A Way With Words
I don’t do very well with confrontation. For instance the time a man with a knife came at me in the middle of the street, in the middle of the night, and rather than taking a stand or disarming him by means of a kick or punch. I was more focused on my rhetoric—a self-consciousness of vowels and consonants. Lucky for me the knife was a pocketknife and the man coming at me was too drunk to get it open in time—before our driver could stop laughing enough to punch the gas.
The driver would be my future wife, Chonda. At that time we were 18 years old and good friends and had been on a mission most of the day to buy the perfect pair of dance shoes. She and I and her sister Cheralyn (who was sleeping in the backseat at the time of the knife attack) were in our high school all-school musical Oklahoma! In that play is a dream sequence where the dream versions of the main characters perform a ballet-like dance: that was Cheralyn and me. So we found these dance shoes at the mall in Nashville and then had about a 30-mile drive back to Ashland City. It was late and dark and, like I said, Chonda was driving because it was her car—an old (even then) Rambler. She was not proud of that car, even though the two of us had ridden a Greyhound bus all night a few weeks earlier to Cincinnati to pick it up from her father. On the way back we stopped 17 times to fill it up with water. Once we made it back we were finally able to replace the bad hoses to end the water leak, but that didn’t stop the fact that it was a big, white clunker (back then we just had to deal with our clunkers).
So we were nearly back to Ashland City when a giant truck passed us on the narrow two-lane highway. Whoosh!
“I think that was Kevin!” I said, loud enough to be heard above the roar of the Rambler. Kevin was Chonda’s old boyfriend. I wasn’t her new one yet, but I was on my way.
Maybe because Chonda wanted me to be her new boyfriend was why she did what she did next. “I’ll show him,” she said. And with that she gunned the rattling Rambler and on the first straight stretch overtook the giant pickup and passed him—just like that. Even though I was close to the truck’s driver-side window I could touch it as we zoomed past, I still couldn’t see inside the cab because it was dark and the glass glared. But I was pretty sure it was Kevin, and his truck. Chonda gave a yelp and I eased back into my seat. Just then Cheralyn woke up and raised her head above the backseat. “What’s going on?” she said.
“That’s Kevin behind us,” Chonda said. “He passed us and we just passed him.”
Just then the truck’s headlights switched to bright and flooded our back window. I looked back and could make out Cheralyn’s silhouette, but otherwise was pretty much blinded. Give it a rest, Kevin, I thought. But the giant truck and its high-wattage bulbs veered out and blew past us on the next straight stretch.
“Yeah, that’s Kevin, alright,” Chonda said, like she knew him through and through. Just then, as her positive assertion still hung in the interior of the Rambler, the truck slammed on its brakes and came to a screeching stop angled in the middle of the highway. Chonda slowed and stopped too. A large man, bigger than the Kevin we knew, stepped out of the truck and into the lights of our Rambler. He staggered forward about two steps and then pulled something from his pocket. That definitely wasn’t Kevin. It had been an honest mistake. I rolled down my window and hung out at least to my waist, ready to correct the mistake we’d made.
“Hey, buddy,” I said. (To this day Chonda will tell you that I called him “friend.” I did no such thing. Buddy has those two harsh consonant sounds in the b and d and that short u vowel is somewhat guttural. Buddy is a power word, with the power to affirm or condescend. Friend is too weak: the soft f, the purring r, the impotent short e. I would have never, especially in the life-threatening situation that we had found ourselves in, would I have said friend.) “We thought you were someone else,” I finished.
“You don’t think I’ll cut-chu?” he said, all slurry. He staggered closer, splitting our high beams with his corporeal self. I still hadn’t seen the reflection of our high-beams off the blade yet because he still hadn’t gotten the knife open. “I’ll cut-chu!” He said this many times. Always phonetically consistent.
“Now wait a minute, buddy,” I repeated, making sure to grate the intimidating consonants and gargle the guttural vowel. I turned to Chonda. She was laughing. Cheralyn reminded us from the backseat that this wasn’t Kevin. “Just drive, Chonda.” I said. She pounded the wheel and tried to catch her breath. In the meantime I was exposed waist up to a drunken angry man who sooner-or-later would get that knife open. My only hope was that he’d succeed at the can opener first. “Drive! Now!”
Chonda fiddled with the gear lever. I turned to the zombie-like man who was staggering my way, chanting “I’ll cut-chu!” and moving the pocketknife closer and then farther from his eyes as if he were trying to read small print. What he was doing was searching for the groove on the cutting blade so he could get a thumbnail in it to pull it open—and then cut me. Maybe he would never be able to figure out that pocketknife. He bent over and held the weapon in the light beams of the Rambler. “I’ll cut-chu ,” he repeated. “You don’t think I’ll cut-chu?”
Chonda found reverse and backed up enough to clear us from the man with the knife and then gunned the Rambler and we rumbled on down the highway, leaving Cutting Man in the dark and, I’m sure, frustrated.
“Friend?” she said. And I understood right then what was happening. Chonda would never fully appreciate what I had just pulled off with only the power of selective consonants in conjunction with that perfect vowel. Rhetoric was lost on her, like water through a leaky Rambler.
I slumped into my seat, wondering how close to death-by-pocketknife I’d actually come. I could not explain to her then my overall strategy, the boundless, endless power rhetoric can have over sharpened steel (providing there had been a steel blade on that pocketknife at all). Weakly, spent of all rhetorical power now, I simply said, “I called him buddy.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.” And I emphasized the finality of the d’s in did as well as that dart-like sound of the short i.
As passing air roared around the Rambler, as Cheralyn reminded us from the backseat that that had not been Kevin and asked what that was he’d been fumbling with and “Was he drunk?” I realized that this “Buddy” versus “Friend” argument could be a rub between Chonda and me for however long we might know each other—even though neither of us brought it up on our wedding day.
Thirty years later I still contend I said buddy. She’ll say friend, using that so soft f, and she’ll even over-do that rounded, smooth, musical r.
My goodness! Can she not see that every time she utters that word she only helps to prove my argument? Why would I ever call a man coming at me with a knife a friend? Give me a hundred knife attackers and I will refer to each and every one of them (drunk or not), and every single time, as buddy.