gods grandfather

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By Don Marquis
Copyright (c) 2003 by John Batteiger

Following is an original, previously unpublished story by Don Marquis, written and rewritten in the early 1930s. Don had intended to use this bit of light fantasy as the first chapter of a planned autobiography, but he eventually dropped the project and spent his last years working on a mostly autobiographical novel, “Sons of the Puritans,” which was published after his death.
“God’s Grandfather” was edited in 2003 to incorporate revisions penned by Marquis on several copies of the manuscript owned by Knox College of Galesburg, Illinois, where Marquis attended classes in 1898. This online edition is its first publication. Special thanks go to Carley Robison, archives curator at Knox’s Seymour Library, who made the manuscript available, and to Knox College itself, which allowed its publication.

— John Batteiger, July 29, 2003

*  *  *

All my life I had been hearing such expressions as, “he is as old as God’s Grandfather,” or “that happened when God’s Grandfather was a little boy,” and so forth, used to denote immense, legendary age. I had even used such expressions myself, but had never thought of God’s Grandfather as a real person.

Last night very late — or very early this morning — I was writing the phrase, using it in a scrap of dialogue, when something impelled me to look up from the table at which I was working. An elderly personage was regarding me from the other side of the table with a manner not at all sympathetic, and more than a little daunting because he was so near.

“You always seem to think there’s something amusing about me,” accused this being, with a certain resentment in his tone.

“Who are you?” I managed to ask, in spite of my feeling of oppression at this very immanent presence.

“Archangels,” said the personage, addressing the air, “materialize, and tell him who I am.”

Immediately two gentlemanly angels appeared, one at either shoulder of my visitor. They were dressed in evening clothes, but they wore them with a difference. I don’t know exactly what (or why) the difference is between the way a head waiter wears a dinner jacket and the way a guest wears it, but a difference there is. These two angels wore their evening clothes as if they might be something between valets and companions; but they were indubitably angels. I am sensitive to the supernatural, and I felt that at once.

“This,” said the right-hand angel, “is God’s Grandfather.”

I said, to the two angels: “Won’t you sit down?”

I said that, I suppose, because I was writing a play at the moment. Somewhere in every play the phrase occurs, “Won’t you sit down?” You can’t keep it out. I have tried and tried to keep it out of plays, but it can’t be done. Even if an author leaves it out, the producer usually puts it in. And if the producer and director forget it, the leading actor will put it in. He will say: “I think I need a line right there, Mr. Gazinkus, to cross on just before I sit at the table with the lamp on it, and see the photograph. Miss Gazookus might say to me, ‘Won’t you sit down?’ or something natural like that.” Actors do a lot for plays, in that way. They always put it in.

The right-hand angel sat down. I said to the left-hand angel: “Won’t you sit down?” He sat down, too. They looked like two very gentlemanly bodyguards, as they sat there.

God’s Grandfather said to me: “Do you see anything particularly funny about me? Hey, do you?”

“Now, Granfer,” put in the left-hand angel, swiftly, “it won’t do for you to be getting excited. It will react on us, you know. If we bring you back home all flustered and heated up, we are the ones who will be stood on the carpet and get a dressing-down, not you.”

“These two archangels,” said God’s Grandfather, somewhat resentfully, “go everywhere I go. They’re supposed to be an escort of honor, or something of that sort. But you can’t fool me about it — I’m perfectly aware that the implication is that I’m no longer capable of taking care of myself.”

“I don’t blame you for resenting it,” I said.

“Wouldn’t you?” he replied. “Wouldn’t anybody?” He looked darkly at the two genteel attendants. “In my time,” he murmured, “an archangel knew his place. I made or unmade archangels … like that.” He snapped his fingers.

“But things aren’t what they used to be?” I suggested. I have found, in my journalistic work, that this insinuation always pleases the aged; it is a key to unlock the casket of their grievances.

“I’ll say they’re not!” said God’s Grandfather.

“Now, Granfer!” warned the right-hand angel.

“Will you please vanish!” said the old gentleman, testily. “When I want you, I’ll call you!”

The two angels politely vanished. But I had a sense that they were still there, although invisible to me. I heard a stiff shirt bosom creak, after I ceased to see them. Secret Service men, for some reason or other, always have shirt bosoms which creak when they put on evening clothes — shirt bosoms, perhaps, a trifle conscious of themselves.

“There’s been a general deterioration since your day, Granfer?” I said.

“In every way,” he replied. “Slackness! Laxness! Of course, there’s bound to be more than one theory of the way to run a universe, and I wouldn’t care to be quoted as imputing incompetence to my Grandson. But in my day a Deity was a Deity, and no damned nonsense about it. If you denied the existence of a Personal God, you found yourself in Hell before the words were off your tongue — and you stayed there, too, till you ate those words, with brimstone dressing, like it or not.

“But now it’s the fashionable thing to let people get away with almost anything. Liberality! Reason! Leniency! All that weak stuff! It’s ruining the universe!

