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March 1, 2017 Fiction

Speech Therapy 

Richard Johnston

Speech Therapy  photo

My therapist’s name was Sean. I remember that most of all because it was easy for me to say. The sound sh never caused trouble. I could curse or tell people to shut up all day long. But es caused a world of trouble.

One time I was asking a babysitter named Jody about her new boyfriend, who had a tattoo. She smacked me so hard I fell off the couch. “Gross,” she said, wiping away some flakes of spittle. Her boyfriend laughed, but Jody said it wasn’t funny. She said she was going to get a disease in her eye.

I was too excited to sleep that night. I was hoping Jody would go blind, and I was curious whether it would be gradual or sudden, and what her eye would look life afterwards. I imagined it going cloudy, like a glass of milk when you’re gulping it down and have to stop to breathe.

I also wondered if you could babysit with just one eye.

Maybe my parents would bring back Theresa. I liked Theresa. Once a bunch of her friends had filled a bathtub with grape Kool-Aid and let me play in it.


I can’t remember how old I was when I began speech therapy. Five, maybe six. We had moved into the new house on Woodland Drive, so I must have been five.

I could still describe Sean if I had to—if I read, for instance, that a murder had taken place in South Carolina, and that the police had two leads: one, that the suspect was a woman, and two, that she had worked for some years in Greenville as a speech therapist.

One of my buddies is a police sketch artist. It’s amazing, the questions he knows to ask. Sometimes he uses me for practice. Once he drew a picture of my great-grandmother that was so lifelike my dad later had it framed.

Of course, if such a murder really took place, I doubt the police would need me to work with a sketch artist. There can’t have been too many women doing speech therapy in South Carolina in the early 1980’s.

I wonder if I could Google her. She couldn’t be too old now. She seemed about my mom’s age at the time.

She could still be practicing a couple days a week.


I remember three things about Sean’s office: the yellow armchair, the fat mahogany table with its protective glass cover, and the quart-sized I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter bowl filled with bottle caps, mostly Tab ones.

There were also a handful of light-colored caps: Seven-up, Mello-Yello, and Mountain Dew. Those were the prize caps. If I said a word correctly after Sean had drawn one of those, she would give me a peanut M&M for later.


Sessions went like this. Sean would produce from a cabinet a large stack of glossy cards with pictures of things that had the es sound: soccer balls, ice skates, things like that. She’d draw a card and hold it up, and I’d try to say what was pictured. If I said it correctly, she’d reach into her bowl, draw a cap, and drop it into a tall, narrow glass. I can still hear the plink. The goal was to fill the glass by the end of the hour. If I did, I’d win a Snickers bar in addition to any M&Ms I had earned.

If I said a word wrong, however, Sean would pick up the glass and shake a bottle cap back onto the table. If more than one fell out, that was just too bad.

I earned a Snickers exactly twice.

It was a tall glass, like one you’d drink a Bloody Mary from.

One time Sean got so mad at me over one of her cards that she threw a bottle cap at me. It hit me right on the forehead. That’s a feeling you never forget. It’s not like getting hit by a super ball. A bottle cap has that serrated edge. If a cricket could bite, that’s what it would feel like.

I wonder if I told my parents. Probably not: This was the ’80s, when it seemed all adults could spank you. My parents had joined a spanking pact that comprised nearly all the parents on Woodland Drive. At school, Principal Noakes had decorated his office with vintage paddles, some of which, it was said, came from boys’ schools in England. Principal Noakes would choose a paddle based on the severity of an offence. I learned that in the fifth grade after calling Molly Banks a slut. Principal Noakes chose a medium-sized paddle with seven holes in it. It was funny because I’d seen my mom choose wooden spoons with equal care—not just when spanking, but when baking.

The main reason I wouldn’t have told on Sean was because I wanted that Snickers bar. My parents only let me have candy on long road trips to the beach.

I doubt a speech therapist these days could get away with throwing something at you. Then again, I doubt they give out candy bars anymore. I bet if you do well in a session they just give you one of those little boxes of raisins.


In the basement of our house were some makeshift shelves where my parents stored their old books. There were a bunch of paperbacks whose glossy covers I could stare at for hours, though I wasn’t sure why. Years later, when my parents got divorced and I had to help fill boxes, I learned what the rest of the books were. The brown ones with plain, black lettering were business textbooks. I always forget that my father, who became a CPA, taught college for a year. There were two shelves of mildewed hardbacks by authors like James A. Michener, Danielle Steele, and Dean Koontz. On the bottom shelf were the blue and gray literature anthologies that belonged to my mother.

It was among the latter that I had found the thesaurus.

