What Id Say
(1) To My Father (If He Didn’t Drink Himself to Death in 2004)
You remember finding me crying in my room? This happened repeatedly, but
I’m talking about October 1987. I was fourteen. You said it was time
to accept that
life is nasty. You grabbed my shoulders. If you hadn’t needed to reach
up, my head would have snapped back. I guess because it didn’t, you threw
I was crying that night because Ms. Whitaker made me read a paragraph about
New Deal and I stuttered on every word; the kids called me FDR the rest of
the day. A few called me that through high school.
I still remember you saying Eddie Conover picked on you when you were fourteen
until you karate-chopped his carotid artery, putting him in the ER. He had you
by two years, forty pounds, and seven inches. Standing over his convulsing body,
glaring up at his friends, you became a man. I remain impressed, really. Maybe
if I had sent someone to the ER, you would have been nicer to me.
Im sorry I got Mom’s eyes, nose, and long legs. Billy got your everything else.
I guess the judge factored that in when giving me to Mom and him to you. At your
funeral, for a second I thought Billy was going to reach up, squeeze my shoulders,
and order me to start crunching.
I should thank you for giving me washboard abs. Even now, when I stutter, I
do late night sit-ups. Sometimes my wife punches my stomach after particularly
days. She never punches as hard as you, but she’s getting there.
Occasionally I drive out to the Baltimore row home where you died. It’s
still for sale. Often I think about the day you, not Mom, picked me up from
speech therapy and demanded that I say my name. You wanted to see if Mom was
your money’s worth. You kept smacking the car, announcing how long it was taking.
My throat couldn’t unlock and all the techniques Id learned were yelling
at each other. I did say my name after your car was out of sight. The next
week when Mom dropped me off, the therapist said you had canceled Moms check
that I couldnt come back until things got straightened out. I guess they never
My psychologist thinks this “dialogue” is necessary. He has me writing
this down, which is very odd to me, but I’m paying him $300 an hour so
perhaps he knows what he’s doing. He says Ive got so many unsaid things
inside that I literally can’t speak until I say them. I wanted to save
this conversation for later, after Id spoken to ex-girlfriends and bullies
and teachers and people who mistook my silence for churlishness. But I keep
of that night in my room, how I tried explaining that the nickname was ironic
because FDR had accomplished so much despite his disabilities, things I would
never attempt, and how you just said shut up and get off the floor.
(2) To Mr. Hodges (If He Didn’t Blow His Head Off After Thirty-Four
Years Teaching of Elementary School)
You remember not letting me skip my turn in third grade when we played True
or False? This would have been November 1982. I was the short, fat Jew who
too fast, the one you called “Speed.” I sat there for three minutes
and eighteen seconds (Brandon Miller kept track on his watch), unable to say “false.” I
put my head down, hoping the others would think I was too cool for the game.
Years later I learned my anxiety made me pre-form on the “f,” my
upper teeth biting into my bottom lip, trapping air in my vocal cords, preventing
sound. I only knew I couldn’t say “false” to your assertion
that Hawaii encompassed eight main islands. Finally, I said “true,” waiting
for the laughter, since I figured Hawaii included hundreds of rocky islands.
So, thanks, Mr. Hodges, for teaching me that it’s better to say another
word than stutter on the one I want. That has served me well throughout the years.
Also, for what it’s worth, I have visited all eight main islands, even
Lanai. They used to say it was overrun with evil spirits. I liked it the best.
(3) To the Pimply, Goateed Safeway Cashier Named Adam (Who I Hope Will Still
Be Manning a Register at Age Eighty)
Hey, buddy, how are you? Still living in Baltimore? Remember September 1989?
School had just started again, and I was blocking on nearly every word. My
mom asked me to pay for the food while she looked for some Ziploc bags. You
there were three bagels in the little bag. It was a clear bag. You said you
ring it up until I told you how many bagels were in it. The bagger standing
there, who had even more zits than you, laughed. No other customers were around
guess you all thought carpe diem.
I even held up three fingers, you prick. You said your contacts were acting
up and you needed me to say it. What would you have done if my mom hadn’t
shown up with the Ziploc bags? Would you have kept going until I cried?
Even now I’m leery around cashiers and baggers. We live close to a Giant
but closer to a Safeway. My wife likes the latter because of the superior produce.
There are so many cashiers there who look just like you. They call me sir and
ask if I need help to my car. You’re the reason I just shake my head
and grunt at their inquiries as to whether I’ve found everything I needed.
