Short Stories 

 

 

 

Saturday
Jan092016

Short Stories by Joe Giordano, Billie Kelpin, C.W. Spooner

A Matter of Honor

by Joe Giordano

 

    I’m Dimitri, and I trade under the radar throughout the Mediterranean. When I arrived at Jayden Zammit’s complex in Valetta, a uniformed guard stationed inside a black gate checked my Greek passport, and I was admitted. I hadn’t met Zammit, yet he responded to my fax inquiry with a dinner invitation.

Zammit stood at the entrance of an oak door. He wore a designer suit, was tall, in his sixties, with black eyebrows and gray hair over his ears. Although it was a cool night, sweat glistened on his forehead.

“Thanks for the invitation.”

He gave me a wry smile and escorted me into his dining room. A Murano chandelier hung over a table for twenty. Silverware and china inscribed in gold, “The Consulate of Iceland,” glittered in the light. It took me a moment to realize that there was a swarthy man sitting at the opposite head. He had a black mustache, was in his mid-thirties, and wore a jacket with an open collared shirt. He leaned his cheek on his hand and evaluated me with dead eyes. Zammit made no sign to introduce us so I sat.  

“You have a magnificent home.”

“Thanks, but it’s too big for me. My wife is deceased, and my children live in the city. Do you have family?”

“Only me.”

Zammit glanced at the dark man.

I picked up a plate. “What’s the meaning of the engraving?”

Zammit snapped open his folded napkin. “I’m the Consulate General of Iceland in Malta. I posted a substantial bond, and they appointed me.” He placed the linen on his lap.

“The prestige must be helpful in business.”

“Normally yes.”

“And the gentleman at the other end of the table is your personal security?”

“Not quite.”

A balding servant in a black outfit served us three bowls of stratiatelli soup.

The man said, “Buon appetito.”

Zammit looked up. “Ah, Signor Lucchese has entered the conversation.” Zammit leaned back. “As you know, Sicily is near enough to piss on. Signor Lucchese was persona non grata in Palermo. He smuggled himself into Malta and took sanctuary with me.”

“He’s a friend?”

“A business acquaintance.”

My eyebrows rose.

Zammit put down his spoon. “Signor Lucchese convinced me to give him residence in my home. He emphasized the good health of my children.”

I stiffened. “He’s the reason I was invited to dinner?”

Zammit spread his hands. “Malta is too close to Signor Lucchese’s enemies. He wants to settle in Greece and take up his sundry business activities.”

Lucchese interrupted. “Una faccia, una razza, one face, one race. Greeks and Italians are simpatico, yes?”

“And how am I supposed to get him into Greece?”

“I own a sailing yacht. Two men are needed to handle the craft. Signor Lucchese is an accomplished sailor. I assume a Greek can handle himself at sea. You can make Piraeus within a week.”

I folded my arms.

Zammit’s eyes widened. “I understand what I’m asking is extraordinary. As a down payment on our future relationship I will sign ownership of the boat to you. A diplomat is a good friend to have.”

 I pushed away the soup. “Get somebody else to ferry this mafioso.”

Lucchese pulled out a black revolver and clunked it onto the table.          

I rose. My chair fell backward and smacked the floor. I clenched my fists. Lucchese eyed me. My mind calculated how fast I could close with him and the utility of a butter knife against a pistol.

Zammit was stern. “Put that damn thing away. We’re negotiating.” 

Lucchese flashed me a grin of crooked teeth. He shrugged and shoved the revolver back into his shoulder holster.

Zammit tugged at my sleeve. “This house is Icelandic territory. Police will not enter the gate. Please, let’s not have trouble.”

I felt a pounding in my chest. A trickle of sweat rolled down my back. I took a long breath, picked up the chair, and sat.

“Let’s not argue. The boat and fifty thousand euro wired to your bank in Greece.”

The alarm bells in my head could’ve woken the dead. “The answer is still no.”

Zammit slumped in his chair.

There were footsteps, and a woman in her early twenties entered the room. She had brown doe eyes, long black hair, and wore a short sleeveless blue dress.

I swallowed.

Lucchese frowned. He raised his hands in the air. “You said I’d handle this.” He smacked his palms on the chair arms. “Signore, this is my sister, Azzura”

I stood and smiled. “I’m Dimitri Andreas, piacere.”

Azzura revealed pure white teeth. “Piacere.” She sat across from me. “My brother is too full of pride. He prefers threats to honesty.” She shot a glance at Lucchese. He looked down. She transfixed me with eyes that glistened with moisture. “Signore, my brother and I are in peril. We need your help. Would you reconsider and take us to Greece? Per favore?”

Had I ever seen a woman as beautiful? Okay, I thought, her brother’s a scifoso, but Azzura has been caught up in some affair not of her making. Lucchese needs me to get them into Greece, so I’m safe for now. I’ll find some way to get the revolver away from him. I took a deep breath and turned to Zammit. “How do they get past the border police?”

“They have been issued Icelandic documents.”

I nodded. “You will wire the money before we leave?”

Zammit’s face brightened like a sunrise. “Most certainly.” He called out to his servant. “Bring Miss Lucchese some soup.”

 

The sound of a sailboat cutting through the open sea is silence.

Lucchese was at the helm. “Ready about.”

Azzura ducked under the boom like a barefoot cat. Her bronze legs were muscled like a dancer’s.

“Helm’s alee.” 

She released the working sheet. The boom slipped to starboard, and I winched trim the lazy sheet until the telltales were straight out.

Azzura’s hair rippled in the breeze under a white cap. She wore her orange life vest over a cobalt blue two-piece.

Lucchese wore the same tattered tee shirt with an Italian flag on the front since we started. He had the pistol in his shorts belt. I hadn’t packed for sailing. I made do with jeans rolled up to my knees.

I looked at Azzura and sighed. Lately my life was tread worn women, casual sex, and waking headaches. Azzura was young and beautiful, but she was also loyal. Family was important to her like it was to me in the Eden of my youth, unsullied, real. I wanted to talk to her, but what wouldn’t sound contrived? I anguished over how to begin, and after a few clumsy attempts I settled for small smiles when I caught her eye. I worried that she thought me an adolescent-minded flirt. Why the hell was I kidding myself anyway? I was too old for her.

