Say What You Mean
by Christie Church
A brick truck toppled over on Route 219. We thought it came from God. The impact killed the driver instantly. We weren’t supposed to find that out, but Jamie heard it from the boys on Gilstead and Dad couldn’t deny it. We waited long enough to appear sensitive to the driver. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon picking up bricks.

Every night we prayed for a clubhouse. Now we had the materials. Jamie, Charlie and I founded the club three months earlier. I elected myself commander. My job was to determine the priorities of the club and draft the bylaws. The boys weren’t up to that yet. They could follow orders fine, but they weren’t too good thinking on their feet. We were a stealing club. We planned to take anything we found unprotected: bikes, toys, tools. Maybe we’d use the loot for ourselves. Maybe we’d sell it back for a profit. Our options were open now. We had a place to meet.

The bricks ran out around the front door, but we had a workable frame. We needed a scrap of carpet for the floor. “I think Mom has some extra chairs,” I said. “I’ll ask. She might have a table, too. Sweep the dirt while I’m gone.” I dashed off to the house. My mom sat at the kitchen table. She was dead.

Things You Should Know About My Mother
1) She always looked sad
2) She always said, “I’m Ok, I’m fine” if you asked
3) Before this moment, she did not lie about anything

When I came back outside, the boys had fashioned chairs out of piles of pine needles. A wide log covered the middle of the clubhouse. They called the log a “table”.

“Pine needles can’t be chairs,” I said. “Pine needles can only be pine needles.” I resigned as commander and never joined another club.

The deacons came over that night. They offered to help us in any way we needed. “We love you, like Christ,” they said. Their wives brought chicken casserole and salad. Dad said thank you, what we really needed was a lady to meet Jamie at the bus on Thursdays. That was my long day and Dad worked until six. He didn’t want Jamie crossing 219 by himself yet. The deacons said their wives would be glad to help.

Mrs. Harvey met Jamie the first week. Mrs. Beacon the second. The third week the deacons asked why we didn’t go to Sunday School. On week four, Mrs. Lichtner said I wore my skirts too short. The fifth week Mrs. Beacon said we were rough kids. The sixth week no one showed up.

What People Said:
1) My mom is Ok
2) Pine needles are chairs
3)Our neighbors love us

What People Meant:
1)Intervene or she will kill herself
2)You can sit on pine needles
3)If we would be more like them

The problem, as I saw it, was words. People were trying to connect with me. They were trying to tell the truth, but they failed because the words weren’t adequate.

That’s when I swore them off. Not all words. Just dishonest ones. I gave up metaphor. I shunned sarcasm. I decided to speak only truth, for the sake of everyone else.

At first, I had no difficulty. I simply said, “I found the company interesting” where others would say, “Time flew” or “I had a blast.” At school, I refused to refer to my chair-table hybrid as a “desk”. The dictionary definition of desk is a writing table built for the purpose of study. Chairs are separate. For clarity, I used chairable or the intentionally vague study place to describe the wooden chair with the panel for my books across the top.

I didn’t have a lot of friends, but that was Ok. I never did before, either.

Sometimes teachers would take me aside after school. “I’ve heard about your mom,” they’d invariably say. “I know your dad works three jobs while you and your brother cook dinner and wash laundry as though you‘re grown ladies. I’m sorry about all that. I know it’s hard. But you need to be more social. You need--” I’d tune them out as soon as I heard I’m sorry. “I don’t believe in that,” I’d say, and that would be the end of it. I’m sorry is a lie. It’s meant to demonstrate deep emotion towards someone deserving of sympathy, or to apologize for a wrong committed against another person. But for the teachers, I’m sorry was a ritual of good manners or a construct to fill awkward silences. If they said it only when they felt it, they probably would never say it at all.

In high school, a boy passed a sheet of paper to me. “I would like to exist with you beside me,” he said. “Here is a list of reactions I thought you might have to this suggestion. Please read them carefully and then select a reaction and accompanying response from these pages so that I know exactly what you feel.” I thought he was wonderful. “Why can’t I just say?” I asked. “Because I’ll stay awake all night wondering if your meanings are the same as mine,” he answered.

Nearly four years elapsed while we determined meaning until our thoughts were nearly identical. We forgot the old lies. “There was trouble today,” he told me one night. “Someone told me old Hobbes threw his baby out with bathwater. I called the authorities. How was I to know?” We took care to understand each other. We agreed on a truthful title for our self-assembled, red metal-wire object-holders and called bodily fluids what they really were. Arguments lasted roughly eight minutes; we immediately stated our respective positions and then declared our terms for negotiation. Early in our relationship, we would occasionally lapse into sullen silence or become frustrated when the other did not instinctively know our thoughts. But these were singular occasions which we immediately abandoned for their lack of effectiveness.

The word “happy” denoted different meanings for both of us, but we easily realized them all. We managed a nightclub outside the city limits. People came to get drunk and rarely listened to the music. We accepted this fact for what it was and advertised accordingly. After a few months, we opened a restaurant downtown. Dad cooked us dinner every Saturday night and we would all see a movie afterwards. Jamie visited from college sometimes. We socialized with friends and acquaintances that all appeared far more miserable than we were. They had sex with and married each other. They began to hate each other and get divorced. Every night we went home and clung to each other because we had learned a secret that they could not understand.

Changes In Him That I Noticed
1) His promise not to let the cat out of the bag. We don’t even own a cat.
2) His new friend, Ryan, with an obnoxious habit of telling me not to “give him any lip”, as though that were anatomically feasible
3) He speaks of credit card debt as a concept with real physical representation, something in which our necks could be buried

One night he said I had him in the palm of my hand. I wondered if I had overestimated him. He weighed 205.
“I love you,” he said. “What do you mean by that?” I asked. “Isn’t it obvious?” he said. “I could give my life for you.”
I told him I couldn’t think of a scenario in which one person could give their life. Give to whom? How would one deliver it?
“No, no. I’m asking for your hand.”

At first I wasn’t sure if I could oblige. Eventually, though, my own definition of love trumped all my fears.
“You’re sick,” he said. I shook my head. “No, my last physical exam—” He put his hands on his head. “I’m leaving you,” he said. “What about happiness?” I asked. “What about normalcy?” he asked. I tried to say that the definition of normalcy varies according to culture and time period, and even among people. I tried to say that we were no stranger than Jamie, who refuses to eat anything that has touched plastic, because he thinks he will get cancer from the compounds. I wanted to mention our loan officer, who told us that she bases her biggest decisions on the hope that after death she will become an angel.

But he walked away. He promised our sponsors that each high school punk band had potential. He recommended the meatloaf. Finally, even he stopped making sense.
Posted by: Christie Church

Prose (February 14th, 2007)