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The Other Carl

By Stanley P. Anderson

At a family reunion in northern Minnesota, my cousin Barbara greeted me with a hug. “It’s the other Carl,” she said. She called me by my older brother’s name when she was very young and could not remember both our names.

The extended family on my father’s side thinks she had a point. My brother majored in English. So did I, after toying with the idea of a French major. My brother got MA and Ph.D. degrees in English at a university on the West Coast. I got the same degrees from a university on the East Coast. My brother is a major scholar in his field. I am no scholar at all. I am an editor. It is hard trying to keep up with an over-achieving brother.

Carl was so preoccupied with scholarship during his first year in graduate school that one of his letters consisted of “Dear Mom and Dad” at the beginning; “Love, Carl” at the end; and a long discussion of the language in an Old English poem in the middle. When Dad got home from work, Mom handed him the letter.

“So, what’s new with Carl?”

“It’s hard to tell,” Mom answered.

After reading the letter, Dad said, “Well, at least we know what he’s thinking.”

At the family reunion, about 40 years later, a group of about 10 cousins sat in a circle in the pine-shaded back yard of a cabin one of my aunts owns. As we recalled the events of our youth in Ashawa and the Lake Vermilion area, we ate Polish dogs and pieces of a cake that Barbara had brought. The cake said, “Rock On Cousins.”

Buddy, a logger with a business degree from the University of Minnesota, asked Carl about his latest book, a “grammar” describing all the ways that the sound of words imitates the things that the words describe. I had edited the long, sometimes labyrinthine sentences in this book for Carl and had been impressed by his ability to analyze language, especially when he discussed poems that I knew. At one point, I was so impressed that I wrote “Amen, brother” in the margin. Carl dedicated the book to me. The cover picture is one of Dad and his reflection on Lake Vermilion as he sat in a chair, fishing at the end of a dock. The front matter includes a sonnet I wrote about this picture after Dad died.* Carl presented me with a copy of the book and a T-shirt when we met at the Minneapolis airport, where we rented a car for the trip up north. The shirt was a little too tight for my belly, but I wore it to the reunion anyway.

Buddy was perplexed by Carl’s explanation of the book.

“Just think of how ‘bow-wow’ imitates the bark of a dog,” Carl said.

“I get that, I guess,” Buddy said. “I just wonder who needs to know all this and why.”

“It expands our knowledge of the words we use,” I explained.

“Otherwise, it has no practical value,” Carl said, appearing to be proud that this was true.

“So how many ways are there where, you know, words sound like things?” Buddy asked.

“You don’t want to know,” Carl responded.

“And you edited this book?” Buddy asked me. “Did you understand it?”

“Most of it,” I admitted. “And for all my efforts, the only thing of a practical nature I got was this crummy T-shirt.”

A few days later, as we drove back to Minneapolis, Carl played a CD of Bob Dylan’s songs. He announced that Dylan was the major poet of our time. He claimed that coming from the hinterlands of northern Minnesota increased Dylan’s sense of isolation, his alienation from American culture.

“Dylan never uses a cliché without turning it in some way,” Carl said.

I had heard the notion that Dylan was a major poet but never took it seriously before. By the end of the trip, I thought that Carl had made a good case. Perhaps Dylan is a major poet. This is an example of how my mind works.

The pattern of our lives was set when Carl was about 5 and I was 4. We looked so much alike, both of us tow-headed little boys dressed in similar clothes, that people frequently asked if we were twins. Planners of a Christmas program in our church thought that it would be “cute” if we were to recite a little piece together. Mom prepared us for this recitation. Carl had the poem firmly implanted in his mind after two lessons. My younger mind was less fertile soil, and the plant grew slowly there, emerging from the ground after ten lessons and not reaching maturity until the Saturday before the Christmas program.

The highlight of the evening, for me, was the hard Christmas candy the children were to be given at the end of the program. Mom reminded me that we would receive this treat, as we had the previous year. I was distracted by the upcoming candy and by the candles that lit the sanctuary. When the time for our recitation came, Mom escorted us to the front of the sanctuary, straightened our coats and ties, and took a seat in the front pew. I was fascinated by the candles, now that I could see all of them along the walls, and was a little frightened by the crowd of people looking directly at me, even though their faces seemed friendly.

The poem left me. I was a hopeless sight with two fingers in my mouth, so Carl had to perform a solo:

 My brother and I have come to say
 God bless you all on Christmas day.

When he was done, I figured that I should contribute something, so I added, “Me too.”

The church erupted in laughter.

The story of my life: Carl got the glory; I got the laugh.

 

Stanley P. Anderson has been writing poetry and fiction for about 35 years and has published poetry in various literary journals, including Whole Notes, descant, The Mid-America Poetry Review, Midwest Poetry Review, Kansas Quarterly, Forgotten Ground Regained, The Raintown Review, Contemporary Rhyme, and Prairie Poetry, and has published flash fiction in VerbSap and in River Walk Journal. He has worked as an editor for the United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service, since 1974. Stanley has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Maryland. He is married and has three sons.

Photo "Cold Faces" courtesy of Thorsten Epping, Aachen, Germany.

 


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