Freak Corner was the brothers’ name for the end of the block where our brick rambler stood across from Alfie’s house, identical but for some glass-brick courses in the Kipps front wall, too cloudy to see anything but shadows moving behind them. Our house, the other piece of their “freak corner,” being home to my sister Gayle whose limited vocabulary and floating inflections left a constant question on her face: Is this the way it should sound?
Back in junior high, there was a girl at our bus stop who was mercilessly teased about her looks. She wasn’t particularly odd-looking, but odd enough, so she became a target and retreated more and more into a semi-hostile, totally miserable hunched posture that invited more teasing from assholic adolescents. By the way, I still regret that I did nothing but stand by and watch, relieved it wasn’t me. I happened to see her one day in the school corridors, talking with some friends, and I was astonished: she was laughing, chatting, looking completely happy and at ease. I saw this again in college: a woman who was ignored and rather stigmatized in class took on a wholly different attitude when surrounded by friends. Even in the short run, environment shapes us.
This story features three different people affected by their environment. For one, changing that environment is a struggle but it is life-saving. For another, the environment was a choice. And for the third, character seems to persist whatever the environment; unfortunately, this is not good news.
Gayle, pre-lingually deaf, never heard a word our parents said, though it took them nearly two years to understand that placing herself in front of them when they spoke was not a child’s remarkable politeness but her need to see the movement of their lips. Accepting the diagnosis, they were determined, with little debate, that Gayle would be an “oralist,” a mainstreamed member of the hearing world.
Her early years must have been a time of dim confusion and bewildered anxiety. As she grew older, the indignities were felt if not heard: “Call her dummy. She can’t hear you.” Worse came later – subjection to a community pique at what it took to be her conceited diffidence, then to pity for her presumed cognitive deficit. I grieved with Gayle, which only gave fuel to her frustration.
The story takes place in the mid-50s, when American Sign Language was stigmatized; to a large degree, that stigma has faded as linguistic features of ASL have become better understood. Gayle’s story shows how her intelligence was hidden while trying to read lips and speak, then was revealed as prodigious when she began communicating in a language she could fully receive and transmit. This change in environment, resisted by her parents, resulted in a change as astonishing as my glimpse of the girl at the bus stop amidst friends rather than foes.
One of Gayle’s allies was a tutor, hired to teach reading and speech but who secretly taught her sign as well. Another advocate was a neighbor, the Kipps’ son, who had some changes of his own going on:
The new Margaret Kipps made her switch without going under the knife. This in mid-twentieth century when an operation for the full change might have been offered in Scandinavia, but not to Alfie Kipps of Arlington, Virginia, who became Margaret in dress and address in the summer of 1953. No loss or gain of genitalia.
Alfie, in his late twenties, still living at home, had been working, he told us, in the city, in the circulation office of a trade magazine as a punch-card operator, that once pervasive data management job, long extinct. The change was more shocking because Alfie had never shown us a feminine inclination. In fact, there were young women who used to drive into our development to wave at the Kipps porch, coming and going. We assumed it was a mark of Alfie’s popularity, not a sign of social reticence or sexual confusion.
The description of the Kipps house as having those glass bricks, “too cloudy to see anything but shadows,” is an appropriate metaphor, since we’re never sure what’s happening with Margaret/Alfie, and what is supposed changes. At first he’s assumed to be turning himself into a woman a la Christine Jorgensen, a trending news topic at the time. Then he’s seen as a transvestite, visiting clubs for such people.
When we finally discover Alfie’s environment is more of a choice than Gayle’s, it’s one of those astonishing surprises good fiction throws at a reader. I’m not so sure it works, however. It feels forced to me, yet I can’t find a reason for my hesitance. It’s appropriate to the time – and, though extraneous to the story, fits the literary community of the time as well – and, while a bit esoteric, is no more so than the reality of Gayle’s academic explorations. That is, it’s readily available to an average reader, though probably not the first thing one would consider. That Alfie would reveal his secret to Gayle even makes sense, for who would she tell? Yet it still feels a bit off to me.
The third leg of the triangle is a pair of brothers, the neighborhood bullies who come up with the sobriquet “Freak Corner.” They are minor players in the story; their only real contribution to plot is the event that sends Alfie on his way. They are more symbolic of the kind of miscreant who is not the product of his environment, but rather his fundamental character makeup. This is emphasized as they are shown heading into adulthood, and out of the neighborhood, without much change. Plant stinkweed in the finest soil, and it will still reek.
The story is narrated by Gayle’s sibling; as I read, I considered her a sister, but I think it’s probably a brother. In his One Story interview (which I consider a bit spoilery, so be forewarned), Gardiner indicates the story started out in third person but moved to an observer-narrator somewhere along the way, because “using one of the protagonists would surely complicate the telling—having a voice that pleads for itself while simultaneously pleading for another.” I’ve been thinking of this ever since; what a great lesson for a class, to consider how the choice of narrator would change the story.
I’m unfamiliar with Gardiner’s earlier work, but it seems he set most of his stories in a historical framework that became integral to the theme and plot. Which, of course is exactly what he has done here. I find it interesting that this was first published in One Story, a litmag more associated with what are now called emerging writers than with grand masters.
* * *
Author interview (caution: spoilers) and editor remarks can be found online at One Story.