childhood · people · writing

Exactly not ever the right word

I was winded on the last lap, and playground sand is always that beige and powdery substrate which records a shoe-print when you, yourself, don’t want to even record your presence at school. At all. Billy punched me in the back of the neck, I remember, when rounding past the backstop where the hopscotch squares were less than swept. The number ‘two’ was covered in stray sand. Jimmy–he slapped Billy upside the head–and shoved him fierce. Jimmy wasn’t my friend but he hit Billy a second time and said: ‘We don’t pick on him anymore.” My neck meanwhile hurt.
I had made a speech in class. The line I remember–the only one I remember saying–was “I hear you when you make fun of the way I walk.” Mrs. Heath smiled for a brief second at the back of the room, and then she looked away and wiped her eye as if she were correcting her make-up. Rumor was she smoked, and she was always doused in ‘Wind-song’ which is that really awful perfume which has its base note in ylang-ylang, that thing I still don’t know how to pronounce. She used to secretly channel me books because she knew I would and very much use them.
One time Billy called me a ‘fag’, and I unexpectedly shoved his head into the drinking fountain. He pushed me, wanting a fight.
I have a certain scoliosis which is why I perhaps walk funny; some have called it cool,me having something of a gambol; others have illogically said: ‘wow you have good posture.’ Truth is, and as my chiropractor has remarked, “If you were a pitch , Man, you’d be a curveball.”
I walk, think, and talk funny. I say every curse word with sibilance. I also and accidentally walk like I’m looking to be remembered. You’d be surprised: it earns me my detractors, but also the otherwise. Not something I’ve exactly wanted or aspired toward–this ambivalence-and it’d be much easier to just be the same as everybody else. End-all, though, I’m me.
Billy, he hit me square in the chest. I stared him down. He kept calling me ‘fag’, an impotent word. He hit me in the chest-bone, twice, because I made the mistake of cracking his forehead against the drinking faucet exactly once. He deserved it.
I didn’t raise a fist and what wasn’t a fight was broken up and Mr. Stovall, my seventh grade teacher, put Billy in a corner–perhaps roughly–and told him to, frankly, just stop it. Like Jimmy did later when and after I got punched. A punch in the back of the neck, no less, that punch just something dumb. I only wanted it to stop. Leave me alone, please.
Jimmy told Billy: ‘Leave him alone’, and then he patted me on the back. He was not my friend.

I told my friend Janet today: I like words like ‘dumb.’ ‘Dumb’ is a good word in that it requires your tongue to be thick. Sometimes words are powerful when they’re not specific, when they’re thickish or dull, and when they’re the first epithets you learned, like back in kindergarten.
Sometimes I get in trouble for words, usually when I’m being too specific or otherwise way inaccessible; also when I use words to apologize for other words I just used. Exact words are a ‘thing’ for me. There are all these arguments about how and why you should write, and who for.
What words–that’s a big argument–what words should you use.
Billy shoved me. He kept calling me a ‘fag.’ It inspired nothing in me and I didn’t raise a fist.
My kid had is IEP recently and the school nurse copied to his report this thing our physician penned upon Finn’s birth: “Born with the stigmata of Down Syndrome.”
And because I am madly in love with my kid in a way that I still have not properly expressed, and in ways which people just don’t know; where I have failed as a writer when other people write books and say beautiful and copyrighted things, I got angry. ‘Stigmata’ is not the right word, though it exists in medical dictionaries as a technically exact one.
I ended a social media post toward the nurse with: ‘you solecistic shit’, (since deleted) a combination of both an exact and an inexact word and where Billy could probably have hit me in the chest again, just above the heart, saying: ‘You dumb dummy.’Dumb dummy, shut up.
(If you’re solecistic, it means you’ve used your words exactly wrong).
Finn said ‘boy’ today and made the proper sign. Also ‘cat’ and ‘happy’ and ‘fruit’. I was too complicated. Made words to explain words and there was one word which I lacked success with and that was.

cancer · Cayden · death · grandma

On Telling Cayden

BLOG-Mrs-Lot-Salt-Shaker“She will not get better,” I correct my wife Jenn, when talking to Cayden about my grandmother.
I’m not being unkind. “May not” is at this point just inaccurate. A nicety.
“Would you like to see her?” I ask my kid.
We’ve just made the best scrambled eggs ever, me and Cayde, salt being the final ingredient.
Salt is something you rub into a wound, else pour into a healing bath. Cayde is too young to know the difference.
One time he specifically requested ‘sodium chloride’ to season his dinner: ‘Dad, can you pass the sodium chloride?’ He’s precocious, and it’s salt—sodium chloride—that he thinks finishes everything.
Like Lot’s wife. Like scrambled eggs that are done perfectly, the curds all wet and yellow. Sometimes, though, salt is somewhere in between, neither first nor final. Season as you go.
“Do you just want to remember her happy?”
Cayde places his head in my lap. He says ‘No.’ He then says, ‘Yes.’ He can’t decide because he’s seven. We’ve just told him about tumors and cancer.These are things he already knows about—we’re not teaching him anything. We alert him to the recent metastasis, that family’s on its way.
(My friend Jason: he died over the phone, him saying “I love you, Thom,” when he was fourteen and missing a leg and in far-retreat. His mother said the morphine was keeping him comfortable. I didn’t say anything back).
I haven’t seen cancer again until just recently. I’m relieved when Cayden says, “I just want to remember her happy.”
On the drive to my Grandma’s house, there’s a blue heron that conspicuously lands a number of feet beyond the freeway exit. It floats up and beyond the sea fig, which invariably lines the asphalt. Where the exhaust settles there are dead tendrils, where the flowers refuse to phosphor.
Cayde says before I get into the car, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
He also says: “I hope she recognizes you, Daddy,” because we talked about what happens in the end, and—true to everything, and what it means to die—the jaw goes slack and pupils pin. I see my Grandma’s gold bridges because her mouth is agape and she has strawberry stains on the creases of her mouth.
We feed her strawberry mash–which is in season and unreasonably red—and mango sorbet, which houses her pills.
My grandma does recognize me, and we hold hands briefly.
I kiss my grandma good-bye. There are strategies to move her onto the commode and it means navigating the three stairs into her recessed bedroom where the bed is something of percale and where perhaps she can be more comfortable. I leave before any indignity.

