Red & White
I was watching the school spelling bee, first grade, when I made the connection between the letters on the back wall of the grocery and the word they spelled. So far, my classmates had spelled “road” and “snow” and “ring.” Then, they gave Ryland Johnson the word “meat.” “Meat,” said the principal into the crackling loudspeaker. “As in, ‘My mother puts deli meat on my sandwich.’” There was some chuckling from the kids around me. My father was a butcher, and a very good one, if you asked anyone within ten or twenty miles. But that’s not why they were laughing, even if the teachers thought so and laughed along with them, a good-natured kind of laughter. They were laughing, instead, because I was a separate thing from them, and always had been. With a neck too long and eyes too big and even bigger glasses turning them into watery wells no one would look into. I had always been at a distance from other people, and it didn’t hurt so much, by the first grade, to be laughed at. It pained me more to see how it hurt my mother, who would fidget and turn red at the tips of her ears on the rare occasion when she saw me at school with my classmates.
Anyways, Ryland was spelling it out, “m-e-a-t,” when I saw in my mind’s eye the red and white letters on the back wall of our store and I sat up straight as a rod in my seat. The lady reading the words smiled at Ryland. “Correct,” she said. It was the end of a round, so everyone clapped, but I just sat there with my hands on my lap, seeing those red and white letters. The teacher next to me touched my knee. “You alright, honey?” she whispered. I nodded. When Ryland went up to the stage again, I was still thinking about the meat sign and the meat itself, the pink glistening packages of pork shoulder and flank steak, the chicken livers shining like wet rubies, the earthy texture of the ground beef, like furrows in red dirt. Then the principal asked Ryland to spell “wishes,” and he left out the “e.” On his way back to sit with his class, he kicked a folding chair with his shoe and it clattered to the ground. The students snickered, but I didn’t. I knew how Ryland felt.
I’d been betrayed. Not by the spelling bee or even by the store or the other kids, but by my own mind. It was the first time I understood that we see things as they seem and not necessarily as they are. This may not seem like much, but I was six years old, and I was shaken. What else had I failed to notice? What other puzzles had I failed to solve? What other truths were lying right under my nose, visible but invisible, refusing to be seen? That afternoon, instead of helping my mother at the register or fronting the cans on the shelves like usual, I slipped into the backroom and settled myself next to the back door, where my father kept a stash of damaged snack food – cereal boxes with mud splattered fronts, dented cans of sardines, crushed sleeves of cookies. Back then, we got butter in plastic tubs from a dairy up the road and my mother had reprimanded me more than once for stealing it out of the dairy box and eating it right from the tub, applying it to crumbling Ritz crackers I’d pulled from my father’s snack box, marked “damaged.” “D-a-m-a-g-e-d,” I spelled aloud as I sat there the day of the spelling bee, the crackers thick in the back of my throat.
I found it hard, after that, to focus on the friendly banter from customers. Instead, I was spelling. “C-o-c-o-a,” for a tin of Hershey’s. “M-a-r-s-h-m-a-l-l-o-w-s,” “o-r-a-n-g-e.” I did it under my breath until my mother noticed and told me to stop. “God in Heaven, Ethan,” she said, “as if people aren’t staring enough already.” After that, I tried to do it only in my head.
When I was eleven, I started writing poems. Except I didn’t call them that, then. I only wanted to understand how words came together, not just the letters inside them, but how the words themselves joined and unjoined, which ones fit next to each other and which didn’t. I didn’t just want to see language, I wanted to see how things appeared within it, how it could change things or not change them – how it could sometimes make things stay the same forever. After a while, I stopped spelling each item that came through the checkout line, but I studied everything instead. The hammered silver of the walk-in door, the orange light shining through the doilies of dust on our front windows, the bright yellow fingertips of Ms. June who delivered our collard greens, and the ladybugs you’d sometimes find curled up inside the leaves like wet candies someone had just spit out.
I wrote poems on the backs of receipt paper and grocery bags, whatever I had near me. When I was thirteen, my mother found a stack of receipt poems and said, “You better hide these from your father. Bad enough you’ll never be a butcher.” But later on, when I wouldn’t quit writing, when I stayed on at the grocery stocking shelves and running the register instead of going away to school, when I squirreled pages from books and pieces of paper and pencils inside the drawer with the cash so I could read and write between customers, she came to take me for what I was. And then, much later than that, she started pointing things out to me, little things she’d notice – a lemon imprinted with a letter from the box it’d arrived in, the lace of white mold over a crate of raspberries. “Look,” she would say, pointing with her half smile, and I wouldn’t know if she was making fun of me or if it was something else entirely.
0ne time, she found a torn bag of flour scattered out across the baking aisle. Before sweeping it up, she brought me over to show me. “It just struck me is all,” she said. “How it ripples like that, the same way as water.” I pulled a notebook from my back pocket and wrote down what she’d said.
And then, my mother, who folded laundry into sharp angular piles, who shined the dirt off of cans with the hem of her own skirt, whose steel eyes a disgruntled customer never once second guessed, said to me, “So, that’s how you become a poet.” I waited for laughter, but there was none. Instead, when I turned to her, she was staring down at the swirling patterns her broom was making in the flour, her gaze soft and her mouth a little slack. I turned away, so she wouldn’t catch me catching her daydream.