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Speech Impediment

           Chase thought Roxanne was gorgeous and he loved the way she read the announcements over the school PA system every morning, her voice crisp and businesslike. He loved the way that she carried her huge, homemade purse with her everywhere, producing a variety of mirrors and granola bars from it at any moment. She’d made it herself out of strips of vintage fabric and some of her favorite t-shirts from her middle school years. She was just a little too proud of that purse. Chase liked that about her too.

Before Chase started dating Roxanne, he already knew plenty about her older brother Nicholas. He’d had several unpleasant interactions with Nicholas in the halls at school, but he had decided that being with Roxanne was worth the hassle of seeing more of Nicholas. It was a reality that Chase was willing to live with.  

Nicholas’ speech impediment was so severe that every word he said sounded like gibberish. Harsh, piercing gibberish. And he went out of his way to impose his speech impediment on the world. He spoke often, with great force and conviction. To anyone. People he knew, people he didn’t know, anyone. Roxanne was the only person who understood what he was saying. Even their parents didn’t know. Whenever Roxanne was with Nicholas, which was often since she seemed to feel responsible for him, she translated his inane tirades to whoever he was addressing himself to, but she wasn’t always around and her absence didn’t deter Nicholas.

His left eye looked intelligent. His right eye was always crazed or closed or infected.

He went to an expensive speech therapist three times a week, but one time about a month before Chase started dating Roxanne, he saw Nicholas and the therapist together in the park, both of them asleep on separate quilts spread out on the grass, Nicholas with a coverless paperback novel resting on his chest and his therapist with three or four green leaves caught in the tight, black curls of her hair. Chase never told Roxanne what he’d seen. He didn’t know how she’d take it.

The first time Chase met Roxanne’s parents, they took him, Roxanne and Nicholas out to dinner. While waiting for their parents to finish getting ready, Nicholas ranted at Chase in his usual incoherent stream and Roxanne translated.

            “Nicholas says the restaurant we’re going to isn’t safe,” said Roxanne, as if her mind was somewhere else. “He says the emergency exits are sealed shut and the fire extinguishers are just leftover props from the community theater’s Backdraft performance.”

            “Mmm,” said Chase. “But we don’t have a community th-”

            Nicholas interrupted him with another burst of jabbering.

            Roxanne looked at her fingernails and said, “Nicholas says the measles is still a common disease but doctors and nurses cover it up. He says if he was ever a movie star and somebody asked him to autograph a picture of himself, he would write his name in big letters right across his own face.”

            Nicholas and Roxanne both looked at Chase as if expecting him to have something to say about one or both of these pieces of information. He tried to resist, but the silence became unbearable and he finally said, “I think my great grandpa had the measles.”

            Nicholas spoke. Roxanne pulled a mirror out of her purse and examined her chin, saying, “Nicholas says he was waiting all afternoon for a certain commercial to come on TV because he couldn’t remember the punch-line, but it never came on.”

            Twenty minutes later, as the family left the house and moved down the front walk toward the minivan in the driveway, Nicholas shouted “Shotgun!” in clear, plain English and ran to stand next to the front passenger’s side door.

            Chase looked at Roxanne in astonishment, but she showed no signs of surprise. Neither did her parents. They all piled into the van, Roxanne and Chase in the back, Roxanne’s mom in the middle seat, Nicholas riding shotgun just as he had declared.

            Chase turned to Roxanne and said in a low voice, “Did you hear that? Did you hear what Nicholas said?”

            “You probably imagined that you understood it,” said Roxanne.

            Nicholas turned around in the front seat and glared back at them. He spoke in usual way.

            “Nicholas says there’s no reason to come up with new kinds of cars,” said Roxanne. “He says the cars we have right now are just fine.”

            Chase met Nicholas’ gaze. His frightening right eye was flashing, but his left eye looked uneasy.


            A few weeks later, Chase was walking past Nicholas’ room on his way back to see what was taking Roxanne so long to pick out a movie when, through the closed door, he very clearly heard Nicholas say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Chase froze in the hall and listened hard, barely breathing, but Nicholas didn’t say anything else, neither more words that Chase could comprehend nor his usual babble.

            Chase hurried down the hall and found Roxanne rooting around under bed. “I can’t find the movie I was looking for,” she said. “It’s not in its case.”

            “Roxanne,” said Chase, closing her bedroom door behind him. “I just heard Nicholas say something. I understood it! It was as clear as you or me talking. I was walking past his room and I heard him say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

            Roxanne frowned. “I’m sure it just sounded like that to you.”

            “No,” said Chase. “I know what I heard.”

            Roxanne sat up and pointed at Chase. He was surprised at how angry she looked. “Listen, Chase, Nicholas can’t speak like you or I can. He can’t. The doctors say he probably won’t ever be able to. I’m the only one who knows what he’s saying, OK? He needs me, OK?”

            Chase recognized that he was on dangerous ground. Far more dangerous than he had anticipated. “OK,” said Chase. “I get it. It was probably just a coincidence that whatever he said sounded like something that I thought I understood.”

