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BIGGER AND DEAFER
When I was a kid, I had a friend down the street named Kwame whose older brother was mentally handicapped. This gave Kwame license, he felt, to make fun of other mentally handicapped folks he encountered. If anyone gave him grief for it, he’d say, “Hey, I’m just playin’ around—my brother’s a retard.” Kwame used to dropkick retard jokes right in his brother’s face. “He’s my brother, I’m allowed to fuck with him,” he’d always explain. Of course, if anyone else unleashed the same kind of jokes, they’d get their ass beat quick.
It must’ve been some adjacent line of reasoning that induced me, growing up, to make fun of my mom for being deaf. She’d lost her hearing through a mysterious illness three years before I was born, and I grew up speaking sign language with her. I picked it up easily, like any kid in a bilingual household, watching my dad and my older brother speak to her in sign. My first word, I’ve been told, was the middle finger.
I took advantage of my mom’s deafness in small ways at first. In the car, she’d be driving, and trying to lecture me about something, but I’d have the radio cranked so loud I couldn’t hear her. As long as I kept the bass down, how was she to know that I was nodding along to the Fresh Prince song “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” and not to her instructions on how to clean out the gutters? She never understood the looks she got from other drivers, who must have been baffled to see a middle-aged mom tooling slowly along in an Aerostar, blasting Def Leppard at rock-concert volume. Funniest, to me, was the time we pulled up alongside a cop and I slipped in my N.W.A tape from the glove box, cued to the song “Fuck tha Police.”
Then there were the stunts I pulled in grade school to impress the kids in my neighborhood. My mom would be washing dishes, her back turned to the kitchen, and I’d sneak up behind her, a few kids in tow, and yell at the top of my lungs, “Hey, BITCH!! Hey, you fuckin’ BITCH!!” Then we’d all run, laughing and screaming, out of the room. The whole show lasted ten seconds, but I could’ve sold admission. Kids I’d never even met from a mile down the road used to knock on our door, heads hung low, talking softly as though they’d come to buy switchblades or porno mags. “Can we see you do the thing where you yell ‘Bitch!’ at your mom?” they’d say. After I obliged, I’d always invite them to try it themselves, but not even the bravest of them could muster the courage. “That’d just be so wrong,” they’d say. “That’d be like calling Kwame’s brother a retard.”
Our house had an unusual feature—a doorbell in the dining room. The room had originally been a screened porch attached to the back of the house, but the previous owners had filled in the walls and added windows to create a one-room addition. What had once been a doorbell at the back door was now a doorbell in the middle of the house—painted over, so my mom had never noticed it. Our family dog, Prince, was trained to fetch my mom anytime someone came to the front door and knocked or rang the doorbell. To the wild entertainment of my brothers and me, we discovered that if we rang the doorbell in the dining room, Prince would start barking furiously and tug my mom by her sleeve to the front door. It was Ding-Dong Ditch from the comfort of our own house! Even my dad got in on the action. We’d watch with barely suppressed glee as my mom opened the door and peeked outside, only to be greeted by an empty front porch. “But there’s nobody here,” she’d say to Prince, with a confused twinge in her voice. On nights we played the game a bunch of times—okay, most nights—she thought the house was under siege by ghosts. She’d sometimes stand there for a full minute, staring out into the misty dark.
* * *
One day halfway through sixth grade, I got into major trouble at school. The music teacher, Mrs. Machida, kept getting upset at me for horsing around with my friends during class. Finally, she ordered me to report to the principal’s office. I said, “Okay, fine—you fuckin’ BITCH!” Wow, who could’ve known she’d turn magenta and haul me out of the room by the scruff of my neck? I’d grown cavalier with curse words, having called my mom the same thing a thousand times without a flinch.
“We’re calling your parents,” said the principal, Dr. Joan Burke, searing me with her death stare after Mrs. Machida told the story. I explained to them that my dad was at work and that my mom was deaf. Back then, my mom had no operator-assisted phone—that advance in technology was still years away. When she wanted to make a phone call, whether it was to order a pizza or talk to a friend for an hour, she needed me or one of my brothers to translate for her. “Look,” I said to Mrs. Machida and Dr. Burke. “You guys want to talk to my mom, you got to wait till I get home so I can tell her what you’re saying.”
Tell her what you’re saying. I thought about it the whole bus ride home, not sure what exactly I was about to do, but sure I was about to do it. The phone was ringing as I walked in the door.
“Davy? It’s Dr. Burke. Can you put your mother on, please?”
I tracked down my mom and told her the principal of my school was on the phone. “What does she want?” my mom asked me.
I shrugged and flashed a mystified look.
My mom picked up the receiver. “Hello, this is Barbara,” she said. She passed it back to me.
Dr. Burke said, “Okay, Davy, you need to tell your mom that there’s a serious situation based on your behavior in Mrs. Machida’s class today. Does she already know about what happened?”
