Call the protagonist Alex Y., to protect identity. And call the spouse Casey Q. And there was Lex. All three names might be gender-neutral.
Alex is either the husband or the wife. Ditto Casey. Perhaps they were a same-sex couple. Lex, the alter, may not have been the same gender as Alex; but how would Alex even have known, if Alex was unaware at first that Lex existed: How does your left hand know what your right hand is doing?
And what is gender, anyway?
Answer #1: a hand doesn’t have a head, so it doesn’t know anything. Even muscle-memory doesn’t “belong” to a hand; it belongs to the brain that makes the hand write things it will never be capable of understanding.
Answer #2: gender is a construct. It is only one way of separating everyone in the world into two groups of billions of people. There are other ways to do it. We would all like to have authority to decide the categorizing principle. Natural selfishness would make us draw the line to put ourselves on the more advantaged side. We would all like to be King of the Big Ticket. But of course, for all of us living now, the line was drawn, the ticket awarded, before we existed.
Alex Y. was a thin child with white skin and deep-set, riveting eyes, but as a baby Alex was blubbery like a pocket Buddha. S/he looked like the creation of a balloon-animal artist, with flesh rolls you ought to be able to pop.
Alex, like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, was an invitation to poke and squeeze. There used to be a photograph on Alex and Casey’s bedroom wall of the black-girl help from Alex’s childhood, Scharalotte, cradling the fat pale child against her young bosom, her brown hand clasped around a plump leg. In the picture, Scharalotte’s nail-bitten fingers pressed into Alex’s abundant flesh, though not enough to hurt: Alex was smiling, round cheeks puffing up to almost conceal the dark, magnetic, semirecessed eyes.
Scharalotte was not illiterate, fyi. She was not a natural nurturer of white babies. No such thing: she was a brilliant seventeen-year-old scholarship girl who from the age of twelve had determined that she would commit her life to studying endangered languages. She was a freshman linguistics/math double major at an esteemed university and the mentee of a Canadian friend of Alex’s parents—who were going bonkers because Alex wasn’t taking to the sweeter, duller sitters usually available, the ones with cute clothes and manicures. So they’d cast wide a desperate conversational net and phoned and asked everyone if they knew any razor-sharp young woman or man who would sit Alex—someone equally, or even more, gifted, whose intellect oozed from their pores and would comfort Alex and make Alex feel safe, among friends.
Because a smart baby senses early on that stupidity is out to get it.
Scharalotte was who they caught in the net.
But in the photograph, is Scharalotte holding Alex? Or Lex? Casey, the spouse, would like to know this: Was there a Lex from the beginning, or did Lex come later, when Scharalotte left, as a companion for Alex in Alex’s loneliness?
Because to be very smart is to be have your pool of potential friends reduced to a scant handful—there are so few like you. Casey knows this, and sometimes it makes Casey sad unto death. People don’t get people like Alex. Specifically, they don’t comprehend the unspeakable, chronic loneliness of the hyperconscious self.
There are old home movies of Alex as a child. Casey has watched them in search of an explanation for the things Alex does sometimes that violate convention and Casey’s expectations of what a spousal covenant means. Such as the dry, sarcastic cuts on Casey that Lex makes in public; they just flow out, unfiltered; often they’re directed at Casey’s museum work. Lex is an asshole. But there’s a lot more to it than that, and, curiously, Alex is sensitive—rarely critical of anyone.
And another thing Casey tries to understand by watching the movies: Alex’s long-term affair with a woman almost twenty years older, which Alex insists was a confected fantasy or tries to blame on Lex. Casey understands that it was Lex, but Casey knows Alex had a part in it.
Or Alex’s frequent ghost dreams, in which s/he begins to thrash and moan. For Alex, nightmares are a common occurrence, but the ghost dreams are unique in that they wake Casey every time, where the other dreams play quietly in Alex’s head, not disturbing Alex’s body. Under the spell of a ghost dream, Alex will begin to undulate in the soft green sheets, and then to thrash, arms and legs flying out unpredictably and hitting Casey in the chest and other places. Next Alex begins to make a low, ghostly sound, half teakettle-whistle, half moan: Ooooowooooooowoooo. It starts inaudibly, quite low in pitch and volume, and quickly rises. Casey has to shake Alex hard or roll Alex over to stop the whistling and thrashing. Then Alex wakes, relieved to be rescued—quivering, scared—and tells Casey about the dream. There’s always a haunted house in it, an ancient lake, deep woods, a ghost chasing Alex. Ghosts, plural, sometimes. The intent of the ghosts is perpetually ambiguous. Of course: spirits are the poetic fungi on the protoessential self. Why should they state their purpose in easy signage? Casey wonders each time: Who was dreaming? Lex? Or Alex?
