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The Time Capsule (Part 1)



Few people are more detached from contemporary culture than I am. Perhaps I choose to be. Ideas fundamental to living—today or at any time; distinctions between acquaintance and friendship, notions of common sense and common courtesy, of responsibility and respect—bear little resemblance to the templates from my youth. Things just don’t mean what they once did. Change is not always comfortable.

My friend Howard Tabor is bothered by this, too—this craving for universals in a fractured time. There is no history; there are multiple, sometimes contradictory and overlapping histories. While, contrarily, FaceBook® has reduced the nuanced spectra of personal association to a single choice: friend. Take it or leave it; be it or don’t. Another social networking site limits you to 600 contacts. Six hundred contacts! The mind boggles. I have a tough enough time managing a Christmas list of fewer than twenty-five.

Howard’s piece this week troubles me still and will for some time to come, I suspect, because it strikes so close to the heart; a tale worthy of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Agincourt after dark…
by Howard A. Tabor

“The Scarlet Number” (Scene 1)

This week the U.S. Postal Service delivered a time capsule to my desk.

Wednesday’s mail brought a plain manila envelope, nine by twelve, with no return address. Was that white powder something toxic like anthrax or just the residue from my morning doughnut? In the interest of national security, I flirted with calling the county hazmat team. But curiosity trumped common sense. It often does.

The stamps on the envelope, for example, were an assortment of miscellaneous postage issued during the 1960s and 70s in single-digit denominations, celebrating everything from statehood anniversaries to the Oregon Trail and Helen Keller. It was postmarked Des Moines on the previous Monday. Very curiously, my address was typed. No, not word-processed; typed. On a typewriter. With a fabric ribbon. I thought the last of those were either at municipal landfills or the Smithsonian Institution.

I opened it with sweaty palms and fluttering heart.

The folder inside contained an equally motley assortment of clippings, snapshots, receipts, ticket stubs; the stuff of scrapbooking. My Wednesday had unexpectedly been redirected into a day of recollection; of sleuthing, googling, phoning and faxing that lasted until one o’clock Thursday morning. I forgot to eat. What emerged from the envelope’s miscellanea was an intimate one-act play with a small cast of characters. I actually knew one of them, so will change the names for modesty’s sake. Let’s call her…


Mary Ellen Leer was born a couple of years before me, the last of a middling brood of five or six kids. Mary Ellen may have been that last accidental child of aging parents; I recall there were a dozen years between her and the nearest sibling. She was an ample girl, certainly taller and better endowed than her contemporaries, though perhaps uncomfortable in her own skin for those reasons. She was also two years ahead of me in high school, so I was aware of her, though she took only small notice of me, I suspected, because of my family’s prominence in the community. Mary Ellen’s principal physical asset was her hair: a mane of intense, unimaginable red. Some said it came from a bottle, but others in a position to know said the carpet matched the drapes. During the years of our acquaintance, she was always called “Rooster,” and it was meant in every sense of the word.

Rooster Leer could have been a politician; could have been anything, I thought, because of her innate ability to network. We didn’t know that word in the 60s, but Mary Ellen played the game better than many today—and without a blackberry. At school she bore a nimbus of entourage, a halo of classmates eager to bask in the warmth of her flaming hair: on the stairs, by her locker, in the cafeteria at a scale unmatched before or since. It wasn’t her sexuality that drew them to stand, kneel or sit within the radius of her aura; it was charisma, another word with growing currency in the 60s. After all, we had JFK.

And the pattern continued at college. I frankly can’t recall what her major may have been—if any. She was in most respects a generalist, with an emphasis in socialization. One skill did emerge during those turbulent Vietnam years: Rooster found her voice in the Theatre Department. It was perhaps a natural escalation, the focus of her strutting and fretting upon the stage of life. As Lady Macbeth in “The Scottish Play” she was awesome—not the least because it was her own hair that carried the part, not some polyester mop.

A career in the theater followed graduation, or at least the semblance of one. She found a stage name—Marielle, a contraction of her given names—but the parts that came her way were few. She auditioned with our local community theater and with larger professional companies in Des Moines, Sioux City and Omaha. She sent résumés to Chicago and New York. Her reviews were good (“…wonderful spirited performance…”), but the parts seemed to take second place to a larger role as the center of her own Ptolemaic cosmology: the precise center of adoring adulation; the heart of a personal firmament. It’s arguable whether the theater attracts narcissists or creates them.

Now here’s the odd part. Despite the upper triple-digit number of her ever-increasing retinue (“Did you see Mary Ellen in ‘Our Town’? I cried!”), there was no appreciable intimacy. I asked her once how she prepared for a new role. Did she study what others had written about the character; did she scour old reviews for other interpretations? “Who has time to read,” was her reply, possibly the only conversation we ever had. And probably the most insightful.

She took an apartment downtown above the Bon-Ton Café but lived in seclusion. There may have been back-stair beaus but I never knew who they might have been (male or female; her sex was certain, but her gender orientation was ambivalent, perhaps purposely so, for how better to expand one’s entourage). Here’s the inherent contradiction for a narcissist: the absolute necessity for keeping people within arm’s reach simultaneously requires they be kept at arm’s length. We were invited close and encouraged to imagine ourselves a part of her inner life, but if Rooster had one, it was a carefully guarded secret.

The infrequent roles that came her way afforded marginal income, so she moved back to her parent’s small house on the southeast side. Whether basement or attic, we never knew. None were invited there. Instead she lived a public life, that is to say, a life lived in public: by day among a constantly shifting group of friends at the Bon-Ton, in a booth unofficially reserved for her use; in the evenings at The Roost, the bar/pool hall/bowling alley out on the Fahnstock Road. (See any irony here?) Income came from low-prestige, low-paying jobs in restaurants (my guess is her tips were astonishing; she knew how to work a crowd). For nearly a year she was also an information operator for Iowa Bell (that stage voice serving her so well). Day jobs came and went, but always with a snippy observation about their mismanagement, misapplication or misunderstanding of her not inconsiderable talents.

Marielle Leer slipped from our radar. Someone thought she had moved to Chicago to promote a theatrical career. And her story might have gone unexplored, had it not been for the Wednesday mail.

This is has been Scene 1.

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