I was looking at books in the Friends of the Library Used Book Store. That’s where the volunteer club sells donated and withdrawn books for fifty cents or a dollar to benefit the library.
This fellow had collected an armful of books. He got me into a conversation by asking rhetorically whether there were any other FOL book stores in town. Then he started talking to me about how many books he had in his library (he said two thousand) and showed me a big coffee table book he’d grabbed about ancient Egypt. He was a self-taught student of ancient civilizations. He’d taught himself to read hieroglyphics one symbol at a time by picking them up from dozens of books such as the one he’d just chosen.
He looked like a farmhand, in his forties, big-boned, not obese but sporting a belly. He had red hair and a lisp from misaligned teeth, and wore a baseball cap, heavy suede shirt, and nondescript old corduroys. Somebody, perhaps, who lived on disability or a military pension, shopped at thrift stores and watched a lot of TV. I asked him his name. He said, “I have two first names. It’s Duncan Michael.”
Duncan Michael said he’d unearthed an ancient artifact, an urn sort of thing, dug it up himself, brought it home and cleaned it up. He had it stored at home in some sort of hermetic environment for preservation, a la the Declaration of Independence, or maybe Einstein's brain. It was made of copper, I think he said, and it had a lengthy inscription in hieroglyphs which he translated himself. He explained at some length what one of the pictograms meant and why, and how he had figured it out. The inscription, he said, was a complete rendering of the creation story from the Book of Genesis.
He said he’d had the dirt carbon-dated. The carbon-dating and text proved that the world was exactly 26,000 years old. He had lots of professors hounding him about getting a look at it, but he wasn’t ready to exhibit it yet.
He had me going for a few minutes, but it didn’t take long for the improbability of it all to dawn on me. For one thing, he kept pronouncing Mesopotamia mess-a-pot-a-MEE-yah. But I kept listening and asking him questions because his spiel was just so interesting.
He started talking about how there was a vast conspiracy among scientists to assemble skeletons from disparate bones to prove the theory of evolution by constructing phony missing links. (I protested that was Piltdown Man and it happened once, and you couldn’t get away with that kind of thing anymore.) Then he went on to tell me Homeland Security was monitoring everybody’s cell phones and email in an effort to crack down on archaeological fraud.
I laughed and walked out. I was unlocking my bike when he came outside after me and asked me why I’d laughed. I told him he sounded like someone who’d taught himself in a vacuum, adding up two and two and two and getting eleven million. Oh no, he protested, I watch the Discover Channel all the time.
The harder he tried to convince me of the logic of his thinking, the more peripatetic his train of thought became. At one point, he was telling me he’d discovered that you could see the curvature of the earth by lining a straight fence rail up with the distant ocean horizon, and that he’d contacted a number of university professors who said this was new information for them. Somehow we got from that to the expanding universe, and how it was uncanny that the planets orbited the sun in perfect circles, and that was supposed to prove something, but he didn’t get around to saying what before he was on to yet another branch of science. (I protested: they don’t orbit in circles, they orbit in ellipses, and you can’t just say indefensible nonsense like that and say you saw it on the Discover Channel. Only I didn't say "indefensible nonsense.")
All this time, I was engaging him respectfully and asking questions. Once in awhile I’d try to bring him back to a point he’d wandered away from. Look at Leviticus, he said. How else would the Jews know about not eating pork unless God told them? That’s ridiculous, I said, all cultures develop dietary lore over time—and what's the connection between circular orbits and trichinosis? (In retrospect, I think he was trying to make the point that the hand of God was in everything, so it’s not so preposterous to think He created everything 26,000 years ago.)
I asked him: what’s your favorite translation of the Bible? “I’ve read every translation there is,” he said, “I’ve got dozens of Bibles in my library, but the New Living Bible is the best one.” That one really startled me. He’s making himself out to be some sort of scholar and his favorite Bible translation is a popularized paraphrase version! Well, that was enough nonsense for me. I finally cut him off, firmly but cordially. It had been an hour.
“Can I just say one more thing?” he pleaded. “No!” I said. “You’ve bent my ear for an hour already!” I put my hand on his shoulder. "Thank you for talking to me," I said sincerely, "it's been really interesting. You have a good evening!" As I biked away, I wondered: what did he think he would accomplish by telling me one more thing?
- Write a sketch (no more than a thousand words or so) about a memorable character you've encountered.
- Or make up a character who lives in a world of their own and introduce us. Don't just describe the person. Put them in a situation and a setting.
- Or write whatever this piece inspires you to write.
Comment to this post with a link to your response.
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