Harcourt Underwood Norcroft was an unsuccessful man. To decrease the understatement, he was an abysmally dismal failure. That such a short man attained such stature as he did amongst the literati is attributable at least to serendipity, at the very most to an act of God; but his story tells all.
Norcroft – other faculty mockingly called him “the Hun” for his use of his three initials on inter-office memos – was not obnoxious, nor was he gifted with extreme ill-fortune. In main, he was uninteresting. The fact that he was a linguistics professor at a small Southern liberal-arts college only served to make him more so. Between the Sports and Science departments, there was little interest in linguistics, which firmly cemented his bankrupt social status. He was unpopular, not from sporting a negative personality – indeed, Norcroft had very little of that commodity, and that was likeable enough – but rather from lack of exposure. No one knew who he was. Some of the younger faculty members would stop him in the hall and confront him about leaky ceilings and lavatories, believing him to be with maintenance (he was not a snappy dresser, either). Ultimately, feeling the need for a draught – however small – of the Milk of Human Kindness, the Hun took to walking several steps behind the most popular professor at the college, a bearded and very with-it Marxist historian, in order to catch the waning waves and smiles of students adoring the other. As a chubby, squat man, he took what he could get.
Norcroft was not entirely in the lurch, though. He was a linguist, and a good one. It was that gift which started his climb to success. He was intimately acquainted with the language of that Philippine stone-age tribe that had been recently discovered, himself being a part of the first team to study the natives. His knowledge of their language brought him to the attention of certain special-interest groups, one of which offered funding for him to translate the Bible into their primitive tongue. With a mind toward better things, Norcroft declined, mentioning more important matters to be undertaken. His humanitarian inclinations piqued, he undertook the monumental task of translating years of back-issues of “Readers Digest”, “Time”, and “The Saturday Evening Post” into the tribal tongue, for purposes of “bringing them up-to-date”.
During this toil, inspired by luminaries like Phyllis McGinley and Ogden Nash, Norcroft began to fiddle with poetry. Spurred on by fillers in “The Post” and articles about McKuen and Bayes, he began to work on pertinent, incisive poetry; writing, mailing, waiting, and reading rejection letters. His creative writing was done between fits of translation; so Norcroft worked.
Understand that here is the place of Providence. Although he was a linguist, he had never fully mastered Mother Tongue. He was an atrocious grammarian. Whenever he had a question about number, tense, or some other niggling point, he would place both within the poem, separated by a hash mark, thus:
crowd, shouting crowd,
leaving the question of usage for Mrs. Steel, his secretary, to sort out. So he wrote; so his secretary corrected and typed; so he collected rejections.
But the break! Norcroft’s secretary took leave of her health, and so leaving, left in her stead a fluffy thing, all curls and gum and nail-polish who, nodding simply took his sheaves of shiny sheets – he used erasable bond – and retyped, exactly as she saw, and mailed, for Norcroft trusted his secretaries.
He had always gone over his rejection letters intently, so how much more did he read the glowing acceptance letter. Yes, they liked the poem; yes it would appear in the next issue. It was published, and was received enthusiastically by a class normally afflicted with ennui. Harcourt Underwood Norcroft was catapulted to literary success. More and more mail, acceptance letters, and checks deluged in, meeting, then surpassing his inventory of rejections. Norcroft carefully filed all, because he was OC before it became trendy. A leading critic with “The New York Times Book Review” hailed “the Hun’s” lynching poem “A Southern masterpiece….The manipulation of verbs bringing into sharp relief the plurality of mob spirit is stunning.” Norcroft’s fame spread.
Months passed. “The Hun”, as his colleagues fondly referred to him, had changed little, for all of his travels and erudite elbow-rubbing, though he had picked up a few idiosyncrasies, like belching loudly after a good meal, a habit he picked up from hob-nobbing with Mishima and other Japanese worthies. He remained Harcourt Underwood Norcroft, linguist, though he had been elevated to the post of the college’s creative writing teacher. Through it all, he had not left his first love; he continued translating popular magazines into that obscure Philippine language. He had years of news, short fiction, poems, Joe’s Stomachs and humor translated, typed, bound and stored in his closet, to be presented to the tribe’s chief upon his next trip to the islands. As he readied his treasure, the beginning of his end began.
Norcroft’s success had not improved his housekeeping. He lived alone, except for the presence of a present from an admirer in the form of a mean Siamese hight Phred, so named after a Vietnamese character in “Doonesbury”, one of the Hun’s latest literary indulgences. Phred tolerated Norcroft, and Norcroft, Phred, making a somewhat amicable relationship, or at least one of detente. Phred became a feline Insinkerator, devouring scraps from dishes stacked in the sink, crusts from pizza, and moo goo from Chinese takeout. He would hunt out bits of goody from the stained carpet in the den, This worked well when Norcroft remembered to eat. Absent that, Phred would quarrel and sulk for days.
Bear in mind that the college campus was sprawling, and split by a lake with a wide causewalk. Norcroft would hoof it, and so his feet took a beating, becoming quite calloused, and would often peel. Then, while grading papers, or composing poetry, he would absent-mindedly peel the dead skin from his feet and flick the fragments onto the carpet. It was during one such molt that he forgot to eat for a few days. Phred, in his search for food, found the little scraps and disposed of them with some ferocity. This went on for about a week, until some ancient, dark, red memories stirred in the brain of the Siamese. He knew what he had to do.
That night, Phred rose from his pillow and stalked toward where Harcourt lay buzzing peacefully. Down the hall, through the door, then the whistle of air through hair (Norcroft sported a moustache) entered the cat’s sharpened ears. He crouched, rocking slightly from hind paw to hind paw, targeting and ranging, and then leapt! Steel mattress springs screeched echoing the Hun’s own panicked
shrieking. With a final hoarse yell, he noticed nothing moving in his chest, and then breathed his last. Work done, Phred began his feast.
Days passed, and with no word from their Hun, two of his colleagues drove out to his modest ranch set in the pines, got out and approached the door, called and then opened it. It was a small town, and few locked their doors. As they started to go in, they were startled by what appeared to be a furry basketball that shot out of the door, scuttled down the walk, then disappeared into the thicket. Even the smell as they entered did not prepare them for the sight of gore and ordure-smeared sheets littered with well-gnawed bones. Being quick-witted liberal-arts professors, they pulled themselves together after redecorating the carpet and made the necessary calls to the police.
As for Phred, he ran off the result of his feeding in a couple of weeks, whereupon he began to terrorize that neighborhood, killing dogs, cats, and randomly attacking small children in their yards, causing the loss of not a few eyes, ears and fingers. He was eventually shot, but not before leaving bite-marks on the barrel of a police lieutenant’s .357.
After Norcroft’s funeral and the joys of probate, his colleagues remembered the palleted cases of the Hun’s translation work. They completed the binding, and arranged an airlift to take the translated magazines to the Philippine tribe. The legacy of Harcourt Underwood Norcroft was gravely received by the Chief, with much celebration and feasting afterward. And somewhere in the island rainforests, a small tribe of people sit around their fires, raise their eyes heavenward, and bless the memory of their benefactor, he who provided them such a boon, such a treasure.
They say that the strange leafy white firewood will last for many moons.
(c)2012 Weatherly Hardy