There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them; the second is that the people who use them are normally numskulls and prudes; the third is that in general they’re not at all sexy, and the main reason for this is that no one loves them enough.
Contrary to those romantic myths which glorify the speech of mountain men and working people, Irish elves and Phoenician sailors, the words which in our language are worst off are the ones which the worst-off use. Poverty and isolation produce impoverished and isolated minds, small vocabularies, a real but fickle passion for slang, most of which is like the stuff which Woolworths sells for ashtrays, words swung at random, wildly, as though one were clubbing rats, or words misused in an honest but hopeless attempt to make do, like attacking tins with toothpicks; there is a dominance of cliché and verbal stereotype, an abundance of expletives and stammer words: you know, man, like wow! neat, fabulous, far-out, sensaysh. I am firmly of the opinion that people who can’t speak have nothing to say. It’s one more thing we do to the poor, the deprived: cut out their tongues … allow them a language as lousy as their lives.
Thin in content, few in number, constantly abused: what chance do the unspeakables have? Change is resisted fiercely, additions are denied. I have introduced ‘squeer,’ ‘crott,’ ‘kotswinkling,’ and ‘papdapper,’ with no success. Sometimes obvious substitutes, like ‘socksucker,’ catch on, but not for long. What we need, of course, is a language which will allow us to distinguish the normal or routine fuck from the glorious, the rare, or the lousy one—a fack from a fick, a fick from a fock—but we have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses, and our earthy words are all … well … ‘dirty.’ It says something dirty about us, no doubt, because in a society which had a mind for the body and other similarly vital things, there would be a word for coming down, or going up, words for nibbles on the bias, earlobe loving, and every variety of tongue track. After all, how many kinds of birds do we distinguish?
We have a name for the Second Coming but none for a second coming. In fact our entire vocabulary for states of consciousness is critically impoverished.
William H. Gass, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry.
Not that key. That’s the yellow key. The one that hates to come back up. Once depressed, it is reluctant to recover. You know, dear heart, if you really want to play me, keep the pressure on evenly. It is never necessary to hammer. I take a hint better than a holler…I’ve been in storage you know. Not much call for my kind anymore. Not that it matters a whole lot where I stand. Most storerooms are more song and story than these movies I was made for. All I get to count as screen time is a little tinktanktunk in the sound track, a passing angled shot of the keyboard and my highball-ringed, butt-burnt top—oh, and then the lower half of whoever’s sitting at me, with a finger or two from a fat-wrapped, shirt-armed plinkplanker visible, as if he were in action at the board—before the lens is away to frillyville and the muddy boots of the town saloon. The camera has to find its way through extras pretending to be a crowd, everybody moving their mouths faking monkey business—cocottes galore—and sitting on breakeasy chairs that could give way and dump their rumps in sawdust. What a bore. Bar as long as a Pullman car. Bar as long as a Pullman car. Not that key, honey. The key with the hairline crack. Yes, that one. Yum. My G-spot. So ask away.
I’ll tell you the worst right away. You want to know the worst? You Q & A types always want to know the worst. The worst was—I have overheard interviews, over heard—so I know—I know what you want to know: the worst—well, the worst was when I realized this darkie couldn’t play me. What a vile happenstance! What a remorse for me. After months of waiting I finally get a call and an opportunity to see some action, I’m working again after a long layoff, and the guy can’t type, can’t pluck, can’t tickle the ivories. Not that my keys are, you understand. Ivory, I mean, or even bone. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was better put together than I am, but really…what a sorry résumé! What a downarounder!
Don’t push down on me like that. When you surprise my keys they don’t sound. I tell you some folks would set drinks down on the board as if it were stiff with rheumatiz. I could get drunk on licked lips, I’ve endured so many spills. Don’t push down. I’m not in hearty operation, okay? And the leaners. Rick leans on me. Everybody leans. Let’s go into Rick’s and lean on the piano. Bogie, you know, had a lisp. Nothing about him was promising.
William H. Gass, Don’t Even Try, Sam, [In:] Eyes: Novellas and Short Stories, 2015.
