Until I was four years old I didn’t speak. Four and a half, if you don’t count deesplayno.
The average kid talks by ten months. If a kid doesn’t speak by age two, the speech experts tell you to get help. So that’s what my mom did.
My shrink’s name was Claire Vanderhope, and she sat on the floor of my room, watching me build a cabin out of Lincoln Logs. I wouldn’t play with Legos or anything less than 60 years old. Plastic toys spooked me.
Claire Vanderhope was impressed with my old-toy hangup. She wrote a paper about it for the Journal of Abnormal Behavior, but she couldn’t get me to talk or even look her in the eye. When I didn’t pay any attention to Claire, she made Mom bring home a rescue dog, a Labrador mutt named Drayton. The dog ignored me, I ignored the dog, and I stayed mute for two more years.
And then, on a family outing to the Lake George water park, I finally put three syllables together.
When I look back on that day, I see a giant swimming pool with screaming kids clinging to the edge. I remember thinking the pool was a Polio Pit and why was Mom letting me splash around in it.
Even after I started talking like a regular person, I kept that Polio Pit thing to myself. Any excuse to pound me—my stepbrothers, that is. Theo and Millard had never heard of polio, and neither had I. It was just one of those sounds that came out of the sky, like deesplayno.
That was the first word out of my mouth, that afternoon at Water Slide World—deesplayno.
What happened was, I had to go to the bathroom. Usually my stepbrothers took me, but they were on the Lake George log ride, which was fine with me. Whenever Theo and Millard took me to the bathroom they’d hang on the stall door and make remarks about how scrawny I was. So my mom was elected.
There we were in the Ladies’ Room, along with a dozen half-naked ladies. The first one I saw, I said, “Deesplayno.”
I didn’t know what I saying and neither did my mom. She was looking all around, like some ventriloquist was playing a joke on both of us.
“Arky?” Mom said, squatting down in front of me.
“Deesplayno,” I said again.
By this time the ladies were giving us funny looks.
“He never spoke before in his life,” Mom said.
She swept me up in her arms and bolted out of the Ladies’ looking for her husband. Eventually Wayne showed up, looking wobbly, either from the jet-skis or the six-pack of beer he always socked away on family outings.
Sure enough, as soon as he showed his face I shut up like a clam. “Rita, all you heard was more gurgle,” he told her. “We’re getting desperate here.”
“Arky, please tell your dad what you said.”
Whenever she called Wayne “your dad,” I got a weird sensation. I didn’t know what she was talking about. Wayne? He wasn’t my dad. Somebody else was my dad. I went back into my cave of silence.
A week later she called Dr. Vanderhope.
Claire Vanderhope arrived in a red Corvette. She’d made some money in the last few years and also put on a few pounds, which she was hiding inside a flowing red dress with orchids printed all over it. By the time she got to the house I was speaking whole sentences. Not all the time, just off and on—I was still pretty withdrawn. Mostly I went from room to room naming various objects and driving Wayne up the wall.
When Mom asked her to explain why I was suddenly talking, Dr. Vanderhope said to count her blessings and not to fuss over me so much.
“You don’t want the rest of your family to resent him,” she said.
Too late. Wayne already resented me, and so did Theo and Millard, his twin sons from his first marriage. Not that I really blamed them. I got a lot of stupid extra attention, which included Dr. Vanderhope’s bills and that therapy dog. There was no full-time special ed program in Glens Falls that didn’t cost a mint, so in the end Mom had to send me to public school.
Drag me, as it turned out.