Like my mom, my wife has the habit of remembering something she forgot after
we’ve started putting items on the conveyor belt. If another bagged bagels
incident happens, I will be prepared.
If you’re still in the game, I hope the baggers make fun of you when
on break and you have no shot at making assistant manager. I can see you manning
a register when you’re ancient, without a 401(k) or pension, wearing
a name tag and trying not to complain about how much your back hurts.
(4) To Lana (If She Hadnt Moved to San Diego and Ignored My Facebook
Remember the night we got our bar exam results? We celebrated with friends
and then went to your apartment. You said waiting for the results had been
that you needed someone to fuck the shit out of you. A few minutes later, you
stopped me from licking your freckled shoulders to say, “Fuck the shit
out of me already.” Then, when I nodded, you ordered me to say exactly
what I was going to do.
You couldn’t have known that I’d been having trouble with “sh” words
that night. You probably wouldn’t have believed me if I’d confessed
to stuttering. And you didnt appear to be interested in a serious conversation.
I went for it, reaching the word “shit” before my chest, throat,
and mouth tightened. Like a lot of covert stutterers, I went for the first
handy synonym. Within seconds, you were in the restroom, feigning the stomach
When I got home, I finished up, picturing what I would have been doing if I
said I was going to “fuck the feces out of you already.” In retrospect,
should I have said “excrement” or dung”?
I hear you’re engaged and living in San Diego. Congratulations! I love
the Padres, and I hear the weather out there is fantastic. I hope you and your
fiancée spend a lot of time running by the ocean. I hope he tells you
every night exactly what you want to hear.
(5) To the Ripped Guy Who Stomped Me in Austin (and It’s Still “Rollo
This would have been in August of 1998. I was visiting my aunt and uncle for
the weekend. You and your girlfriend were walking a few feet in front of me
on a Friday night. We got stuck at the light at 6th and Neches. She was asking
the name of the fictional bad guy in L.A. Confidential, the one Ed Exley made
up to be his father’s uncaught killer. The first thing you should know
about me is that I love movies. The second thing is that for years I had this
dream of overhearing a stranger needing the answer to a movie trivia question.
In the dream, I would say the answer. Then, when thanked for my heroism, I would
say, “No worries.”
So, when your girlfriend asked you for the bad guy’s name and you said, “Roland,
maybe?” I didn’t even think. I just tapped her shoulder, a little
excitedly. Just as I was about to say “Rollo Tomasi,” I realized
you both were glaring at me. Your face looked like the faces of guys who always gave me shit about my stutter. Not surprisingly, my vocal cords
locked. I was thinking about easy onsets and diaphragmatic breathing, but you
looked at her and said, “Austin is full of retards.” That made
me think of the time in fourth grade that Johnny Miller’s older brother
called me a “retard” for not being able to say the name of my favorite
baseball player, and the way Johnny’s dad laughed before telling his
kid to knock it off.
I realized I wasn’t going to have much luck. I was thinking your guess
of “Roland” was close enough. But the light was still red and you
all kept staring. I punched my thigh, which sometimes helped me blurt out stuck
words. That scared your girlfriend and you threw me down. I said “Rollo
Tomasi” as a few guys with guitars yelled at you to let me up. Did you
(6) To Julia (If She Ever Returns from Costa Rica)
The night you broke up with me, I yelled, “We’re perfect for each
other!” That was funny, I guess, since we’d been fighting that summer
about my agreeing to at least consider children. After three years you weren’t
going to wait, not at age thirty.
You were talking about who would move out, and I was picturing myself getting
down on one knee. But then I pictured the wedding and the kids and the mortgage
and the parent-teacher conferences and the kids who would pick on our kids
and the guidance I’d be asked to give and I wondered how could I do any of
that if I couldn’t even imagine being able to say, in front of a poorly
paid judge, “I do.”
If I didn’t have so much trouble with “d” words, I’d
have asked you to marry me right then.
(7) To Travis (If I Still Didn’t Want to Curl Up into the Fetal
Position Just Writing His Name)
Hey, amigo, I hope you’re in prison. I hope some really fat cellmate is
doing all kinds of shit to you right now. I hope he never showers. I hope you’ve
been passed around to his friends for cigarettes and Snickers.
