Averyell A. Kessler
Words, it seems, are in trouble. For a writer, this is especially painful. Words are the tools of my trade. They inhabit my daily work and whisper to me at night. I’ve had a lifelong romance with books, the classics, of course, some edgy, others boring, and a few without merit except as a momentary diversion. Words are essential for life and learning. Be gone law books moldering on a bottom shelf in my writing room. Now words, both written and spoken, are under suspicion, lying naked under the microscope of timid modern thought and seemingly able to produce as much pain as a swift kick in the britches. Surprise! This is not new. It’s been that way since Socrates drank hemlock.
Although the word police have not yet invaded my writing room, they are preparing to pounce. I see them at work every day, cobbling together a vacillating list of unacceptable words and dissecting a fresh batch of no-nos. (Poor pronouns, you must be really suffering, adverbs have already bitten the dust). Recently, one of my least favorites is gaining popularity- demand. It’s the new mantra of The Society for the Protection of Green Beans, as well as National Carbuncle Association and Sutaso, a short form for Snuggle up to a Screech Owl. The green bean people, aka Beanie’s, have presented a list of demands to a group of six-year-olds as well as Vegans United. Carbuncles demand official recognition from the CDC. The screech owl folks are still figuring out how to snuggle up to owls without scaring the living daylights out of the poor creatures.
Seems like I’ll have to make peace with ‘demand’ because it’s everywhere. Anyone who’s grown up southern is familiar with this word and all its possibilities. For me, demand was a Mama rule that must not be broken, ever, under any circumstances. First and foremost was thou shall not talk, giggle, or fidget in church. I learned this early in life. I also learned that sometimes rules must be broken. It happened on an ordinary Sunday in April.
According to the hands on my Mickey Mouse watch, it was 11:52 and Dr. Miller was still holding forth. He was wound up tighter that the mainspring of a double bell alarm clock and showed no signs of stopping. My father sat in the last row of the choir loft, his head bobbing like a fishing pole cork at high tide. His eye lashes fluttered against his cheeks. A lady in front of my pew, rearranged herself and adjusted a purple dawn camelia pinned to her sweater in hopes that the sermon would zoom to a rapid conclusion. Her husband was catatonic. Mama, however, was statue still. I tapped her hand and pointed to my watch. She shook her head slowly and fired a visual warning shot. Sit still or else. I lost the battle when I saw a friend sitting nearby. Our eyes locked. She stifled a giggle and stuck out her tongue. I became a howler monkey, my shoulders shivered as I fought for self-control. Mama captured my arm in a vice grip. Quiet, she hissed. Sit still.
Dr. Miller was still strapped into a prime seat on the yakety-yak express. His words were velvet to his ears, bouncing off the ceiling as he boomed, “There are three main points here. The first is……………..” Mickey was now displaying 12: 10. I was desperate. Surely Daddy’s stomach was rumbling too. Half the chuck roasts in Belhaven ovens were probably smoking and entering burnt stage.
I stopped laughing as soon as I saw a wasp circling the camelia lady’s stout neck. It was silent and lethal; no one seemed to hear the whirr of its tiny wings. I pressed myself against the back of the pew and watched as it landed on the camelia and burrowed into its golden center.
“The second point is………….” Dr. Miller rattled on, blanketing the congregation in thick fog. Camelia lady was desperate also. She fingered the flower on her shoulder then stretched her neck and fluffed her hair. The wasp abandoned his camelia home and crawled onto a wide expanse of her raw flesh. I was entranced as it teetered on six spindly legs inspecting the territory before it disappeared below her collar. Suddenly, she sensed something amiss. She leaned forward, tugging at her shoulder pads. Nothing. She elbowed her husband awake and whispered. He pulled her collar and looked inside. More whispering. Camelia lady was now in a hurricane of panic.
“Do something!” she mouthed, shaking her head, and baring her teeth. When he reached under the collar, the wasp attacked. Her chin rose to the ceiling. “Owwww! It’s a *&$%* wasp!” she shouted, wailing like a solitary wolf on a snowy night. She leapt from her pew and ran down a side aisle. Two doctors roused themselves from oblivion and followed her. Out in the entrance foyer, I heard shouting and scuffling, as well as a torrent of unfamiliar words. A soft murmur rose in the congregation. Are there more? An entire nest up in the balcony? An outbreak of feverish scratching followed as the flock preened and inspected their clothing. Dr. Miller had the good sense to hop off his glory train and dismissed the congregation quickly. As he fled through a side door, the organist launched into a robust run-for-your life tune. Every door in the sanctuary was wide open. Families gathered their children and rushed outside in a polite, but urgent liturgical stampede. At last, it was over.
“That poor lady,” Mama said as we left the church. “I hope she’s alright.
“I saw the wasp on her neck,” I said.
“Why didn’t you say something?” Mama asked.
“I’m not supposed to talk in church,” I explained.
“Sometimes you must speak up,” Mama said. “especially when its important.”
“I will,” I answered. “Especially then.”
Good advice, Mama. So, must we all.