Casey wonders, too, whether the ghost in the dream is the other half of hir spouse who was dreaming. It’s all too confusing. But the nightmares seem vaguer and more psychologically loaded; they’re about something larger.
When Alex was seven or eight, Alex had a friend a few years older named Howie Rollie. Everyone called him “Howlie.” What brought Howlie and Alex together was their common psychic pain, visible to those who didn’t share it by their odd physiques and demeanors. Alex was tall, gangly, pasty white as printer paper, with big bones and prominent veins that showed blue through Alex’s handsome, puppy-like legs and feet. Howlie was wiry, with unnervingly wide-set eyes. If you wanted to cast a gang member in a budget film, you might cast an adult Howlie: little and incredibly muscled, with those eyes that ought almost to be on stalks, they were so far apart.
One movie Casey has watched is of a birthday party, Howlie’s, that was held at a local park. Howlie’s bald policeman uncle barbecued hot dogs, and his cute but jittery mom (a widow) dipped ice cream with stringy brown arms from a barrel-looking extra-large ice cream freezer that was ahead of its time in speed, coldness, and the creaminess of the ice cream it made. Alex still remembers the ice cream, which had cubes of gold-colored fresh peaches in it. Scharalotte, in her twenties then, took the footage—she was a graduate student, dissertating, holing up in the library stacks in a cage with her books and cassettes; the cage walls were covered with grafitti over grafitti, like a palimpsest, from decades of frustrated students. The language could have been a dissertation in itself. Her favorite? Jack Bob ducks socks don’t Trust his Ass in green marker with a terrifying darkened smiley after “Ass” instead of a period: ☻ She was still in the lives of Alex’s parents, then, still working for them when she wasn’t writing, helping with Alex. She tutored Alex in calculus, and they drilled together on medieval French literature and psycholinguistics because Alex was so far ahead of the class in all subjects that additional intellectual stimulation was critical for keeping Alex from disintegrating into a puddle of crazed loneliness. You think Alex is a boy, right? Because Alex is so smart and I said “puppy-like” about the feet.
Howie Rollie would be institutionalized for mental illness in his twenties. His mind simply splintered from everything in it that had been stabbing knives in his psyche for years, and his nervous mother, who’d really loved him, would be left with the kind of pathetic, inadequate mementos that a child mentally unstable from the beginning leaves when it finally crosses into madness: the words Mene, mene, tekel, parsin inscribed everywhere—on the backs of receipts and the front covers of phone books. On the underside of a medicine-cabinet shelf, with some pieces of hardened green gum, and even carved into the hardwood bedroom floor beside her bed. Also, a Mother’s Day card in which he’d drawn himself and his mother standing together by some unusually tall flowers, with x’s over their eyes, possibly to indicate that they were dead.
The birthday-picnic footage that Casey has watched begins with a bizarre relay in a park with rolling hills and tidy shelters, on a mild June day. Alex was prone to wildness because of being so readily bored. Alex was especially wild in social situations; anxiety spiked then because Alex was hypersensitive to the fact that everyone else knew how they were supposed to act, and Alex did not. Howlie was wild for a different reason: he was becoming insane. The backstory that preceded the relay is that Howlie’s uncle, an earnest police captain, committed to being a manly role model, loved his sister and realized after Howlie’s father was electrocuted that Howlie was going to need a man to guide him. He was trying to oblige. But he was single and bad with animals and children. Grilling hot dogs for a dozen or so strange kids (because Howlie’s friends were all weirdo-nerds) had tested his nerves. The kids made so much noise! They kept trying to help, or to steal half-cooked hot dogs off the grill—he wasn’t sure which—so he gave them two packages of raw hot dogs and two long, extra barbecue forks that Howlie’s mom had brought and told them to organize a game in which they divided the hot dogs into two piles and formed equal lines at a distance of about twelve yards. He didn’t really suppose this activity would hone any skills, but they’d get some exercise and stay off his back. The kid at the head of each line would run with the fork to the pile opposite, spear a hot dog and run back, holding the fork ahead. The next kid would grab the hot dog off the tines and pass it down the line, then take the fork and run back to the pile. The person at the back of the line was required to dispose of the hot dog somehow, but Howlie’s uncle had not given any directions as to how. Some of the kids ate the raw wieners. One girl buried hers in a shallow grave. Most of them tore up the hot dogs and flung them away, into the Tiger Tot Lot, a fenced area with a jungle theme and play equipment for the littlest park users. Soon the toddler play area was littered with rubbery, red pieces of flesh.