“You need to tell her there’s a serious situation we need to discuss with her. Your situation. That language was used. Unacceptable language. And that if this kind of behavior occurs again, there will be serious consequences. Suspension or expulsion.”
“Okay,” I said. “Hold on. Let me tell her all that.”
I held the phone low and started signing to my mom, keeping my voice at a whisper so she could still read my lips without Dr. Burke hearing me. “Dr. Burke wants you to know about something that happened today at school.” I paused. “It was … during recess. Some kids, they … they were torturing a butterfly. They were pulling its wings off. And I jumped in the middle of them and I saved the butterfly.” Who knows where this shit was coming from? A dream? A demented episode of 3-2-1 Contact? “The butterfly…” I went on, “… it was pink. It was from Madagascar. It was the music teacher’s pet, Mrs. Machida. She told Dr. Burke, and Dr. Burke thought you should know. But she has to go, she’s really late for her dentist’s appointment. It’s a super-important dentist’s appointment.” I said to Dr. Burke, “Okay, here’s my mom,” and passed the phone back to her, praying for the best. But after faithfully translating thousands of calls for her, how could she have guessed that the train had finally jumped the tracks?
“That’s a wonderful story,” my mom said. “Thank you very much for your call. And please thank the music teacher for passing word along. Take care now. Here’s Davy.” She handed the phone back to me.
“See you tomorrow, Dr. Burke,” I said quickly.
“Wait, what did your mom say about ‘wonderful’?”
“She was being sarcastic. I’m in for the whupping of my life.”
I hung up in a hurry, my heart booming. The narrow escape should’ve taught me a lesson. That should’ve been it—one and done—the kind of trick you retire immediately, and count your blessings for. But it wasn’t. It was more like winning big on your first visit to a casino. It was a gateway drug. It was a call to arms. It was an awakening.
I realized, in the days and weeks that followed, that helping my mom with phone calls, which had always been a burdensome chore, could be more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. My mom’s friends—weirdly, perhaps, to her—began to make odd suggestions, like that she take my brothers and me to Cedar Point, the amusement park, or that she rent Eddie Murphy’s Delirious. My dad, calling home before he left work, often requested that my mom pick up a bag of Soft Batch chocolate chip cookies from the store. Anytime an exchange grew dicey, I’d tell my mom that the person on the other end of the line suddenly had to go. “That’s so bizarre,” my mom said one night after a call had ended abruptly. “Who schedules a dentist appointment at eight p.m. on a Sunday?”
Then, when summer hit, it occurred to me that crossing the wires on my translations was Grapefruit League ball. The truth was, I didn’t need a real person on the other end of the line. One afternoon I asked my mom if I could go to my friend Mike Kozura’s house to spend the night with a bunch of other friends, and she said no way—Mike lived alone with his dad, and she knew his dad was out of town for two weeks. Protesting her verdict would’ve been useless, so a couple of hours later, I gave my new tactics a trial run. I was helping my mom mop up some backed-up drain water in the basement, when, out of the blue, I dropped the mop and dashed upstairs, as though the phone was ringing. I took the receiver off the hook and went back down to get her. I told her that my friend Donald Chin’s mom was on the line. “She wants to talk to you,” I said.
We clomped upstairs, and while the phone started to bark that angry buzz that comes from leaving it off the hook too long, my mom said hello to Mrs. Chin, then passed the phone back to me. For a half minute I nodded my head, pretending to listen, saying things like, “Cool!” “I understand,” “Thanks so much,” and “That sounds great,” and at last explained to my mom that Mrs. Chin wanted her to know that she’d agreed to stay the night at Mike’s house to chaperone the party. Mrs. Chin, I told her, had offered to host the sleepover at her house, but some of the kids were afraid of their pet python and boa constrictor. The Chins really had these snakes; my mom had seen them. It had taken me all afternoon to conjure up just the right vivid, walloping fact that would blot out the fictions in its shadow. I handed my mom the phone and she spoke into it, already sold hook, line, and sinker. “Thank you so much,” she said, as the phone kept buzzing. “I really appreciate that. You know, I’d invite all the boys over here, but the basement’s all flooded and the house is a complete mess.” An unexpected low, sinking feeling overcame me as my mom went on, chatting up Mrs. Chin about her other kids, the Chins’ family restaurant, and some local school board brouhaha. I felt like Oppenheimer, both thrilled by and afraid of the awesome power of my new, terrible weapon.
All of a sudden, my little brother, Peter, popped into the room. He sized things up for a second—my mom yammering away into the buzzing receiver. “What the hell’s going on?” he demanded.
“Mom thinks she’s talking to Donald Chin’s mom. I had to do it so I could go to Mike Kozura’s house tonight. I’ll kill you if you tell.”
