Brent McKnight




  Brent McKnight will receive his MFA in 2010 from the University of New Orleans.  His work has appeared in Word Riot, Crystal Drum, Zygote in My Coffee, and  thelastthingisee.blogspot.com  He lives in Seattle with his dogs.  

 




Eight All Over Again

 
I like getting drunk with my buddy Rob.  He is a boisterous fellow who is always up for too many beers, a night of ruckus, and some general disorganized mayhem.  An evening spent in his company inevitably winds up as a story to tell the next day.  One rainy Northwest New Year’s Eve he spurred on an impromptu Roman candle battle inside my living room.  In many ways he is the opposite of me, outgoing and talkative, traits that lead to him seeming to know everyone every place that we go.  Mostly I sit in the corner, listen, and watch the show.

            A Georgian by birth, he has the words “Dirty” and “South” tattooed across his kneecaps.  He also has the single thickest southern accent that I have ever encountered.  It is like his tongue and his mouth came from mismatched sets, and one is too big and one is too small.  Having a conversation with him is like watching a Scottish movie that has subtitles even though the characters are speaking English.  I feel like I should know what he’s saying, but I’m not always certain.  Beneath a smart ass exterior, lurks a warm demeanor and a razor wit.  He enjoys playing dumb until it is time to rip into one of his friends. 

            “And that’s why your mother never really loved you,” Rob says with a laugh, patting Nelson on the back and sending him inside to search for another beer.  It is just the two of us on the porch, chain smoking.  It is cold and there is a party on the other side of the door, but we stay outside and pretend our sweatshirts are warm enough.  He exhales a stream of smoke.  “I heard you call Stacey, Th-tay-thee in there.”

            “Oh really now?  Am I mistaken, or did I hear you say you just got back from Ch-Ch-Ch-Chicago?”

            “Good ear, man, good ear.”  He laughs again and takes a drag.

Entertainment value is only part of the reason that I take pleasure in our friendship.  At some point in the night, when it is just the two of us, the topic of conversation inevitably turns to speech impediments.  It is the only time we even have anything that resembles a serious conversation, where we don’t crack as many jokes, or insult each other’s genealogy and family lineage quite as frequently.

Rob grew up with a serious stutter, while I spent the better part of my youth grappling with a lisp.  I couldn’t make a proper ‘s’ sound; ‘th’ eluded me for years; I tracked ‘r’ to hell and back.  I was painfully shy to begin with, nearly to the point of agoraphobia.  The neighborhood I grew up in was completely devoid of other children and didn’t offer much in the way of options for socialization.  It was junior high before a kid my age moved in across the street.

My parents actually waited an extra year to enroll me in school.  The alienation of eternally being a year older than my classmates and having to account for the discrepancy was a fun little adventure—I played organized sports with the ‘older’ kids, I was the first one to get my learner’s permit—one that I didn’t finally escape until I was done with high school.  Initially everyone simply assumed I was slow, like the kid with mittens pinned to his sweater all year round.

“You know what I hated?” Rob asks.  “When the teacher called on my and forced me to read out loud.”

On the porch, Rob and I commiserate about the ultimate horror of being compelled to read out loud in class against our will.  Both of my parents are teachers, so I didn’t have the inherent mistrust or authority issues that a lot of kids had in the classroom, but I never thought teachers were so tyrannical as when I was forced to participate in this heinous act.  In my eyes that was the ultimate fascist act, I tell him.

Rob laughs and blows out a plume of smoke.  “Those were rough times.  I had stop and read over what I was going to say before I said it.  Every line.”
            “I had to read it and figure out where to put my tongue before hand.”  Stopping, starting, tripping and falling flat on my face over words while trying to remember the proper position for my tongue.   I still blush when I think about it.  I still get a sick feeling in my stomach when I think about hiding in my desk, eyes down, praying to a god I didn’t believe in even then, that the teacher was not going to call my name.  I must have shivered as I sat there.  I don’t remember, but I still shiver now and pass it off as a cold breeze.

Rob is pretty good about laughing it off, at least on the outside.  For me, it sticks in my craw a little bit more.  I suspect it does for him as well.  Part of why I was initially drawn to writing was in an attempt to exert some control language, to control something with my mind that my body was apparently unable.  On the page you can think it through a thousand times before it goes out to the world.  On the page you have time to consider how it sounds; you can go back and rearrange every word and every letter until it is exactly what you want to say.  I gave up trying to express myself that competently with my mouth.  You never lisp on the page.

