My wife and I are having breakfast one morning in northwest Detroit. It’s a bar/restaurant. On a couple big screen tv’s, highlights from last night’s baseball games play. Sawing on a piece of avocado toast, for which they have given me a steak knife, I look up and admire assorted junk and portraiture on the walls–a few famous locals (Madonna, Robin Williams) and a few famous not locals (Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein). Above the photos and hanging bric-a-brac and do-dads loom the heads of great beasts–elk and caribou, a moose, a few deer and antelope that play no more..
“Do you think they vacuum those heads?” I say.
She doesn’t look up. She’s been listening in on the conversation of two guys sitting a few tables over from us. She’s asked me a couple times, Did you hear that? Did you hear that?
No, I didn’t. There’s too much circumambient noise.
(The only good thing about gradual hearing loss is the gradual increase in your opportunity to use the word “circumambient.”)
In fact, she’s a little irritated with me at the moment. We had just placed our order with the server when, looking over my head toward the back of the restaurant, my wife said, “Look at that (something or other) hanging there.”
Something or other. I didn’t turn and look. I just said what I sort of heard. “Chainsaw?”
“Chandelier,” she says, louder.
In situations like this, a word can be a Roscharch test, an auditory blob. You make of it what you will.
“Those animal heads up there,” I say, nodding in their direction, “they must be loaded with dust.”
“I have to wonder about you,” she says. “Doesn’t it bother you that you can’t hear? I’m amazed, the things you say when I ask you a question. Chainsaw, really?”
“Too much circumambient noise, “ I say. I tell her I was just having fun.
“It’s not fun,” she says.
We both take bites and chew. She turns her head slightly, listening. The two guys, I hear now, are talking about dementia.
I ask her: “Do you think there’s a service? A guy in a van with specialized equipment, he travels around the Detroit area vacuuming animal heads hung up in restaurants and bars?”
She doesn’t answer. She heard what I said. I know she did.
“Moose heads,” I say. “I wouldn’t want to sit under one of those. All that dust.”
“Really,” she says. “Doesn’t it bother you? Not hearing?”
Moose Dusting. It would not be a growth industry. More of a niche thing. But you have to figure, steady work. Dust, after all, is a constant. To her point, I say, yes, it does bother me, but not as much as the thing on my foot.
“What is it?”
I lightly grind the toes of my right foot into the floor, feeling for the spot. “What it is is this little thing,” I say, “something growing on the bottom of my foot.”
Back home, pleased that I’ve remembered one important thing, I do a search for “double verbs” to see what I can find out about the “is is” “was was” sentence. I had a co-worker who used is is and was was in sentences all the time. “What it is is an opportunity to write a grant and get some money.” “What it was was a complete change in the way the workplace was organized.”
First hit I click is for double modals: might could, should oughta, musta coulda, used to could. I decide I best keep looking. Second hit, a Washington State University professor describes is is as a colloquialism, a verbal stumble that occurs when a speaker loses track in the middle of a sentence. A stumble. Or, if you’re not losing track, if you’re doing it on purpose, it may be just an odd little verbal curlicue.
My search reveals that people are far less interested in “is is” than they are in “it is what it is.” This, from the Urban Dictionary: “It is what it is. Used often in the business world, this incredibly versatile phrase can be literally translated as “fuck it.”
A variant comes to mind, from my distant past.
In the spring of 1980, when I taught 8th grade English for a semester in the Detroit Public Schools, I had a student named Rodney who greeted me every morning with What it is! He struggled with my name, he called me Mr. Barley for a few weeks, but eventually he got it. What it is, Mr Bay-LEE! he would say. Every morning I looked forward to it. What is is, Mr. Bay-LEE! And I would answer, What is it, Rodney. I sometimes think my life would not have been complete without that salutation. It was more than what it was. What it was was really cool.
