Ain't No Word But Lonely
1st Place Winner - Short Story Project's "New Beginnings Contest"
The first time Anna heard her son's heartbeat, it was through the doctor's stethoscope; a hummingbird beat, a frantic thumping; a small frenetic voice.
She was a linguist, the first of her circle of friends to leave academia to have a child. “Language Acquisition” had been her specialty before Harper was born. “I don't get what the fascination with acquisition is," her friend Gracie had prodded Anna. She was a semanticist. "It's not like you can do anything about it even if you do figure it all out."
But it wasn’t really about figuring it out. It wasn’t an equation you solved once and for all. For Anna the pleasure of it was exactly because it was an endless mystery. If there was a “language center” in the human brain, just waiting for words to process, it was impossible to know for sure. All we could know was the output of that “center;” signals and sounds. And it started that output very early on. Listening to the babble of babies, Anna could discern proper inflection even before real words emerged. And listening was the key. That, and making no assumptions.
Harper had started to speak early, using rudimentary sentences at seventeen months, so Anna turned on the tape recorder as he sat alone and played. She never corrected him when he got caught on the "You/Me" dilemma that all children do, and referred to himself as 'you' for a month or so. Whenever she had to interrupt his play, he would cry, "You don't want to!"
Anna kept the tape running as her toddler figured out the copula and possessives. Possessives were much more complex and interesting than anyone realized. She had written an undergraduate paper on it. A child first had to figure out that people could own things and then, that things belonged to people even when the people weren't actually there. So, "Mommy's shoes," still belonged to Mommy even when Mommy wasn't wearing them, and even when Mommy wasn't home and the shoes were. Harper mastered the possessive with a vengeance, possessing everything in sight with one word: "Mine!"
When Harper was two she realized that all of her sweaters were pulled out of shape by his passion to keep her beside him. Her life was full of precious shapes and utterances. She videotaped his second birthday and the days leading up to it. When asked what he wanted for his special day, Harper said, "Birthday on a spoon."
Her linguist friends came for cake. “But I'll have my birthday on a fork, if you don't mind," her friend Gracie joked. "Do you know what he said the other day?" she had asked Gracie when Harper was three and Gracie was still childless. "He looked out the window and saw the Christmas lights on the house across the street and said, 'Look Mommy, it's Christmas over there!' He must think Christmas comes and goes like an animal. Don't you find that kind of thing interesting?"
Anna knew that her son was too young to know that she was young also. His memory would kick in when she was in her forties. He would never remember when she was able to wrest objects from his chubby grip or chase him around the playground. “But try!” she had wanted to tell him. “Just try to start remembering now, while we are both young and march out to the frozen lake to feed the geese and ducks, pigeons, and door-creaking gulls! Remember how we stayed out as long as we could stand the cold then dashed in to a luncheonette that smelled of bacon and hot cocoa. You asked me what the whipped cream was.” But he would not remember. Her youth and his childhood would only be stories he would delight in. After hearing them many times he would make them his own. He would tell these tales and he would think he was remembering. That was what she knew she had to do for him, as his mother; to create the memories that would be his past until his own memory took over.
Harper was five when Anna‘s friend Gracie had her daughter. That’s when their monthly lunches began. And soon enough other women joined them. They were “Moms Talking About Talking;” linguist and ex-linguist women who were now spending their time being mommy. Anna used to regale them with stories of life with her little mad scientist. Harper didn't have the normal toys kids had, instead he had plumbing parts, clocks, lawn sprinklers, and brushes of all kinds. She took him to hardware stores, gadget shops, and car washes as if they were museums. When he was six he raided her box of Kotex, stripped off all the liners, stuck them up all over the walls of his room, then colored them each with markers. “Some kind of primitive fertility ritual?” Gracie quipped. A year later he built a Lego creature that bounced all over the living room, sending them into gales of laughter. Back then, when Harp awoke each morning he greeted her with happy surprise. Anna used to imagine that he saw her as the planets and the days and the quiet revolving of the seasons.
He listened so solemnly to all her words. At night, she would hear him whispering those words, their exact syntax, as his eyes flickered their fight with sleep.
His curiosity about God developed into a full blown obsession, until, one day he told her, “The blue car wash brushes know all about God.” She had to explain to him that inanimate objects could not know about God. Could not “know” about anything. But when she had to define “inanimate” it seemed to them both that car wash brushes might just be animate. Because they moved, didn’t they? “But did they breathe? Did they die?” he asked. And, “Will I die one day?”
