Reading 21

The following passage is adapted from a short story by Cynthia Ozick entitled “What Happened to the Baby?” (2006 by Cynthia Ozick).

  1. When I was a child, I was
  2. often taken to meetings of
  3. my uncle Simon’s society,
  4. the League for a Unified
  5. Humanity. I could not be
  6. left alone at night, and my
  7. father, who was a detail man
  8. for a pharmaceutical
  9. company, was often away
  10. from home. He had recently
  11. been assigned to the
  12. Southwest. To our ears, places
  13. like Arizona and New Mexico
  14. might as well have been far-
  15. off planets. Yet Uncle Simon,
  16. my mother told me proudly,
  17. had been to even stranger
  18. regions. Sometimes a neighbor
  19. would be called in to look after
  20. me while my mother went off
  21. alone to one of Uncle Simon’s
  22. meetings. Going was important,
  23. she explained, if only to supply
  24. another body. The hall was likely
  25. to be half empty. Like all
  26. geniuses, Uncle Simon was—“so
  27. far,” she emphasized—
  28. unappreciated.
  29. Uncle Simon was not really my
  30. uncle. He was my mother’s first
  31. cousin, but out of respect, and
  32. because he belonged to an older
  33. generation, I was made to call
  34. him uncle. My mother revered
  35. him. “Uncle Simon,” she said, “is
  36. the smartest man you’ll ever
  37. know.” He was an inventor,
  38. though not of mundane things,
  39. and he had founded the League
  40. for a Unified Humanity.
  41. What Uncle Simon had invented
  42. was a wholly new language, one
  43. that could be spoken and
  44. understood by everyone alive. He
  45. had named it GNU, after the
  46. African antelope that sports two
  47. curved horns, each one turned
  48. toward the other. He had traveled
  49. all over the world, picking up
  50. roots and discarding the less-
  51. common vowels. He had gone to
  52. many countries in South
  53. America, where he interviewed
  54. Indians and wrote down, in his
  55. cryptic homemade notation, the
  56. sounds they spoke. And still,
  57. with all this elevated foreign
  58. experience, he lived, just as we
  59. did, in a six-story walkup in the
  60. East Bronx, in a neighborhood
  61. of small stores, many of them
  62. vacant. In the autumn, the
  63. windows of one of these stores
  64. would all at once be shrouded
  65. in dense curtains. Gypsies had
  66. come to settle in for the winter.
  67. My mother said it was the times
  68. that had emptied the stores. My
  69. father said it was the Depression.
  70. I understood it was the
  71. Depression that made him work
  72. for a firm cruel enough to send
  73. him away from my mother and
  74. me.
  75. Unlike my mother, my father did
  76. not admire Uncle Simon. “That
  77. panhandler,” he said. “God only
  78. knows where he finds these
  79. suckers to put the touch on.”
  80. “They’re cultured Park Avenue
  81. people,” my mother protested.
  82. “They’ve always felt privileged to
  83. fund Simon’s expeditions.”
  84. “Simon’s expeditions! If you ask
  85. me, in the last fifteen years he’s
  86. never gotten any farther than
  87. down the street to the public
  88. library to poke his nose in the
  89. National Geographic.”
  90. “Nobody’s asking, and since when
  91. are you so interested? Anyhow,”
  92. my mother said, “it’s not Simon
  93. who runs after the money, it’s her.”
  94. “Her,” I knew, was Uncle Simon’s
  95. wife, Essie. I was not required to
  96. call her aunt.
  97. She dresses up to beat the band
  98. and flatters their heads off,” my
  99. mother went on. “Well, someone’s
  100. got to beg, and Simon’s not the
  101. one for that sort of thing. Who’s
  102. going to pay for the hall? Not to
  103. mention his research.”
  104. “Research,” my father mocked.
  105. “What’re you calling research?
  106. Collecting old noises in order to
  107. scramble them into new noises.
  108. Why doesn’t he go out and get a
  109. regular job? A piece of work, those
  110. two—zealots! Not another penny,
  111. Lily, I’m warning you.”
  112. “It’s only for the annual dues—”
  113. “‘The League for Scrambling
  114. Noises. Ten bucks down the sewer.”
  115. He put on his brown felt fedora,
  116. patted his vest pocket to check for
  117. his train ticket, and left us.
  118. “Look how he goes away angry,”
  119. my mother said, “and all in front
  120. of a child. Vivian dear, you have to
  121. understand. Uncle Simon is ahead
  122. of his time, and not everyone can
  123. recognize that. Daddy doesn’t know,
  124. but someday he surely will. In the
  125. meantime, if we don’t want him
  126. to come home angry, let’s not tell
  127. that we’ve been to a meeting.”