Wednesday, May 18, 2005

THEY SOUND LIKE THE NOISE THEY DESCRIBE

“If you can’t think of even one good example of an onomatopoeia, you’ve got no business teaching schoolchildren.” Mr. Winshall said to me. There were little white flecks of spittle on both corners of his mouth and his voice wavered like old men’s voices do, though he was speaking much louder than normal. He was my old mentor, and he (as well as the rest of humanity) had a propensity to look directly at my right shoulder rather than into my eyes when talking to me. Naturally, it made me very self-conscious about my poor posture, and at this moment, about the hole in the stomach of my forest green argyle sweater, at which I instinctively picked underneath the table.

The hole in the sweater had been made while hopping a ramshackle chain link fence late one afternoon while I chased down Donnie Rolf, who was what they called a ‘troubled’ seventh grader headed straight down the wrong road in life. When I was chasing after him, he was headed straight down the gravel road to the waterfront, where he was wont to sit and mope and cook up. When I hopped the fence to go after him, I ripped the hole in my sweater and cut both my palms, so when I landed on the other side, I called to him with my bloody hands raised to the sky like Francis of Assisi. This likeness did not impress him immediately, though in a letter he wrote from the detention center the following year (after he’d found Jesus) made reference to my stigmatic wounds and he joked, saying I must be the patron saint of animals if I had been willing to track him down and straighten him out. I wrote him a postcard back, asking him if I was the patron saint of animals, what animal was he? He never replied.

Mr. Winshall was sitting directly across the table from me at our booth, and although he was a man whom I respected a great deal, I couldn’t help but wonder what sorts of impressions his knobbly butt bones (‘sits’ bones, as they’re called in yoga classes my brother’s wife tells me), would leave in the vinyl seat. I was thinking he was looking very old and thin these days, and then remembered that he was staring expectantly at me—or rather, at my right shoulder. I continued fidgeting with the hole in my sweater and maneuvered my shoulder forward as though it were an expressive face delivering a response.

“You even know what onomatopoeia is?” He suddenly demanded and his hand quaked as he reached for the sugar spoon.

It was patronizing, like that old story about the professor who was denied tenure at the university. He was the most articulate man—from somewhere in the Middle East—and they asked him about literary devices, a subject on which he was an expert. But he couldn’t pronounce that word: onomatopoeia. Sure, he knew what it meant, its history, why and how it had been used, and could give you truckloads of examples both contemporary and ancient, but he just couldn’t say it. So he was denied tenure and following that there was a big scare in the department and everyone went back to wearing bow ties for a time.

Mr. Winshall, who had remained in eleventh grade language arts his entire life, had written me and shared this story back when I was laid up in Oklahoma with my broken leg. He had known the professor somehow, someone renting a room or someone’s landlady. I had found the story very interesting and made sure to keep his letter safe in my letterbox, along with Donnie Rolf’s. Mr. Winshall’s most recent letters were unsurprisingly increasingly incoherent and written in impossible to decipher script that looked like the edges of fancy doilies. It was the main reason why I’d come back to town, to see the old man before he finally went wherever it is that old men tended to go. But now, at this particular moment, for whatever reason, I’d lost all my patience and compassion. Even though my eyes had welled up three times on the drive over, my jaw was now firmly set and I was frustrated hateful.

“Come on, then.” Mr. Winshall continued to insist, almost laughing at me. “An onomatopoeia.”

I stopped playing with the hole in my sweater and reached for my car keys.

“It’s just what I thought.” He said. “I didn’t teach you anything. You didn’t learn it from me. You didn’t learn it from anyone.”

He was no longer looking at my shoulder, but at a vague, unspecified point behind me. His eyes were cloudy and vacant. This should have made me less angry. I shouldn’t have been angry in the first place. But I was.

“Can’t even do an onomatopoeia.” He mumbled and began biting his lower lip, which was bleeding a little bit.

Vroom.” I said, and stood up to go.

3 comments:

jessica morrison said...

you're a smart girl, meredith. thanks for being my cyber friend. for some strange reason, your blog has all kinds of wingdings-esque characters mixed in that means i can't read the entries properly. it's probably japan. in our next postal exchange, mail me a drawing for my refrigerator.

Anonymous said...

jessica, you are a character from one of meredith's stories. so am i. although i own the only copy of the story in which i'm a character. we should hook up. i may have been to japan once. the story is very short...

Anonymous said...

Poor Jessica. Have you not yet discovered how to display Meredith's blog correctly? And please, you're in Japan--have you yet to learn how to discern Japanese characters from "wingdings-esque" characters? Anyway, I'll assume you're using a Japanese version of Microsoft Internet Explorer. When viewing a page (like The Daily Collision) where things don't display properly, you need to change the encoding. From the menu, select "View" (it is the third menu item from the left). Then select "Encodings" (fourth from the bottom). Then select the options which says "Unicode (UTF-8)". It should display properly.

Cheers,

Cho