In elementary school, you always took my lunch boxes, grinning because you
could see the veins in my neck bulging as I blocked on the word “don’t.” In
junior high, you, Ben, and Marco used to introduce yourselves to me in the
hall, taking turns shaking my hand, always in front of Becky or Christy, demanding
I say my name. The girls always walked away. Even Ben and Marco would pull
hands away after awhile. But no matter how long it took me, you would stand
there, shaking my hand, laughing, until I finally said “Daniel Carver.” Then
you’d pat my shoulder and tell me to keep practicing.
Do you remember in eleventh grade when Ben and Carl held me down in that empty
classroom while you wrote “STUTT” on my forehead, and “ER” on
each cheek. You used black permanent marker. Even all these years later, when
I stare at the mirror long enough, I can see the “S.” I was squirming
so you jammed the marker into my skin to make me keep still.
My dad didn’t even wait until we got home to scrub the marker off. In
the nurse’s office, he raked my face with hot, soggy brown napkins. My
mom was yelling at the nurse that she was going to sue the school for millions.
dad didn’t say anything. He just gripped my shirt and scrubbed.
(8) To My Mom (If It Wouldn’t Make Her Cry)
Do you remember telling me to ignore Dad, that he just had a funny way of
showing how sad I made him? That was bullshit, wasn’t it? I mean you
were the one ignoring things, like the fact that he would come into my room
order me out of bed, and make me do sit-ups. You had to have heard him all
those years yelling at me for making you drink. After he canceled that speech
check, we lived with him for years before you got divorced. During that time,
did you ever ask him to pay for more speech therapy?
Who pushed harder for the divorce when I was seventeen—you or him? You
and I moved out a few months after those assholes wrote all over my face.
What happened? Was it the way he wouldn’t let me up, scrubbing my face
with those brown napkins? The nurse warned us that a permanent marker would
some time to remove. Did you think about telling Dad to stop, even after
Thanks for sending me the Serenity Prayer. Even though my e-mail response
probably didn’t convey my appreciation, you have it. I am trying to come to grips
with this life I’ve created for myself. I know you always wanted me to
have kids, but I’m sure you’d agree that it’s probably all
right that I didn’t. I remember you crying on the phone when I told you
a few years ago that most likely I would never have them. I should have laughed
when you said that stutterers deserved children too. I should have said nobody
was entitled to anything. I should have called you back to say one day that little
baby would get big and ask, with his daddy’s stutter, why in God’s
name he had been created. And I wouldn’t even know what words I’d
have to avoid saying.
(9) To My Friend Craig Biltman (Who Believed I Could Be More than Just
Man, Im sorry. I know you went to bat for me with the other partners. I know
you will take shit for years about this little escapade. The thing is, I really
thought I could hack it at a law firm. I told myself I was seven years older
than when I last worked in one, now had a wife to support, and wouldnt let myself
bitch out. I wasnt a little guppy fresh out of law school, without a clue what
a law firm would be like. I thought I could handle the pressure. And you put
the sell on me so hard. Youd worked with me for a year at the Department of
Homeland Security and Id had many stuttering blocks around you. So when you
e-mailed me to grab some coffee and then told me I had an interview if I wanted
it, I was fired up. It confirmed what Id been told over the years:
that if I changed words around effectively enough, no one could tell I stuttered.
Why didnt I listen to my stomach and say thanks but no thanks? Yeah,
the salary doubling thing played a part.
My first day, I blocked on my Social Security number in front of your firms
lovely and built HR woman. She was so intense. Why was she so insistent on
eye contact? Why did she have someone elses Social Security number in my file?
couldnt say “three” so I told her the final number was “nine.” It
was 9:35 on my first morning, and I already knew I was fucked. How could I advise
clients on multi-million dollar cases when I couldn’t even say “three”?
Now, weeks later, Im home, waiting to get re-hired by the feds, who thankfully
arent making me re-interview for my old job. You see, I havent
been able to speak to people since quitting your firm. DHS will clear me
for work in the next
few weeks, so I have to figure out how to speak by then. My shrink told me
to write things to you, important things.
He told me to write to other people as well—all those people who never
heard what I’d actually wanted to say. I laughed, said I’d be writing
until I was ninety. “Just pick a few key people,” he said. “See
where it leads you—perhaps to your voice.”
Im holding the framed Serenity Prayer my mom just mailed. Judging by the chintzy
frame, she may have got it at a garage sale. The thing is, I can’t seem
to figure out whether I can change my stutter. Thus, I don’t know whether
to acquire the serenity to accept it or dig into my guts for the courage to change
it. Often, when I’m really angry, I speak just fine. If I pretend the
listener owes me money or is related to that asshole cashier Adam, I say
whatever I feel
like. But being angry makes me tired and, often, kind of sad.
