Hickory Burger and a Water
The following is a short story written by a young man who stutters. I love how this story illustrats what it is like to live with a stutter. Many of us only hear and see the surface level of the moment of stuttering. But for many people, there is so much more involved under the surface. Thank you Henry W. for sharing your short story.
It w-w-w-w-w-was an unusually sunny day that winter--a break in the pattern of dreariness and cold-- and it was well-received by the populace of Newbury Beach, a small, largely isolated coastal town that houses the middle class, a nice place to live. Many a family enjoyed the day at the beach, s-s-s-soaking up the sun as if it were the last time they would see it in a while.
Now, there li-li-lived a family of five on 3rd Street who went by the name of Wenzel. A happy family they were, two loving, endearing parents who had three sons--Ben, Clark, and Paaaaatrick. Ben was away at college, Clark was in college too but home for the weekend, and Pat, the baby of the family and a high school senior, was excited to see Clark, for he was often at home alone with his parents, the center of attention. They were a n-n-normal, middle-class family, well-liked by their community and very friendly. They were all very outgoing, except for one-- Patrick.
Patrick had been such a happy-go-lucky child growing up, and his mother was relieved that her third and final child had been easier to raise than the other two. He had made friends easily in his grade school years as he had been talkative and wi--willing to meet new classmates regularly. He had a soft smile and a warm heart. Sssssomething changed, however, as he got older; he began to grow more distant, and h-h---he lost his social charisma. He was less willing to say hi or strike up conversation with his peers, and he kept to himself more and more often.
See, when he w-wa-was in sixth grade, he began to stutter. Ouuuuuut of nowhere came this speech impediment, and he lo-lo-lost all his social confidence as he regularly struggled to get his words out. What would people think of me if I can’t get my words out? he wondered. How am I going to make friends or meet people now? Everyday, he struggled with his words, tr-tr-trying desperately to be normal and “fit in,” but his speech impediment kept him from being like his friends. His family and his close friends did not mind his unique trait, but he wondered how strangers and peers he did not know felt. Every speaking situation made him nervous, tense, scared.
So, the We-Wenzel family was going out to dinner that night at their favorite restaurant, the Newbury Beach Brewing Co. where they could enjoy each other, good food, and whatever ballgame would be on TV.
P-p-paaatrick’s nervousness began on the car ride over. He began to practice in his head, I’ll just have a water, please. I’ll have the hickory burger, medium well. A water would be great. I’m gonna go with the hickory burger, please. He tried to figure out a way to construct a sentence where he felt he could be fluent. See, Patrick could often tell when they were about to stutter or what words they were going to get stuck on. They could feel the tension in their stomachs, throats, mouths that would not allow the words to come out, that would restrict their talking. I’m just gonna stick with water.
A c-c-con-conversation was going on in the car among the other three, but Patrick was already so focused on his fluency that he was out of touch with his family. It was a short drive, and there were quite a few friends, couples, and families out strolling under the yellow light strands that illuminated the avenue of restaurants.
Patrick loved the N-n-n-newbury Beach Brewing Co. His favorite dish was the hickory burger, a fire-grilled patty served between two brioche buns slathered in barbecue sauce with onion rings and a slice of smoked ham, yet he often had to settle for other dishes because he was too embarrassed to stutter over the soft h syllable in “hickory.” People will think I’m some freak. He always planned to get the hickory burger, but oftentimes a last minute adjustment was required to save his self-esteem. Not only would he sometimes miss out on the meal he really wanted, but he f-f-found himself holding back thoughts or opinions from conversation with friends, class discussion, or other social situations simply because he feared stuttering. His sentences would sometimes come out incoherently or jumbled because he fumbled in his head for words that he felt he could say fluently. See, he had a memory ingrained in head of his old little league teammates laughing at him after it took him a little longer to get his words out, and b-b-be--due to that, he never wanted to stutter so that he would fit in.