The genius of it made Peter smile. “Then I’m coming, too.”
“You can’t! It’s my friends.”
“Want me to tell? I’ll tell.”
My mom, done talking, was passing the phone back to me.
“Okay, fine,” I said to Peter. “But this is bullshit.” I put the phone to my ear and pretended to talk to Mrs. Chin. Then I told my mom that Mrs. Chin suggested I bring Peter along.
“That’s a great idea,” my mom said into the empty phone. “I’ll drop them off in an hour.”
“Wait,” I told my mom, before hanging up. “Mrs. Chin wants to know if you can stop on the way and pick up some Soft Batch chocolate chip cookies.”
* * *
That was the beginning; it was also the beginning of the end. The phone started “ringing” all the time—Mrs. Chin, hosting another sleepover; a teacher asking me to bring twenty bucks to school the next day for a field trip; an elderly neighbor asking if I could help her move boxes when I was supposed to be doing homework (really I was at the arcade playing Gauntlet). The phone was like a magic wand—every day I was creating new, alternate realities for my mom. I’d been acting as her ears my whole life, and she’d learned to trust me and rely on me. Whatever I told her I was hearing through the phone, she took as the golden truth. The only limits seemed to be the boundaries of my imagination.
But it didn’t last long. My brother Peter took up the game, too, and we began to fight viciously about each other’s technique—we each felt that the other was being too clumsy and over-the-top, and that we’d get found out and our fantastic potion would be gone. Soon enough, our older brother got into the act, and at that point we all kind of went nuts, abusing the phone trick like a stolen credit card you try and max out before it goes dead.
It went dead on my watch. My mom was on the phone, thinking she was talking to my dad, who was visiting his sister in Atlanta. My dad, as I wove it, was trying to convince her to buy me this elastic net from a sports catalog that you could pitch a baseball into, and have the net fling it back to you. “It just doesn’t make sense,” she kept saying to the buzzing receiver. “Honey, it costs seventy-nine dollars. He can go to the schoolyard and pitch into the backstop. We just don’t have the money.” But my dad was insistent. He beseeched her to make the purchase. After all, he pointed out in my favor, hadn’t I worked my butt off in school the past year? Hadn’t I worked hard around the house? I deserved a special reward, right? Hadn’t I … hadn’t I … saved a pink butterfly from cruel hands of evil?
It was at that exact moment that my dad—my real dad—walked in the front door, home from his trip two days early. The look on my mom’s face was a look of such profound shock and confusion—think Socrates at the San Dimas Mall—that I immediately began to cry. All my feelings of betrayal and shame poured out of me and I spent the next hour and a half in tears, lined up next to my brothers on the floor of the dining room like three broken jailbirds hauled back in after an escape attempt gone rotten. My mom was furious—and maybe at the same time a bit dazzled by the extent of our chutzpah and ingenuity. She slammed us and stretched us until every invented phone call had been dragged out into the light. I even came clean about Mrs. Machida and Dr. Burke. My mom kept putting her head in both hands and moaning, though sometimes it seemed like she was laughing, too.
“You guys are all in more trouble than you’ve ever known,” she said at last. “You’re obviously grounded for the rest of the year. And there’ll be more to it than that. I might need some time to dream up a punishment harsh enough to fit the crime.” She surveyed us. “Is there anything else you need to tell me about? I want to know now. No more surprises.”
Peter’s sad, weary gaze had come to rest on the doorframe between the dining room and the kitchen, where the painted-over doorbell was tucked. He raised his hand and pointed, too deflated to even sign to her.
“Wait!” my dad cried. “Don’t get carried away! You got to leave us something.”
So we kept the doorbell a secret, though our joy at ringing it never felt quite the same. The dog barking, and my mom quizzically staring out the front door, only reminded us of our earlier treacheries. The magic was gone.
* * *
There’s a funny coda to this story. Twenty years have passed, and I’ve been typing this whole thing at the cabin in the woods where my mom spends her summers these days. I told her I was writing something about what it was like to grow up with a deaf mom, so all day she’s been peeking over my shoulder to see what it’s all about, and reading passages here and there each time I get up to put on another CD or get another beer. Still, I didn’t know how she’d feel when she learned about the doorbell. Would there be something satisfying about the mystery being solved? Or would it be a disappointment? Was there, perhaps, something more powerful and alluring about the mystery itself? She’d always had such a glowing sense of wonder about those phantoms knocking at the door—to reveal the secret just now, a few minutes ago, as she sat close, reading over my shoulder, her eyes focused and glinting, a strange smile on her face, made me feel like an old silent-movie villain crushing a child’s toy.
But here’s what my mom just told me: “I knew. I knew about the doorbell. I knew it was your game. It was your game, but that’s the thing, it was my game, too.”
Copyright © 2012 by Davy Rothbart