Both Rob and I had to miss recesses and eat our brown bag lunches with a speech therapist.  I met with the lone therapist in my school district.  She traveled from school to school fucking up kid’s days.  Mine was the only appointment at Armin Jahr Elementary, so she would breeze in for half an hour and breeze out again unnoticed by anyone but me.  We met in a windowless room constructed out of rough brown bricks.  The underfunded school cleared out a portion of an old storage space, and we shared the room with soggy cardboard boxes full of outdated textbooks, spiders, and rows of folding chairs that were only pulled out during the annual school play.

My therapist was a mousy woman; I mostly remember shades of brown and gray, and that she didn’t wear glasses.  In real life I am sure she was a very nice woman who was certainly overworked and underpaid, and most likely had only the best of intentions at heart.  But god-dammit I hated that bitch.  I loathed her in the way only an eight year old can, wished nothing but bad things and pain for her, and despised what her very existence meant to me.

“Say it after me,” she said in a patient voice.  I remember it as patronizing, even then.  “And think about where your tongue goes.  Sss-teve sss-lid into sss-econd.”

Th-teve th-lid into th-econd.”

“Sss.”

“Th.”

“Sss.”

“Th.”

“Sss.”

“Th.”  It got to the point where I started to get frustrated before I was even in the room with her, sometimes even the night before.  I would lay in bed, unable to sleep, anticipating the next day.  Since being a kid isn’t awkward enough, try repeatedly explaining to your classmates why you have to miss the sweet sweet relief of noon recess three times a week in order to learn what to do with your tongue when you talk.  What was I, stupid?  Why couldn’t I just do what came so naturally to everyone else?  They didn’t seem to have any issues controlling their airflow, and they didn’t seem to need to do exercises to learn how to talk right.  Eight year olds are all trying desperately to blend in on their own, and it wasn’t exactly easy to make them comprehend that I really was quite sensitive about the subject, that I would really rather not talk about it, and that no, calling me a spastic retarded fag wouldn’t really help at all, thanks.

Rob’s experience was eerily similar to mine, right down to the windowless brick storage space, though his bricks were gray.  We each dealt with it in different ways.  He hammed it up and became the sad clown with the perpetual smile on his face.  For every laugh he could get, his drawl deepened, and he stuttered on purpose for comic effect.  He beat them to the punch, throwing himself under the bus before they could, calling himself out.  Whatever joke they were about crack, he cracked it first and did them one better.  That is where his personality was honed, the life of the party that made everyone laugh.  People grew to expect it from him, and he grew to expect it from himself.  From that early age he learned to be on all the time.

I spun the wheel in the opposite direction.  Eventually I stopped talking almost completely.  There were a select few people that knew what my voice sounded like, who I could talk easily around, though getting to that comfort level was a lengthy process many people didn’t have the patience for.  First I had to test the waters and determine if people wished me ill or intended to mock me.  Even after I warmed up slightly I was never outgoing, and I never made the approach on my own.  They had to come to me.  This is of course a lovely strategy for a teenager who was hopelessly in love with pretty dark haired girl with glasses who sat next to me in Washington State History; the one I never said a single word to even though we sat within three feet of each other for an entire year.  That girl never comes to you.

The single most frightening thing I’ve ever done took place during my junior year of high school.  My English teacher, a hot yet quirky former actress—she played barroom hookers on a couple of soaps, and had once cohabitated with Richard Dean Anderson in his pre-MacGyver days—was convinced that what we really needed as awkward adolescents was to perform in front of a group of people.  The project was to read a biography, any biography, then act out an interview as that person in front of the class. 

I didn’t sleep for a week for a week.  It was all I thought about.  I made every attempt to weasel my way out of it, even faking sick the day I was scheduled and not going to school.  She made me go first the next morning.

My biography was No One Here Gets Out Alive, about Jim Morrison.  This was the only time in my life I’ve ever been patient enough to grow out my hair, and apparently when my hair got long, it got curly and wavy and was suitably Morrison-esque.  I swept it over my face so I could hide behind it, stood and paced so no one could see me shake, swayed loosely, and talked in an adequate approximation of Val Kilmer’s voice in the Doors.  I even read one of his poems.  His poems are not good.  His poetry is on par with that of a fifteen-year-old goth girl who just got dumped.