He was seven. He was so curious. She was still in love with him.
When he was nine, Anna invented the "Rhyme Police" and a system of fines and penalties for songs that used rhyme gratuitously. It was Harper who decided that any use of the "wife-knife-life" rhyme pattern warranted a life sentence. She had to agree. Driving to his allergist, his piano lessons, his orthodontist, they would flip on the radio to the top ten station and listen carefully to the lyrics. She had already introduced him to Sondheim and he had already memorized all the words to all the songs of "West Side Story."
Other kids liked board games. Harper refused to play them. When he was around nine he finally realized that they were "board" games, not "bored" games.
"Well, no wonder you always refused to play them!" she laughed.
"Oh man! I'm so dumb!" he laughed, and slapped himself on the forehead.
Then there was the “Punctuation Police,” which was Harper’s favorite. There were violations everywhere: store signs, even newspapers.
"The apostrophe gives people the most trouble," Harper had once observed.
"Yes," she said. "Because it isn't taught properly."
"Too bad you can't teach them, Mom," he had said back then.
He was ten. He had so much faith in her. She was still in love with him.
Now Anna was on her way to another “Talking Moms” lunch. All the women had children now, none as old as Harper.
He didn't really talk to her much anymore. She often wondered what it would be like to do a language study on him at this age. An entire sixty minute tape with nothing but two-word utterances, like "Fuck you," and "Hell no!" On the odd occasions when he did actually converse with her, she was so grateful she nearly wept. And when he stopped, she felt like crying out, "Keep speaking to me! I am your mother. Tiny metallic particles in my blood gather and pull towards your voice."
But of course, she said nothing. To speak would force sadness from her every pore. Like garlic it would emanate from her sweat, her urine, her saliva.
Last night she asked him if he'd like to watch "Paint Your Wagon" with her. They had watched it together when he was younger and he had loved it. Anna herself had spent a great deal of time with the album when she was a child. "They Call The Wind Maria" had captivated her for a long time. And she had used it as the basis for a new game to play with Harper when he was younger. They had to invent new words for things that already had names. Though it was her idea, it turned out she wasn't very good at it.
Harper called down the steps at her, "That stupid movie again?"
It was a mistake, but she called up the stairs anyway, "You used to like it. Don't you remember, 'They Call The Wind Maria'?"
"The wind already has a name, Mom, in case you didn’t notice."
It was a mistake, but she climbed the stairs and walked into his room anyway. He looked up, she could tell, with confusion and worry.
"You used to like it," she found herself saying again.
Now his look changed to pure annoyance. "It's just stupid. Besides, I think 'fire' is a helluva better word than 'Joe'.
She drove in to the parking lot of the restaurant but could not get herself to leave her car. She could picture all her friends around the table, several with little ones on their laps. She knew what that small warm lump of baby felt like resting against her body, its slightly sour smell, its curious, grubby hands all over her. But if she sat down among the other mothers they would know instantly that she was no longer one of them. She could not regale them any longer with cute tales of toddlers or precocious preteen insights. She would want to warn them. And if she did, she knew she would be an object of their pity. They would know she had been cast out, discarded, called mean names, was someone to keep secrets from.
Instead, she drove to the mall and parked, but as soon as she opened the door to the giant diorama, she knew she had made a mistake. The mall was awash with elderly couples, strolling aimlessly in their clumsy sneakers. And housewives pushing strollers, with their own mothers tagging along. Her mother had done the same thing when Harper was a baby. It had been a relief to have her to help with the stroller, the many accoutrements of infancy, and the baby himself. Anna would go from store to store while her mother fed Harper his bottle or rocked him to sleep. “Useful,” was the word her mother had said: “Good to feel useful.” As if a baby were the only way to feel useful. A shudder of shame now…and worry that maybe she had actually said that to her mother back then.
Anna allowed herself to float among the gentle tide of shoppers, gazing blindly in store windows until she came to a coffee shop. She ordered a large latte, found an absurdly tiny and impossibly uncomfortable wire chair, and sat down.
Last night she had tried to joke with Harper in spite of his rebuff.
“But the question still remains: do they call the wind Maria?" she asked.
"Who cares? Way out here I call the rain a pain in the ass!" he said.