Lucchese and I took turns at the helm sleeping in four-hour intervals. Azzura stayed awake while he slept, so there was no chance to grab the revolver. We were making great time and were about twenty-four hours from our destination.

As the day cooled toward evening, I saw towering clouds roll toward us with a sneer. My gut soured. I pointed. The muscles in Lucchese’s jaw bulged. Azzura’s eyes widened. We attached jack lines to our waists. I helped Lucchese furl the sails. He sidled toward the helm and started the engine. I crouched below the wheel. Azzura hugged the base. Her scent was chocolate and blood orange. The wind rose and rattled the metal boom. My mind refocused on the oncoming storm. Flags and rope riggings snapped like whips. The green white-foamed sea levitated the bow skyward then plunged us down, and the horizon disappeared. Rain pelted us in horizontal sheets. I tried to shield Azzura with my body. She pressed her face to me. She was warm. The clouds blotted out daylight. Lightning flashed and illuminated Lucchese in a bright frozen image like a match strike. Thunder exploded overhead. His hand lifted from the wheel to shield his eyes. The boat lurched, and he lost balance. He tottered backwards and tumbled over the transom into the sea. Instantly his jack line snapped off the deck and stretched like a rubber band. I jumped up and took hold of the wheel.

Azzura’s hands went to her head. “Oh my God, Salvatore.” She pulled my arm. “Help him.”

In the strobe of lightning flashes I saw Lucchese floundering in the heavy seas. We rolled, and I slipped to my knees.

Azzura tugged on Lucchese’s jack line in vain. She shouted over the storm, “Save him.” Her top was soaked and revealed the outline of her breasts.

“Take the wheel,” I said.

She struggled on the slippery deck, got to the helm, and hugged the wheel. I took hold of Lucchese’s jack line, pressed my feet against the transom for leverage and pulled. The boat dove into a trough and a huge wave washed onboard and hit me in the back like a rabbit punch. My head hit the stern. Azzura was washed into the wheel-well and came up sputtering. I tasted blood. My hands had loosened, and the gain I’d made on Lucchese’s rope paid out. I took hold and restarted the tug of war against the sea. My back strained. I pushed with my legs and stretched to make headway. The line cut my fingers and palms, and I cursed the lack of gloves. Hand-over-hand I reeled him in. My biceps and thighs burned with exhaustion. I saw Lucchese’s hand clutch the transom. I tied off his jack line on a cleat, reached over the stern, and grabbed his belt with both hands. I hauled him onto the boat and tumbled backwards. He retched and vomited seawater. I crawled to take the helm from Azzura. She said, “Grazie,” in my ear, and her lips brushed my cheek. She went to her brother on all fours and cradled him. I kept the throttle at slow power. It seemed an eternity before the storm passed and was a growl in the distance. My fingertips touched the echo of Azzura’s lips on my face. 

 

***

 

Sunrise and a cloudless sky that blended into a blue Mediterranean opened my eyes. Lucchese’s head lolled, his back against the port side. He was unarmed, and I expected the revolver was lost at sea.

He lifted his hand to me. “Grazie.” He sounded like his throat was filled with ground glass.

I nodded and swallowed. My mouth was cactus. I got us both some water. Azzura was below deck.

“Why did you save me?”

I shrugged. “I didn’t want you in my nightmares.”

Lucchese chuckled.

“Can you get up?”

He nodded.

“Let’s get underway.”

Lucchese struggled to his feet. We got the sails up, and I cut the engine. I was at the helm, and Lucchese plopped down next to me.

“The Italian police are after you?”

Lucchese waved as if shooing a fly.

“What did you do?”

He gave me a sidelong glance. “It was a matter of honor.”

My eyebrows rose.

Lucchese puffed out a breath. “Nunzio Puglisi took an improper interest in Azzura. He was shot in front of the teatro in Palermo’s Piazza Politeama. The police were not the problem. The Puglisi clan marked me for death, and there are more of them than grapes on a vine. One day while I walked in the fields or on the street or sitting on my mother’s porch, a Puglisi would take his revenge on me. Then one of my family would need to respond.”

“Vendetta.”

Si. A friend smuggled us into Malta.”

“But you threatened Zammit’s family?”

“Zammit is no innocent. You approached him for smuggling, yes? But he’s no Sicilian. I pressured him, and he folded like a deck chair.”

“Why did you drag Azzura into this?”

He gave me the crooked tooth smile. “We need to tack.” He rose to his feet.

 

Lucchese was at the helm when I sighted Kithira. I sang out, “Land ho.”

Azzura came on deck and shaded her eyes from the sun. She turned toward her brother and nodded.

Lucchese’s face clouded. He held up his hand to her. “Dimitri, you won’t turn us in to the Greek police, will you?”

“Why would I?”

Lucchese looked at Azzura. “I told you.”

She lifted Lucchese’s revolver and pointed it at me. “We can’t take the chance.”

I took a step backward and raised my hands. I glanced at Lucchese and then back at her. The barrel drew my eyes like a magnet. It looked like the mouth of a giant cave. I considered trying to wrestle the pistol away, but she’d shoot before I got to her.

I said, “You don’t need to do this.”

Azzura cocked the revolver. Her eyes were like a cobra’s before the strike.

I heard gulls overhead, the creak of the boat, and the sound of my short breaths.

Lucchese stepped forward. “He saved my life.”

“He saved you because of me. There’s a longing in his eyes when he looks at me.”

“That’s love, Azzura.”

“They all want love. Papa wanted love.”

“I fought Papa and took beatings for it, didn’t I?”

“That’s when I couldn’t take care of myself. Now I can.”

“Azzura, I took the blame after you shot Puglisi.”

“That was honor.”

“There’s another way.”

“Is there?” She leaned against the boat. Two hands held the weapon.

“Let him swim for shore. Maybe he makes it, maybe not. But we have time to sail into port, and he’s no danger to us.”

Azzura didn’t move. “He’ll talk to the police when he gets ashore.”

“And tell them what? We’ll have Greek identities very soon. Azzura, I owe Dimitri a blood debt. Per favore. Don’t dishonor me.”

