John Mallory Learns the Alphabet


John Mallory remembers when he was four years old. He knew his alphabet long before any of his kindergarten classmates knew their letters, and he also how to count all the way to twenty, and on a good day, sometimes even thirty. He knew he was a smart boy for his age, and his mother always told him so. She would say “You’re a very smart boy, you know,” or he would say, “You know, I’m pretty smart for my age, don’t you think?” and she would agree, but then she would add a small caveat to that statement: “You’re smart for any age.”

Here’s how he learned his alphabet: He watched a television show that his mother would always make him watch, so he could learn some things. There were these two characters, actually, there were many creatures, a fluffy green monster that lived in a trash receptacle and two friends with oversized eyebrows and a vampire who suffered from a compulsion to count spilled bags of rice (among many other multiples of things), and a red fluffy monster that was not particularly good at much of anything and still seemed to have more friends that anyone and two blue fluffy monsters, a blue one that ate too much and one that probably ate as much as any blue fluffy monster should (and by the way, these were not the frightening, terrible creatures most are familiar with, but the fun, lovable, huggable ones, or at least as huggable as something can be through a television screen), and he was friends with all of them.

But these were not the friends that taught him his alphabet. He had two very special friends, one was a big bird. Out of respect for the big bird and his bereaved family, let us call him Yellow Bird for now. He had a special imaginary elephant friend, kind of like how people who imbibe too much alcoholic beverage have elephants for imaginary friends, except Yellow Bird had never been drunk, as it would not be a good idea for a children’s television broadcast to promote imbibing alcoholic beverages at such an early age, and besides it did not seem as though Yellow Bird liked the taste of it. Anyway his imaginary elephant friend was named Aloysius. John Mallory and some other children were one day sitting around Yellow Bird cross legged, Aloysius on hand. Yellow Bird thought he should start with some basic alphabeture. “A,” said Yellow Bird. He then pointed to a sign, and on it was a symbol that looked like a triangle with the bottom side shoved up into the middle or, depending on the child, a triangle with two legs to walk around on or, depending on the child, a tipi with a second floor. John thought it looked like a mountain with a tunnel inside it so you could walk in and out of it. “A is for apple,” said Yellow Bird. He then pointed to an apple.

A certain insect of the fuzzy, sunflower-hued, honey-producing, stinger-equipped variety was buzzing toward Aloysius. He was allergic to insects of this variety. It landed on Alyosius’ imaginary flesh and deposited its stinger inside. “B,” screamed Aloysius. “Yes,” replied Yellow Bird, “the letter B is next.” He pointed to another sign, one with a series of two circles with small sections cut out of their left sides and placed one on top of the other, or, depending on the child, a pair of bare breasts while looking at the side view of a naked woman lying down. John Mallory tended not to converse with these children. “B is for Bee,” Yellow bird said. The spot where the insect had stung Aloysius swelled to a diameter of four inches and turned purple. “Infection,” screamed Aloysius, to which Yellow Bird replied, “we are not on the letter I yet.”

Yellow Bird started to notice how hot it was on the street. He wiped the sweat off his brow and was about to begin with the next letter which looked like, depending on the child, a gigantic toothless mouth, or, depending on the child, their father after he had come home from work, when the Yellow Bird looked at his wingtip and realized that a couple feathers had been removed from his head and lingered on the wing. He went to a nearby window and in the reflection saw that he had removed much more than sweat and feathers. His flesh was completely flayed off his head. A dry, bony bird skull was all that remained. From then on he figured people should refer to him as Mostly-Yellow Bird, or Yellow-With-A-General-Head-Region-of-Grayish-Bony-Hue Bird. He had more important things to worry about. Namely, the education and retention of the English alphabet for John Mallory and assorted company of children. “D,” Mostly-Yellow Bird said next, his bony mandibles cluck cluck clucking as he spoke. “D is for Democracy. Democracy works. No other system of government works quite like Democracy.” Not a single child knew what democracy was. However, on that day all of them learned that it works.

