Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
by Christopher Jon Heuer
There are two police officers in our dining room. They’ve come to take my father away. He’s standing by the table in his underwear, hands cuffed behind his back. My mother is trying to hang her burgundy housecoat over his shoulders so he won’t be naked when they take him outside. The housecoat has feminine floral patterns and looks ridiculous on him. She looks ridiculous too, being all concerned for his appearance when she’s the one who called the police in the first place.
Dad is completely out of it—if he knew what was going on he would be shouting and bitching. Instead he’s in a stupor. I can’t hear what he’s mumbling.
The police officers take him by the elbows and lead him out the door. Mom’s burgundy housecoat falls from his shoulders when he stumbles on the porch. Nobody stops to pick it up.
The clock reads eleven-thirty p.m. Mom closes the front door behind them and sees me standing in the stairwell.
“Go up to your bedroom,” she says, pointing up behind me.
Her eyes are puffy and dark with exhaustion. Behind her I can see red flashing lights on the wall. She shuts the door, leaving me standing in nearly complete darkness. I run up the stairs to the hallway window so that I’ll be able to see where the cops are going.
There’s an ambulance and two police cruisers in the driveway. The ambulance pulls out first—after a few minutes my mother gets in her car and follows it up the road. Then the cruisers leave. I watch them until the line of taillights disappears over the hill.
Everyone is watching me closely when I get on the bus. After a few minutes this senior girl I know, Jill, sits down beside me. She already has something written on a notepad.
“What happened at your house last night?”
Note-writing is a delicate system of avoidance that I’ve worked out with the hearing population of Juneau, Wisconsin. We’ve been using it ever since I transferred back here from the Wisconsin School for the Deaf. On the very first day of school I made the mistake of asking one of the senior guys to repeat something. We just happened to be right in front of some girls, so the location was very strategic for him. He put his hands on my shoulders and very slowly said:
“Suck. . . my . . . dick.”
After that I’ve always tried my best to make lip-reading as much of a pain in the ass for them as they make it for me. Hearing people will do just about anything to avoid writing things out—they’ll puff in and out like suffocating goldfish for fifteen minutes, they’ll repeat something fifty times. Anything but write. If you refuse to lip-read them they’d rather pretend you don’t exist. Thus you’re spared any further suck my dick adventures. The only downside is that if they actually hand you a note, it means that they have something important to say, and you’re stuck.
I read Jill’s note, and all I can think to do in reply is shrug.
“Didn’t your mom leave you a note or something,?” She writes.
I say “No” and Jill does a little double take, shocked that my mother didn’t tell me anything.
She doesn’t understand—that’s the beauty of the system. No note, no hassle.
“I didn’t really look for one,” I tell her.
Instead of eating in the cafeteria, at fifth period I go get a sandwich at the gas station/deli on the corner. Brad is down there smoking a cigarette by the dumpster.
“Heard about your dad,” he says, making a little drinking motion with his hand.
The only kind of thing Brad ever bothers to sign is the one word that will sum up the last fifteen minutes of conversation. The rest I have to fill in on my own. But with him it’s not hard. Lip-reading is a question of making educated guesses from a limited selection of things the other person is allowed to say.
The McDonald’s guy isn’t supposed to ask you if you like Sumo wrestling when you’re waiting for your Happy Meal. He’s got to say, “Would you like Coke with that?” or “Thank you! Have a nice day!” So long as they stay in character, you’re set.
“Hello?” Brad says, waving in my face.
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“Well, how many cops were there?” He knows the sign for “cops” and uses it.
“Two. And an ambulance.”
He hands me a cigarette. We stand there smoking in silence while he rubs his collarbone. His real dad threw him down the stairs when he was four and broke it. Twelve years later there’s a big knot in the bone. He says it never hurts. But he never stops rubbing it.
Finally he finishes his cigarette and tosses it down, crushing it out under his shoe. He says something I don’t catch, and then repeats it.
“What you doing tonight?” he asks, signing “do.”
“I don’t know: Nothing.”
“Come out with me later. We’ll go to Hartford.”
Juneau hasn’t got shit. Hartford is where everyone goes—to cruise Main Street, to park in the lots by McDonald’s and Burger King and hang out, to drive out to the parks and get drunk.
“I don’t know.” I glance at my watch. Sixth period starts in ten minutes.
“My mom’s going to be home.”
“This is a problem?”
My mother basically lives her life from one holiday to the next. One day after Labor Day, she’s getting ready for Halloween. She’s taking down the black cats while putting up the Thanksgiving turkeys--All of this done, year after year, around and sometimes over my father. His body passed out on the couch is practically the only permanent showpiece in the room. For her to go calling the cops on the guy after all this time is not in character. It’s the McDonald’s guy asking you if you like Sumo wrestling. There’s no limited selection of responses to choose from.
