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I point to the word, say, you have to break it down, sound it out. EX—TING—GWISH—ER.
What’s that? Sandra asks, giving me that disgusted you’re-tricking-me look. Then she screws up her mouth, says EX—TING—SQUNCHING . . . What is that anyway?
You know, when your boss says there’s a fire, what do you get?
I get the red thing.
Yup. A fire putter outer. That’s a fire extinguisher. EX—TING—GWISH—ER.
She tries again, EX—TING—TWINGLING.
GWISH, I say, it’s a weird syllable.
Sylll—bull—shit? What’s that word?
Syllable. That’s a part of a word. But that won’t be on your test, we’ll talk about that later. Once you see the first two parts EX—TING you’ll know what word it is. You’ll know they are talking about the red thing. EX—TING—GWISH—ER.
But what kind of thing is GWISH?
I shrug, no idea.
GWISH! GWISH! Strange, ridiculous sound. GWISH! GWISH! Sound of rubber boots lifting off gloppy mud puddle.
Sandra and I have been friends for more than ten years. She works at a shelter for women coming out of prison, like the place she stayed when she got out of Federal pen twelve years ago. She likes the job, they like her, but she needs to take the F 02 fire guard test—though the one time the shelter had a fire in the kitchen, she was able to contact the fire department and get the women out, while the those who’d been certified didn’t know what to do. Growing up in South Carolina, she says she was boisterous, stopped going to school around sixth grade when she was sent to a reform school—one that didn’t actually have a school. Part of her difficulty in taking this test is reading. Though I’m no professional, I suspect she’s dyslexic. And she’s 66, Black, trying to keep this new job and I’m 70, white, transplanted forty years ago from Midwest to New York, blessed by educational privilege to be retired with a pension. She overflows with defiance and anger and, with that, opens the dam blocking mine. I help her with this test; she helps me find words for what’s locked inside me. She stokes my rebellion; inflames my fury. Keeps me from burning from the inside out. GWISH! GWISH!
Maria comes over to help me with my website. She’s a friend of three decades, second generation New Yorker, some family still in Mexico City. She’s a filmmaker and photo journalist with multiple major awards. Some years ago Maria shot a sitcom pilot I wrote, freely giving of her cameras and time. She also hosts my web page, which means I don’t have to pay for it. We need to LINK my DOMAIN NAME to her website. We discuss BLUEHOST, GODADDY, WORDPRESS. We need to set up the STATCOUNTER and we both have to remember our multiple LOGINs and PASSWORDs. To me these words carry as much meaning as GWISH! GWISH! When I thank Maria, she says she’s happy to help with this birthing of my virtual connection to others.
GWISH! GWISH! Sound of actual baby slipping and sliding out of the goo of the warm watery world into breathing, airy life.
A couple of days ago, I worked with Sonia to do her 2018 taxes online. I’d agreed because she was taking the standard deduction and only had one W-2 for under $30,000 for full-time work. One half hour—GWISH! GWISH!—we were done. She was set to get over $1,000 back. I was happy that I could do this very easy thing for her. A friend for more than seven years, she sometimes called me Ma. Sonia grew up in the Lower East Side running the streets since she was thirteen. Once when we were walking somewhere, I had horrible pain in my chest, my left arm tingled and she hustled me to Emergency Room. Sitting together we made an odd pair, her with her bald head and Puerto Rican accent, me twenty years older with white face and white hair. A nurse asked, how do you know each other? I said we’re friends. With a sly smile, Sonia said, she’s my Ma. Later, they discovered I had a 96% BLOCKED ARTERY and they gave me a STENT.
GWISH! GWISH! Sound of squeaky sneakers on not-so-squeaky-clean hospital floors.