At first I’d thought the blue book with its torn cover and fingernail-sized tabs along the edge was a kind of dictionary. But dictionaries only tell you what words mean. A thesaurus shows how to get around them.

I snuck upstairs and locked my bedroom door, as I would do years later whenever a new Sears catalog arrived in the mail. I placed the book on my desk and turned to the letter es. And there they were, just waiting for me: all the easy alternatives. The book was a thousand times more magical than even my illustrated Bible. Instead of snake, I could say reptile. Instead of snail, I could say laggard or plodder.

Not that I knew what all these new meant. For years I assumed a plodder was a kind of snail, just as a blue jay is a kind of bird. It actually means “a person who works in a slow and persevering but uninspired manner.” But Sean wasn’t concerned with meanings.


I wish I could tell you about being shown into Sean’s office and sitting down in that big, overstuffed, yellow chair armed with my new vocabulary. Sean asking me if I was going to earn a Snickers bar today. Me saying, “Yes, ma’am.” Sean taking a card from her stack and showing me a cartoon frowny face with tears squirting out of its eyes. Me rattling off words like wretched, dejected, and glum and daring her to call me wrong.

But I was after that goddamn Snickers.

Compared to nouns, adjectives were a positive gold mine. There aren’t many ways past a word like soap. But sad? There are lots of ways past sad. Hundreds, maybe. So I was taken aback when, years later, my twelfth-grade English teacher Mr. Pell started crossing all the adjectives out of the poems I’d written for extra credit.


When I went to college, I wanted to be a poet, and for my senior thesis I wrote a collection of poems called Cottonmouth. My primary adviser objected to the title because cottonmouth, he told me, was what you had after smoking pot. He suggested Water Moccasin, but I thought was absurd. Unless you were from the South, I said, you’d think a water moccasin was some Native American precursor to the Aqua-sock. Plus, “cottonmouth” had the word mouth embedded in it. I thought that was fitting, me being a poet and all.

One of the five or so half-decent poems I wrote for Cottonmouth is called “Speech Therapy.” It was actually published in the Spring 2000 edition of Meridian, and the journal still exists. It comes out of the University of Virginia. I can’t find my poem in the online archives, though.

I remember a teacher telling me that poets are doomed to looked back on their early work with something he called “embarrassed respect.” But I love “Speech Therapy.” It’s all about Sean and her stack of cards and her fucking bottle caps—in the poem they are marbles—and about my mother’s college thesaurus. The poem was very clever. The speaker credits the book with turning him into a poet.

The poem had some Freudian stuff about my mother, of course. But you have to remember that I was only twenty-one.

Another adviser once told me, “Listen. The thing you have to remember is that, when you’re twenty and a poet, you’re only twenty, but when you’re forty and a poet, you’re a poet.” I found that deeply offensive at the time. But he was right. I didn’t become a poet. I’m an English teacher, just like Mr. Pell, and what I’m really good at are crossword puzzles.


The last stanza of “Speech Therapy” contains the poem’s sole rhyme, and I’m sure that was intentional. There are no rhymes in the opening stanzas about Sean and her cards and marbles, that awful armchair, and the Snickers bar I worked for. Furthermore, the stanzas have a choppy sound.

But then the speaker finds the thesaurus.

The first line of the last stanza reads, “The day I found my mother’s Roget’s,” and the poem ends on the line, “I unleashed all the words I could say.”

If I decided to teach my poem today, I’d argue that “the rough sounds, laconic diction, and broken syntax of the opening stanzas enacts the speaker’s fear of speaking,” and that “the surprising rhyme at the end of the poem signifies his triumph.”


“It’s not Row-JAY’S, you fool. It’s ROD-jet’s.” After my Senior Thesis, a junior who had just applied to write a creative thesis had taken me aside to tell me this.

“Not in my house, it wasn’t,” I told him.

But I was mortified. Three recipients of the Pulitzer Prize and two Nobel laureates were at that fucking reading.

I thought the guy an ass for telling me. I still think he’s an ass. I can’t look at his poems without thinking about his small, damp, toad-like little face. He’s in the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, the one that Rita Dove edited, and which Helen Vendler savaged in The New York Review of Books.

And you know what? It isn’t ROD-jet’s after all. It’s how my mom used to say it and the way I’ve insisted on saying it. It isn’t just some Southern abnormality. I learned this recently when telling my story to colleague from Massachusetts whose first name, by some perverse coincidence, is Sean.


I learned something else recently. That asshole poet from college is giving a reading next month up in Boulder. I plan to be there, and I’m going to give him the pleasure of signing a copy of his New and Selected Poems for me. While he’s signing it, though, I’m going to tell him about Roget’s Thesaurus. I’m going to tell him a couple other things, too. And I won’t have a problem with his name.

image: Aaron Burch