All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
How the Genius Died
Yesterday somebody called me a genius. In the supermarket of all places which, sharply lit and filled with cereal boxes and ripe tomatoes, is not a place for high praise. The speaker was a woman, as wide as her grocery cart, a short, squat mass of consumerism shaped like a cooking pot. Her cheeks were pink on behalf of some future embarrassment.
I was taken aback by her comment. I am not used to, nor do I deserve, such praise.
“But you’re Anthony Birmingham, aren’t you?” she said. “I recognized you from the picture in the book jacket.” She grinned at me like a puppy expecting a reward.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I confirmed. “That’s me.”
“Well then you’re a genius.” She placed her porcine hands on her wide hips as if this settled it. “I’ve read all of your books; I’m a fine authority. And you are a genius.”
“Calling someone a genius is like calling them a Dodo bird,” I explained to her calmly. Her smiling face went blank and a strangely tragic look of bafflement befell her features. “They’re extinct, you see. They’re all dead.” And nudging past with my cart I left her standing there, very still and very disappointed.
When I was growing up, extinction was on everybody’s mind. People used to look up at the sky, have nightmares, tell stories, all about the coming of a little Russian bomb with the apocalypse inside its metal casing. The frightened men and women who surrounded my boyhood weren’t conservationists; on the contrary they were selfish. They didn’t want to die.
But six years old is too little to understand those big words. I treated the exercises where we hid under our desks the same way I did fire drills; precautions for disasters which would most likely never happen and if they did we’d be safe if we only did as we were told. So this threat wasn’t real to me.
Instead the word extinction called to mind buffalo, ever since I was eight. One day an ecologist came to talk to my small class. He showed us pictures of the great beasts, the likes of which we’d never seen, that roamed the Great Plains. I imagined them like large, scrappy deer, showing up in people’s backyards and munching their vegetable gardens. But the man told me the buffalo could go extinct, which seemed impossible to me. I couldn’t imagine one of those things dying, let alone the entirety of their race. So in my young head I pictured the fall of the last buffalo who, for too long had roamed these empty plains all alone, dreaming of its buffalo friends and its buffalo parents and its buffalo girl, so long ago now. I imagined the world would shake and go quiet as it hit the earth, dislodging a shower of dust, and calling creeping scavenger birds with hideous faces to feast. The last guard fallen, the factories would begin to move in, and maybe they’d find the body or maybe it would be lost to time. I wondered what it would be like to witness such an extinction.
Learning was an honor incomparable to anything else I’d ever know.
When I was about twenty-four a popular fiction magazine bought a story I had written, and before the year was out three more had been sold to various periodicals for small sums. Combined with my dishwashing job they were scarcely enough to pay the rent on my small apartment, but the money didn’t matter. It was about pride. It was about knowing that this frantic dance of fingers across my yard sale typewriter was worth something, gave pleasure to people other than myself. Those little envelopes with those kind letters and crisp green bills were really hope, forced into material forms in my mail slot.
I wrote about bombs and buffaloes which remained in my subconscious long after childhood was done. Nights I stargazed and days I wrote down my dreams, capturing flying saucers and other worlds. I tried to make it as real as possible; my aliens never spoke English or even communicated with my heroes. They rarely even had limbs. One bad day I wrote a tale where these aliens are the heroes, and every human I created was based on someone I knew, someone so despicable that the end of the story, when the aliens win and conquer Earth, is a happy one.
This was the story that caught Augustine Cromley’s eye.
There have been few real geniuses in the world. There are plenty of pretenders I suppose, and I am now among their number, but there are few people with that real spark. There are even fewer with the gift Cromley possessed; he could crawl inside the human brain, look out their strange eyes and see their world, with all its falsehoods and irrationalities, and understand. He knew people, comprehended them with a clarity unknown by all but him. So when he created people on his own typewriter, surely much nicer than mine, they were real. They lived, if only in his brain and in the soul of whoever picked up one of his brilliant novels or beautiful stories.
