by Tod Goldberg

Appears in Other Voices #28

I am in The Contraption.  My eyes, which the doctor has put drops into to dilate, are pinned open.  Dad sits behind me, in the dark, tapping his foot on the floor.  The chart is the only thing illuminated in the room.  My eyes are getting so dry, I can feel them shriveling up.  They will roll down my cheek any minute now and bounce across the cool floor.  I know this will happen.  They are getting very dry.

The eye doctor tells me to read the letters.  Little b.  Little b.  Little b.  He flips something on The Contraption and I read again.  Little d.  Little d.  Little d.  There is not much time left until my eyes turn into raisins and drop from their sockets.

“Again,” he says.  This time there are numbers.  Seven.  Seven.  One.  Seven.  I hear my father cough, like he does before he goes on the air.  My dad is The Voice of the City on Channel 2.  He uses a fake voice when he does the news.  He always coughs before he does it.  Tonight he’ll tell all of the Bay Area that his son’s eyes shriveled up like raisins and fell out of their dry sockets.  Wall Street climbed twenty-five points in heavy trading, he’ll say, and that will be that.

“OK, chief,” the eye doctor says.  “One more chart and then I’ll give you some 3D glasses.  You like 3D, don’t you?”

I don’t say anything because the time is now.  If I move my mouth they will fall.  I can’t afford to move a muscle.  He places a new chart in front of my eyes, my raisin eyes that will soon be my glass eyes, and tells me to read.  Big D.  Big D.  Big D.  Big L.  Big L.  My father coughs again, like he did before he told everyone about the president resigning.

“One more,” the eye doctor says, but I can’t take it.  I begin to scream “Raisins!” because I think that’s all I’ve got left, two dried up black raisins.  I scream until my Dad finally tells the doctor to get me out of the damn Contraption before I burst a blood vessel.

“Dyslexia,” the eye doctor tells my dad, “is manageable.”  I search for a hidden toaster in Highlights Magazine but can’t find it because my eyes are dilated and I’m wearing 3D glasses.


Third grade and I’m in a class for retards.  There is Natalie Hash who has two plastic arms with mechanical hooks on them.  She tells me that she was run over by a steamroller and kisses my ear until I wet myself a little and push her away.  Joe O’Neil stutters and blinks.  I stay away from him.  Kirk Hartman, Natalie tells me, has a vagina.  I don’t believe her.  I feel out of place.

>Mrs. Blass is our teacher, and she’s very nice.  She has long black hair with streaks of blond.  I tell her that her hair looks like a picture of the Milky Way I have on my wall.  I tell her that my dad met Neil Armstrong and that one day I will be an astronaut.  She smiles at me and pats my head like Dad pats our dog.  It makes me feel pretty good.

I exercise every day with Kirk Hartman.  We walk on balance beams, we throw a tennis ball off a wall, and we learn to write the “new” alphabet.  This seems dumb to me because I’ve been writing it differently for two years without a problem.  But, Mrs. Blass tells me I need to learn the right way.  She pats my head and when she is just out of hearing range, I give her a little bark.  Kirk laughs, but I hit him on the arm and tell him not to hear me.

I keep the “old” alphabet in my head because I think it works better.  The letters mean more to me than the new ones do.  Since I am forbidden to use it at school, I use my alphabet for other things.  I change the shape of some letters, sawing off the rough edges here and there, curling loops around others.  Some letters get assigned to words.  My favorite letter is X, so I give it to Mrs. Blass.  Except I change it to look like a ballerina doing a pirouette and I color it black and gold to match Mrs. Blass’ hair.  The problem is I can’t draw it like I see it.  It ends up looking like a nine.  I assign my sister Kelly the letter R, but I flip it upside down and put a star on either side of it.

After school, I always walk home with my sister Kelly.  She is two years older than me.  We throw rocks at each other while we walk and sometimes we stop and spit on bugs.  We get along better at home than on the way there.  Kelly is very smart.  She is in advanced math and is already learning pre-algebra.  She wears a calculator watch.  I’m not real confident with time yet.

