A tongue is the most dangerous thing next to love. The Christians warn of the tongue devouring the speaker. The Hebrews say the steady, gentle pressure of a tongue breaks bone. And none of this comforted Jerald Parker, whose tongue was enormous by any standard estimation. When Jerry opened his mouth, girls cringed, so most of the time he didn’t. He was twenty three years old and had never been with a woman whose company he hadn’t paid for. Jerry had learned shyness from a young age – that was his Uncle, Roger, who had gotten him a “21st birthday roll” which Jerry had expected to be something you ate in place of cake, maybe with a couple of candles on it – one of those wax pairs of numerals representing his coming of age.
One of the most important things a girl or a woman wants is to hear you speak. In school, when a girl wanted to prove to herself that a ‘guy’ *likes* her, she’d say he “talks to me”. If she really liked the guy, she’d spend her time writing his name in a notebook, and hoping he’d talk to her. Maybe she finally talked to him, and then she expected him to talk back. Jerry didn’t talk, and he didn’t talk back. All his words came out bahlahla-futhala. That’s how he said “Barbara Forrester” who was the most beautiful young woman Jerry had ever seen. Jerry was not unattractive. Even he knew it, because girls had occasionally approached him, usually new girls in school who didn’t know about him yet. And young women sometimes smiled at him outside the theatre when he stood in line for a ticket, always alone. Jerry would smile too, and the girl would begin to find it awkward that he didn’t speak first. Jerry didn’t understand why young men were expected to speak first, but at least it saved him the embarrassment of attempting conversation.
Barbara was different. She did the talking. Almost all of it. She didn’t seem to notice for a week or more that he had a tongue the size of a small mouth bass. He muttered assent, to whatever Barbara said, and she seemed satisfied. Jerry met her in the library. Books had the wonderful quality of talking to you, like film, without requiring you to talk back. But Barbara wasn’t there to read. Barbara was there to inquire about donating her father’s books. He had passed away the year before, and Barbara, as she told Jerry, was the one who got to go through his storage and dispose of things nobody needed any longer, which included all the books – many of which were “old hardbacks”.
Jerry wasn’t stupid. He had a 3.74 grade point average in night school. Night school was better, because it wasn’t a dating circus and didn’t depend on sophomoric discussions – with grades based on participation. Night school was tired workers getting their first or second degree for the purpose of immediately enhancing their jobs, or else retirees who just wanted something to do with their time and couldn’t stand the “go to bed after Matlock” sleep patterns routinely assigned to octogenarians in rest homes where the no longer enterprising elderly wound up. Not being stupid, Jerry knew that Barbara didn’t love him. He knew she didn’t need his input, and he knew from listening to her that they had nothing in common. But she *was* beautiful, and Jerry didn’t think he’d get a date with anyone else by any conventional means. She did keep agreeable company with him, and even kissed him now and then – no tongue. “It hurts,” she said politely once, then giggled, shrugged, and that decision was the end of it.
Jerry knew all of Barbara’s likes and dislikes. She liked opera, in principle, but didn’t like to attend. She said it was old-fashioned. She liked Nickelback, which Jerry thought was some of the worst music he had ever heard. She liked her new purse. She liked the one before that. She didn’t like the one her Aunt Celia had given her for Christmas, but she liked giving things to Good Will, because she liked the idea of helping the poor, even though she didn’t like being around the poor, because they were always out of style, except among other poor people. She liked Jerry’s hair. She liked his ears – she thought his ears were cute. She liked the President. She didn’t like the last President. She liked her hair. She didn’t like her eyes. She liked her contacts, the colour of them, but not the contacts themselves. She didn’t like wearing glasses. She didn’t like appearing too snobbish, and that’s what she said glasses did for her. Jerry could tell someone countless things Barbara said and thought, if he could have said anything aloud. But of course, Jerry didn’t say anything other than “ahgrugy” which meant “I agree” and which encouraged Barbara to continue, if she paused, and not look for Jerry to say more, if she’d somehow forgotten that he wouldn’t. It saved them from awkward moments both in private and in public. Barbara almost seemed relieved that Jerry never had anything to add to the conversation, if it was a conversation.
Barbara ordered for them at restaurants. Jerry had almost never eaten at restaurants, except Chinese restaurants where, for some reason he felt comfortable just pointing at items on the menu. Maybe, if English wasn’t their first language, they never gave his silence any thought. He just knew it was the only type of food he didn’t need to make for himself. Barbara didn’t like Chinese food. She said they used MSG, even the places that said they didn’t, and she didn’t like MSG. She liked healthy food, which is what Jerry obligingly ate. It’s what he had been eating for the three months, seven days they had been “seeing each” other. Barbara didn’t like the term “dating” because she thought it was patriarchal and a ruse for male domination, not that she faulted him for being a male. She liked that he was a man. She made that perfectly plain the first time they made love, one of eleven times since they had been ‘going out’ which is how Jerry thought of it, even if sometimes they stayed in.