He wasn’t just a genius; he was the last genius. I searched long and hard for someone with his gift and his intellect and came up empty handed with the discovery that he was the world. So I dedicated myself to him, memorizing his works and, knowing well I could never be him, finding the tiny perfections within his masterpieces, magnifying them, and making them my own. Perhaps he detected this and this is why he sent me the letter.
It was handwritten, in shaky cursive lettering. He was an old man, and these were old man words, elaborate and well-chosen. Twice I reached for my pocket dictionary. The letter was, much to my delight, an invitation to dine with him the 22nd of September, just a few weeks away. And these weeks, though I labored over my typewriter, produced little, for my mind was muddled with fear. Meeting him would clear this fog over my hands, I assured myself. Cowards have looked towards death with less fear; believers towards heaven with less hope.
Miraculously he lived not far from my residency. I romantically imagined I had been drawn to this town by the genius’ nearby presence, and my long walks northward when I needed ideas were my subconscious’ desperate attempts to find him. I needed no futile journeys on foot now. I had his address and concise, poetic instructions to his house about two hours away in the country. I was told to turn right at Mountain View Drive, where the autumnal trees exploded on the hillside and to drive straight until I reached the house he had described so elegantly in his third novel, a rickety temple to the ancient.
He described it for me once more in the letter and I cannot do it justice. It was a house made of time, time that looked like foggy glass and red schoolhouse brick. There was a very long driveway; I imagined Cromley wanted every visitor to never forget the image of his house on the horizon. I was running late and the sun was already setting, staining the clouds and the sky with its Technicolor blood. My heart pounded as I imagined my host standing in wait for me at the door. It would creak open and his wizened face would stare back at me, inviting me in with a theatrical wave of his hand.
Up close the house was not nearly as precarious as it appeared from the road. Rather it resembled a haunted house in an amusement park, every imperfection carefully crafted in plastic.
Much to my disappointment there was no heavy brass doorknocker but instead a discreet, white plastic doorbell which rung shrilly with my touch. I waited for what felt like a very long time, wiping my palms on the side of my trousers, adjusting my tie and collar, and assuring myself that yes the letter did say today, yes it was the 22nd, yes it was the given time. Then, I reminded myself to breathe.
A moment later, the door opened without a single creak. The man standing before me was formally dressed in a much nicer suit than mine. His platinum white hair was cut short and showed few signs of thinning. He looked like an old man about to become young again at a moment’s notice.
I could think of no eccentric and witty comment with which to introduce myself and so instead I stuck out a hand. “Mr. Cromley, it is an honor to meet you. I hope my visit finds you well.”
“Alexander,” he smiled and for a moment I wondered if I had met him before, so familiar he treated me. “What a pleasure, yes. Come in.”
In this respect at least Augustine Cromley did not let me down. His gesture was even more dramatic than I had hoped; his entire body got into the act, resulting in a brief and graceful dance-like motion in which he spun on his heels to face the interior and his head bowed at the grandeur of his home.
The tour was quick. Augustine Cromley pointed out items of interest on display through the many rooms of his large house, finally leading me to the dining room. I had pictured a massive chamber the size of a chapel, windowless, with a table spanning the length of the room. Instead it was rather cozy; the wall I faced consisted of several large windows. The table was already laid out with several dishes. The genius asked me what I wanted and arranged my plate accordingly. He offered me wine, which he’d already poured for himself in an elegantly simple glass, but I refused, opting for water. I wished for nothing to impair my memory of the evening.
As we ate, we discussed his books. I enthusiastically asked questions about character motivations and the underlying themes of his more obscure novels. When I brought up one of my most beloved of his works, a shorter novel studying a young man slowly driven to insanity by a near-constant string of failures, as an example of a tragedy with a hero whose flaw was his inability to accept the shortcomings of the world around him, the genius nearly broke my heart by dismissing the work itself.
“It’s all a bunch of poppycock if you ask me,” he said. “I was trying to be far too profound and if you go back and read it I’m sure you’ll notice it is as shallow as a puddle on a well-paved road. I was young when I wrote it; I didn’t know to listen to my voices.”
