Strange fragrances ride the twitchy, wintry air at The Shore this morning, two weeks before Christmas. Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.
It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean's sulfurous weft and Barnegat Bay's landward stink. It is the air of full-on disaster. To my nose—once practiced in these things—nothing smells of ruin as fragrantly as the first attempts at rescue.
I notice it first at the red light at Hooper Ave., and then again when I gas up my Sonata at the Hess, before heading to the bridge, Toms River to Sea-Clift. Here in the rich gas-station scents, a wintry breeze flitters my hair while my dollars spool along like a slot machine in the gathering December clouds. Breeze has set the silver whirly-gigs to spinning at the Grandly Re-Opened Bed Bath & Beyond at the Ocean County Mall ("Only new bedding can keep us down"). Across its acres of parking, a tenth full at ten a.m., the Home Depot — Kremlin-like, but enigmatically-still-your-friend-in-spite-of-all — has thrown its doors open wide and early. Customers trail out, balancing boxes of new toilet works, new motherboards, new wiring harnesses, shrink-wrapped hinge assemblies, hollow-core doors, an entire front stoop teetering on a giant shopping cart. All is on its way to some still-standing domicile blotto'd by the hurricane — six weeks past, but not lost from memory. Everyone's still stunned here — quarrelsome, funked, put-upon-but-resolute. All are committed to "coming back."
Out here, under the Hess awning, someone's piped in loud, sports-talk radio for us customers — the Pat 'n' Mike Show from Magic 107 in Trenton. I was once among their faithful. They're old now. A booming voice — it's Mike — declares, "Wowee, Patrick. Coach Benziwicki cut loose quite a hurricane of F-BOMBS, I'm telling you. A real thirty-seconds-over-Tokyo."
"Let's listen to it again," Pat says, through a speaker built deep inside the gas pump. "Total disbelief. To-tal. This was on ESPN!"
Another gravelly, exhausted, recorded voice — Coach B's — takes up, in a fury: "Okay. Let me just tell you so-called F-BOMB sportswriters one F-BOMB thing. Okay, you F-BOMBS? When you can F-BOMB coach a team of nine-year-old F-BOMB grammar school girls, then I might, might give you one shred of F-BOMB respect. Until then, you F-BOMBS, you can DOUBLE F-BOMB yourselves from here to F-BOMB Sunday dinner. You heard it here first."
The vacant-eyed, white-suited young Hess attendant who's pumping my gas hears nothing. He looks at me as if I wasn't here.
"That about says it all, I guess," Mike concedes.
"And then some," Pat concurs. "Just drop your keys on the desk, Coach. You're done. Take the F-BOMB bus back to F-BOMB Chillicothe."
"Let's pause for a break, you F-BOMB."
"Me? You're the F-BOMB. Ha-ha-ha. Ha-ha-ha-ha."
In recent weeks, I've begun compiling a personal inventory of words that, in my view, should no longer be usable — in speech or any form. This, in the belief that life's a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence, after which all mentation goes and we head off to our own virtual Chillicothes. A reserve of fewer, better words could help, I think, by setting an example for clearer thinking. It's not so different from moving to Prague and not learning the language, so that the English you end up speaking to make yourself understood bears a special responsibility to be clear, simple, and value-bearing. When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway. Not that much is happening, except on the medical front. Better to strip things down. And where better to start stripping than the words we choose to express our increasingly rare, increasingly vagrant thoughts. It would be challenging, for instance, for a native Czech speaker to fully appreciate the words poop or friggin', or the phrase "We're pregnant," or "What's the takeaway?" Or, for that matter, awesome when it only means "tolerable." Or preemie or mentee or legacy. Or no problem when you really mean "You're welcome." Likewise, soft landing, sibs, bond, hydrate (when it just means "drink"), make art, share, reach out, noise used as a verb, and . . . apropos of Magic One-Oh-Seven: F-Bomb. Fuck, to me, is still pretty serviceable as a noun, verb, or adjective, with clear and distinct colorations to its already rich history. Language imitates the public riot, the poet said. And what's today's life like, if not a riot?
From Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford. Copyright 2014 Richard Ford. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.