“Listen,” Brad sighs. “Go home, get a sleeping bag, and just . . . come over tonight. Okay?”
“Just come over.” He signs “home” and “sleeping bag.”
He said the same thing three years ago, the summer before I left for WSD. He was outside the bowling alley trying to pick the lock on the soda machine. I had just biked into town and couldn’t remember why, couldn’t remember leaving my house.
He pointed at my forehead and said: “You got something up there, man.”
Sweat trickled down my nose. I wiped it off and my fingers came away sticky with blood.
“Did you wipe out or something?”
Weird how I understood him perfectly: Weird to be so hyper-aware of everything. I began to shake as if it were winter instead of mid-July
I couldn’t respond. Brad slowly reached out and pulled a jagged piece of glass the size of a dime out of my forehead.
I couldn’t move.
Brad said, “Come over to my place. Come on.”
In the end he had to park my bike by the soda machine and guide me by the elbow.
Sure enough, Mom is sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a gray sweatshirt and black polyester pants—not the regular white of her nursing home uniform—which means she hasn’t been to work today. She has a note ready, too, and holds it out. It reads: Your father is in the detoxification clinic in Hartford.
Well, no shit, hey? Let’s do the difficult math of adding two and two and subtracting one from five.
When she’s sure I’ve had enough time to read it, she takes the notepad back and writes: “He’s staying for four weeks.”
“Good for him.”
“I needed to do it,” she says.
This is exactly what I mean—the limited selection of things people can say.
“Good for you.”
She slams her fist on the table in real frustration, startling me. She almost never acts out. She puts a hand to her temple, fights to control her breathing, and then picks up the pen again.
I read over her shoulder: “Don’t you blame me!” “Me” is underlined.
“I don’t blame you.”
But I’ve answered too quickly. Sometimes you know a person is lying based on how fast they answer. Too fast, its’ a lie—too slow, it’s a lie. You’ve got to nail it right in the middle.
“Then why are you so angry with me?”
Again I miss my window. Nothing I can say at this point will be the truth. I tell her that I’m
going to Brad’s for a while, and head upstairs to get my stuff.
Brad and I wind up at some house party in Hartford. It’s nothing big, just a couple of people sitting around finishing off a few cases of beer. I don’t know anybody and focus on getting as drunk as I can as fast as I can. It’s too hard to lip-read groups and nobody is talking to me anyway.
Here’s something about hearing people’s parties—they all stop being real and instead become animated mannequins running on battery power. Their mouths open and shut and their arms go flapping around, but that’s it. Nothing comes out. I told this to Brad once. He looked at me like I was nuts.
I get a buzz going and lean back to rest my head on the couch. Sometime later Brad slaps my knee and I jerk awake. He hands me a can of beer. In the background the mannequins are reeling back and forth in a mocking parody of laughter.
Brad goes away and I drain the can in a few swallows. A mannequin notices me and shambles forward with a fresh can. I take it and drain that one too. The mannequin reels back laughing. During the five second pause it takes for his battery to stand him upright again, I ask the mannequin where the detox clinic is in Hartford.
Now I am wavering against the side of Brad’s car. He’s talking to one of the guys from the party. Everyone seems angry. Brad comes up and gives me a look: “You puke, you die.” Then he motions for me to get in the car. I lean my head back against the seat and close my eyes.
Five minutes later Brad slaps my shoulder and wakes me up again. We’re parked in a hospital parking lot.
“It’s up there,” Brad says, pointing.
“The detox clinic.”
He’s pointing over at a lit blue and white sign that says “Mental Health” in bold print. The sign below it says “Emergency Room.” I stare at the letters until they blur out. Brad asks if I want to go up.
I shake my head no.
He says something about my shirt that I don’t catch. “What?”
He flips on the dome light and points at my hand. Something about keeping it wrapped.
My hand is wrapped in a tee-shirt. There’s blood soaking through at the knuckles.
“If it’s broken,” Brad says, “tell me now while we’re here.”
I’m not wearing a shirt. I’m wearing my jacket but no shirt.
“Where’s my shirt?”
“Is it broken?” Brad asks again.
I don’t understand. “How’d it get broken?”
Brad grips the steering wheel and breathes deeply—a flashback comes of my mother massaging her temples. He snarls something about how I’d “better not get blood all over the fucking car” and angrily reaches up to flip off the dome light. The tires squeal as we tear out of the parking lot. I know because nurses in white pants and multi-colored tops come running to the big hospital windows to see what’s causing all the commotion.