I was quite taken aback. “Voices? What do you mean?”
“Where do your ideas come from? My subconscious that spits out ideas at me is personified. Voices.”
And I nodded, admiring his eccentricity and obvious affection for his craft. The rest of the dinner passed uneventfully. The genius ate heartily but I noticed he never took a sip of wine. It wasn’t until I had eaten my last bite of turkey and finished off the green beans, spewing compliments between bites, that the topic came around once more to these mysterious voices.
“What did you think of my latest book?” the genius asked me.
For a moment I hesitated, wondering if I ought to be a yes man, wondering how to politely and honestly answer the inquiry. In truth I hadn’t liked his most recent novel as much. The characters were all pretty good but they didn’t do anything. They drank cocktails and chatted about art. Nothing really happened; the conflict never really fit, never seemed plausible. It read like a rough draft.
I told him this, as politely as I could, making sure to emphasize that I quite liked the subplot of the socialite’s daughter and her affair with the journalist, as well as the politics briefly mentioned, and how I wished these ideas had been developed more.
He nodded and I breathed a sigh of relief that my criticism seemed to be exactly what he wanted.
“Mr. Birmingham,” he began, holding out his hands for emphasis. “You look upon a dead man.”
“Sir? Are you in trouble with someone?”
“Only my own psyche.”
“Are you ill then?”
“Only in my mind.”
Idly I noticed this seemed like a scene from one of his books; the genius was behaving like one of his characters. Perhaps, I thought to myself, Augustine Cromley is merely a character in one of his stories. This idea seemed so intriguing to me that I filed it away for later usage, wishing I’d thought to bring a notepad. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” I confessed, returning to the circumstance at hand.
“Tell me, Mr. Birmingham. Why do you live?”
“For what purpose do I live? Or how is it that I have come to be in the state of living?”
He smiled lightly at my question. “The former will do nicely, though I am coming to understand that both are the same.”
I thought for a moment. “I live for the sake of living,” I concluded. “I live so that I might have existed. I live, for it is better to live than never to live at all.”
Nodding slowly, the genius deliberated on my answer. “So if you were not aware that you were alive, could not appreciate the fact of your existence, all of which you have just attributed to be your purpose, you would not truly be alive?”
“Now ask me why I live.” I did. “I live for the voices. I live so that they might whisper to me each morning; urge me to a typewriter as the sun stretches into the sky. The voices tell me how to live; each day they watch and observe and each morning they tell me what they have seen and my stories spring into being. That is why I live, Mr. Birmingham. This is my purpose. To document the voices.”
“You do it very well, sir,” I told him slowly, wondering if this was the proper reaction.
“So, just as if you didn’t know you were alive, your reason for living, you would not be alive, if I lost my voices, my purpose, I would not be alive.”
The string of logic seemed scrambled to my ear, but I agreed nonetheless.
Augustine Cromley took a swift swig of wine. “The voices have stopped. Therefore, I am dead.”
I had no idea what I was meant to say to such a statement, so in my silence the genius continued.
“Ever since I first answered my voices, first wrote what they said, I have prayed to myself that the voices would last to my death. They were my reason for living, do you understand? I was in love with them and their gift. Now they have left me and my world is dull. I cannot find the words. There was a genius inside me once, boy, a genius who showed me the stories under everything, and now that genius is dead, yet I live on. It is a cruelty. I am being punished for something, I am sure of it, but what it is I have no idea. It must have been a very evil deed to warrant such spite.”
“Write about that,” I suggested. “Write about what this deed might have been.”
“No, it doesn’t work that way. I am nothing on my own. I need the voices.”
“It’s just writer’s block,” I tried again, more desperately. It soured me to see my hero behaving so dejectedly. “It’ll go away in a bit.”
“They are gone for good. Forty years they have been with me and never a day have they been silent. That morning, such a wretched morning. Over a year ago now, the beginning of June. It was raining a little bit, a gray day, fine for writing. I opened my eyes and waited for the first voice – no response! I brewed some tea and drank, read the paper, sat for hours at the typewriter, placing my fingers on the keys and feeling only cold metal. I was dead inside. I knew I had outlived them and without their spirit to fill me I was merely a husk, flesh still living, still breathing, but as good as dead. In about an hour, even that will be gone.”