Azzura’s eyes flickered. She sighed. Her gaze softened, and she uncocked the revolver. “Okay Dimitri, go for a swim. Maybe the Nereids will save you.” She gestured with the pistol. “Go ahead. Jump. Now, or I’ll forget the debt my brother owes you.”

 

***

You’d think an eight-kilometer swim would cool me off, but when I think of Azzura, a tingle runs up my back. If she was damaged in her youth maybe love is the cure. I sound like a ridiculous romantic, I know. But there was something in her eyes when she let me go. It wasn’t only her brother’s honor. Anyway I need to be sure. I’ve inquired about them in Athens. Maybe they’re in Thessaloniki? Men who’ve seen Azzura won’t forget her. It’s just a matter of time before I find her.

 

Sylvia

by Billie Kelpin

 

I never saw her smile—not once—not in all the months I would come to know her.  Her eyes held something.  I didn't know what. It wasn’t vacancy.  It wasn’t sadness.  Maybe it was rage—maybe hidden, seething rage.   Maybe that's too strong.  She was the most homeless-looking person who had ever walked into my classroom.  The jacket she wore the first night had the unmistakable look and smell of Goodwill.  Her slacks were dark plaid and polyester and the navy blue of them seemed to seep up into a haze that enveloped her, extending outward into an almost visible aura around her edges.  Her hair was dark, her eyes were dark, and as she stood in the doorway she seemed dark...and lost.  She had the look of a child who just awakened upside down in an overwhelming large bed.   She was wearing neither hat nor gloves that night, but she wasn’t shivering.  And silent.  She was definitely silent. Not the silence of the other deaf students in my class.  Not the silence that is willingly broken to make hearing people understand.  This silence was different.  It seemed purposeful like the closed mouth silence of a person holding something like liver that was too disgusting to swallow and too large to spit out.

She arrived late that first evening and I could feel myself trying to be gracious for what I knew would now be, at the very least, a ten-minute disruption.  It wasn’t anyone’s fault.   It was a deaf culture thing—a social phenomenon that swoops in like a wild fire in a forest parched by the need to be understood.   Most of the students in my class had attended the Wisconsin State Residential School for the Deaf back in the 60’s.  Seeing an old classmate now, some 30 years later, would start a blur of concepts that would flash laser-like across the room on visual strings that begged to continue in vibration.  And in the blur, all news would be told …Remember JK, senior year?... new job...g-r-a-p-h-i-c-d-e-s-i-g-n… Really? ... You?…twins?…cool!  (the latter signed like deaf kids in the 60’s used to sign neat).  

 I didn't mind the anticipated interruption. I wasn’t any longer the young “hearie” teacher who would catch but a few signs here and there, missing the subtleties, like a tourist in a foreign land.   I was into the field long enough to feel one with this culture like the American Jesuit in Guatemala giving his homily in Spanish…the British importer in Beijing ordering lunch in fluent Mandarin. I had even dreamt one night in only signs.

But there was no interruption this night.  No flashing lasers across the room…only sign-less stares at the reticent navy blue figure who still stood in the doorway. 

“Welcome,” I signed, “Come in.” I hoped I was smiling as I gestured to a vacant chair.

“Your name?” I signed as she sat.

Only three finger spelled letters later… "S"... stop... "y" stop...”l,” and I knew and my class knew, our group dynamic was about to change.  There was none of the deaf style fluidity of fingers that makes unspoken words become calligraphy in space and time.  Some thirty-five years old and she was clearly new to signing.  “Perhaps she had been late deafened,” I thought.  Could be hard of hearing.  Raised orally without signs?  Possibly.   S-y-l” continued, struggling for the next letters like a child at the piano looking for the keys. In the slow-motion of the waiting, my mind started playing with the possibilities…Sylvester?  I laughed to myself. Sylvania….yeah, like the light bulb!… No, obviously it must be Sylvia…Come on, Sylvia, paleease get it out.

She continued: “v-i-a”.

“Nice to meet you, Sylvia. Do you have a name sign?”

Sylvania’s eyebrows knit as she just sat and looked at me.

Name sign! I thought. Damn, she doesn’t even know what a name sign is. I turned to the class hoping for help. One by one my students spontaneously illustrated the concept of their own name signs; Sylvia barely blinked in response to their efforts.  Finally we agreed that Sylvia would now be an "s" at the temple and hope she caught on. Class that night felt long.  Sylvia's lack of understanding was forcing me to switch back and forth from an ASL deaf-preferred signing structure to a more hearing mode of voiced Signed English in the hope that she might understand with lip-reading cues.

And I resented it.  For the last two weeks the profound deafness of this particular group of adults had propelled me to a peak experience. We were signing adult to adult, not teacher to child.  And I was “in the zone,” my skills being challenged to their capacity…

Two finger spelled letters here, and I would know the word… a flicker of movement there, and I could understand who did what to whom and why.    Three hours of "saying" without speaking…three hours of connecting and feeling useful. I was the privileged hearing person let into a secret world, and now it had to change because Sylvia couldn’t understand!

I was thankful toward the end of the evening that Joyce, the director of Deaf Bridge stopped by to see how the students were doing. I could finally sit down and let her take over. She stayed to talk after I dismissed the class.

“I see Sylvia showed up,” Joyce started. “She appeared at my office to register this afternoon." 

 (Appeared!  It echoed in my mind.  What an accurate word for how she entered my class.)

"I haven’t seen her other sessions,” I replied. “She doesn’t seem to understand much… or even lip-read for that matter. Just recently became deaf, I take it.”

"No…uh, no.  It’s not an age or progressive thing. She’s been profoundly deaf from birth. Her sister told me.”

“What!? For God sake, Joyce, she doesn’t sign or even lip-read. Where’s she been all her life...in a cave? It's the '90s, Joyce, not the 1800's! She's well past thirty. Not one deaf student in the class seems to know her. Don’t you think that’s just a little odd?"

As I looked up, Joyce continued explaining that Sylvia’s sister was the one who had found the Bridge. "She can never help Sylvia register because she plays cello or violin for some philharmonic orchestra. Only flies in and out of town every so often."

“How ironic is that?”  I interjected.

As we walked out into the Milwaukee chill, Joyce explained that Sylvia was raised down south somewhere… “Arkansas? Tennessee?” She didn’t know. “Shows up for class every other year or so. Great writing skills though.”

