One thing you never wanted to do around Marty Malpropiter, if you wanted any sense in a conversation, is let him think the conversation had intellectual underpinnings. As long as you kept to cows, horses, hay, irrigating, barb wire, bowling, football, road building, and such, things went fine. O, Marty may throw in an occasional “deforesteramivalution” or mention offhandedly how flood irrigation was “true substantiational aquafirming.” But there was context here that was still within the bounds of our understanding of Marty’s confidence level. And so almost everybody would nod their heads and say “Know what you mean, Marty.”
But if someone happened to mention that an extension service agent had come over to the take soil samples, or if somebody said they had read in Western Ranches Gazetteer about a study on the efficacy of grass fed vs feedlot fed beef, all bets were off. Marty’s vocabulary suddenly took on a color that even most PhD college English professors would be hard put to match—or understand.
Naturally, there were two ways to manage the diversity of Marty’s vigorous use of the language. On the one hand, there were those who avoided all attribution when talking, even about gentling a cantankerous mustang, around Marty. Marty knew more than most veterinarians about horses. But one mention of a vet or any authoritative writing on the matter, might generate more unusual information than is necessary to get a saddle on a horse’s back. On the other hand there was also the crowd whose main purpose was entertainment. They would, at the drop of a hat, mention that they had from a reliable college professor that wells over one hundred feet deep were too toxic for cattle. And the laughs were on. First off because Marty took offense that any educated dunderhead had actually come up with such an idiotic idea, and second because Marty’s condemnation of such dunderheadeness used forms of English—none of it profane or obscene—unlikely to be ratified by any dictionary or bible.
Then one November afternoon news started to get around that Marty Malipropiter had signed up to take an evening adult education class entitled “Improving Vocabulary for Everyday Life.” The teacher was a young real estate agent who had finished college and, rumor had it, started another degree before she decided to start making a living. Her name was Cassie Orverthorp. She was about as different from Marty as a person could be—even discounting education, gender and the fact that both were unattached and fairly young.
Marty was about six feet-four and went to Jod’s every two weeks to touch up his starting-to-bald butch haircut. He’d sit in the barber chair like it was a throne and let his long hammer jaw start off in pursuit of the English language, sometimes finding her, sometimes just wandering through the wilderness. He always seemed pleased at the effect on Jod and his other customers. Cassie, on the other hand might make five, two with heels on. Her hair was sort of a reddish auburn, and was a flutter of ringlets and curlicues that frizzed out like a hat made of springs and copper wire. She had a reputation, even after only two years in the Valley, of speaking her mind with a tongue that cut nonsense with sheep shears.
Needless to say, there were a few who saw the entertainment value in signing up for such a class with Marty among the pupils. None of us wondered why Marty signed up for a class which appeared to have a high potential for eradicating forever his laconic massacre of Shakespeare’s own language. We chalked it up to Marty’s apparent inclination to work according to the principle that speaking was not always about meaning. Some of us thought that perhaps he intended to reform.
Had we known that Marty had walked into Osborne and Osborne Realtors some months before with the intent of making an offer on some hay land, maybe we might have wondered something else. Especially if we had noticed that, for two or three days after his visit to Osborne and Osborne, Marty seemed tongue tied and unusually taciturn. Later, all the pieces fit together. But at the time we didn’t even think about it.
Needless to say, on January 14, the first night of class, the little language arts classroom at the high school was packed. Cassie seemed very pleased. She asked each of us to stand up and say something about why they were taking the class. Marty, sitting as he was front and center, went first. He stood up and said, “Uh, I’m here to learnavate my language acquisitionazation.” This seemed to please Cassie. “Such a creative and wonderful way to say it,” she said, bobbing her copper curlicues and ringlets. “Though you might want to think about saying so it would captivate a person of plainer wit.” Marty sat up straighter, squared his huge shoulders and grinned. She should not have encouraged him. But she was new to town and so cannot be blamed.
“Plainer wits is not who I am aimorizing for,” he said.
