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Woodfiber Dreams

Woodfiber Dreams

Photo by Leslie Watts

Danny Norvig was basically an only child with nice clothes and lots of spending money. But his size at his age made him an outsider. Somewhat like me. But my problem was I stuttered just about any time I talked. And I hated it that we were poor, almost as much as I hated how I got red in the face when my mouth refused to express my thoughts. My clothes were always clean, but I was sure everybody knew they came from the thrift shops or the Lions Club clothes drives. It was like wearing a sign, 'underprivileged' when I got free lunches in school and ate by myself or with the other 'underprivileged untouchables'.

They say that hormones made Danny the way he was in seventh grade: six foot two and two hundred pounds. His growth had migrated into his body so there wasn't much left in his mental topography. He tormented us young kids, because the older ones picked on him. They put their dogs on him, just to watch him shriek and do his terror dance.

When my mom saw him at the school meetings, she said "ouch," at the thought of birthing him. Danny's half brother and half sisters were much older; some even married with kids. Some even called him Uncle Big Danny. He had been the after-thought-love child of Mrs. Norvig and her second husband, the Norwegian house painter/drinker, Olaf. It was hard to understand Mr. Norvig's heavily accented English when he laced it with vodka-induced slurring. Or maybe it was the paints and mineral spirits he inhaled daily.

The football coaches drooled to get Danny on their teams, but his over-protective mom said he was far too delicate for contact sports; that he could never hurt anyone. "Sure thing, Mrs. Norvig," was the collective cry from the kids in school from whom Danny regularly extorted their lunch money. Most wished someone would inflict pain back on him, even in the spirit of good sportsmanship.

When I got to junior high, my mom made me take Home Economics because you got to eat what you cooked. All the guys and especially Danny called me a wimp for being the only boy in the class. But mostly I hated it when I couldn't answer them back. I stuttered when I was nervous, and that was most of the time when I had to talk, especially to strangers. No doubt I inherited that from my mother.

Mom could never hold a regular job. She couldn't face the humiliation of talking at an office because of her stutter. Besides she didn't want us to be latch-key kids. So she concocted a new scheme every few weeks to supplement our Aid to Dependent Children welfare money. And it always involved us dependent kids. And then our dad didn't always drop off his share of our finances once a month and say hi like he was supposed to. He called it "the screwing he gets for the screwing he got." Rather than write him off like a bad debt, mom didn't want him to forget his kids. And that we shouldn't forget that we had a dad. She always said the late payments made her "creative".

"If we could just find the right product that sells and brings in the moolah, Johnny then it wouldn't be a biggie when your father missed a payment."

Creative meant selling gimmick things door-to-door. Like the time we sold socks with a special pattern. The problem was our Polish refugee neighbors in the housing projects thought the pattern looked too much like the German swastika they had learned to hate during the war. And the s in socks is hard for a stutterer; like a tire slowly losing air..

Mom said when I turned eleven it was time for me to be the man of the family. That's when I got a paper route. I had to talk to strangers when I collected for my paper route or when I sold things door-to-door away from the projects, in the regular neighborhoods, like at Danny's house. It was different selling in the old war-time housing projects because they were neighbors and weren't much better off than we were. Many had fled their countries after World War II. Their English was pretty bad and they thought my stutter was another American dialect they had to learn. Some tried to imitate me, hoping to integrate faster into American culture.

"Hi, Johnny, how, how, how are you today?"

"Just fffine, MmMrs. Mmmarkowitz," was a typical exchange. It usually worked, though and they bought what I was selling that day. Even when they didn't need it. My mother told how she had stuttered all her life and I think that's what got me started. Then it must have jumped like some kind of flu virus to my younger brother, Brucey. My sister, Betsy, was next in line to me and had developed a cute lisp, mostly on her 'th's' like thith, but was otherwise immune to our speech patterns. So, even though she was only in grade school, she did a lot of the interpreting for my mother. Just like the Polish and German kids did for their parents. I often thought how neat it would be if the whole neighborhood of immigrants spoke English like my family. We would be in the majority and I could make fun of the kids in school who didn't stutter.

"You bbbetter lllearn ththis dddialect if you want to ccccome into this prprprproject," I'd say in my fantasy.

On my paper route, I made it a point to collect in the regular neighborhoods first, and at Danny Norvig's house last. But I didn't know he was related to the Nortons.

"Ca, ca, callect for the paper, MMMr Nnnorton?"

"What does this kid at the door want, Mildred?"

"I'll tell you what he wants, uncle. He wants mmmmoney for the ppppaper. He's your ppppaperboy. Want me to ggggive him the mmmmoney? Ha, ha."