The exposed skull left much room for ventilation in Yellow Bird’s head, and he noted it with not a small amount of relief. “Gosh,” he said, “this feels so…” ngglbub ghlbhub. Uh oh, he then thought. That missing bird flesh was what was keeping all the bird blood flowing to my bird brain. It won’t be long until plop. His suspicions, while barely given enough time to formulate, were nonetheless correct, as his brain sidled out of his skull and plopped onto the hot city pavement, sizzling in a puddle with some bird blood, originally destined for the errant brain. “What’s that,” a curious boy asked. “I can’t tell you,” Yellow Bird replied, “because we already passed by that letter. However, I can tell you that, whatever it is, while it’s not as big as the ones that mammals have, it’s at the very least bigger than the ones reptiles have.” “Aren’t we mammals?” John Mallory asked, as Yellow Bird discreetly slipped the bird brain back into his skull. “Yes,” Yellow Bird replied, “and that’s why it’s so important for you mammals to learn your alphabet. You have no idea how lucky you all are. All I can do with my little bird, er, thing, is teach the alphabet, but you mammals, with your bigger, things, can take those letters and do so much more with them. I bet that one day, with the knowledge of the alphabet and with the help of your bigger things, you could learn to fly one day. Wouldn’t that be something?” The kids agreed, yes, that would be something. A consensus having been reached, Yellow Bird cleared his throat and continued.

“E is next,” Yellow Bird said. “E is for eggthbblthbbgglbth.” Drat, thought Yellow Bird, this is getting out of hand. If nothing else, it’s making an awful mess on the pavement. I just hope that plop. Yellow Bird picked up his thing that’s bigger than reptile things but smaller than the things that belonged to most of the present company and slid it back into his head. I think Aloysius should take over for a bit while I take a break, he thought. He looked to Aloysius, and at this point his boil from the sting had mutated into a malignant tumor. The tumor, with a set of recently-grown jaws, gnawed off Aloysius’s imaginary flesh, and what little of the elephant it did not devour, it relentlessly battered with Aloysius’ own long trunk, which had been previously torn off by the tumor with a set of recently-grown appendages. Malignant, Aloysius scornfully thought, this tumor is downright ornery! Aloysius died and toppled onto the hot black city pavement, sizzling along with the bird blood, broken and alone. Despite his vociferous cries for help, no one came to his aid. No one could hear him. Such are the disadvantages of being imaginary.

Well, thought Yellow Bird, it looks like someone isn’t going to pull his weight around here. I better get a move on with this alphabeture, if my bird thing loses much more blood, it’s only a matter of time before the rest of my body goes. E, then. “E,” said Yellow Bird, as his entire skin sloughed off like a low-rent magician demonstrating the properties of matter, namely that of inertia. “My epidermis,” screamed Yellow Bird. “E is for epidermis,” repeated John Mallory, ever the attentive pupil. Might as well, thought Yellow Bird. “Yes, E is for epidermis. An epidermis in motion stays in motion, and a set of internal organs encased in a rib cage at rest, stays at rest. But we won’t get to that property of matter for a while, at least not until the letter I.”

Without the aid of his E for epidermis, the rest of his internal organs, in a morbid demonstration of another property of matter, that of gravity, took their egress of the ribcage that housed them and splattered and sizzled onto the hot black city pavement with a shhhlupp ploppity plop. “F,” Yellow Bird screamed as he desperately tried to shove his own guts back inside the hollow, skinless shell of a bird he once was, like a jigsaw puzzle with a cruel sense of humor, that disassembled itself just as one gets closer to putting it together. “F is for my feathers! Quickly, children, gather my feathers before the wind blows them away! Here are some feather-gathering yard tools, you can scrape them across the grass and gather them into a pile. I can’t tell you what they’re called, though, until we get to the letter R!” The children did the best they could to gather the errant feathers, but John Mallory, ever the attentive pupil, listened as Yellow Bird frantically continued to teach the alphabet.