Mom is very active in the community, so there are days when we come home and she’s not there.  She says she has civic responsibilities because Dad is The Voice of the City.  When Mom is not home I feel nervous.  I worry that Kelly will choke on beef jerky, or our dog will have puppies and I won’t know what to do.  I spend a lot of time in my room looking at the maps of space Dad gave me on my birthday.  Neil Armstrong told my dad that NASA is always looking for good astronauts, and I think I might like to do that when I get older.

Dad doesn’t spend much time at home.  He anchors the news at 6 and 11.  He also makes documentaries.  He did one about stewardesses that won him an Emmy for local broadcasting.  He is a very important man, my mom says.

One day I hear my dad tell my mom that he deserves everything he’s got.  That he’s worked damn hard to give us all a home and something he calls “creature comforts.”  I am sitting in the family room playing with my army men, arranging them in the creases and folds of an old comforter.  Dad lights a cigarette and sits down on the couch across from me.  He watches me arrange the men for a battle I will wage silently.  I prefer to set the men up and then just look at them, imagining bullets ripping through their plastic bodies, heads spinning wildly down the seams of the comforter.  Each of the two hundred men has a name, but as a group they are the letter Q.  There is little in the way of modification to that letter, because it is a very sinister looking letter.  It is slithery and mean.

“Ray,” my dad says.  “Before your sister gets back I want to have a man to man chat.”  He flattens a pillow on the couch that he wants me to sit on.  I allow for five men to die before I take my place next to him.  “Son,” he says, and I let a helicopter drop a bomb on a small village of Kelly’s Barbie dolls.  “I’ve been offered a wonderful opportunity to work for the network in Los Angeles.  So, next week I’m going to move down there and start looking for a new house for all of us.  You and Kelly and your mother will stay here until the end of the school year.”  I fix my eyes on my father’s left foot, which has just swept over the heads of Alfred and Nick the Stick; their screams echo in my head.  They were good soldiers.  “What do you think about all of this?” my dad asks.

“I think it’s fine,” I say.  “You’ve got all you’ve deserved.”

My dad gives me a strange look and then puts his arm around me and squeezes me tight.  “You’re going to be the biggest little man in the house,” he says and kisses my head.  Two more men die when a recon mission comes under heavy enemy fire.

My dad and mom become the letter Y.


I tell my classmates that my father is moving away to become an astronaut.  Natalie tells me that her arms are made from the same materials that NASA uses and then tries to kiss me on the lips.  I bite her chin and draw blood.  It tastes salty and warm, not unlike the sauce for French Dip.  Mrs. Blass yanks me into the bathroom and makes me bite soap.  She is beautiful and I tell her that she moves like a ballerina and that she is X .

At a parent-teacher-student conference the next day, Mrs. Blass tells my mom that she can’t help me anymore.  That I’m smart enough to do anything I want, but there is a problem about application.  She says that again.  “Application.”  While they talk, I draw a picture of Mrs. Blass spinning on her tiptoes; her arm is arched up and the colors are perfect.  I slide the picture across Mrs. Blass’ desk and she picks it up.

“Do you see what I mean?” she says to my mom.  My mom smiles and takes my hand in hers.


When we get home, Mom tells Kelly and me to write a letter to our father.  I write mine in the old alphabet and seal it in an envelope before Mom can read it.

Three days later, Dad and Mom have a fight on the phone.  I listen on the extension in the family room.

“You’ve gotta see this, honey,” he says.  “It’s almost like an alien wrote it.  There are parts that look like the alphabet, but they are all backwards and twisted up.”

“He’s very confused is all,” she says.  “You should have seen the people he had in his class.  It’s a wonder he’s not worse.  His best friend, a boy named Kirk Hartman, is a hermaphrodite of all things.”

“I think maybe we should take him to a therapist.”

“He’s not crazy,” she says.


I am moved to a new classroom where the kids are not retarded, but I am singled out because I used to be.  Two boys, Scott Sorensen and Phil Miglino, pin me down during recess and write “retard” on my forehead with a thick black marker that smells like licorice.  A girl named Hollis, who has buckteeth and stringy hair, tells me she is going to marry me and then runs off making gagging noises.  I miss Mrs. Blass and my exercises with Kirk.

I make friends with a very fat boy named Jamie Smith.  He vomits on his desk the second day I am in class, which makes me feel a little less focused on.  I go to his house after school to play.