Of the other twenty-one there that evening, eighteen stood up and said something along the lines of: signing up because their friend Marty had mentioned the class, and it, no doubt, would be interesting. This should have been enough to warn her. It didn’t. She absolutely glowed at having twenty-two people interested in something she found interesting. Her red curls danced, fizzed, and sparked.
By the time all the introductions were completed, there were only a few minutes left. So Cassie explained that sometimes we misused words. Sometimes words that seemed to fit in our ordinary conversation were in fact badly misused. No snickers were heard as she said this. But not a few of the other twenty-one pairs of eyes were angling toward where Marty sat in the too-small desk, leaning back and gazing at Cassie’s fine red hair.
“For example,” Cassie said, “The word ‘caput’ is badly misused every day. Since we are short on time today, I propose that we come back on Thursday to talk about that word. Why doesn’t everybody use it in a sentence the way it should be used. Write it down and bring it next time.” Then she dismissed us.
On Thursday, there were about thirty in the room. Word had got around. Cassie did not seem particularly alarmed that her class had expanded beyond maximum. She may have even been a bit pleased. Of course she had no idea we were all there to hear just what Marty would come up with.
“Well,” Cassie began, “Let’s take a few examples of ‘caput,’ then we will talk about more proper forms of saying things.” Again Marty was front and center. To his right was Darla Millveen. Cassie asked her to read what she had come up with. “I’ll use my caput to compute,” Darla said, very pleased with herself. Cassie thanked her for her nod toward “origins,” and turned to Marty. Marty took a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to her.
She unfolded it and began to read “The dominitive of ‘caput’ is ‘captain’ of which the ejaculative is ‘captivating’.”
And then she stopped. Her pert nose and rosy cheeks pinked. She blinked her eyes, and said, “Hugm, Well” and put the slip of paper in her pocket. Meanwhile the rest of us were grinning and nodding at each other, giving each other the elbow nudge, muttering “ole Marty has outdid himself on this one.”
The class went on, Cassie explained how our everyday words sometimes had meanings more than we knew and that “care should be taken. . . . .” Most of us had already zoned. We’d gotten what we came for and were ready to move on. After the break, there was only Marty, Darla Millveen, and one or two others. We heard that Cassie seemed not to be overly concerned about the dwindled class.
“Where’d everybody go?” she asked.
“Well, there are some folk around here,” Marty said, “Who are cheatgrafires.”
“Well, that’s a fine word, Marty.”
“Yup,” Marty said. “Cheatgrass and fires. Some are gratified by a quick light and a fast burn.”
Sometime during the week some of us started to ask ourselves and each other why Cassie had stopped reading suddenly, why her face went pink, and why she said “Hugm, Well.” Finally Oliver Hodinker saw Marty in the Drink Whole. Cassie happened to be sitting on a stool next to him at the bar. So Ollie sidles up between them and says,
“Say, Marty, people are saying Cassie didn’t read all your explanation of ‘caput.’ What’s that about.”
“I didn’t,” Cassie said, “Ollie swivled to look at her through the lower lens of his bifocals,”
“Huh?” he grunted.
“I didn’t read the whole thing.”
Both Cassie and Marty took another sip of their drinks. Marty may have winked into the mirror behind the bar. Ollie thought so, but he wasn’t sure.
“Why not?” Ollie said.
“Well,” Marty said. He put his drink down and waited for Ollie to swivel again and tilt his head back to look at Marty through the lower lens of his bifocals.
“The reason she didn’t read the whole thing is because I proposamated.”
Cassie reached into her breast pocket and took out a ragged looking scrap of paper. Ollie swiveled again.
“I didn’t read it because here is what it said,” Cassie cleared her throat and read, “’The dominitive of ‘caput’ is ‘captain’ of which the ejaculative is ‘captivating’. Which you are. As well as, I hopify, captain caput et cor meum. May all your ejaculatives be joyous.
“O,” Ollie said.
Ollie understood ‘Marry Me’. But the rest of it was pure Marty all over again.
Cassie and Marty sipped their drinks and smiled into the mirror behind the bar.