As the f-f-f-family was walking into the restaurant, Patrick continued to practice the encounter with the waitress. I’m gonna have a water, please. He exercised the deep-breathing techniques prescribed to him by his speech therapist who he saw once a week; d---deep breaths would allow him to calm down, relax, and hopefully be fluent. May I please have a hickory burger, medium well? Finally they sat down, and the moment of truth was approaching. There were qu-qu-quite a few games going on on the various televisions strategically placed around the restaurant: R-r-red Sox-Yankees on a couple screens, Ssspurs-Lakers on another, K-k-kings-Blues on the other. The restaurant was not overly crowded as the family arrived just before the rush hour of dinnertime. P-patrick p-perused the menu (even though he knew he was getting the hickory burger--he just liked to see the options), and as he rolled over some of the items, he remembered a time when he did not order the hickory burger. “I’ll have the h---h---barrrrbecue chicken pizza, please,” he forced out with tension in his fists and face, failing to maintain eye contact. I wonder what the waitress thought of me.
Patrick was comfortable with his impediment around his family, so he was unafraid to interject at any moment in the table conversation. I’m just gonna stick with water. I’ll have a hickory burger, medium well, he thought as the waitress made her way towards them to place their drink orders. D-d-dad ordered a drink, Mom ordered a different one, Clark a water. Finally it was time for Patrick to place his order. The waitress was good-looking, long, flowing brown hair and a very pretty face. Wow, she’s kinda cute. I really don’t wanna mess this one up. “And for you?” she asked Patrick. There it was, the precursor, the warm-up to his meal order. It would either be a confidence booster or a confidence drainer. It could very well determine how the rest of the night went with his speech. The words fumbled out of his mouth,“I-I-I---I’m just gonna have a water, please.” It was an okay showing, a short stutter. Noticeable, but it definitely could have been worse. Maybe she didn’t even notice.
“Wh-wh-wh---what do you guys think of Trump as the GOP candidate?” Patrick asked the other three members of his family, trying to get the speaking spotlight off of him and on to someone else, anyone else. I’m just gonna have a water. It was so easy in his head, yet so hard out of his mouth. The Red Sox had just taken a lead over the Yankees on the TV in front of Patrick, and the Lakers were losing. Patrick was content with watching the games as opposed to engaging fully in conversation with his family even though he felt that was what he should have been doing.
The c-c-co-conversation carried on for a few minutes, their drinks were delivered, and there came a lull moments before it was time for the big moment, the hickory burger moment. Again, the waitress made the rounds of her other tables, slowly making her way towards the Wenzel family to take their orders. T-t-taaaable to table she went, and the p-p-pressure was agonizing Patrick. Deep breath. I’m gonna have a hickory burger, medium well, please. I am fluent. I can do this. Positive a-a-affirmations had been a part of the strategy for fluency practiced by Patrick with his speech therapist. I’m just gonna have a hickory burger, medium well. Deep breath.
Here she came. It was time again. S----she looked up at Patrick first as if to take his order off the bat, but he deferred to his mother in what seemed like a gentlemanly act, but in reality Patrick just wanted to avoid his own misery, the potential stutter, the chance of embarrassment. Mom got a salad, Dad a pair of fish tacos, and Clark the hickory burger. Patrick and Clark always got the hickory burger. A-a-all the while, Patrick was metaphorically shaking in his boots, for his time was coming quicker than he would have liked. Wow, she looks even prettier now than she did before. I’m gonna have the hickory burger, medium well. Deep breath. He had ordered the hickory burger so many times, yet every occasion seemed like a whole new challenge. His s-s-stutter was at times very unpredictable, fluent one day, struggling to get even a word out the next. Deep breath, here goes nothing, were his last thoughts before the time finally came. “I-I’mmmmm--- I would like a --” Don’t back out now, Patrick. Go for it. “Hhhickory burger.” Success! He got it out with barely any harm done. H-h-he was elated. But wait!
No! He forgot something. “How would you like that cooked?” the waitress asked inquisitively. The agony! Fie! Fie! Fie! He knew his stutters came ninety-nine percent of the time at the beginning of his sentences or phrases, and there he was, tasked with starting another new phrase. How could I forget to say “medium well?” It’s so simple! “Medium well, please,” it came out with ease, as if he had never stuttered before in his life. The waitress departed to put in their orders, and it was over; Patrick could finally enjoy the night without worrying about how he would be perceived by strangers. It was going to be a good night with good food and good people.