Their first time had been as awkward as anyone could expect, at least that’s how Barbara described it, sympathetically. She liked his shyness, she told him. But after that, they had fallen into a rhythm and things had gone much easier. In fact, it was the one thing Jerry felt really good at – not particularly intercourse. He was young, he was fast, because Barbara was beautiful, and because communication was so much of sex. Barbara had said that. But it was with his one over-sized appendage that Jerry felt particularly comfortable when Barbara moaned like she did. It was like listening to opera. He “had a talent” she told him. He was “her secret”. She had thrown away her vibrator after that. She couldn’t bring herself to give it to Goodwill. It didn’t seem hygienic, even if it was. “They probably wouldn’t put it out on the shelf anyway,” she had said. “Aren’t they Christian or something?” After a brief pause, she answered her own question. They surely were. She had a habit of answering her own questions that Jerry was sure came too naturally to be a mere accommodation of his ‘malady’. She hadn’t called it a malady – that had been his Uncle Roger after the hooker had screamed when, on the third time she asked him what he wanted, he tried to answer.
Jerry knew, deep down, that he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life with Barbara, but he also knew he didn’t want to spend it alone. He probably would have stayed forever – in fact he became more and more sure that he *wanted* to stay forever – when Barbara started talking about Andrew. Andrew was someone Barbara worked with. She told him all about her work. She had money, enough money, from her father’s estate of course, but she didn’t like the idea of being dependent on someone. She had said that, but had also said Jerry could depend on *her* to be there if he needed anything. What he needed was to know why she had told him about the estate law firm’s plans for expansions, everything about the receptionist who wouldn’t return phone calls until the next day, if she was busy filing, and yet the attorneys wouldn’t fire her, probably because she’d been intimate with at least one of them. She had told them about their antiquated client tracking software. What she hadn’t told him about was Andrew. She mentioned Andrew, matter-of-factly, the night they had originally planned to see the newest Lord of the Rings movie together, but she had said she was too tired.
Barbara didn’t like the Lord of the Rings, but she liked one of the actors, and wanted to see it anyway. Jerry did like the books immensely, but was nervous about how the director was going to handle certain discrepancies between the list of cast members and the actual characters in the books. Barbara didn’t know he felt like that, because he couldn’t tell her, even if she had asked. She could have read one of the articles he had been reading on his laptop about it, but she never asked what he was reading, even to look over his shoulder and read with him. Andrew was what was on her mind. She spoke casually of the funny way he carried on at the office, without ever really being specific about what he had done exactly or what was funny about it. Jerry counted the times she said the word “Andrew” and his conclusion was that seventeen was probably something to be worried about, the first time she mentioned him.
Ten days later, she cancelled another date, saying she needed to go out with coworkers – it was a “business thing” and she was sure he understood. Jerry wasn’t sure he understood. When Barbara would call his cell phone, she’d start talking as soon as he hit the answer button. He often had to guess at her first two or three words as he put the phone to his ear. She always finished the call in much the same way. “OK, sweetie,” she didn’t say ‘it’s good to hear your voice’, of course, “see you when I get off work.” But that night it was “I gotta go. I’ll see you tomorrow”. And then their dates became less frequent, and she mentioned Andrew more often on some of them, and Jerry began to be torn between desperate loneliness for her and something bordering on rage, passing through every emotion in between as easily as Legolas leaping over orcs. He had gone to see the movie, after all, alone on a Sunday afternoon when Barbara was “doing something for work”. He had never felt more uncomfortable sitting in a theatre, with yelping kids ruining the film for him, and all he could really think about was Barabara probably in league with the Dark Lord Sauron, which of course was Andrew. Barbara had become his Saruman, betraying him and the West in an ongoing flirtation with the Enemy. Jerry had left the theatre in a shambles.
It was another week before she broke up with him. The conversation was fast paced about different visions of the future. When had he expressed any vision of the future that didn’t consist of what *she* wanted? It was over in a few minutes and, not being able to respond except with a feeble “ahrugg yune”, he received the carton of his things from her apartment, the same way he had met her – her giving away a box of books. He drove back to his own apartment, setting them down in a corner to be ignored for the next several weeks while he took very poor care of himself and finally started eating Chinese food again.
That’s when Jerry swore off women for good. Not aloud, of course. He did make a number of different sounds aloud, most of which, to his ears, were like the wailing of some diseased and dying animal on its last leg. He hated himself, he hated his life, and he hated that he was different. So much so that, at one point, he had taken a kitchen shears to his tongue, but relented at the sight of blood dripping on his pants leg, and the odd, coppery taste it left in his mouth, like Malbec, a wine he’d learned to enjoy at one of the restaurants Barbara had taken them to. Jerry’s palate wasn’t delicate, but it was incredibly sensitive. His Uncle Roger had said, jokingly once, that if he ever wanted to become a food taster, he could probably make a lot of money.
