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Stories

What They Weren’t Worth

The Guidry and Lunton families bear children, live their lives, and die in a world bubbling over with misunderstood words and cliché.

‘Not Worth Your Salt’

Not worth your wages.

‘The Romans served out rations of salt and other necessaries to their soldiers and civil servants. These rations were called by the general name of salt (sal), and when money was substituted for these rations, the stipend went by the name of sal-arium. (E. Cobham Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898)’

‘Not Worth Your Ha’Penny of Borage’

Prone to exercising bad judgment, especially in financial or botanical matters.

In 1689 a sect of Plymouth Quakers sold what little they owned to pay for transport to the Massachusetts Colony. Most Plymouth residents refused to buy anything the heretics had used, and instead suggesting that they burn all of their belongings—their God-given bodies included—in front of the church in the center of town.

When a Quaker girl offered townswoman Mary Wilson a sack of borage, Wilson initially refused, thinking the girl had offered her ‘lorridge,’ which she assumed was a sort of heathen church devilry. (No record exists of anything ever called ‘lorridge,’ but John Wilson, Mary’s husband, complained to his parish priest that ‘my soul and patience are most sorely tried by the infernal deefness of my faithful wife and companion Mary.’) The girl repeated her offer, but this time Wilson heard ‘porridge,’ and as she was quite hungry, bought it all for a ha’penny. Upon discovering the sack contained not oats but green plants whose leaves tasted faintly of cucumber, she planted the cuttings in her garden, where they grew beautifully. Her brother began using them in his tavern’s soup; her neighbor, the town barber and doctor, insisted that ‘form’d into a poultice and heated, this borridge is most sovereigne for rectifying an excesse of green bile and restoringe the humours to their proper state.’ By the time of her death Wilson had won the right to be sole supplier of borage to the Royal Court in London, and she employed some twelve families on her grounds. A square-meter patch of her famous garden still exists as a traffic island inside the parking lot for the corporate headquarters of the Sanjay’s Dosa Palace chain of restaurants. (Nigel Breakwater, A Bit of Old Plymouth, 1910)

‘Not Worth Your Licorice Root’

A poor speller.

In 1911, Principal Adolphus Jessup of Oconee County Schoolhouse in Oconee County, Georgia, would present a licorice stick, which the locals called a ‘root’ (though presenting the actual root itself would have been acceptable only in the most backward parts of the county), to the winner of the school’s monthly spelling bee.

Lance Guidry Jr. won all nine Oconee County spelling bees one year, and saved his roots until the last morning of school, when he ate them ostentatiously (chewing with his mouth open and rubbing his stomach in satisfaction, like his father always did after a big meal) in front of his classmates, occasionally offering a piece to one, only to snatch it away as soon as a hand was extended. In fact, he ate so many in such a short time that in the middle of the farewell prayer he contracted a noisy abdominal condition that his teacher called ‘the yawlping fits.’ The embarrassment shamed him to near-silence for the rest of his schoolhouse days. He wielded his quiet like a soft-edged weapon against himself. He kept his yearning for Ida Rollins tucked between heart and throat for years, and never knew that this crush, had it only been expressed, would have been reciprocated. As a result neither Ida nor Lance Jr. ever knew or could ever fathom their potential children, who of course never existed.

On her seventeenth birthday Ida would marry Jimmy Durrell and bear him seven sons, the youngest of whom would become Dale Murphy’s high-school batting instructor. (Zeno Jenkins, ‘In Defense of the Misspellers,’ Watkinsville Daily, 21 June 1979)

‘Not Worth Your Pinch of Paprika’

Lazy, listless (pronounced with a strong accent on the first syllable).

Ida’s marriage seemed to relieve some of the embarrassment that had sat, perched and sneering like a church gargoyle, on Guidry Jr.’s shoulders all those awkward years. He recovered some of his chin-jutting ardor for life, and developed into what his father called ‘the itchy-footiest Guidry I ever did see.’ Seeing little reason and having little inclination to stay in Oconee, Guidry Jr. volunteered for the War, and saw action at Ypres and Paschaendale.

