WAS A BIG WAS
THE CHANCE YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE
The rest came in the days following, up through the soil like mushrooms, downward in patterned weather. The plip-plop of phonemes on windowpanes still reminds you of your childhood home. You saw them and recalled the watery shape of an early memory. They weren’t new as much as reborn, meaning something else, assuming the shape of a person, as words often do. You thought maybe you were experiencing some natural disaster, and oh if the explanation was so simple. The words talked. You could exchange them for items at the corner store. Fruit was wrapped in them. They walked in newborn bodies and carried with them the memories of a ghost. When they found electricity, they travelled smoothly through wires and currents, filtered out from computer screens as soft static light.
This memory trickles back to you now, years later, standing on the edge of a baseball diamond in the center of town. Boys from the band are playing baseball with an orange. Too young to be graceful, loose change and gum wrappers spill from their pockets when they take a swing. What you are is the creature on the side; you line the edges. The trumpet player hits a foul, and it rolls through the grass to where you stand watching.
Without warning, the clouds open and a sun shower rains over the diamond. The boys run for cover but you stay put, tilting your head upward and letting the rain dot your throat. Over there is an orange tree that two people have climbed to escape the wet ground. One, for the sake of convenience, goes by Susie. Growing up, Mother would refer to Susie as the “Unbrushed.” Indeed, her hair is a wild shape that moves through air like water, and disregards Earth’s pull.
The other is not a person so much as a piece of powder blue chalk. You glance alternatingly at the chalk and at your own arms, pocked by dilated blood vessels, the hair on them clumping.
“Arms are arms,” the chalk says, noticing.
A trumpet player makes his way tenderly out from the bleachers. His bangs, newly cropped, stick to his wet forehead as though smoothed down by an invisible hand. The orange still rests in the grass at your feet. He motions, nodding at you, to throw him back his ball.
“This should be good,” says the chalk.
TOO FINE TO BE HELD ON TO
They flutter into the path of sight. You begin by skimming your eyes across them. They change in nature from one sentence to the next. One begins in the quaggy mud leading up to your house, and ends somewhere in Singapore. Some unfasten themselves from their sentences and waver on their feet, sparking like cut wires. There is a week-long thunderstorm. A tiny one appears on your lawn, so small it can’t even fill a syllable. Mother lets it in the house to eat, and it stays, wandering around touching things, old brass lamps, plastic pears. It makes popping noises with its hot red mouth. You sit next to it at the table, help it hold a fork. For the sake of convenience, the family calls it Eli. Before long, Eli’s a part of the family, and everyone’s using the word boy.
Susie shifts her foot and sends a few brittle words tumbling down through the branches. You extend your arms toward her to signal your readiness. They’re light as leaves, so it takes them a while. You watch them twirl and float downwards, squinting to read.
“You know it will be easier if you just wait until they reach the ground,” calls Susie.
The trumpet player’s getting anxious. He twitches around in his too-small skin. He scratches his neck and grows an inch taller. You look back and forth between him and the orange.
Some words, the ones dislocated from their sentences, you tape them up on the wall. You rearrange them until they read forward to backward, backward to sides. You try sticking two together. A few get down off the wall and take you by the hand, lead you to back to where they started, a list, a list they got out of.
EARLY STAGES OF READING
1. The words that resist categorization.
2. You endeavor to drown them.
3. You and your stuffed pockets on the cliff’s edge.
5. Made in Bangladesh.
6. Hip bone.
7. Hair colors.
8. Dexterity of tail.
9. You turn your pockets inside out.
10. Starchy fabrics.
11. Ring finger.
12. Cap of knee.
13. The walls cave in.
14. Sigh them out in deep breaths.
In the middle of the night there is a grinding sound coming from the lawn. You follow Mother and Eli to the front door, where you see the chalk in his new Pontiac, the front smudged up in the moonlight. It looks like he’s gone over the stone wall and through the vegetable garden, churning up beet-sized clumps of soil before coming to a stop in a cloud of smoke and crumbled rock.
The next day you and Susie walk to the pub in town.
“Do you think your mom will let you have him over anymore?” she wants to know.
“Not likely,” you say. “She says he has a fundamental lack of human empathy.”
The chalk used the word sorry so many times it dried up and became a different part of speech. It was exhausting. Like watching a beetle flap its way to the center of a puddle.
Susie slugs back her beer and says, “Do I need to point out the obvious?”
Had a ball and a bat. Liked to play baseball. She liked to run. She liked to pitch the ball. She liked to hit the ball. Throw a ball the can. Hit the ball. Here, rags. Come here. Come here, rags. Run, run, run. Ran and ran. She ran as fast as she can.