My wife wont say shes pissed, even though I’ve baited her. I have lost
about $18,000 and counting the past four weeks. But I couldn’t cut it at
your firm. Every hour I felt I was losing my ability to speak. Secretaries would
say hi and Id only be able to nod. At my first client meeting, I couldn’t
say the phrase “motion to dismiss.” The rest of the meeting I couldn’t
concentrate, fighting off urges to try saying the phrase, wondering how obvious
my stuttering blocks had been. In the halls, lawyers, paralegals, secretaries,
and support staff kept introducing themselves, and I couldn’t say my name
without an “um,” “uh,” or a long pause. I began carrying
notepads wherever I went, staring at them to avoid eye contact. During a
strategy session, when called upon by a squinty partner, I could not offer
My face burned.
After three weeks, I thought I was about to have a nervous breakdown. On
the day that turned out to be my last, the water cooler delivery guy, lugging
a thousand pounds of water, thanked me for holding the door. I couldnt
tell him he was welcome. I no longer had any idea how my brain, my throat,
my diaphragm were supposed to work. He gave me a weird look as he passed,
probably figuring I felt too superior to respond.
That night, my wife heard me come home. She met me in the kitchen, asked how
my day had gone. I stood there for close to a minute, silent, completely locked.
She told me to get some sleep.
Instead of following her upstairs, I opened my laptop and wrote you an e-mail.
After nearly an hour, I had rewritten the message at least ten times, ranging
from a four-paragraph life history to a simple “I quit.” The message
I sent said, “I’m not cut out for this life. Believe me, it’s
best for the firm that I’m quitting. I can’t tell you how sorry
and ashamed I am.”
You never responded, but you must have forwarded it to the HR woman. She
replied the next morning, requesting that I call her immediately to “rectify the
blunder.” But the idea of dialing her number and trying to tell her my
name made me want to vomit. I havent spoken since.
(10) To My Wife (If She Doesn’t Hate Me for Costing Us So Much
I know you used to think that I was staring at your cleft palate because
it repulsed me. OK, maybe the first time I kissed you, I opened my eyes to
sure I wasn’t
kissing you directly on it. But, really, almost every time you catch me staring
it’s because I’m thinking how good it would be if “STUTTERER” in
that permanent marker had never come off. You had no choice but to get used to
the stares. In that way, you’re like some of the kids I met in speech therapy.
Many of them couldn’t even say a word without their entire bodies shaking.
They never had the option of hiding. They never learned that instead of saying “walk” on
a bad “w” day you could amble, saunter, traverse, trudge, advance,
canter, meander, lumber, or stroll. They never feared being discovered.
You never get upset when little kids ask what happened to your face. Their
parents always tell you how sorry they are, but you just smile and say, “No problem,” and
go about your business. You think I should just tell people that I stutter
and ask for their patience. You say I need to get people like Adam and Travis
of my head.
I’ll soon get my DHS job back and be up to my old shenanigans, whining
when I get home about blocks I had or events I skipped. Thank you for dealing
with me when I do, and thanks for punching my stomach.
(11) To My Various Speech Therapists (If I Could Remember All Their Names)
I never used to believe it when you said covert stutterers were the most
unfortunate ones. Every conversation was a potential mine field, and they
were always on
the verge of blowing up. They spent so much time hiding their illnesses by
changing words around, and so much time agonizing about whether friends or
colleagues “knew,” that
they inflicted untold internal psychological trauma.
Many of you, particularly those I saw as I got older, told me to see a shrink.
Some of you even gave me names and phone numbers. Well, I finally did—but
only after losing my ability to speak. He’s got me writing all of these
things, so I thought it would be rude not to say a quick hello. If you’re
still in the biz, you might be hearing from me soon. And once again you’ll
have hours to tell me to slow down or breathe deeper or focus or stay positive
or relax or just try to do better next time.
(12) To That Water Cooler Guy (If I Had The Guts to Ask the Law Firm to Tell
Me His Name)
You probably thought I was a dick. I held the door for you and you thanked
me. You didn’t just grunt and walk by. You gave a genuinely friendly “thanks.” In
that law firm, no doubt, very few other attorneys had ever held the door
for you. As repayment, I just stood there staring, perhaps grimacing, unable
anything. Believe me, I still feel like shit about that. My life is full
of such moments, where failing to say a simple word ruins something nice
causes pain. I’m sorry, dude.
And, you are most certainly, and belatedly, welcome.
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