He returned home silent and half-broken by what he had seen in Europe. He was expected to work with his father and brothers, but for the better part of two years he could manage little more than the occasional seeding or plowing, maybe cleaning out one of the hen-houses if he was nagged enough. His industrious mother, who cooked for her husband and three sons and also ran a roadside fried-chicken stand, complained that her Lance was ‘like one of them chickens you buy from a big ol’ farm where they keep them all in one place; when you get ‘em they just look kind of slumped and all poor-shaped and out-of-whack, not worth even seasoning up to fry.’ (Vincent Lunton, Say It Again, Vince!, 1999)

‘Not Worth Your Hawthorn Berry’

Lacking drive, especially in battle.

Q’ing Dynasty (1644—1912) soldiers developed a pre-battle tradition of chewing hawthorn berries, which were claimed to be mild sedative. The temporary respite from the adrenaline of battle was meant to ensure the soldiers were well-rested. A soldier who declined a berry was viewed suspiciously; during a fierce battle in the aftermath of the Boxer Rebellion, soldiers who slept without the aid of hawthorn berries were shunned, jailed, and in some cases even killed as enemy agents. (Pang Sze-Chuen, M.D., Addiction and the Innocuous Berry, 1988)

‘Not Worth Your Chive Blossom’

Prone to narrative indecision, misdirection, or preachiness, especially near the end of an oral story. This condition is also known as ‘Scheherazade’s Curse.’

Six-hundred-and-eighty-four mornings after returning home from Flanders, Lance rolled over in bed toward the open window, and the scent of fresh-cut grass, dew, hay, and henhouse brought him back to himself like wind from an unfallen world. ‘I’m here,’ he thought. ‘I’m home.’

He rose from bed, dressed, ate five slices of bacon, five biscuits, and three eggs, washed it down with a whole pot of scalding black farmhouse coffee, and worked next to his daddy until dusk, regaling the old man with stories of the things he’d seen in the unharmed corners of Europe—how the cafés in Namur served beer made of cherries; how old men along the Prinsengracht would net a herring from the canal, gut it, tip their heads back, and eat it raw, then follow it with a handful of chopped onions and gherkins; how he taught two brothers outside Louvain to fish using a whittled branch rod, strips of dried reed for line, and slices of chicken neck for bait. Lance Sr. said his boy ‘had the Guidry mouth,’ even if he refused—then and forever after—to talk about what he had seen in battle. His mother was so happy to see her son in good spirits that she invited the entire congregation over for supper following Sunday’s service, and Lance Jr. enthralled them too.

During a pause between stories Lance Jr. noticed that Becky Roreham did not refill her lemonade glass, nor did she cup a gloved hand before the beautiful sinuous pearly-pink curve of her mouth to chatter with a neighbor: Instead she looked right at him, and this, he decided, was a good thing. So in as unaffected a manner as he could muster he introduced himself to her, and she to him. Following the usual tepid, approved course and warm, secret (meaning understood but unacknowledged) assignations, they married. Lance Sr. and Mrs. Guidry retired from daily farm work and left it to Lance Jr., Becky, and their four children: two sons and two daughters. After a day’s work, Lance and the kids would tell stories before dinner on the front-porch swinging benches—Lance with his bourbon, the kids with lemonade or Co’Colas—that involved a family of world-traveling preacher spy-mice who stowed away on ships and in cars to turn foreigners into good Baptists, but always returned at the end of the day to their home, in the chive-and-onion patch at the porch edge, just beyond the reach of the daughters’ toes when their legs were fully extended at the top of the swinging bench’s arc. When Lance told a particularly good story—when it held their attention, had lots of exotic detail, told them exactly what kinds of foreign foods the mice ate during their travels; when it didn’t meander or sound too much like a Sunday sermon—his daughters would snip the purple blossom from the top of a chive and stick it behind his ear. (from Vincent Lunton’s speech at Lance Jr.’s funeral, March 13, 1982)

‘Not Worth Your Sprinkling of Coriander’

Slow to respond to a prompt; torpid; unenthusiastic.

