My mother told me once that my vocabulary was shabby. Embarrassing really for an educated girl of educated parents. Why, she herself did crossword puzzles every day. You wouldn’t see her losing her mind to age.
But I didn’t care. What need had I for big words and fancy phrases? They all just want to up-please each other. Put on airs.
I like my words small. Dainty. Concise. I like a spinning phrase better than length.
It was because of other languages and other places that I’d lived that diminished my vocabulary. Living in small towns, rural outposts, foreign countries. Learning the lingo takes time and is limited. Communication is more important than finesse.
I am an artist. Not a writer. I stopped calling myself a writer at thirty. It was too complex and too focused and it got people to talking too much. Especially about that nasty word - publish.
Artist was much better. Simpler. More concise.
But some stories were good stories and you always had to be open to those.
Like Charlie Rogers down at the garage fixing my old V-dub so I could hit the road again. Charlie was an old man, spry and stiff. His teeth were rounded and had cores you could see. He suffered from seizures and too much honesty. The world had changed since he’d been in it and it was clear he felt safest here, around a lot of cars gaping open at him and oily. With three or four motors on his benches covered in red grease cloths, waiting.
He told me stories of how this town used to be in 1903 when his grandpa moved here and they used to call the river the Shit river because it was always so clogged up with tires and trees and it would catch on fire and run like that for a while because of all the creosote from the railroad ties.
There’s loads of it, he said, all buried down by the high school, all plowed under and seeping from the old plants that used to be there years ago when the high school was all just fields out there and beyond, not neighborhoods like it is now.
He told me he used to catch salmon at the mouth of the river and the lake, and I made him swear, cause I didn’t believe it, salmon, here?
But sure. Salmon. And all kinds of fish and fowl used to be through here. Mackinaw and wild ducks. And there used to be eagles living at the head of the lake. They’d pull a Mackinaw the size of a watermelon out of the lake and you’d see them splutter and beat their wings faster holding it in his talons and the fish is thrashing and he’d fly up and around the lake back to shore.
Charlie had a stuffed Mackinaw over the door of the shop and it was huge, really. I could barely imagine an eagle swooping down and scooping it up, but eagles were pretty big birds too, around here, and I bet if there was a stuffed one of those he’d out pace the fish by a bit.
Charlie had some pretty neat stories, and he pretty much knew about cars too. I liked the way he talked to me about cars, about what he was fixing as if I understood what he was saying. Like I knew his language and he would show me where some bearings were rubbed bare or a gasket was ripped. I liked the sounds of this language and the perfect tactile expression of it. The gasket looked like gasket. The engine in the rear of the little bug was tidy, quaint.
After I sold the bug to someone in East Glacier and they ripped off the wheel wells and made it into a Baja, I didn’t see Charlie any more. When I was in the neighborhood by the lake I’d drive by his shop and see the lines of cars parked out front waiting for his attention. I promised him I’d give him my license plate from Maine when I sold the bug. He had a collection of plates, and almost had all 50, but East Coast was rare to come by here in Montana.
When I brought it by. He was so pleased.
People don’t do what they say they’ll do much anymore, he said. Times are different. Used to be a man’s word was worth something. Or a gal’s, he said, smiling his crooked tooth smile at me. I sure appreciate this. Almost finished my collection.
I was happy I could help Charlie out. Happy that my word meant something in the Wild West. That, I felt, was the power of a good vocabulary.