Else what shall they do
which are baptized for the dead,
if the dead rise not at all?
Why are they then baptized for the dead?
1 Corinthians 15:29
There’s a vampire in my background. He has stalked me all my life, but he failed to fix his fangs in my jugular until, like an idiot, I blundered into his tomb and offered up my throat. Now I’m stuck.
My mother is an opera enthusiast, but (for understandable reasons) no particular fan of libretti. She played Madame Butterfly for me on her phonograph when I was little, without much comment other than to say it was about a sad lady over in Asia. "Your imagination can make a better story," she said, "so just listen to the music. That’s what I do."
So, the bloodsucker missed that particular chance to invade my awareness. But then the Mormon branch of our clan scraped the clods from his face and started him up from the dead.
A couple of my grampa’s cousin’s eighty-year-old plural wives got bored because the old man had contracted some fresher sofa fodder, so they spent an entire summer fidgeting around in the behemoth genealogical library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints. These sweet old ladies supplied my reluctant but polite mother with information about her bloodlines gleaned from miles and miles of microfilm.
Apart from being disgusted by the whole notion of human pedigree, my mother felt guilty about accepting the smudgy xeroxes. She didn’t want to encourage this sort of thing. Like someone heating the house too much in coal mining country, she couldn’t help thinking of those "volunteers" forced by threat of damnation to spend their weekends wrestling with bales of birth- and death-certificates in the vast genealogical crypt.
Such are the ant-bed-like activities in the library’s nuke-proof stacks, bored deep into the granite side of a mountain near Utah’s plagiarized "Zion." More than a billion dead people wait there on microfilm and hard copy, presumably with bated breath, to be scanned and burnt onto CDs and eventually baptized by proxy. The goal is to bathe in the Water of Righteousness every soul ever to visit the planet, so they’ll all have a fighting chance to make it to the lower floor of Latter-Day-Saint Heaven, there to dance attendance on Mormons properly christened while alive. You can see how difficult it is, in Utah, to keep skeletons firmly buried in the family closet.
A godless cynic, such as my mother’s son used to be, might suggest that this entire subterranean enterprise was actually undertaken for quite another reason which couldn’t be less eschatological: to serve as a monument to the administrative talents of a handful of men. If you are susceptible to a recent bit of flummery known as the bicameral mind theory, the Genealogical Library might remind you of the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Gizeh, or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, any of the other preternaturally labor-intensive Seven Wonders of that historical epoch which supposedly ended, in the rest of the Occident at least, with the awakening of the side of the brain that permits individual volition, as opposed to slavish, social insect-like devotion to hubris-bloated tyrants and their egomaniacal whims. But then, who am I to sit in judgment, when my will is no longer my own, but belongs to the long-dead Ozymandias who founded modern Japan?
In any case, my plural gr’aunties were not miffed in the slightest by anything that a hopelessly unsaved heathen like their distant nephew could say about these mighty works. They had only to point to the then-current "Roots" phenomenon and the craze for personal pedigrees among far-western nouveaux riches, to demonstrate the usefulness of compiling and preserving birth, death and copulation records from every parish church in Christendom and every pagan shrine in the rest of the world (including, unfortunately, the Land of the Rising Sun).
My plural gr’aunties remained unembarrassed in the face of my jeering. They continued to spend most of their waking hours burrowed deep in that nightmarish hole in the rock. It’s a place devoted to drudgery, devoid of decor but for a bizarre (yet hideously apropos) accumulation of Oriental shadow puppets that line the shaft down to Hell. There my personal Vlad the Impaler was waiting to be awakened. I suspect the baptismal water scalded whatever poor Mormon tried to carry his sick soul to Heaven.
Mom saw me off at the airport when, without knowing why, I moved to Nagasaki. (Somehow, it seemed to me that the sit-down job I had gotten there was an inadequate explanation for such a grotesque relocationand I was right.) While we were waiting to be scanned for concealed ordnance, she briefly mentioned that, "according to the Mormon stuff," one of her great-great-or-whatever uncles seemed to have been a shipping magnate or something in the neighborhood of my new home, about a hundred, hundred-twenty years ago.
I had no historical context in which to place this bit of trivia. So, by all rights, the bloodsucker’s name should have leaked out of my brain forty-five thousand feet in the air and fallen into the ocean somewhere over the international dateline. But it didn’t. I couldn’t even remember the name of my place of employment when I got into the taxi at the Nagasaki airport, but this bastard’s moniker was wedged like a worm inside my gray matter, waiting to slither to the surface.
* * * *
Anyone who rides elevators or avails himself of the sit-down toilets in pricey hotel lobbies in my newly adopted town cannot get away from Puccini’s sad heroine. The Muzak around here always plays a synthesized disco version of the famous tunes to which this matchless prose was set
They outcasting me. Aeverybody thing me mos’ bes’
wicked in all Japan. Nobody speak to me no more
they all outcast me aexcep’ jus’ you; tha’ ‘s why
I ought be sawry…But tha’ ‘s ezag’ why I am not!
