Tales

Yesterday I was supposed to spend the afternoon painting. We have many square feet of wood in need of paint. This was my mission.

Instead, we drove into the biggest honky tonk near our wilderness spread, which happens to be the little Kansas town of Newton. Little Newton has two worthy bookstores, and a health food store, and at least two nifty diner-type eateries. Also a local donut shop. Doughnutery. Whatever.

Isaac and I wandered off on our own and into the health food store, where we found a tray of free chips and spicy spinach-asparagus dip. We agreed that lunch hadn’t really tided us over in the manner to which we were accustomed, and so we stood there grazing until people began to give us disapproving looks. Double-dip one time and everybody gets completely pharisaical. It’s not like this is cold and flu season, people.

We all spent about an hour in the bookstore. The way this works is Caleb immerses himself in books, while Eli and Isaac make a faithful effort for approximately ten minutes, in the older boy’s case, and ten seconds, in the younger boy’s case. Isaiah alternately squawks to be picked up or put down, whichever is most inconvenient for you. The way to handle Isaiah is to give him Cheerios. We are teaching this boy to squawk for Cheerios. When he is grown he will sit on a milk crate in Times Square, holding a big sign that says: “Will squawk for Cheerios.” You don’t often find street people who can spell “squawk,” but we are aiming to home-school the child, after all.

So the point is, I bought a nicer paperback edition of Canterbury Tales to replace my worn-out version at home. Please don’t take that to mean I am a Chaucer scholar. I only read it one good time in high school, and that was because they made me, and because I discovered it has lots of dirty parts.

Anyway, I like to see the names of people who owned books before me. My old copy of Canterbury Tales was once owned by Martha Ann Elliott. I don’t know anything about Martha Ann Elliott, except that she wrote her name on the title page of my book in curvy cursive letters, as well as at the top of page 241. Perhaps she did that to snare the clever thief who might purloin her book and rip out the title page. The constable would have him by the collar, demanding that he return the book to Martha Ann Elliott, only this devious thief would sneer: “Look, her name isn’t in it. Possession is nine points of the law.” Criminals always know the law better than the rest of us. Case in point: lawyers.

But because she had been so foresighted, intrepid young Martha Ann Elliott would confidently step forward, coolly flip to page 241, and in so doing send the wretch to reform school. Afterwards, Martha Ann Elliott would skip with her best friend to the soda shop, where they would share a chocolate malted.

I don’t know where Martha Ann Elliott grew up, but I like to think it was a place with constables and reform schools and chocolate malteds. I like to think that Martha Ann Elliott led a life with many adventures, and that years later, as she lay in her comfortable dying bed surrounded by her rambunctious yet respectful grandchildren, she wondered about this copy of Canterbury Tales, and sent a good thought to the person who owns it.

As for my new copy, it was once owned by Mary Esther Hill, who wrote her name on the title page as well, in sassy, forward-slanted cursive. I don’t have a story made up for Mary Esther Hill yet, except that she greatly admired Flannery O’Connor and raised peacocks on her family’s milo farm. But I think she had a fine life as well. I’m happy to report that neither she nor Martha Ann Elliott underlined the naughty parts of Canterbury Tales. I appreciate that because sooner or later my sons will start perusing these books, and I want them to have to hunt for the naughty parts, just like I had to do. Start coddling your kids and they’ll end up on a street corner begging for Cheerios.

But the real point is this: I’ve gone from Martha to Mary. I like to think that means something, if perhaps only that I should aspire to do so. Which is why I’m writing to you instead of painting. Now I’m going to go inspect each boy’s Lego spaceship, which they have been laboring on in the basement for the past half hour. And then maybe I’ll paint. Or maybe I’ll see if there’s anything to Chaucer beyond the naughty parts.

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