by isaac black
Dan had the best vocabulary of anyone he knew. He worked at it. That’s why it bothered him so much that a student of his, a student, used a word he not only couldn’t define but that he had never even heard. Before he looked it up, he asked a colleague, a fellow doctoral student, to read the paper.
“Why did you want me to read this again?” his colleague asked.
“Did anything stand out to you?” Dan asked.
“Pretty mediocre paper,” he said, seeming slightly annoyed.
This was what he feared–the human tendency to ignore what one couldn’t comprehend.
He succumbed and looked it up, searching the dictionary on his phone while he rode the train home from campus. But it didn’t have an entry. He thought about the spelling, but was confident he hadn’t misspelled it. It was only four letters. Fine then, he thought. It must be too obscure for a regular dictionary.
He checked his dictionary at home and came up short. He would have to look it up in the hefty, hoary dictionary belonging to the department. But he couldn’t do it until tomorrow. He slept fitfully.
As soon as he got in, he looked it up. Nothing. Was it possible the student had made it up? that he misspelled it? His usage was so nonchalant. So confident. Further humbled, he stooped to asking his advisor. Still no luck, though the advisor’s equanimity about the mystery irritated him.
He consulted every reference he could find. Was it a place name? an acronym? a portmanteau? There were no leads, no hints, just a mocking lacuna. He would have to ask the student.
“I didn’t think about it much,” the student confessed. “It’s a word I grew up with. Now that you mention it, I haven’t heard it used much outside my family.”
“Have you heard it at all outside your family?”
“I don’t know.”
Dan stoically refrained from showing annoyance.
“Anyway. What does it mean?”
“It’s hard to describe if you don’t already know. It’s like the feeling you get when something makes you feel bad in some way, but you’re aesthetically drawn to the feeling it gives you. Not just drawn to it but obsessed with it, like you think about it for three days straight because you can’t figure out why you like thinking about it.”
He had never considered such a feeling.
“So the word applies to the feeling?”
“Yep, it’s a noun.”
“Give me an example.”
The student started in on a story he had been thinking about for days.
He was on the bus to campus when a teenage boy got on. He was wearing a backwards hat and too large t shirt but exuded innocence. He stayed in the seat directly behind the bus driver, talking into her ear. When he got off, on the west side of town, the bus driver recounted their conversation to another passenger she knew.
“You gotta get Colonial Life Insurance,” he had said.
“What do you know about Colonial Life Insurance?” the bus driver asked.
“I watch TV.” The driver and her friend both laughed.
“You watch too much TV,” the bus driver told the boy.
The student paused there. “That’s it?” Dan asked his student.
“What does it mean? Why do you think about that?”
“That’s what I can’t figure out. That’s what the word describes.”
He again slept uneasily. Being an English PhD student he was betting all his time and his future career on the virtue of explication and understanding. But here was a kind of anti-word, a container for things that refused to be contained.
In a half asleep delirium, unable to stop thinking about the story of Pharaoh, he dug up his Bible: Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat cows, then dreamed of seven lean cows. The lean cows devoured the seven fat cows, and insatiably he searched his kingdom for its meaning. Joseph gave him the interpretation in the form of a prophecy: the fat cows were seven years of plenty, after which would come seven years of drought and famine. For scratching his itch Nebuchadnezzar promoted him above everyone else in his kingdom.
Dan thought he was a dreamer, a creator. He thought he was inventive, imaginative. But he wasn’t Pharaoh; he was Joseph, grafting fictions onto the irreducible details of life. He slept miserably.
The next day he taught his class, he graded some papers, he did some research. His heart wasn’t in it. He treated himself later to a nice meal that night with a glass of wine. He walked around downtown in the artificial twilight of shop signs. He became aware of sensations flickering across the surface of his brain too rapidly to pin down to paper. He was overwhelmed by failure–it was as vast and humbling as the desert–and the stark improbability of his existence stared back at him bleakly, comically.
There was the feeling, he realized. It had been there all along, incomprehensible. That night he slept well enough to dream.