Outside that window, that one above the antiquated linen, I picked green garlic on her urging and it’s where the pigeons shit and where I watered her plants. Always that one stain on the concrete where the birds sit on the eaves and in between houses, cooing.
She: “Can you water the front?”
Me: ‘Sure.’
She mouthed something when I left. She had thin hair. I could’ve pinned a blossom to her skin, it being paper.
I don’t know what she said.
I tell Cayde: ‘She recognized me.’
He again says ‘sorry.’ He’s seven. But he hugs me and there is the weight of his head on my lap and I rest my hand on his skull, which I invented, and I very much believe him.

cancer · death · family · Findlay · food · writing

The Dying Man Says Only: ‘Red’

The man with the goiter and the one half-mast eye takes my order at Pho Nam Cali. I’m due at my Grandma’s house within the half-hour.
“I’ll have the ‘41’,” I say. “And—excuse me—how exactly do you pronounce that?” I ask, referring to the Vietnamese subtitles. I’m earnest in my inquiry.
(C’om bun tom nuong, mind you, is the ‘41’).
The man pronounces the words carefully but not condescendingly, and then points to each of the individual words in turn.
“C’om is rice,” he says gesturing to the accompanying photograph, “Then ‘bun’: it means pork—or meat—and ‘tom’ is shrimp.” He circles the picture with a forefinger. “Nuong means grilled.” I nod my thank you as he disappears into the kitchen and while Finn in the meantime tries to climb into the lap of another restaurant patron. The patron is wholly amused and laughs as Finn ineffectually tries to navigate the man’s calves. Finn ultimately finds no purchase.
I hoist Finn into my arms and bounce him up and down to settle his busyness. Finn’s eyes find the TV, which is broadcasting an early afternoon news segment. A tongue-tied anchor interviews a transgender military colonel; the anchor cannot keep his identifiers straight. He/she. There are apologies.
The man with the half-mast eye casually returns from the kitchen, glances up at the television, then back toward me. He’s been thinking about my question.
“Vietnamese is very much like French. The first words—‘c’om’, ‘bun’, ‘tom’—they’re modified by the last word, ‘nuong’. ‘Grilled’. The pork and shrimp are grilled.” He has his arms casually crossed behind his back, and I like this exchange. I explain how I’m familiar with this manner of modification, Spanish being something similar.
He takes a rhetorical left turn while I wait for the bun nuong–the shrimp already done I’m sure–and the rice something to be ladled from a pressure-cooker in back.
“Imagine a dying man,” he says, “Knifed in the back and bleeding. And you crouch down and ask him: ‘who did this to you’? If he responds in Vietnamese, it is: ‘the man,red-haired.’ Imagine he dies after one word. You at least know it was a ‘man’. If he responds in English, you only have the word ‘red’, which might mean him referring to his own blood.”
(On the television, I hear another apology and the military colonel doesn’t flinch).
Grammar is not generally this mortal, but it’s an interesting conversation and once given my c’om bun tom nuong, I nod thankfully, tip extra, and carry a now tired-eyed Finn back to the car. There are wafts of fish sauce and I belt Finn into the seat; he’s smiling, albeit with purpled eyes.
At my Grandma’s, everyone is there but–most importantly (to Finn at least)–my uncle, who has frites. French fries. Jack in the Shack shit. I give Finn some shrimp and some spoonfuls of rice, but French fries ultimately win, there being something of historical tongue-in-cheeked-ness at play here. French colonizers governed Vietnam for years.
(A recent restaurant I went to served frites with nuoc cham).
My Grandma’s uncomfortable.
This is the signifier I allow myself: ‘uncomfortable.’ ‘Pained’ is certainly more appropriate, but I use tame words as the necessary analgesia; I’m actually the uncomfortable one, the one not in actual or marked pain. Such are semantics. My Grandma, meanwhile, has a chart with many check marks next to medicines like ‘hydrocodone’ and ‘morphine’. The times in between administrations have trended shorter and, when my grandma tries to sit up, I understand why.
She doesn’t smile for the entire hour I’m there, except when Finn taps the velour footrest of her La-Z-Boy and tries, for the second time, to climb into someone else’s lap. Grandma couches her packet of French fries to playfully tease Finn; she then neglects to uncurl her fingers in recent forgetfulness of her own body. Finn can’t find the fries, yet still hugs Grandma’s thighs in some reverse apology. He rests his head on her knee. All’s well even as the fries grow cold.
We shouldn’t be unhappy if some have a lot and some have a little, or vice-versa: it’s just semantics.
(That’s most certainly a lie; I haven’t yet convinced myself).
The RN arrives and I shrug on my jacket and interrupt the nurse.
“I just wanna say good-bye real quick, ok?”
“Of course, Honey,” and she has on colorful scrubs because that’s the required uniform.
I kiss my Grandma just above her mouth and tell her that I love her, then atop her head where she is now white and on a scalp that used to be red. There are scattered hairs on her shoulder, chemo-sheddings, and I illogically kiss her temple and feathers of her white hair stick to my upper lip; all this while the dying man pools in his own mortality, and in which case the dying man says only: ‘red.’