“That’s what I mean, Joyce.  I had her write a few sentences. “No dropped -ed or -ing endings…Perfect subject verb agreement.  It’s like she grew up hearing.” 

“Talk to her sister.  Trust me, you’ll have the chance. She’s called Sylvia’s teachers in the past.  I’ll give her your number, if that’s ok.”

I thought phone calls in the evening were over when I stopped teaching  little ones, but I replied, "Sure." The mystery of Sylvia was too intriguing to say no. The next week, the wind off Lake Michigan howled only to the hearing, but chilled everyone indiscriminately.  Still, there was full attendance at the Bridge.  Even Sylvia showed up—again no hat, no gloves, no shivering.   Again she simply appeared almost ghostlike, as if up from the floorboards or down from the ceiling.  Again, she frowned through the first hour and a half of idioms and verb tenses.  At break time, the other students filed past her, fingers chattering. Sylvia stayed seated at the end of the pressed-board tables, alone.

“Break time,” I mouthed larger to her than I wanted.  

In slow, straight “hearing” English Sylvia signed, “I-am-fine.”

It felt unnerving to scurry about finding transparencies for the overhead projector and checking papers with one silent, staring student left in the room. I forced the feeling of discomfort somewhere outside of my body and pushed the guilt for not engaging with her down to some place I knew I’d be visiting later.  When I arrived home after class late that night, the phone was ringing.  I answered with my coat still on. 

“I’m Sylvia’s sister.  Joyce gave me your number. I’m Diana.”    Her voice had the throaty-ness of sophistication and I could visualize her playing a violin in an elegant long-sleeved black crepe.

I tried to not sound tired.

“Ah…yes.  So happy you called,” and I jumped right in with, “I’ve been wondering about Sylvia.”

There was something cold and direct in her “Why?”

“I mean her educational background.  She doesn’t seem to understand when I sign.”

“She hasn’t had much,” and there was that kind of silence that the controlling leave open for those not brave enough to leave it alone.

“Much?… schooling?”

“No, not much schooling. We’re from Arkansas.” She continued with lengthened vowels that would seem to confirm that fact.  “I wasn’t around much while Sylvia was growing up, so I don’t exactly know.  I think she started school and then stopped.”

“Oh, I see.” But I didn’t. Not around much? But I was too tired to go there. New subject.  “I don’t exactly know our goals yet.”

“She wants to learn more signs,” Diana offered.

“Yes, I see.  But…I’m wondering if a class in basic sign language to begin with might be a better match for Sylvia right now. Our class focuses on the refinement of English writing skills and discussions of socially relevant topics.”  I felt a twinge of guilt for wanting my “deaf only” class back to myself.

 “No,” she answered simply. Her voice was firm and seemed to echo in a room that sounded hollow to me, perhaps a sparsely furnished apartment that she rented when in town, I surmised.  Again there was the silence that seemed to force my response.

“Well, she doesn’t seem willing to mix with the other deaf students.  She sits alone at break and doesn’t go out to the hall to try to mingle or get a soda or anything.” 

I thought I had misheard the sister’s next response.

“She doesn’t know how to use the Coke machine.”

“Uhhh…”  I was scrambling for meaning…”Excuse me.”

“She can’t count money.  She doesn’t know how to use the pop machine.  I want her to learn that." I was dumbfounded at the concept. It was obvious that despite her homeless look and novice signing, Sylvia was in no way lacking in mental capability; her written responses to my writing assignment clearly indicated that. How does one get to be some 35 years old and not know how to use a Coke machine?  The other students in my class might have been deaf, but they were only deaf.  Bob was taking night classes because he had an appetite for politics and wanted to discuss articles in Newsweek and Time.  Bonnie was the mother of hearing twins. Her toddlers could sign and speak and wore Nike tennies and little jeans from the GAP.  She wanted to learn to sign the nursery rhymes she had never heard as a child. Rich, the graphic designer, studied at the prestigious National Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York.  His new role as President of the Milwaukee Deaf Club would require an understanding of Robert’s Rules of order. 

I tried to explain the writing and vocabulary goals I had for this class, but Diana was insistent.

“Sylvia needs to learn things.  Surely you could find some time…”

Of course, I could.  What could be so hard in teaching someone to get soda from a Coke machine—someone who didn’t understand a single word I signed or said or mouthed or mimed—during the one break I had all evening!”

 Instead I answered, “I’ll give it a try.”

“Next week?”

God, this woman!  “Yes, next week.”

I started next Monday’s class with a discussion on writing autobiographies.  It would keep the group working while I pulled each person out to work on individual goals.  I saved calling Sylvia to my desk until close to break time.

“Sylvia, your sister called me.  She said you’d like to learn to use the Coke machine.”

“What?”

I wrote what I had just said in her notebook.

Sylvia reached for my pen. Under my sentence she wrote, “My sister called you? What did she want?”

“Yes.” And I pointed to the sentence above once again.

Sylvia nodded like an obedient child.

During break, Sylvia and I walked to the vending machine area.  I took some quarters out of my pocket.  “Twenty-five,” I signed “fifty, seventy-five.”  There was the familiar look of Sylvia-confusion, but I proceeded.  I pointed to the slot and motioned her to put the coins in.  She wouldn’t take them from my opened hand.

Oh Lord ….

“Ok, Sylvia, I’ll go first.”  I placed the coins in the slot.  I heard the soda dropped below.  Sylvia still stared at the coin slot. I pointed down to the tray, grabbed the can, and put it on the floor so I could continue signing. I took out three more quarters and handed them to Sylvia. Again, she wouldn’t take them.

 Ok…start her off…damn… this is taking so long.

I motioned for Sylvia to press “Push Here,” but hadn’t expected her reaction.  There was fear in her eyes and she backed away from the machine as if it would harm her.  “It’s ok, Sylvia.” After looking into her eyes, the task seemed to take on more seriousness and compassion overtook my impatience.

I pointed again and mimed the action of pressing.

I was hoping I didn’t look like some missionary in Africa in the 20’s delighted with myself for exposing this soul to civilization, but I might have had that look. Sylvia simply looked confused, but she came closer.

