Diminished Capacity

Diminished Capacity

by Sherwood Kiraly


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Dimished Capacity by Sherwood Kiraly, author of three other novels including California Rush, Big Babies and Who's Hot, Who's Not, is a humorous story about an unlikely trio who hatch a plan to sell a rare baseball card, and is the basis for the motion picture starring Matthew Broderick, Alan Alda, and Virginia Madsen.

The townsfolk once voted him the strangest man in Missouri, but he turned the honor down, claiming it was "just a popularity contest." He has baited hooks connected to the keys of an old typewriter by the side of the Mississippi, so the local fish can write poetry. He keeps stacks of old newspapers piled up to his bedroom ceiling, and he doesn't know why. They don't get much more eccentric than old Rollie Zerbs of LaPorte, Missouri. But he does have one thing going for him—a rare 1909 Chicago Cubs tobacco baseball card, one of the most valuable cards in existence. And even though he can't remember where he just put it, he's on his way to Chicago to see what the card will bring...

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312387037
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/10/2008
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Sherwood Kiraly is the author of three other novels, including CALIFORNIA RUSH, BIG BABIES, and WHO'S HOT, WHO'S NOT.

Read an Excerpt


My uncle Roland Zerbs lives in LaPorte, Missouri, where I grew up. He’s known locally as the Fish Man.

LaPorte is small, under a thousand population—too small for Uncle Rollie, who is a sufficient character for a much larger town. He’s old now and no longer runs the basement tavern on Front Street, but he pursues his great hobby or obsession with even more intensity than he did when I was a little boy, thirty years ago.

It’s always been Uncle Rollie’s goal to publish the poetry written by the fish that live in the Mississippi River, which runs past LaPorte. And the main impediment to his doing this is not, as you might think, getting the fish to write the poetry, but in getting anyone else to take their work seriously.

For many years now, Rollie Zerbs has been going to the end of the pier below his blufftop house every day and checking the paper in his old Royal typewriter, which he leaves out whenever weather and river allow. What he’s done is attach lines of differing length to each key on that typewriter and let them down into the water, hooked and baited. Periodically a fish will yank on one of those lines and depress a key on the typewriter. And gradually, over the course of weeks and months and years, the fish have wound up writing things.

Just about everybody in LaPorte has walked at one time or another out onto the pier and looked at what the fish were up to, and just about everybody has pointed out to Uncle Rollie that the stuff on the pages isn’t any good. I’ve been out there several times and the only actual word I ever saw spelled out correctly was “wart.” Most of it looks like the kind of thing your baby daughter does when she gets at the keys. I’ve seen no indication of any talent of any kind on the part of any of these fish.

It’s not much use bringing that up to Uncle Rollie, however. It doesn’t have any effect on him. He sits on his porch, on the small bluff overlooking the river, and pays more attention to the mosquitoes than he does to criticism. He’s squatty and squish-faced, with thick spiky black hair and glasses and a stumpy cigar. He’s ugly, but he’s not alarming at all—he doesn’t look crazy or dangerous. In fact if anything he looks kind of satisfied. Superior. And if, as I say, you mention your doubts as to the ability of his fish, he just points with his cigar out to the end of the pier and tells you this:

“You got to be patient with ‘em is all. What in the hell do you expect, accurate spelling? Jeee-sus Ka-RIST. They’re underwater! The best they can do is guess which line goes to which key. That’s where I come in. If after a few days I see what appears to be just drunken nonsense, something like ‘fjeighexlskeh,’ well, I look all through that to see if there’s a word anywhere. Now, you see, there’s one. ‘Hex.’ Well, all right then. I keep that word and throw out all the errors. And you keep all the words and put them together and you’ll end up sometimes at the end of a few months with something so fine and mysterious that it haunts your dreams. You can’t tell me those fish don’t know what they’re doin’. They’re deep.”

And then he’ll haul out some of the poems. I remember one in particular he showed me. He’d “cleaned up all the mistakes,” and it read like this:

He ran not out from

But into under

The falling shards

Uncle Rollie has enough of these to make up a small volume, and he’s perpetually sending copies of it to publishers with a standing invitation for them to come out to LaPorte and see for themselves that he’s telling the truth and the material is actually being written by freshwater fish, mostly perch. So far nobody’s taken him up on it, but I know that he’s on the square because I’ve been on the pier late at night when a couple of those keys have hammered on the page, and I’ll testify it’s an eerie experience.