Ready to submit the taxes, we hit a snag. In order to file, Sonia needed her bank ACCOUNT and ROUTING numbers, which she didn’t have with her. So today Sonia texts me her numbers. With her on the phone to complete the refund section, I need the form number she used for her 2017 taxes. Did you use 1040EZ? She doesn’t know, wants to put me on hold while she rifles through her papers to find last year’s taxes. DEDUCTIONS, FILING, ROUTING, BANKS. I tell her to call me when she finds her forms. Hang in there, she says, flinging the phrase at me like a curse.
GWISH! GWISH! Sound of ghosts flitting by, wings flapping, fluttering a lifetime of forms, doctor appointments, tests, books, reports, calendars.
At Sandra’s apartment going over the fire guard test again, she stumbles on IGNITE. I break it down, IG—NITE. She asks, what does that mean?
It’s like when you strike a match, it flames up, ignites. I ask, you put a key in the car’s what? Pleased Sandra replies: IGNITION. I add, remember when, to hot wire a car, we used to put wires together, they’d get a spark. That’s igniting, that’s an ignition. IG—NITE. Pleasure flares in my search for words to make other words take root in Sandra’s mind. IG—NITE.
GWISH! GWISH! Sound of gloopy thoughts hauling themselves out of the muck. I send money by VENMO, send video by VIMEO. Hope I don’t mix them up.
Sonia calls back. I have the papers, she says, but there are no form numbers. I say, doesn’t something look like your 2017 Federal Taxes?
I say, doesn’t any page have a form number like 1040 or 1040EZ at the top?
I say, go back to the people who did your taxes and get another copy. She says, Hey Ma, let me tell you what had happened with one of the women at my job. GWISH! GWISH!
Next thing I know—GWISH! GWISH!—I’m jabbering on a three-way conference call to set up a FACEBOOK page to announce the memorial in May for our friend John. John lived with AIDS for thirty years while continuing to fight for people’s rights. He started out serving breakfasts with Black Panthers in Chicago, worked for United Farmworkers in Wisconsin, and, being part Chippewa, participated in the occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973. Later he helped found Act Up East Bay in Berkeley. In the 80s he had a pop band. Then he mutated into a tango singer. He’s the one who opened my mind to politics and human rights activism and, with his goofy loud laugh, never stopped hammering me about it. But today, on the phone to set up his memorial, non-activist words fly around: JPG, PIXELS, WI-FI. While we talk, I check a site, it hollers out: NOT SECURE. Then asks if I wanted to track COOKIES. I’m confused. Glad I’m not trying this on my own. As John always said about organizing, we have to do this together. Even dead, John teaches me. Even dead, he persists.
GWISH! GWISH! Sound of mortality—life being sucked out of this world, suctioned into immortality.
Sandra calls. Yesterday she went to emergency, coughing and in pain. They kept her all night to watch her heart. In the morning the nurses came in to take her for a STRESS TEST. When they said it was the NUCLEAR one with an injection that shoots your heart rate up so fast you think you’re having a heart attack, she says, I told them no and pulled my IV out. I was so mad, she says, I yelled you’re not using me as a guinea pig. I nearly died when you shot me up with that stuff before. You’re not killing me with your TUSKEGEE genocidal mess.
I tell Sandra I’d walked out of a NUCLEAR test too because I couldn’t lie still for a half hour under an MRI. I get PANIC attacks. Later I took the regular STRESS test with treadmill. She agrees to go back to her doctor, but not to take the NUCLEAR test.
No GWISH! GWISH! Only IG—NITE.
Sonia calls back: She has last year’s file form 1040EZ. Halleluiah. Then I need her State ID numbers. She digs around and finds her ID, but says, the numbers are too small; I can’t see them and my glasses are broken; oh, okay, here, under the lamp, I can see the numbers now, I have a spot under a lamp; it’s all good now; I’ve got it; I’ve got it now; I can read the number.
She gives me the ID number. I tell her I now need the DOC number.
She says, there isn’t another number, that’s all there is. Do you want it again?
No, look again. Check the back.
Yes, here it is; it’s on the back. You want me to read it?
My voice is getting lower, angrier, strained. Yes. Please read me the number. I type it in the little box. Then it wants EXPIRATION date.