We sit upstairs in his room and color pictures on large pieces of poster board.  He draws Godzilla attacking a boat in the middle of the sea.  I tell him that no matter how tall Godzilla might be, he absolutely could not stand up in the deepest parts of the Atlantic Ocean.  Jamie responds by ripping up my sketch of the Apollo landing on the moon.  Ten minutes later we are friends again.

Jamie and I spend a lot of time at the Quick Stop buying slurpees and corn nuts.  One afternoon, we see Kirk Hartman there playing pinball.

“He has a vagina,” I tell Jamie, though I’m not sure I believe that.

“Do you want to kick his ass?” Jamie asks.

“Sure,” I say.

Jamie grabs Kirk by his collar and yanks him out to the street where our bikes are parked.  Kirk looks at me like I’m crazy, but all I can do is laugh.  We drag Kirk down a rocky gully behind the Quick Stop and then tie his hands behind his back with my bicycle chain and lock.  Jamie punches him a couple of times in the face and then tells me to pull off Kirk’s pants so that he can see if Kirk has a vagina.

“Ray,” Kirk says, but it comes out sounding funny because Jamie has knocked out his two front teeth.  “Ray,” Kirk says again but I pull off his pants anyway.  He has a penis.  Jamie pushes me aside and lifts up Kirk’s penis and then I see it.  A vagina, just like Natalie Hash said.  Jamie laughs and then brings his knee into Kirk.  I look down and Kirk is staring right at me.  I turn and run back up the gully, get on my bike and ride home.

At six o’clock that night, Van Humber, the new Voice of the City, announces that a young boy has been found beaten to death behind a Quick Stop in Concord.  I hide in my bedroom and listen for police sirens.  I listen to every sound the house makes, breaking each noise into parts.  The refrigerator is Click-Hiss-Click.  The phone is a scream of even pitch.  My mother’s phone conversation floats into my room.  I take apart the words she speaks by sound, breaking them down until they are nothing but grunts.  I visualize each letter in every word melting into slush.

Kirk Hartman is O.  I take that letter out of my alphabet and vow to never touch it again.


We move to Los Angeles the day after school ends.  I’ve made quite a turnaround, my teachers all agree, and its true.  I have won the spelling bee, tested well in math, and am considered a fine artist.  The teachers tell my mom that it is good that I stopped being friends with “that Smith boy” and started concentrating in class.  But I concentrate because of him.  Because at recess he follows me.  Because it is all I can do when he stares at me in class.  Because I close down and put him into a little tunnel and find something else in my head.

I decide that I will make some changes in Los Angeles.  I will make friends with the cool kids and try out for sports.  Math will become my new favorite subject.  Secretly, I will keep a journal written solely in my own alphabet.  By the end of the summer, I’ve added several new letters to my alphabet and expect to top 100 by Christmas break.

School comes easy after I tell everyone who my father is.  One of my teachers, Mr. Schreiber, tells the class that my father seems very trustworthy on the news.  I fall in love with Julie Glass when she tells me that her mother thinks my dad is sexy.

At home, I play with my Star Wars action figures when my parents are around.  When they aren’t looking, I scribble new letters into my journal.  One night my parents have a dinner party with a few “big guns from the Network” and Kelly and I sit at the kid’s table with the other children.  I get nervous because we are supposed to eat with the correct fork and I keep forgetting which of the three is correct.  My mom’s eyes are on me while I am eating, so I dare not mess up.  Kelly confides in me before dinner that this whole evening is a “really big deal” and that I shouldn’t say anything stupid or start screaming about raisins.  She thinks that is pretty funny.  We don’t have much in common.

Finally, my mom comes over and excuses us from dinner.  My stomach hurts, I tell her.

“Honey,” Mom says.  “You know where the bathroom is.  Just spray some air freshener when you’re done.”

I grab my notebook and sit on the toilet for an hour.  I write a letter to Kirk Hartman in my alphabet.  I tell him all about Los Angeles, and about my new friends, and about the new math I’m learning where letters and numbers work together.  Sometimes, I write, I can’t get the equations to stop running through my head.  It makes me feel like a robot.  I imagine I am the robot from Lost in Space and everyone depends on me.  I tell Kirk that I am sorry I let him down.