Faced with a life alone, an uninteresting life, despite his love of film and books and, perhaps to spite Barbara’s own trenchant attitude toward it, opera – which he had taken to listening to privately when she was still at the office – Jerry resolved to take his own life. It would take more than a kitchen shears, and Jerry decided to go visit his Uncle Roger and see if he could locate the man’s gun. It shouldn’t be hard – Roger had bragged about it enough times. A fifty calibre Desert Eagle, “big enough to blow the head off a moose” was lying somewhere around Uncle Roger’s house. But Roger met him at the door with excitement and a sly, proud air that Jerry took immediately for something to tell him, and so they settled in for a talk. More talk. The last thing Roger wanted was to listen, just listen, nodding along, to another conversation. And Uncle Roger wasn’t as sympathetic or helpful as Barbara had been. He missed Barbara. He loved Barbara. He didn’t want a life without Barbara.
What his Uncle was so excited to tell Jerry was that he had, in fact, “found” Jerry something to do with his life besides take silly, boring accounting classes in night school. One thing Jerry agreed with was that, without a future, which was what things would be like without Barbara, the net worth of someone else’s company did seem altogether silly. Roger wasn’t someone Jerry had relied on much in life. He was always full of witticisms about women that Jerry found repugnant, and the last thing he wanted was an endless tirade of misogynist jokes that would only fuel both his sympathy and his passion for Barbara. Roger, though, was too pleased with himself to spend any time on that subject. He had a buddy from the motor pool, where he worked, who had another buddy whose company was looking for a Taste Development Manager, and was convinced he could get Jerry an interview. What he was so happy about, Roger, was that his original idea of making Jerry a food taster was actually possible, and he had managed to put it within reach.
With nothing else to lose, and it becoming rapidly clear that he would not be able to distract his uncle enough to go searching the house for his Desert Eagle, and besides which he wasn’t really all that much in love with the idea of Death so much as he was in agony over a life without a woman Roger would have characterized as one of “those” women – by which his uncle meant women in general – in other words, inferior beings whose only concerns were shopping and getting laid – he nodded agreeably to Uncle Roger’s offer to “hook him up” with a new possible vocation, and from that point on Jerry’s life began to change.
Not only did he get the job, he became the most effective food taster in the history of the profession. He was instrumental in helping to discover two additional basic tastes to be added to the previous list of five (sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami – which was the sensation produced by glutamates in processed food), and Newsweek, Popular Mechanics, and Scientific American all did write-ups on him, along with a host of blogs and web magazines. Within a few years, Jerry took an offer, contracting on the side, to work with military researchers looking at ways to help Navy Seal divers detect conditions underwater with additional electrodes connecting the brain and the tongue [you can see an article on this here]. It was so futuristic, that it earned him another round of write-ups and, along with his “disability”, brought him something like fame within a relatively narrow set of information consumers. The man whose handicap gave him unique and unparalleled access to a new realm of senses even made him a hero in some segments of popular culture, and the Registry of American Disabilities named him their “man of the year” on his 30th birthday.
Something else happened. Jerry’s love of opera persisted, exceeding even his fondness for books and film, and he discovered that his tongue, while not allowing him to sing ordinary words, afforded him a special ability at producing resonant vibrations akin to the throat singing performed by the Inuit and the Tuva people in Siberia. He took night classes not in accounting, but in music, and actually performed in several new operatic pieces written by classmates who became aware of what he could do in practices, with parts crafted just for his performance. These were progressively so well attended that it caused a petit revival of throat singing, and several additional minor media frenzies, including an appearance on NPR, when it was realized that Jerry’s ability sounded vaguely like Rekuhkara, a musical form that died out with the last practitioner among the indigenous Ainu tribe in Japan and Russia, whose final works were recorded in 1976. Jerry was invited to the White House where, then President Bill Clinton, jokingly offered him a position as the “presidential food taster” – to which Jerry nodded and said “no thag you”. In addition to voice performance study, he had been taking remedial elocution therapy classes, a relatively specialized field and expensive, but he was endowed with enough financial security by that time, that he could easily afford it.
Jerry, in fact, married his Elocutionary Therapist, Susan Dixon, the year Clinton left office, and they currently live in Philadelphia and have three kids, ages four, six, and eight. Susan and Jerry talk. He often orders when they go out to eat, which they do often after a performance. When Jerry isn’t working or singing, he’s spending time with his family and, on date night goes to the opera, or a movie with Susan, or they sit in a cafe reading to each other. He’s not flawless at it, even though Susan tells him so. He struggles with a strong lisp and with pronouncing R’s in certain words, but he has refused all offers to provide him an operation, even free of charge from one of his fans. “Susand ith my biggest fan,” he replied. She tells him that too, frequently, both in and out of the bedroom, where Jerry’s tongue remains quite useful, though he is too discrete to mention it.
Addendum: Barbara friended Jerry on Facebook a few years ago, after one of her friends had read to her the story of the man she used to date from a reprint in the daily paper. She said less online than he’d ever known her to say with her voice. He never knew if she was still with Andrew/Sauron and there wasn’t much in her profile. He thought it better not to ask.
PS: anachronisms in this piece are hereby acknowledged 🙂