Authors: Lance Allred
“Lance, did you eat Tara's chocolate?”
Mom had been expecting a denial. She raised her eyebrows, somehow still managing to be shocked as each subsequent honest confession of my hostile (reactive) deeds toward Tara came from me. It was as though she could not believe I was admitting my guilt so freely, an obvious manifestation of how much I disliked my sister. I suspect that maybe Mom was even a little let down that I had not lied and made an incident out of it. I know Tara was, as it only made her more angry. She wanted me to lie so I'd be punished even more. “Wellâ¦,” Mom stalled, always managing to stay graceful, never stuttering, but thinking on the fly, “â¦then you'll have to give Tara your chocolate.”
I played along, letting them think I was about to be taught a lesson. I rolled out of my warm bed on the chilly December morning and walked over to my Advent calendar atop my cluttered dresser arranged with various gum wrappers, paper clips, grimy pennies, G.I. Joes, and stone turtles. I retrieved the calendar and handed it to Tara. She had a malevolent look on her face that betrayed an eagerness for my last chocolate. I would've felt bad had I not hated her so much. Instead, I relished the disappointment that enveloped her face when she discovered that my last chocolate wasn't there. With foresight, I had eaten it the night before, expecting this moment to play out as it had.
Without having to be told, I walked downstairs to my time-out stool, my chin high and haughty, as though I was a martyr. It was one of my prouder moments.
Twice weekly, my siblings lined the living-room window like codependent puppies, watching begrudgingly as Mom and Dad dragged me out into the driveway and forced me into the car as I kicked, screamed, and scratched like a cat avoiding bathwater. It was as though my siblings believed that Mom and Dad were whisking me away to a wonderful and delightful world of candy canes and gumdrops, dancing bears and giggling midgets.
It was anything but. This is where I went every week.
Against my wishes I'm crammed into a dimly lit soundproof room, forcefully seated, then wrapped with cords and cables and fitted with tight headphones and plugs around my head that will fuse into my skin after ten minutes. All the while some pleasant John Denver song lingers in the background for good measure.
I look at all the pretty and enticing toys around me: the xylophones, spongy puzzles, the thing made of little whirly slides and wires with wooden shapes sliding around them. I never know what that's called. What was that called? And of course, the obligatory stuffed monkey with cymbals. I suspect a camera inside the monkey's head. Sometimes I even expect the monkey to come alive.
Monkey aside, I'm tempted to play with the toys. But I don't, for I know they're only a ploy to disarm and trick me into complacency. I imagine someone's little Ricky or Timmy before me, picking up the toys and dying in gruesome, unpleasant ways. Disturbing thoughts rattle in my head until the guy that narrates those grisly and dark horror-movie trailers comes onto the speaker: “Lanceâ¦can you hear me? Nod if you do.”
Sometimes it's a sultry female voice. But I know the game, and they know I won't fall for the Eve tactic. If they're going to take me down, I'm going to make it as unpleasant for them as possible. Scary-movie voice fumbles with the microphone: “Lance, raise your hand when you hear the tone. Can you hear that? Lance? The sooner you start cooperating, the sooner it will be done. Thank you. Goodâ¦.”
A few minutes of my feigned complacency pass.
“Wait!â¦Are you timing the sounds? Lance, you're not helping us to help you if you're guessing at the tones. If you don't hear the one, don't raise your hand. We cannot get a full assessment of your hearing if you're going to cheat, and therefore your hearing aids won't
be as effective as you need them to be. Nod that you understand. Thank you.”
When phase one is over, a faceless tormentor returns to the booth, as I'm obstinate at his efforts to replace the current headphones with even tighter ones. I'm not going to make the bastard's job any easier. He mumbles something, but with my hearing aids out I cannot make out what it is that he says. I'm sure it's something less than polite.
Scary-movie voice (SMV) comes back on.
: “Lance. Can you hear me? Say âYes.'”
: “Good, now repeat after me. Doll.”
: “Jowâ¦? Oh, Jaw!”
The door opens once more and I'm lifted from the chair. After a stop at the Chinese water torture room, I'm led into another room, better lit than the sound booth, but still cold: two chairs, a steel table, and no windows, but another one-way mirror. Were they going to ask about the cinnamon bear I lifted from Dad's dresser? I didn't see the harm. Dad had an endless stash of them. Surely he wouldn't notice one missing, would he?
An attractive woman enters the room, wearing a two-piece business suit. She walks around the table and places files on the table with a landing that is soft, but accented enough to draw my attention: “Hi, Lance.”
She pulls out the chair and leans over to scoot herself into the table, showing abundant cleavage while doing so, which is accentuated by the Catholic cross bouncing between her tracks of landâsomething that can only make a little boy wonder. It confuses me that a symbol of Christ, the Cross, triggers such improper thoughts.
