Novelist

The Word

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.


The Word(s): Arbitrary Dilettante

The drill: Each week, I ask 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. We did a little change-up this week and took two words: “arbitrary” (contributed by Todd Keisling) and “dilettante” (contributed by Charles Matthews). I’d also like to throw a shout-out to my friend Ben Marquez, who gave me the indelible image of mud-wrestling a pig. And, finally, thanks to Dave Mogen for introducing me to the word “honyocker.” I love it. For previous installments of The Word, click here.


We sat there in a row in the upper reaches of the Richland County Fairgrounds arena, the twilight summer sky the color of grapefruit flesh holding us in on three sides. My wife, JuneBug, and her kid sister, Judi, occupied the first two spaces on the plank. A considerable distance down from Judi sat her husband, Skeeter, and then came me, close enough to Skeeter to let him think I was hanging out with him and yet far enough away to build a buffer between me and his soiled undershirt.

Every damned time we came back to Richland County, I told JuneBug to just do whatever she had to do but to leave me and Skeeter out of it. And every goddamned time, we ended up somewhere like this, the two sisters hook-armed and conspiratorial, and Skeeter and me thrown together and expected to get along because we were men and that’s what men do. Or something like that. The trouble, of course, is that there’s no partway with Skeeter; you’re either his blood or you’re just another honyocker taking up space. Well, Skeeter decided I was his blood, and so I sat there, listening to him ramble on, wondering how much it would hurt if I just ran down the line and launched myself over the railing to the concrete below.

“I’d mud-wrestle me a pig if I got half a chance,” Skeeter said.

I dug a gnat out of my ear. “What?”

“I would. I’d wrestle him. I’d win, too.”

I leaned forward and hoped I could catch JuneBug’s eye. She deliberately avoided my gaze.

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?” I asked.

“I’m just saying. I’d do it.”

I shook my head and looked down at the arena dirt. We’d reached the silly stretch of entertainment, where some of the little kids in the crowd were getting to try rodeo in the miniature. In the middle of the arena, a goat paced nervously at the end of a tether as a hell-bent-for-leather, lariat-twirling eight-year-old bore down hard on the back of a Shetland pony.

“Junie, Junie, look,” I said. “Goat on a rope.”

My wife, her face framed by enormous sunglasses, paid me no mind.

Skeeter backhanded me in the chest and stomped his feet. “Hey, that reminds me of something. I bet a fella could make a pretty good buck training goats for these kids’ rodeos.”

“Are you serious?”

“Shit, yeah.”

I swear to God, I knew I shouldn’t have prolonged it with him, but I couldn’t stop myself. “It’s a kids’ rodeo, Skeeter. I mean, they’re not on tour or anything. They don’t need a stock company. They aren’t going to Calgary tomorrow. It’s a goddamned kids’ rodeo.” I emphasized this by punching the aluminum bench seat with my right hand, tearing skin away from the knuckle.

Skeeter looked like I’d run over his dog with a swather.

“I was just thinking and stuff, man. You don’t have to be like that.” He wiggled to his left, sidling up to Judi, who drew him in with an arm wrapped around him. JuneBug looked at me and mouthed, “What the hell?”

Yeah, I’m the bad guy.

*****

I sucked the blood from my knuckle, scuffing my feet and kicking gravel on the way to the car. JuneBug walked about as far from me as she credibly could while still moseying in the same general direction.

“Look,” I said, “just don’t bring me anymore, okay? I’m more than happy to just stay at home in Billings.”

“Look yourself, Chuck. This is important to me. I don’t understand why you’re such a petulant child that you can’t just be nice to him for a few hours.”

We were at the back of the car now, and I wheeled around on her. “I can’t. I just can’t. I’ve tried and I’ve tried, and I can’t.”

“Why?” She stepped to me, aggressive.

“Because he’s a dilettante. More than that, he’s an arbitrary dilettante. You know what he said tonight? That he wants to mud-wrestle pigs and fucking herd goats for kids’ rodeos. I’m supposed to just listen to that?”

“It wouldn’t hurt you.”

“It hurts my brain, Junie. It hurts my friggin’ fully operational brain. I mean, this was way worse than the last time, when he said he wanted to name every rest stop in the state after some famous Montanan. He was gonna drive to all of them, name them, and take the list to the Legislature to have the names officially changed. He’d have tried to do it, too, if I hadn’t told him what a bad idea that was.”