Wha’ ‘s use lie? It is not inside me that sawry.
Me ? I ‘m mos’ bes’ happy female woman in Japan
mebby in that whole worl’. What you thing?
The story from which the above quaint dialog is excerpted, and upon which Puccini’s libretto is based, was written more than a hundred years ago by a lawyer named John Luther Long, whose sister was an acquaintance of the son of my mother’s great-great- (and maybe one more) uncle.
This uncle was a thoroughgoing son-of-a-bitch who killed everything he glanced at. A Scotch gunrunner without any of Rimbaud’s redeeming characteristics, he helped restore the vicious emperors to the Japanese throne (making possible the blood-bloated reign of Hirohito). He almost singlehandedly industrialized this once gorgeous country, turning it into the toxic wasteland it currently is, by introducing the first railway locomotive and the first mechanized coal mine. And he climaxed this series of signal achievements by founding the dark satanic mill called Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the unfortunately missed target of our second A-bomb in 1945.
Not content with raping the place, my dear old unker bought himself a sex slave from the impoverished natives, doubtlessly dickering till he got a rock-bottom price. It wasn’t necessary to lie to the girl about his intentionseverybody knew the score. But he sadistically promised her holy wedlock, anyway, probably to get more sincere hip action on the old futon. He first made her a proper respectable Christian, of course, thus permanently alienating her from her family and culture. Only when she was dependent on him for everything did he leave the poor wretch (who liked to wear butterfly appliques on her kimono) with the mixed-race baby (also named Tom) whose cries were the only thing that stopped her from hacking herself to death with a samurai knife (just a short onenot one of the glamorous long ones used to impale women and skewer babies later in China, after my uncle supplied them with the steamship technology and the imperial impetus to get them over there).
My unker left behind not only a half-caste bastard and a discarded sex slave whose belly never quite recovered from self-inflicted slashes, but also a grotesquely bloated Raj-style estate on Nagasaki Bay, with gardens that would’ve been big enough to provide living space for several working families. These digs were also unfortunately missed by our Big Boy in ’45.
And instead of razing this blight on the landscape and turning it into, say, a hospice for the pubescent native girls who are raped and torn to shreds and infected with AIDS and hepatitis C every year by brave soldiers from America’s nearby military installations, the Nagasaki Chamber of Commerce turned the place into western Japan’s number-one tourist destination. They mispronounce it "Grubber Gardens," and suppress any connection between this source of revenue and Puccini’s greatest hit. They instruct the American collaborators who write their tourist pamphlets to insist that the story of Madame Butterfly is "pure fiction."
Rather than declaring my Uncle Tom "Grubber" a national anathema and erasing him from the public awareness, chipping his name from the monuments and milestones, as the Romans did with their dead nauseating powerful people, the Japanese have posthumously dubbed him "the Scottish Samurai." They have enshrined the memory this ravenous monster, who destroyed one of their own women in return for a few orgasms, and poisoned their archipelago in the meantime. They call him the Founder of Modern Japan.
Fresh off the plane, I knew none of this, except for the melodies of the opera that, if it had a conventional happy ending, might be called Madame Glover. I was dimly aware that my mother’s maiden name is identical by no mere coincidence. But that was an arbitrary bit of data floating in my short-term memory, and might have evaporated in a day or two, had I not mentioned it, in passing, during a lull in a boring but compulsory orgy of watered-down Suntory whisky guzzling in a hand-job hostess bar.
My new colleagues’ eyes got wider than when you quote them greens fees in an Arizona country club. They choked up and said, "You uncle be Scottish Samurai, yes, no? You name Tom, too, jus’ like you mos’ bes’ famous uncle, yes, no? Ah, werr-come home, Bladderly-sensei! Werr-come home!"
Now I am expected to publish paeans to my esteemed forbear, and to hold forth about him on demand at parties and faculty meetings. Having barely escaped polygamists who dunk themselves in water to save their dead grannies, I am now supposed to join my unbaptized hosts in heathenish ancestor worship. I’ve been urged to set up a sandalwood-reeking shrine to Thomas Glover in my apartment.
My place of employment has offered to fly in a famous calligrapher all the way from Kyoto to render my matrilineal family tree on exquisite rice paper, to be mounted under glass and hung on the wall in my office. I have only to phone my mother and somehow persuade her to dig up the Mormons’ smudgy xeroxes and mail them to me.
They want me to be Grubber II, an honorary Nipponjin, like my Uncle Tom. There have been exquisitely subtle hints that I’ll be given tenure in return for this disinterment of leering evil, and enough of a raise in salary to get house with a garden and a view of Nagasaki Bay.
Do you think that someone of my exhausted bloodlines has anything like the gumption to turn down lifetime employment at a sit-down gig, especially now that my children are fluent in the local dialect and can phone in pizza orders for me? The gerontocrats are planning to invite Grubber, Jr., to stay on till his prostate implodes and his teeth and hair fall all the way out, and he becomes one of them. The vampire Grub is leeched onto my neck and sucking steadily.