The movie of this game is upsetting to watch. Kids are running at each other hard, wielding forks with long, sharp tines. They’re screaming and jumping and ripping up and throwing hot dogs and trying to stuff them in each other’s mouths. When the piles of hot dogs are exhausted, the two kids with the forks—one of them is Howlie, the other unidentified—run around threatening other kids. Finally, Howlie wrests the second fork from the other kid and leaps onto a picnic table, brandishing both. Alex hesitates. The film shows Alex trying to decide. There must be a protocol, but Alex doesn’t know what it is. Jump up on the table with Howlie? When Casey (Is Casey the husband? The wife?) watches the video, s/he immediately recognizes a classic right-brain/left-brain conflict. Half of Alex is Dionysian response, wanting to leap onto the table, seize the moment and participate in Howlie’s freestyle performance. The other half is frantically calculating the social equation, without understanding the value of x: If I jump up on the table, will I be empowered by the height and the long, sharp fork? Or will I be demoted to an object of ridicule because it’s Howlie, and he’s always out of whack?
Alex’s eyes gleam, weighing things. There’s a strange light in them that gives Casey a shiver. The gleam angers Casey because Casey suspects it’s how Alex looked in the bedroom of Mrs. Logan’s house, the moment before Lex launched into unrepentant adultery. Casey also suspects the moment of decision—the gleam—may indicate a first imperceptible fissure in Alex’s self.
In the movie, Alex goes for the table. It only takes a second for the gleam to fade, a step to be taken. A leap. Alex is up there. You can see Alex’s exultation when s/he realizes it was the right choice. All the other kids circle around the table. Howlie is shouting; he hands one of the forks to Alex. Alex starts shouting, too. It’s remarkable that during the most horrifying moments of this sequence, the camera never wavers. Scharalotte never put it down to try to stop anyone from hurting anyone else. She was too interested to stop. And the camera always mediates, buffers. The kids continue to chant. Alex and Howlie are visibly out of control—what might they do? Stab each other? Leap from the table and start spearing the shouting kids the way, a few minutes ago, they were all spearing hot dogs? There’s no sound, but they were all shouting Howlie’s trademark phrase: Mene! Mene! Tekel! Parsin!
Assumptions about gender are like the birthmark of Hawthorne’s story: indelible. Fatal. Alex is male? I think so? Maybe. You think so. Because Alex’s most intimate friendship is with a boy, Howlie, and that kind of total friendship between the two sexes is rare, maybe impossible. Because Scharalotte, a young woman, has formed a nurturing bond with Alex, and women nurture men, not their own sex. Because people sometimes think Alex is an asshole. Because extreme behavior is expected in boys, but in a girl it’s an unseemly surprise. Because Casey tries to understand Alex—and that’s a wife thing, right? Because Alex sometimes curses, and Casey and Scharalotte are rarely heard to. Because you might let your young son hang out with a boy who was a little on the edge, like Howlie. But not your daughter. Because Alex grabs a barbecue fork and jumps on the picnic table and gets crazy and screams, just a tick away from stabbing someone.
Scharalotte nannied and tutored Alex until she finished her Masters in mathematics and her doctorate in Language Endangerment and Revitalization. Brilliant as she was, she might have migrated to another institution in another state and received a more generous fellowship if she’d been willing to leave Alex. But she loved Alex, who was, if not her soulmate, her almost equal in intelligence. If Alex was always comforted in the aura of her intoxicated brainpower, Scharalotte found in Alex adoring acceptance and a mirror that reflected her most acute but fleeting insights back to her and helped her to concretize the flow of her thoughts. Think about how much mental gold dust is washed away by the river of distraction because no one ever panned it out. Alex was Scharalotte’s pan.
