18. Latin (part III)

In stark contrast to my Christian and Muslim friends’ core belief in Everlasting Life After Death for the good and unwicked, I must say I have always held to the exact opposite–Everlasting Death After Life. For both the good and unwicked and the ungood and wicked. For all of us.

Everlasting Death After Life.

Of course, said out loud this is not nearly as attractive an option as the other way round, which would explain why no one comes to my home to pray, or asks me to speak to groups of people, even very small groups of people, even individuals. Sometimes, people I thought were my friends don’t even return my phone calls, but that may be unrelated.

Caesars Palace, a casino in Las Vegas that attracts thousands of Japanese tourists. Caesars Palace was named after Caesar, who spoke Latin. Could this all be truly just coincidence? (archive by Kikuchi)

And don’t get me started on reincarnation. First of all, there are the obvious technical difficulties involved in rebirth. But even if it were possible, there’s that whole karma thing. If my next life form will be determined by what I’ve done in this life, I’m simply not willing to chance it. Even traffic court makes me nervous, and they don’t have the power to turn me into a cockroach.

I’d be Jewish if for no other reason than the fact that they don’t seem to pander by dwelling on the Life After Death thing. I mean, you have a drink with a rabbi and get him talking and he might say there’s stuff in the Tanakh about life after death, and maybe there is, but a lot of that is just that he’s feeling good. You know, out with a friend, having a beer. Thing is, it’s not on the cover of the leaflets, so to speak, and I respect them for that. The Hard Sell. But then without a clear statement on the whole Life After Death thing what’s the point? Where’s the payoff?

Which leaves me with Everlasting Death. Now, I am aware that this is an unpopular idea, but here are just a few other unpopular ideas that are now seen as great contributions to the advancement of civilization and our understanding of the world:

  • the abolition of slavery
  • Heliocentrism
  • nasal spray
  • universal suffrage
  • Monday Night Football
  • Evolution
  • the use of pimento to fill the hole in olives

Of course, there are those unpopular ideas that remain unpopular, such as nasal capsules, Wednesday morning football, and the use of chewing gum to fill the hole in olives, but I believe Death After Life will eventually catch on.

Which brings me, finally, to Mrs. Grumplebutter, a woman leaning in thoughtful repose against the front bar of her walker, support hose gathering at her ankles, trying to remember why she walked over to the kitchen in the first place.

Mrs. Grumplebutter. The fly in the ointment, the stubborn exception, the one immutable, all-too-tangible touché to my theory on the Afterlife, or lack thereof, for after dying of natural causes in the latter half of the third century A.D., Mrs. Grumplebutter nevertheless continued to pay taxes, complain about the weather when she met her neighbors, and eventually take a job teaching Latin at a nearby school. Mrs. Grumplebutter continued to live, in other words, long long after she died, and it was Mrs. Grumplebutter, in fact, that was employed by my parents in 1975 to tutor me once a week in the wildly unrealistic hope that I might one day pass Latin and graduate from high school.


I leaned on the door bell again, and that got Mrs. Grumplebutter moving again. Got her out of the kitchen and closer to the door. A third ring from me, and Mrs. Grumplebutter’s voice came shrieking through the intercom.

“Who is it there?!”

There were rushes of small birds from trees up and down the block, and a mother instinctively pulled her child close. Dogs began to bark.

“Eddie Trombone,” I said slowly, deliberately, trying to speak loud enough for Mrs. Grumplebutter to hear yet not so loud as to frighten the remaining wildlife or attract any more attention from passersby who had already begun to stop and stare on the sidewalk outside Mrs. Grumplebutter’s massive stone apartment building that looks like it could have been used to film Frankenstein in. Ironically. (You know, the reanimation of life?)

“No!” she squawked through the rusty metal speaker, jiggling the two remaining screws that held it loosely to the doorframe.

“Mrs. Grumplebutter?”

“Eddie Trombone does not live here. He will be here soon, though, if you wish to leave a message.”

