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The Standard of Conversation
Matt Stroud
photography by Dan Buczynski

1.The Embankment

Nigel is sitting on a couch in front of a dozen empty beer bottles, smoking a cigarette, wearing only boxer shorts and a black T-shirt that reads, “Games for Bambi” in bold, capitalized, white lettering. Underneath the lettering there’s an arrow pointing toward his crotch.

We hear only Nigel, who’s on the phone with his obtrusive fifteen-year-old brother, Brian and his mother.

—Hey, is mom there?
—Fuck you, Brian.
—Um, put her on the phone.
—Put her on the goddamn phone, you little fucker.
—I’m gonna to have to kill you, aren’t I?
—Jesus, I’m gonna....
—Brian just put her on. Please.
—Thank you.
—Hi, Mom.
—I think there’s something wrong with Brian.
—No, retarded.
—Help. He needs help.
—Anyway. Yes.
—Been better.
—You know.
—Work? Sucks.
—I don’t know.
—No, no, no. Nothing like that. They just won’t give me anything decent to do. So I end up taking this to this person and that to that person and doing stupid crap and getting people coffee and wrecking my car and this and that.
—Yeah. I was trying to be sly.
—Yep. I wrecked it.
—Into, like a prairie? A grass field, kinda.
—Well, no. It was last night.
—I hit a speed limit sign, too.
—No, this has nothing to do with work, but I wanted to tell you about it. And now seemed like a good time.
—No. I’m fine.
—Not a scratch on me, but—
—It’s uh, drivable. But—
—No, listen.
—It was a two-lane road, surrounded by trees and grass and stuff. And in my rear view—
—No. I was coming home.
—Yeah, and this guy was driving up behind me real fast in a pickup truck. And when he got real close I thought he didn’t see me, so I sorta veered to the side of the road and my tire got caught in the embankment.
—The embankment. The curb.
—Yeah. And it forced the car to the side, off the side of the road. And I wrecked into a speed limit sign.
—It cracked the windshield and left a big mark on the front bumper and hood.
—No, the sign said 45.
—No. I was going way faster than that.
—Probably 60. But—
—Fuck you Brian!
—I didn’t mean, shit, I’m sorry, Mom. Your son’s a dick.
—Not me. Brian.
—I know. I know.
—It’s covered. I talked to them yesterday.
—I know. Mom, I know.
—I was too.
—I am.
—I know.
—I have enough.
—Anyway. Enough about me. Your turn to tell me a story.
—Why not?
—Tell me about the party the other day. Oh, sorry: the function.
—You and dad are dorks.
—Ha ha.
—That’s weird. No, I didn’t hear.
—Yes, tell me.
—No way. She did? No way.
—Ha ha. That’s silly.
—No. C’mon, mom.
—Mom, why would I care about her?
—I’m sorry.
—No, I’m sorry. I was being insensitive. Tell me more.
—Wow. That’s pretty great. BRIAN! DO YOU THINK I CAN’T HEAR YOU? Mom, tell him to—
—But.... [sigh]
—Mom, do you know where I can buy a prairie dog?
—Not monkeypox. Rabies. I want one with rabies.
—Yes. Or maybe a rabid gorilla.
—No. I didn’t.
—Mom. I'm fine.
—I’ll get it looked at tomorrow.
—Mom, no. I gotta go.
—Something’s going on.
—Next weekend.
—I hope it will.
—No, I’ll talk to you soon.
—I will. Maybe Monday.
—I know.
—I’ll check, then let you know, okay?
—I love you, too. Tell Brian I hate him.
—Bye, mom.

2. Talking to Mom on Phone: Respectively Worried, Thankful, Annoyed, Relieved

Recently, Julie had surgery to remove a potentially cancerous tumor in her left breast. She hadn't told her mother about the surgery because she knew her mother would react like mothers tend to: with horror stories and overwhelming concern. So today she had been waiting for her prognosis so she could let her mother know (1) that she had elected to have surgery without consulting her parents, and (2) whether or not she has cancer. Over the phone (her mother is not within easy driving distance), she will transfer all the information in one call. We only hear her end of the conversation.

She dials her parents’ number and gets her Dad. She’s talking, at first, about her wisdom teeth, which she thinks need to be removed.

—I don’t know, I think they’re coming in crooked.
—Both of them.
—Oh, ha ha.
—Happy father’s day.
—Yeah, just one.
—How are you guys?
—Ha ha, it’s okay.
—No, it hurts on the side of my teeth.
—It came in sideways.
—It’s okay. It’s your vacation jinx.
—Yeah. Yeah.
—I think I’m going to.
—I know.
—Love you, too.
—No, they were telling me at the dentist last time I was there.
—They’re coming in so late anyway; I might as well get them out of there.
—Yeah it might hurt.
—Have you ever?
—Yeah.Yeah. Ha ha ha.
—Well, no, my tooth isn’t the problem it’s just that there’s this huge—
—Yeah, it’s rubbing against my cheek.
—If it was, then I wouldn’t be able to talk to you.
—Friday morning? Saturday? How’s Wisconsin?
—No. It’s not that bad.
—No. We went to the arts festival.
—Yeah, it was pretty. I found the way in.
—No, it’s not really sideways, it’s just really far to the left.
—You think so?
—I hope so. But it’s cutting my cheeks. You know?
—Oh, okay.
—It’s not in line with anything, so I don’t think it will throw anything off.
—No. It’s all the way in.
—Yeah. My cheek does. Not the tooth.
—Yeah. It’s not a big deal.
—Love you.