Uncle Rollie’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t really expect his fish poetry to be recognized or acknowledged in his lifetime. “Most people,” he says, “don’t know gold when it’s in the street; they only know it when it’s in the store window.” He’s accustomed to being looked upon as a figure of fun. Once a year they send somebody over from the Quincy, Illinois, TV news, across the river, and do a feature about him, “On the Lighter Side.” But he sees himself as basically a serious person with a calling, not like these people who swallow their noses on videotape to get on TV.

The consensus in LaPorte has always been that Rollie Zerbs is claiming for the fish of the Mississippi a talent they don’t possess, and that he shouldn’t make them work at a job they’re not qualified for.

But no one’s ever tried to stop him. He’s always been allowed to pursue happiness in his own way—until now.

Now, it seems, Uncle Rollie is in danger of being closed down. He just called to tell me about it. He’s looking my way for assistance—one Zerbs to another. He thinks we’re a lot alike.

He wants me to come back to LaPorte and help him out. He says my mother is trying to put him away, and that I’m the only one he can count on.

He called me up tonight and said, “Cooper, your mother says I’ve got diminished capacity.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible, Uncle Rollie,” I said.

This whole question of Rollie Zerbs’s mind has been a reliable subject of conversation in LaPorte for years, like the weather or the Cardinals. But the idea of him deteriorating from his usual level has never come up.

“Your mother is comin’ at me from every angle here,” he told me.

My mom has never completely forgiven herself for marrying into the LaPorte Zerbses. My dad Loren, Uncle Rollie’s little brother, was a failure by most standards, including his own. He left us when I was a kid, but he was so unsuccessful in his travels that he came back. Mom had to ask him to go away again. There has never been a Zerbs in LaPorte who excited much admiration.

Mom, on the other hand, is a Tyke, and the Tykes tend to do well and accomplish things. One of my cousins, Charlie Tyke, played shortstop for Chicago in the major leagues for several years. He’s the most famous person to come out of LaPorte. Mom herself has artistic talent. She wrote and illustrated a history of northeast Missouri for the DAR.

People in town think the Tykes and Zerbses should never have merged. They’ve always viewed me as a kind of checkerboard on which the influences of the two families are canceling themselves out.

When I was growing up, it was suggested from time to time by other kids in town that I should be ashamed of myself for being a Zerbs. But Mom always encouraged me, and I tried extra hard to amount to something and get out of LaPorte. Eventually I ended up here in Chicago, where I’ve found a little niche for myself at the Neatly Chiseled Features newspaper syndicate.

But even when I was embarrassed about him and denying that we were blood relatives, I always liked my uncle. I won’t say he was a role model. I never wanted to emulate Uncle Rollie. I got my role models from the TV and the sports pages. But I liked him anyway. He liked me, too. When I was little, he sat me up on the bar in his tavern and gave me pretzels. Later on he took me down to Busch Stadium twice a year to see the Cardinals.

I always wished, though, that he’d drop the fish thing.

It didn’t surprise me to hear tonight that my mom is trying to get Uncle Rollie under supervision. She considers herself responsible for family, even old cracked ex-in-laws. During the big flood a couple years ago, when Uncle Rollie had to move to higher ground, he stayed in her backyard cottage on the upper bluff. It was then that her opinion of him solidified.

Nor was I surprised that Uncle Rollie called me up about it.

“I knew you’d understand how it feels,” he said.

I’ve got a little of that myself, is what he meant. A little diminished capacity. I used to be noteworthy in the family for my quick, retentive mind, but I hit my head on a building in an incident here in Chicago last winter and ever since then I haven’t been at full strength mentally. I have gaps. Sometimes my head feels dense inside. It isn’t painful but it’s distracting.

At work, at Neatly Chiseled Features, I don’t do as much as I used to. I mostly just read the comics now. I check to make sure the words in the balloons are spelled right and the arrows are pointing at the right characters. I log the features in and out. We have about forty different comic strips and panels, which we sell to newspapers all over the country. I also go through the submissions to see if any show promise. We get about a thousand submissions a year from cartoonists who want to be syndicated.

It’s a position of some responsibility, but I don’t kid myself. They don’t consider me sharp enough anymore to proofread the daily text features. You can sit there and take your time with two weeks of The Careful Avenger or Wacky Kat, but you have to turn the political columns around in an hour. I just can’t do that anymore. If there’s any kind of deadline or intellectual pressure, I get that feeling of density in my head. Sometimes I can’t retain the sense of what I’m reading from paragraph to paragraph. My doctor says I’m making progress, but it’s been slow.