I didn't have to see him; I knew the taunt in Danny Norvig's voice that made him known in school as 'demented Danny'. Not to his face, of course. Some called him dumb ass Danny. And the sixth graders called him dirty Danny. That was because it was said he couldn't hold his bodily fluids very long. I put a mark next to the Nortons on my collection list.

Part of the man-of -the-family routine meant I had to go to the pay phone and remind dad when he missed or was late with the monthly check. Dad had little patience with stutterers, and would hang up on mom. But he heard me out. And as soon as my little sister could reach the receiver, she got immediate responses with her clear, sweet lisp-tinged voice.

"Dad's not coming back, huh, mom?" They hadn't kept me up to date on all the issues surrounding their breakup and our predicament.

"Not likely, Johnny. He just bought a new car and needs to break in the engine and he has a new woman to put into it. He's family hopping now like he use to island hop in the war."

But once he'd moved all his stuff out and the divorce was final, mom was afraid he would forget our address; his new wife had her own kids who were also dependent on our dad.

"You know, Johnny, I hope he's not ashamed of his new family."

"Well, mom, you're prettier than his new wife."

"Sure, but she probably won't embarrass him at the office parties. And her kids won't make him uncomfortable at the company picnics. He'll probably make manager now. And then maybe he won't skip our payments anymore."

I really hated calling my father, but when dad's money was late, it meant scrounging for money for the Saturday matinee at the rec center. Or for the baseball mitt I wanted. I had to scour the shoulders of the highways for beer and pop bottles at a penny or a nickel each; the occasional milk bottle brought in a dime.

After the swastika socks fiasco, I thought I was in the clear: no more door-to-door. Then dad missed two month's payments and mom answered an ad for wood fiber flowers. This was the real deal, she figured. We could make enough to take a bus trip across the river from Vancouver to Oregon. We'd visit Portland, known for its neat thrift stores. Heck, we could even rent a TV for longer than a night. You couldn't own a TV on welfare in the 1950s. Poor has to act poor.

Mom prepared us for this new sales battle like dad used to prepare his soldiers. I was twelve now, and I was getting more self-conscious. Mom unwrapped the box and held up a few of the flowers. They looked natural enough.

"But, mom, why would anyone buy an artificial flower, when there are all kinds of real flowers everywhere?" I wanted to know.

"Never call them artificial, Johnny. They're wood fiber, and that's natural. We tell the customer they come in different styles, colors and scents. They make perfect gifts for birthdays, Valentine's Day and special dates. They never wilt; always have smell, and last forever, just like their love."

Next we had to practice saying all that considering our different styles of stuttering – blocks, repeats and long pauses. We didn't stutter much in the family, but as soon as we walked out the door, each peculiar style kicked in. I repeated the sounds I got blocked on: ca, ca, ca collect, or wwwood. Like trying to start a car motor on a cold morning. The speech therapist told me I was would have to learn a lot of vocabulary so that when I blocked on one word, I could do a quick change up to another one.

My mother blocked and everything shut down. Like 'buy' or 'fiber'. Her lips puckered to form the word, and her neck muscles tightened. Her eyes closed so as to focus her energies. Often she would nod to peoples' questions. Most gave up and closed the door or walked away. Then she let out a squeal to get them back. She was a pretty lady with a nice figure and large bosoms, so some of the men would hang around to see what developed. The women just turned away. Brucey pulled in lots of air and tried to talk while he released it. A word like 'fiber' never ended. When he ran out of air, he had to start over again. Sometimes in mid-word. And then uncomplicated Betsy just asked straight out, "would you wike a fwower?"

Mom motivated us with the economics. Each flower was a dollar, with forty cents our take. But I saw at least ten of my major blocking sounds in the description. I wondered who was going to stand there in a doorway waiting for me to 'spit it out, kid', as some people said.

"Here's what we do," mom started. "We write it out on a piece of paper and hand it to the customer like the deaf people do. We could put something over it to keep off the rain. How's that sound, Johnny?"

"It sounds ok for the regular neighborhoods. But in the projects most of the people don't read English. Then what?"

"Then you speak to them in your special English dialect, got it?"

"It might work, mom."

Mom always encouraged us in the beginning and somewhere in the middle. But Brucey, as the youngest, usually didn't make it through the sales route without a good cry. Then she changed the lineup and gave Brucey the equally important job of carrying the flowers. We would warm up the pitch in the projects where we knew the people, build up our confidence, and then move on into the tougher crowd of the regular neighborhoods.

