portion of David Erlewine artwork

What I’d Say
David Erlewine

(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 me down.

I was crying that night because Ms. Whitaker made me read a paragraph about FDR’s 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.

I’m 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 bad 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 getting your money’s worth. You kept smacking the car, announcing how long it was taking. My throat couldn’t unlock and all the techniques I’d 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 Mom’s check and that I couldn’t come back until things got straightened out. I guess they never did.

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 I’ve 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 I’d spoken to ex-girlfriends and bullies and teachers and people who mistook my silence for churlishness. But I keep thinking 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 talked 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 knew there were three bagels in the little bag. It was a clear bag. You said you couldn’t 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 so I 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 they’re 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 Hadn’t Moved to San Diego and Ignored My Facebook Friend Request)

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 so insane 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 didn’t 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 flu.

When I got home, I finished up, picturing what I would have been doing if I hadn’t 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 Tomasi,” Asshole)

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 you 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 hear me?

(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 their 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. My 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 late at night, 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 therapy 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 take some time to remove. Did you think about telling Dad to stop, even after I started bleeding?

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 a “Government Guy”)

Man, I’m 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 wouldn’t let myself bitch out. I wasn’t 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. You’d worked with me for a year at the Department of Homeland Security and I’d 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 I’d been told over the years: that if I changed words around effectively enough, no one could tell I stuttered.

Why didn’t 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 firm’s lovely and built HR woman. She was so intense. Why was she so insistent on eye contact? Why did she have someone else’s Social Security number in my file? I couldn’t 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, I’m home, waiting to get re-hired by the feds, who thankfully aren’t making me re-interview for my old job. You see, I haven’t 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.”

I’m 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 won’t say she’s 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 I’d 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 an opinion. 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 about a thousand pounds of water, thanked me for holding the door. I couldn’t tell him he was welcome. I no longer had any idea how my brain, my throat, my lungs, 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 haven’t spoken since.

(10) To My Wife (If She Doesn’t Hate Me for Costing Us So Much Money)

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 make 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 out 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 to say 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 and possibly causes pain. I’m sorry, dude.

And, you are most certainly, and belatedly, welcome.

I don’t know why my stories so often involve asshole fathers. The father in this story couldn’t be any further away from my dad. Mine donates blood platelets and reads to the blind. As a kid with a terrible stutter, I had all sorts of problems. He supported me going to speech therapy. He practiced word lists with me. He told me it was OK to be scared thinking about school and having to speak. Both he and my mom were (and are) wonderfully and endlessly supportive. When I workshopped the father section of this story, other writers asked me “privately” if my real father had been like that. I took it as a compliment, hoping that meant the story resonated/felt authentic. Each time answering no felt weird, like they would think I was living in denial.

In 2008, I left the comfy confines of the government for a huge law firm. I lasted a few days, partly related to my stutter but also tied in to the ease with which associates tucked their kids in over the phone. Thankfully, within a few days of calling and yelling mulligan, the government agency took me back. This story sort of came from the question: What if they hadn’t?

A few parts of this piece are fairly autobiographical, including the inciting incident of the Hawaii piece. However, thankfully, most is fiction. My long-time friends would grin at those thinking my dad is anything like this father. And that laughing you hear? That’s them, at the prospect of any woman ever asking me to fuck the shit out of her.

I wrote this story after reading Michael Kimball’s novel, Dear Everybody. I can’t recommend the book more highly. Without it, this story would still be an idea.

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