JuneBug threw up her hands. “I give up. Let’s just go home.”

*****

By the time we got to Miles City, it was full-on night, glitter scattered across the sky. I slipped into the Town Pump for some seeds and a bottle of tea while Junie slept.

She stirred when I came back. “Where are we?”

“Miles City, baby. A couple hours to go.”

“Good.” She stretched and closed her eyes again. She was folding snores before we got back to the interstate. I reached over and took her hand, and she squeezed my fingers. For a mile or two, the street lamps cast moving pictures across her pretty face. Finally, they dropped away and night closed in around us, and on we drove.

Just beyond Forsyth, as the road bent into the hills, I spotted the idling long-haulers and the coterie of summertime RVs and passenger cars in the roadside parking lot.

“Gary Cooper,” I said.

 


Insatiable

Last night on Facebook, I asked my friends to suggest a single word — any word. Thirty-nine responses (as of this writing) produced some dandies. This morning, I ran a random-number generator to zero in on a winner: insatiable (thanks, Laura!). This word is the basis of what I hope will become an every-Friday writing exercise: Where I use the inspiration of a single word to write a scene or full story at least two pages long, one that includes the word in question.

Full disclosure: I came across this exercise on Janet Fitch’s blog and have adapted it to my own use.

Now, the story …

More and more, as she watched him slide away from her in increments, she thought of that first summer together. How his searching hands would find her, any time of day, and pull her in for closer examination. How his eyes, his mouth, his tongue would set out in insatiable discovery, like an explorer unleashed on terra nova. In the middle of the day, as the house sweltered, he would traverse the ridgelines of her hips, the switchbacks in the nape her neck, the deep canyons that hadn’t been breached in so long. Utterly exposed, utterly safe. Lately, those days, once the sweetest of memories, had turned to taunting her.

And now, her hair in tight curls, wearing clothes that would be loosened only by her own hand at the end of the day, she cried in the darkness of the pantry, clutching a can of black beans.

*****

She thought of their home now as a series of zones, diced up and labeled like a board game. Her knitting room, where solitude was a limitless resource. His office, stacked in prospectuses and Covey texts. Her armoire. His leather recliner. Her kitchen. His backyard putting green. The bedroom remained theirs, but battle lines hashed across that space, too, creating a score of demilitarized zones that only they knew.

Over a series of months, all-out war had ceded to détente, a kind of purgatory, and while she did not miss the fights, she yearned for the passion behind them.

She dabbed at her eyes with the kitchen towel and then punctured the beans with the can opener.

*****

The sound of his feet on the stairs, bounding up them two at a time, gave her insides a twist, and she pivoted from the center island to the oven, putting her back to the basement door.

“What’s for dinner?”

“Enchiladas.”

“Again?”

“Again. If you want something else, there’s a refrigerator full of food right there. Help yourself.” She waved her hand to her right, not turning.

“Relax.”

She bristled. He settled in at the table, letting loose with that series of grunts that she loathed. “Ohohohohohoh.”

“So, hon, looks like I’m going to San Diego next week,” he said.

“Oh?” She plunged the spatula into the dinner, carving it into servings.

“Yeah, meeting a new vendor. Could be interesting.”

“How long?”

“Four or five days.”

She brought over his plate, setting it in front of him and handing him a fork. “I could get some time off,” she said.

“Why?” He shoveled an oversized bite into his mouth, then spat it out. “Hot!”

“Go with you,” she said, sitting down across from him. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been there. Could be fun.”

He stabbed at the food on his plate, opening steam vents in it. “You know, Glen and I had pretty much planned to get in a few rounds of golf. Maybe next time, huh?”

She stood and then walked back to the oven, where she served up her own meal.

“You know, hon, I think I’ve figured out what I don’t like about these enchiladas,” he said. “They’re just a little bland. What do you think? Maybe some jalapenos on top? It might spice them up a bit.”

She sat down again, pressing the apron against her thighs. Her fork sliced clean through the soft corn torilla, whittling off a bite just so. She put it in her mouth and savored the taste, chewing it gently into pulp before swallowing.

“You know what, hon?” she said. “You’re a fucking asshole.”