Novelist

The Word: Mercurial

The drill: Each week, I’ve asked my Facebook friends to suggest a word. I then put the suggestions into list form, run a random-number generator and choose the corresponding word from the list. That word serves as the inspiration for a story that includes at least one usage of the word in question. This week’s contribution is courtesy of Lisa Roberts, and it’s the 21st and final installment of this series. For previous installments of The Word, click here.

I don’t much care for people who don’t come out and say what they mean. You want to come at me, come in a straight line. Roll your thoughts out there, in simple terms with precise meanings, and I’ll meet you in the middle and hash it out some way—even if I hate you for what you’ve said, even if I disagree with you to the ends of the earth. I’ll respect you. At least I’ll do that.

Uncle Forrest, I don’t much care for him. Here we are, at my grandma’s house—his mother’s house—for her ninetieth birthday, and here he is, thinking it’s the time and place to try to figure me out. He’s lived no more than a mile away my whole damned life, all eighteen years of it, and has never shown much interest. Why here? Why now?

“You’re a mercurial fellow, aren’t you, Everett?” He shoves a slice of German chocolate cake into his hole as he says this. How I detest him.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know what ‘mercurial’ means, Everett?”

The son of a bitch (no offense, Grandma).

“I want you to define your terms. Is your context elemental? Are you saying I’m a poor conductor of heat? That I’m a heavy metal? That I don’t react with most acids? That I’m good at forming amalgams? I just want to understand you.”

Forrest licks chocolate from his fingers.

“Or maybe you’re speaking in mythological terms. I’m a messenger with wings on my feet. I stole Vulcan’s net to catch a nymph. Is that it, Forrest? It’s your dance. I’m just trying to understand the rules.”

The party has stopped now, and everyone is looking at us. Grandma has full eyes that look like, God help me, mercury. Mom is standing on the other side of the table, fists on her hips, crimson-faced. Aunts and cousins and neighbors are staring at us, agape. And I keep going.

“Or perhaps, Forrest, you’re just relying on the common, Webster’s definition. You think I’m subject to sudden or unpredictable changes.”

He’s edging away from me, smiling stupidly, unwilling to say what he means.

“What is it, Uncle Forrest?”

“Let’s just drop it.”

“No.”

Mom comes into it now. “Yes. Drop it or leave, young man.”

So I do the thing that requires integrity. I kiss grandma on the cheek—she’s full-on crying now—and I leave.

I stand on the porch, and I tremble. I am not Mercury. I don’t have the speed. I don’t have the cunning. I am a boy who doesn’t fit in. But I am strong. Stronger than Forrest, for sure. Stronger than all of them. I am Mars.

I am going back inside.

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