I felt as if I had been hit, and wanted to double over and be sick. I found myself falling into a panic, terrified, waiting for the genius before me to fade and turn gray and cold. The idea of the genius dying was inconceivable. He was the greatest living human being and thus must always be living. “Sir?” I could only ask, willing to put off belief in his statement until he explained.
He took another sip of wine. “Poison. The most dramatic way, I thought. Poetic, really.”
“Why am I here?”
“Because I invited you, of course.” He chuckled, and for the first time I saw madness in his eyes.
I rose to my feet, suddenly struck by the unfairness of the circumstance. What kind of a man invites his disciple to watch him die? I was nearly trembling with anger. “Why did you do that?”
“Because I don’t want to die, Mr. Birmingham. I did not choose this; I was dead when I woke up that morning in June and didn’t come back to life. I am passing the torch, if you will. I read your story, Mr. Birmingham. It should have been very cold, very heartless, and instead it made we wish to race outside and shake the hands of the first three men and women I saw. You aren’t good yet, but you will be. Very soon you will be very good. And every very good man needs a bit of a spark. I want to be that spark.” He reached across the table and patted me once upon the arm, very quickly, almost a slap. “Live, Birmingham! Find whatever remains of my voices – no, you’re better than that. Find your own. Let them outlive you.”
“I’ll call a hospital.”
“I am suicidal but I am not a fool. There are no phones in this house. Obey my last wish, Mr. Birmingham. Stay here with me and tell me stories.”
“You tell them,” I insisted. “You’re the genius – the last genius.”
“No,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Not anymore.” But I insisted, and so he told me a story, one of his short ones, one I had already read but loved anyway. He had one of those voices that was made for storytelling, that sounded just low and slow enough to be an anonymous kindly uncle. He told the tale with a sense of humor and a wry smile so that I refused to believe he had lost his voices, refused to accept that even in a few moments the poison would reach his heart and he would be gone.
Telling the story had weakened him and so he stumbled his way to a couch in his parlor, rested upon it and told me he could speak no more. He wanted to hear a voice, he begged, in his last moments, even if it wasn’t one of his.
So I told stories. I told a mystery tale that must have been buried in my mind for a long time, a murder which was solved before it even occurred but the answer was lost. I told the story of a girl who buried herself in leaves and didn’t recognize the world she saw when she stood up, or more accurately fell down through the Earth. I told a story of a people long ago who wanted the Sun for themselves, so they called down the Sun and hid it in a child made of glass. The voice with which I told these stories never really stopped; some mornings I can still hear it, whispering strange fairy tales to a dying genius. In these mornings I am possessed, desperate to copy these whispers in ink but can never quite manage. Like dreams, they melt away in the waking world.
When the last genius died, he didn’t hit the Earth like thunder. Nothing shook. He hadn’t been lonely after the rest of his kind had died. Nothing began to creep forth to claim his body. He was nothing like a buffalo.
As evening fell I drove to a pay phone five minutes away from his house and called the hospital in the directory, telling them there was a man dead. ‘Cause?’ they asked. Suicide. The truth was too complicated, too faceted, to explain to a stranger over the phone.
He had no family. His wife had died and bore him no children. He had outlived his parents, his siblings, most of his friends. But the funeral was full of disciples like I, most of which had never even met the man. It was an open coffin; he was smiling in death. Something in one of my stories must have made him laugh.
I read one of these stories at the funeral. As soon as I entered my apartment that night I had stayed without sleep for over a day to write down what I had said before my voice faded from my ears. They are still far and away my finest; proximity to the genius had been my muse.
But there are no more geniuses, certainly not me. Perhaps someday I will find my voices, as he did, but I fear this is as close as I shall get. Until I or some other fool listens hard with acute hearing and great patience to our own souls, his kind is extinct.
Yet they have left us such a legacy I am sure they never shall die.