“It's ok, Sylvia, Press”

The Miracle Worker had first hit the cinema long after I had declared deaf education as my major and I never went into the field to be Anne Sullivan.  That night, however, as Sylvia pressed the button and I pointed to the slot to where she hadn’t heard the soda come out, I felt as if I was at the water pump spelling out w-a-t-e-r.   It was a fleeting feeling because I was the only one sharing in the triumph.  Sylvia never reacted, never smiled.  Her frown lines only shortened a bit as she walked robot-like with her soda back to the room.

I was hoping Diana would be out of town playing her fiddle or whatever in some city far away because I was too exhausted to rehash the evening.  But no, again, the phone was ringing as I walked in the door.

I was actually excited to relay tonight’s victory. “Diana, yes.  So glad you called. Sylvia learned to use the soda machine tonight!”

I suppose I expected back a “Great,” “Fantastic,” “Thank you, Ellen, so nice of you to take the time.”

Instead, Diana, simply responded, “Good,” and not taking a breath added,   “She needs to learn how to ride the bus.”

“Oh brother!  Will this woman never relent?”  I could hear a Dr. McCoy voice echo in my head, “For God sakes Diana, I’m a teacher of the deaf, not a social worker!  And the concept of social worker became the new rope I reached for.

“You know, Diana, I would be more than happy to set up a meeting with you and Sylvia and a social worker.”

But Diana couldn’t meet us at class, she said…her "schedule and all...not possible."

I suggested Mondays since she seemed to be able to call on Mondays!

Diana then raced her response along some convoluted trail of logic paths that circled back and around and lost me somewhere in the middle. I abandoned the social worker idea and ended up capitulating once again to Diana’s plan. I would try to unravel the Metro bus schedule myself, I promised, and later would help Sylvia to read it. I would have preferred teaching gerunds and participles.

Sylvia missed class the next week and I was glad. As I mimed turning an invisible lock near my larynx, the sign for not talking, a collective dropping of student shoulders seemed to take place simultaneously. Like a secret member to a special club, I could now sign silently, fluently, to my deaf-only students.  Everything flowed that evening and I felt released and connected, the way lovers do when it’s good.

The next week I signed, “Welcome back,” as Sylvia slipped in after class had begun. Students were finishing their autobiographies and I was introducing “Little Bunny Foo Foo” to Bonnie for her twins. Sylvia read her assignment and got busy writing her autobiography. 

Just before break, I walked over to her desk and signed, “Finished?”

Still stoic, Sylvia nodded her head and motioned down to her paper.  I pulled up one of the folding chairs and started reading. Her written English was simple, but somewhat straight (as teachers of the deaf like to say) and would need little correction.  I could tell that from the first two sentences. I’d read for content I decided.  It was a decision I wouldn’t have had to make for the content was such that I had never read in fifteen years of teaching.

I was born in Arkansas.  My mother died when I was six. I think in a fire. I had two brothers.  My first brother drowned in a lake. My father was yelling at him. I was in the boat. He fell in. John drowned.

I was aware of my head moving back and forth to retrace the page as if reading the sentences again would change their meaning. Sylvia lowered her head to look into my eyes as you’d look under a shelf to see why it was not seated properly.  She knew the sign most hearing people use for “what” and signed it under my face three times as if I had found some spelling error that she was sure she hadn’t made.

Not looking up, I wiggled my fingers to sign “wait, wait” with only one hand and read on.

My second brother died from being shot in the head. There was a lot of blood.  I saw pieces on the floor. I saw it. I think that was his brain.  I went to the hospital.  He died. I want to learn sign language.

Is this possible?  I looked at Sylvia.  Her face was impassive, stoic, resigned; and in that incongruity there was congruity, and I had to assume the sentences were true.  I could feel my chest release the breath I had been holding. I told the other students to go on break and I sat down and looked directly in Sylvia’s eyes.

“What?” she signed again, “What?” more insolently now like a teenager asking, “What did I do this time to get me in trouble?”

I looked in the pools of black-blue tar looking into mine.

 “Sylvia, I’m so, so sorry.  The “s” of sorry pressed the center of my chest as it circled slowly over and over.

Sylvia’s eyes became more opaque and her frown furrowed deeper in apparent confusion.

“Why?”  “Why are you sorry?”  She signed every word.

 Perhaps “sorry” didn’t make sense to her in this context, I reasoned, and tried again.

“I mean, Sylvia…I’m sad,” and I mimed pulling down an invisible mask of my face.   “I’m sad this – this all - happened to you.”

Again she signed, “Why?” as if she was becoming irritated, and for some reason, I could imagine her voice. It would be a low, raspy voice, I thought, with a sarcastic edge of inflection.

“This, Sylvia.” I pointed to the paper.  “This!” “Death.”  I signed it again.  “Death…your mother….fire” And again…”Death…your brother…drowned,” and again “death, your brother shot.” “I’m sad all this death, death, death happened in your life.”

Sylvia’s frown lessened, she moved back to the support of her metal chair as if relieved that was all.

“Why are you sad? Don’t be sad.”  She shrugged again as if the story were about an insignificant sliver she had just described. She shrugged once more and finger spelled “s-o”. “So? So what? So nothing. That’s life.” Don’t look at it and it will go away.”

The words she signed felt ice-cube cold with rigid straight corners — words, I thought, practiced over and over again, to cool hot grief.  And the words in sign slapped me in the face and chilled my blood, and froze the moment in my mind.

I needed to explain what was most likely evident in my face.

“Sylvia, do you know that most people don’t have this… this death… all this death… in their lives… Some death yes, but like this? No.” 

For the first time, Sylvia looked scared and I stopped.  Somehow I felt like I was tugging on something fragile.  And who are we to be so careless as to break the silken thread that holds someone together?

Coming home from class that Monday evening, I was spent. I went to the frig for the Chardonnay without even taking off my coat.  As I reached for the glass, the phone rang.    Diana, barely waited for my “hello” before saying,

“Sylvia needs to understand the bus schedule.”

“We gone over that schedule several times, Diana.  It’s just not meaningful to her. ”

“She needs to get to her new psychiatrist on 55th Street.”

“I see. Yes. Well…” That topic was over for me and I shifted the conversation, “Diana, Sylvia wrote an autobiography. I wanted to discuss that with you.”

