Editor’s note: In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation declaring the second week in May as National Stuttering Awareness Week. It was established, in part, to encourage stutterers to speak, no matter how fluently or choppily. The Sun News columnist Issac Bailey has spoken with a stutter his whole life. After interviewing a 13-year-old stutterer, Cody Dunavant from North Myrtle Beach, on video, Bailey thought back to his own early years of stuttering and how he long described it as imagined prison and compared it to his brother’s all-too-real 32-year confinement in the South Carolina correctional system .
I recently sat down with 13-year-old Cody Dunavant to do something I had never done to be part of what I hope is the first of something Dunavant will do many times during his still-developing life.
I interviewed him on camera, the cadence and flavor of our speech as much the story as the content of our words.
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In thousands of previous interviews I had conducted, I had been careful not to be heard on video or audio recordings for the public, such is the discomfort I have with my own voice.
Dunavant is a 7th grader at North Myrtle Beach Middle School.
He’s growing up in a post-9-11 world. I grew up when seat belts were still optional.
He has parents who are afraid for and proud of him.
I had parents who loved me the same way, afraid my future would be bleak because of the challenge I faced, yet defiantly confident I’d find my way.
Dunavant is a young man with a severe stutter trying to navigate the always-complicated teenage years.
I have a son his age and a severe stutter and am still processing just how it has shaped who I’ve become.
He’s white; I’m black.
He likely won’t face questions about race the way I have. But I know stuttering has been a far bigger obstacle in my life than race ever has, making Dunavant my brother in a way skin color never could.
We talked for maybe an hour, each through our unique fits and starts and stumbles and physical tics.
Long, pregnant pauses decorated our conversation, as did constant thoughts about whether to finish important points despite stubborn speech blocks that make speaking emotionally and physically exhausting.
I told him that dealing successfully with his stutter may never be easy, but that it would always be doable, that I had no doubt he would find a way, too, even if friends and teachers never fully appreciated what he faced minute-by-minute, day-by-day.
I told him and his mother about Joe Moglia, the Wall Street executive-cum Coastal Carolina University head football coach, and Moglia’s past struggle with stuttering, a fact Moglia revealed to me as I stuttered my way through a phone interview quizzing him about football players and literacy.
I told Dunavant that it has been hard, but also life-affirming, forced me to be humble in a way I otherwise wouldn’t be.
He told me about feeling weird and different and stupid. I told him on many days, this 42-year-old stutterer still feels those same things.
Maybe that’s why speaking to him had images of my early years of stuttering flooding through my brain.
From non-stutterer to stutterer
Having others see me, hear me, find it impossible to ignore me, was intoxicating, even during long-ago years at St. Stephen Elementary.
It became a great place to hide, the perfect place to begin my game of pretend.
The second-grade provided my first experiences with the stage. There was pure enjoyment running around and through and about my reading class with reckless abandon, all in the name of speaking without words. The spotlight was bright, hot, fulfilled all cravings to be seen. Classmates became unwitting foils in a game of which only I knew the rules.
Hitting my friend Chee Chee like an annoying little brother always resulted in a never-ending chase. She was mean, we often teased, because of her penchant for quick retaliation. She’d run around desks to catch me. I’d jump over them to make sure she didn’t. I’d hit. She’d run. I’d run just a bit faster, all the while smiling as I passed Anitra, my first infatuation, and all the others, who stood and cheered, hoping my chase would end in death, or something in proximity.
And surely, death came, but not at the hands of Chee Chee or a crashing fall. When death came, it came slowly at first, crept like a silent thief hauling off, piece by piece, my soul, my joy, my voice. Then quickly, it settled like a bug in drying concrete. It hung around and took residence in my heart. In the form of an imaginary stage equipped with a perpetual single spotlight, it sat there, tagging along everywhere, sometimes, acting as navigator.
The joy of smiling and laughing and speaking, telling crude jokes little boys shouldn’t tell, shouldn’t know, made way for silence and darkness, though the spotlight continued to shine, continued to make me a star in a one-man self-written stage play, but the script was out of my hands by then. Stuttering was grabbing me by the throat, and day by day tightened its grip.
