birth or the resurrection, and had just accepted what people told him.
He then began to wonder if Sharon believed in God, or if Becky did, and if they didn’t, maybe he did because he didn’t think hard enough, and maybe that’s what Becky considered lack of “depth.”
He noticed that Sharon had begun spending time with a new member of Fellowship, Brian Gaff, a junior at Upper Darby High. Brian’s mother was divorced, and Brian spent part of his time with her and part with his father, who had a girlfriend. Stewart had heard from Sharon that Brian was a “genius,” a title she defined as a person with an IQ measuring 160 or more on a standardized test.
Stewart knew that he wasn’t a stupid boy. He’d been selected from his sixth grade class to be placed in one of the top two sections in the 7th grade when he entered junior high. Early in his childhood, his parents and teachers had told him many times that he was smart. But as Stewart could see now, “smart” was not the same as “gifted” and becoming gifted was as unachievable as an ability to pay off his father’s debts at some future date. Genius, however, was a quality he grew to admire, and soon would envy, especially as Sharon became more and more enamored of Brian and his superior intelligence.
Stewart’s jealously became obsessive, as he realized what he lacked — qualities such as scholastic aptitude. Instead, he was described as “nice,” a synonym for “uninspired,” especially when he saw himself through Sharon’s eyes.
Brian knew something about everything. He understood the concept of television, black holes, gamma rays, and the definition of nearly every word he encountered. He gravitated to white papers written by obscure authors, canvases scribbled on by modernist painters and musical interpretations concocted by jazz quartets. Brian had been professionally tested and accepted into Mensa, the high-IQ society open only to people who scored at the 98th percentile or higher on the test the society used as a measure. Stewart knew that in comparison, his own resumé came up short, especially since he lacked so many worthwhile qualities, including understanding his own mind and how it worked... or perhaps didn’t work.
Becky’s short definition of him, as confirmed by Sharon, became a pivotal motivator for Stewart, in that once he acknowledged that their assessments were likely accurate, he was able to determine a direction that could possibly alter their perceptions of him and erase his weaknesses.
Stewart’s quest began immediately, as his goal was to find a book that would lead him to a deeper form of thought. Not every book would do, even the one he had read by E. B. White. It had to be one recently written by a scholar or acclaimed as somewhat “brilliant.”
He disliked libraries, so he visited the bookstore across the street from the library on Garrett Road. On a mission, he hurried down the aisles containing newly published fiction, noting the brief reviews below the titles on the paperbacks. He passed by Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice and John MacDonald’s mystery, The Quick Red Fox, but was stopped by the blank ominous cover of Gore Vidal’s latest book, Julian, a novel touted by critiques as …“marvelously exquisite,” which told of the life of the fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to halt the spread of Christianity.
Perfect! he thought, as he grabbed the top copy from the small stack and hurried to the counter to pay, noting the heft of the 535-page tome.
Stewart couldn’t fully comprehend Vidal’s historic references, or even a great deal of the storyline. When he completed the book and saw the list of earlier writings by Vidal, he made a point to read The City and the Pillar, a book that over time would lead him to Truman Capote and his breakout novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, as well as to its author’s short fiction that included the charming story, A Christmas Memory.
Through Capote, Stewart would find his way to Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird, and through Lee, he’d discover Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Ralph Ellison and Eudora Welty, who would guide him through the writings of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
This process would be slow and tedious, a lifetime journey to be traveled through writers such as Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, south to Camus, Hugo and Sarte, and across nationalistic borders to Goethe, Hesse and Marx, and then to England and back across the continent to India, China, Japan and Vietnam, before settling to rest back in the Americas before finally, near the end of his years, erasing the stain of shallowness wiped on him by two young girls in the parish house of a church, who accused him of having no depth.
He hadn’t at that moment found a way to address Sharon’s attraction to the creepy intellectual with whom she was choosing to spend time instead of him. He wasn’t even sure of whom he felt envious, or which person ignited his heart with jealousy. He only knew that he was on a mission to stir his own passions, using love and envy to satisfy both his short-term and long-term goals.
Neither Becky nor Sharon would win his heart. That would be reserved for a much later time when he was ready to take on the challenge of a relationship. For now he needed to use the saber of his inherited talents to scribe his mark on the present, and twist it to its inevitable hilt into a place of near permanence. Even as Stewart began reading the opening paragraph of Vidal’s epic tale, he could imagine a brighter future than the past he’d known, and was eager to begin his journey despite the obstacles he faced.