She’d gotten very lucky that her intellect was recognized and rewarded. She’d had an underprivileged upbringing: raised by her grandmother, a hard-working black-skinned lady named Mrs. Logan, whose indulgence was her CareFree Curl hairstyle (which she kept defined, shiny and moist with daily applications of the Curl Activator). Mrs. Logan liked Wednesday night Bible study and a shot of bourbon twice a week. Also, she liked giving Scharalotte what advantages she could afford to. In childhood Mrs. Logan had been an exceptional student at her negro school, surprising many teachers (also black) who expected her to be slow because she was so poor and smelled bad—there was no indoor plumbing, not much soap. She’d hoped to attend a business college for young women after she graduated high school—the first in her family to do so, the only one besides Scharalotte, decades later—but her parents just laughed at her. With what money? And who would let a colored girl into their school? In 1931? So she cleaned houses for Scharalotte’s education and made sure her granddaughter’s college and then graduate work was prayed about at every church function. Scharalotte had grown up in the church (AME), and when she held the camera on Howlie and Alex and heard them shouting “Mene, mene, tekel, parsin,” she recognized that it wasn’t gobbledygook: they were shouting the words that the disembodied hand in the Book of Daniel wrote on the plaster when King Belshazzar’s pagan guests drank from the goblets that his father, Nebuchadnezzar, had seized as plunder from Jerusalem’s temple.
Howlie’s chanting of the ancient Hebrew words was not the pressurized speech of mania. It was his personal brain worm, implanted in him by a string that had come down from the ceiling one night and touched his head while he was asleep. It was the night after he’d played Daniel in a Sunday school skit. He woke, and saw the string on his forehead, and went back to sleep. After that, the words never left.
He felt happy every time he sang his encrypted song of praise to the only man he really remembered being nice to him, Dr. Frank Clay. From the time he was four, Howlie had walked to the nearby Baptist church every Sunday with his mother. There he played by himself in the nursery and later attended Dr. Clay’s elementary Sunday school class. After his father died, he walked to church every Sunday alone because his mother was mad at God’s intransigence regarding death (she thought He should have resurrected Howlie’s father after the accident). Dr. Clay found Howlie stressful, but he was a compassionate man. One winter, for four weeks the class studied the book of Daniel. Dr. Clay prepared a lesson on Daniel’s interpreting skills: the class would perform a skit.
Dr. Clay was the hand. To practice, at home he set up a small chalkboard in the living room and ducked down behind the coffee table. In this uncomfortable position, without looking, he raised his arm sideways and wrote in hot-pink chalk the ancient Hebrew characters. Mene, mene, tekel, parsin. His wife came in and watched him. People thought doctors were omniscient, disengaged from dailiness. But here was Frank, after a grueling day in clinic and then being called back for an emergency consult, on the floor with his nose in the carpet, trying to write upside down and backward, practicing so he could fulfill the expectations of a class of grade-school children. He was a good person, not remote at all, just shy, not perfect but unusually decent, and she understood why sometimes strangers came up to her and wanted to talk about how he’d saved their lives.
That Sunday (Howlie was seven), Dr. Clay gave Howlie the part of Daniel. He wanted Howlie to feel valued. The children opened their Bibles to the story and looked at the picture, in which Daniel was being ceremonially dressed with a necklace and robe (for interpreting), and the hand, behind him, was writing Mene on a vignetted rectangle of blond plaster.
The skit proceeded. The children drank from Styrofoam cups decorated like goblets and pretended they were King Belshazzar’s party, praising the pagan gods.
Dr. Clay crouched below the table, put up his hand and wrote the characters, and as the hand popped out, the children shrieked a scripted shriek. Mene, mene, tekel, parsin, wrote the hand.
The child-Belshazzar demanded that Howlie (Daniel) translate the words. Howlie complied. He had a good memory and recited the scripture verbatim. For deciphering the characters that predicted Babylon’s impending overthrow, Howlie was decorated with a gold chain and proclaimed the third-highest ruler of the kingdom. Belshazzar put the necklace on him; Mrs. Clay had loaned it.
“You are the third-highest ruler,” announced Belshazzar-kid.
“Of what?” asked Howlie.
Belshazzar looked at the illustration in his Bible of the vignetted rectangle of plaster. It looked like a ticket. He didn’t know king of what. “You’re the King of the Big Ticket,” said Belshazzar, pointing at the picture.