Smiley, the school’s maintenance man, was acting in a similar play. And worse, he was an old pro, had been standing in the darkness under the bright lights of the stage for decades. Evidence of that stage shaped his face, and we in his audience enjoyed watching him sweat under those intrusive beams, for it kept the focus off our struggles.
His name was Smiley because his smile never dropped from his cheeks. Not when riding the green tractor to cut the grass around the playground. Not when sitting at the table in the cafeteria eating from the small green tray with six compartments, none larger than the palm of his hand and filled with greens and mashed potatoes and gravy and a tiny carton of milk, his knees bumping against the underside of a table only grade schoolers could find comfortable.
His smile stood steadfast when approached by perky teachers patting him on the back, assuring Smiley his work of mowing the lawn and taking out the trash were being handled superbly. Never did it leave him, never considered leaving him, not when we made fun of the noises struggling their way from his throat through his vocal cords, over his tongue, past his teeth, breaking through his lips and out of his mouth.
He uttered not a memorable sentence, and barely any coherent words, not that he didn’t speak around us curious youngsters. Often, he spoke, or tried to. But the words would get tangled in his mouth, seldom making their way out smoothly, if at all.
“Hi, Smiley,’’ became, “Hoooooooo Hooooo Hooooooow yaaa yaa yaa yaa yaaaaaa’ll doooooooiiiiinnng,’’ when Smiley returned the greeting.
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Smiley was becoming more than a curiosity, more than an actor from a funny dream, but a carbon copy of who I was to be. That realization became a nightmare. But there was no fear, for the nightmare was unlike any of those that left me with tear-stained cheeks. It was a nightmare growing from the blank spaces where my soul once resided, the soul that had been taken away, piece by piece, every time I had to open my mouth to speak. It became a calm that gently held me back. And violently pushed me forward.
It came to life one sunny afternoon in a park, amongst friends. Moochie, my oldest brother, had already been hauled off to prison and my speech had for some time clearly deteriorated into not much more than garble.
Stuttering takes the controls
The promise of the few pennies that would be left over from running an errand for Doug, my second-oldest brother, who also struggled with stuttering, had me running happily to the store that day to purchase some sweets. The play in which I was about to star began without my knowledge or awareness. Lights, camera … “Aaaaacccc aaaaacccttion.’’
Hurriedly, I walked back to the small park, just across the street from our house, to Doug and a fairly large contingent of neighborhood friends. The park was small. A short metal fence surrounded it, leaving open only enough space for vehicle traffic. Tall grass had overtaken the baseball field just beyond the fence, its infield weeds.
An enclosed tennis court, its net drooped from years of misuse, and pavement cracking in too many places, sat behind the ball field and across from the basketball court, which suffered from similar scars. The baseball field and courts provided a quiet backdrop, as all the neighborhood kids enjoyed the swing sets and merry-go-round near the baseball field, but short of the basketball court.
And it was there, the play began.
“Did you get it?’’ Doug asked as I rushed towards him, praying my feet would travel faster than his words. Pretending not to hear, my feet moved a bit more swiftly as they sensed a potential battle.
“Did you get the Juicy Juice?’’ he asked again, not with malice intent but with an urgency an older brother is won’t to speak to a younger one.
Only a few hundred feet away, chin buried in chest, eyes scanning the earth below, my hand gripped tight the brown paper bag that contained his goodies.
“Hurry, please hurry,’’ the words working through my brain again and again, “Please Ikey, hurry. Not today, not again. Please. Hurry!’’
Moving ever closer to my destination, trying not to notice the crowd of kids, trying to ignore Kenny, who a few weeks earlier deemed me too dumb to speak when I’d disappear from class three times a week for speech therapy. It was easy to feel the heat from his breath, adding to my discomfort upon that stage under an already steaming spotlight.
“Did you get the Juicy Juice?’’
The words, not Doug, stopped me this time, as they often did, demanding an immediate reply. They were in control.
My heart was pounding, seemingly demanding freedom from an uncooperative chest, palms sweating, sternum tightening as though a large fist were pushing against me. There was no need to fight against them any longer.
“They didn’t have . . .,’’ eyes still concentrating on the earth below my feet. “. . . No Juuuiiiiii.’’
