Stephen Delaney ~ How to Tell a Word

When the old­er boys lob it, jeer it in the hall­way between classes—voices that say “I’m jok­ing” … “We get it” … “I’m untouchable” …

When you type it and your dumb old Mac responds: a red underscore.

When, on the soc­cer field, Chad’s not using it when Scott’s talk­ing back, he’s spout­ing oth­er words, flaunt­ing an impres­sive store, his face pink, his shirt soaked, until he waits as for a punch line, then soft­ly drawls it—flat but steely and aimed—and before Scott can lunge he’s sprung back.

When, in class, you hear a girl whis­per it, turn.

When you open the restroom door as Scott’s leav­ing, forc­ing both your eyes up: peb­ble brown so like yours you laugh, lips so small and pouty they look stung.

When you feel it at night like a presence—something watch­ful and ugly that won’t leave.

When, curi­ous, you leaf through the school library’s dic­tio­nary (the hefty one lying open on its lectern) and, thumb­ing its shiny black tabs, your fin­gers light on thin pages, you absorb the words’ grav­i­ty, their breadth, the pro­ces­sion of their columns and rows, and, incred­i­bly, fol­low­ing the bad first mean­ing, find a sec­ond one that doesn’t sound bad—that could even, pos­si­bly, be good—a mys­tery your thoughts knock against as you floun­der through a pop quiz in Math.

When you can’t get it out of your head, keep want­i­ng, weird­ly, to share your knowl­edge, think­ing it might make him feel bet­ter, but when you see him alone at a table, your meat­loaf on its tray poised before you, you swerve so abrupt­ly you lurch.

When, at night, you mouth it; when whis­per­ing it it comes out breathy and weak.

When, just curi­ous, you start pen­cil­ing the first let­ter on paper, but before you’re done it’s formed bangs, it’s sprout­ing ears and eyes, hard and dark, a shy smile emerg­ing from the white­ness, wait­ing for your pen­cil to limn it, but when you hear the car park you see your work is ugly, you’re cross­ing it out, you’re tear­ing the paper in half, in fourths, into small­er and small­er shreds until you sweep them with a palm into a trash can, know­ing you’re safe as you slink into bed now, your insides so warm they might be glow­ing, feel­ing, your eyes closed, how it feels to be per­fect, how it feels to be final­ly clean.


Stephen Delaney writes fic­tion, craft arti­cles, and book reviews. His work has appeared in, among oth­er places, Crazyhorse, Euphony, Per Contra, Gingerbread House, Requited,and The Believer online. His web­site is