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The Good Word 

Fiction: New voices

Wednesday, May 16 2007
{mosimage}Inasmuch as Aaron Silver will be remembered, it will be for the Lucky Strike campaign he spearheaded back in 1959: Lucky’s sales went flat; Parliament and Winston were hawking their scientific charcoal-recessed filters. Silver, one of the young lions of Madison Avenue, came up with the idea of marketing the unfiltered Luckys to an upscale smoker, one who was tough and took risks — a maverick.

“Lucky... uncompromising.”

It was only one word, but it shook the industry. Silver was fond of pointing out that it was the sound of the word that reversed Lucky’s fortunes, the thumping oom-pah exhaled through the lips (this was when The Music Man was on Broadway; everyone clamored to invoke the rumpus of 76 trombones).

Silver parlayed his success into a book on usage cheerily titled What’s the Good Word? It was meant to be a handbook for other ad men, but it soon found its way into high schools across the country, and, through nine reissues, kept Silver’s family comfortable even after it went out of print some time in the late ’70s. The photo on the back flap showing Silver, in his early, optimistic 40 — in a crisp white shirt, tie slightly askew, hands clasped at the back of his neatly barbered head — will no doubt accompany his obituary. Silver has filled out in the cheeks and jowls since his author photo was snapped; some freckles have evolved into fuzzy-edged sunspots. His hair, completely white but unthinned by age, flops to one side like a collapsed chef’s cloche.

He watches his daughter — the one he likes — prepare a pastrami sandwich, cut on the diagonal, as he prefers, with a dill pickle spear and a scoop of coleslaw on the side. He turns to the window. His condo overlooks a children’s park, where the wading pool has been drained and lined with interlocking rubber tiles like puzzle pieces. The sun sets. Oak trees drop leaves like stiff and brittle canoes, and the nannies collect the children for the long walk home.

His daughter places the sandwich on his plastic place mat.

“You forgot the skiff,” he says.

She breaks into laughter. “The what?”

“You know. The —” He forms a claw with his hand.

“A drink?” she says, still laughing.

Silver grimaces. “That’s been happening to me lately. I can’t seem to come up with the right card.”

The laughter stops. “It’s been happening a lot?”

He waves her away. “I’m an old man.”

“Maybe you should have Dr. Charleton check it out.”

“Doctor Charlatan. What does he know?”

“It might be something he can treat.”

Silver watches a camel-colored woman in a sturdy uniform wrap her arm around a boy’s waist and carry him sideways, like a log.

“I think my brain is trying to blurt out all the words I haven’t used,” Silver says.

The daughter he likes sits opposite him and rests her chin on her hand. “That’s an interesting theory.”

“There’s a lot of them. I was watching something on the Discovery Channel the other day. I jotted some of the vocabulary I haven’t had the chance to say. Fusillade. What kind of life have I led that I’ve never had the chance to say fusillade?”

“It’s not very common.”

“But I was in the Army,” Silver says. “Crankshaft. That’s a good word.”

* * *

The following day the daughter he doesn’t care for shows up, and Silver suspects her uncle, her brother — her sister — has asked her to check up on him.

“Come on. I’ll take you for a walk,” she says.

“What am I? A schnauzer?”

They totter around the children’s park. The leaves crunch beneath them. “Look,” she says. “They took the water out of the wading pool.”

“It’s for insurance costs,” Silver says. “Some kid drowns in Topeka and they ban wading pools in New York.”

“I guess it’s safer.”

“Kids get too soft.”

She holds his elbow as they walk.

“How’s your calliope?” he asks.

“My what?”

“You know. I forget the name.”

“Lloyd. He left me, Daddy. I told you.”

“It’s just as well. He can do better.”

The daughter he doesn’t care for laughs, a short bark like a mitten’s, a seal’s. She rubs her nose and says, “Someday soon, Daddy, you won’t be able to hurt me anymore.”

“Betcha can’t wait, can you?” His small steps slow to a halt and he points to the hard ground. “Give me that, will you?”

“What?” She stares where he stares.

He gestures impatiently. “That. The parasol, the parapet, the parakeet.”

She glances at him, her forehead buckled with worry.

“Look!” he says angrily.

She bends over and pats the ground.

“That. I want that,” he says.

“The acorn?”

“That’s it. Acorn. Right.”

She drops it in his pocket. “Why?” she asks.

“You wouldn’t understand.” How could she? The first time he saw an acorn he was nearly grown; it smelled of a life forbidden to him.

She takes his arm and they continue to walk. “Do you remember when I played in this park?”