“What did she write?”  Diana seemed concerned.

I hadn’t had time to put my briefcase away and I quickly found Sylvia’s paper and read it to her sister.

At the end, Diana simply replied, “It’s true.  That’s all true.  But that’s only the half of it," and she began a story that seemed to belong in a movie no director would be daring enough to put on the screen.

“My father abused Sylvia from the time after my mother’s death all through high school.  It was August when we moved to Little Rock.  He’d bought a small farm and kept her at home. He never registered her for school."

“Then she never went to school?” I asked. 

“I can’t remember.  I think she did, some days, I think.  I don’t know.  I wasn’t there.” 

Wasn’t there again. There was silence as my mind scrambled to fit those pieces together.  It was Diana who filled the space before the solution came. 

“He'd have sex with her in her bed and then go out to the fields. I think she was seven. He’d lock her in the closet so she wouldn’t run away.   There were wires on the doorknob. Electric wires.”

I was getting sick to my stomach as the possibility of causation came to my mind. I could make no sound to even acknowledge I was hearing this story.  Diana continued.

“He rigged it up so that if she tried to open the door, she’d get a shock.  He left a light on though.  Thank God, he left the light on.  There were books my mother had.  There was a card with finger spelling that someone gave me at the State Fair one year.  She would lie on the pile of shoes and dirty clothes and look up at the light bulb and onto her card.  “S-y-l-,” she’d practice. “

“You mean, the name on the light bulb?”

“Yes.”

My stomach felt like it was at the top of a roller coaster that was ready to fall. I was surprised at my fear.

“He raped her… all through grade school….he raped her...different ways.  He made her do things.  He told her she had to be silent.” Diana stopped and waited. 

I couldn’t speak.

“What?” Diana asked.  It was a familiar what and gave me the feeling that she was lowering her head to look into my eyes.

“What?" she asked “What’s wrong??”  

“Diana, it’s just so…so…horrific.  I’m shocked.  I’m sad.”

On the other end, I could hear a sigh, not of resignation, not of shared sorrow, but of relief. I could imagine her slinking back onto a metal chair relieved that that was all. I could almost see the shrug of her shoulders as I heard the words from a voice that was raspy and low with a sarcastic edge of inflection. 

“Why are you sad?  Don’t be sad. So what? So nothing. That’s life. Don’t look at it and it will go away.”

If one word would have been different, just one word; if her tone didn’t match the tone I saw hours before, I might not have guessed.  If the story were less horrific, I might not have known.  If she hadn't said "gave me" the finger spelling card; if her name hadn't started with "S-y-l..."  But in this conversation, I knew. And from Diana’s silence on the other end of the line, I knew she knew that I knew.  My knees were shaking from fear I couldn’t explain…that strange kind of fear arises when you don't know if you could be in danger.

 

Now everything made sense…paradoxically unbelievable sense. I felt a surgical matter-of-fact-ness and resolve as I spoke now.

“What do I need to do?” I asked.

“She needs to learn how to take the bus. Dr. Holland has never met Sylvia. She needs to meet Sylvia.”

“I understand”   With hands still shaking, I hung up the phone.

 

 

 

 

 

Moral Imperative

By C.W. Spooner

 

Have I got a story for you! You probably won’t believe it but I swear it’s all true. It’s about two friends of mine, Adrian and Angela, a couple in their late twenties, and I’ll bet it is the strangest story you’ve heard in a while. My name is Wilson—everybody calls me Will—and Adrian and I go back a long way, back to our grammar school days. Basically he’s a good guy. His concept of right and wrong gets skewed every now and then, but doesn’t everybody’s? I mean under pressure, extreme pressure, all of us will bend a little. Am I wrong?

But … I digress. Let me tell you the story and you can decide.

Adrian and Angela moved in together about a year ago. That is to say Adrian moved into Angela’s apartment, a nice two-bedroom unit in a decent neighborhood. Angela mentioned the possibility one night in an intimate moment, if you know what I mean, and Adrian jumped at the offer, said yes so fast the poor girl didn’t have time to change her mind. You see, Adrian was up to his eyeballs in student loans, couldn’t afford the payments, and saw himself going down the drain. Angela had her own student loans to deal with, but at least she had a job. She’s a registered nurse working at a local hospital.

Adrian’s career choice was to go to film school at USC. He wants to be the next Steven Spielberg and make blockbuster movies, but the best he could find coming out of school was a gig with an outfit that makes industrial training films. Hey, it’s experience, right? So he takes the job on a contract and works for the company as an assistant director for about a year. And then—nothing. He’s out of work. His bank account is draining rapidly. He’s a few weeks from being flat broke. But then Angela threw him that lifeline, cut his expenses in half (or less) and kept a roof over his head. So he moved in and settled into the grind of trying to find work, trying to keep Angela happy, trying to keep his head above water.

You get the picture.

Angela is a sweet, sweet girl. Cute. Intelligent. Hard-working. And—here’s the kicker—she loves to dance. I guess it’s a way to decompress after a long week at the hospital, but Angela loves to go out to a hot club and dance her buns off. This is not Adrian’s thing, but he goes along with it, mainly because after a couple of drinks and a night on the dance floor, Angela becomes a love-making tigress. Her passion knows no bounds. So Adrian dances till his feet ache and his ankles swell, with one eye on the clock. “Honey, think it’s time to go? Maybe we should call it a night?”

Know what I mean?

So, one Saturday night they are in line outside this mega-popular club, waiting to get in. Angela is dressed to the nines in a clingy little dress that shows a lot of leg, and take my word for it, they are nice legs, especially when she slips on her Jimmy Choo knock-offs. How she can dance in those heels I’ll never know. She must be related to Tina Turner.

But again … I digress.

Adrian is doing his best to keep up, wearing his Ralph Lauren jeans and a white linen shirt, untucked of course, unbuttoned at the collar, the sleeves rolled up a couple of turns. Off in the distance they can see the fireworks at Disneyland lighting up the night sky, the muffled boom boom boom arriving on a three-second delay.

