Under most circumstances, I’m perfectly fine with being pressed up against a wall by a beautiful woman.
Not so much, however, when the actual pressing is achieved by shoving the big end of a crutch under my chin.
Also, she was shouting.
“Where’s your accent?!”
“I… don’t… What?” I gasped.
Where’s mall security when you need them, huh?
“Where…” she repeated more slowly, “…is your accent? Accent, where? You talk, don’t you?”
I tried to clear my throat. “Uh, not… easily.”
I am certain that I had simply been minding my own business. I’d come to the mall to buy a copy of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and was passing through the Food Court on my way back to my car. I’d just gotten off the phone with a friend, telling him that I’d be over in an hour so we could both play.
The blue Best Buy bag had fallen to my side mid-attack, where I hoped it still lay. If someone snatched it while I was being held up, then I was going to—
“Huh?!” she interrupted, challenging.
“Please let… me breathe…” I managed to get out.
She squinted, inspecting my face for… something. I’m not sure what. But she did let up, and the pressure on my larynx blessedly reduced. The crutch was still in place, however, making my next goal somewhat clear.
“Can we, like, go and sit down somewhere? Instead of doing this?”
“Say it in your accent,” she demanded through gritted teeth.
Quickly! Distract her!
“How do I not say anything in my accent? Isn’t an accent just the way someone talks? I can use a New England accent if you want, but I didn’t grow up here.”
She shook her head. “Say ‘I’d like a number thirteen, ranch roast.’”
Now it all came back to me.
See, I, uh… I sometimes get bored. So when I go out for lunch at work, I have a different voice that I use at each place. And this woman must work at the sandwich shop one block away. Where I usually order a #13, Ranch Roast.
I never considered that I’d be called out on it ever, though. What are the odds of running into a random sandwich shop employee in my daily life, anyway? Though perhaps I’d done so dozens of times, and I just didn’t remember them.
Come to think of it, though: Short hair, pretty, hurt foot, crutches… I should remember her. I tried to envision a nametag. Mary, Mara, Clara, Dana, Zuul… No. None of those sounded right.
“Ide lieke a noumber therteen, rahnch roost,” I said, adopting the “train ride across Europe” accent that I was so fond of.
Accents aren’t so hard, when you come down to it. The hardest part is sticking with just one. As far as European accents go, there are only a few simple rules to remember. For example, many consonants are pronounced the same, but the trickier ones are r and n. The European r is pronounced using the tip of the tongue; that’s how you get the Spanish “rolling r” that has fascinated elementary school children for as long as there’s been a Spain, I’m sure. N is pronounced the way we Americans would pronounce the n in the ng consonant group. It’s more toward the back of the throat, and the air comes out of the nose.
Vowels are another beast entirely. Putting the vowel shift aside, the thing that makes Americans sound most like Americans is a phenomenon called vowel gliding. Americans love making diphthongs out of simple vowels. Take the “long o,” for instance. When we make this sound, our jaws “glide” our mouths closed in the process, turning an “oh” sound into “oh-oo.” The same goes for the “long i.” The word “glide” itself is pronounced as though it were “glah-eed.”
“That’s the one!” she shouted triumphantly, leaning into the crutch.
I coughed, started by the sudden return of the crushing pressure.
She dropped the crutch and blushed. “Sorry!”
As it fell, the cushion at the big end caught on the zipper of my jacket, and the unpadded top fell directly onto my big toe.
Making a sound something like a cross between a sad cat and a happy pig, I instinctively pulled up my foot, and the crutch clattered onto the floor.
“Sorry!” she apologized again.
We both leaned down to pick the crutch up. Predictably, our foreheads collided.
“Sorry!” we both apologized simultaneously.
Stuck in a Mexican standoff of politeness, we each straightened up and waited for the other to make the next move. By now, our awkward ballet had attracted the attentions of a few passers-by.
“Maybe we should go sit down now,” I suggested.
“Right, yes.” She glanced from side to side. “Um, can you get my crutch for me?”
As I did, I also snagged my Best Buy bag. Game still inside, crisis averted.
Safely balanced again, the woman’s determination returned. “Right,” she said again. “Let’s go sit. We should talk.”
She paused, and looked directly into my eyes.
“I need your help ruining someone’s life.”