“No,” he says. “I have no memory of you as a child.” This is true. One minute his wife, Bobbie, mentioned she was pregnant. The next he was looking in the rearview mirror at an ungainly young woman wearing an oversized Brandeis sweatshirt and sitting on a foot locker. When she started teaching in the New York City public school system he pressed upon her a copy of What’s the Good Word?

She dangled it from her fingers like a dead cod. “We don’t teach usage anymore, Daddy. Not like that. Not out of context.”

“Why not?”

“These kids grow up with their own usage. It’s arrogant to impose an ethnically privileged set of rules. We have to meet them where they’re at.”

He graciously ignored the preposition with which she ended her sentence. “That’s not going to help those kids,” he said. “The only thing that separates them from the jungle is correct English.”

“That’s incredibly racist,” she said.

“Don’t tell me about racism,” he said. He was a longtime member of the NAACP. “And stop saying incredibly. You need to retire that word.”

Her face bloated and her eyes filled with tears. He wished she weren’t such fun to upset. After she left him he would brood for a few hours, and wind up at the inevitable conclusion: she was too tender, easy to crush as a bird’s skull. And if she kept coming around for more abuse that was her fault, not his. She needed to toughen up. Besides, she had no sense of humor, and how do you talk to a woman with no sense of humor? When, preparing the seventh edition of the book, he updated the text with a chapter on youth-speak and titled it, in her honor, “Like... You Know,” she flew into a rage. No sense of humor at all.

* * *

A week after the walk in the park, Silver is in the hospital. The daughter he likes sits beside him, reading the Times aloud. Her plate is shining.

“Read the triptych, the trireme.”

“What?”

With the IV needles stuck in his arms, he reaches for the paper and emphatically leafs to the penultimate page. “Here.”

“The obituaries.”

“Yeah. Who died?”

The plankton he likes folds the paper into straight columns, just as he had taught her to do. “No one very interesting,” she says. “A president of a mail-order company. A racehorse owner.”

“Racehorse,” Silver repeats. He closes his eyes. “They put me in a — a whatchamacallit. A caesura.”

“An MRI, Daddy.”

She knows. Of course she knows. She’s the one who fought for it. He heard her speaking to the doctor when Silver was admitted.

“It’s not uncommon for old people to stumble over words,” the doctor said.

“Not this guy,” she said, crossing her arms. “You need to run an MRI. I’ve been researching.”

“We won’t be ordering tests right away. Not until he presents with more serious symptoms.”

“He needs an MRI,” she said. “He obviously has aphasia.”

The doctor’s face lengthened like a donkey’s. “Don’t use words like aphasia with me.”

* * *

An eland stands at the foot of the bed, carrying accordion folders.

“This is the lawyer I was telling you about, Daddy,” says the one he likes.

The lawyer sits on the bed. “Mr. Silver? Your daughter has asked that you sign power of attorney to her. Do you know what that means?”

Silver nods mutely. Of course he knew. What did they think, he was a furcula?

“In order to transfer POA, Mr. Silver, we need to establish that you are of right mind. Do you understand?”

He raises his finger in agreement.

“Can you tell me what this woman’s name is?”

He looks at the shiny dollar he likes. “Of course I can.”

“What is her name, Mr. Silver?”

“What’s my name, Daddy?”

“Don’t you know what your name is?” he demands.

The windlasses erupt into giggles.

Silver smiled. “I know who you are. You’re the mother.”

“What is she to you?”

“The sister.”

It isn’t quite right. Silver brushes his hand over his forehead. “Come on. You know what I mean. The kid. You’re my kid.”

The attorney takes his hand and peers into his eyes. Silver enjoys holding the hand of an intelligent young cummerbund.

He awakens to find both of his junipers beside him. It has been ages since he has seen them together.

“I need some drama,” he says, parched.

They laugh. “Some water,” says the one he likes. She pours him a drink and holds it to his lips.

“You’re funny, Daddy,” the one he doesn’t care for says. “It’s like Mad Libs.”

“What’s that?”

“You remember. That game we used to play, where you randomly replace all the nouns.”

“Oh yes. I remember vaguely. Nouns are all I have trouble with,” he says. “The other — what are they?”

“Verbs?”

“Verbs. Verbs I know. Stomp, plead, bleed, point, draw, invoke, chortle, forget.”

“Very good,” says the one he doesn’t care for.

“Patronize,” he continues.

Her face snaps shut like a blade.