She says, August 2018.
August 2018? That’s expired!
Oh, she says, I got another one; it’s still on the paper it came in. As she looks for the newer ID, I look at the time, another half hour on the phone. She returns with her newer ID and says, it’s okay, I‘ve got it now; I know what I’m looking for; if I just had my glasses, but they are cracked; let me see if I can get under this lamp, here it is. You ready?
Yes, yes, I’m ready. I’ve been ready, I say through clenched teeth. Once I get the numbers in, I press the submit button. We’re done. She drives me crazy, but I love her.
GWISH! GWISH! Sound of digital zeros and ones siphoned through virtual pneumatic tubes, turning virtual numbers into cold, hard cash.
Tanisha, born and raised in Harlem, has been a friend for over twenty years. She started an online Grieving Journey for women who lost their mothers. This kind of help I don’t want, even though my mother’s persistent power over me, even after she died, stymies me. I want to be stirred up. I don’t want to be stirred up. Do I have to do this? I do it. It releases something powerful. HOPE, HEARTACHE, HEALING. At Tanisha’s suggestion, which I tease her is actually an ORDER, I write a letter to my mother to say good-bye because I wasn’t there when she died. I cry and sob like a baby. Yes, HOPE HEARTACHE, HEALING. Thanks Tanisha.
GWISH! GWISH! Sound of sloppy, gloopy, enormous gratitude spilling out, spreading over the planet like honey.
My husband was dizzy, weak, diarrhea, bleeding from rectum. Rushed to emergency room. Sat with him. He stayed the night. Then back home. I did my part and his part: shopping, cleaning, shivering with fear. He got better. Not long ago, he took care of me for seven months of hospitalizations and surgeries. One takes care of one, till there is only one. Then none.
GWISH! GWISH! Sound of screaming, gnashing of teeth, letting it all go, slurped up by the universe.
A Tower of Babel recording loop: DOMAIN NAME, GODADDY, VIMEO, PIXELS, LINK, EXPIRATION, HEARTACHE.
NUCLEAR STRESS, WORDPRESS.
We gotta help each other.
I’m going to IG—NITE.
Get the EX—TING—GWISH—ER.
P.S. On Sunday Sonia says she can’t get the tax confirmation email because she bought a new used phone and only the email from the previous owner is on it. She says, I keep deleting his email but it doesn’t go away; my email isn’t there; I hate this phone; it doesn’t work at all.
So I delete the guy’s account from her phone and set up her email account. An ERROR MESSAGE appears and gmail stops working. I clear the CACHE, turn her phone off and on; update her gmail. It works. She says, Ma, you’re a technology warrior. Well, ain’t I the leper with the most fingers! I sing to Sonia, We are family. GWISH! GWISH!
P.S.S. Sandra. Furious. Flunked fire guard test. She says, I filled in the ones I knew about fire EXTENSIONS, then I tossed the test at the proctor. He said you got 11 right out of 20, but you left 9 blank. You only need three more to pass, go back and fill them in.
She says she refused. Angry, she stormed out.
I say, you’re your own worst enemy. When you feel yourself getting like that, breathe slowly. Tell yourself you can do it and read the question again. Don’t leave anything blank. Why didn’t you just guess when you didn’t know the answer like everyone told you to do?
Because you know I don’t do what people tell me.
When are you going to take the test again?
Yes, you are.
No, I’m not.
I love you, you maniac, my mirror.
In spite of our own resistance, we persist.
Jan Schmidt is an editor for the online literary magazine Cable Street. Her short story “Pandora” was published in the latest issue of Solstice as a finalist in their Fiction Prize. Other fiction writing appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic, The Wall, Tupelo Quarterly, The Long Story, and New York Stories. Her short story collection Everything I Need was a finalist for the Eludia Award, Hidden River Arts, 2019. Her unpublished novel Sunlight Underground was a finalist for the Novel Slices Award, 2021.