During the ragged and bloody years that immediately followed the Q’ings’ fall, the wife and two-year-old child of one of the berry-refusing and disemboweled soldiers sold their chickens and booked passage on a steamship traveling from Shanghai to San Francisco. The wife died from the cholera that spread through the tightly packed passengers; like the others who died thus, she was tossed overboard, both to reduce the risk of infection and to free up some space on board. When the ship docked, the son simply toddled down the gangplank along with the crowd, his name lost somewhere in the Pacific.

The nuns at his first orphanage named him after the Mother Superior’s dead brother; for a last name they simply used their patron saint, which is how the morose 37-year-old stockboy at Yang’s Grocery came to be called Salvatore Cecilia. Owner Yang himself could never pronounce it, but his youngest daughter could, the one with the snaggle teeth and eye-glasses, who if she appeared in a story would have a heart of gold but as things stood was simply cagey and, like a beaten dog, always eager to be mean first. She and Salvatore married simply because no one else would accept either of them—the dowry-less and homely third daughter of a grocer and a no-longer-boy stockboy who couldn’t speak Chinese and had an Italian name—and had three children (all sons) because that was what Mr. and Mrs. Yang wanted.

Against everyone’s expectations, they turned out to be beautiful parents: Something in Audrey Yang melted and moved to the center, while Salvatore in his sleepy and guarded way lavished affection on his sons, saving the reddest lychees for their dessert and singing them to sleep with Calabrian folk songs. In the chilly San Francisco summer Audrey would make a pot of soup each night, and right after she set the steaming bowls in front of her four men she would scatter a handful of coriander leaves over each bowl: The soapy and astringent herb-steam ‘wakes up the mouth and clears the fog from the brain,’ she told them, and then she would ask in turn, ‘Awake? Awake? Awake? Awake?’ Anyone who failed to respond with equal alacrity had obviously received an undeserved garnish. (Alison Rivers, Four Happiness: Recipes From The Chinese Garden, 4th Edition, 1981)

‘Not Worth a Dried-Up Sage Leaf’

Used to describe a sloppily or incompetently performed task, especially one that clearly falls short of the doer’s ability.

Lance’s older daughter Caroline went away to college up north. She became a doctor, she married a doctor, all of her friends are doctors, they all drive silver German doctor cars and play doctor golf at the doctor country club outside of Boston on weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day. She fades from this story into her rec room in a penumbra of good health and worries about her children’s advancement.

His younger daughter Emma always liked Oconee County, and she aged with little of the restlessness that Caroline disguised as rebellion. This is not to say that Lance and Becky loved one more than the other, but they grew to feel that Caroline’s life, like a soap bubble floating through an open kitchen window, would go beyond theirs, while Emma’s would stay within familiar bounds. And they were right: Emma married the neighbor’s son Chester Lunton; the Guidrys and the Luntons merged their two farms, becoming the county’s largest, and with the addition of the Luntons’ tobacco to their chicken and cattle, one of the most profitable too. Emma bore Chester two sons: Chet Jr. and Alfred. Caroline convinced her sister to buy the boys a piano and give them lessons. Everyone in Boston did that, according to her. She said, ‘It just has a way of civilizing the fight out of young boys, of bringing some culture into their lives.’ Neither boy particularly liked the piano (and neither, it must be said, did Emma or Chester; they always preferred telling stories with Lance or singing along with the banjo that Mr. Lunton played in the evenings), but Chet Jr. practiced with the same grim determination, the same scar-set mouth and downsloped eyebrows he brought to everything else. Alfred’s practice was more desultory; he was always easily distracted, and eventually the only things that could make him practice were earning Emma’s rewards and escaping Chester’s displeasure. She told him her gifts—small farm gifts always: a slice of fresh bacon, a glass of buttermilk, a garland of laurel on a particularly good day—always fit his result, which was true less often than she thought. When Alfred was particularly recalcitrant, or he deliberately sabotaged his practice time by opening the windows wide and inviting moonbugs and lizards into the piano room, she would send him straight to bed and say his work didn’t even merit trash from their herb garden. (Vincent Lunton, Vincent Lunton: American Dreamer, 1999)

‘Not Worth a Peppery Reed’

Providing little entertainment as the butt of a joke; treading the line between dignified and self-serious.