The crowd waiting to get in is stretched out around the block. The security guys keep saying it will be a forty minute wait. A few people leave the club and few go in, but security sticks with the forty minute story. After a while, Angela has to pee. She holds it as long as she can but finally decides to head across the street to a service station with a food mart and use the bathroom. First she buys a couple of packs of gum to establish herself as a paying customer, then she waits in a short line for the ladies room. She is on her way back across the street when she sees Adrian heading toward her in a big hurry. She can see police cars converging at the front of the club, their lights flashing, cops climbing out, wading into the crowd.

“There was a fight,” Adrian says. “Some girl got stomped. Come on, let’s get out of here.

On the way home, he tells Angela what he saw. Some people coming out of the club bumped into a girl waiting to go in. The girl yelled WTF or some such and before he knew what was happening, fists were flying, hair was being pulled, guys were jumping in to defend their women, and it was a full-blown brawl. The girl who got bumped wound up on the ground and she wasn’t moving. At that point, Adrian decided to get out of there.

And that’s the way the night ended. No dancing for Angela. No hot sex for Adrian. An all-around disappointing evening. Except for the part of the story Adrian wasn’t telling.

 

***

 

The next morning Adrian was up early and out of the apartment. He left a note for Angela saying he had to meet a guy about a possible job. He picked up the newspaper from the stoop on the way out and beat it down to his local Coffee Bean. He could not wait to check his iPhone and see the video he shot outside the club. And when he watched it all he could say was “Oh my God oh my God” oh my God, over and over. He captured nearly all of the fight, including the girl throwing the first punch, including the ones who took turns stomping her head while she was down on the pavement, their faces clearly visible.

That’s right: “Oh my God!” 

He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes for a minute. Then he remembered the newspaper. He opened it and immediately saw the headline story about the incident at the club. The girl who was bumped, who took a swing at the woman who bumped her, who wound up down on the pavement getting stomped, was dead. They rushed her to the nearest trauma center but she never regained consciousness.

Adrian grabbed his phone and watched the video several more times. He picked up the paper and saw a companion column to the headline story written by a well-known columnist—let’s call him Scoop Smith—decrying the fact that nobody came to the aid of the girl as she was on the ground being kicked, how in spite of several people pulling out their camera phones to film the fight, no one wanted to come forward and help the police investigation.

There was a payphone just outside the coffee shop. Before Adrian headed for home, he called the switchboard at the newspaper and was transferred to Scoop Smith’s extension. He left a voice message saying that he had important information about the club incident and that he would call again on Monday morning to discuss it. Adrian headed back to the apartment, hoping he could contain himself and actually wait until Monday.

 

***

 

I know Angela pretty well and she is the epitome of a solid citizen, a straight shooter, the kind of person you want to be a nurse—your nurse. Sunday evening she curled up on the couch with Adrian to watch the news. The lead story was about the fight outside the club and the death of the young woman. Her name was Lia Nguyen. She was a recent graduate of a local college, a part-time model, and she wrote poetry as a hobby. On the TV screen flashed a still photo taken by someone in the crowd that showed the fight in progress, a girl with long brown hair on the ground, the group around her in obvious combat posture. At the edge of the crowd was a guy in a white shirt, crouched down to get a better view, with his camera phone held out in front of him.

Angela grabbed the remote and hit the pause button. “Oh my God, Adrian! Is that you? In the white shirt? That is you! What are you doing? You were standing there filming the whole thing? You didn’t try to help her?” 

Adrian did his best to deflect, but he could see that it was a lost cause. It was him and there was no way to deny it. He tried to explain that the guys in the fight were built like NFL linemen; at five nine and a buck seventy-five, there was no way he could help the girl. It wasn’t long before Angela was demanding to see the video. He did some more foot dragging but finally got his phone and played it for her.

“You have to take this to the police. This is evidence. You can’t just sit here. A girl is dead…” Angela let him have it with both barrels. She was disgusted to be sitting with him knowing now what he had done.

Adrian took a deep breath and made his case as forcefully as possible. “Look, Angela, this video is worth big money to these media whores. They pay for information like this. Look at the student loans you and I are struggling with. We could get enough from this to make a huge dent in that debt, if not pay it off altogether. We’d be stupid to just turn this over to the cops. Stupid!”

Adrian told me the debate raged on for more than an hour, loaded with tears and accusations, plus a discussion of morals and ethics in a morally and ethically ambiguous world. In the end, there was no way for Angela to be swayed. She issued an ultimatum: either he would turn the video over to the police or she would call them herself and turn him in. She agreed, after much pleading on Adrian’s part, that he would do this by the time she came home from work on Monday.

Knowing Angela, I will never understand how Adrian bargained for that much time.

 

***

 

I can tell you that Adrian is a hard-charger when he sets his mind to it. He was at it early Monday morning, as soon as Angela left for work. The first thing he did was to upload the video to a bootleg copy of editing software on his iPad, a powerful package that he’d copied from the servers at the industrial film company where he worked. The video was even more striking on his iPad screen. He could zoom and edit and frame the content and generally enhance the impact of what he had captured. He couldn’t wait to show the results to Scoop Smith.

He found a payphone on the corner near a newsstand and called the newspaper. They patched him through to Smith’s desk. Adrian made it short and to the point: he had clear footage of the attack on Lia Nguyen, footage that showed the faces of the people who stomped her do death. He wanted $120,000 for exclusive rights. Smith laughed and hemmed and hawed, but the bottom line was that he would have to see the video in order to determine if it was worth the asking price. They agreed to meet at a Starbucks in Towne Center. Adrian cautioned Smith to come alone; if there was any hint that he brought along a crew, or the police, the meeting would never happen.

 

***

 

My friend Adrian is a clever guy, but he is no James Bond. He thought of a hundred ways that Scoop Smith could trip him up—bring a crew with telephoto lenses, alert the cops, wear a wire, and on and on. He decided to go through with the meeting anyway and showed up at the Starbucks forty minutes early. He plugged in his iPad and sat nursing a grande latte just like a half dozen other guys. At one point, he saw a discarded newspaper on a nearby table; on the front page was another article under Scoop Smith’s byline. It seems that Lia lived in a neighborhood populated by senior citizens. She was friendly and chatty with them and did little favors for them from time to time. Her neighbors loved her and were grieving her loss.

