All-Nighters

I saw a sock on the sidewalk the other day — ankle-length, white with a pink toe and heel. Lost, perhaps, during a return trip from the laundry mat, though that wasn’t the first thought I had on the subject. My first thought was of my days working at Ferris State University and an autumn morning in 2002, full of awkwardness and regret (none of it mine, thankfully). This is how the morning unfolds in my mind now.

I drove to campus one morning in October. The autumn colors had just popped, and I had a poem brewing in my mind (“cornucopia,” posted here).

As I approached campus, I saw a young woman walking along a street of older houses, college rentals, mostly. She walked barefoot on the cold concrete, in boxers and an oversized sweatshirt, her blonde-on-brown highlights pulled back to a hasty ponytail. She carried her jeans and assorted other articles of clothing. She shuffled quickly through the tumbling leaves.

I drove past and parked my car. The poem was about half formed, and I needed a walk to solidify it. The girl from the sidewalk was gone, so I headed up that particular street.

Half a block up, a young man now sat on the front steps one of the rentals. He wore last night’s jeans and a white t-shirt, a backwards ball cap. I think he was barefoot, too, and I recall a beer can and a bottle of water on the step. His head was in his hands, and as I approached, he mumbled: “Not doing THAT again.”

“Rough night?” I asked, and he raised his head and blinked. “Dude, you have no idea.”

“You alright?”

“Think so.”

I walked on, wondering if these two bedheads were connected. I turned left at the end of the block, and worked a couple lines of the poem in my head. Not great, but alright. I took another left — and heard music drifting on the breezes.

Ahead and across the street, an upstairs window was open, and from it blared the voice of Alanis Morrisette, accompanied by an as-yet undiscovered co-ed: “It’s not fair to deny me/Of the cross I bear that you gave to me/You, you, you oughta know!”

Was it the sound of running water? Steam drifting from the window? The volume of the music in the window? To this day, I have the distinct impression of a girl singing angrily in the shower. The rage and sorrow in her voice seemed authentic, and the thought occurred to me: perhaps all three know each other now. And I thought I should write this down.

I walked on. The wind kicked up, and hundreds of orange leaves, swirled about my head shoulders. The poem took final form, and until I saw that sock last week, the rest of the morning slipped me.

Taste-Testing Words

You’ve maybe heard people say that if you hear a new word and find an opportunity to use it correctly five times in a day, it becomes a permanent part of your vocabulary. Have you heard that? No? Well, I have. Never really took it to heart, though. Jodi and the kids say I use too many big words already, so no use confusing things further with words none of us know …

But it’s always fun to watch the kids taste-test new words or phrases. When Bren and Gabe started liking pirates, I pulled out blunderbuss. You could see Bren roll the word on his tongue like Tootsie Pop before popping it out to re-examine it in the light.

Something similar happened this morning on the way to church. Last night the wind started to roar fiercely through the trees, and as we scrambled from house to minivan this morning, we were pelted by stinging white flakes from the gray clouds above. I ducked into the driver’s seat, slammed the door, and shook droplets from my hair like a dog. Master of the obvious, I said, “It’s startin’ to spit snow, kids!”

They had noticed, of course, and seemed to ignore me, discussing the probability of a snowball fight after church. (The snow was not sticking.) But when Jodi got in, Trevor piped up from the back: “Mom! It’s spitting snow!”

It came out a bit broken, like he’d spit it himself. No matter. Between our home and church, he worked it liked bubble gum, chewing, softening, turning it over, stretching it membrane thin over his tongue ’til they were one and the same, then blowing it out … pop! for everyone to hear: spitting snow, spitting snow …

Strangely enough, Father Gregory made no reference to snow or spitting in his homily, and as we visited with friends in the gathering space after Mass, I didn’t think much about the words or the weather. Finally, when we were among the last families left at the church, we leaned into the doors and pushed out through wind. The gray skies in their bluster roared again, and the pelting resumed.

“Wow!” said Trevvy. “Now it’s really spitting snow!”

Right phrase, right context, and natural as can be. The new phrase fit him like a glove.

“Sure is, Trevor,” I said. “It sure is.”