The door opens and a tall man with steel gray hair is standing in front of me, his hands fumbling with his zipper.

“Oh,” he says.  “You startled me.”  He leans down and looks into my journal.  “What do you have there, a coloring book?”

“No,” I say.  “I’m writing a letter.”

“Well,” he says, still staring at my journal.  “Would you mind if I squeezed in here for a moment?”

“Sure,” I say and leave the bathroom.  My mom is sitting at the kitchen table talking to a woman with hair like Mrs. Blass.

“Ray,” Mom says.  “Come in here and meet Mrs. Stone.”  I walk over and shake Mrs. Stone’s hand.

“I am pleased to meet you,” I say.

“He’s such a little man,” Mrs. Stone says.  My mom smiles and says something quietly to Mrs. Stone that makes her blush and giggle a bit.  I reach up and touch her hair.  It is thick and wiry feeling, nothing like how I imagined Mrs. Blass’ hair to be.  I see my mother’s hand reaching for mine, but I’ve got to feel the blonde streak.  Will it be soft and warm?  I think it will.  It isn’t.  It is grainy and rough.  I pull as hard as I can until my dad has grabbed me and Mrs. Stone is shrieking and her hair is on the kitchen floor.


We go every Tuesday to see Dr. Lupus for “behavior modification.” For the first half hour, either my mom or my dad sit with me and the doctor and we discuss how to be a better person, how to do the right things, how to know when we are “getting close to that scary place.”  “That scary place” is mine alone, according to Dr. Lupus.  I must learn how to control my desires, he says, and act like a good young man.

The second half-hour, Dr. Lupus and I just talk.  One day, I decide to give him something to write about

“I have my own alphabet,” I say.

Dr. Lupus stops scribbling.  “Really?”

“And I witnessed a murder.”

Dr. Lupus sets his journal down and pulls his chair closer to mine.  He looks frustrated.  “You see, Raymond, this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish,” he says.  “We all know how creative and smart you are.  You don’t need to create scenarios to shock people.  Just concentrate on being yourself.  Simplify things.”

“All right,” I say.


My dad changes his name to Nick and gets hired by CNN as a correspondent.  He becomes known for going places no one else will.  He breaks stories in places like Kuala Lumpur, United Arab Emirates, Libya, Somalia, and El Salvador.

I coast through grade school and middle school because I am popular and smart.  The teachers want me in their classes to use as a good example for others.  I try out for sports and sometimes I do well.  I can swim the backstroke very quickly.  Math makes me the envy of other students because I develop a series of body twitches for multiple choice tests.  The teachers think I get nervous at test time, but I’m just giving out answers.  My school gets an award for testing extremely high in state run math exams, thanks to me.

Kelly learns to drive when I am in the eighth grade.  She takes me and two of her friends to school everyday.  One of her friends, Misty Lawler, sits in the backseat with me.  She wears short skirts and lets me touch her underwear.  She becomes—by my official count—letter number 489, which resembles an isosceles triangle and an obtuse triangle intersecting one another.  Geometry is my new specialty.

I get a letter from Jamie Smith the last day of ninth grade.  He tells me he’s found Jesus.  He tells me that one day very soon he will tell the world that I killed Kirk Hartman.  He tells me that Jesus came to him in a dream after he’d smoked some really good weed, and that Jesus told him to recant.  He tells me that Kirk Hartman has been seen as a mist, appearing for just a moment then dispersing, behind the Quick Stop, which, he says, is now a Pizza Hut.

I burn the letter.

My dad gets shot in the head by two guerrilla warriors in a jungle just outside of San Salvador.  His remains are sent to us in three boxes by the El Salvadoran government.  At Dad’s funeral, I read a poem that I title “The Voice of the City Will Never Rest.”  One of his colleagues tells me that I am a very brave boy and a talented writer.

My dad, post-mortem, becomes letters 599 through 612.  My mom stays Y, but I alter the letter slightly to reflect the sudden death of my father.


