When I was born, the doctor held me up and said, “Looks like a football player.” He was speaking of my shoulders. But the sad fact is I never did play any football. In fact, my asthma kept me from playing anything but an occasional maudlin round of golf. My talent, it turned out, lay in other directions.
It all started when I was thirteen. I’m standing in the back yard of my grandmother’s house, just watching the bluebirds flitting through the branches of the apples trees, stopping every so often to park themselves near the top and let loose with a warbling song. And I’m thinking about the Meaning of Life. Birds will do that to a guy now and then. So I’m just watching those birds and suddenly the word ephemeral pops into my head. Here today. Tomorrow blown out of the neighborhood by a hurricane or something. Ephemeral. Then something strange happens–the words just start falling into my head like Styrofoam nuggets into a shipping container: epicurean, ancillary, cavalier, minx.
My wife was fond of my vocabulary. “Tell me some words,” she’d say, and I’d say, “Laparoscopy, evangelical, Waukeegan, excoriate, verisimilitudinous.”
One day at work a guy comes up to me, says, “You makin’ more money than we know about?”
I stare at him. “What?” I finally say.
“Well,” he says. “I saw your wife over at that brokerage, what’s it called? Hedges and Sanford? She was talking to some yuppie-looking guy in a blue suit.”
I hardly know the guy, but I know what he’s intimating. My vocabulary fails me. “Fuck you,” I say, picking up a brick and stirring the mortar in my tray.
He planted a seed, though, and sure enough if that seed didn’t grow into a gnarly old tree right in front of my eyes.
“One of the richest sources of meaning in a story is metaphor.” I remember reading that in my high school English textbook. Sometimes, when I’ve finished work, I’ll grab a six-pack of Schaeffer’s and a can of Charlie’s Chips and just sit down in front of the tube and make up metaphors. I seem to have a gift for them, too: My wife is an old musty coat in the attic with breath mints and tissues in the pockets. My wife is a steaming bowl of green chile stew. My wife is a salivating pit bull. My wife is a wilting spinach salad. My wife is a crotchety armadillo. My wife is an overgrown wisteria ripping up the shingles. My wife is a vintage Cadillac Coupe de Ville with skirts and white walls.
Probably the most interesting story I know concerns my brother Maurice and his wife Sherry. Now Maurice has eaten a few cans of Charlie’s Chips. And Sherry, whom you might call the “little woman,” ain’t no such a thing. Excuse my use of the vernacular. But you get the picture. To use a metaphor, Maurice and Sherry are two creatures of the pachyderm persuasion.
Anyway Maurice and Sherry check into a small hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. They’re down there to check out the Opry and, mainly, corn dogs and cotton candy. They do have appetites, and not just the kind that requires one to open one’s mouth and shake loose a load of caramel corn from a 32 ounce cup. I’m talking the other kind of hunger which, if you’ve ever seen two elephants at it, will make you think of earthquakes and dams busting open and set you to worrying, if not for the furniture in a motel room, then the safety of said motel’s other occupants.
So Maurice and Sherry order some room-service champagne and get a little romantically involved. This involvement, Maurice tells me while Sherry giggles, lasts most of the night and gets a little raucous, till they’re both trumpeting away.
Next day, Maurice is sitting at the bar sipping a Bloody Mary when he hears the small, balding guy down the other end of the bar say, “Did you read about that quake in San Francisco last night?” And the barkeep says, “Yeah, sounds like a big one.” And the guy at the bar says, “You bet it was. It shook the water off the nightstand right here in this motel in Nashville, Tennessee.”
When Sherry comes in from the pool, Maurice whispers to her what the guy said, and Sherry turns red. Next thing you know she’s got Maurice packing the trunk of the Bel Aire and they’re headed up to Dolly World.
Then there’s the time my wife and I were touring the Catskills. Wound up in the Poconos, and they were having a talent show. My wife convinced me to get up on stage and demonstrate my vocabulary. I thought it was a silly idea, until I watched some newlyweds singing “Surrey with a Fringe on Top.” I figured if that was talent, then my facility with verbiage was a gift straight from the Good Lord Above. So I clambered onto that stage, announced that my talent was words, and to reciting: vernacular, avuncular, triskadekaphobia, cantilever, avaricious, ancillary, teutonic, rodomontading, solicitation. On and on I went. Vehement, clandestine, lacrimose, fatalistic, limpid, stark. I entered a trance-like state. The whole room evaporated and I was alone with my words. Contentious, vigilant, stentorious, mellifluous. It had never happened that way before. When I opened my eyes the room was pretty much empty. Just my wife and some couple from Idaho who were too polite to leave. To make a long story short, I won the competition by default.
Default is one of my favorite words. In sixth grade Maurice had to spell and use default in a sentence in front of the whole class. Here’s what he said: “De-fault. D-E-F-A-U-L-T. We built our house right on default; then came the earthquake and it fell down.” The whole class and Mr. Aveni cracked up. But that’s not why I like the word. I like the word because I think default explains everything—love, marriage, pregnancy, children, whether one becomes wealthy or winds up on skid row. It’s all default. It’s not my fault or your fault; it’s default. Here, let me explain.
A boy and girl meet in high school because their last names both begin with “F” and because they are roughly the same height, so no matter how the teachers line the students up, they wind up next to each other. Then, when the senior prom comes along, neither has a date, so, by default, they wind up going to the prom together. Somewhere along the way, because nobody tries to steal her for him or vice versa, they decide, by default, to get married. He becomes a bricklayer because his father is a bricklayer. She stays home because the only available jobs are in places like Hardee’s or Burger King. Then, one day, because they are about to default on their mortgage and because her husband has been too tired from his strenuous job to pay attention to her and because she’s been riding her exer-cycle during the time she would have been working if there had been any good jobs in town and therefore looks pretty good compared to the other women in the particular town in which she lives, the accountant, who is meeting her because the other, more efficient accountants are all busy with wealthier clients, places his hand on hers to calm her and, by default, begins a long affair the details of which I will spare you.
I tell my wife this story and she just nods. I beg her to come back using all the resources of my by-now-legendary vocabulary, and she just nods. She’ll never understand the Principle of Default. She still believes in love no matter how clearly I explain. I’m insistent, but she’s assiduous.
Assiduous. Now there’s a word for you.
Jon Davis is the author of stories, screenplays, and poems. The most recent of his six collections of poetry is Preliminary Report (Copper Canyon Press, 2010). His previous book, Scrimmage of Appetite, was honored with a Lannan Literary Award. In addition to the Lannan Award, he has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and the Lavan Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He has taught in the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Creative Writing program since 1990.