Fiction · 10/28/2009

who stormed the beaches

S

Even though I’m silent, my mom puts her finger against her lips as Dad yells. He’s upstairs at the front door, directly above us, yelling I hope at neighbors, not investigators. They’ve been in front of our house for at least five minutes. The basement Mom and I are hiding in smells like wet carpet, so hopefully they’ll leave soon whoever they are.

A deep voice I don’t recognize yells something. My mom’s hand brushes against my shoulder as she wraps her arm around my neck. “Maniacs,” she whispers.

Another voice yells, “Byron, it’s a law, you know that.” It’s my friend Steve’s dad, a lawyer. My dad yells back, “No one’s coming in, especially you, Carl! You called them, didn’t you? Rat.”

I flip my little notepad pages and write, “I’m going upstairs!” My mom snorts and rolls her eyes. I look at what I’ve written, feeling foolish about the exclamation point. I’m not even sure I can make it upstairs, the way my stomach is bunched up.

I inhale and exhale deeply, as my various speech therapists taught me over the years. Nothing doing. In this state, I can’t fathom doing an easy onset on a low-stress word, let alone one starting with “d”, “p”, or “k”. My face feels hot. My stomach has the same light feeling it did last year when I turned 13 and realized in five years I could be drafted to fight wars.

I picture that Idaho Congressman just before he killed himself, posting that note online about the horrors of hiding his stutter from everyone, constantly changing words around, living in constant fear of being discovered.

“Get back!” My dad’s voice, while loud, sounds strained. It is drowned out by more voices, hooting. Hearing his voice reminds me of the book he bought me last year, with its underlined passages about how acting confidently long enough can make someone confident. A couple of times I made it to the door of his study, ready to say how things weren’t that simple, that a firmer backbone isn’t all that stands between me and speaking my mind. But I always got hung up in the hallway.

I write, “I’m going.” She shakes her head, puts her hand on my shoulder. I remove it, give her a quick hug, and walk upstairs. I keep thinking about the thousands of dollars my parents threw down the toilet on therapists and psychoanalysis.

My dad is standing in the doorway, blocking access to those outside. I duck under his right arm and stand on the porch, surveying the crowd. Steve’s dad is flanked by a big man I don’t recognize. He’s a giant, really, wearing a poorly-fitted blue suit. Next to them are Mr. and Mrs. Prescott, neither of whom has forgiven me for cracking one of their windows years ago with an errant fly ball. There are some other spectators, probably men and women from adjoining streets, whose faces are vaguely recognizable.

I stare at the big man. “I a-am … Kevin T-T-Tyser. I’m a c-covert stutterer.”

Steve’s dad nods at me and then looks up at the guy. “Kevin has complied with the statutory requirements. Let’s get this over with quickly.”

The man’s black marker isn’t as long as it looks on TV, but it is thicker. It almost looks like a regular permanent marker, the kind that you can eventually remove. He glances at my dad before hunching down slightly in front of me, digging the marker into both of my cheeks. Without looking, I know the two S’s are even, centered.

One of the vaguely recognizable neighbors walks away, dragging his wife with him. I picture high school starting next week. There won’t be any more hiding. I’ll be lumped in with the kids I avoided, the ones who couldn’t fake it, the ones who won’t need this done.

+

Letter of Apology

William,

Sorry I walked away yesterday.

I hope you know I did that because I could tell I was making you nervous.

I did not expect to see you at the fair.

The woman with me did not know about you. I was taking things slow with her. If it happens again, I will give you a hug and introduce you to her.

Please do not show this to your mother. She must feel awful enough that a big boy like you cannot introduce himself.

Do me a favor and remind her about the $750 DOLLARS I send every month. Between that and her job, one would think she could spring for some speech therapy.

Best,
Your Dad

P.S. Are you still a Padres fan?

+

I Knew Dale Carnegie’s Son

We can all agree that on November 1, 1955, Dale Carnegie died of Hodgkin’s Disease. By “we,” I’m of course speaking about myself, his official biographers, and the folks that continue using Dale’s name in promoting a variety of public speaking courses. What remains at issue, however, is whether, shortly before his death, Dale adopted an eight-year-old boy.

According to Dale’s official bio, he died with two wives (one divorced) and one daughter, Donna Dale, to his name. However, after years on the road promoting books like The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Public Speaking, I believe Dale wanted to prove that he could take a “mute” (how the orphanage described the boy to prospective parents) and mold him into an epic public speaker. The adoption took place in early June 1955. Since the boy had trouble saying words that began with consonants, Dale and his wife Dorothy named the boy “Alex Orrin.”

Eschewing his burgeoning empire, Dale focused his limited energy on “A.O.”. Dale made him call strangers, try telling jokes to neighbors, and read (silently when he couldn’t aloud) heroic tales about the the brave souls who stormed the beaches at Normandy. A.O. felt better about himself and his speech but continued having trouble looking at listeners. Ringing phones still resulted in immediate, sharp stomach aches.

While August saw Dale’s health worsen, it also heard, perhaps skeptically, A.O.‘s improved speech. Used to practicing all hours of the night under Dale’s careful watch, A.O. continued reciting word lists into the mirror past midnight while Dale snored in the young boy’s bed. Often, Dale snored himself awake, saying “almost there” in the boy’s direction, before once again nodding off.

By September, the boy was saying almost whatever he wanted, just chattering away really. Dale’s wife insisted her husband rest in his own bed. At night, A.O. sat in a thickly padded chair next to Dale’s bed, reading aloud from Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking.

In October, a roomful of friends and well-known public speakers gathered in Dale’s media room. Too weak to speak, Dale asked Dorothy to introduce A.O. The boy then took the stage, introduced himself as “Dale Jr.”, and gave a rousing 22-minute speech about how much he owed Dale, Norm, and God.

A few weeks later, Dale Sr. died. Dorothy, once resistant to adopting the boy, requested that he give the eulogy. At least one hundred of Carnegie’s former students and their families waited as the boy stood by the coffin, pretending he was a creditor and the listeners were debtors assembled to beg for reduced payments. Dale’s old trick worked. The boy felt like a king looking at huddled refugees. “This man, I owe him everything.” The boom of the boy’s voice surprised even him. One woman in the crowd yelled “Amen!”. The boy had them. He nailed the eulogy, in a cadence befitting Daniel Webster, on several occasions finding it difficult not to look happy next to the coffin.

Days later, the boy came down for breakfast. Dorothy asked, from the far end of the dining room table, how the morning found him. Though he had barely slept, suffering nightmares that his stutter was hiding in the closet, he smiled at Dorothy, trying to say “fine”. His upper teeth dug into his bottom lips, and his throat tightened. He looked up at the ceiling and finally got out, “okay.” He ate nothing.

Unable to look at his word lists without thinking of Dale, and forced by Dorothy to attend public school, A.O’s stutter returned by the weekend. He found himself once again blinking and sweating whenever called upon to speak. Dorothy, overwhelmed with her new responsibilities and assorted estate issues, grew weary of the boy’s mood swings. Two weeks after the funeral, she gave him back to the orphanage.

He lived a quiet life in Topeka under the name given to him at birth. During college, he saw a speech therapist and a psychoanalyst before deciding to accept his lot in life. After college, he found a job as an accountant, rarely speaking unless spoken to. He married a quiet woman and, in 2004, died two weeks after her, leaving behind one timid son and a journal detailing the events of 1955.

+++

David Erlewine lives with his family near Annapolis. His stories appear in Thieves Jargon, FRiGG, The Pedestal, and other places. His blog is whizbyfiction.blogspot.com. He edits flash fiction for JMWW and isn’t self-conscious writing bios.