Most often we weren't the only peddlers in the neighborhood. Mostly around suppertime, you could see armies of sellers hitting the streets, competing to be the first on the next porch. Sometimes there were two or three pitchmen lined up in the street. This was the era of the Fuller Brush man, the vacuum cleaner man and the encyclopedia salesmen. There were no malls and few supermarkets, so people were curious about what was being offered and what the gimmick would be. Television was not yet in every living room, so this served as dinnertime entertainment.

Mom's shtick was the "widowed" woman with three urchins tagging along. No one asked, but they assumed we were furlough babies by a soldier who never returned after WWII. And sympathy was half the sales pitch. Except when Brucey and Betsy piped up about their dad who was still alive in another town.

We took turns. First mom, and then I was on. Then Betsy. And finally Brucey. The others hung back in the shadows. They say, the best salespeople understand rejection; we sure learned about 'nos' and laughs and the slammed doors at an early age.

"It's not your fault those people are dumb", mom would say.

It was about two miles downhill from the projects to town. We could look forward to a hot dog and ice cream treat if we sold our quota for the evening. And often even a ride back up the hill on the bus. We carried the flowers wrapped in tissue paper in a large square box. They were delicate, and we held them out like food vendors at a baseball game.

In early fall, sometimes it was as spooky as a 'trick or treat' evening without the masks. On one late October evening it was cool, but clear. A full moon illuminated the streets where the street lamps had fallen victim to bb guns. As the oldest and 'man of the family', mom often sent me off alone. It was spooky when the leaves swirled and crunched underfoot. Some of the darkened windows seemed to stare back at me.

I was nearing my quota and had headed down an unfamiliar dark block toward the main street, when I heard heavy footsteps crunching through dead leaves behind me and the sounds of a familiar voice of none other than Dumbass Danny.

Hey, llloser, whatcha got in the bbbox? Whatcha sssellin' now, loser? Lemme ssssee."

Danny would never make it in my new neighborhood. His stutter imitation was lousy. But my worst nightmare was him on this darkened street.

"Lllleave mmme alone, Ddddanny. Gggo away. I'm worworking."

"Lemme see, I said." He grabbed the box from me before I could get a firmer grip on the soft-sided cardboard. Pure glee lit up Danny's face when he discovered the flowers in the box. He started his ritual torment after he pushed me to the pavement.

"O lookee, the little loser's selling dumb-dumb flowers. Isn't that sweet." And he started prancing around in his size 12 shoes like he thought a little girl might walk.

"He's scared of me. He's not. He is. He's not." He repeated that as he plucked the delicate petals off the flowers, destroying them and my mom's dream for a bonanza this month. Each time I got up to attack one of his tree-trunk-sized legs, he pushed me in the face back onto the sidewalk.

"Stay down, you little shit, or I'll start on your fffingers and tttoes. One at a time. Just like these flowers."

I had never heard such unfettered glee from anyone. My tongue and my body had become equally paralyzed. I cried with frustration and anger. I was too small for him and I couldn't run.

"You lummox, get away from him and put that box down."

Even in shadows, I had never seen my mother's face so red. Her coat was open, her headscarf halfway down her back and she held both her hands wrapped around her closed umbrella. I slowly crawled to the side and watched the scene unfold. With the instincts of a mother black bear protecting her cub, she waded into big Danny like a terrier after a Great Dane. To my surprise, in her flurry of arms and cuss words that were new to me, she didn't block on any words. Not even 'bs' and 'p's'.

I moved to where I could better see the reversed roles of hunter and prey. My mouth fell open in disbelief when I heard what came out of her mouth: "Goddammit, get away and leave him alone, you overgrown lump of shit." I couldn't decide which was more astounding, what she said or how she said it. Every kid in school would love to say that to Danny.

His face became contorted, and I wondered if he would defend himself. His eyes closed and his neck muscles tightened while his whole body stiffened. "Wow", I thought. Dumbass Danny. Demented Danny. He was afraid of my mother and he was speechless. He forced air through puckered lips and she thought he was making fun of her, and she swung her umbrella at him.

"Don't you even think of making fun of me or my children, you pig-faced, snot-nosed, poor excuse for a misformed crapper."

Finally sound burst from the big guy: "I'mmm ssssorry, MmMrs StStStStanley. I'll I'll pppick up the ffflowers. I'll I'll mmmake it gggood. You wwwon't lllose nnnothing."

Even in panic, Danny carefully avoided the flowers strewn among the dead leaves as he made his escape. What I saw in Danny's face and heard in his voice was nothing less than what I felt every day. But he could hide and flee from our common fear, while I had to fight it in some form, one flower gimmick at a time.

Published May 2009 by Prima Storia

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