“Oh, okay,” said Howlie.
But then she left.
It was the bleakest day of Alex’s life. Bleaker, even than the day years later when Alex married Casey.
The day of their wedding, Alex threw up twice. Alex choked out the vows and would not do the mutual cake-feeding for fear of vomiting again. Alex expected Scharalotte to appear at the back of the chapel and and shout Alex’s name, like Dustin Hoffman. Alex imagined riding away on a bus with Scharalotte, to tribal cultures. But instead, Alex had married Casey. Alex needed Casey in multiple ways; Casey cared for Alex, and the two had been sexually magnetized to one another from the moment of their meeting. Casey was smart, competent, sensitive, and had a body that sang to Alex’s body. But there was a Scharalotte-shaped hole inside Alex.
Their wedding was years after Scharalotte left, but Alex had never forgotten Scharalotte’s departure. The night before, Alex’s parents and Mrs. Logan and the two young people—one ten, one twenty-six, had gone out to dinner at a family-style buffet. The conversation was halting and uncomfortable, but Mrs. Logan felt the power of the Holy Ghost beating back her anxiety. They ate, and as they got ready to leave, she laid a hand on Alex’s hair, and felt a shock go through her.
She had felt this once before, in her impoverished prepubescence. There had been a tomboyish girl who lived in a Quonset building near the school; she’d had a crush on smart and gentle Mrs. Logan. She threw dirt at the girl Mrs. Logan had been, and when Mrs. Logan was walking to school, the little dark Tomboy followed her down their chuckholed street with no sidewalks. Stalked her. The Tomboy was not a “normal” girl; she was angry and violent, and though Mrs. Logan tried to ignore her without doing so obviously (because Mrs. Logan was kind from her earliest years), there were times when she couldn’t. Once the Tomboy appeared out of nowhere while Mrs. Logan was running to the store for her mother to get some lard. The Tomboy had a bag of taffy and offered one like bait. Mrs. Logan carried this image in the personal photo album in her brain, of the Tomboy holding out a red-and-white swirled piece of wrapped taffy. There was the dark hand, thin (no one had been fat, back in the ’20s, that she remembered). Dirt in the nails and the dry, cracked knuckles, a little dirt on the twisted, translucent paper. There was the irregular nugget-shaped offering of lesbian love too young to even understand that that’s what it is.
She took and ate the taffy because she couldn’t not—she had seen the scars on the Tomboy’s arm. This picture in her brain: the burn-scarred arm, the dirty hand, the pink peppermint candy. And when she touched the Tomboy’s hand, she felt the doubleness, the split, that she would feel again as an elderly woman, touching Alex’s hair in the family steakhouse the night before Scharalotte left.
Scharalotte drove away the next morning in a rusty yellow Datsun B210 with some age on it. She came to say good-bye to Alex, but Alex picked up the wrapped present she’d brought, a pair of books by Iris Murdoch and Noam Chomsky, and heaved it over the side of the deck, where the Ys had all been eating breakfast.
Scharalotte said Alex’s name and left.
“I’ll miss you” in her voice.
After a minute, Alex followed. The adult Ys let Alex go, imagining the two needed privacy. Alex’s mother sat eating her child’s pain. It looked like fruit to Mr. Y, who reflected that loss is endemic to life and was sad, nevertheless, that Alex’s heart had to be broken. You think Alex is a girl because Alex’s father saw it this way: as a “heartbreak,” requiring tender sympathy for the broken one. Are you wallowing in a sexist rut? Walk away from the shabby-chic dining table with bowls of fresh pineapple, the two parents like miles-apart points on this infinite line of story-time. Come through a big room piled with old picture frames and drum parts, and the bright galley kitchen. In the front yard are spreading, bug-chewed, waxy-leaved hostas. It’s July, and the hydrangea blooms are dried, brown drooping fists of flower death. A mud-dauber drones around its beige plaster domicile. Its legs are miraculously agile yet precisely puppet-like, as if God’s strings were maneuvering it. Which they are. The Datsun is chugging away, out of sight. Scharalotte is a genius driving toward her illustrious future. Alex, in the grass, is rolling slowly back and forth, moaning a dirge. No, no, no, no, no. No, no. NO. Whether or not there was already a crack, a division, dating from Howlie’s birthday picnic, now there is a total split. Trauma, caused by Scharalotte leaving, provoked Alex to dissociate completely for the first time, as proved by things Lex wrote during this period of grieving, scattered bits of paper around the Ys’ house marked by irreal thoughts and dramatic changes in handwriting and a writing voice that alternated between the whine of a little child and a wordy pedantry that was never how Alex spoke or wrote.