But for my finale I sprawled drunkenly, or at least how sixteen year old me imagined drunkenly looked, on the floor and read in a sort of howl:

“’Nothing.  The air outside

burns my eyes.

I’ll pull them out

and get rid of the burning.’”

 

            “That was so great,” the teacher said to me after class, then she hugged me.  I’ll admit it, part of me really enjoyed that hug.  “That was the best performance anyone has given this year.”  She said it like it should have been some sort of triumph, and I could see it playing out as a movie-of-the-week kind of moment in her head.  In her mind I’m sure I overcame all of my fears and my life was forever changed for the better.  There might as well have been a standing ovation from the class and a freeze frame of me pumping my fist into the air as the credits rolled. 

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite happen like that.  There was never a second of “oh, that wasn’t so bad,” and no discovery moment where I decided that my fears weren’t anything to actually fear, and I should do this more often.  I almost threw up.  I almost threw up before, during, and after.  I was petrified, and kept my head down for days on the off chance anyone would mention it again.  It was horrifying.

Senior year in college I even threw away thirty percent of a grade because I was too frightened to head up part of a group presentation in a class on sexualized and gendered spaces in modern cinema.  I tried.  More accurately, I thought about trying.  But it didn’t work out.  My palms even started to sweat as I emailed the professor and explained why I just couldn’t do it.  She had dark hair and adorable thick black glasses, and looked remarkably like the girl from Washington State History.  Disappointed though she was, she offered to let me make up some of the credit with extra essays, and then suggested forcing myself to take a public speaking class.  Bless her little heart, I had already tried that.  I made it through half of the first meeting, collected my bag, left the room, and immediately dropped the course. 

Oddly enough, I ended up with a 4.0 in the film class.  When it comes to film I can bullshit like a pro.  To be honest I don’t think the professor even knew what I looked like, but I like to think that she was somehow vaguely in love with me.

I’m exponentially better now.  In the past few years I’ve come quite a ways.  I can actually initiate a conversation with a stranger, and I’m markedly less awkward in any number of social situations, but I still can’t shake it off entirely.  There is never a time where I am completely comfortable surrounded by other people, even in places I go all the time, or around people I see every day.

I’ve been in nearly a dozen bands, played hundreds of shows in most of the lower forty-eight, and I still play with my back to the crowd.  I am perpetually the guy no one knows.  There is a lot of, “I’ve seen that band a ton of times, but I don’t remember you.  Are you new?”  No, I’m not new, I write all of the songs.  Bass is my instrument of choice, the last thing an audience notices, so not being noticed is no surprise. 

It has always seemed strange for someone who hates being the center of attention as much as I do to think about how many times in my life I have been on stage.  Part of me wants to be the rock god singer, shirtless and sweaty in the spotlight.  Part of me wants to be the public speaker who banters back and forth with a crowd and answers questions off the top of his head, the one who revels in hecklers.  Some part of me does want to be the focus, but that part is small, very small.  And I know at my core that I’m not that person and that I never will be.  On the rare occasions where I am compelled to read in front of people I mumble and read really really fast.  I give Josh Moschitta, Jr., the Micro Machines guy, a run for his money.

I still freeze up on a regular basis.  At social gatherings it is not uncommon to find me sitting quietly in a corner with a beer in my hand, looking at the floor or gazing at nothing on the wall, consciously avoiding any contact or interaction, and becoming part of the scenery.  For the most part, the lisp has abated, and my current speech impediment is nothing more severe than sounding all too much like Keanu Reeves when I talk.  I use the word dude fully too often for my own personal comfort.

Even though our history of speech impediments informed our respective lives and personalities to an enormous degree, this is an element of our pasts that Rob and I never discuss while sober, or with other people.  Like I said, it’s more of a drunk on the front porch at three in the morning kind of conversation.  We seem to understand each other in a way that the rest of our mutual collection of friends don’t, or at least we know some part of each other that neither one of us likes to show off.  I can never tell if it is because we’re drunk and sloppy, or because we’ve been talking about it, but our respective speech impediments tend to make a guest appearance, as if to illustrate some point.  He trips on words and laughs it off.  I forget where to place my tongue and my ‘s’ sounds suspiciously like ‘th,’ and it’s as if we’re both eight years old all over again.

Copyright  © 2010 Brent McKnight