My feet stopped just a few yards away from Doug, as the playground and too many pairs of eyes engulfed me, becoming my focus. My legs would move farther no more. My tear-stained heart prepared for another soaking. My brain refused to comprehend, leaving me in a lurch.
“They diiiiii diiiiiiii ddddddd dddddddd. Thhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeey. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. They ddddddddiiiiiiiiii dddddiiiiiiiii. Um. Um. Um. Um. Um. Um. Um. Thhhhhhhhhh. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Ah. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Um. Um. Um. Um. Thhhhhhh . . .’’
All around became a blur, but the laughter penetrated that veneer. My heart sped uncontrollably beneath my contracting and burning chest. Arms limped into numbness. The lips seemed not to be mine, as they didn’t march to my command, an all too common occurrence. Time offered no escape.
It — time itself — stood there beside me, basking in the glow of the spotlight of which only I was aware, as if patiently waiting for the play to end.
Desperately trying to tell my brother the convenience store didn’t have his flavor of 25-cent juice, “Please let me, please, just this once, let me talk,” the words trudged their way easily, smoothly, desperately through my brain, as they had so many times before, but to no avail.
Stuttering was at the commands and had no intentions of relinquishing that power.
The words, the right words, the ones being sought, those that had flowed swiftly and easily a thousand times through my head, couldn’t be cajoled to ease their way through my mouth. “Please go through my lips, just this once. Please!’’
The stutter ignored my pathetic begging.
It seemed as if every kid in the park — Kenny from down the street, Melvin from the other side of the woods — had stopped to watch my mouth perform amusing tricks on me. It didn’t matter if they actually stopped in mid air on the swings or twirling on the merry-go-round or ended their own conversations, for the scene had become just that, it felt as though everyone had assembled neatly, encircling me, forming a makeshift amphitheater, forcing me upon stage.
“It’ll be over soon. The next time, the next word, the next sentence will be the breakthrough. It’s almost over. They’re gonna come out. They have to. I can do this.’’
“They diiiiii diiiiiiii ddddddd dddddddd.’’
“Thhhhhhhhhheeeeeeeeeey. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Ah.’’
“They ddddddddiiiiiiiiii dddddiiiiiiiii.’’
“Um. Um. Um. Um. Um. Um. Um. Thhhhhhhhhh. Um. Ah. Um. Ah.’’
“Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Ah. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Ah. Um. Um. Um. Um. Um. Thhhhhhh . . .’’
Then my legs began to move as my body found an alternate route to produce fluent speech, a route which had been working for the past week.
My weight shifted to my right leg, which was a step in front of the left. Then it shifted to my left leg, then back to the right.
“This will work. It has to. It just has to. It’s worked before.’’
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The movements resembled those of a little boy atop one of those plastic rocking horses stationed in front of a dime store; only, there was no horse, just an attempt by a young frightened stutterer to rock his words, and himself, free.
After too many minutes, it finally began working. Words began breaking from stuttering’s grip when my front foot hit the ground, the speaking taking the requisite pauses as the weight shifted back to the left.
“Thhhhhhh’’ became. “They didn’t have,’’ left foot, “No Juicy Juice,’’ left foot, “In the store.’’ “So I bought,’’ left foot, “This candy,’’ left foot, “And juice,’’ left foot, “Instead.’’
Those words, too, stumbled from an uneasy mouth. But they were out, allowing peace to join me on stage, where it was, for just a second, easy to pretend nothing else mattered.
All around me, though, laughter continued to rain, amazement dripping like hot wax from so many faces. Ignoring the kids rolling on the ground holding their stomachs as they thoroughly enjoyed my one-man stage play, and walking past a satisfied audience and out of the park and into my house, and feeling defeated again, it was natural to seek refuge, this time in a locked bathroom.
“Kenny was right, I’m too dumb to talk.’’
The tears came steadily, but no one was allowed to witness them, as they were left behind in the bathroom where thoughts, not of anger, but of confusion and fear, tried to comfort a boy too young to be mad, too immature to grasp exactly what it was he had done wrong, had done to deserve such a life.
The experience was enough to know the stage, and hate it, the stage that seemed to be defining my very essence, my capabilities, shortcomings, what I saw in myself, what others saw in me. It was more than enough to never want to experience it again, not the stage, not speaking, not rocking.