ANOTHER FAMILY CIRCUS
Eli can’t read, and you find he moves through the world carefully, as if tiptoeing. The two of you toss a word back and forth on the pavement. “Is there any way…,” he starts, holding the word like a crystal ball. “If you don’t want a word, you can get a new one?” He throws the word too short and it smashes into a thousand shards on the pavement. How do you tell a person they’re stuck with whatever words they’ve been given? You move closer to Eli. He pulls absentmindedly at the frayed loops on his sweater, his eyes wet.
If you weren’t afraid of getting cut, you could collect the shards and mash them together into a gleaming prism of data and symbols, polished surfaces, a graceful refraction of light.
The trumpet player doesn’t know how to manage how fast he’s growing. His bones, since yesterday, have already become 30% more fortified. Boy bones are nature’s steel. He has more space in his body, and because his heart and brain are changing at a normal pace, he hasn’t found a way to fill it yet. Visually, he looks like a person with air pockets between skull and scalp, metatarsals and skin.
THE ARM IN WINDUP POSITION
One of your teachers, Marguerite, conducts a lecture series called Love & Sex. It’s held in the one room addition to the house, built off the back and facing the lake. To mask the musty air, Marguerite stuffs sprigs of pine and orange peels in the crevices between panels of hardwood.
After the first class meeting, you and the chalk exit through the back door and walk together down to the gravelly beach. The chalk kicks at pebbles with the blunt stub he uses for feet.
“Maybe we can put Eli in a school for boys his age,” you suggest.
“You can’t put him anywhere,” says the chalk.
Okay, okay. So if not you, who’s going to prepare him for the world? And who’s moving around all the little words, some giant fingertip in the sky?
1. Being young and stupid.
2. Ready is not a given.
3. The chalk hit the wall because he had been drinking.
4. At most boyish.
5. The rules of baseball.
6. Lying for someone.
7. Excuses fanning out of you like playing cards.
8. A person is not a word you learned.
9. Out of nowhere comes the pitch, and you must catch it with your naked hand.
A ROOM TO PUT THINGS IN
Marguerite is standing in front of the class with a large brown thoroughbred. The back wall of the addition has been blown off by a particularly rough storm. Behind her you can see the lake, and the miniature waves tap tap tapping the shoreline.
“I want you to look at this horse,” she says. The horse is part of the lecture. She holds a bridle in her right hand, gestures for the class to look at that too. Lips open for the bit, she brings the bridle upward, slides the ear through an opening, fluffs the forelock. The horse stands still except for the grinding of its jaw. Marguerite steps back.
“If you are the horse,” she says, “who can tell me what that bridle is?”
Several hands quietly go up.
Susie springs from the orange tree. You’re still in the arms-up position. You might as well catch her. At the speed she’s coming down, you’d think she’s just another word. But then of course she is.
CROOKED TEETH WILL HOLD YOU BACK
Mother cuts consonants into thin, rectangular strips, then fries them in a spicy sauce. You sit at the kitchen table with Eli, who sounds out sentences in his workbook.
“That thing is bad, bad news,” says Mother. You use your thick, block-like hands to gesture at the word geography. Eli has trouble with the letter Y.
“To think how long it’s lived under this roof,” she continues. “Eating our words. Making like it’s one of us.”
“I’m a thing,” you say. Mother shakes a colander over the sink.
“You’re not chalk,” she responds. Eli mistakes people for patient.
__________ had a ball and bat.
__________ ran as fast as she could.
__________ liked to play baseball.
__________ liked to pitch the ball.
__________ got the ball.
__________ threw the ball at her.
__________ liked to hit the ball.
__________ ran to.
__________ safe on.
__________ liked to run.
__________ Had a and.
__________ Pitch the got ball.
Made it to _________.
__________ was safe on _________.
__________ the first was.
__________ liked to run.
__________ ran as fast as she could.
WHAT YOU JUST SAID DOES NOT RELATE TO THE THOUGHT THAT CAME BEFORE IT
The chalk rolls over to face you, even though his body looks the same on all sides. He’s always facing you and away from you. You’ve long stopped worrying about where to focus your eyes. You close them, draw your hands over his flat torso.
“How’s this for an idea,” you say. “You and I can live together in the empty shell of a sentence.”
You meant to say something about each other. Rather, it was the difference between the two of you that meant. It was the words assembling themselves freely inside your body, the way they collected all the many voices present within your voice, the glimmer of gulls flocking over a beach in the distance.
