The Grammarians

SO´MEBODY. n. s. [some and body.] One; not nobody; a person indiscriminate and undetermined.
A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson
Arthur Wolfe was not a big man. He was taller than his brother, Don, but that was like saying you were taller than Tom Thumb. Don was called Don Thumb throughout school. Maybe that was why Don was such a touchy son of a bitch. It was certainly the reason he became a psychiatrist—compensating. Just don’t tell him that, Arthur thought. Dr. Wolfe, Dr. Don Thumb Wolfe, with his little beard that came to a little point. Arthur had never understood how someone so humorless could claim to uncover the secrets of another person’s soul.

“What is a soul if not a repository of the absurd?” he asked Sally. “Expectations, disappointments, grievances, good wishes.”

“You should have been the doctor. You’re the intellectual.”

She meant it as a compliment, he knew that. It felt like a slap.

He was the intellectual. What good had that done him? For the intellectual of the family happened to be the older son, and the older son had been expected to take over the father’s practice. Not as a doctor or a lawyer, that would not have been bad, but as an accountant. The work reminded him every day of his father, a man for whom money and its whereabouts, its taxation and exemption from taxation, was the alpha and the omega, the sun and the moon, the very stuff of life. Never had a man been so happy in his work. His father saw himself as a warrior in a constant battle against the IRS. Now he was old and could not even count his own pills.

“I do love a loophole,” Arthur’s father used to say, and Arthur, a small child, thought a loophole must be something delicious to eat, a special kind of candy.

He could not see the beauty of the puzzle as his father had. He had never been passionate about business or numbers. He had been forced to take accounting courses instead of poetry courses.

“Counting the coins of others,” he said bitterly one night in April. “The filthy lucre of others. Piling it up, hiding it in safe, filthy little bundles. That’s my profession.”

“Filthy lucre.” Sally smiled as she unbuttoned his wrinkled shirt and handed him his pajamas. He was worst in April, of course. Dark smudges beneath his eyes as if stained by piles of dirty gray cash, as if he’d been physically handling bills, counting them out with grubby hands and black fingernails. Sally said, “Don’t be a snob about money, Arthur. Lawyers make money. Doctors make money.”

“But they don’t count money. Their days are not spent counting money.”

“I wonder,” she said, laughing.

He envied his brother’s career as a psychiatrist. Reading myths all day? Listening to dreams? Pontificating about other people’s sex fantasies? Don was like an oracle in a sulfurous cave. He, Arthur, was the dreamer of the family. He, Arthur, should be in the cave giving out prophesies. Not Don.

“We will have no numbers at the table,” Arthur said when his wife or one of the twins brought up a subject that included money. The mention of a number of any kind was forbidden at dinner. Which only encouraged them.

“Would you like two potatoes or three, dear?” Sally would ask innocently. “You know, we had six inches of snow this month. But it was above thirty-two degrees, so it all melted.”

When the girls wanted to annoy him they had only to chant, “There are two of us, two of us, two of us.”

Two of them. He remembered bathing them when they were babies, so many pink arms and legs, so many chubby little hands splashing, two open little birds’ mouths. He remembered leaning over the side of the tub, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his watch resting on the sink. He remembered dribbling water on their heads. And the crowns of their heads, the swirls of wet baby hair. He remembered the rush of tenderness so powerful he thought he might stop breathing.

When the girls first began to speak in their careful gibberish, Sally had worried.

“You just feel left out,” he said.

She nodded. Yes, she did feel left out.

“Don’t feel left out.” He put his arms around her. “You’re their mother.”

“But they are…”


“Each other.”

He didn’t like that, and he said so. They were alike, two peas in a pod, but each pea had its own circumference. Daphne followed Laurel, a tiny acolyte. He wondered if Daphne would ever turn around and walk away. He wondered if Laurel would follow.

His brother had aggravated Sally’s worry, getting her all worked up. But so what if they spoke in tongues? When he looked at his daughters, he found it difficult to see anything not lovely. He loved to watch them, to listen. Their voices were music, their little heads nodding at each other were dance.

“You should have been the shrink,” his wife told him. “You have so much patience. When they talk to each other in gobbledegook, well, sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy.”

Then, at last, they’d begun to speak English. Arthur had half expected their first words to be, like Macaulay’s, “Madam, the agony is somewhat abated.” In unison. But there was no dividing line, really, between their nonsense talk and their foray into English. Like foreigners living in Italy who quite unexpectedly realize one day that they can understand Italian, Arthur and Sally realized that they knew what their children were saying.

The prattle had become language, and Sally no longer heard it as compelling background music. Every word was a word she could hear clearly and understand, a word that must be taken into account.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m going crazy!” she said. “They never stop talking!”

“Maybe,” Arthur said, “you are going crazy. Maybe you just think they’re speaking English. Maybe they’re still speaking baby talk, and you are, too.”

She laughed and sang, “‘Words, words, words! I’m so sick of words.’”

The twins were two little Professor Higginses. On rainy days, Sally listened to My Fair Lady over and over with them. They liked it better than any other record. “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?” they sang. They jumped from the armchair to the couch, their arms spread, their bare feet flying. “Loverly!” they sang. “Ah-wooo-dent it be loverly.” Tumbling over the back of the couch, running, leaping, flinging themselves into somersaults.

“Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through…”

Arms flailing, feet flying.

“When you yell you’re going to drown…”

“I’ll get dressed and go to town!”

Sally would sit in a chair in the corner, well out of their way, singing along.

“Somehow Keats will survive without you.” What could they possibly make of that, the two little girls? They didn’t know who Keats was. Or did they? Perhaps they had long ago memorized Endymion and recited it to each other at night, translated into their strange language.

“Do you know who Keats is?” she asked them one day.

“In the song?”

“Yes, in the song.”

They both shrugged, and Laurel said, “He’s in the song, Mommy.”

“In the song,” Daphne echoed.

“Silly,” Sally heard Laurel say softly to her sister as they walked away.

“I know,” Daphne whispered back. “Keats is in the song.”

Sally put the record on for them then and relaxed into her chair in the corner. Her coffee was cold, of course. She was sure she had not had a hot cup of coffee since the girls had been born, but at least, she thought, sipping, tapping her foot to the music, her children did not know who Keats was.

Sally sometimes suggested other records. When the rain persisted and they couldn’t go outside for several days in a row, they listened to The King and I or Guys and Dolls. But My Fair Lady was the family background music.

Inevitably, somewhere around the time the rain began to fall in Spain, one of the girls would tire and trip, banging her head on the coffee table, and the crying would begin.

“Stop this fracas!” their mother would say in a voice of mock severity. They had only to hear the word “fracas” and they would cheer up and begin again.