“G is for gizzards! Gizzards are useful when they digest food for you, but can be a hassle when they’re entangled all around your wingtips, like so! H! Hyperthyroid gland! I don’t know why it’s important, but I know I need it! Back in my body it goes! I, Intestinal tract! Is that pretty much the same thing as a gizzard? Too bad! That’s what begins with the letter I! I begins with I too! I am falling apart! I will soon be no more! But not, until, I go, through every, last, letter! The feathers had been gathered up, and the children hopped and skipped into the pile, having a gay time. They were deaf to Yellow Bird’s ejaculatory teaching, the shlupping and plopping of his internal self. Only John Mallory, ever the attentive pupil, listened to Yellow Bird’s lesson.  H, Herbst-corpuscle! Well, the second part begins with a C, as you remember! But that first word, Herbst, that’s an H word! Oh, I said H already! Never mind! J, jugal bone, he screamed, as his bones also started to fall apart. K, kidney! L, lumbar vertebrae! Metatarsus! Nictitating membrane! Olfactory bulb! Pygostyle bone! Quack! Radius! Syrinx! Trach…”

At the loss of his syrinx, and trachea, Yellow Bird could no longer speak. Instead, he had to sign the best he could with the last intact wing that he had left. John Mallory, ever the attentive pupil, watched the wing as Yellow Bird taught his final letters. U, he signed, it sounds like you, as in yourself, but it’s a different letter, it’s the first letter for words like ubiquitous, or ukulele. V, that’s the letter that starts the word voice. That’s what I don’t have anymore. W. Remember that one letter, U? Well, it’s like that letter, but there’s two of them. It’s also two V’s sometimes, if you’re in Rome. And the last three, they’re not used that much, don’t worry so much about them. “Aren’t any of them used as vowels though?” asked John, ever the inquisitive pupil. “Only sometimes…”

And with that, Yellow Bird joined his imaginary friend Aloysius in the great children’s instructional show in the sky, simultaneously giving up his ghost and his structural integrity. Yellow Bird’s friends took care of the funeral arrangements. His thin blue monster friend delivered a moving eulogy. His fat blue monster friend ate all the hors d’oeurves, much to the displeasure of the other friends. His monster friend who lived in the trash receptacle was a pall bearer, and, due to the limited mobility one is afforded in a trash receptacle, accidentally dropped the casket, spilling the parts of Yellow Bird onto the hot black city pavement once again. His vampire friend counted, one hundred nineteen, one hundred twenty, one hundred twenty one! Yellow Bird has one hundred and twenty one bones in his skeleton! He had one hundred and twenty one bones, the red furry monster corrected. The vampire friend was embarrassed by this reproach, in front of all his friends, and Yellow Bird’s scattered parts, no less. That popularity of his is sure going to his head, the vampire said to himself.  And as for John Mallory, who was the only one to learn the complete alphabeture, made sure that Yellow Bird’s final legacy lived on. He never did learn how to fly, but he was able to teach the alphabet to other birds, and after a while, they were able to figure it out without a hitch. And the birds would teach their sons and daughters the alphabet, and they would disintegrate in the city streets on a hot day, and their children would teach their children, and disintegrate, and so on.

Sometimes, before going to bed, John Mallory would read his diagnosis of Yellow Bird’s terminal ailment to his mother. “Yellow Bird,” he would read, “suffered from a highly advanced case of Salmonello-Aspergillosis, indicative of the emaciation, increased thirst, stunted breathing, and lethargic demeanor suffered by the victim. Due to a pre-existing case of depressed immune system, victim was most likely exposed to food contaminated with Aspergillosus fumgatus spore and fecal matter, prevalent among certain species of monsters with refuse-receptacle habitats. The two deadly contaminants working in concert caused rapid deterioration of epidermal tissue, resulting in massive loss of blood originally intended for the brain, which thusly caused a massive shutdown of normal organ functions.” Then his mother would tuck him into bed, kiss him on the forehead, wish him good-night, and, before leaving the door slightly ajar, so as not to leave the room completely dark, John Mallory would ask his mother, “you know, I’m pretty smart for my age don’t you think?” His mother would smile and agree, and then add a small caveat to the statement: “You’re smart for any age.”

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