“My name is Christina,” says the pretty woman, whom I now have a crush on. The crush does not last long.
“Can you say, âHi, Christina'?”
I'm baffled at the narcissistic request until I realized there is an
in her name. “Yes, I can,” I cleverly respond, making sure to use those three easy words that are free of that hateful letter
“Well, can you say it now, please?”
I feign confusion, and to avoid her request I calculatingly say, with slow precision to allow my mind to filter words with
s, “I don't see why it would be useful now, since we have passed the âhello' phase and it would just sound silly, don't you agââ¦don't you see? We can't say âhello' again when it has alââ¦just been said.” I was good.
Christina raises her eyebrows, nodding. She knows what I'm doing, and I know I'm not fooling her. I know Christina has the 411 on me; it's evident from the many files on the table before me. I'm sure all my imperfections and sins are in those files: the time I lied to my mother when I told her I had brushed my teeth; the time I cheated at Stratego and looked at Court's pieces when he went to the bathroom; the time I mistakenly ate the ibuprofen tabs on the neighbor's kitchen counter, believing them to be M&M's.
“Very good, Lance.” Christina says. “Please be sure to use my name the next time you see me, as it's polite to include someone's name when you greet them.”
I'm aware of this social nuance, as Dad and Mom had just joined the Amway group, which is very into social edification. But even be
fore that, my parents were very big into social appropriateness. I nod compliance.
“Thank you. Now, I'm going to give you a piece of paper.” She pulls out a single page from the folder. “I want to you to read those words to me.”
I look at the paper. Terror.
Car. Bar. Jar. Star. Dry. Cry. Try. Carry. Dairy. Marryâ¦.
I'm aware I have trouble with
s, as has been made painfully clear to me by my classmates. What went wrong with my learning of the English language and alphabet was that I had to read lips to get the proper movement of the mouth in order to get the correct enunciation of each letter. I hear things differently, but I learned to read lips and to replicate with my mouth what I saw others doing with theirs. The letter
, however, is a tricky one. As I read people's lips, I cannot see their tongue curling in the back. When people use an
their mouth will take the same shape as either a
Go look in the mirror and say
and then say
It isn't spot-on, but very similar. Then say
The trick with the
is the tongue movement in the back of the mouth, a movement that one cannot see when reading lips. When I was developing my motor and verbal skills as a child, I didn't establish the curling movement in my
s. It's very difficult to retrain your tongueâmuch like asking an English speaker to roll their
s the way a Latino would.
I take Christina's paper and read: “Caw. Bow. Jao. Staow. Dwy. Cuay. Twyâ¦.” Although this is how they sound to me when people speak, I'm experienced enough to know that this isn't correct. As if my humiliation isn't enough, Christina does the bitchy thing and repeats after me, with perfect diction, “Car. Bar. Jarâ¦.”
In her eyes she thinks I'm just being lazy, like kids with a lisp,
and believes she can will me to get the true
sound in there, as if I had an on-and-off switch. I repeat each word again, and I really am trying to please her, until she says, “Watch my tongueâ¦.
“No. Look at my tongue.”
“I can't see it behind your teeth; I don't know what it's doing.” I did well on the fly to only have one
in that sentence.
“Watch,” she says as she leans in, her nose nearly touching mine, “
” It is so accentuated that it doesn't even sound like
Instead, it sounds like she's gargling.
And so with that idea, I begin to gargle with my tongue, mustering a choked
which is enough of a breakthrough for her that she feels as if she has just cured cancer. But soon that isn't enough for her. It isn't so much that she is displeased with the false
but rather that I'm still unable to say her name as she wants it, as she is so in love with herself. She will be damned if I don't fully appreciate her beautiful name.
In no time at all, so overconfident in her ability as a speech therapist, Christina grows tired of my gargling sound, which I had only replicated from her and her dumb extended
She then does the unthinkable: she literally grabs my cheeks and tries to steer my tongue. Absolutely humiliating. Here I am with this beautiful woman, and she's completely emasculating meâjust the two of us, her perfectly manicured nails digging into my cheeksâas she exaggerates the
I do it as well as I can, trying so hard to please her and to get her to stop holding my face:
I'm literally choking on my tongue.
“Catch it, Lance. Catch the
” Christina says, peering down my mouth and throat like a family pediatrician. Her hope of getting me to catch my
so easily was as much a lucid pipe dream as hoping to get me to be the catcher in the ryeâor maybe even more of a stretch, along the lines of simply trying to have me catch the wind.
This went on and on. Every week we grew more frustrated until I finally taught myself to touch the bottom of my mouth with my tongue. I now curl my
s down, tapping the tip of my tongue on that funny little ball that holds the middle tendon under your tongue. Instead of touching the tongue toward the roof like most people, I steer it down and tag that ball. It may not be proper, but it works, and Christina isn't a part of my life anymore.