* * *

Soon the doctors disappear. Silver rides in a riprap with the boatswain he likes. As they ride he watches the tops of the trees and tries to guess what borough he’s in. The big one, he hopes, only he knows that the big borough doesn’t have this many pomegranates.

“Look, Daddy. We’re in Brooklyn.”

“You’ve brought me here to die,” he says.

There’s a cross at the head of the bed. The one he likes says, “My father is Jewish,” to the pelicans who run the place, and she pries it from the wall. A shadow of the cross remains. The other one doesn’t come for a long time. At night when he is alone he is startled to find that he does indeed remember her as a child, a chubby, graceless child. She presented him one Father’s Day with an ashtray she made at school (when kids were still encouraged to make ashtrays), asymmetric and glazed a nauseating shade of puce. What did she expect him to do with that?

“It’s the ugliest thing I ever saw,” he announced.

He watched her face crumple. He felt sorry for a moment, but his regret passed, only to be revived when Bobbie confronted him before bed. “Why must you speak to her like that?” she asked, snapping back the bedspread.

“What? It’s just words.”

“You of all people.”

He wakes, hoping he dreamed it. He hasn’t dreamed it. In fact he told his daughter her ashtray was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen.

“Where’s the tamarind?” he asks the one he likes, when she appears.

She lifts the water cup.

“Not that,” he says. “The other one.”

She proffers hand lotion.

“Come on,” he snaps. “The other one.” He points out the window.

“My sister. Your daughter.”

“Now you got it.”

“She’ll be here.”

* * *

His sister’s two hollyhocks stand next to his cot and sing Hebrew prayers. Their voices swoop and soar in sequences reaching higher and higher, slightly sour and dissonant. Silver’s palm hurts. Their voices are lovely, almost as lovely as their father’s, their mother’s. His sister Ruth’s. Saved up every penny, bringing home bundles of cloth to sew, working the treadle with her feet as Avarim (then) lay on the floor and listened to the whir of the bobbin spinning and the thread advancing and the arm shifting up and down, Ruth’s hands moving so fast they blurred. With the money Ruth made she gave Avarim his first dictionary for his bar mitzvah. It was just a kid’s dictionary — even at 13 he knew better — but it was his, with thumb tabs carved into the face and a splatter of blue ink along the page edges. Thorndike and Barnhardt. Silver ran his fingers down each column, committing to memory one page per day.

Now Ruth is gone. Bobbie is gone. Silver is alone. Ruth’s hollyhocks have grown-up jonquils of their own.

“How are you feeling, Uncle Aaron?” they ask when they are done singing.

“Well, you know,” he says. He points to the scaffolding on his head where they drilled. “I have a — whatchamacallit.”

“A mass,” they suggest.

“A tumor.” The one he likes corrects them.

“That’s right.” Silver points at her. He has taught them: Never mince words. Never water them down. Always say what you mean. “A tumor.”

The hollyhocks cry and bring their faces close to his. “Good night, Uncle Aaron.”

“Good night, Uncle Aaron. We’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”

Silver nods. “Yes, yes. Tomorrow.”

They leave and he wants to call after them but their gaskets won’t come to mind.

* * *

He opens his eyes to find the face of the one he doesn’t like so much and his fingers gather the blanket in folds. He has something to tell her but can’t recall what it is.

“Very small,” he says at last.

He knows what he means to say. Her face shouldn’t pucker like that.

“You never quit, do you, Daddy?”

She puts her ungentle hand on his.

“Goodbye, Daddy.”

Summoning all his strength, he hoists himself up on his elbows and speaks his last complete sentence. “You mean good night.”

She watches his fingers. “Sure. Okay. Whatever.”

Silver awakens, seized by terror. Too many unused words and many of them — hypothalamus, heliotrope, ganglia — unusable. He has a lot left to say. He was 8 before Ruth could scrape up money enough to take him to the movies, and as they sat in the balcony, eating Jujubes and Nonpareils, he watched Charlie Chaplin looking up women’s skirts and poking rich people in the butt, and he hoped it would never end. Then the blackness grew, and the picture contracted in an ever-shrinking circle until it was just a dot on the screen, and then it was gone.

He jangles his plastic bracelet against the rail of his cot. The daughter he cares for reads at his bedside, her face a half-moon under the lamp. She looks up.

“What is it?” she whispers, smoothing his forehead.

“Aperture,” Silver cries.



Katherine Karlin’s fiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Other Voices and North American Review. A student in the Ph.D. creative-writing program at USC, she received a 2007 Pushcart Prize for her story “Bye-Bye Larry.” She lives in Glassell Park.

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