Next morning in the dermatologist’s waiting room, after completing the information form and describing the purpose of my visit (“a thing on my foot”) I’m pleased to find an old issue of The New Yorker among the golf magazines. As usual there are two poems in the issue. Also as usual, there’s one I somewhat like and one I don’t understand and therefore do not like. I don’t understand in the sense of: What the hell is poet saying, and who cares? And why does The New Yorker publish stuff like this? The poem I like is about death. It takes up part of two pages in the magazine, which is a long time to stay with death in The New Yorker. But the poet makes it worth my while. And the poem makes a good point. Death sucks.
Setting the magazine aside, I wonder why I waited so long before coming to the doctor. What little wisdom I’ve come to as an older person could be summed up in two words: don’t wait. The thing on my foot is probably a wart. I picture it down there, just south of my toes, like a weed putting down roots, slowly growing. A slow burgeoning. I wonder if there’s a thing like Round Up, a serum Monsanto has engineered, a dab of which wipes out the wart, root system and all.
When I was in the fourth grade in Mrs. Mann’s room, I sat next to Forrest Whitman. He had a wart on his right hand, between his index and middle fingers. It was almost the size of a pea, black and kind of crusty and, well, warty. It looked like an old wart. And on such a young person. He told me one day that his mother had warned him not to pick at it. If he did, he could get cancer. For months now–that’s how long I’ve had this thing on my foot–I’ve avoided picking at it. Not because of Forrest Whitman’s mother. More because my father always used to say to me and my brother, about whatever anomalous thing we were hosting on our skin, Don’t pick at it.
Also because I suspect that picking at it will stimulate growth, cause the thing’s root system to expand and burgeon.
I’m thinking of picking up The New Yorker again when Rachel appears and takes me back to the examining room. She’s dressed in medical-center burgundy and looks to be in her mid-fifties. She has a mass of curly reddish hair pulled back, a pair of gold rim glasses. The lenses kind of sparkle in the artificial light. She also sparkles in the artificial light. For some people she would be a little too bright and chirpy for this time of day. I don’t mind.
“So Fall has arrived,” she says.
Yes, I say. And pumpkin pie. I tell her we’re eating our first Costco pumpkin pie of the season. I was going to wait a few weeks before buying one, but then I thought, Why wait? While I get settled on the examination table, Rachel and I take turns making appreciative remarks about Costco cakes and pies (how big they are!) and the challenge of buying one if you live alone, which Rachel announces.
She finds me on the computer and asks the reason for my visit.
“What it is is this thing on the bottom of my foot,” I say, taking self-conscious delight in the sentence.
She makes a note of the thing on my foot, hands me an alcohol swab, and invites me to clean the spot.
She squints through her glasses at it. “Probably a wart,” she says.
Minutes later the doctor, whose name I already know is Doctor Johnson, introduces herself. Before looking at it, she tells me the thing on my foot may be a plantar wart, explaining briefly the meaning of the word plantar (not planter): “of or pertaining to the foot.” Explaining, further, that if it is that, that she will have to burn it. I assume foot presentation posture on the examination table; she unwraps an instrument resembling an exacto blade and goes to work at some professional diagnostic scraping. That is to say, she picks at it.
After a minute she sits back on her stool and says, “I think it’s a punctate callus.”
Callus sounds good to me, better than wart. And I especially like “punctate.”
“Punctate,” I say.
“A spot or point,” she says, “differentiated from the surrounding area.” She washes her hands, tells me it still might be a wart or it might not. I should come back if the thing comes back. It was a pleasure, for her and me both.
Back home, my wife tells me she has stumbled upon an article I should read, about hearing aids that can make a fashion statement. If glasses, which correct a vision deficit, can be fashionable, why not a hearing aid, which can correct a hearing deficit? She knows I like fancy glasses, so maybe? I’m not interested, but I tell her I’ll take a look, maybe a little later.
“Really?” she says.
“Really,” I say.
“Really?” she says.
This is what love is–care for another that’s also care for oneself.
My phone pings the arrival of the article. And her brief, loving message with it. Don’t wait.