This passage is adapted from the title story of Only the Little Bone, a collection of short stories by David Huddle (©1986 by David Huddle).
My grandfather has made crutches for me. These are sturdy crutches, just the right size. I am delighted with them and launch myself around the house on them.
And take a fall immediately. And continue falling5
several times a day, great splatting, knocking-into-furniture-and-breaking-things falls that cause everyone in the family to come running. My grandfather has forgotten to put rubber tips on the ends of my crutches.When we figure this out and buy the rubber tips and put10
them on the crutches, I stop falling. But by then the bone-set that was coming along nicely has slipped, and the doctor has ordered me back to the wheelchair.
The missing crutch-tips are the first clue I have to this peculiar family trait, one that for lack of any better15
term I must call “flawed competence.” We Bryants area family of able and clever people, industrious, intelligent,determined, and of good will. We are careful in our work. After all, my grandfather measured me on two occasions before he made the crutches. But we 20
usually do something wrong.
Four years later I become increasingly aware of“flawed competence” when I develop a plan for converting our old grown-over tennis court into a basket ball court. My grandfather is always interested in plans,25
and in this planning session, we decide that he will make the hoops, and he will help me make the backboards.Clearing the ground and smoothing the surface will be my tasks. So I rip out honeysuckle and hatchet down a few little scrub cedars. We Bryants are known30
for setting our minds to things.
Then my grandfather delivers the hoops. They are beautifully designed and constructed, metalwork of a high order for such amateurs as my grandfather and his men. But the hoops are twice as big around as ordinary35
I say, simply, that they are too big. I am not ungrateful, not trying to be hateful, not in my opinion being overly fastidious. I am simply describing a characteristic of the hoops. But my grandfather’s feelings40
are damaged. No, they can’t be made smaller, and no,he’s not interested in helping me with the back board snow or with any other part of my plan. He’s sorry he got involved in the first place. This, too, is a corollary of “flawed competence.” We are sensitive, especially45
about our work, especially about the flawed part of our work.
At the place where I work twenty-eight years after the basketball hoops, I am given a new office, one with a view of the lake. There’s a string attached, though,50
and that is that I have to build my own bookcases. I commence planning with enthusiasm. That’s another,less harmful family trait, that attraction to making plans. I measure, I look at other people’s shelves, I get someone to help me attach brackets to my office walls. 55
It is while I am cutting a notch in one of the uprights to allow access to the light-switch that I suddenly think of my grandfather and those basket ball hoops. I feel a light sweat break out on my forehead. A pattern of genetic fate reveals itself to me: I’m going to60
mess up these bookshelves just as my grandfather before me would have messed them up. No doubt I’m sawing the notch in the wrong place.
The whole time I work I wait to see where the screw-up is going to come. I imagine what my 65
colleagues will be saying about me in the hallways. Did you know that Bryant built his shelves so they tilt? Did you know that Bryant’s books rejected the color he painted his shelves? But the screw-up doesn’t appear. I paint the shelves red, and they look O.K. (Granddaddy70
Bryant once painted yellow a whole row of company houses he built.) I paint a chair blue and red, and it’s a little silly-looking, but it picks up the blue of the carpet and the red of the shelves. The vision isn’t nearly as impressive as I thought it would be, but then75
what vision ever is? We plan-makers are accustomed to things turning out not-quite-as-good-as-we-had in-mind. Our world view includes the “diminished excellence” component. Diminished excellence is a condition of the world and therefore never an occasion80
for sorrow, whereas flawed competence comes out of character and therefore is frequently the reason for the bowed head, the furrowed brow. Three months later,when I try to turn the heat off in my office, I discover that I have placed one of the shelf uprights too close to 85
the radiator to be able to work the valve. The screw-up was there all along, but in this case I am relieved to find it. I am my grandfather’s grandson after all.