She had never suffered from post-partum depression, had loved her baby immediately and immeasurably. What was this, then? “Post, post-partum depression?” Harper had been like a small adult; sincere, loving, serious, and now, suddenly, that temporary adulthood had ended. All the words she read that described this time in her son’s life did nothing to console her. “Difficult.” “Rebellious.” “Identity seeking.” What did any of it have to do with her? Why was she sitting in a mall in the middle of a weekday? She dared not even shop for him. The toy store was history. To buy him something at the book store would lead to recriminations. Not even a tee shirt was safe. She could offer him nothing. He offered only rancor.
He was thirteen. He thought he was so clever. She was no longer in love with him.
Now, her mother told her that he would return to her in time. Probably after he went to college; definitely by the time he was in his late twenties. But what if he grew to hate her as she aged? Hate her odor, her fatigue, her teeth that would one day rattle like dirty baby rattles. And how could he not? Didn't she avoid looking at the old people on their block? (The woman with her stockings curled around her ankles, wandering from house to house. The emphysemic old man who smelled of urine, mumbling to himself.)
Had she “returned” to her own mother? Was there a moment when her mother felt that she had? If so, Anna couldn’t remember. No, not really “remember,” more that she had never known. Never known if she had left her mother or returned, if she had pulled at her mother’s clothes, played word games, entertained or amused her. She could remember times when her mother had amused her, though not intentionally. She would watch her mother pluck at her eyebrows, putting Anna into hysterical laughter at the faces her mother made in the process. “If beauty came in a bottle everyone would be beautiful,” she had said. More than once. Realizing her own mother wanted to be beautiful, thought she could be beautiful, was a surprise to her back then. A surprise and then a sadness. Someone that old! But how old was her mother at that time? All those times she watched? Forty? Fifty?
And then when she went to college and decided to study linguistics; “Isn’t that a kind of macaroni?” her mother had asked. Anna had laughed but her mother had been absolutely serious. How would she earn a living, her mother fretted. Anna must have told that story to her linguist friends dozens of times. At every lunch together someone would say, “I’ll have the linguistics…with clam sauce.” Or, after a glass or two of wine, “I major in macaroni!”
When Harper was born, her mother explained that he would not even understand the basics, like nursing and sleeping. She would have to teach him everything. And that was how it had turned out. He didn’t “sleep like a baby,” he slept hardly at all. Anna had tried everything to get him to nap: rocking, singing, putting him in the car and driving on the highway. Nothing had worked. The first year of his life she had handed him off to her mother every other night so she could sleep.
At her mother’s house Harper had learned about television, junk food, and making sock puppets. In elementary school Harper had befriended children with vacation homes and so had started to call his grandmother’s small apartment in a nondescript building on the highway his “vacation home.” He played in the stunted playground in the cement school yard across the street .
When Anna came to pick up Harper she would see the remnants of their time together: amorphous cutouts taped to the walls, the kitchen sink full of colorful suds, a mustache painted on the television set. When she asked her mother what they had been doing she would say “Oh, who knows!” And when she asked Harp the same question he would say, “I don’t know.” She had assumed he simply lacked the language at first, but then she thought perhaps he really didn’t know. Perhaps the detritus of his time with her mother added up to nothing coherent at all. And yet he always wanted to go back.
Every time she had picked Harper up to take him home, her mother had said, “Be careful.” It was instead of “goodbye.” One day she asked her mother why she always said it. Her mother had said she didn’t realize she did, and : “I guess it’s just automatic.” It reminded Anna of when she was a teen ager and her mother had seemed to be in a state of constant panic and she in a state of constant outrage.
Suddenly, a rush of school kids stormed the café, chattering and elbowing each other. One of the boys bumped Anna’s chair with his backpack, saw that she had spilled her coffee, said, “Sorry, miss,” and turned away.
She headed for the exit, the mall now too swollen with the after-school crowd, and noticed that most of the adults were doing the same. Like a tide, the children swept in, surrounding the elderly mall-walkers and the housewives with their strollers, transforming the mall in to something like a playground. And then Anna realized that Harper had not been to his grandmother’s apartment in a long time. And all those years when Anna had lived at home, angry at her mother for her ceaseless worry: it was only her mother hoisting up the semaphores of her own fear. It was only her mother’s innocent heart, afraid of being broken.
Like the planets and the days and the quiet revolving of the seasons; her mother.
Copyright 2018 Rachel A Levine