This section will test your reading comprehension.
Read the passage below and then answer the questions that follow.
The old man with a beak for a mouth was not always an old man with a beak for a mouth. At first, he was neither old nor beaked. At first, he was a poor baby without any mouth at all—born with no lips, no jaw, no tongue, and no teeth.
The poor baby’s parents, shocked and dismayed, were offered a bird’s beak to replace their son’s missing mouth. The beak would come from a South American parrot called a Scarlet Macaw, and the transplant would be done by a very well-paid doctor called an orthopedic surgeon. The parents were nervous, but hoped to give their boy a chance at a “normal” life, inasmuch as that was possible.
The transplant was a success, and the poor baby without any mouth at all became the incredible baby with a beak for a mouth, who in turn, through the inexorable wearing-on of time, became the old man with a beak for a mouth about whom you are reading today—a man who has lived a long, productive, and yes, “normal,” life.
The old man with a beak for a mouth has a proper name, too. His name is Gregory. But people don’t usually call him that. Instead, they call him TOMWABFAM (or TOM for short), which is an acronym: a word formed from the initial letters of a phrase or series of words.
The above definition was paraphrased from Merriam-Webster, a popular producer of reference materials. Merriam is a homophone of Miriam and marry ‘im, as in the following example: “Did you hear about TOMWABFAM? Miriam, the old lady who sells dried flowers, says she will marry ‘im next summer. Have you seen them walking hand-in-hand? They are a sweet pair.”
Of course, TOM would not have told you any of that, because his beak-mouth is always busy clipping and crimping sheets of tin. TOM makes many things out of tin: tin snowflakes, tin lamp shades, tin ceiling tiles, tin candelabra, tin masks, and tin cups, among others. He sells these items at flea markets and craft fairs all around the tri-town area.
In addition to tin, TOM has a fondness for gin. Gin is liquor made from Juniper berries. And ‘fondness’ is an understatement. Maybe it was the trauma of a childhood full of ridicule, or the loneliness that stemmed from an inability to kiss and court young ladies when he was a teenager. Or maybe it was simply a genetic tendency too eager to express itself. Whatever the reason, TOM became dependent on gin to get through the day.
As a younger man, TOMWABFAM (then TYMWABFAM) had a family. He met a woman who loved him, despite—or perhaps even because of—his beak-mouth, and they were married and had two normal-mouthed children. But even back then, his drinking was a driving wedge that pushed them apart, until his wife finally left and took the kids to live with her parents in Ohio. He’s rarely seen them since—though he does send cards and tin-cut trinkets from time to time.
These days, TOM can often be heard singing to himself, a bouncy-sounding tune about snipping tin and sipping gin. Some might say TOM is in denial. Some might note that the edges and etchings on TOM’s tin items are shakier, more uneven, than they used to be. Some might observe that TOM packs up his market stall as soon as he’s collected enough cash for a bottle. And some might speculate, reasonably, that TOM will die a premature death (though not all that premature, considering he is an old man, and how long can old men expect to live?) from cirrhosis of the liver.
When TOM dies, his epitaph could read: “GREGORY (TOMWABFAM) / A MAN WITH A BIRD’S BEAK AND A LION’S HEART,” with the bird’s beak being literal, and the lion’s heart being a metaphor for courage. Because, alcoholism and familial abandonment notwithstanding, TOM must be courageous—mustn’t he?—in a way?—to have persevered such as he has. Perhaps.
If nothing else, one may imagine—and be heartened by the thought—that should TOM predecease Miriam (the old lady who sells dried flowers), his grave will be beautiful: decorated, year-round, with a blanket of dried azaleas, marigolds and tulips.
Now that you have finished reading the passage, answer the following questions:
1. Define, in your own words, the following terms: transplant, inexorable, acronym, homophone, candelabra, tendency, wedge, cirrhosis, persevere, predecease
2. What is a Scarlet Macaw? Where does it come from?
3. What does the acronym TOMWABFAM stand for?
4. How, exactly, did the poor baby without any mouth at all become the old man with a beak for a mouth? Answer in metaphysical terms. Are they the same person? Or has the passing of time (and repeated replacement of each individual cell) remade them as separate and distinct individuals, several generations removed from one another, connected only by those mysterious and elusive (illusory?) qualities we call “memory” and “identity”?
5. Do you think what Gregory/TOMWABFAM and Miriam/TOLWSDF share could be called “True Love”? Do you think such a thing as “True Love” is possible, or is it a misleading (and even potentially damaging) mythical construct? Do you believe you have experienced it? If so, describe.
6. In a single sentence, write what you imagine might be your own epitaph. Now consider: Are you satisfied? If so, why? If not, what will you do about it?
Matt Tompkins is the author of two fiction chapbooks: Souvenirs and Other Stories (Conium Press) and Studies in Hybrid Morphology (tNY Press). Matt’s stories have appeared in the New Haven Review, Post Road, and online at the Carolina Quarterly. He lives in Virginia with his wife (who kindly reads his first drafts), his daughter (who prefers picture books) and his cat (who is illiterate).
Photo by Nat Ireland.