Her hair is dyed red, and it looks like it's been dyed a few too many times because the ends are frayed a bit. Nevertheless, it's draping over her eyes, which are a noticeable grey-green. Holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear she begins speaking to her mom.

—Excellent timing.
—I need to tell you something.
—It’s not bad.
—Well, it coulda been but—
—No. No, Mom.
—MOM. Stop it.
—I had the surgery.
—I ... had the surgery.
—It’s benign.
—That’s why they had to operate.
—They took it all.
—She what?

Here, Julie is surprised because her mother says she already knew everything. See, Julie had been communicating with her sister, a doctor six weeks out of medical school, to make sure all her decisions regarding surgery were wise. Her sister, who is notorious for keeping her secrets, went against her normal pinky-swearing policy, and told mom everything as soon as it happened.

—Well, as you know, everything went fine. And I don’t have cancer, which is good.
—It wasn’t that bad.
—Surgery’s weird. They kept asking me if I had problems with my teeth before I went under. Could that’ve screwed it up?
—Yeah, it cut up my cheek the whole time.
—When I was under.
—Cause it seems like it’s been there for a while.
—Oh well. I have pain pills for the other stuff.
—So, it’s just taking care of both for right now. But I might go on Monday, cause it seems like it’s infected.
—Yeah. I’ve just been sleeping all day. All night.
—It’s okay, I changed the dressing today, and I don’t think it’s infected. Still hurts like hell, though.
—Ice? Yeah.
—Not that much, actually.
—I didn’t know that.
—Yeah. What? See, I’m not sure. They told me to strip down and then, so I’m standing there in this room with all these old people, naked, with—hold on.

Julie cups the mouthpiece of the telephone receiver and says, “I can’t let you hear this part. I need to talk to my mom in private. Okay?”

Fair enough.

3. Father and son.

Frank is talking to his mom, pacing in the living room of his apartment on the South Side. His mom says something to this effect: “Talk to your father.”

He does, and the conversation on his end goes like this:

—How is everything?
—It’s going well.
—Yeah. Saturday, at noon.
—I’ll be there.
—Yeah, I was there last week. Shot a forty-seven.
—I know.
—Probably much like yours.
—Yeah, yeah.
—Okay, see you there.
—Yeah, put her back on.

4. The Good Eye

This is an exchange. It happens in a hospital while Joanne, fifty-two, feeds her seventy-eight year old mother, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is very frail and recently, her life’s been, well, difficult. She broke her hip about a month ago while walking up a flight of stairs. Then two weeks ago, she suffered reversible, yet painful damage to her right eye, the one she can see out of.

The story of her good eye goes like this: Seven years back, a lens was sewn into her good eye to assist against the effects of glaucoma. Two weeks ago, the tiny stitches securing the lens onto her eyeball came loose. As a result, her eye essentially popped and she was left blinded. She’s been blind in her other eye for years. On Tuesday, she broke her other hip when she fell out of her hospital bed trying to use the restroom without assistance.

Hopefully, the care she’s receiving now will allow her to carry on, unassisted. In the meantime, she’s forced to rely on others for survival. Elizabeth acts stubbornly and speaks Italian more often than not; Joanne acts courteous, but frustrated. She speaks English for my sake.

Elizabeth is wearing light blue, typical hospital scrubs and sitting up in her bed, which is reclined as far forward as possible. A sheet is half-heartedly draped over her tiny, fragile legs. On her hospital tray is a plate of pasta with red sauce, a cup of coffee, and a piece of apple pie. Joanne is holding a fork and a spoon, twirling pasta onto the fork, so she can feed it to Elizabeth.

Joanne says, “Ma. Open up,” and shovels the pasta toward Elizabeth’s mouth.

Elizabeth keeps her mouth shut, and turns away. The fork and the spaghetti hit her in the cheek; sauce drips from her cheek onto her clothing.
Joanne, frustrated, says, “Ma, do you wanna get out of here or not?” Joanne stares at me and says to her mother, “Now, stop being so stubborn in front of Matt.”

Elizabeth makes a disgusted face and a noise that sounds like “Pfeuf.”

Joanne says, “Since you’re not gonna eat, tell him the story, Ma.”

“No,” says Elizabeth.

Warning Elizabeth, Joanne says, “Ma, don’t be like this or I’ll leave you here.”

Verbal pushing and pulling happen. Elizabeth finally gives in and says, “You wanna the story?” She says, in a thick accent, “Es-a no wort. But, eh.”

Elizabeth tries to adjust herself on the bed, bracing her frame on the mattress with her arms, gradually shuffling backward to lie back and get comfy. Shaking, she can barely move herself away from the table. She does, eventually, and continues the story:

—The nurse, she wanna me to cook-a.
—She say “EA-Lizabehta, you gonna cook-a the eggs today.”
—I say, “Eh howma gonna cook-a eggs?”
—She say, “Eh-you practice. No?”
—I say, “You outta you mind-eh.”
—She say, “EWhy you not cook-a the brownie instead?”
—I say, “EHow-mah gonna cook-a anything. I no see! Eh.”
—She say, “EWhy you no try?”
—I say, “ELeave-a me go to the bath-a-room, for ah make a mess a you.”

Joanne had been twirling more spaghetti onto a fork while Elizabeth had been talking. Trying to vaguely surprise Elizabeth into eating, Joanne says, “Ma. Open up,” and shovels the pasta toward her mother’s mouth again. Elizabeth keeps her mouth shut, and turns away again. The fork and the spaghetti hit
her in the cheek; this time the sauce stays on her face.
Elizabeth says something angrily in Italian and searches for a napkin on the table to wipe off her face and clothes. She can’t see the napkins on her bed, next to her.

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