This story appears in issue 3 of Medium Chill. Buy it here.
Of course, Lisa was the first to figure it out. As the four cousins knelt on the green shag carpet playing a board game and the nearby television blared professional wrestling, their moms sat around the dining table sipping something they jokingly called “sweet tea” and conversing in an incomprehensible foreign tongue.
“Zeebz zeetz zeemz zeenz zeedz.”
The moms had done this as long as the cousins could remember, and because everything is simultaneously novel and completely ordinary for kids, a secret adult language wasn’t really so unusual.
When it was her turn to roll the dice, Lisa leaned in close over the board, now strewn with cards and game pieces, and confided, “I know what they’re saying. I mean, I can understand their language.”
“Really?” Mark asked. “What are they saying right now?”
On the TV, Hulk Hogan knelt in center ring, the recipient of a brutal beating from “Macho Man” Randy Savage. It looked like this could be the end of his glorious reign as heavyweight champion of the world. The ringside announcers spoke in raised, high-pitched tones barely capturing their disbelief at this shocking turn of events.
“I probably shouldn’t say anything,” Lisa said. “It’s not very nice, and it’s about your dad.”
“Come on,” Chris said. “Just tell us. We don’t care.”
Lisa thought about that for a minute, considering whether or not to give up her advantage as sole translator of this alien code. Finally, she said, “They call it Carnival. My mom learned it from a friend when she was little. Then she taught it to your moms so they could have a secret sister language grandma and grandpa didn’t understand. Now, they use to it to gossip in front of us about adult stuff.”
Mark looked surprised. “Wait. Are we seriously carnies?”
“No,” Lisa laughed. “My mom’s friend learned it from her family. Maybe they were carnies or con artists or something. I don’t know.”
“OK.” Jeremy said. “So how does Carnival work?”
“It’s really easy,” Lisa said. “You just insert a ‘eez’ sound into each syllable of a word, so a word like carnival becomes ‘ceezarneezaveezal’.”
“How do you say dog?” Chris asked.
“How about Batman?”
This was a minor revelation. The cousins had long grown accustomed to their moms buzzing like bees whenever they got together but had never really considered that these sounds might actually convey meaning.
Lisa rolled the dice and advanced six places. She collected a card but didn’t share whatever ominous fate it foretold.
“So, what are they saying?” Mark asked. “I mean, we know our parents fight all the time. They think they’re hiding it from us, but they’re not.”
As Lisa decoded that Mark and Chris’s dad was always drunk and couldn’t hold down job and had his buddies over every day to smoke pot in the garage, Jeremy found his attention drawn to the television. Hogan seemed to be rallying. Although Macho Man continued to rain blows upon him, the champ held his head high as if unfazed. Clearly the tide was beginning to turn.
“Your dad didn’t go bear hunting in Alaska last year,” Lisa said. “He was in jail for a week.”
Chris noticed Jeremy’s shift in focus and said, “Here’s where the Hulkster stops feeling those punches and shakes his head like no way, man. Then, he’ll throw Macho Man into the ropes, leg drop him or body slam him and then pin him. It’ll be all over soon.”
Just then, Mark and Chris’s dad entered the room as the women continued to drink their tea and gossip in Carnival. He had long, curly hair and was dressed in a mesh muscle shirt and patterned athletic pants. He said, “There you witches go again with your gypsy curses.” The women laughed amiably as he leaned down and kissed Mark and Chris’s mom on the lips.
As he left the room, the women immediately started speaking in Carnival again.
Lisa said, “She just said she’s going to leave him as soon as she has enough money.”
“Woah, really?” Mark asked. He and Chris looked momentarily stricken. “They seem fine. They were just kissing.”
“Sorry,” Lisa said. “I knew I shouldn’t have said anything.
On the TV, Hogan staged the exact reversal Chris had predicted. As the champion clenched Macho Man to lift him for a finishing body slam, the two wrestlers exchanged a quick look and what seemed to Jeremy to be a nod. He wasn’t sure whether or not he’d imagined it, but soon enough, Hogan slammed Savage to the mat for a quick three-count and thunderous applause from the audience.
Lisa won the board game as usual. As the cousins picked up the cards and tokens and put the board away, Jeremy stopped to watch a minute of Hulk Hogan’s post-match ringside interview with Mean Gene Okerlund. Still champion, he was larger than life in his victory yet humble in his evocation of training, eating vitamins and being true to one’s self and country in securing this monumental comeback.
The moms emptied their glasses and sat silently for a few seconds. They were smiley and sort of glazed-over from the tea. They then rose from the dining table as though through an unspoken accord and moved to the kitchen to begin final preparations for dinner.
“You kids hungry?” Lisa’s mom asked.
Jeremy’s mom said, “This pot roast has been cooking all day. It should be good and tender by now.”
Finally, Mark and Chris’s mom said, “Go tell your dad dinner will be ready soon. Ask if his friends are staying. They’re in the garage.”
Jeremy’s mom shot her a look and said, “Teezell theezem theezay beezetteezer heezold theezeir breezeaths eezout theezere.”
Across the room, Lisa’s eyebrows raised, but of course no one needed a translation just then. Yet rather than point out to their moms how much they now understood, the four cousins played along and helped set the table for dinner, complicit as adults.