“It’s a rusty place to be. It’s not the greatest. It’s dark.”
There is perhaps no more accurate a way to describe the real estate between my ears these last two months, as I’ve toiled through the evenings in pursuit of the Challerhocker Boy, that chapped, troll-like, perplexingly wrinkled young child on the label of Walter Räss’s stunning Alpine cheese. The mysteries of his existence and the questions of what it must be like in his mind have so consumed me that, last week, I found myself on the receiving end of a phone call from Switzerland, where Walter’s exporter, Konrad Houser, called from to answer my questions. It was Konrad who spoke of the dark, rusty place, only he mentioned it to give context to the cellar where the Challerhocker Boy spends his days. And that was when the animating force behind my curiosity started to become clear, and I began to realize why I have been so singularly focused on learning about this beloved yet terrifying illustrated lad.
Allow me to explain.
In our last installment, I spoke with Glenn Hills, the Columbia Cheese importer of Challerhocker. He offered to put me in touch with Walter. To do so, however, I would first have to speak with Glenn’s counterpart, Konrad. Konrad is an effusively charming individual, with a disposition that seems practically enlightened and a Swiss-German accent that is mellifluous and syrupy. I could listen to Konrad speak for years. He could read the instruction manual for an ice tray or give a real-time account of watching paint dry and it would be enrapturing. So imagine such a voice illuminating the secrets of the very thing that has been gnawing at you for fortnights on end. I was mildly concerned I might explode.
Konrad gave me his personal interpretation of the word Challerhocker, just as Glenn had. Where Glenn had conceived of a Challerhocker as “someone in their parents’ basement playing World of Warcraft,” Konrad spoke of a challer as that rusty place, and of hocker as meaning to “sit on your bum.” And that’s his take on Challerhocker Boy—a child spending his time on his hocks, just sitting down there in the cold, dark cellar. “For some,” he said, “the label has the feeling that the kid has been locked up.”
I know the feeling, I thought. I myself have been figuratively trapped in the labyrinth, the maze, the dark and rusty challer that is the mystery of Boy. And in that moment, it all made sense. My months’ worth of sleepless nights suddenly played out in my mind, like near the end of a movie when the main character finally figures something out, and those seemingly small moments from earlier in the film replay on the screen to illuminate their hidden significance for the audience. I saw myself pent up in my cold apartment, my vegetables wilting in the crisper as I thought of Challerhocker Boy. I saw the intensity of my conviction as I fell asleep with my head on my keyboard each night. I saw Glenn Hills leading me to understand that the boy has an overactive imagination. And I saw myself fabricating a quote from Mr. Hills in which he tells me that I, too, have an overactive imagination. Reader, it was at this moment, the dulcet tones of Konrad Houser’s voice still coming through the telephone, that I understood my preoccupation with Challerhocker Boy. I grinned maniacally. My eyes became startlingly large. It felt so liberating that it was as if I’d just broken through the bricks of the cellar I’d been locked up in to announce to my imaginary fellow Swiss villagers: that look on the face of Challerhocker Boy is one that I recognize as my own. The reason I have been so consumed by this boy is because I see myself in him. In so, so many ways, I am the Challerhocker Boy. And the Challerhocker Boy is me.
With that, my terror of Boy turned to fondness for him, a terrifying fondness, the look of which was etched on my face, just as it is on his. I looked at his image, he looked back at me, both of us looking exactly the same, synergizing, fusing, becoming one. And then I ate a slice of his cheese. There are flavor moments you will remember forever, and this was one of them: the Challerhocker’s remarkable depth, its aromas of cooked custard, its flavors of butterscotch and browned butter and slowly roasted hazelnuts. It was the taste of understanding, and it was extraordinary.
I did ultimately speak to Walter, and he was a consummate gentleman, but by then I already had the answers to the questions I’d initially set out to ask him. I had begun this journey to find out what it must be like inside the head of the Challerhocker Boy, and it lead me to learn that I’ve actually known all along.