In high school, I become cool.  I tell everyone how great the Ramones are, how fluid their simple three-chord progression is, and how much I identify with what they are saying.  On my locker I place stickers for bands like the Sex Pistols, The Damned, Generation X and Discord over every inch of space.

My grades drop dramatically.  In order to become cool, I’ve had to make some sacrifices.  I’m following Dr. Lupus’ advice.  I have no need for history, so I fail it.  I have no need for PE so I fail it.  I have some need for English, so I get a D the semester we talk about Chaucer and an A- the semester we focus on current literature.  I have a great need for math and score high on the tests.  I start tinkering around with computer science.

I become cool by wearing the same outfit everyday.  Dark blue jeans, with an ironed crease down the center, and a plain white shirt, pressed.  On cold days I wear my leather jacket.  Kelly tells me I look like a freak.  I tell her that I finger bang Misty Lawler on a regular basis.  She tells mom and now I walk to school.

By the end of tenth grade, I have 845 letters, plus I have added an addendum for people I dislike or am afraid will hurt me.  Jamie Smith becomes the inaugural member when he writes me a second letter.

He writes, Dear Ray, Jesus is dead.  Kirk Hartman is alive.  I saw him last week behind the Quick Stop, which was a Pizza Hut, which is now a coffee house called Nectar.  Kirk says we should all get together.

I ask my mom if maybe we shouldn’t move to the East Coast so that she can be closer to her parents.  “They’re not getting any younger,” I say.  She cries, much as she has every day since my father was used for political purposes, and tells me that I am cruel.

Jamie Smith is my first algebraic formula to be used.  He is officially 2(3x + 8) (4x -2x+7)=n.  I vow never to solve for n.


Kelly graduates and moves to Seattle to attend the University of Washington.  We are friends again because I volunteer to help her pack and because I say that I would love to drive up north with her to keep her safe.  She takes me up on the first offer but not the second, which is fine, because it was more of a token suggestion than a real desire.

I attend summer school and make up all my Fs.  When I find out that if I continue to let my grades drop I will not graduate, I decide being cool also means not failing out of high school.  I still wear my allegiance to punk rock music on my sleeve, but at home I listen to John Coltrane and Otis Redding.  They are the only things that stop the numbers and the letters.  Under my bed, there are 26 full notebooks of alphabet and addendum and letters to my father and Kirk Hartman.  I wonder if they know each other.  I imagine there are separate heavens for different kinds of death.  Maybe people who die violently or under mysterious conditions share a level of heaven.  Maybe my dad and Kirk play catch and talk about me.  Maybe my dad tells Kirk that I finally kicked that dyslexia thing, but boy, I’m really obsessed with numbers and letters and equations and alphabets.

>One night I hear my mom talking to someone on the phone.  “Life will be so much easier when he goes to college,” she says.  “I’ve never deserved any of this.”


I take the SAT in my junior year, one year early, and score 1480.  “That’s Ivy League stuff,” my guidance counselor says.  “You’ve really buckled down, Ray.”  I tell him that I owe it all to my belief in power through education.  I am wearing a pair of chinos and a light blue Oxford button down.  My hair has grown thick and wavy.  I have on topsiders.  I am The Boy You Want Your Daughter To Date.  I have removed the punk rock stickers from my locker and replaced them with stickers about world causes.  My favorite is “One People, One Planet, Please.”  Misty Lawler sent it to me from FSU.  She sprayed a squirt of perfume on it, that, she assured me, contained no animal byproducts.

By the beginning of my senior year, I have 67 notebooks under my bed.  I have started writing short stories in my alphabet.  I am developing a program on my computer that will be able to read my language.

I come home from school on a Tuesday and my mom is sitting on the floor of my bedroom.  All 67 notebooks are scattered on the floor around her.  She is crying.

“Ray, what are you?” she says.

“I’m your son,” I say, because that is all I can say.  In my mind I am running equations.  Solve for X.  Solve for X.  But all I see is Mrs. Blass.  How do I solve for X?

My mom lifts up a notebook and there is a drawing of Kirk Hartman and his letter.  I have not seen it in years.  “Ray, do you know what happened to this boy?”

“Yes,” I say.  Behind the Quick Stop, which became a Pizza Hut, and then something called Nectar.

“I thought you stopped all this years ago,” she says.

