Years ago, 50 years ago to be exact, our next door neighbor handed my mother a copy of a novel he had written. the Quidnunc, as he titled it, weighs in at over 1184 pages, precisely three and a half pounds with a three inch spine. A quidnunc is a person who seeks to know all the latest news and gossip (from latin quid-what and nunc–now). It was published by a vanity press. He mentioned something to my mother about her needing to read it because inside its covers, there was a character based on her.
I have tried to read this book several times and have quickly put it down. My first attempt was in 1963 when it was first given to us. I wasn’t ready then. Or the three other times I have tried to read it since. It has never been able to hold my interest, even with the “quidnunc-ian” lure of seeing my mother through someone else’s eyes. But it has been many years since my last try.
This neighbor, Robert F. Bartley, was quirky. In the summer, I remember him sitting in his small backyard (which abutted ours) in his long, pale brown pants worn very high over his ample belly (with one pant leg rolled up to above his knee), in his white ribbed sleeveless undershirt and big suspenders, relaxing in a black canvas director’s chair, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and reading, his cane near his side. He hated all us neighborhood children or at least that is what we thought, chasing us away from his property by shooting us across the street with a blasting water hose. He lived on the corner and so we would often cut across his lawn to shorten the distance around the block. That was when he put up a fence running down the center of his lawn to prevent this short-cut. He claimed our property was on 12 inches of his so whenever he cut his lawn, which was often, he cut a foot of grass on the east side of ours. Since we didn’t cut the lawn as often (my job), our lawn always sported a strange manicure.
He was a detective in the Toledo Police Department and was a lawyer before that. He had a wife who was very quiet and when her husband was not around, would sneak us kids homemade cookies. They never had kids of their own. She died when I was in grade school. When he died, my father and mother were the only ones at his funeral.
Once, in the summer before I left for college, when I was hanging clothes on the line in the backyard to dry (remember when we did that?), I saw him in his director’s chair as usual. He gruffly called me, “Hey, c’m here.” I wouldn’t have bothered to answer him, but I saw he was holding a flower in his hand. I thought, He knows I’m leaving for college and he wants to give me a flower. He wants to wish me well as I venture forth. Wow. All this time I thought he was a jerk, but beneath his belligerent and mean exterior there is a warm and generous heart. I walked to the fence that separated our yards. As he threw the flower at me he said, “Here. It was growing on my side of the yard.”
So, this is the guy who authored the Quidnunc. I have decided I need to read this book. I’m not sure why, but something is compelling me to tough it out. I’m 61 pages in (1123 to go) and this time it does not seem so disagreeable. Though it purports to be a novel, it is clearly memoirish. I am interested in the history of my hometown he describes. I recognize the street names he uses and the parks and factories he mentions. And in a meta way, I see him, Robert F. Bartley, clearly, as I read every word– while I try to reconcile the t-shirted monster in the director’s chair I thought lived next store with its liberal-minded, knowledgeable, and patient author. Perhaps I have finally become “quidnunc-ian” enough to tackle this story.