The sting of it all was overshadowed by the sadness at not knowing what I had done. I'm pretty sure I had started crying. I was twelve, standing in my closet, and my mother said she had slapped me because of my tone.

"It sounded like you were being sarcastic."

My mother never did know how to take me. I tried so hard to convey myself clearly, but it always came out wrong. It still does. Reading a book filled with tips on dating at a local coffee house, I came to a chapter advising singles to "let others know that you are interested in dating." A casual friend from work, smiled mischeiviously and said "Go on Christopher, let everyone know."

I paused, thinking myself witty. "Stephanie, I am interested in dating anyone but you." She stopped smiling and turned away.

That's not what I meant.

If I have learned anything from my life, it is that I should simply stop talking. When I think I have a witty comeback, a stinging reply, I should just keep my big mouth shut. I have offended so many people by making obscure, esoteric double entendres, when all the situation required was that I smile and nod.

Take for instance, the evening of February 18, 2004. I had arrived for work as a cashier at Wal-Mart and had gotten my till. I should have gone to the customer service desk to start training as a Customer Service Manager, but was instead sent to the electronics department. I set up my register, obtained keys for the various locked cases, and set to work. Being the only one in electronics, a violation of company policy, I was forced to divide my time between opening cases and running the register.

There is nothing like the vitriol of a Wal-Mart customer who has been made to wait. I am convinced that this aggression, properly harnessed, could end our dependence on fossil fuels. But all things considered, I was running things smoothly, trying to keep everyone happy.

I excused myself to retrieve a copy of Bad Boys 2, listened to more bitching about the lack of a full screen edition for DVD, and reserved a comment about formatting inferiority. I assisted a lady in finding a compatible ink cartridge for her new printer and laughed with her over a moderately funny comment she had made. I then went to my register to check out more low-income families trying to beat the rush by purchasing their Boone's Farm at an ancillary register. After a few customers, a few more laughs at poorly made witticisms, I got to the lady with the ink cartridge. She was slightly perturbed.

"Etiquette would demand," she said, putting her large, beige handbag on the counter to look for her checkbook, "that I not have to wait in line twice." She leaned in, and as she did, I got a better look at her. She was one of those middle age women who take to wearing pantsuits and large scarves. She was solid, with graying hair and crow's feet. "If you get this for me, you better check my ass out," she said in a half whisper. She leaned back, and it had passed. She had worked out her aggression with a quiet swear, and was now ready to be wooed by my retail servility. I would apologize, maybe adding something about being so busy (then adding that that was really no excuse), and asking she forgive me.

Except I had a witticism of my own.

I, being an amateur linguist, was fascinated by the synecdoche of her comment. She had used one part of her, in this case her posterior, to denote her whole being. I chuckled to myself. I apparently thought we would soon be tossing back Tom Collins at a local discotheque, both stunned stupid by my levity.

"If I hadn't been such an oaf, I would have checked not only your ass out, but your entire body as well."

She was not amused. "Oh, I think we're gonna need a manager on that." A wave of nausea hit, and all of a sudden, I was twelve again, wanting desperately to know what I had done. Despite my pleading with her, and others, I was terminated for gross misconduct less than an hour later.