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       Unspeakable, p.6

           Erika Rummel
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I MET TONY again last summer when I started going for bike rides. The home-schooling programme was fizzling. My mom pressed on dutifully for the first few weeks, but then she got a part time job with an accounting firm, and after that we skipped some of the curriculum units and did a lot of multiple choice questions and independent reading. Most days she drove me to the local library and parked me there to work on projects. I did a little half-hearted research, but I kept my real skills for the afternoons when she was at work. That’s when I went on field trips, checking out the neighbourhood, stopping to talk to strangers. I needed to find out whether the words I had mouthed to myself in private were functional in public. They were. People understood what I was saying. They gave me a strained look at first, as if I was speaking with a foreign accent, but they answered my questions, and I had no problem buying cans of coke and bags of chips and even CDs with hard to pronounce names. At home, I was taking full advantage of my mother’s absence, watching TV whenever I had a chance, picking up new words at a phenomenal rate: hoodrat, beasting, could care less, real time, bling, dork, snoozer, hit me up. So far I haven’t had much use for the TV words, but they will come in handy one day. There is no such thing as a surplus of words. You can always find a narrative for them. At least that’s been my experience so far.

  On one of my afternoon outings, I spotted a pet adoption clinic in a parking lot. There were two large cages with kittens and puppies, and two older dogs off leash. They moseyed around with a down-beaten look as if they had gotten themselves into trouble. I locked my bike to a light pole and went to pat them. Who knows what troubled them. Dogs don’t speak and don’t tell. I silently shared their worries. Then, boom! I look up and see Tony. He looks exactly as I remember him: slight, small boned, with a narrow face and soft blue eyes. He stands at the information table in the middle of the parking lot, holding a coffee cup in his hand. He is talking to the organizer, a woman whose motherly rump is squeezed into black yoga pants. Beside her, on the table, is a small sandwich board inviting people to join PETA. Sign here, it says.

  Seeing Tony gives my heart an electric jolt. I realize: I’m still in love with him. He looks in my direction, but our eyes don’t meet. They merely graze each other. He doesn’t recognize me. Of course not. I was five when he saw me last. I’ll have to bring out words. I can’t just fling my arms around his neck, although that’s what I’d like to do. I have to play it by the rules. I lick my lips and knead the words in my mouth. I want them to come out perfect. When I talked to the cashier at the supermarket, I didn’t care how I sounded. Now I care.

  I walk up to him and say: “Hi, Tony.” I keep it short. I don’t want to venture too much on first try. Two words only. Perfect pitch.

  He turns his blue eyes on me, smiles benevolently, and says in his soft baritone: “Do I know you?”

  And now I have to bring out a longer string of words, a whole cascade. “You used to work for my dad,” I say. “You came to our house once, for dinner.” I’m no longer sure I have the accent right. The words blow out of my mouth any which way.

  His smile broadens. “Of course,” he says. “You are Mike’s daughter! My God, you’ve grown up. You’re a teenager.”

  I wish he’d said something more original, more profound than “you’ve grown up,” but nothing else comes out of his mouth, and I panic. It’s the end of our conversation. He’ll turn away. I bet he doesn’t even remember my name.

  “I’m Melanie,” I say. “In case you don’t remember.”

  “Oh, yeah,” he says. “Melanie. So, how’s it going?”

  “Okay,” I say and plod on. “Are you thinking of buying a pet?” Is that the right conversational phrase, or should I have said Are you here to buy a pet/ Are you in the market for a pet?

  “Actually, I’m sponsoring this event.”

  The lady at the table smiles up at him, flashes him a look of admiration.

  “That’s my shop over there,” Tony says and points to the building next to the parking lot. The marquee over the window says: TLC Pet Care.

  “You sell pets?”

  “Tropical fish and pet supplies. Want to see the shop?”

  “Sure,” I say.

  “I’ll be back in a few minutes, Alice,” Tony says to the woman with the PETA list.

  “Take your time,” she says. “I’ll hold the fort.”

