Friday, July 25, 2008

Plain English

"If English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me." H.L. Mencken

This is one of my favorite quotes. It's totally silly, and yet somewhere in the contiguous 48, there's a Bible-thumper who will read those words and rejoice.

English, some believe, is the second most complex language after Cantonese. I can't vouch for that, since my linguistic abilities--other than this adopted language--are limited to French, a smattering of Spanish, and about a hundred words of Japanese I learned in martial arts. Nevertheless, I am a passionate believer in learning the tongue of your adopted home. One of my most notable pet peeves is this country's willingness to bend over backwards, language-wise.
I do not understand why, in the past 20-or-so years, the US has gone out of its way to weaken its language base, to become a nation of idiots who are not capable of using an ATM unless the instructions are in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese or Portuguese. I do not understand why speaking English is not a requirement of citizenship. I am tired of dealing with store clerks and fast food employees who are incapable of filling the simplest order or providing the most basic of information. I don't understand why we're willing to sacrifice a brilliant, vibrant language and get nothing in return.

Europeans have long known that a nation's language is one of its primary sources of strength and unity. This is why breakaway nationalist movements, be they Basque, Tamil, Breton, Flemish, or any one of a hundred others, always rally around their own tongues.

The French, who truly love their mother tongue and consider it the most beautiful in the world, have an Academie which everyone not French finds risible. The Academie's comprises France's most notable writers, poets, playwrights and journalists. It works to protect the French language from accepting too many foreign terms at work and in the arts and entertainment. This is not an easy job, and the Academie has not always been successful. It has managed, however, to maintain French as the official language of France (fancy that!). It may be fighting a losing battle in the information age, but it will see that French does not become Franglais. Are you ready for Spanglish?

Here's installment 34 of Wasted Miracles.

“I hate doing this. Really, I do.” Colin and Catherine were in Josie’s room, the place was torn apart, Catherine’s doing. “If Josie ever saw this, she’d never talk to me again. We had a long, long argument about stuff like that, privacy, me going through her things.”
They’d moved the mattress off the box spring. Josie’s clothes were spread all around the room, Colin was on hands and knees running his hands under the bed.
“Nothing there. Jewel box,” he opened it, peered inside, closed it. “You’re sure you’ve gone through all the drawers, all the books?”
Catherine had. She nodded.
“See if the carpet’s been lifted, look in the corners. That’s the easiest place to start.”
Catherine paced around the room, bent down, tugged at the rug. “No. Shit. Shit shit shit!”
Colin turned, touched her shoulder. “OK. Let’s stop a second. Maybe there’s nothing here. Someplace else in the house? Try to think, Catherine. Maybe when she was a little kid, did she hide stuff in the garage? Someplace in the yard?”
He looked around the room, tried to find an area they hadn’t thought of. His eyes came to rest on the grill covering the heat vent. It wasn’t quite flush with the wall. He rotated the two screws holding it in, pulled. The unit came out with a small puff of dust. He reached into the duct. “Bingo.”
It was a small box no larger than three decks of card stacked on top of one another. Across the top, scribbled in childlike letters was the word “Emergency.” Four blue rubber bands held it all together. Colin handed it to Catherine, who looked at it for a moment, shook it.
“Open the damned thing, Catherine.”
She looked torn. “It just seems like such an invasion of...”
“Just open it!”
She shot him a hurt glance, rolled the rubber bands off.
Josie had lined the bottom with cheap red velveteen. The glass crack pipe glowed against the fabric. The pipe was clear, either hadn’t been used or Josie had cleaned it thoroughly. The box dropped from Catherine’s hand, the pipe rolled out.
“Oh jeez, oh, Colin, shit, how could she? After everything that’s happened, all the promises and talk and, shit. God dammit! How could the stupid little bitch do that.”
Colin bent down, retrieved the box, stepped on the pipe and felt the stem crack in two pieces beneath his foot.
“When I first got out of rehab, Catherine, I kept a bottle, just one. Johnny Walker Red. It was in a paper bag closed at the top with duct tape, in a gym bag in a bigger bag in a suitcase in the back of the closet. I never opened it, but knowing it was there made me feel safer.”
Catherine was shaking her head, tears running down her face. Her hands were balled fists, knuckles white. She brought up a foot, smashed it on the floor. The pipe’s bowl vanished beneath her heel and shattered with a small crinkling sound. She stomped it again and again, ground it into the carpet. Then she did the same to the stem.
Colin reached into the duct again. “There’s something else there.” He pulled out a folded manila envelope, opened it. “There’s some papers, letters, a picture.”
The letter was only two lines long, written in a hasty scrawl. Colin scanned it, gave it to Catherine.
Dear J:
You exhausted me. Let’s do it again. Sunday. My place.
On the floor. In the kitchen. In the tub. Can’t wait.
The poem was eight lines of undying love and promises in Josie’s handwriting. It rhymed poorly and the meter was bad. The photo showed Josie and a man, she smiling, he squinting into the sun. She was sitting on the hood of a long black car, he was standing next to her with one hand draped across her shoulder.
“Do you know the guy?”
Catherine shook her head no. Her hand holding the letter was trembling.
“Baltimore Harbor,” Colin said. “That’s where the picture was taken. I recognize it. That’s the aquarium in the background. I had to do some research there a month ago. On sharks.”
He peered at the photo, held it closer. “Oh shit.” The shot had been developed in May. Colin felt the breath hiss out of him. He looked at the photo again, muttered, “Can’t be.”
Catherine said, “Can’t be what?”
He composed his face as best he could, said, “Nothing, Catherine. Thought I saw something. My mistake.”
But Catherine caught the look of astonishment, saw bewilderment cross his eyes.
He glanced at the photo a last time, gave it back to her. “Nothing, Catherine. Really.”
She didn’t press him, said, “You can just make out a couple of letters on the license plate. See? AFR, and then Josie’s feet are in the way, and then 1. Do you think your cop friend, Joe, can do something with that license plate? Colin? You’re looking kind of weird. Are you OK?”
Colin wasn’t really listening, nodded anyway. The face of the young woman was etched in his mind. It looked nothing like the earlier photo Catherine had shown him. Now the resemblance between her and Catherine was obvious. Mother, daughter. Couldn’t be, he thought, yet knew it was.
To Catherine, he said, “I’ll check with him and call you later.”

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