And my siblings were envious of the times Mom and Dad whisked me awayâ¦.
In the fourth grade,
upon my request, Mom and Dad let me return to Pinesdale to spend a year there.
It would be one of the most influential years of my life, transforming and drastically altering the way I saw myself, thanks to Aunt Sam and her young husband, Pax. Aunt Sam was, and still remains, a legend as a cradle robber, for she met her husband when he was fifteen and she was twenty-one. His name was “Pax” Virgil, Pax being a nickname for Edson, his cruel Christian name. Pax was my cousin on my father's side, being the son of my father's elder half-sister, and he married my Aunt Sam on my mother's side, so it's just one big web of relations. My siblings and I like to refer to him as “my cousin, Uncle Pax.”
Pax was only twenty-one and Sam twenty-seven when I went to live with them. They were childless at that point, despite great efforts on their part to be otherwise. They saw having me live with them for the year as a great opportunity to hone some parenting skills. And boy, did I ever toe the line. I was their guinea pig. Nowadays I like to give Pax and Sam's daughter, Kjes, and her half-siblings grief for how easy they have it. Sam was very impatient with me. She never let me pout or whine, and if I did so, she only added more chores to my list. Sam was having none of my garbage.
Aunt Sam is sharp, fast, witty, and sarcastic, and boy, could that woman make a Saturday chore list. I was the male version of Cinderella:
The raking of the pine needles was the straw that broke my back. Unlike leaves, pine needles don't respond to rakes. I have raked up leaves and am well aware of how frustrating and tedious the chore can be. But raking pine needles is like trying to rake up leaves with a spade. They weave into the prongs and block the traction of the rake. Plus, they poke you. They just poke.
If I ever had qualms about my chore list, Sam was kind enough to explain the situation: “You're not going to pout and be a little baby. That may work with your mother, but not with me it won't. Each hour that goes by with all of these chores unfinished, another chore will be added. And believe me, I have lots of things I could have worked on right now.”
All the while, Pax would sit in the front room, playing at reading a book, waiting for Sam's back to turn on him so he could drop his book a little, point at me, and laugh over the top.
Aunt Sam liked to starve me in an Oliver Twist sort of way. I was allowed only one bowl of cereal every morning and one Pop-Tart. “Two eggs!” she shrilled at me one afternoon upon finding that I was cooking two eggs for lunch. “One is plenty!” Thank goodness I didn't tell her those two eggs were actually my third and fourth of the afternoon.
Pax was just a twenty-one-year-old kid who woke up every morning at six and went off to work at his construction job building homes. He was healthy and lively, six-foot-four, strong as an ox, and enjoyed a good day's work, but he also wanted more. Though he struggled in school as a teenager, as he had a valid learning disability, you could always see intelligence behind his eyes, and a thirst for knowledge. He hated sitting in a classroom. I wouldn't say that he was agoraphobic, but he would go into mute mode when in large crowds. Understanding this trait, as I suffer from it myself, I can see why he was terrified or at least not interested in going to college and instead opted to build houses in the cold of morning; that's how much he dreaded school.
Every Monday at the Pinesdale gymnasium was basketball rec-league night. One January night Pax and I were walking to his game; it was winter, and there are few nicer things in life than walking in the dark of winter through the woods on a Montana night under the sky. We always cut through the Medlars' back lawn, using the stepping-stones that had scraped many soft knees in our sporting endeavors. Pax and I were
halfway across the lawn when Melinda Medlar, whom we affectionately called “Moolinda,” opened the door to scream, “Get off our lawn!” No matter that the land was all part of a socialist, utopian community, all part of God's land.
Pax stopped, basketball in one hand, the other gesturing for peace, and called out, without skipping a beat, “Hey. Don't be rude and fat.”
Dumbstruck, Melinda had no reply as she watched in silence, her frame outlined by the interior light of her back doorway, while we continued on our way.
Between Yaya's back lawn and the Medlars' was a twenty-foot-wide unclaimed strip of land that ran the length of our lawns. Both houses used this space for piling mowed grass and raked pine needles. It also contained a community clothesline. Yaya's yard was enclosed by a chain-link fence; Pax had put it up to keep his dogs in, lest one of his lovely neighbors shoot them.
During the spring of that year, Melinda and a couple of her siblings were playing in their backyard. Pax and I were sitting in our backyard, cooking on the grill, and Pax just had an urge, a longing. He went inside to his gun case and came back out with his pellet rifle, pumping it before he was even back out the door. He walked up to the fence, going to a prone position, well hidden from line of sight behind the drying laundry of the Medlars' clothesline.
Savoring the hunt, waiting at least twenty seconds, Pax finally fired his pellet gun. The first shot was absorbed by a damp towel on the clothesline. Showing his skill and conditioned patience, Pax calmly and quietly repumped his rifle while the unsuspecting Medlar children gaily continued on with their games, oblivious to the fact that there was a hunter, a predator, in their midst.