On his first morning at his east-coast university, James Cecilia woke without an alarm at 7:02, dressed himself (socks and shoes included), walked down the hall to the bathroom, undressed in the shower vestibule, showered, and dressed again. His roommate Alvin, a chubby third-generation legacy from Buckingham, Browne & Nichols whose career (campaign work for a Democratic senator, law school, Massachusetts state House, then either national politics or a 40-year gilded twilight as an elder statesman of New England politics) had been planned since birth, assumed that James did everything according to ‘ancient Chinese ritual.’ He treated James with a politician’s condescending respect, once even asking him whether ‘your people voted, ‘cause if they did—and it’s no big shakes if they don’t—but if they did, it sure would be swell if you could help organize them so they knew where their interests were.’ Where they were, of course, was with a friend of his father’s who was running for District Attorney. James found Alvin tiresome, bumbling, thick-headed, and ultimately endearing; when James saw him on television forty years later—mottle-faced, bloated, and scrofulous in the way of mid-century politicians—delivering a speech at the Democratic National Convention, he was not at all surprised.

James, conversely, rarely planned anything, but he had inherited his father’s loping, guarded grace, and moved through his life as though he were always standing a few inches outside of his body, watching, recording, noting, as though saving himself for something he did not yet know about. For some reason he was drawn to what the university called ‘Greats’: it seemed to him like an endless puzzle, teasing meaning from the endless Latin sentences that sprawled and jumbled across the page like a toss of yarrow sticks. Arriving at meaning took work.

‘The Senecan Odes’ was an afternoon class, which meant that it became an afternoon and evening class around the middle of October. One Wednesday when the air had just sharpened into the leaf-heavy smokiness of an autumn evening, the rich and dying milled-honey light lumbered through an open window and settled on a broad-faced girl in a white shirt with hair the color of the light. James wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do but he felt certain he had to do something, something drastic and memorable, and he had to do it right now, but then the feeling subsided, then it rose again even stronger, like a wave, and punched him in the throat and he sat with his hands gripping the sides of his desk and his eyes wide, not moving, certain that he would never die. He had never thought of choosing a mate before; he always figured it was something that just happened, that one day you decided to get married and there she was, your wife, and that was something else to put out of your mind.

He nurtured this crush like a sapling in winter for almost a full year before speaking to her at one of Alvin’s friend’s mixers, which he (and she, it turned out) usually avoided. Her name was Frances Lowell, and she thought he had a funny name (‘I thought you’d be Chang Chong or something’). She came from Boston—‘from one of the oldest families,’ John boasted beerily on her behalf, slithering a lecherous arm a little too low across her back and throwing a friendly one too hard over James’s shoulders, ‘one of the Plymouth Quaker families’—and had never been west of Dayton. When their children and grandchildren asked them, years later, what had drawn such disparate types together, they demurred in their own ways: James with a twinkle-eyed shrug, Fran with four or five fluttery starts at explanation, followed by a quick hand-wave/flap of amiable resignation and an eye roll. ‘He was just always so thoughtful,’ she would say, ‘and so courteous.’ One night after one too many glasses of his son-in-law’s homemade wine, he told their oldest daughter Laura that when he met Fran her skin shone like a summer vacation.