LTCS Dissertation of the Year Award Winner: Scharalotte Logan (PhD ’84)
Title: Excitement = Wordiness: Lexical Impoverishment and Periphrasis among Speakers in a State of Transgressive Excitement
Chair: Dr. Ydel Erutsio
Q: Tell us about the genesis of the idea for your award-winning dissertation?
Scharalotte Logan: As an undergraduate, I was videotaping a children’s birthday party at a park, and the children were playing a wild game with hot dogs that ended in threats of violence and a clear attempt by two of the children to establish their power over the others. I was struck by how, in an excited state, they “lost” lexical items that I believed they knew but had not yet mastered. I have an eidetic memory, but for documentation I kept a tally in the dirt with the toe of my shoe, of instances in which they substituted an imprecise periphrastic structure for a more precise but morphosyntactically complex expression. I didn’t know at the time that it would result in a dissertation—my original research was about acquisition of iambic stress patterns. But the grafitti above my desk in the stacks at the library also revealed that transgressive writing, when it’s hurried and produced in a state of excitement, may exhibit a similar periphrasis. So I started to be fascinated, and I changed my subject.
Logan, Scharalotte. When Words Disappear: A Case Study of Two Cultures. Chicago. City Press, 1989. 284 pp.
On the surface Logan’s book narrates the cultural impact of a vanishing dialect distinct enough to be termed a language. But despite the modest title, Logan has bigger aims, and by the end has waded fearlessly into the Fodorian territory of mentalese and the modularity of the mind . . . This is a provocative work of scholarship by a linguist who appears more than a little interested in pioneering a philosophical approach to the dire subject of language extinction.
The day Scharalotte left, Alex became two people. Lex never got over Scharalotte. Lex was in ways quite infantile. Alex went on to live a life. After rolling around in the grass awhile, Alex looked up and saw Mrs. Y standing there with the books Scharalotte had brought. “Why don’t you read these?” she said.
The margins of these books were where Lex expressed sometimes, early in the morning or late at night, while Alex went on about the usual business of growing up, going to college, graduate school in microengineering, meeting other like-minded and abled people for social/sexual outlets, moving out of the Ys’ home, landing an internship with a well-known toy company, executing strategic moves, discerning that marriage was a logical next step and moving in with Casey. Marrying Casey. Waiting for Scharalotte.
Casey and Alex had been married five years when Scharalotte returned. There were no children yet, though they talked about wanting two, to prevent the loneliness of their children being alone. Alex logged long, less creative hours than you might imagine: toy development was hostage to vapid celebrity-worship. It was hobbled by safety standards of the ASTM and CPSC. Alex’s creations were in bondage to a capricious, profane and litigious early twenty-first-century culture. It was 2003.
Casey was a museum curator, with days that were more pleasant. Casey scheduled and hung exhibits. Casey jogged at lunch. Casey explained the ceramic spoons of ancient Eastern households to the kind of children that had never quite understood Alex. Casey was fearless, wiping dust out of a two-thousand-year-old urn with a puffy bottle-brush tool; and neither was Casey awed by rare antiquities. S/he gazed every day on the beauty manufactured by millenia of the anonymous dead and thought about it like this: it was all just a lot of stuff that got left behind.
On their free weekends Casey and Alex liked float trips. They camped and made love in their tent. Their bodies were still magnets for each other. Alex’s chest drove Casey wild. Were there breasts on it? You decide. Casey brought cream-filled donuts for breakfast, with gridded outsides dusted with powdered sugar. Alex brought a book or two, and in the night Lex wrote in them by flashlight sometimes, and the next morning Alex would be exhausted; the day would start slowly, and they’d only hike a fraction of the distance they’d planned.
