My son is Charles Ardinger V, which used to make family reunions in southeast Missouri (where my ex-husband’s family came from) lots of fun. A multitude of Charleses. I still have a photo of Charles with his grandfather’s grandmother, Mammy Hall, who was 100 years old at the time; Charles was five.
Charles was born shortly after I finished my master’s degree. In fact, when I was eight months pregnant and taking a class in non-Shakespearean English drama, I laid this threat on the professor: If you give us a final, I’ll go into labor right here in the seminar room. It worked.
We moved to Southern Illinois University and I started working on my Ph.D. just after Charles’s third birthday. I read to him every night, and most of his baby-sitters were master’s and doctoral students in English. Which might explain why he was speaking sentences with semicolons by age four. When he had surgery at age six, I sat with him in the hospital. While he was sleeping, I studied The Faerie Queene; when he woke up, I read Where the Wild Things Are to him.
I took him to his first Shakespeare play (an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Puck up in a tree) when he was five, to his first ballet shortly after, to his first art museum about that time, too. Also fairs, zoos, aquariums, observatories, and laser shows. Yes, indeed—my son Got Culture at an early age. And that might help explain why he was a published poet by the time he was in high school, why he used to do some sort of performance art that I never understood, and why he has an M.A. in English and teaches at a community college. And it’s really true that at age nine or ten he announced to a roomful of adults that “transcendental” means “beyond teeth.” (Some of them got it.)
To this day, we have enormously entertaining conversations, many of them centering on literature. One thing we like to talk about is literary criticism, about which he knows a whole lot more than I do. (Well, there’s a lot more of it now than when I was in school.) One Thanksgiving, we sat in his father-in-law’s living room and invented situational criticism (sitcrit). Then we turned it into situational criticism of children’s literature (kidlit sitcrit). Is it any wonder that everyone else in the room wants to hide under the furniture when we get going?
Three Hundred Fifty-Three Words
The following paragraph is (I’m pretty sure) either a class assignment or a parody of a class assignment. When I was in graduate school, just about all we read were the works of the famous dead white men. Charles is luckier: nowadays works by women and other human beings are also considered to be literature. This paragraph was, he says, inspired by his Virginia Woolf class. Notice that it’s just one sentence. Three hundred and fifty-three words long. Ya gotta love it.
Occasionally an author whose book I’m editing seems to be trying to break a record for logorrhea. Contrary to what a semi-famous grammar checker insists, a sentence needs to be as long as it needs to be to say what it has to say. Sometimes a long sentence is useful. But I’ve never edited a book where a sentence this long worked. A reader shouldn’t need GPS to navigate a sentence.
See if you can figure out what Charles is aiming at here. When I asked, he told me to take it a phrase at a time.
As we rest or merely slouch, always looking for the right word, scanning the lexicon as does a sailor who surveys the dark horizon all night from the crow’s nest wondering as she nods if the lights she sights reach out from another ship black against the black sea or only from dreamed faces trailing illusory sparks, in our respective chairs, mine broken to my spine’s habitual indolent curve, yours perpendicular to itself, upright as if unused, our respective pairs of eyes binding the evening light (more dark than light, the room around us expanding to a vanishing point in the grey haze; but our irises widen as the day dims) into separate foci, mine reproducing each word it successively encounters in my brain, which connects each word with its neighbors into a set, a sentence, an experience, your brain presumably enacting the same process of making different connections from the different words you read when we read together, the different words I’m reading echoing in my mind with the hypnotic insistence of a mnemonic device beyond the room’s only real sound, the static of our combined breath pushing around air molecules, daring to disturb the universe a little, I get distracted, echoes falling to the silence of a forgotten church with a hole for its altar as I wonder, sailor ever unsure of those lights, not even certain of the fixed stars, about you and reach out, bridging with my arm the arm’s length between us, the necessary space, each one of us room of each of our own, my fingertips reaching for the warmth of your living skin, intending to trace your smile, finding instead the stiff cloth (as the ship goes under and the spreading ripples dissipate into oceanic anonymity, I can’t think of the right word for it, and I can’t find my dictionary) that decorates the back of an empty chair perpendicular to itself in a room that shrinks down to a single point the size of a period and populates itself with ghosts made up and married for the sake of discussion, or, in this case, monologue.