Magic Words, by Afsheen Farhadi

Art: Rushmore


What was deemed my third major offense produced another summons from the principal.  His secretary, Mrs. Harris, who spent the previous year ballooning with child before returning from summer vacation pale and deflated, pointed me to his door.  Where she had twice welcomed me to this office with a smile, she now glowered from behind her desk, as though something about my recent transgression offended her newly-bloomed motherhood.

My first reproach from Principal Walker had been the result of a traffic violation.  I had crossed the street—albeit with the utmost care—a good distance from the crossing guard.  My logic, I felt, was sound: a straight line was the quickest way to my mother’s car parked directly across the street, whereas had I used the crosswalk, it would have unduly multiplied the number of necessary steps. Principal Walker, however, had his own logic.  “It’s a small price to pay,” he said, “so that we don’t see our Mayor Mouse squashed.”  He was referring to my portrayal, earlier this year, of the mayor of Mouseville in our second grade production of a play our teacher had composed over the summer and beseeched us to perform for a gathering of parents.  It was a moment of humiliation for me, since my mother had brought Steve, and his sneering grin persisted through the show and car ride home.  In the weeks to follow, he unceasingly tormented me with the title, The-Mayor-Who-Couldn’t-Say-No-To-Cheese, a crass allusion to the character’s weight, which, according to Ms. Hope’s script, necessitated a pillow stuffed gracelessly into the waist of my pants.

My mother had swiped at Steve’s arm the first time he used the condescending title, but afterwards, to Steve’s delight, she used it herself, telling me that I should watch what I eat, for no woman could love man or mouse unable to see his own ding dong.

Principal Walker, however, was in earnest.  I implored his pardon. For had I not undermined his authority by willfully foregoing a hard and fast rule?  “I know, son,” he said graciously.  “We just want to keep you safe.”

My second offense was initially more baffling.  It was nothing as serious as the risk of death, but merely a matter of written words. The question was, by whom had these words been written?  “By me,” I told Principal Walker, and he used his thumb and index finger to squeeze together his eyebrows.  “Son, we have you bring your grade report home so your parents can see it.  To prove they’ve seen it we ask that they sign it.  Can’t you see that by signing it yourself you’ve done something wrong?”  I could, but in this case, the question was moot.  I had shown my grade report to my mother the previous night. That morning I found that she, in her hasty departure for work, had neglected to sign it.  Steve had not slept over, and my mother was always as distressed by his absence as I was by his presence.  Not until he walked through our door, sour smelling and sluggish, did she come to life, attending to him like doting mother to precious child.

So I signed the report with my mother’s name.  When I handed it in, Ms. Hope looked at the signature and asked if I had written it.  I told her I had, but that she could call my mother, who could attest to seeing the report, thereby satisfying the same requirement that was the task’s aim.  In the end, however, my crayon mark proved insufficient.  Principal Walker told me that mimicking another’s signature was against the law, theft of one’s identity, a conclusive ethical fact that compelled me to again beg forgiveness from the essentially kind man.

However, on this, my third offense, the essentially kind man seemed removed from the proceedings.  I saw it in his face and felt it in my bones, the wedge of uncertainty that comes when confronted with the stern demeanor of adults, that unpredictable race for whom anger is as fruitlessly traced as the ramblings of a mind gone mad.  

“Sit down, son,” Principal Walker said.  “I think you know what this is about.”  At once, I did and I didn’t.  I had used a word, one that flittered into existence in only the rarest of circumstances and one, I sensed, that was a privilege of adults.  Here, being punished by an adult, I began to see them as holding something so powerful in their possession, they’d enact any hypocrisy to protect it.

“That word you used in class—do you know which word I’m talking about?”  I nodded, for if words had landed me in such boiling water, it seemed best not to use any now.  “That word,” Principal Walker continued, “Is a bad word.  Did you know that?  Have your parents told you that there are bad words as well as good ones?”  I nodded again, though it did nothing to convey my confusion.  I did not understand words to have any sort of universal classification, only varying degrees of appropriateness given their context.  A word was just a word.  But clearly certain words, the words of adults, were theirs alone.