In the darkness, you imagine he’s not a piece of chalk at all, but a globe.
Once the wind blows dust off a body, who’s to say that dust won’t be entirely new by the time it settles?
MUCH LIKE THE INHABITANTS OF ONE LARGE HOUSE SPLITTING INTO MULTIPLE
Every time a thunderstorm messes up the house and yard, ripping plants from their roots, you stuff your pockets and make way for the cliff overlooking the lake.
Over the edge you dump body parts, hair colors, starchy fabrics. You sigh them out in deep breaths. They float up to the surface.
And later, usually in the night, you can trust them to find you again, after they rise from the water in fat globules of steam. They levitate back to earth, wobbling like toddlers, hover over houses. The words enter sleep cycles and organize themselves into spectacles. They soak your sheets in sweat. You wake up to them like a resentful lover: doting, passionate, angry.
You start to notice blue chalk dust between the folds of blankets.
Mat sat on Sam
The sun was hot
Sam had ten cats
Come here said Sam
In hand they went
went to the end of the land
went in wind
went in sand
went in sun
had a rag
Come back said Mat
Susie’s hair has a relationship with centrifugal force that allows it to exceed the normal 6 milliseconds of time between force and movement. First, the force of jumping from the tree, and then, after waiting for its moment, the movement of the hair, often sliding into the face of a passerby. In this case, you are the passerby, and when Susie hits the ground, her hair streams across your mouth like a kiss.
The trumpet player, dappled with words, appears glittery.
The chalk appears by your side unexpectedly. “How about this,” he says. “Why don’t we go back to the beginning, before it all mattered?” He draws a landscape in the gravel. Somewhere down in the muck, a word pushes its baby fist through a pleat of rocks. An escalator of bodies shuttles language up from the Earth.
You consider dormant words passing under other words and when they’re allowed to breathe again. And who allows. You want this to be one long story, and you want this to be the beginning. You look to the chalk. He scribbles his mark on the dirt.
“It’s an orange,” he says, pointing at a bright blue orb.
sat on hot top. a red got got. was a big was. come on.
PULLING LISTS APART
You slowly pick up the orange and draw your arm backwards, winding up for the pitch. The trumpet player crouches in front of you, beaming. It’s interesting, you realize, how far away your body feels from the language used to understand it.
In this moment you consider that maybe you could stay here, at the beginning, but still remember everything that happened, and why it mattered. You could be the horse, the horse in a soft cotton headscarf.
A pitch is comprised of movements that are tremendously unnatural to the human body. But then again, you know your body was never really human. Water, sinews and bone. Maybe. The pleasure of not knowing is carrying your organs inside you throughout all the hems and haws of life, yet never needing to face them directly to know for certain they belong to you.
The orange, perfectly ripe, seems to be the last thing holding you here. As if you would follow it on its trajectory into the sky.
So you try it. You throw the orange and – who’s surprised here – it soars above the walls of the outfield, arching gloriously toward the horizon. Years of pent-up strength have made a major-leaguer out of you. The Earth falls away, you rise out of your skin, and the release feels like one final sigh.
Floating up here, many words come back to you from memories. The ones that resisted categorization. The electrically charged ones. The one learning to read. The sonic properties of language. Music you can hear in the distance. The echo of Soul Train wafting up to the clouds. A wrong note like a bump on smooth skin. It makes you laugh.
A PERSON IS NOT A WORD YOU LEARNED
Eli materializes out of a cloud of dust and reaches for your hand.
“Come here, look what I made,” he says.
You study the contradiction of his in your own. His has the effortless materiality of a person: knuckles covered in a squishy layer of skin, a nail on each finger. People will photograph these hands, write about them in science textbooks, video tape them for wedding ring ads. Yours, on the other hand, is grotesque. Swathed in thick fur, it wraps itself around Eli’s like a mouth swallowing. Inside, a single fork of bone.
Eli leads you back to the cliff by the lake. The chalk is still standing there, the wind blowing dust off his body. You realize now he’s gotten slimmer. The three of you examine Eli’s invention, an electronic vibrating ball hoisted into the air by a complex system of rotating pulleys and ropes. When he turns on the ball, it bounces rhythmically against a drum he’s placed 3 inches away.
With the drum playing itself, Eli’s hands are free for another instrument. He doesn’t know what to call it. You feel overwhelmed with sweetness.
“Eli,” you say. “Am I a boy?”
He stares up at you plainly. The pallid glow of a sun behind clouds illuminates details in his face and hair that you don’t normally see.
“What is that?” he asks.