Beneath—are u listening, u-stew-pid-u?—beneath the colored world, like the hidden workings of the body, where the bones move, where the nerves signal, where the veins send the blood flooding—where the signaling nerves especially form their net—lie all the grays, the grays that go from the pale gray of bleached linen, through all the shades of darkening, deepening graying grays that lie between, to the grays that are nearly soot black, without light: the gray beneath blue, the gray beneath green, yes, I should also say the gray beneath gray; and these grays are held in that gray continuum between gray extremes like books between bookends. U-Stu, pay attention, this is the real world, the gray gradation world, and the camera, the way an X-ray works, reveals it to our eye, for otherwise we’d have never seen it; we’d have never known it was there, under everything, beauty’s real face beneath the powders and the rouges and the crèmes. Color is cosmetic. Good for hothouse blooms. Great for cards of greeting. Listen, u-Stew, color is consternation. Color is a lure. Color is candy. It makes sensuality easy. It leads us astray. Color is oratory in the service of the wrong religion. Color makes the camera into a paintbrush. Color is camouflage. That was Mr. Gab’s catechism: what color was. Color was not what we see with the mind. Like an overpowering perfume, color was vulgar. Like an overpowering perfume, color lulled and dulled the senses. Like an overpowering perfume, color was only worn by whores.
Grass cannot be captured in color. It becomes confused. Trees neither. Except for fall foliage seen from a plane. But in gray: the snowy rooftop, the winter tree, whole mountains of rock, the froth of a fast stream can be caught, spew and striation, twig and stick, footprint on a snowy walk, the wander of a wrinkle across the face…oh…and Mr. Gab would interrupt his rhapsody to go to a cabinet and take out one of Sudek’s panoramic prints: see how the fence comes toward the camera, as eager as a puppy, and how the reflection of the building in the river, in doubling the image, creates a new one, born of both body and soul, and how the reflection of the dome of the central building on the other side of the water has been placed at precisely the fence’s closest approach, and how, far away, the castle, in a gray made of mist, layers the space, and melts into a sky that’s thirty shades of gradual…see that? see how? How the upsidedown world is darker, naturally more fluid…ah…and breaking off again, Mr. Gab withdrew from a cardboard carton called PRAGUE a photograph so lovely that even the stupid not-yet assistant drew in his breath as though struck in the stomach (though he’d been poked in the eye); and Mr. Gab observed this and said ah! you do see, you do…well…bless you. The stupid not-yet assistant was at that moment so happy he trembled at the edge of a tear.
William H. Gass, In Camera, [In:] Eyes: Novellas and Short Stories, 2015.
The surrender is far from unconditional. Mrs. Mean vents her hate upon the dandelions. She scours them out of the earth. She packs their bodies in a basket and they are dried and burned. She patrols with an anxious eye the bordering territory where the prevailing winds blow the soft heads from the plants of her negligent neighbor—not, of course, Mrs. Cramm, who has a hired boy, but the two young worshipers of flesh who live on her right and who never appear except to hang out towels or to speed in and out of the late afternoon in their car. Their hands are for each other. They allow the weeds all liberty. There the dandelions gloriously flourish. From their first growth across her line, she regards them with enmity. Their blooming fills her with fury and the instant the young couple drive off in their convertible, Mrs. Mean is among the bright flowers, snapping their heads until her fingers are yellow; flinging the remains, like an insult, to the ground where no one but the impervious pair could fail to feel the shame of their beheaded and shattered condition. With a grand and open gesture, unmistakable from where my wife and I boldly sit and enjoy it, and meant for the world, Mrs. Mean lifts her soiled hands above her head and shakes them rapidly.