None of it.
Despising my own voice
Those days sent me searching for answers that wouldn’t be found for many years, sent me searching in all the wrong places, led me to smile more, like Smiley, even as confusion slowly burned its way into a simmering anger. At least people patted Smiley on the back for keeping the schoolyard clean.
Those kind of days led me to despise crying and the sound of my own voice, led me into the back corners of classrooms and to the periphery of conversations, led me to many bathrooms, behind many locked doors.
It was hard figuring out who should be hated more, me for not being smart enough to talk, or them, all of them, who laughed and pointed and said nothing and too much and tried to help and inflicted pain and suffering as they waltzed through life with a pair of lips and a mouth bending to their every command.
Didn’t know if it was God’s fault or mine, didn’t know what was wrong, only that something was. Didn’t know what was broken, didn’t know how it could be fixed, or if it could be fixed, or needed fixing, or hiding from, or confronting, or accepting, or despising.
It was hard to understand, knowing that while days such as the one in the park were always just over the horizon, standing on a real stage in front of hundreds to participate in Spelling Bees seemed simple, as natural as the stuttering, only the stutter, for reasons I didn’t understand, didn’t follow me onto those stages, stages upon which my taking home a first- or second-place trophy was expected of me.
Maybe it was the cadence demanded by the Bee, where everything was in rhythm, every call by the announcer precisely measured. Or maybe it was the countless practice and repetitions that freed me in those few hours, freed me to show others that words indeed were flowing freely through my brain as they were in theirs, freeing me from stuttering’s death grip, if only for a few minutes at a time.
Maybe it’s why I cried walking home from school on report card day after receiving a “C’’ in reading — the first score below an “A’’ I had ever posted. My older brothers and sisters laughed at my tears, laughing at what seemed like a silly overreaction.
But that “C’’ cut deep, sliced into the one area where perfection was in my reach and had been achieved. The stuttering had already infected every other part of my life, supercharging doubt about my very worth. The “C’’ seemed so big because stuttering’s shadow made everything else seem so small, insignificant.
The shame of being trapped inside my body by one of the simplest behaviors known to man was growing too great, too fast, was too much.
“Who can’t open up their mouth and talk? Who can’t, just … talk? I’m tired of doing this, tired of hearing people laugh at me, tired of wondering if the words will start coming out like other people, tired of everything. I wish I could quit. Who can’t talk? Nobody, except you, Ikey. That’s so stupid. You’re so stupid.’’
Wishing for Tonka trucks and train sets for Christmas turned into wishing, demanding and praying that God would end the misery. I began praying that God’s hand would swoop down and take away this useless communication tool, this thing called speech.
I wanted God to grab it, my ability to speak at all, crush it, throw it away in a corner that would never again be visited.
In my young mind, ending the stuttering seemed too large a task even for God; taking away my voice seemed simpler, more doable.
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After the day in the park, and so many like it, my eyes often found their way to the earth moving beneath my feet. The bumpy, bubbly dark pavement. The brown soil littered with broken glass. The overgrown grassy fields. The uneven, weed-infested sidewalks. The rough terrain of white-rocked roads.
‘Listening became everything, speaking nothing but a bad joke’
No longer did the brownness of Anitra’s eyes lift my spirits because eye contact became a burden. I could see in other people’s eyes and faces the pity they were cultivating for me every time I opened my mouth and nothing, or almost nothing, came out. Noticing the thickness of lips or the curves foreheads or roundness of cheeks became impossible. My eyes focused elsewhere even during intimate conversations.
The image of me ducked into a place other than my conscious mind. Mirrors became strangers. They reflected too much of what was too dastardly to see. I was too dumb to talk, silence became my one true friend, and my only true enemy.
The sixth chair from the back on the first row next to the classroom door became comfortable, like a newly conquered, barren land. Peace waited for me there in that odd configuration of plastic, metal and wood.
The leaping over desks and needling Chee Chee, or others, made way for a life that meant finding ways to communicate while being silent, meant joining discussions without speaking, being seen without being heard.
A shallow smile often propped itself upon my face and offered itself to all comers, even as sadness dug its way toward my soul.