I saw a TV newsmagazine story once about a man who ate some bad shellfish and lost his short-term memory. He had to write down everything he did all day or he’d forget where he was going and where he was coming from. My impairment isn’t nearly that extensive, but since I saw that story I’ve taken to keeping a record of things, as a safety measure. I try to write things down while they’re fresh. My recollection isn’t photographic, like it used to be. Now it’s more smeared, like an Impressionist painting. But by writing events down as I go along, if I get worse at least I’ll be able to read my own memoirs and find out what I did.

I’ve retained most of what Uncle Rollie said tonight. His main concern is that Mom wants to have him put in a home.

“She’s discovered a place out near Medina that costs thirty-eight dollars a day and doesn’t take overflow from the mental hospital,” he said. “How’s that sound? Pretty good?”

“She told you that?” I asked him.

“Says I’m going to burn my house down. I guess I can burn down the goddamn house if I want to.”

“Do you want to?”

“What are you doin’, Cooper, testing to find out if I’m an idiot?”

Uncle Rollie doesn’t want to leave his house because his “work” is there, down below on the pier. He evacuated during the flood when the water covered the kitchen floor, but he came back afterward, through the silt and the gumbo. He is impervious to advice and ridicule.

“People don’t think that fish poetry of yours is very rational,” I told him at one point tonight.

“Well, I’ll tell ya,” he said. “Your mother and her friends think in the year 2000 Jesus is gonna come down out of the sky on a horse.”

“That’s religion,” I said.

“Well, who’s to say Jesus ain’t coachin’ my fish?” he demanded. “Maybe they’re harbingers of the Judgment Day. Maybe they’re gonna give us the Word from out of the rolling river.”

“I suppose you talk like that around Mom.”

There was a pause. When Uncle Rollie spoke again he was quieter and a little shaky.

“I wish you’d come on down here, Cooper,” he said. “I got people comin’ in here when I’m asleep.”

I couldn’t make anything of that.

“Who?” I asked.

“Cooper,” he said, “it would behoove you to do me this favor.”

I got that. That meant I owe him, because I let him down previously by not submitting his fish poetry to my boss. Uncle Rollie thinks a daily fish poem would be an attractive feature in the nation’s newspapers. But I’ve never felt secure enough in my job to present the idea to my superiors.

So he said again, “It would behoove you. I can maybe ride this out if you’ll just … come down here and do this one thing for me that I’ve got in mind.” And then he added gruffly, “Please,” and hung up on me.

Mom called up about a half hour later and told me Uncle Rollie has senile dementia.

“Your uncle has accelerated deterioration of the remainder of his mind,” she said. “I’m going to need you to come down here and help me, we’re going to have to get a conservatorship. There’s nobody on your father’s side of the family left in town, so we have to do it. There might have to be a hearing.”

“Well, I just talked to him and he didn’t sound so bad,” I said.

“He’s got enough adrenaline left to sound borderline, briefly,” she said, “but that’s all. What did he want? What did he say to you?”

“He wanted me to come down and visit,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “He likes you and he might listen to you. Come on and be a help. It’s time you participated in the family.”

I’ve got a week’s vacation coming. I worry about being out of the office because I’m afraid my substitute will outshine me, but Casey has always said my job is secure, and he has no reason to lie to me. He could have fired me when I started making mistakes after I hit my head, but he didn’t.

Here at home … well, I don’t think the idea of a trip to Missouri will be popular. Irene’s been there once before. She didn’t like it.

We’re still living together, but Irene’s not real pleased with me. Seems like she’s mad all the time. I don’t like to live like that. I can’t get my balance when I’m in the sitting room, wondering whether she’s going to come in at me from the kitchen or the bedroom. She circles around the apartment and then darts in and grabs something of mine off an end table and takes it away and puts it somewhere else.

Off balance; that’s it. That’s the way I feel at home. About once a winter I take a big fall on the ice, usually when I’m coming up the walk with two bags of groceries. One heel slips and I try to recover with the other one and then it slips and I get to backpedaling and my arms go shooting up and the groceries sail up in the air as I land on my tailbone on the pavement. It’s a satisfying sight to the passerby. Sometimes if I have time before I land I say, “Woo-woo-woo!”

That’s how it is with Irene. Inside I’m always saying, “Woo-woo-woo.”

She’s asleep now. I guess I’ll wait to tell her about this. She said something recently about us going to Lake Geneva on my vacation. LaPorte isn’t really comparable.

Uncle Rollie seemed about the same except for that part about people sneaking up on him while he’s asleep. That didn’t sound like he was razor-sharp.

It never occurred to me that somebody like him could slow down. People talk about how sad it is to see the ruin of a noble mind, but it’s sad, to me, to think of the ruin of Uncle Rollie’s mind, too.

DIMINISHED CAPACITY. Copyright © 1995 by Sherwood Kiraly. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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