There are too many dandelions of course. The young couple does not go out often; and while Mrs. Mean dares, during the time of the dandelions’ cottoning, to pace the property line, glaring, her arms in scorn upon her hips, her face livid with furiously staged resignation, watching helplessly the light bolls rise and float above her peonies, hover near her roses, fall like kisses upon her grass, indecently rub seed against her earth; she would not consider —honor would not permit—stepping one foot across the borders if the young couple might observe it, or speaking to them, even most tactfully, about the civic duties of householders; and indeed, she is right this once at any rate; for if those two could not see what we saw so easily, and if they were not shamed or outraged into action by Mrs. Mean’s publicly demonstrated anger against them, she might plow and salt the whole of the land their castle grows on and expect no more effect than the present indifferent silence and neglect.
So there are too many dandelions and they go speedily to seed. The seeds rise like a storm and cross in clouds against her empty threats and puny beatings of the air. Mrs. Mean, then, as with all else, sets her children to it. They chase the white chaff. It dances from their rush. Mrs. Mean screams incoherent instructions. The children run faster. They leap higher. They whirl more rapidly. They beat back the invasion. But inevitably the seeds bob beyond them and float on. Mrs. Mean is herself adept. She snatches the cotton as it passes. She crushes it; drops it in a paper bag. Her eye never misses a swatch of the white web against the grass, and after every considerable wind, she carefully rakes the ground. The children, however, soon make a game of it. They gambol brightly and my heart goes out to them, dancing there, as it goes out seldom: gay as they are within the ridiculous, happy inside the insane.
The children hesitate to destroy their favorites. Instead they begin to cheer them on, calculating distance and drift, imagining balloons on tortured courses. Who would want to bring such ships prematurely down or interfere with their naturally appointed, wind-given paths?
She waits, motionless. The clusters come, one drifting near. Her arm flies out. Her fingers snap. The boll disappears in the beak of her hand. The prize is stuffed in her sack. Mrs. Mean is motionless again though the sack shakes. I am reminded of lizards on rocks, my wife of meat-eating plants. Mrs. Mean’s patience here is inexhaustible, her skill astonishing, her devotion absolute. The children are gone. Their shouts make no impression on her. Mrs. Mean is caught up. She waits. She fills her sack. But at last the furious fingers close on air, the arm jerks back an empty hand, and Mrs. Mean lowers her head to her failure. Alive, she whirls. Her wide skirt lifts. It is a crude ballet, a savage pantomime; for Mrs. Mean, unlike the other mothers of my street, does not shout her most desperate and determined wishes at her children. She forewarns with a trumpet but if her warnings are not heeded, she is silent as a snake. Her head jerks, and I know, reading the signs, that Mrs. Mean is seeking a weapon. The children are now the errant chaff, the undisciplined bolls, and although they are quite small children, Mrs. Mean always augments her power with a stick or a strap and dedicates to their capture and chastisement the same energy and stubborn singleness of purpose she has given to the destruction of weeds.
No jungle hunt’s been quieter. She discovers a fallen branch, the leaves still green. She shakes it. The twigs whip and the leaves rustle. She catches sight of her oldest boy beside the barn, rigid with the wildest suspense. His boll is floundering in a current of air. It hurtles toward a hole in the barn where cats crawl. His mother hobbles on him, her branch high, stiff, noiseless, as if it were now part of the punishment that he be taken unaware, his joy snuffed with fright as much as by the indignity of being beaten about the ears with leaves.
I think she does not call them to their idiotic tasks because they might obey. Her anger is too great to stand obedience. The offense must be fed, fattened to fit the feeling, otherwise it might snap at nothing and be foolish. So it must seem that all her children have slunk quietly and cunningly away. It must seem that they have mocked her and have mocked her hate. They must, therefore, be quietly and cunningly pursued, beaten to their home, driven like the dogs: bunched on all fours, covering their behinds, protecting the backs of their bare legs from the sting of the switch and their ears with their hands; contorted like cripples, rolling and scrabbling away from the smart of the strap in jerks, wild with their arms as though shooing flies; all the while silent, engrossed, as dumb as the dumbest beasts; as if they knew no outcry could help them; refusing, like the captive, to give satisfaction to his enemy—though the youngest child is only two—and this silence as they flee from her is more terrible to me than had they screamed to curdle blood and chill the bone.
William H. Gass, Mrs. Mean, [In:] In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.