Mrs. Logan was ninety now. Her mind operated by fluid impressions and memories that slid back and forth like wooden beads along the string of the years of her life. She was fit and vigorous for her age, though; she entered a 5K race for senior citizens and won in her age class but could not remember afterward where she lived. Police and social services had to be called, and Scharalotte came back to put her in an assisted living facility, Woodpecker Hill. It was the same place where Howlie Rollie had been living for years, where Alex visited Howlie and talked over toy ideas and God and Dr. Frank Clay with the old friend. Howlie loved it when Alex visited. He felt valued when Alex asked him his opinions about toys. He had a laminated sign on his door that said King of the Big Ticket. That was what he’d called himself, first jokingly and later seriously, ever since the play in Sunday school. Though Alex always called him “Howie” for the sake of Howlie’s broken mind. One Friday afternoon, leaving Howlie’s room, Alex shut the door softly and turned the corner. And it was Scharalotte, twenty years older.
Their affair started immediately, that same afternoon. Alex left the car in the parking lot at Woodpecker Hill and rode in Scharalotte’s rental compact to Mrs. Logan’s house. Alex was thirty; Scharalotte was forty-six. The years rolled back, and they talked about what they’d lost, breaking apart. Alex: a soul companion. Scharalotte: a mirror of her mind. Alex nestled under Scharalotte’s arm, but it was really Lex, nestling like a child: Lex in the car with her; Lex walking, distressed, a little fogged, into the blue shotgun home in the poor neighborhood Mrs. Logan had never left, with the La-Z-Boy Scharalotte had bought her grandmother. The pretty blue Persian rug, and other nice, new things from Scharalotte. But the kitchen smelled like biscuits and gravy; it was antique because Mrs. Logan would only cook with the dented steel bowls and humble pans she’d always used. There was a garage-sale plastic decoration in the shape of a tiny skillet, with a prayer, over her stained, scratched-up sink:
Lord, bless this homely kitchen
Where we cook and pray and eat
And help us know that here on Earth
We are Thy hands and feet
In the bedroom, they knew but ignored that it was adultery. Sex was facilitated by the fact that Scharalotte had never married and was in between relationships.
Scharalotte was on sabbatical and had flown in from a village in Tete province, northern Mozambique, where she was engrossed in rigorous fieldwork, to take care of Mrs. Logan. She was going back soon; but only three months remained of her leave, and then she’d be home. “Home” was halfway across the country—but that was why God had made airplanes, she told Alex. She said it jokingly, and Lex laughed, though they both believed it was fate: their reunion, this unlooked-for consummation. Casey knows the facts now and knows they thought this. It angers hir because Alex—Lex—made a conscious decision to put the past (Scharalotte) before the present (Casey). Casey’s museum work has convinced Casey that the past is not worth the paper it’s recorded on. The past is like a snake’s skin. You have to shed it or else, trapped in an ever-tightening wrapper, you will die.
The affair went on for four years, until Scharalotte was fifty and Alex thirty-five. Then two things happened to end it: 1) Casey found out; 2) Scharalotte was having dinner with Mrs. Logan one evening in the dining room at Woodpecker Hill, when the Tomboy sat down next to Mrs. Logan. Mrs. Logan had not seen the Tomboy in over seventy years because the Tomboy had died of diphtheria at fifteen. The Tomboy was only fifteen still; she had not aged. She stroked Mrs. Logan’s arm and said she, the Tomboy, hadn’t ever stopped loving Mrs. Logan, and then she whispered in Mrs. Logan’s ear, “Look. You’re surrounded by fools and liars. It’s been that way all your life. Do you have one true friend with a heart like yours?” She whispered that Scharalotte had been profaning Mrs. Logan’s home with a young white person. Mrs. Logan listened and ate her soup. A food-service person breezed by, and Mrs. Logan called for another bowl for her old friend.
Scharalotte looked at her sharply: there was no old friend that she could see.
Mrs. Logan gazed back across the table at her granddaughter. “You’re a whore,” she said. “Give me my key.” Old though she was, she felt seared by betrayal. She would have thrown her soup on Scharalotte, if she’d been sure of her aim, if age hadn’t made her so shaky.
The Tomboy got up and left.
“I’m sorry,” said Scharalotte. After a while she left, too, without giving her grandmother the house key, and Mrs. Logan sat wondering what her life had added up to: potential never realized because she’d been poor, black and female decades before the Civil Rights movement; years of hard work and trying to be Christ’s hands and feet; a common-law “marriage” that was among her worst memories, which had produced a worthless daughter—Mrs. Logan didn’t even know where she was. A granddaughter she’d adored, now transformed into a slut. She remembered what it had felt like when she’d laid her hand on Alex’s head at the steak house. She’d seen the trouble coming, but it had been a pinpoint far in the future, and you can put the thumb of your mind over the speck of a distant problem in motion and hide it, deny its relentless approach.