“Listen, son,” Principal Walker said, his face reddened in concentration, this moment so fragile that to proceed carelessly would be to watch some longstanding order crumble atop the desk which separated us, the desk which I had to tilt my head to see over.  “You are not to use that word or any word like that word again.  Do you understand?”  What choice had I?  I nodded and was dismissed.

As I went back to class, I passed Mrs. Harris, whose glare still harbored some festering agitation.  Though I was shaken at that moment, I was also exhilarated.  I had done something serious enough to rattle the elite, to award me their most dedicated concern.  Something so serious that if I did it again I could only imagine the trouble I’d be in.

*

The spirit of revolution was not mine alone.  It caught fire among my schoolmates as the word began sprouting at afternoon recess. Around the swing sets, my peers kicked up this extra grit with the sand; those who fell from the monkey bars fell into overflowing vats of it; at the slides the word rang as a battle cry, emitted in one graceful swoop from top to bottom.  New words began emerging. There were so many bad words in the early afternoon air that we worried they would condense over our heads, little clouds of defiance pointing at our guilt.  

We were aware that the words must be kept secret, lest they be taken away by the adult aristocracy.  But we were new at this sort of play, and there were bound to be slip ups.

The first occurred shortly after we were called in from recess.  Ms. Hope began giving our lesson, but was interrupted by the janitor, Senor Enrique, who was never without his mop and bucket.  “Wan ah dehm keeds write da bahd word,” he said.  As usual, we laughed. Senor Enrique, we recognized, was of a different tribe altogether, inhabiting a strangely askew place in the order, not quite child, not quite adult.  Ms. Hope was vexed by his intrusion, but dutifully followed him outside when he persisted like Lassie barking his unintelligible words of caution.

When Ms. Hope returned, she ordered us from our seats and led us to the playground.  We lined up around four bubbled letters etched into the sand.  It was our word, my word, and we stood in awe of its power.  Given the weight of visibility, it had lost all levity.

This,” Ms. Hope said, pointing to the word but unable to bring herself to look at it, “Is a bad word.  You are not to use this word.  You are certainly not to write it.  You are not, if you hope to preserve your decency, to even think it.  Is that understood?”

We nodded.  And I did so more vigorously than the rest, because I felt it my duty to take a larger portion of the blame.  Though I hadn’t knelt in the sand to carve the letters like a parting insignia, I was the one who had brought the word into existence.  Ms. Hope understood that.  What she didn’t understand was that I had done it for her.

The infraction that had necessitated my disciplinary meeting with Principal Walker occurred during our Astronomy lesson.  Ms. Hope was telling us about the universe, its infiniteness, a universe so big that none of us had more than a pinprick to claim.  As she spoke, I admired the radiance of her white sweater, the way it conformed to the mounds of her body, a woman’s body, a body I wished, in the deep recesses of my own, to know.  The specific and generous configuration of Ms. Hope was a source of great wonderment, and one, to which, I wanted more than a pinprick’s claim.  So when she called on me with a question that was lost in the sultry breath that filled the space between us, I said, “The universe is as big as the fuck.”  Silence fell.  In a way, it was what I desired.  I had used the word to distinguish myself, to show Ms. Hope that she could see me as an equal, someone who could share with her the stage of venerability.  However, when the word was released, Ms. Hope emitted a howl, as though it had signaled her undoing.  And though that howl pierced my heart, shrank me at the exact moment I had hoped to rise, it also made me quiver.

Now, as Ms. Hope used her elegantly booted foot to smooth over the sand-scrawled, foul indentation, it felt like an ending of sorts. And yet, the word did not disappear.  It lingered under our conversations, a developing infection threatening to bubble to the surface.  To suppress it proved futile.  It reemerged onto the playground, echoed from under the awnings of trees.  Finally it made its way back into the classroom through the passing of folded notes, one of which was eventually intercepted.  

Ms. Hope opened the note, preparing to read it aloud as a sort of humiliation.  But it was she, when faced with the word, who appeared humiliated by the conspiracy that had assembled under her very nose.  She watched us in horror; some virus had infiltrated our classroom and its carriers could not be distinguished by sight alone.

