Writers are thieves. Or, if you care to ascribe to the Mr. Krabs World View (it’s a SpongeBob thing), they are borrowers. The best writers succeed off the backs of stories they learn from others — they just take it and make it their own.
I’ve always enjoyed other people’s stories. I’ve heard some good ones along the way, and I always vow I’m going to remember them. Most of the time I forget them. And, since I didn’t do the honorable writer thing and steal/borrow them and write them down, they get lost to my brain, which we are establishing doesn’t have enough cells to remember everything, just the important things (like Elizabeth I’s regnal years: 1557-1603).
Sometimes a few stories survive the rattling around in my head, and so now I’m going to write one of those down (and not even claim it as my own, although it will be littered with mistakes, which are all my own). Word of warning: it’s a windy, twisty — perhaps irrelevant — road to get there.
My friend Veronica has this rather international provenance. Her mother is Swedish, but she lives in Norway. (Or maybe she’s Norwegian but lives in Sweden, or maybe she’s Swedish and lives in Sweden . . . she’s Scandinavian, all right?) Veronica’s father had roots in Eastern Europe, and Veronica herself is Canadian. Her husband Jim is American, although they both once lived in Sweden, where they played in a symphony together (she flute, he strings) and started their family.
And then they ended up in Gunnison. I believe I met them when oldest child Alix was in fifth grade and found herself in a HAMCO (are you ready? High-Ability Mini-Course Offering) class in writing taught by yours truly.
I got invited to their house for dinner, their son Ben ended up working at Pat’s Screen Printing for something like eight summers starting at the age of 13, somehow Veronica ended up serving as Reprieve’s doggie daycare for years . . . our lives became rather intertwined.
Jim got a job as an over-the-road trucker, and Veronica wanted to learn to drive, so I volunteered. Then I taught Alix, then Ben . . . I think younger daughter Felix lost out on my driving instruction, although Alix taught her, so it was kind of like my teaching being channeled.
I would pick Reprieve up after work, a task that sometimes took an hour or more. Their small porch was an oasis of peace and pleasantry after a frenetic day. Veronica became so smitten with the idea of Dog that she got her own, Shakti, and then another, Sita. She and Reprieve together developed the Petunia Star Theory of Being.
I don’t know who would name a black Lab Petunia Star, but Veronica’s next-door neighbor did just that. On the days when Petunia Star wasn’t out, Reprieve seemed to think if she sat by the fence and waited long enough, Petunia Star would materialize — and often enough, Reprieve was right. It just took Veronica to scientifically study and document the theory.
As mentioned, Veronica’s father was of Eastern European extraction who somehow ended up in Canada and then California. I met him a few times, and he once bought Terri and I breakfast when we were in Santa Rosa.
[You will need to tune in to a future installment of Travels With TL for the full story, but let us just say that Alix, then a Stanford student, saved us from the Terrible Snoopy Disappointment of Santa Rosa. Terri and I went seeking a Snoopy-tastic experience and didn’t find it, but we picked up Alix, who was visiting her grandfather for Thanksgiving, and took her back to Stanford.]
This bag was the best of a bad lot of souvenirs from the Terrible Snoopy Disappointment in Santa Rosa. Alix and her grandfather saved the excursion from complete failure.
Sadly, my brain cells have failed me for days, and I am unable to come up with Veronica’s father’s name. I keep wanting to say Nicholas, but who knows if that’s correct, and I can’t even tell you Mr. Someone. It might be Berkes; it might not. So, Veronica’s father.
He was a gracious man, although he had Very Certain Ideas, one of which was that Alix would become a doctor. (She teaches high-school English in Austin.) He also was aghast, at breakfast that morning in Santa Rosa, that I was eating my waffle without syrup. He must have offered me syrup five times. It seemed to offend his very sense of order.
But he had this story, one that I heard from Veronica rather than him, and I find it to be just such a series of randomness that it remains a favorite of mine to this day.
For the story, it’s going to be much easier with a name — and I really wish I could remember his. We will have to go with Nicholas, and I sincerely apologize if this is incorrect. (Or is it? Writers have to disguise their borrowing by changing names to protect the innocent — most notably, the not-so-innocent writer.)
Nicholas once was waiting for an elevator, somewhere in the United States. The doors opened to reveal a man and a woman already on the elevator; Nicholas entered, and, as one is wont to do in an elevator, politely turned his back on the other occupants and stared at the floor indicator above him.
Often, conversation in an elevator, even among acquaintances, is limited. Or at least, it used to be. Maybe now, in this age of cellphones and social media oversharing (and blogging), no one cares who listens in on their conversations. I don’t know; I don’t spend a lot of time on elevators.
In this long-ago instance, the woman behind Nicholas had something on her mind, something she felt necessary to share just then with her companion (presumably her husband). But she didn’t want to share it with Nicholas. So she said to her husband (we’ll go with that), in Hungarian —
Did I mention Nicholas was of eastern European extraction?
— she said, “I don’t trust men with beards. They always have something to hide.”
Many men with beards could have gotten on that elevator and been completely oblivious to the stranger’s foreign observation behind them, probably even unfamiliar with what language was being spoken. How often do you hear Hungarian?
But Nicholas was not just any man with a beard. He was a man with a beard who spoke Hungarian, and he heard every word she said.
Now, the only way this works out so perfectly is that his stop came before the couple’s. The elevator alighted on his floor; Nicholas stepped out, and only now turned to face the couple. I believe I told you he could be quite gracious. So he said, in his most gracious tone, in his most perfect Hungarian: “I assure you Madam, I have nothing to hide.” And then, as the doors closed and the woman gasped, he clicked his heels and bowed.
Isn’t that a great story? Other than the name, maybe, I didn’t make any of it up. And now it’s written down so I won’t forget any more key elements — like the protagonist’s name.
Here’s today’s bonus history lesson, absolutely free of charge: the borrowed photo above is of Tsar Nicholas II of All the Russias and King George V of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions Beyond the Seas. Bearded, and I’ll bet they did have things to hide. They were first cousins: George’s father, eldest son of Queen Victoria, married Alexandra of Denmark, whose sister Dagmar (she changed it to Marie for marriage) married Alexander III, father to Nicholas II.
If you’re not confused yet, Nicholas in turn married Alix (just like my friend the high school teacher in Austin!), daughter of Alice who was the daughter of Victoria. So while Nicholas and Alix (later Alexandra) weren’t first cousins, they were each a first cousin to George. ‘Tis a tangled web those royals weave.