Listening became everything, speaking nothing but a bad joke.
Writing contests with a few of my classmates provided brief, periodic respites from my shrinking world. Through them, the words in my head had found a detour. If not through my mouth, they persisted, then through the tip of a pencil.
We wrote everything, but nothing in particular. The thrill of winning the writing races, which took place in reading class after we zipped through assignments, was enough. Putting words on the page meant nothing and everything.
They served as a bridges to others, a bridge my voice couldn’t, or refused to build.
And because of them, I became a contradiction. The boy with the ever-present smile, but the boy with the tear-stained heart; the boy with impeccable grades, but the boy who absorbed himself in silence; the boy who was champion of the Spelling Bees, but the boy who forgot he was just a boy and that understanding wasn’t always necessary.
The boy who screamed silently for help in breaking from his prison, but the boy who despised being pulled out of class to sit in a little room with Mrs. Starks for speech therapy.
That boy needed the touch and kind words of family and teachers, but recoiled at the thought.
When my mother planned shopping trips to the mall in the big city of Charleston, I begged to stay home and often found my way to the silence awaiting me in the bathroom. It was never a fun retreat, just one that had grown too comfortable to ignore.
Longing for the simpler days became a constant, the days when Moochie and Doug and Willie and I would jog to the high school, maybe farther. When my little legs knew only one speed – fast — to keep up with my older brothers. When they’d grab me by the head as we ran to keep me out of traffic. When we were free.
When we all were free.
A prison guard alerted Moochie to our presence, and he bent down to look through a small mesh opening of a large metal door to watch us as it was being unlocked. His fingers peeked ever so slightly through the mesh until the door was open.
He hugged. We hugged back. We smiled. He smiled back.
My mother sat on the couch with the odd look still intact and greeted him last, but longest.
Moochie led us around outside — inside the barbed wire draped prison fence. He introduced us to his friends, a few who had Polaroid cameras and were offering to take our picture for three dollars.
Some were busy lifting weights, others just walking and talking. Others were men who helped him find a new religion, a new way of life, Rastafarism, that would make him strong when prison tried to make him weak, would make him choose between freedoms.
We ended up under a tree and on a green patch of grass surrounded by picnic tables. There we gave Moochie the olive oil he had requested in letters and calls. His hair was locking as his belief in Rastafarism grew stronger. The olive oil, and maybe berry juice, was used to wash his dreadlocks. Only natural ingredients were worthy of his hair, which was now topped by a cloth cap-like material he called a crown. Moochie was becoming someone new, someone foreign.
I missed the jogs he’d taken us on and didn’t care for the Afrocentric thought he implored us to study.
He’d sent boxes of books and recommended others, telling us about the kings and the queens we were in Africa, how his spiritual journey was taking him closer to Jah.
I knew God from church. He found Jah in prison.
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The long sunburned dreadlocks on his head changed the look of his six-foot-two inch caramel colored frame. He was becoming like the men we saw time on television beating drums on a sidewalk in a big city as people walked past, sometimes dropping quarters, nickels and dimes in a basket, maybe a hat.
My brother, before prison, was a basketball player and military man and part-time college student with a small neatly cropped Afro. I remember standing as a young boy on the dirt track surrounding the football field at St. Stephen High School and watching as Moochie caught a long touchdown pass. As Moochie was running down that field, an overwhelming sense of joy rushed through my veins. No one could have convinced me he wasn’t superman himself.
Moochie was the guy who taught me how to wash my hair, grabbing my little hands, squeezing my fingers into a rake-like position, placing them on my shampooed head before telling me to scratch the lather into my scalp to kill dandruff.
He was the guy who drove, with his knees, 90 miles per hour down the highway to make it to Kentucky Fried Chicken before it closed.
But those days were long gone as we began saying our good byes from Ridgeville, the small town name short for Lee Correctional Institution.
Home was more than two hours away. My mind had me racing through the fence to get to the parking lot. Those trips were becoming routine, a few times a month. From the Berkeley County jailhouse, to Ridgeville, to a prison in Columbia, to a prison in half a dozen other places I vaguely remember. Prison became a way of life for our entire family. We served, maybe not alongside Moochie, but we served time, too.