Neither James nor Fran ever really won the affection of each other’s families: the Cecilias always treated Fran like a porcelain guest (Audrey actually called her ‘Miss Lowell’ the first time they met), and James’s studious quiet never jibed with the Lowells, who backslapped and twittered their way through life with the high-strung frivolity of the privileged. Fran’s father Mitty, a former violist who used to soak the woodwinds’ reeds in pepper-saturated vodka so they couldn’t play without burning their lips, mistook James’s silence for haughtiness, and declared him unworthy not only of his daughter, but of even his most storied practical joke. (Fran Lowell, letter to her mother on the occasion of her daughter’s birth, November 12, 1969)

‘Not Worth Your Own Salt’

Welcome, permanent (used in reference to a person).

Lance Jr. was almost right. He used to warn his grandson Chet Jr. that if he didn’t smile more he would scare away all the girls. And while some men do indeed have a surliness that attracts women, Chet never did: He never projected an air that he could be saved, nor was his grimness of the type that could be mistaken for confidence. Lance Jr. said, ‘Haunt skips a generation, I guess. I worked it out of me and into my grandson.’ Nobody was sure just what bothered Chet, and everyone—especially Emma—was relieved when he began courting Ellen, the Presbyterian minister’s daughter. Neither ever had dated or would date anyone else; they were married six months to the day after their first post-church walk together, and quickly settled into a life so routine that it seemed to belong to another century. He kept the farm’s books, ordered supplies, and oversaw the hiring of seasonal labor; she tended to a small but growing section of the farm devoted to heirloom summer vegetables; they lived in their own section of the Lunton farmhouse, and had dinner together every night at 6:30. They watched TV until 9, turned in at 9:30, woke up at 5:15, and aged with the inexorable invisibility of gears on a well-made watch.

Neither really knew what to do with their son Vincent. Ellen babied him when he was a baby, mothered him when he needed a mother, but was at heart totally baffled and more than a bit scared this little person who looked like her suddenly living in their house, whom she loved so much she had secret thoughts of ingesting him to keep him safe from any harm. Chet introduced him to the secrets of accounting; they reviewed equipment catalogs together, and until he ‘got big enough to make the boys think he’s competing,’ he took Vince to interview temporary farm hands too (though in truth, more and more, he needed someone who spoke Spanish to do the interviewing). He inherited Chet’s tendency to disappear into his own mind, but without the grim exterior; though his mother and her father never approved of his ‘lying tales,’ he used to enthrall the farmhands (and make his great-granddaddy proud) with the stories he’d spin.

When Vince was eighteen he left home—for good, he half-hoped—to go to college in the middle of one of those flat square states the wind howls through on its way from Canada to the Grand Canyon. On one of the rare evenings he was alone—like Lance Jr., he found his gifts for storytelling naturally attracted a coterie—he was walking back from the dining hall when he passed between the Science Library and Watson Hall: both broad buildings that between them funneled the already strong wind. The wind blew him to a standstill in mid-step before it began to shove him backward. A bundle of scarf ends, black hair, and parka sleeves—all whipping in different direction like a windblown winter jellyfish—broke his fall. When he told the story of that meeting in later years, Vincent always said that he saw Laura Cecilia’s reflection in a library window, and thought she was so pretty that he jumped, knowing that the wind would send him into her.

He moved into Laura’s apartment (off-campus: she was—is—a year older) at the end of the academic year, and they spent the summer aimlessly exploring the smallest state in the union in Laura’s unreliable Volkswagen. When Vincent and Laura were packing up his things, they found a nearly empty container of Morton’s Iodized Salt hiding behind the other dried herbs on the spice rack. Vincent wondered whether it was worth bringing. Laura said no, there wasn’t much in it, she had plenty, and anyway she reserved the right to make all seasoning decisions in their relationship (Vincent once cleared out his freshman dorm by trying to boil pasta without adding any water to the pot). (Laura Cecilia-Lunton, speech to the shareholders of VL Saying Farm, March 13, 1994)

‘Not Worth Your Cardamom Husk’

[to debut in early 2005]

When he left for college, Vincent Lunton proved the first axiom about American small towns; ten years later, he proved the second: They give people someplace to run away from, and then, after their feet have stopped itching, they give people someplace to return to.