We waited, but at the end of the day there was no lecture.  No one was called to the Principal.  We filed out of the school thinking we had won, that we had effectively staked our claim.  But we were wrong.  The next morning marked the arrival of The Specialist.

*

He set his briefcase down on Ms. Hope’s desk with a sense of entitlement that alarmed me.  She did not allow us to touch her desk, whereas this stranger, overstepping his bounds, received only a grateful smile.  The classroom air seemed sullied by his presence. There was a purity to our arrangement, a logic of inclusion in which all relevant parties were accounted for by their various roles.  It was the difference between school and home, where the separate circumstances of our individual lives were determined by forces that rarely took us into account.  Obligated to welcome this stranger, I felt that something already was being lost, as though my claim to even this classroom had been reduced to that pitiable pinprick.

“I’m very happy to introduce Mr. Weir,” Ms. Hope said.  “As you know, we’ve had some trouble with decency, and—“

“Why don’t we stop there,” Mr. Weir said, raising his hands in a halting gesture.  “Thank you very much, Ms. Hope, and I’d like to point out what an appropriate name you have.”  He turned to us. “Hope is what I have for all of you.  I hope you will realize there are bad words out there.  I hope you will realize what using these words says about who you are, as well as how you are perceived.”  Mr. Weir opened his briefcase and pulled out two glossy prints, which he tacked to the whiteboard.  One was of a smiling man with whitecapped teeth, hair meticulously groomed, big brawny chest giving him the distinct appearance of good health.  The man in the other picture stood in direct counterpoint, his body sickly, the gaunt impressions of his face shadowing his expression, which was something like an openmouthed scowl behind his shoulder-length tangle of grease-streaked hair.  “Let me warn you,” Mr. Weir said.  “In order to understand what these words mean, it’s important to hear them in the context of our discussion.  So here it goes: the word we are going to start with is ‘shit.’”

A gasp rose from the room.  We looked at Ms. Hope, and she smiled as if to say that she had warned us.

“’Shit’” Mr. Weir continued casually, “Is a crude way of expressing yourself.  So I want you to look in your mind’s eye and imagine one of these two characters on the board saying the word ‘shit.’  Now, let me ask you, which one do you think is more likely to use such a word?”

“The dirty one,” Tabitha said, raising her hand.

“Great,” Mr. Weir said.  “The dirty one seems most likely to me too. But let’s take this a step further.  Why would the dirty one, as you call him, be the one to use such a word?”

“Because it’s a dirty word?” asked Andrew.

“Precisely,” said Mr. Weir.  “It’s a dirty word, and he is a dirty person, so it only makes sense, right?  Now let’s think of this another way. Say the clean man, clean by comparison, uses the word ‘shit.’  Would he then, by using a dirty word, be dirtying his own cleanliness?”  The class nodded.  “Okay, so then if you, as clean young people, use the word ‘shit,’ wouldn’t it be safe to assume that people would think of you as dirty, even if you are not?  It would.  The point is that by using bad words you are portraying yourself as bad.  And no one wants to be bad, right?”  The class was in agreement.

“Now let’s look at these pictures again,” Mr. Weir continued.  “What else can we say about this physically dirty and foul mouthed man in comparison to this other clean and likely churchgoing man?”

Patrick raised his hand and said, “He’s angry.”

Mr. Weir beamed and turned to Ms. Hope.  “I was right to have hope for this class,” he said.  “They’re very bright.  Yes, this man is angry. Are any of you angry?”

We said that we were not.

“Well ‘no’ is right,” Mr. Weir conceded.  “But ‘yes’ is also right.  At this moment, you are not angry.  But do you all sometimes get angry?” The class nodded.  “Fantastic.  That means you are human, because we all get angry; it’s one thing that makes us very much human.  This brings us to our next word, and brace yourselves, keeping in mind this is for the sake of a very important and life changing lesson.  ‘Fuck.’”