Brad is already gone when I awaken on his bedroom floor, feeling sick. It’s nearly ten in the morning. Third period is half over. I’ll make it in by lunch if I get a move on. I can forge a note from my mom—I’ve done it before. When I think about writing my right hand starts itching. It’s still wrapped in my shirt.
Brad’s room is in the basement—he’s completely self-contained down there with his own bathroom and even a refrigerator. He’s probably not sophisticated enough to have Peroxide but I’m hoping for at least soap and a better bandage. Wonder of wonders, though, he has both Peroxide and an old roll of football tape.
The first three knuckles of my hand are scabbed over and bruised purple-black. The swelling is bad. Miniature geyser spouts of acid are shooting through my stomach. It doesn’t help to watch the Peroxide bubble in the scabs as I dump it on. All I can clearly remember is getting into Brad’s car. Did I slam the door on my hand? The face staring back at me in the mirror is strung-out; pasty skin and long, greasy-wet strands of hair clumped together.
Standing behind me in the mirror is my mother.
She’s younger and thinner, kneeling next to me as I stand in front of the toilet. I’m five years old and sick with the flu. I’m wearing my dark red pajamas with the blue collar and cuffs. One of my mother’s hands is on my stomach; the other is massaging my neck, gently pushing downward so I’ll bend over and throw up.
“Let it come,” she says. “Don’t be afraid. Just let it come.”
But I am afraid. I won’t let it come.
My hand is almost too swollen to write the note, but it passes muster. Then again the secretary gives me a wary look, so who knows? As I walk through the hallways, guys laugh and clap me on the back. Apparently I’m cool now and have some sort of party-animal reputation from being drunk last night. I wonder how they all found out so fast.
I don’t even know if Brad will be in the cafeteria, but I don’t feel like walking the extra block to the deli. My stomach isn’t doing too hot. Hopefully some milk will take the edge off, along with a bottle of aspirin I found in Brad’s medicine cabinet. As it turns out I can barely force down even that, and when Brad claps me suddenly and sadistically on the shoulder as he sits down across from me—“How ya doing!”—I nearly choke.
“Fucking hand hurts, man,” I tell him.
Brad says something with the gesture “fight” in it, but I don’t catch the whole thing.
“You,” Brad signs. “Fight.” Then something more I still don’t catch. Then he points at my backpack.
He points again with a “Wait a minute and I’ll tell you” expression. When I still don’t understand he impatiently leans over and grabs my backpack, rummaging around. He pulls out a notebook and a pen just as I finally realize what it is he wants.
At the party, he writes.
“What about it?”
Brad signs “drunk” and points at me.
“Well no shit, Sherlock!”
He writes again: “You hit that guy.”
He holds up his hands defensively, mistaking my irritation for denial. “You did!”
I can’t focus. “I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.”
He busily scribbles on the notepad: “You asked where the detox clinic was in Hartford. You were completely fucked up. Some guy laughed and you hit him.”
I close my eyes and see blood spurt from my knuckles. The other mannequins in the room scramble away from me, shouting. The guy I just hit is huddled up on the floor holding his nose. Blood is spraying out between his fingers.
Brad is watching me. “Do you remember now?”
“No.” No, no, no.
He shakes his head and writes: “You dragged him outside and kicked the shit out of him.”
Now that I don’t remember at all: So he’s bullshitting me. Fucking playing me: “Please stop, man,” I whisper. I’m going to puke if he doesn’t leave.
He points down. “Look at your shoe.”
There’s blood smears all along the toe of my right sneaker; and something else. At first I think it’s grass, but it’s hair.
How does anybody really get around? I wonder about this all the time. How does your brain get you from one place to the next on autopilot, remembering some things and blocking out the rest? The stop signs... every turn and shortcut? Suddenly you’re home with no idea how you got there, no sense of passing time. People say this happens all the time when they drive. But I think it can be a whole way of life. Nobody says anything about it because it doesn’t occur to them until they do remember something, and then they’re too freaked out.
Like now; I’m home. In front of me is our kitchen table. I’m fourteen years old. We moved in a little over a year ago, leaving behind our farm in Hustisford. I’m drawing pictures of X-Wings and TIE Fighters. My father comes in drunk and asks what I’m drawing.
Maybe it’s because I don’t look up at him immediately, or because my family no longer has the farm—if we did I would be out picking off stones or bailing hay instead of sitting at the table drawing. I would be working toward something meaningful and worthwhile. I’m pretty sure this is what my father wants me to understand.