After graduation, Vincent—whom Laura called ‘VL’ in public and ‘Bub’ at home—and Laura—whom Vincent, for all his narrative inventiveness, always just called Laura—spent five aimless and beautiful years in Wicker Park, Chicago. Laura worked in restaurant after restaurant, and seemed to be climbing the kitchen ladder, though she could never tell whether it was better to be a sous-chef at a small restaurant or a garde-manger at a fancier one. Vincent wrote odd feature stories for a small community paper, spurning several offers to move to the city’s alternative weekly and one to move to the Big Paper. He told Laura that he liked the view from his desk too much to leave (it looked onto an alley behind a Oaxacan taco stand).

His mother began to sicken in November, and Vincent never noticed before just how cold, dark, and long Chicago winters were. The following spring she could no longer walk—the hideousness that began in her womb had gripped her spine—and he and Laura married and moved back to Oconee County in early June, 47 days before Ellen’s death.

Vincent and Laura thought about their plans all summer and into the fall. By winter they had persuaded Chet to part with a few dozen acres of farmland; for the return of his son Chet would have given it all, but he never needed (or knew how) to say that.

They began with cautious, low-yield conversational evergreens, the sort of thing you could pick up anywhere: ‘just goes to show you’ and ‘long time coming’ at the fringes of the property, just to test the soil. They planted two rows of Sports Perennials—‘the crack of the bat,’ ‘giving it 110 percent,’ ‘it’s a team game,’ and ‘just want to play my kind of game’—next to two rows of Political Perennials: ‘dark-horse candidate,’ ‘fiscally conservative and socially liberal,’ ‘the vital interests of our country,’ and various hybrids of ‘Democratic People’s Republic’ phrases, mostly for export.

Before long, they had annexed more fallow ex-tobacco acres and moved into the lucrative but risky ‘heirloom’ and ‘creative’ markets. They planted ‘not worth your chive blossom’ and ‘not worth your hawthorn berry’ next to ‘not worth your salt’; they grafted shoots of ‘yowk’ to a particularly hardy New England cutting of ‘wicked,’ and ‘bimfy’ to an Oregonian ‘right on’ and they ‘hoped for the best.’ Every fall their children would make piles of husks from ‘cool’ and ‘all your eggs in one basket’ at the bottom of Steep Hill, and take turns rolling into and rebuilding them.

They sent starter kits to churches and mosques where immigrants congregated: ‘Hey, howzaboy? You betcha! Sure thing. Raining cats and dogs.’ Prominent food, film, book, music, and television critics received boxes of high-end perennials: ‘high-end,’ ‘visual palette,’ ‘tonal range,’ ‘narrative structure,’ and ‘homage to…’ Well-known authors ordered confidentially, and had their order delivered in a plain brown wrapper sent from ‘VL Industries’; Vince ‘neither confirmed nor denied’ that one year they had shipped orders to all the writers short-listed for the Pulitzer and Booker Prizes.

They became the largest wordfarming operation in the United States. They ‘grew their own.’ They had five ‘beautiful children’: Thomas, Lance, Sally, ‘Taylor,’ and Mary. They restored the swinging benches that Chet Jr. had allowed to rust and peel, and after working outside they would tell each other stories, the children competing to see whose crops could grow fastest, tallest, hardiest, whose would languish and die, and whose would puff up to a large and unstable size too quickly, only to be dispersed like a fungus on the side of a log. Four of the children remained in Oconee, working for the family industry; only Sally rebelled. She moved to Vancouver, where she became a writer and producer of plays notable more for the incomprehensibility (in ‘Hrkl’ she eschewed lines of more than one word and words of more than three letters) than their originality. But she enjoyed her life, found the world navigable, and she, like her parents and her four siblings, ‘lived happily ever after.’

Jon Fasman lives and writes in west London. More by Jon Fasman