Circus Giganticus

A Slanted Look at our Twisted World

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In Borneo Still

January 8th, 2010 · 4 Comments · Short Stories

My uncle Rex was described as the black sheep of the family. He’d been to seven colleges and never earned a degree which proved, according to my Aunt May, that he wasn’t “committed to responsibility.” My mother would inform me darkly that Uncle Rex had no steady employment or career but worked “odd jobs.” This was imparted to me by both my mother and aunt as part of their efforts to shape my character and help me understand that there were adults who followed social prescriptions, or normal people, and those that didn’t, free spirits they were euphemistically called. My father had left us, my mother and me, when I was a small child, so Uncle Rex would be recruited to keep me company on Saturdays when my mother and my aunt would go play bingo and afterward go out for a late breakfast. It was their big weekly social outing.

Uncle Rex would appear at the door at the assigned time which I, even at thirteen years old, felt gave lie to the claims that he was irresponsible, and as soon as my mother and aunt left would walk out to his car and return with either a bottle of Bushmill’s or several bottles of Grolsch beer.

Uncle Rex would play card games, build forts, and create all manner of imaginary adventures that we could manage in the confines of our small house and yard. In the summer, the ice cream man would  pass down our street and the kids on the block would all gather in front of my house and uncle Rex would quietly buy all the kids their “frozen confectionary treats,” as uncle Rex smilingly called them. What I enjoyed most was when the evening had begun to wind down uncle Rex would give me one of the root beers he brought for me and he would pour himself  some Bushmill’s or open a Grolsch. Then we’d sit at the kitchen table for the kind of conversation that no adult would ever bother himself to have in general let alone with a kid. 

 He would aske me interseting questions about other countries, people’s behavior, things I observed in my daily life, and why I thought things were the way they were. He would also ask questions that made me consider things as though I were an adult or a real person. One night he he asked me what I made of this statement, “All being is matter but not all matter is being,” .

I reviewed this in my mind. Any living thing is made up of something and that something is probably matter, I reasoned, so the first part was probably true. The second one seemed obvious. Dirt, as an example I chose off the top of my head, is matter but not living, so the second was probably true, too.

“Both statements are true I,” I ventured.

Uncle Rex took a thoughtful sip of Bushmill’s and looked at me.

“Tell me about bread and think about the spirit,” was uncle Rex’s response.

Bread? I wondered a moment about bread. What was bread. Well, it was made of something living, wheat and rye and other grains, but it wasn’t living. I considered further. Plant life is being but bread is lifeless matter as bread but not in the true sense because it is made of living matter. The spirit was not matter, was it? Was it being? And what did uncle Rex mean when he said the spirit knows no bounds and cannot be confined as if by dirt?

“And what about dirt? Tell me about dirt,” asked Uncle Rex.

Dirt was the stuff you walked around on, earth I guess you’d call it. Well earth was matter, I decided.

“Bread is both being and matter and dirt is matter,” I informed Uncle Rex.

“Explain your terms: what is dirt?”

I gave an unsatisfactory answer about what dirt is. Uncle Rex told me it was necessary to always define my terms when explaining something and proceeded to tell me that dirt can mean many things. One type of dirt is soil made from minerals from rocks, decaying plant matter and animal material, and that it takes a 1000 years to form an inch of topsoil.  “Could we think of dirt as the cradle of life?”  wondered uncle Rex aloud. We then discussed definitions of dirt. I understood what uncle Rex was getting at. Two people may be talking together supposedly on the same subject but they would really be talking about other things because they defined certain words and ideas differently.

“If forty horses are harnessed to a fallen redwood tree and can’t budge it, will forty one horses move it? Forty two? How many horses will be needed to remove the redwood?” asked uncle Rex.

This question wasn’t a whole question I judged.

“Where are they trying to move the tree and why are they moving it. I mean, if they’re building a road maybe it would be smarter to re-route the road then it would be to move the tree,” I answered.

“Indeed, why are they moving the tree. This question just prompts more questions, doesn’t it?” agreed uncle Rex. “What are they doing, why are they doing it, and most important, who is doing it? Questions are problem solvers. When people stop asking questions they have assumptions and assumptions are not a good way to approach any problem or life in general,” remarked uncle Rex. “Think of assumptions as the road signs that put us on an unilluminated path. Would you agree with this statement: behind every great fortune is a great crime?”

This question wasn’t something that was beyond me at all even though I was thirteen. I had wondered why a few people were rich and so many people were average or poor. I had mentioned this to uncle Rex as we drove through the neighborhoods in our town one day looking at all the different houses together. Keep your eyes open and give it some thought he’d advised me, and I did.

“I believe there must be something wrong because you can’t have such asymmetry between rich and poor,” I offered in one of our later discussions at the kitchen table.”Maybe it’s not a crime but a design defect.”

Symmetry was a term I’d learned in an art history book I’d checked out from the library and read over and over. It was a concept that really appealed to me. I liked symmetry but realized already that symmetry had to be the careful result of design otherwise you got asymmetry.

Uncle Rex gave me an easy smile and nodded his head when I gave him that answer.

One Saturday night uncle Rex informed me he had to leave. “I’m going to Borneo,” he told me. Uncle Rex looked thin and pale, and was “not doing well,” in my mother’s mysterious words.

“Borneo is a long way away and I probably won’t be coming back for a while if I do come back at all. But before I go I want to leave you with these questions. Can people be bound together forever? If you remember someone in your heart does that person continue to live? Is immortality of one person conferred by the memories of another?”

Uncle Rex, with a wan smile, rose slowly from the kitchen table, gave my mother a kiss on the cheek and gave me a hug and said goodnight. I never saw him again. But I think of him today and know he abides in Borneo still.

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