The utterance held us silent.  This word had been ours in secret.  It had given language to a place so intimate and private we were only now realizing its existence.  Hearing the word in the mouth of this smiling adult enlivened the same discomfort of being publicly stripped of our clothes.

“It’s a very powerful word,” Mr. Weir said.  “So let’s think of it in context once again.  We often hear the word ‘fuck’ from people who are angry.  When people use the word often, it means they are perpetually angry.  Do we know what ‘perpetually’ means?  It means forever.  People who say the word ‘fuck’ are very unhappy people who are bitter with life and who don’t respect themselves.  Do you guys respect yourselves?”  

We did.  

“Another reason people use the word ‘fuck’ is to disrespect others,” Mr. Weir said.  “So tell me what you think: is disrespecting others, who are human just like you and who want to share this beautiful, God given world without harm, a good thing?  Of course not.  We are, in a way, brothers and sisters.  We are all loved, and therefore should not be disrespected.  Now let’s look at the board.  Which of these characters would be more inclined to use the word ‘fuck?’”

We pointed to the dirty one.

“Very true!  Now I want you all to close your eyes and imagine this dirty person grumbling words like ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ and ‘damn’ and ‘hell’ under his breath.  He’s dirty and smelly and miserable.  Little bugs are crawling all over him, and, to make matters worse, he’s smoking a cigarette.  Can’t you almost feel yourself physically gagging at his imaginary smoke?  Imagine he’s crawling through the window of your bedroom, still muttering bad words, and now he’s undoing his zipper and he’s peeing all over your nice, clean, and treasured stuff.  There goes your teddy bear, photographs of you family from Disney Land, the blanket your grandmother knitted for you on her deathbed, and even your dog.  They’re all covered with his smelly pee.  Now open your eyes, kids.  Every time you use bad words, you are not only soiling yourself, you are soiling everyone around you, peeing on everything that is good on God’s green earth.”

The man I imagined was Steve, who didn’t often use bad words, who didn’t smoke, but who had snuck into my life and staked a claim where a claim had already been staked.  This, it seemed, was the greatest threat the dirty man posed, someone who would ignore your presence and against your will take what had been yours from the beginning of time.  And it was like my mother, in her glowing admiration for the man, was blind to all else, to the fact that the two of us, alone, could live a much happier life.

“As I said before,” Mr. Weir continued.  “People tend to use bad words when they are so angry they don’t care who they disrespect. And of course, we all get mad sometimes, right?  So there’s a trick that the best and brightest use to avoid falling into this trap.  Would you like me to share it with you?  Are you the best and the brightest?”

We exclaimed our certainty that we were.

Mr. Weir laughed.  “Of course you are.  I wouldn’t doubt this group for anything.  So here it is: instead of letting these bad words be our go-to for expressing ourselves, choose replacement words.  So, instead of ‘fuck,’ which we all agree is an awful word, why not ‘frog?’ Does anyone here like frogs?  Me too!  Ribbut ribbut!  Let’s say it together, shall we?”

We began to ribbut.

“Silly me!” Mr. Weir said.  “I meant let’s say ‘frog’ not ‘ribbut’ which is really more of a sound.  But of course, words are sounds, so that was my mistake.  This time let’s say ‘frog,’ and as we do, let’s pretend we’re angry.  Pretend something bad has happened to you, like, for example, your dog, after you have washed the pee from him, has eaten your homework.  In response, you might say, ‘oh frog!’  Say it with me children.  ‘Oh frog!’  Wonderful.  This is a sharp group.  Let’s try a few more, keeping in mind that when you use these phrases, you are likely very angry.  Repeat after me: ‘Oh frog!’  ‘What the frog is wrong with you?’ ‘How the frog could this be happening?’ ‘I can’t believe how badly you, who I have frogging trusted, have frogged me!’”

We repeated the phrases, and as we did, our declarations gained fervor, until we were trembling with excitement.  The more we used the word, the more it seemed to stand in for that unnamable seedling of ourselves that had recently begun to bloom.  With each utterance another portion of our cramped inner terrains became unfurled.  