“Why, I saw a preacher get up in the pulpit three or four Sundays ago and heard him tell his congregation that the Spiritual Father of the Universe meant merely the Spirit in the universe, and that there wasn’t any Being at all! No Person! Can you imagine? Just a kind of general essence, I suppose! In my time that fellow’s whole mouth would have burst out in flames, automatically, before he got the words out of it — and the fire would have spread to the church itself — maybe to the whole community — and in three minutes there wouldn’t have been anything where that city had been but a little pile of insignificant and discouraged cinders. But nothing happened to him.”

Granfer dropped his voice, and breathed: “Why, I’ve actually heard him praised in some quarters, for his courage and liberality! Can you beat that?”

“Do you look for a change in the administration?” I enquired. “Is there enough good old conservative sentiment left to take hold of things again, in a big way, and run them the way they should be run, once more? What do you expect?”

“I expect ruination,” said Granfer. “I’m not listened to. My council, predicated, after all, upon considerable experience, is uniformly rejected. Things will get worse before they get better. My Son’s Son, who will naturally take charge of things in due course, seems to me to have just one idea — mercy, forgiveness, charity! He’s a nice boy; nobody can help liking him; but if he continues in the way he’s started, I look to see nothing less than the abolition of Hell itself, in its entirety; the complete remission of punishment! Everything is sympathy, sympathy, sympathy, nowadays, and pardon the sinning! He’s a good boy, and he just can’t bear to think of anyone getting it in the neck. That’s what comes of having a human being for a Mother! I’ve told his Father so, too.

“Well, naturally … human beings!” Granfer made an expressive gesture with his hands.

“The moment that element becomes dominant,” he said, “the game’s up! Give ’em an inch, and they’ll take an ell! Of course they want mercy, pardon, forgiveness, all that weak and sleazy stuff. They need it!

“The truth is, they don’t want any Gods at all; and never did! You’ve got to bear down on ’em, and keep bearing down, and show ’em what’s what! In my day, I’d like to have seen one of ’em get up on his hind legs, in a pulpit or anywhere else, and say there wasn’t any Personal God!

“I’d have damned the whole species with one word, and flung the whole damned species into hell, for just one shadow of a thought of that kind, like a bunch of twigs into a bonfire.

“You can’t take any half-way measures with this stuff. Either you’re the Big Boss, or you aren’t! And if for one minute you aren’t, they’ll have you off your throne in half a cycle!

“The fact is, they want to run things themselves, and they haven’t got the intelligence for it! Damned Bolshevists! Run things! Men! I’d fix ’em!

“In fact,” said Granfer, chuckling, “I did fix ’em one time. They got chesty, just as chesty as they are now. And just to show ’em where they stood, I took intellect away from ’em, and gave it to giraffes instead.

“I got a dozen or so human philosophers Up Above, and showed ’em this long line of giraffes — about a million of ’em — striding along with their heads up in the air, and horn-rimmed spectacles on, with intellect sparkling out of every vertebra like electricity — walking in a long solemn row, thinking, thinking, thinking!

” ‘There,’ I said to the human philosophers, ‘look at that! And don’t laugh when you look at it, either! There’s Thought for you! They do it better than you do! They’re more serious and convincing about it! Just one glance, and you can see there’s Thought there!’

“I told men if they didn’t get a little more humble about their intellect, I’d make this giraffe dispensation permanent!”

“Granfer!” One of the guardian angels spoke from his invisibility. “You know you aren’t supposed to chatter secrets like that! You’ll find getting away from home harder and harder, if you disobey regulations.”

Granfer disregarded this advice.

“The trouble with men is, “he went on, “that they’re getting so, nowadays, they can’t take it! In my time, I was getting them hardened up. They got justice, and I made ’em like it. They didn’t expect all this mercy and forgiveness for their sins, and they didn’t get it. I was getting them toughened so they amounted to something. But now –“

“Granfer,” said the left-hand angel, suddenly bulging into visibility again, “don’t you think we’d better be on our way! We’ve got a long way to go before morning.”

“Just practically spies,” said Granfer to me, jerking his thumb towards his attendants. “Angels aren’t what they used to be in the old days, either. My angels used to be pretty rough cherubs, some of them, but a lot of these fellows nowadays aren’t much superior to men — mollycoddles! The tone of everything has slackened and relaxed.”

“We’d better be back, inside the Pearly Gates, before morning,” said the right-hand archangel, looming into view, “or you know what we’ll all get!” He bent a dominant brow above me. “And I strongly advise you,” he said, “not to rush into print with anything Granfer has said. It will not only make things more difficult for him, but it won’t do you any good in certain exalted quarters.”

“I strongly advise it,” said the other celestial G-man, drawing very close to me, in a rather flat-footed way.

“Oh, he’d get forgiven,” said Granfer, a little bitterly. “He’s human, you know! It’s the fashion nowadays to go easy on human beings!”

“Do you want your remarks printed, Granfer?” I asked him.

“Let’s take a chance and see what happens,” said Granfer, including his guardian angels as well as myself in his smile — a very boyish smile, I thought, for one of his age.

The two G-men linked arms with Granfer, and the three of them vanished as one angel.

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