Right about then, Smith walked through the door. Adrian recognized him from his picture in the newspaper. After he ordered a tall Pike Place and found a seat, Adrian let him sit there for ten minutes while he scanned the area to make sure he came alone and wasn’t communicating with anyone. Finally he picked up his iPad and approached Smith’s table.

The introductions were brief. Adrian played the video footage a couple of times and Smith was duly impressed. Adrian had the goods, just as advertised. Then the two of them went into negotiation mode. Smith said, “look, kid, we don’t normally pay for information. Know what I mean? Checkbook journalism? We have our standards. Your video is impressive but I doubt that I can get that kind of money out of my editors. Besides, we’re print media and you’re peddling video. 

Adrian was prepared for this and he held firm. “Take it or leave it. Your parent company has TV stations, and there are a dozen other media outlets that I can reach out to. I thought of you first because of the column you wrote about the girl. I think a Pulitzer would look nice on your mantle, don’t you?”

In the end, Smith agreed to take the deal back to his editors. Journalistic ethics be damned. Adrian would call him later that afternoon. And that was it. They went their separate ways. Adrian took a roundabout route back to the apartment, afraid he was being followed.

 

***

 

He may not be James Bond, but my pal Adrian is nobody’s fool. Back at the apartment, he plugged external drives into his iPad and made a couple of copies of his video. He had a bulletproof idea for a place to hide the copies, just in case.

Angela called during her lunch break to see if Adrian had contacted the police. When he tried to sidestep and back-peddle, she hung up on him. In his mind he still had a few hours to make a deal with Smith; they had agreed that he would call at around 3:00pm. Adrian left the apartment and drove around looking for another payphone. It turns out they are not that easy to find, but he finally located one in the parking lot of a convenience store. The call to Scoop Smith did not go well.

“Look, kid, my editors won’t go for it. At least not for the one-twenty large. I could maybe get you a few thousand, but that’s about it. You know this is evidence in a murder investigation. You are looking at obstruction of justice or some shit like that. Your best bet is to call the police, give ‘em what you’ve got.”

So Adrian told him where he could stick his few thousand and hung up the phone. When he got back to the apartment, Angela had been there ahead of him. His suitcase and several trash bags stuffed with his things were sitting near the front door with a note.

“Do not be here when I get home. Leave the key in the mailbox. I cannot be with a man who has no concept of morality.”

Just like that it was over. Adrian went to the fridge and pulled out a beer. There were a few cold ones left and he decided to drink them all before he left. He would miss Angela, but hey, a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do. If she didn’t want in on his debt reduction plan, that just meant more for him.

 

***

 

Good old Adrian. Morally compromised, ethically challenged, whatever you want to call him. Even after three beers, my old pal still had the ability to think on his feet. He was about to head to the kitchen for another beer when he heard car doors slam out on the street. He went to the window and saw two guys standing next to a gray Ford sedan, one of them checking his phone, the other leafing through a notepad. Dark rumpled suits, soft-soled shoes, aviator shades—obviously cops. How did they find him? Was it Angela? Scoop Smith? Or just good police work? To this day he doesn’t know the answer.

Adrian immediately whipped out his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1. He hurried through the preliminaries with the dispatcher, even as the cops were walking up to the front door, and told the woman on the phone that he had just realized he had video footage of the fatal beating that took place Saturday night. He needed to speak to the police as soon as possible. She pointedly explained that this was not an emergency and that he should call the police directly. Adrian pretended that the connection was bad and hung up. When he answered the knock on the door and the detectives flashed their badges, he was ready.

“Boy that was quick. I just got off the phone with 9-1-1. Come on in, I have something to show you.”

 

***

 

So, that’s how Adrian came to live with me. Angela won’t have anything to do with him, won’t even consider taking him back; she’s found someone else to take her dancing. Adrian sleeps on my couch and he’s not bad as roommates go, picks up after himself, cleans up his own mess, and rinses out the sink after he shaves. In the meantime, he is hard at work on a screenplay. He is sure it can be a major motion picture, one of those based-on-a-true-story sensations. His concept is to eventually cut the real-life video footage into the film to give it that undeniable stamp of reality. The police have never figured out that he has copies hidden away, though they had their doubts about his story. The district attorney hasn’t charged him with obstruction, so far. After all, he has that 9-1-1 call going for him.

We’ve had some long talks about what he’s doing and whether it is right or wrong. Of course, Adrian relates everything to a movie. In this case it’s Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, the scene at the end where William Munny blasts the saloon owner with a shotgun and Little Bill Dagget says, “You, sir, are a cowardly son of a bitch. You just shot an unarmed man.” Munny says, “Well he should have armed himself...”

I asked Adrian to expand on that thought. Here he is in his own words:

“Will, my friend, let’s face it. We live in a world where Wall Street CEO’s can preside over a near-global meltdown of the financial system, throw our economy into deep recession, cause millions of people to lose their jobs, their homes, and their life savings. And what are the consequences? Those executives see their firms bailed out by the taxpayers because they are too big to fail. Then they pay themselves and their minions bonuses in the millions of dollars, and collectively spend hundreds of millions more to make sure that tough regulations are not voted into law. Lives are ruined, completely destroyed, and do any of these CEO’s face prosecution or do jail time? Not a one. And what about students like me who took the easy money thrown at us by the banks—at eight percent interest or more? Now that interest rates are cut in half, can we refinance our loans and reduce the soul-sucking payments? Hell no! And why? Because those same Wall Street CEO’s spend hundreds of millions to make sure legislation to help students never comes to a vote in Congress. Yes, Lia Nguyen is dead. But there is nothing I can do to bring her back. So, why shouldn’t I capitalize on the video I shot? Why shouldn’t I pay off my student loans with ‘fuck you money’? Why just stand there and take the shotgun blast in the gut? No my dear, naïve Will, I choose to fight back.”

All I can say to that is Wow! Adrian could rationalize a heart attack. You probably noticed that last quote about fuck you money is also from a movie: Matt Damon’s character in Promised Land. With Adrian, it’s all about movies.

Now here is the punchline: there is a production company that wants to make Adrian’s film. They are negotiating for an option on the screenplay and they’re currently offering him $50,000. Not bad for openers. And let me tell you something: I’ve read the screenplay and it is damn good.

My friend Adrian has armed himself.

 

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