Cousin Elgin
Copyright Richard Schwartz, 2002

According to your Family Archives you had a cousin named Elgin. Little of consequence is known about Elgin's origins, his early life being indistinguishable from those of the millions of other people who lived during the same period. He first drew attention to himself when he attacked his aunt's kitchen with a shotgun. Following the shotgun incident his life was recorded in considerable detail.

The Archives tell you that Cousin Elgin had been a graduate student at the University of Ohio, specializing in number theory. His had made a spectacular beginning to his graduate studies but by the middle of his second year he began to drift erratically. He complained of headaches and loneliness and at night sometimes wandered outdoors in his bathrobe. In the spring of his second year he abrubtly left the University of Ohio, telling his advisor that he ``needed to clear his head''.

Elgin turned up several weeks later at his Aunt Mabel's house, on Easter Sunday. He came to the event carrying a sawed-off shotgun. He hadn't shaved or bathed for several weeks. He paced about the house, periodically asking other guests the solution to an elementary problem in number theory. He flew into a rage when he had determined that nobody could help him with his problem and proceeded to demolish the kitchen with the shotgun while the terrified guests cowered in the living room. Elgin finally calmed down when one of his younger brothers, who had arrived late on the scene, managed to answer his question. The authorities found Elgin collapsed on the floor of the obliterated kitchen, sobbing quietly.

Immediately following the kitchen attack Elgin was sent to the notorious Ohio State Facility for Deranged Adults. He spent years in a dank cell with nothing to console him but the tunes his cellmate ``Rusty Joe'' picked out on an old two-string guitar. Elgin gradually learned to play the instrument himself, and found some respite in that modest activity.

In the years following his release he took a long series of menial jobs on one side of the law or the other. He designed religious trinkets out of silver and turquoise, smuggled guns across the Canadian border, washed dishes in a boarding school for musicians.

Fed up with his hand-to-mouth existence, Elgin joined the Benedictine Order in 2005, vowing to dedicate his life to contemplation. His powers of concentration returned to him and he reacquainted himself with his youthful passion, the Theory of Numbers. He worked his way through a textbook and then tackled the classic works, finally raising himself to the pinnacle of knowledge in that subject.

One tranquil evening in 2010, Elgin heard a commotion outside the window of his humble abode. He looked out the window and was amazed to see his former cellmate, ``Rusty Joe'', using the old two-string guitar to beat the tar out of an angry Dobermann Pinscher. Neither man nor beast survived the brutal fight but Elgin was able to salvage the guitar. It came to him in a flash that he should use his knowledge of mathematics to study the instrument.

When Elgin founded the rock'n'roll band called the Strumming Monks in 2013, the few people who took notice wrote him off as a ``holy fool''. The band played in the local taverns surrounding the monastery and gradually built a loyal following. During one of their gigs a crow flew into the window and knocked over a pitcher of beer. Elgin took this as a sign that the band would prosper.

By 2015 the band regularly graced the concert halls of upstate New York, gaining momentum and popularity. Their big break came in the summer of 2016, with an invitation to open at Carnegie Hall. Following this, the invitations streamed in from all over world. Elgin made albums that went platinum. His picture appeared on the cover of Newsweek. People living in huts in the Sahara desert could recognize him at a distance of fifty paces.

The Archives show you the scene from Easter Sunday, 2020. You find it inspiring to see a man as famous as Cousin Elgin sitting there, again, in Aunt Mabel's modest living room. He wears a white suit and mirrored sunglasses. His silver-streaked goatee comes to a point at the end of his chin. He looks suave enough to be the devil. Elgin sips from a bottle of wine so expensive it has no name. He seems to reach out to you from the hologram, offering you a drink. ``They called this bottle `Blue Athena' back in Napoleon's time,'' his reconstructed voice tells you as he fills the glass. The scene is so real! You reach for the wineglass but grab only air. It takes you a moment to remember that the Archives are reporting on the life of Cousin Elgin from the distance of seventeen thousand years.

You like to visit the Family Archives, as a relief from the incredible boredom of living in the year 19205. Seventeen thousand years of explosive colonization and technological growth have brought the human race nothing but emptiness and homogeneity. People inhabit thousands of worlds but on each one they are the uncomprehending custodians of a vast machinery that caters to their every material need but does nothing to satisfy their eternal craving for conflict, excitement and insight. The effect is simply that everyone is given a magic wand and allowed to use the wand subject to the imposed constraints of safety and fairness. The Archives give you a glimpse into a romantic, chaotic past.

Before the hologram fades you notice something new, a disclaimer written into the corner of the screen. The disclaimer tells you that the Archives have been revised since your last visit. It seems that the records from the earliest days of the Archives were not collected using sound historical methods. Sources were misquoted, personal histories distorted. The disclaimer explains that the revision has been made according to the information given by the new probes, which see into the past with a pitiless clarity.

The revised Family Archives tell you that Cousin Elgin was not a graduate student at the university but rather a twenty-eight year old gun salesman. He had worked in the same gun shop for a decade, having been hired there shortly after his graduation from high school. Completely sane at the time he was hired, he gradually succumbed to depression and mentally instability. He had managed to conceal his affliction from his employer until the day of the kitchen attack.