“No, no,” I kind of hissed, “I’m Eddie Trombone.”

“Edward? Somebody was just here looking for you,” she cackled, either laughing or having a stroke.

“That was me.”

“Foolish boy! Why would you look for yourself? No wonder you can’t learn Latin.”

“Can I please come up, Mrs. Grumplebutter?”

“You can,” she chided, “but you may not.” A linguist to the end, was Mrs. Grumplebutter, that end, for her, being nowhere in sight.

I smiled at a man who had come to a complete stop on the sidewalk to gape at my discussion with the intercom. He did not smile back, thinking perhaps I was a video or some other form of non-interactive entertainment. The pit bull he had on a leash watched me at first with the same sort of  blank stare as his owner, but then began to softly growl. White foam slowly gathered at his lips, and I noticed what seemed to be a lot of slack in his leash.

May I please come up?” I asked out of the corner of my mouth, not taking my eyes off the leash.

Mrs. Grumplebutter accepted my reworded request, and began her familiar struggle to lean over the top of her walker and push the button to buzz me into the building without toppling over and breaking her 1,700-year-old hip.

Either way lay pain. Either Mrs. Grumplebutter spent the rest of her Everlasting Life with a hip that would probably not properly heal, or I spent an hour seated on a straight-back kitchen chair reliving the humiliation of being drilled on what I didn’t understand in the first place at high school.


Humiliation won again, and I pushed open the dark, heavy door.

Just as well, I thought. Although I did not enjoy my time with Mrs. Grumplebutter, I certainly did not want to see her break a hip. She was a nice enough lady, I  suppose, even though she did little to hide her exasperation in trying to teach me Latin.

Mrs. Grumplebutter was a tutor when I knew her, but she was trying to return to teaching after having retired about 90 years earlier. Employers in the public school system who bothered to read her handwritten resume closely might notice that she listed herself as a “native speaker of Latin.” But in fact most employers did not read resumes carefully, and were just happy to have someone willing to enter unarmed a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers, some of them armed.

And those who did read the resumes either took no notice of that line or they might read it out loud, then look up with a grin thinking to share a chuckle with this mischievous scamp of a woman, only to find Mrs. Grumplebutter looking back unsmiling and slightly confused by having a part of her resume read back to her for no apparent reason.

Because of course she was a native speaker of Latin, though her pronunciation had gotten a little rusty having not had a conversation partner for more than a millennium.

And so it was Mrs. Grumplebutter I dialed from that Osaka subway station using my newly purchased 1,000 yen phone card with a cartoon hippopotamus on it. Certainly, Mrs. Grumplebutter would understand. The placement of verbs, the little bits at the end of nouns to indicate the part of speech, my uncanny inability to learn either language. She would be able to see that Latin is Japanese, and she would be able to help me learn one by teaching me the other. Mrs. Grumplebutter was, after all, my tutor, my guide, my supernatural sensei. The woman had actually met Thomas Aquinas.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (archive by Kikuchi)

There was a click, then a bump, followed by a crash.

“Mrs. Grumplebutter?” I asked after a moment.

“No, I’m Mrs. Grumplebutter.” Her voice came from far away, and sounded strained. I heard her moan.

“Yes, I know . . .”

“Irene Licinia Grumplebutter.”

“Yes, I know.” Actually, I did not know. This was the first time I had heard her full name. I just assumed she didn’t have one. “Are you okay, Mrs. Grumplebutter?” I shouted into the phone.

“I seem to have fallen down,” she replied. “and it would appear I cannot at this time get back up.”

I watched the phone card balance tick down on the payphone screen. In the space of 12 clicks, representing 120 yen, I shouted my entire theory concerning Japanese and Latin into the telephone receiver. I waited. There was no reply.

“Mrs. Grumplebutter? Are you there?”

“Edward?” she called from a distance.

“Yes, Mrs. Grumplebutter?!”

“You are quite possibly the biggest nincom-”


The massive green payphone shuddered once, twice, then spat out my expired phone card, pink hippopotamus and all.

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