“I never stopped,” I say.  X minus Y equals what?

“Dr. Lupus told me that you’d grow out of this,” she says.  “That puberty would fix you.”

“It’s not like I’m torturing animals,” I say.  The slope of Y equals mx+b.

“This ends today,” my mom says.

“You didn’t deserve this,” I say and I mean it.  I mean my dead father.  I mean me, who will probably end up as a special on the Discovery Channel.  I mean these notebooks filled with an alphabet longer than some languages.  I mean the air she breathes, the food she eats.  I mean it all, for a moment.


The last time I use my alphabet is my freshman year in college.  I’ve mothballed it for over a year, because I saw how sad it made my mom.  I use it in my head sometimes just to make sure it’s still there, and it is.  I can count nearly a thousand letters during a lecture on revisionist history.  But I don’t write it down, I don’t write the letters to dad or Kirk in it.  I just save it for the times when I feel nervous.

It’s the nerves that do me in.

My roommate introduces me to his sister Tina.  She is 22, a junior majoring in Psych, and she thinks that Otis Redding is God.  We have a built in connection with a man who died too soon.  After our first date, we drive back to her apartment off campus.  I kiss her eyes and her neck.  “Wait,” she says and gets up from the bed.  She fumbles around in the dark for a minute and then I hear Otis come through the stereo.  Tina is singing along to him as she crosses the bedroom.

“I’ve been loving you, for soooo long,” she croons.  When she is back on the bed, her top is off.  We spend the next two days just like this.

The next day, I’m walking on campus looking for the vendor who sells rice bowls.  Usually, he parks in front of Science II, but there is a sign saying he is now stationed outside the Psych Department.  I have a rice bowl every day for lunch, so I trek across campus.

I sit on the grass and eat my rice bowl and watch two squirrels race around the branches of a tree.  I feel good about most everything today.  The sun is out.  I have my rice bowl.  My mom is in Italy with three girlfriends (according to the postcard).  I have spent 48 hours experiencing great pleasure.  I might rush a fraternity in the winter.

Jamie Smith walks out of the Psych building holding Tina’s hand.  They stand beneath an awning and she kisses him on the cheek.  He takes a step back and smiles.  Makes a gesture with his big hands.  Frowns like a clown frowns.  She kisses him on the lips.  He takes the stairs back up inside the building.

My rice bowl spills at my feet.  The squirrels pounce.  2(3x + 8) (4x -2x+7)=n.

Tina sees me, frowns like people frown, and starts making a line to me.

I run across campus, through the student union and all the way to my dorm room.

The walls are blank white and I want to fill them up.  I want Tina to know that she has made a tragic mistake, that she has been in bed with a killer.  I want Tina to know that there are some emotions you don’t play around with, that tenderness is a privilege, not a right.  I write her a long letter using as many words as I can muster.  I access the addendum.  I fill the walls with my alphabet.  Every last inch of empty wall is filled with my words, my symbols, my algebraic formulas.


When I was a little boy, my dad told me that there are spaces we all fit into.  This was when we were driving home from the eye doctor’s office.  He said that when he was a child he couldn’t catch a ball very well, or run very fast, but he could speak.  He said, “There are things you can do that don’t take great physical skill, Ray.  You capitalize on what you do well and then you become what you want.”

Maybe Dad had his own alphabet somewhere.  Maybe sometimes he couldn’t tell if he was seeing a lower case d or a lower case b.  I’ve written him a thousand letters—not an official count, because I don’t do that anymore—and in each one I apologize for things I’ve done since he died.

That wasn’t Jamie Smith out in front of the Psych Building.  He’s either dead or in prison, I know that now with some certainty.  I’ve never taken the time to solve Jamie’s equation, maybe out of fear, maybe out of faith, but I think I’d find the answer to be pretty anticlimactic.

So I live a normal life.  I have a wife, a child, a gold dog.  But sometimes, especially when I watch my son struggle with his first words, I yearn for my alphabet.  For the way my mind could twist away for hours assigning, creating, modifying.  Compulsion tells me to assign my wife and child a letter, something solitary and distinct that I could base a whole new alphabet on.  But I resist.  I simplify.  I solve for X.