“Okay, now ‘frog’ has been added in a new way to our vocabulary,” Mr. Weir continued.  “Let’s try another.  When I was younger, instead of ‘shit’ my mother would say ‘sugar.’  As in, ‘oh sugar!’  But at a certain point that replacement doesn’t work.  For example, ‘you smell like sugar’?  That’s just silly, isn’t it?  Unless, of course, someone actually does smell like sugar, in which case it would be true.  But that’s a different matter entirely.  So in the case of ‘shit,’ let’s replace it with a word that is still gross, but one that doesn’t cover us in the pee of the dirty man from earlier.  Let’s go with ‘spit.’  As in, ‘Oh spit!’ ‘You smell like spit’ ‘Why do I have to put up with so much spit?’ ‘That bad thing that happened was truly quite spitty!’”

Emphatically, we spat out our imagined aggression, while Ms. Hope and Mr. Weir walked around the room, giving us nods of approval. At the session’s conclusion, Mr. Weir handed out lollipops inscribed in white sugarcoated lettering with: Cursing is for Suckers.  He also handed out half-sheet contracts, instructing us that they were to be signed as an act of commitment to the eradication foul language.  

“Remember,” he said.  “This is a legally binding contract.  So if you feel you are not strong willed enough to completely do away with bad words, do not sign it or else you will be in trouble with the law. But if you are that certain strong someone, as I can tell you all are, then sign it, and carry your pact with you wherever you go.”

By now I knew the power of the written word, knew that to sign your name was to lend your identity to that which you were signing. And though I wasn’t entirely convinced that I wasn’t signing away more than I realized, I looked at Mr. Weir, smiling at us, and wrote my name.  After all, he had given us his time, his attention, his respect.  What more could we ask?

*

My mother sometimes worked late.  On those days that I did not see her car parked across the street, she had instructed me to walk home.  This was one of those occasions, and I was grateful.  My mind wobbled with the vertiginous weight of new knowledge.  As I looked down in concentration, I noticed that the five-pointed leaves which littered the ground had been pressed into the sidewalk by an afternoon rain, leaving tinted impressions.  The effect was that the ground held a scattering of stars, while the sky was a slab of concrete.  

In the distance, a group of my fellow walkers were gathering at the house of Timothy Jenkins.  He was homeschooled and, though we knew him from the playground and afterschool activities, held an air of mystery.  He stood in his front yard, in a loose fitting tuxedo and top hat, behind a cardboard sign that read, in black, waxy crayon: Timotini The Great.

Timothy watched as we gathered, and when some sort of cue had been given, he raised his arm and directed us to the front door of his house, a silent introduction for his beautiful assistant, his mother. Mrs. Jenkins stormed into the yard, smiling charismatically and taking her place alongside Timothy.

“The great Timotini will now perform acts of magic that will leave you breathless!” she announced.  She was wearing a black cocktail dress that seemed too tight at the top, unable to conceal the excess flesh that squeezed up toward her throat.  As the others giggled in anticipation, I visually measured the distance between the end of the fabric and the beginning of her neck, a space that seemed perfectly sized to fit the palm of my hand.  “Please give the great Timotini your undivided attention,” Mrs. Jenkins continued.  “These tricks, channeled from the mystical world, cannot be repeated any more than they can be explained!”

Timothy took off his hat and showed it to us.  Then he held it away. “What will the great Timotini make appear in the once empty hat?” Mrs. Jenkins asked with a great show of wonderment.  Timothy tapped the hat’s brim with his baton and reached in to pull out a live rabbit.  “A bunny retrieved from the great oracles of time’s past!” Mrs. Jenkins exclaimed, clapping.  The others clapped too, whether in accordance or in amazement, I did not know.  I was still measuring the sheer abundance of Mrs. Jenkins’s body, wondering where so much body came from and what was to be done with it.  There were adults out there who seemed so big, not just in body but in spirit, in the wealth they contained.  And from these adults all I wanted was a small portion to call my own.  In return, I’d be willing to offer myself completely.  But there was no known method for attaining anything from these people, no word I could use to bring me to their level, to borrow from them just a sense of the fortune they held onto so tightly they barely seemed capable of its acknowledgment.