  We go into Tony’s shop, and I hear a bird squawk. It’s a green parrot perched on a metal ring, making unholy noises. Pings and squelches, ending in a piercing shriek. The ring sways slightly. You expect that kind of noise from a wild thing with talons and the wingspan of an eagle, not from a small flustered parrot, whose feathers stick out, mysteriously windblown.

  “That’s Josie,” Tony says. “I inherited her from the former owner. She was a sad bird when I first saw her.” He puts out his hand, and the parrot hops on. “Right, Josie? You were bored to death, sitting in a cage all day. Now you are my greeter, aren’t you? Yes, you are.” The parrot climbs on to Tony’s shoulder and eyes me, snapping her head from side to side.

  I notice that Tony has lost his inhibitions. He talks like everyone else, fluently. I wonder how he managed that. He hands me a packet of sunflower seeds and encourages me to feed the bird, but Josie senses at once that we are rivals for Tony’s attention. Her gimlet eyes remain suspicious even as she eats out of my hand.

  I look around the store: rhinestone encrusted dog collars, deluxe leashes, and lots of squeaky toys. I check out the tropical fish in the aquariums lined up in the centre aisle. They are quite wonderful: tiny aquamarine things streaming along, a whole school of them, a pinkish one with black smudges as if it had escaped the grill at the last moment, another one with veil-like appendages, moving in and out of the rocks. The only thing I recognize is a seahorse. I ask Tony the names of the fish. He points out blennies and chromis. The one with the yellow face outlined in white is called a clown fish. The other names don’t stick, because I’m more interested in reading Tony’s face than identifying the fish.

  Further back against the wall, I see a cage with mice.

  “They are snake food,” Tony says.

  We discuss the eating habits of snakes, the way they coil around their prey and flatten it before swallowing it whole.

  At the back of the store is a glass fronted fridge with organic dog treats.

  “I make them myself every morning, with fresh ingredients,” Tony says.

  All this is mildly interesting, but not good enough. Tony doesn’t come up to the heroic image in my head. I have this pedestal waiting for him, but he isn’t the right shape. He’s stuck in the pet store owner pose. I don’t know whose fault that is. Am I not using the right words? Does he need special cueing?

  “I think I should go back out,” he says. “I’m supposed to take over from Alice at three.”

  I’ve picked the wrong day. I have to talk to Tony when Alice isn’t there. She is running interference.

  “Can I come back another time?” I say.

  “Sure,” he says. “Come by any time.”

  I wanted to talk about more important things with Tony than fish and snake food, but I was no longer sure that I could pull it off. I had a presentiment of failure. I was doing something wrong. I figured it out eventually, but at the time I thought it was a vision problem, something wrong with the curvature of my pupils, or further back along the optic nerve, in the place where I had stored Tony’s image. The pet store owner didn’t match up with the Saint. There was a faint resemblance, but the colours weren’t true and the outline was blurred. It was like double exposure. I thought all I had to do was align the edges and bring Tony round to my idea of who he was. Then the two would merge, and everything would come into focus.

  I returned to the pet shop the following week and cornered Tony in the backroom. He was bagging organic dog biscuits. I tried to explain to him the problem of bringing things into focus, but I wasn’t sure where to start. The problem was so large and had so many sides to it. I started talking abo
ut the importance of words matching thoughts, the difficulty of making the connection between life and fantasy, between what I read in books and what I felt, between the words on the page and the conversations of people around me.

  I paused to see how Tony was taking it, but he only said: “Maybe you are reading books that are too advanced for you.”

  “No,” I said. “I don’t want juvenile stuff where everything is spelled out. I have no interest in books that are all about who does what and never about what’s going on in people’s minds. It’s the same with movies. Most of them are all about action instead of thought.”

  “Speaking for myself, I like action movies,” Tony said.

  I waited for him to say more. It took him a long time to continue.

  “I guess I prefer action,” he said.


  He screwed up his face as if I had asked him an impossible question, but I wouldn’t let it go.

  “Why would you prefer action to thought?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “I guess because you can see what’s going on, whereas it’s hard to know what’s on a person’s mind.”