He overturns the table with one hand and grabs me by the throat with the other, shoving me into the wall. I can’t get free and I can’t breathe. He moves in close, breath reeking of beer, and pins my legs with his knee. Then he rips a framed sketch of an old barn from the wall above my head—a drawing of one of those rotting wooden sheds and half collapsed silos that you see all over Wisconsin. People sketch and frame them and sell the drawings at craft shows. They bring in good money.
“Why can’t you draw something people want!” my father screams, and pushes the picture into my face until the glass shatters.
Sometime later the light flashes. It’s nighttime outside. My mother has come home from work.
She says, “Daniel, when did you come home?”
I’m seated at the dining room table. The last thing I immediately remember is sitting in the cafeteria. I reach up to pull the glass from my forehead but there’s nothing stuck in my forehead and there’s no broken picture on the floor. I feel stupid.
“Daniel, what’s wrong with you?”
My mother is talking in slow-motion, her hand frozen on the doorknob. She’ll cry soon.
“Please tell me what you’re so frightened of,” she says.
I look away slightly. Brad is picking bloody glass out of my forehead.
“Daniel, please!” I’m in the dining room again. My mother is shaking my shoulder.
Brad wrote: “You dragged him outside and kicked the shit out of him.”
“What did I do?” I ask.
“Look at your shoe,” Brad said.
The barest pause.
Then my mother says, “You didn’t do anything, baby.”
I can feel my heart beating: So very badly do I want that to be true.
“I was the one who sent him away,” she says. “I called the police. Me.”
For a second I’m confused. She called the police on me? What did she call the police about?
“Your father did it to himself, Daniel. It’s not your fault.”
She doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Even I barely know what we’re talking about. I’m going to be sick. How long is it going to take to not be sick anymore?
“We can fix this, honey,” Mother is saying. “We can pull ourselves together…”
How can we do that when we’re not even talking about the same thing?
She says something more that I don’t follow. I’ve stopped trying to lip-read, to predict; make educated guesses. There’s no more limited selection of things she’s allowed to say. Then is here and now is nowhere. The character of everyone and everything—completely shot to hell.
Brad and I skip school on Friday and spend the day in his room, drinking beer and watching First Blood on his VCR. During the part where Rambo stitches his side back together with fishing-string, Brad says that the guy I hit is going to be looking for me. We watch television in silence for a while.
“I was talking about my dad,” I say, suddenly.
“That night, at the party.”
Brad makes a gesture—“I don’t understand.”
“When I asked where the detox clinic was. They all laughed. That guy especially. They thought I wanted to go get my own stomach pumped or something.”
Brad watches, silent.
“But I was talking about my dad,” I say.
“Well, how the fuck could they know?” he asks.
Brad starts rubbing his collarbone.
“Do you ever think about him?” I ask after a while.
It was a mistake to ask. Brad stands up suddenly, and tosses me the roll of football tape.
“No,” he says, and walks past me toward the bathroom.
I feel sick all the way to Hartford. If Brad notices he’s not saying anything. But halfway though Hotel California he gives my shoulder a good-natured thump and starts slapping the wheel in time with the beat, trying to lighten the mood. It kind of works. The stereo is cranked up all the way and the enclosure of his car is the best hearing aid in existence.
We go to Burger King for some food. Brad goes in to get us a couple of cheeseburgers. I stay in the car, draining one can of beer after another from the case in the back seat. Part of me wonders if this is how my dad got started, drinking for the nerves.
Eventually Brad comes back with cheeseburgers, fries, and Cokes. He sets the food on the hood and makes a “come out” gesture.
“I want to sit in here.”
He shakes his head “no.” He wants me to come and sit on the hood. That’s how we wait guys out around here—you don’t go driving all over town looking for a fight. You sit out in the open and sooner or later one will come to you.
Once I’m sitting on the hood he pours Southern Comfort into the Cokes from a flask in his jacket pocket. He gives me one and we sit in silence for a while, watching the sun go down and the cars go by.
“I don’t want to do this.” I have no idea I’m going to say it until I say it.
Brad looks away, because what is he supposed to do about it? It’s not like I can call the guy up and apologize. Nobody’s going to say: “Hello this is Dan’s mommy. Can I please speak to your mommy?” No. “Look my father is in a detox clinic and these are my feelings and what should I do about my feelings?” What would the guy say to something like that? And even if he said something, how would I ever follow it? Lip-reading is a question of prediction.
Eventually some Hartford guys pull in and talk to Brad. He comes walking back and tells me “It’s on. We’re going to the park. Get in the car.”
It’s violently cold on the way there. I can’t stop my hands from shaking—my arms and shoulders.
“Turn off the air conditioner,” I try to say, but my teeth are chattering and my cheeks are numb.