            “Whatever,” said Roxanne. “Actually, I can’t find the movie I wanted to watch and I’m kind of tired now. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

            On his way out, Chase paused by Nicholas’ door again, standing in the dark hall next to a portrait of the family taken when Nicholas was a baby, before Roxanne was even born. Chase listened, listened, listened. He heard something. Nicholas was speaking, talking to himself, but it was too quiet for Chase to determine if what he was saying was anything but noise.


One night a week later, after Roxanne’s parents went to bed, she and Chase decided to go on a walk around the neighborhood. As they were leaving the house, Nicholas came out of his room and said something to Roxanne. “Sure,” said Roxanne. “You can come along.” She turned to Chase and said, “Nicholas says he wants to come along.”

            The night was thick and humid. The neighborhood was quiet. Huge trees reached out to each other over the narrow streets, raining seed pods down on the cars parked along the curbs. While they walked, Nicholas kept up a constant stream of chatter, pausing only long enough to let Roxanne translate for him and occasionally to pry some sort of response out of Chase that he would then ignore.

            By the time they got to the far edge of the park, Chase was fuming at having yet another romantic walk with Roxanne ruined by Nicholas. He was just about to impress this point upon Roxanne by turning back and walking home by himself when four older guys, a couple years older than Nicholas, appeared out of the shadows of the park and stepped onto the sidewalk. Chase recognized one of them as Blaine Borque, an infamous local legend who some claimed hurt peoples’ pets for no reason.

            Blaine glowered at Chase, Roxanne and Nicholas while his three buddies stood behind him with their arms folded in a way that implied some level of toughness. “Well, just give us the purse, I guess,” said Blaine . “And wallets, guys. You both have wallets?”

            “There’s no money in the purse,” said Roxanne. Chase was surprised at how scared she looked. She was acting like this was the first time she’d been bullied. Although outside the context of school, Chase decided this was probably more like a mugging than bullying.

            “I’ve heard the ‘there’s no money in it,’ line before,” said Blaine . “Sometimes its true and sometimes its false. But there’s only one way to know for sure.”

            “Just take my wallet,” said Chase, stepping in front of Roxanne. “There’s close to 80 bucks in it.” He took it out of his pocket and opened it, showing Blaine the cash.

            “Look, guys,” said Blaine . “Chivalry’s not dead! But it does appear to be suicidal.” Blaine ’s buddies didn’t laugh. Chase suspected they didn’t know what chivalry was.

            Chase had almost forgotten Nicholas was even there when suddenly he let loose with a shrill burst of speech.

            “No, Nicholas,” said Roxanne, her voice quivering. “I’m not going to translate that.”

            Blaine narrowed his eyes at Nicholas and then recognition bloomed on his face. “Oh, I remember you!” he said. “You cornered me at the football game last year and did your idiot talk at me for about five minutes before I fattened your lip. Remember that?”

            Nicholas spoke again, his voice cracking and again Roxanne said, “No, Nicholas, I’m not saying that.”

            “You know what?” said Blaine . “I really couldn’t care less what you think you’re saying, but if you can say even one thing in real talk, we’ll let all you guys keep your stuff. Say anything at all that we can understand and we all just walk away.”

            Chase looked at Roxanne, but she wouldn’t look at him. She was focused on Nicholas. His face was contorted, his lips working silently. His left eye was shining, on the verge of shedding tears, it seemed, but his right eye was wild, rolling and darting up and down.

            “Nicholas,” said Roxanne in a still voice. “Please?”

            A sound began to grow from inside of Nicholas. It surged up from his chest, through his vocal cords, and poured out of his mouth, chopped and twisted and inside out and there was not a real word in it anywhere.

            Blaine and his buddies chuckled in disbelief. “Not a good effort,” said Blaine . He snatched the wallet out of Chase’s hand and one his buddies grabbed Roxanne while another yanked her purse away from her, granola bars scattering on the pavement. The other guy grabbed Nicholas by the front of his shirt, balling the fabric in his fist, and said, “Wallet? You understand? Wall-et?”

            Nicholas reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, handing it to his assailant.

            “ ‘Night,” said Blaine as he and his buddies walked back into the park, “Thanks for the laughs.” Chase could hear Roxanne breathing angrily through her nose. Nicholas, quiet for once, was trying to get the wrinkles out of the front of his shirt. His left eye was blank. His right eye was also blank.

            When they were almost back to the house, Nicholas finally spoke.

            “Nicholas says he’s selfish,” said Roxanne. “He says the only person he cares about is himself.”

            “That’s not what I said,” said Nicholas.

            Roxanne snorted. “That’s what it sounded like to me.”

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever considered affecting some sort of disorder or affliction? Are you affecting some sort of disorder or affliction right now? What were/are your motives? It’s ultimately indefensible, isn’t it? Isn’t it? Well?

  • Would you say that, once translated into English, Nicholas’ words are more valuable than nonsense, less valuable than nonsense, or exactly as valuable as nonsense?

  • Under what conditions should people like Nicholas be indulged?

  • What does Nicholas get out of his speech impediment? What does Roxanne get out of Nicholas’ speech impediment?

  • Do you think Nicholas’ speech impediment is a fair representation of all speech impediments everywhere?