Scharalotte and Lex met one last time, at Mrs. Logan’s house. They didn’t have sex. They cleaned the house together; they washed the sheets in which they’d desecrated everything. Scharalotte baked a peach pie—she was a good cook; she’d learned from her grandmother—and took it to a Vietnamese family across the side street, introducing herself in their own language, to their amazement: an unknown black woman with a pie just shows up at your door speaking Vietnamese.
Scharalotte and Lex put out pansies and geraniums on Mrs. Logan’s front porch. Then they drove to Woodpecker Hill and together recounted their penance to Scharalotte’s grandmother, who received them coolly and said she would consider what to do about the house. She would let Scharalotte know her plan, after she had consulted an old friend of hers.
The Tomboy never returned while Mrs. Logan was alive, but on the morning Mrs. Logan died in her sleep, the Tomboy was there to take her hand as she crossed over.
Scharalotte continues to teach and do scholarship; she travels, does fieldwork, writes magnificent, ground-breaking books. She hasn’t married, and is celibate most of the time.
After Mrs. Logan died, Howlie was moved to Mrs. Logan’s old room. No one knows why. There’s an androgynous teenaged black girl who visits him sometimes. She’s rough and dirty. But she always speaks the truth. Howlie’s mother almost never comes; it hurts too much and leaves her depressed. But Alex still visits faithfully, and now the black girl, who sometimes gives Howlie candy.
Casey and Alex blunder on. Their bodies were always made for each other.
The toy business goes unpredictably, opening out or folding back year to year, like an accordion. Kids change and don’t. Toys evolve and regress. Laws block the best of Alex’s ideas.
The museum is a sanitized way for Casey to hate the past. Specifically, for Casey to hate what Lex and Scharalotte did.
Lex has mostly disappeared, but Casey still has questions.
Every weekday at the museum, when Casey takes a lunch break, s/he walks purposefully from the cool exhibit area to the claustrophobic office. Lunch is half a bagel and a cup of blue yogurt. You assume female, because Casey eats yogurt. Really?
Rarely, Casey eats after the jog. Eat and run—not run and eat.
Running, Casey thinks about how hard it has been, being with Alex. Brilliance is its own society, and Casey will always come second.
Casey’s jogging route goes past a boutique where two gay men sell leather clothes and spiky jewelry. Passing it, Casey’s thoughts usually go to sex and gender. If Casey were reading this story, s/he would tell you that whatever opinions you’ve formed about the gender of the characters are wrong. The characters have no gender. They aren’t people; they are names, words. Words, words, words, words. Casey: a word. Scharalotte: a word. The Ys. Mrs. Logan. Poor, poor Howlie and his mother, and the Tomboy and everyone else.
Every day, Casey returns to the museum and changes from a jogging person trying to recover from hurt back into a curator. There is a line in you, and if you stand on one side of it, you are King of the Big Ticket; and if you stand on the other side, you are nobody much.
As Casey was changing back into professional garb today, this is what Casey was thinking: Lex is not a person. Lex is Lex. A word. Alex: a word that has Lex in it. We’re all lives made of words, with other words in them. We’re all a brain split in half. All not man and not woman.
The Tomboy, sitting cross-legged on the floor in cutoff shorts and green Converses, was giving these ideas to Casey, and though Casey couldn’t hear the Tomboy speaking, Casey’s brain received it all.
In the evenings, at home, Casey loves but doesn’t know whom anymore. It’s not Alex or Lex; it’s not their daschund, Britomart. Casey’s been drinking a little, until s/he figures it out. It might be Frank Clay, Howlie’s Sunday school teacher, whom Casey heard about once but has never met. A good, kind man. It might be God, who makes walk the wasps with exquisite puppetry. It might be the spirit of Howlie, the poetic fungus on Casey’s protoessential self. Casey saw his hand one night, in hir own version of one of Alex’s ghost dreams.
Howlie’s hand came out of the wall above Casey’s head. It wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Mene, mene, tekel, parsin, it wrote.
It wrote: They call me King of the Big Ticket.
It wrote: You think I’m a girl.
It wrote: But I’m not.
(winner of the Editors Prize in Prose for issue 23)