Not pumping to maximum power, Pax patiently waited for what seemed an eternity before finally pulling the trigger. Doing my best not to look suspicious or aware, I remained in my chair next to the grill. I noticed Chris Medlar stop midstride and reach for his back, but he couldn't touch that magic spot in the upper middle of his back that Pax had so skillfully aimed for.
Chris emitted a disturbing sound, a combination whimper, moan, and squeal that got lost in pain, and said to his half-siblings, who had not even noticed, “I think a bee just stung me!”
They all stopped what they were doing for about ten seconds, looking at each other as though they were expecting something to be done,
feigning concern, waiting long enough in silence to validate his discomfort without seeming apathetic. They then shrugged and continued on with their play.
Pax waited for a moment, until I gave him the go-ahead with a nod indicating that the field was clear, and then got back into position. Again he took his time, and this time he hit one of the younger redheaded boys, Dustin, in the leg.
“Ow! Something stung
Pax got off one more shot, and this time he hit Melinda. Where, I don't remember, but she was an easy target. Chris finally figured something was up, as I tried to sit too still. He walked over toward us and spotted Pax lying in cover behind the tree, gun in hand.
“He's shooting BBs at us!” Chris screamed as he ran back to their lawn. The children ran into the houseâall but Melinda, who came running through the gulf between our lawns until she was halted by the chain-link fence. Like a vicious dog, she began screaming through the links, “You bastard! You could've shot my eye out! You'reâ¦”
Melinda continued to hurl obscenities and threats at Pax, who by this time had calmly stood up and emerged from behind the tree with a satisfied grin on his face, not even bothering to hide the gun or claim innocence. Instead, he just coolly walked up to the fence and met Melinda, his rifle resting on his shoulder: “Hey, hey. I was just having some fun with you guys.”
Meanwhile, Fred Medlar came out of the house and walked toward Pax. I assumed my position by Pax, but not too close lest they all believe I had actually pulled the trigger as well. “Pax,” Fred called as he approached, “what is going on? What are you doing?” It wasn't aggressive or hostile, more along the lines of a professional questioning.
“Oh, Fred, I'm just having some fun with your kids.” They exchanged some more words, but not before the mother hen, Debbie, emerged, yelling, “You asshole!” before she was even fully out of her door.
With his back to his wife, Fred sighed and went silent, rolling his eyes as Debbie approached the fence near a dead sprint, her red hair bouncing in time with her pear-shaped frame. She never even paused for breath, hurling obscenities at Pax, showing her great wind. If Moolinda was a lapdog, Debbie was a Rottweiler.
Letting the hollow threats bounce off him like Ping-Pong balls, Pax raised his hand in a token gesture of peace, asking for silence. Debbie
granted him a brief moment as Pax calmly said, “Please be quiet. I'm talking to Fred.”
It took a few seconds for Debbie to register what had just happened. Then she went apeshit. Fred held her off as she flung her fists toward Pax, who stood, unfazed, behind his fence. Fred urged her to go inside.
After a minute of pure pandemonium, Debbie finally headed back to her cave, baying at the injustice and humiliation she had just suffered, while Fred shamefacedly smiled down at his feet, trying his best to hide his amusement at Pax's defiance toward his overbearing wife. I could see that Fred was even a bit envious of Pax and admired him for the courage he had displayed in fending off Debbie.
While I have immeasurable love for my friends and family and my parents, I can say that there's no one I love more in this world than Pax Virgil, for the time he invested in me and the lessons he taught me. He taught me to embrace my hearing loss. He taught me that if I made fun of myself, no one could get the better of me for it.
The final month of school in Montana, Pax decided to take a second wife and got engaged to another woman, Sarah Stoker, the sister of Aunt Audra's husband, Shawn Stoker. Pax was more or less pressured by his father and uncles to pursue Sarah as a wife. It had become the elephant in the house: Sarah came over, and Sam knew things would be changing, that her husband would be marrying her friend.
I saw Aunt Sam silently crying in bed when Pax was gone on his honeymoon with Sarah. She was already alone and missing him. She was having to face the fact that she now shared her husband with another woman and would get to sleep with him only every other night from then on.
But it was the life we knew. And that was part of the deal. We lived the celestial law of plural marriage, and that was the price weâor rather the womenâhad to pay. They had to sacrifice. And Aunt Sam couldn't object or voice displeasure; she had to take it and accept it as part of life while living the higher law.
The year couldn't last forever, and the time flew by. I hugged Pax and Sam good-bye and went back to Utah with Dad when he came to pick me up at the end of the school year. I won't say that I returned from Montana as a shining beacon of manhoodâI still had a lot of growing up to doâbut I was better for the time I had spent with Pax and Sam.