My world was becoming smaller and smaller, and I began to dread waking up so early in the morning to make those long trips to sit in a smoky visiting room from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to visit a brother no longer familiar.
Moochie sensed that distance as well and asked me during a visit why I was so quiet, how being quiet was not cute. By that time he was confident and loud and boisterous in proclaiming all the things he had learned from reading books we’d never heard of.
“I talk when I got something to say,’’ I told him, the stutter no match in that moment for my anger at Moochie’s question.
He smiled, as did my parents and brothers and sisters, who were all shocked to hear such definitive words from my 12-year-old lips.
To me, they were just words, just enough to stay off stage.
Jailed by stuttering
Moochie avoided the stage as well, never discussing that night Mr. Bunch was stabbed 48 times and his store was burned to the ground. Or was it 52 stab wounds and a burned car? Or a burned house?
As a family, we found the strength to discuss that topic only on rare occasions.
Mom barely got to the courtroom on time the morning Moochie changed his plea to guilty, just in time to hear the sentence and to hear Moochie tell her he was doing it for us.
That’s how we got used to used to seeing him in prison but took looking to understand the man he was becoming.
His demeanor morphed from one of boyish awareness and skepticism, to spiritual seeker, to withdrawn man still desperate to remain part of the family. He changed into conspiracy theorist to battle-worn warrior, and protector of the family, a family he could only hope to see a few times a year. Moochie had a new place in this world, and it wasn’t only in South Carolina prisons.
I had a place, too, which had no bars, no small toilet and gray floors, no guards and metal detectors, no brick or barbed wire fences. My place was dim and cold, but eerily comfortable. My stuttering led me there. Told me it was where I belonged.
There, I never stuttered, was never laughed at or judged too dumb to speak. Never once cried there, though my heart remained tear-stained.
My place was the bathroom and in the back corner of classrooms and in the tale of a Connecticut Yankee in some king’s court; it was away from mirrors and long conversations.
It had only one invited guest, demanded me to be the center of attention. Only there was no one to pay attention, no one to hear how beautifully, and smoothly, words flowed from my mouth. No one to hear me say all those things that had me wanting to speak fluently.
“Listen to me,’’ I’d demand from upon my stage in front of my invisible audience. “Listen to me. I’m here, and I can talk. Talk like you and feel like you.’’
No one was invited to my place to hear my sighs of pain and pleas for help. No one to hear how my day at school went or how cool Michael Jackson seemed or the Dallas Cowboys were. No one to hear me sing along with “New Edition,” dance with George Jefferson.
My place was crowded by silence, decorated with darkness. It had no walls, no bars, but held me captive nonetheless.
I wanted to leave it but couldn’t find my way free, and wanted Moochie to leave his so he could free me, protect me from the bullies that showed up too often, so he could jog with me, be free with me, talk to me.
My place became the only place to hide, the only place to pretend being free.
Stuttering often rested along side me in that place. Balled itself up into a corner and watched me play act, watched me be proud. There, in that place, it was my stage, my play again, and all he could do was watch, couldn’t make me cry or scared or run or hide. But he was there always.
All other times and in all other places, stuttering told me what to do, how to think, how to feel. But there, in my place, which wasn’t a place really, I was me, the person longing to breathe free air.
Stuttering had a pit bull’s grip on my life. Not in that place, a place I’d visit often, a place I hated having to retreat. Every time someone laughed, I found my way back there.
After the park, my place was in the bathroom.
Other times it was in front of the television when no one else was watching. And on the basketball court, shooting three-pointers alone. And in the multiplication table. Comfort from the struggle that was stuttering was to be had there, and I had to have comfort.
Moochie found comfort in Jah, and his dreadlocks. He found comfort in seeing our faces in those unfriendly, cold visiting rooms, found it in the letters we wrote, the words we said when he called collect from prison, found it in the books he read that whisked him away to an Africa he had never known.
He would ask us to visit more, even as our visits became less frequent and predictable, asking us to write when our hands had become too lazy. It was a few years before he seemed to have adjusted to a life he didn’t want, but couldn’t escape.
My adjustment didn’t take as long. In the world, stuttering was in control.
In my place — my bar-less, windowless prison — there was no stuttering.
If only it was real.