Fred’s Theory of Relativity
“Stupid is as stupid does,” said Forest Gump. So true.
Like the time nine-year-old me, batting eighth,
squared around to bunt and took a Larry Broerman
fastball in the groin that dropped me to the ground,
where the coaches and umps huddled around
and unbuttoned my pants so I could breathe.
A button I forgot to button before trotting,
halfway, to first base.
Ten years later, I leaned my pale neck
from a car window and yelled at every
white person I passed in downtown Birmingham.
If only I had shouted, “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle”
or sung, “Sweet Home Alabama”
instead of shouting, “Red neck, red neck!”
the BPD officer might have let me pass through.
The only thing that got me through college
was an average ability to write papers.
So, when my roommate and I
were assigned a paper for Philosophy 101,
I got busy. A week later, around midnight,
the night before the paper was due, Fred began.
My paper: C
Fred’s Theory of Relativity: A-
Last Friday, as my wife, DeeGee, and our friend Va,
canvassed for city council candidates
in a neighborhood filled with No Soliciting,
No Trespassing, and Beware of Dog signs,
I followed in the car, providing muscle.
Last Sunday, at Fred’s funeral visitation,
after telling his wife, Cathy, and her son Frederick
about Fred’s paper, I asked Frederick,
whose job at SpaceX is to formulate a fuel
from Martian ice, soil, and/or air for the return trip,
“Have you come up with a way to get us back?”
“Maybe not the first guy,”
said Frederick with Fred’s grin.
You were a good guy, Fred. Remember those nights
when I finished studying and I’d say,
“Let’s go have a beer”?
“There’s nothing you could say that would convince me.
Not one thing. I have work to do,” you’d say.
“Fred?” I’d argue.
Remember jumping on the trampoline
in your family’s living room,
leaving handprints on the ceiling?
You were a smart guy, Fred—
you with your law degree.
Me with my real estate license.
You with that A-.
My guess is that you return for Cathy every day
in every room of her house. Hey, Fred,
next time, help Cathy look for your paper.
She said you kept a lot of stuff from school.
She said she’d like to read your theory. Me, too.
I’d like to see what you knew then—
and know what you know now.
Sometimes, I imagine my mother and dad
sitting around a Heavenly table with their friends,
some old—Hi, Ruth. Hi, Walt—some new. No
cards. No board games. No scoresheet.
But every so often, one of them smiles,
licks a finger, and makes a mark in the air.
First to ten wins.
My dad never shied away from competition.
Mother counted Christmas cards each year. So,
I thought I’d help them out, put smiles on their faces,
marks in the air, by thinking about them
and telling you this:
It’s 1960-something. My dad is in our dining room
with one of those pump-action sprayers
and a bucket of water. He’s wetting down
flowery wallpaper before stripping it. Meanwhile,
one wall away in our pink bathroom, my mother
is taking a bubble bath. Dad is spraying,
Mother is bubbling, when Dad gets an idea.
Knocking on the bathroom door, sprayer in hand, he shouts,
“Jeanne, I’m about to burst!
Pull the curtains. I’m coming in.”
By Heaven’s rules, before starting a new game,
each player has to scoop their points from the air
and offer them to someone who hasn’t been thought of in a while,
like Mohammad Arif, an Iraqi sheep herder who died in 1653
and was last remembered in 1697 by his grandson Baba,
who told the story of Mohammad driving off a pack of jackals
with Great-grandfather Jafar’s crook.
Or Constance Stillwater, a Cherokee teen
who died on the Trail of Tears
and hasn’t been thought of since 1889.
Why would points mean anything to someone
who hasn’t scored them, you might ask.
But think about it, you can’t very well give your points
to someone without thinking about them, can you?
And to quote Christian mystic philosopher/theologian
Emanuel Swedenborg, All in Heaven take joy in sharing
their delights and blessings with others.
(One point to Swedenborg.)
By now, Dad is in the bathroom. And though
you’re probably way ahead of me on this,
he’s pumping water from the pink toilet
and spraying it back in while audibly sighing.
For minutes on end, pumping . . . sighing . . .
until my mother, grown increasingly silent,
shouts from behind the curtain,
“My gosh, Paul!”
And lest you think my parents
might be embarrassed by this low drama, know
that another one of Heaven’s rules is:
NO EMBARRASSMENT ALLOWED. Likewise
GUILT, ANGER, SHAME, et cetera. Also,
LAUGHTER GREATLY ENCOURAGED,
the kind of laughter my mother and father shared
each time the wallpaper-stripping story was told.
This time, my mother is first to ten.
A Heavenly trumpet blows RHA-RHA, and Mother
scoops her points and offers them to Mohammed.
My mother used to offer chocolate candy (the good stuff:
Hershey Nuggets Special Dark with Almonds, Werther’s
Original Caramel Chocolate Dark, and Rollo
Chewy Caramels in Milk Chocolate)
to every waiter and waitress who served her,
and when they accepted—as Mohammed
accepts Mother’s points now—
their smile made Mother smile, too.
Dad hands his points to Constance Stillwater,
and Ruth and Walt give theirs to Zhang Wei,
a fourteenth century Buddhist priest,
and Shomari Abimbola, a Bantu healer, respectively.
Then Mother, Dad, Ruth, and Walt
float back to the table and start a new game.