“If you can guess what I have in my pocket, you can have it.” My grandfather, Poppa Wilson, would always create some cryptic game with us grandkids. It was always fun and it always taught me a lesson I’d as soon remember as forget. It was my birthday, and we were gathered at his house for the celebration.
One thing you had to know- there was never a right answer with Poppa Wilson. And there was never a wrong one, either. He was the ultimate Devil’s Advocate, disagreeing with any physicist about which colors actually comprise the rainbow, and disagreeing with the pope himself about the flight patterns of angels.
But never call him a “Devil’s Advocate”, per se. You see, he fought the Devil to a standstill in Venice once, an occasion that caused him obvious angst. He’d always tell us that he’d tell us that story someday, but he was already pushing 93 years of age.
He stood there in the hallway in his plaid newsboy cap and plaid jacket, hand over his breast pocket, covering the shape of whatever was inside.
“What if I don’t guess, Grandpa?”
“How’s that?” His ears were probably waxed shut for a decade. His Einsteinian moustache looked like mouse whiskers as he crinkled his nose. His nose crinkling was involuntary and endearing.
“What if I already know what’s in your pocket and don’t have to guess? Then do I still get what’s inside?”
He had a look of mock pain as he backed up. Poppa Wilson made believe he’d just been shot, hand still on his breast pocket. “Now, you know that knowing something is cheating, don’t you? Just like studying for a test, that’s cheating. How could you ever get a wrong answer if you already know it beforehand? It lowers your odds to zero, and anything having zero odds is simply not fair.”
Grandpa liked banter very much. He used it to teach, he used it to play, and he did it better than anyone else I’ve met. Sometimes when a person wants to be on a roll, you just need to push them to get going and let gravity take its course. So I baited him. “I disagree. I think knowing is better than guessing.” When you jockeyed an argument with Poppa, you never really knew what your own opinion was. Or his, for that matter. All you knew was that he disagreed.
“Why, it goes against nature, son. There’s no such thing as knowing anything. The natural world guesses, don’t you see? One day, it guessed me and you right into existence! Maybe to you I look like a dotty old goat, but I’ve read a couple of books. Scientists say atoms pop into and out of reality all the time! So when the teacher asks you, ‘what’s one apple plus another apple?’ you just tell her, ‘Hey! There’s no way I can know that! One of the apples might disappear suddenly, or another apple might show up out of nowhere.’”
I laughed at that. I’m not sure if it’s because of the oversimplification of quantum physics or because he forgets I’m in college, where we don’t add apples.
He patted his jacket pocket and smiled in between nose crinkles. He added surprised blinking to his endearing involuntary tics, apparently. “Well? What’s in my pocket?”
I told him. “I saw you putting your car keys in your plaid jacket last night, Poppa Wilson. And I overheard you telling Grandma that you’d be giving me your car for my 18th birthday. My ears aren’t as bad as yours, you know.” I smiled at him. Something about his good nature rubbed off on you.
He uncovered his hand from the jacket. Then he laughed at me. “Right answer, wrong pocket.” His jacket- this jacket, didn’t have a pocket. It must have been new, but it looked so much like the other one.
Grandpa reached into his right pant leg and took out the key to the large American automobile in the driveway. “There’s no way of knowing something until you find it out for sure, my boy. Until then, all you have is your best guess.” He dropped the key into my stunned open palm, crinkled his nose, and then walked over to the couch.