Brad shrugs and makes a dismissive gesture with his free hand—“It is off.”
We reach the long gravel road that leads to the park and I tell him I have to puke. He slams on the brakes and I barely make it, already vomiting up beer and Southern Comfort as I push open the door and stumble away from the car. Finally it turns to dry heaving and I steady myself against the trunk. I stare at my bad hand then look up. My mother is sitting on one of the front wheels of the John Deere tractor we used to have back at the farm. She just took the stitches out of my forehead. I tell her I want to go swimming.
She says “No.”
No, because the pool hasn’t been cleaned and she doesn’t want me to get an infection, or because we’ll be having lunch in fifteen minutes. There are a dozen potential explanations, but it’s not them I react to—it’s the fact that she doesn’t explain at all. She treats me like I’m six, crying when she takes stitches out and it’s not even her with her head that was cut open. It’s the expression on her face now, the impatience, the exasperation, like it’s my fault.
“I hate you!” I scream at her suddenly. She’s steps back, blinking from the fury in it, but the swimming pool is right there! Everything I want is right there, and I can’t have it. I can’t have pictures of TIE Fighters: A father: A family that can talk to me: Friends that can talk to me. Everything right in front of my face, and for some reason that nobody will explain, that everyone is too exhausted and irritated to explain, I can’t have any of it.
I kick her knee. She lies about it later to her friends, but that’s really how it got broken.
Brad’s hand slaps my shoulder. “Fucking get it together, man!” he shouts. I look at him and try but can’t.
It’s dark. The headlights are on. I’m sitting in Brad’s car dry heaving into my hand, and he’s out by the picnic tables fighting two guys at once. One guy’s nose is in a splint. The other guy gets a good hard kick in the nuts, and then it’s one-on-one. But the guy with the nose splint turns and runs up the road. Brad walks up and gets in the car.
“Just shut up,” he says, and signs “shut up.” He rips the gearshift backward into drive and sprays gravel all the way out of the park.
We take back roads on the way out of town and head for Juneau in a completely roundabout way. At first I think Brad is trying to avoid the cops—and he probably is—but eventually I realize that we’re heading towards the highway that leads to my house. Right before we get to my driveway Brad shuts off his headlights and we cruise slowly past it. He stops behind one of the trees that border my front lawn.
When I fumble drunkenly with the door handle, he reaches past me and opens it. His expression is stony. I can’t read him at all. Once I’m out he pulls the door shut and drives away, heading toward Highway 60. Either he’s going back to Juneau the long way or he’s just going out cruising. I get the feeling I’m not welcome to know which.
I go into my house through the back door because it’s quieter, but my mom still wakes up. When I look up from the refrigerator she’s standing next to the living room table—the exact same place my father had been standing when the cops cuffed him only a week earlier. Then is now, there is here.
“Are you drunk?” she asks. She looks tired.
I set my glass of milk down on the counter.
“What would your fath—” she begins to say, but stops herself.
No matter. “What would your father say if he were here,” is what she would have said. The day after Dad broke the picture over my forehead I biked home from Brad’s house and walked through the front door. My father was standing in the dining room with the phone in his hand. I found out later he had been about to dial the cops. When he saw me he hung up and put his fingers over his eyes, then walked quickly into the bedroom.
My mother came out of the kitchen, her mixing bowl tucked in one arm. She said, “Daniel, if you’re going to stay out at a friend’s house, make sure you tell us first.” No question on why I left, about the bandage on my forehead, nothing. “You’re father doesn’t like it when he doesn’t know where you are,” she added. She didn’t even put the bowl down.
“I don’t know what Dad would say,” I tell her. It’s now again. I know because my hand is still taped up. If not for that, I wouldn’t.
My mother says, “I’m trying,” as if apologizing. How to respond to that? I don’t know. She doesn’t know. Even Brad probably wouldn’t know.
All of us trying, yet nobody knows.
“Trauma” first appeared in The Tactile Mind Quarterly, Winter 2003-2004.
Christopher Jon Heuer grew up in the small farming community of Neosho, Wisconsin and later in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He lived and worked in Northridge, California until the infamous Northridge earthquake. He and his wife Amy moved to Alexandria, Virginia in 1999, where they have lived ever since. In 2007, their son Jack was born (and was quickly given the nickname "Jack-Jack," after the multi-powered infant in the movie The Incredibles). Heuer is currently an associate professor of English at Gallaudet University. In addition to being one of the editors of DeafEcho.com (to which he continuously contributes new articles), Heuer is also the author of Bug: Deaf Identity and Internal Revolution (2007) and All Your Parts Intact: Poems (2003). His work has also appeared in several anthologies and magazines.