  “Exactly,” I said. “Thoughts are hard to get across. You try to explain to people what’s on your mind, and it’s like talking to creatures from outer space, like being in a room full of Martians. I know I have to use their kind of language if I want to get my thoughts across, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t make myself understood. Sometimes I despair and think I’ll always be an alien and never speak their language, or even enjoy or fear the same things as other people. That’s how I feel when I want to explain what’s on my mind. Has that ever happened to you?”

  “Not sure,” he said. “I haven’t given it much thought, to tell you the truth.” He didn’t look me in the eye. He kept on bagging dog biscuits. “You think about such things a lot?” he asked.

  “I think about it all the time,” I said.

  Tony shook his head.

  “Amazing,” he said and carried a carton of dog biscuits to the fridge up front.

  “What’s amazing?” I said, following him.

  “The things you come up with,” he said, slapping price tags on the baggies. I could see I wasn’t getting anywhere with him. He was caught up in action. He didn’t care about thoughts.

  Another time when I visited Tony, we talked about cartoons.

  “Most of the time I don’t get the joke,” I said. “Maybe it’s because I don’t have any jokes myself. I’m a serious person, I can’ help it.”

  A glint of interest appeared in Tony’s eyes. “I’m a bit like that myself,” he said. “I’m no good at kidding around. I leave that to my partner. Carl. We are like a pair of comics on stage, Carl and me. He’s the funny guy. I’m the straight man.”

  It took me a minute to catch on. Tony was talking of the kind of arrangement I first heard about in Sex Ed, when I was in Grade Six. The teacher called it an “alternative life style” but no one used that term outside of class.

  We talked a bit more about Tony’s partner, but he remained a blank in my mind. I guess I didn’t really want to know about Carl. On the whole, I took the news of Tony’s alternative life style quite well. By then my love for him was past its peak. He was no longer a shiny star in my firmament. It was sad, really, this decline in my enthusiasm for Tony. I thought passion was forever and became a permanent part of your being, but it was only for a time. I was no longer ecstatic about Tony’s presence or ravenous for his words. I was no longer talking to him in my head when he wasn’t there. I wondered what I had seen in him in the first place. On my visits to the pet shop, it was me who did the talking. Tony just listened. He didn’t contribute much. Maybe I even bored him. We had only one real conversation, when he told me that he was a volunteer at an animal shelter, walking dogs. The animals looked ragged and dispirited, he said.

  “But you know what really upsets me? Every time I go to the shelter they have different dogs. It makes me wonder. I mean, what happened to the other ones?”

  “Maybe someone adopted them,” I said.

  “That’s what I’d like to think, but I’ve sponsored three adoption clinics, and I can see what’s happening. People buy cute puppies and sometimes an older dog, if he is a good-looking breed and well-behaved. Nobody buys the scruffy mutts, or the barkers, or the ones that have scars from fights or from abuse. Who’d want to adopt them?”

  “You?” I said hopefully.

  He shook his head sadly. “I wish,” he said.

  “I’d do it,” I said, “but my mom would have a fit.”

  “Yeah, you’re the type to do it,” he said, “but I’m like most people: scared of the responsibility.”

  That’s when Tony and I finally clicked, and I understood. He was no hero. I had the wrong image of him, but it wasn’t a vision problem. My approach was wrong: All along I had been playing a fantasy game with Tony, like the one I played at Future Shop when they had a promotion going, a sales event. I lined up with all the other people for a chance to play and immediately saw the selling point. The possibilities were infinite, and when things didn’t work out, you could start over again. As a game, it was a waste of my time, but what if you applied the method to life? What if you played X-box with people, working all 17 points of contact and making them crouch, climb, speak, pause, and turn at the touch of your fingertips? What if you kept woggling the joy stick until you had them where you wanted them in your magic frame? Well, now I know: it doesn’t work with people. I can’t fit Tony into the heroic scenario, I can’t get him to appear on my screen. The X-box method is useless in real life, but I have a hard time unlearning the technique. It’s addictive watching the drift of random creative thoughts on your mind screen, living the charmed life of the holograph flow, getting lost in the para-meeting place of avatars. I want people to join me there, in the place where everything is possible, and I keep slipping into the game mode. Did I play games with Luis? It’s hard to tell. I’m pretty good at making my characters and scenarios realistic, so good that I sometimes fall for my own tricks.

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