Another guest at the Easter party, Elwood Baines, was a mathematics graduate student at the University of Ohio. A rather eccentric fellow, Baines had a habit of talking to himself about his work and once became so engrossed in it that he left his house in his bathrobe. Aunt Mabel lived in the set of houses adjacent to the university, and Baines was her neighbor. Cousin Elgin and Elwood Baines had never met before, though the two men bore a passing resemblance to one another. Baines' obvious eccentricity made a big impression on the people he met at the Easter party, though this impression was eclipsed by Elgin's subsequent demolition of the kitchen.

The authorities transferred Cousin Elgin to the Ohio State Facility for Deranged Adults, as it was commonly miscalled in jokes. The actual name was the Ohio State Corrections Facility. This facility retained an unjustified reputation as a loony bin because it had briefly housed a small psychiatric ward ten years prior to Elgin's incarceration. By the time Elgin arrived, the facility was entirely a low security prison, designed for offenders the state deemed eminently capable of reforming. Elgin spent one year in this clean, modern facility while he received weekly therapy sponsored by the state.

Following his release, Elgin returned to society without incident. The members of his community saw his one lapse as the outcome of a now-cured illness and showed considerable largess in welcoming him back. He landed a job as the recreation director of the nearby state park and eventually married one of the rangers under his supervision.
Elgin did not have a cellmate. However, several months after his discharge his cell was briefly occupied by a talented guitar-playing teenager named Russell Joe Wilcox. Wilcox had run away from his home in North Carolina when he was sixteen years old and had been drifting around the country. He had earned a modest living playing his guitar for street audiences and taking odd jobs as they came, but then was arrested for vagrancy in Ohio. He spent a month in prison before his spiteful father agreed to bail him out. Russell Joe's inspired playing left a lasting impression on the prisoners and guards of the Ohio State Corrections Facility, and many of them bought the one moderately successful album he made nine years later.

Elgin's wife, Carlotta Joan Hilton, had moved to Ohio only four months before taking a job as a park ranger. She hailed from upstate New York. In her youth she had a passion for making bracelets and earrings out of turquoise and silver and she dreamed of becoming an artist. Her dreams never materialized and, prior to her move to Ohio, she had been a distributor for a jewelry company that specialized in religious trinkets. Her business brought her in frequent contact with a Benedictine monastery five miles south of the Canadian border.

Though she had moved to Ohio for a change of pace, she grew increasingly lonesome there, for the remainder of her family still lived in upstate New York. Five years into the marriage her loneliness became unbearable and she persuaded Elgin to move with her back to her home town. Elgin found a similar job in his new location and Carlotta returned to her former position with the jewelry company.

The couple settled into a tranquil routine which was marred only once. Returning from work one evening in 2010 Elgin was attacked by a feral dog. The dog gave Elgin several serious bites on his legs before Elgin broke free and shot it dead with the rifle he routinely carried on his rounds though the state park. Elgin spent the night in the emergency room and then limped for several months before completely recovering.

The monastery, with which Carlotta again dealt, had an unusual history. Originally it had been a religious school. However, several teachers there also happened to be musicians and this coincidence of talent resulted in a surprisingly strong musical component in the school's curriculum. The school eventually fell victim to its own success. Its strong music reputation diluted its status as a religious institution, and its official mission of religious instruction prevented it from becoming a true musical powerhouse. Neither fish nor fowl, the place eventually folded. The monastery bought the premises in 1992, but allowed some of the former teachers, who had grown fond of the place, to retain an informal affiliation.

Some of the musically inclined monks combined with the former teachers to form a sort of unofficial music band. The band occasionally ventured beyond the walls of the monastery to play in local churches and convention centers, but certainly never found its way into the taverns. Out of modesty the band did not give itself a name, though the townsfolk sometimes referred to it as the Strumming Monks. The band had essentially petered out several years before Elgin arrived in upstate New York, though several of the old members still played together on occasional weekends.

The one true success to come out of the old religious school was a boy named Flynn Crow, a devout student blessed with a remarkable singing voice. After finishing his religious school studies, Crow attended Julliard and went on to become a respected tenor who sang with the New York Symphony Orchestra. In 2017 he interrupted his successful music career to do charity work in Africa, singing gratis for people who lived in huts in the desert. Newsweek once ran an article on him, as an example of the new spirit of charity gripping some of society's elite performers.

Elgin enjoyed a satisfying and uneventful old age. Aside from a chronic eye condition he maintained good health until his death in 2047. Starting in middle age he liked to hide his growing paunch beneath a loose-fitting white jogging suit. He grew a somewhat slovenly goatee, which turned prematurely silver. His eye condition required him, during bright days, to wear mirrored sunglasses. Wearing his white jogging suit, his sunglasses, and his goatee, he looked vaguely like an aging devil. He liked to pass the time drinking the locally brewed beer, which was so common in the area that it did not require a name.