Like a Drunken Sailor by Brennan Thomas

February 1990

He wasn’t deaf or hard of hearing. He used sign language because he had no other way to communicate. Luke Byers possessed an intact mind, sharp and flexible, but an incomplete, rigid body. He could not control how much he drooled or spilled when he ate. 

A few students took pity on him the way one might pity a blind dog. They would intermittently sit with him at lunch; with great patience, he would teach them fingerspelling or signs for basic expressions like “thank you” and “welcome.” His only regular lunch companion was Mrs. Henning, a teacher’s aide who helped him spoon marble-sized glops of apple sauce and macaroni into his mouth, which always appeared to be smiling. 

Only three people—Mrs. Henning, his mother, and his sister—knew Luke well enough to recognize when he was actually smiling. His eyes would squint, float from bobbing blue-green apples to emerald almonds turned upwards. They would shine, and Mrs. Henning would know something had amused him. “Now what’s so funny, Luke?” 

He laughed often, always in muteness. 

Nothing in his body impaired him from understanding the spoken or written word. Mathematics came easily to him, though Mrs. Henning or a classmate had to help him draw straight lines with a protractor or circles with a compass. He read voraciously, studied literature and history with a scholar’s tenacity as he sought relationships between this cause and that effect. He wrote with an eloquence uncommon to students his age, had won several regional contests for his essays and poetry. 

And he was the best speller in his school’s eighth grade.

When the 1990 Dreden-Moore Middle School Spelling Bee took place that chilly Monday in early February, Luke Byers had held his own. During the first round, 38 of the 122 sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade contestants were eliminated, mostly with simple words with overthought spellings such as thermometer and sparkler. By the fourth round, only 33 contestants remained, the rest slain by giant killers like auxiliary and meticulous; by round eight, only four, including Luke, were still on stage. 

The words he had spelled correctly would have defeated most middle schoolers: bureau, migraine, nausea, filibuster, semaphore, pneumatic, and renaissance. This last word seemed pertinent to what Luke felt was a wind of change for him—a rebirth of his identity. When he had fingerspelled r-e-n-a-i-s-s-a-n-c-e without hesitation, there had been an audible murmur of perplexed amazement among his Dreden-Moore classmates. He could not talk, but he could think and spell. He could understand and had proven it on this stage.

The word that eliminated him, which his mother later insisted had been a judging error, was scalawag. Luke heard it as scallywag. He had asked for a definition, which did him no good, since the two words have virtually the same definition: a person who behaves badly; a rascal; a cruel, evil character. 

Luke had confidently fingerspelled s-c-a-l-l-y-w-a-g, before hearing the tinny ding of the elimination bell. 

There was murmuring again, this time with noticeable derision, as Luke walked, with Mrs. Henning by his side, across the stage toward the right exit. Walking had always been physically and emotionally painful for him. His hands could not fall by his sides (swinging them sent sharp aches shooting up his arms and spine), and so he held his right hand close to his chest and his left hooked around his waist. His legs had learned to cooperate with his mind’s direction, but not fully, and where the right foot shuffled forward like an eager dance partner, the left lagged behind. 

Because of the microphone stand’s position on the stage’s far left, Luke was forced to cross almost the entire length of the stage. Students who weren’t familiar with Luke’s walk before had been given full view of it, and there were giggles among some of the more brazen scallywags in the audience as he limped off stage.

The next morning, every student who saw Luke took a turn at imitating that walk. They did so about five feet behind him and out of his line of sight, but their admiring throngs of pimpled prepubescents encircled Luke, laughing behind trembling hand masks. 

He managed to ignore them until fourth bell, when he went to lunch with Mrs. Henning. He had been hoping the other students would leave him be long enough to eat his soggy Tuesday fish sticks, but in the swelling serpentine line that coiled along the cafeteria wall, they bunched up around him, dragging their feet and bending their arms in sloppy triangles. Laughing. 

“Your word to spell,” one boy proclaimed in a pompous falsetto, “is ‘ignoramus.’” 

More laughter. 

Luke swatted his tray of lukewarm food from the line counter to the floor. 

“Hey–!” a cafeteria worker called out.

He raised his hands to give life to the speech he’d always wanted to give these fuckers, but his fingers suddenly locked on him, the way tetanus locks the body, imprisoning it in spasms. 

But his jaw wasn’t locked.

That day, it found its voice. 

“I…,” he gasped. The sound wriggled from his mouth like a cicada from its soil encasement. 

The faux spelling judge’s grin bent to a straight line.

“See…you!” Another hard breath. “Hear you!” 

His eyes were ice-blue marbles of polished fury. They stared evenly, without shame or fear.

One more breath, then the final push.

“Fucking…ani-mals!”

He stared at the silent group. A few sucked in their lips, looking at the ceiling or walls, but most were staring at the spilled tray of food. 

He wasn’t going to waste one more syllable on this fucking rabble. He limped off, trailed by Mrs. Henning.

The next day and for the rest of the month, students talked about what an asshole Luke Byers was. 

For those few precious weeks, Luke’s eyes were turned up in squinting green almonds of delight. 

Brennan Thomas is an associate professor of English at Saint Francis University. She has published short fiction and poetry in several online magazines, including Fairfield Scribes, Microfiction Monday Magazine, The Quint, and The Lehigh Valley Review, as well as more than a dozen nonfiction articles on film and popular media studies.

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