Timothy held his baton horizontally, in great concentration.  Mrs. Jenkins said, “What will the mystics do to the weight of the great Timotini’s magical wand?”  As she finished speaking, the baton descended from Timothy’s hand like a spider lowering itself from its web.  “It is the power of the mystics that bears the weight of the wand!” Mrs. Jenkins exclaimed.  “Behold the power of the mystics, channeled by the great Timotini!”

I wondered who the mystics were, these seemingly silent, invisible movers of all the world’s desires.  Was it they, then, who could account for the structure of power held so strictly in place?  Was it they who could explain the configuration of Mrs. Jenkins’s dress?  Or that of the beautifully cumbersome Ms. Hope?  Was it they who could explain my mother’s attachment to Steve?  Sometimes my mother and Steve would argue; over what, I could never say.  But when they did, I felt myself slipping from the house, down into a realm that seemed empty of mystics or anything else.  Mostly this was a source of great terror.  But sometimes it would be a blessing, because when my mother and Steve did acknowledge me, it was usually late at night, when they had taken on the air of overly rambunctious children and perhaps did not know their own strength, because they pinched my cheeks, and ruffled my hair, and stuck their fingers into my belly as indelicately as if it were still padded by the Mayor’s pillow.

“Now,” Mrs. Jenkins said, “We will see what the mystics can do with the weight of a human!  Please, let us have a volunteer from this brave crowd.”  Kelly raised her hand, and Mrs. Jenkins invited her to stand alongside Timothy.  “Will the great Timotini be magician enough to make this young girl fly?”  Timothy was concentrating again, his hands at his temples as though trying to recover a thought that was slipping away.  He bent down next to Kelly’s feet and tapped his baton against the toes and heels of her shoes.  Nothing happened.

“Ah!  Perhaps the great Timotini’s attempt will be in vain,” Mrs. Jenkins said.  “Or perhaps it will only take a moment for—“  Timothy raised his wand, and as he did so Kelly began hovering off the ground, at first just a few feet, then higher, carried, it seemed, less by the mystics than by the force of collective breath released by so many awed and open mouths.

My mouth was among them, for as I looked up at the floating girl, I saw the magic it would take to propel me beyond my allotted ranks; the magic I searched for when the torment of watching Steve bring my mother closer to his side, further from me, was too much to bear, and I went to my room and locked myself in the closet, hoping that in such a confined space I could maintain my tentative hold on this world.  When my mother made to check on me, Steve would tell her that I was fine, using his cradling, guiding arm to show her that there were matters, his matters, far more pressing.  It was the magic that seemed encapsulated in Steve’s smile, the one he directed my way each time he and my mother went to bed early, gloating that there was something in his possession, something only the mystics could bestow, that awarded him so much, while I had so little.

“Behold!” Mrs. Jenkins exclaimed, motioning to Kelly.  “The great Timotini—“  Kelly began screaming to come down.  She was now well above our heads, too far out of reach to catch.  We looked at Timothy, waving his wand in a downward motion to no avail.  Mrs. Jenkins ordered him to bring Kelly down, her gusto of performance replaced by motherly concern.  Timothy lifted his wand again, and when it didn’t work he shrugged.  Kelly was now well above the house, her cries becoming less audible.  Pretty soon everyone was crying, everyone except me.  I was looking at Mrs. Jenkins, wishing that I was the one in the air, because then she would be looking at me.  I wanted to be the object of her concern or pity or love.  I wanted to be anything, just so long as I would be seen, ascending higher and higher in her eyes until I finally, mercifully disappeared.  I tried to find the word, the magic word that would bring Kelly down and send me up.  But if such a word existed it was one I didn’t know.  

So finally I followed suit, and looked up with the others as the bottoms of the girl’s feet were swallowed by the clouds.


Afsheen Farhadi’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals, including Colorado Review, The Rumpus, Witness, and Sou’wester. He has an MFA degree from Oregon State University and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he has recently completed a novel and is seeking a publisher/representation. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AfsheenFarhadi.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: