by Harry Buschman
At exactly 6:30 the alarm lever tripped the window blind and light flooded into Frank Whistler’s bedroom. He woke with a start – fully alert and ready for anything as always. He checked the digital clock on the night stand. He looked around the room to see if everything was in place. It was – but it was best to make sure.
He threw the covers back carefully and eased his way out of bed. His senses were acute – he could feel the texture of the wool carpet under the soles of his bare feet, the tightness of the waist cord of his pajamas and the coolness of the air on his face as he moved closer to the window. The light outside was bright and it blinded him momentarily. He could smell the grass in the village park through the closed window. Except for two dogs running across the baseball diamond, the park was deserted.
He could hear nothing. Frank Whistler was profoundly deaf and had been since birth. To compensate for his deafness, his other senses had developed to an extraordinary degree. He could feel vibrations under his feet, and if he placed the palm of his hand on the window he could feel vibrations from outside as well. Those under his feet came from the Whittaker family on the first floor, and the rapid pulsing at the window was from the early morning traffic on I-95.
Chessie, his calico cat trotted in and demanded attention by doing figure eights between his feet. Frank picked her up and marveled at her flexibility – it was as though she had no bones. “You’re vibrating too, Chessie. Does that mean you’re purring?” He held her so she could look out the window. To Chessie the park was a vast ocean of grass, a plain as broad as the Serengeti, where mice might be found, but also where wild and vicious dogs lay in wait for house cats. To Frank, the park was a place to experience the lives of others. The park was a universe for both of them. Life was out there. Danger! ... an existence that both man and cat chose to keep at arm’s length.
“Shall we begin the day, Chessie?” He slicked her whiskers back and carried her into the bathroom. At the first sound of running water, Chessie trotted back to her bed in the kitchen. She would have none of this ritual of washing and shaving that Frank found so important, no – she would wait for breakfast. On the wall next to her bed was a mirror Frank set up for her. She would sit in front of it when she was alone and marvel at the beautiful cat in the glass. A cat who mirrored every move she made – a cat who even walked out of the glass when she did. She looked quickly in the mirror before climbing back into bed. The cat was there again – climbing into its own bed. It was not really a cat... Chessie knew that. When she touched noses with it, there was the cold touch of glass – no touch of cat – no sound or smell of cat. It was one of those marvelous inventions that made humans worth living with, like food and drink that came from cans and paper boxes, and a warm windowsill to sit on and look out at the park.
After his shower and shave, Frank slipped on a terry robe and walked to the kitchen. Chessie roused herself and stepped from her bed in slow motion, she pointed the tip of her tail to the ceiling as though it was a cavalryman’s lance. Frank turned on the television set and pulled the orange juice container out of the refrigerator. A young blond in red materialized on the television screen – her brows were knitted in compassion and concern while pictures in the background revealed wide eyed and bloated black children who stared dumbly at the cameraman. Reading the woman’s lips, he thought he caught the word SO-MAL-EE-YA. “There are losers and there are winners,” he thought as he thumbed the remote. A twister had passed through a trailer park in the Florida panhandle and stunned senior citizens were picking their way through the scattered debris.
“And you, Chessie, are a winner. Did you know that?” Frank poured some milk in a small bowl and put it down carefully by the side of the refrigerator. Chessie minced over unhurriedly and settled herself into a shapeless ball of fur at the milk bowl. As she drank she blinked slowly, rhythmically, as though beating time to a metronome.
“It’s Saturday, Chessie. You know what Saturday is, don’t you?” Frank settled on a channel displaying a woman on a treadmill. She had soccer player’s legs and a bronzed torso of muscle and bone. “A Walkyrie, Chessie – a gladiator. Many years ago women like that were bred to become mothers of the Third Reich.” Chessie’s eyes were fixed on the level of milk in the bowl. She decided to leave the milk at that level and finish it later. She hadn’t listened to a word Frank said, it was all gibberish to her. Humans were all alike. They jabbered for no apparent reason, together or alone – like dogs who seem to delight in making noise. Chessie was aware of a difference in Frank’s gibberish however, more of a one-note monotone unlike that of other humans. It was appealing – soothing. It was one of his attractions, Chessie thought – that and the milk and the mirror.
It was a Saturday, a sunny Saturday, and Frank decided to run in the park after breakfast. “You can watch me from the window,” he told Chessie as he laced up his Nikes.
Running was a luxury he saved for Saturdays. This Saturday he would run his nine to five Monday to Friday job with Syntec out of his system. The steady pounding of his heels on the cinder track around the football field, even though it was soundless to him, would purge his body and mind. He would be breathless after four laps, maybe sweaty if the weather was as warm as it promised to be. He would then walk to the kiosk on the corner and buy the morning paper to hide behind, then he’d find an empty bench to continue his study of the human condition.
Frank was an accomplished lip-reader. It was the only form of communication open to him and a lifetime of deafness had sharpened his ability. Phrases and body language were as important to him as the formation of the speaker’s mouth. Very little went on at the office that got by him and no one dared whisper a secret if Frank Whistler was in the room.
As a child he thought his ability to read lips made him omnipotent, untouched by events and yet aware of their passing. He imagined himself to be a king. He dreamed of heavy casks of precious jewels, safe behind high castle walls and surrounded by fearless knights in impenetrable armor, all of whom would defend him to the death from dangers outside. The thought persisted as he grew, and even today, at the age of 37 he imagined himself to be separate, invincible and detached from the dangers that ordinary people – people with hearing – faced every day.
The running went well, he pulled up after the third lap and bent over with both hands on his knees. His breathing came easily and he quickly recovered his wind. He straightened up, windmilled his arms to stay loose and jogged over to the kiosk. The Times would do nicely -- a full size newspaper. He glanced quickly at the headlines, which seemed to be a repeat of yesterday’s, and found an empty bench on the paved path to the baseball diamond. Diagonally across the path, fifty feet from the bench on which he sat, was another bench, and holding the Times open at eye level he could read the lips of couples sitting there. It was a pleasant game he played on weekends –eavesdropping – and it was as close as he wished to come to life’s realities. He learned the troubles of young couples – unwanted pregnancies, confessions of adultery, the loss of livelihood. Young people’s problems were fascinating, and after they got up and left, Frank often wondered what became of them. How could they get themselves into so much trouble? Caring for a cat like Chessie was about as much as he could handle.
Women were the easiest to read. They talked incessantly. Their body language was expressive and often conveyed more than their words did. Men, on the other hand, concealed much of what they really meant to say behind a stiffness and a reluctance to display their true feelings. Therefore he was disappointed to see two men approach the bench and sit down across from him. Furthermore they spoke in a language with which he was not familiar. He could read people speaking in Italian and French, but these two men spoke in a language foreign to him. He was about to fold his paper and leave when one of them, the older of the two, suddenly broke into English.
“It is good, Tariq to hear Farsi again. But we must speak English – you understand? We stand out from the crowd when we speak our own tongue.” He was a dark heavy browed man whose eyes shifted nervously as he spoke. Some of his words were lost to Frank when he turned his head. At times he would look directly at Frank reading his newspaper, but was apparently satisfied that he could not be overheard.
“But it’s been so long. How long must we wait, Salman? Last night I catch myself dreaming in this cursed English – I cannot go on much longer, Salman.”
“It should not be long. Have patience... you are secure in your job at the mall?”
“Yes, but they are asking when I go on holiday. I have to give them a date.”
“Tell them you must coordinate with... “ The man called Salman looked behind him, then covered his mouth and whispered into Tariq’s ear. He turned again and looked almost directly at Frank, who still held the top of the newspaper level with his eyes. Obviously convinced that his words would never be heard at that distance, he leaned back and Frank distinctly read his lips as he said. “It will be the last Saturday before the children go back to school, Tariq. The Mall will crawl with people – can you think of a better time?”
Frank suddenly realized his hands were cold as ice. His legs trembled, there was a sudden chill in the air and he was filled with dread as though something dreadful was about to happen – something he couldn’t prevent. He didn’t want to hear what he had already heard, and he closed his eyes to keep from hearing any more. When he opened them again the men were walking away together. He stood uncertainly wondering if he should follow them. Instead, he turned and walked unsteadily back to his apartment.
What could he do – a deaf man on the outside of life looking in? He was too used to being a spectator, like a fan at a football game. He had no control over the game and only a passing interest in its outcome. There are winners and losers. “Win some, lose some.” What real changes in his life could be expected either way... “you’re not a player, Frank, you’re a spectator.” But then – whatever was going to happen would happen on the last Saturday of school vacation. As he climbed the stairs to his apartment the prospect of a crowded mall stopped him at his door with his latch key in his hand. The children. The mothers. Was he satisfied to be a spectator, or did he want to be part of the game too – a player for the first time.
He looked at Chessie sunning herself on the windowsill. He started for the television set and stopped before turning it on. “What’s the sense in it,” he wondered? A look at the world from the outside, as though he were some disinterested alien from another world curious enough to check it out. He looked out at the park... the men were gone... “What were they doing,” he wondered. For the first time in his life a sensation of caring and participation flowed through him, a sense that there is in this world a wonderful significance in being alive – a responsibility to others that prevents each of us from living life and giving nothing in return. There was only one thing to do.
“Chessie, come here. I’m going to feed you; yes, a whole can of tuna. Eat slowly. Save some for later. I’m going to be gone for a while.” It was all very mysterious to Chessie, unusual too. This was the prime time of day, quality time – ordinarily he would take her in his lap and gibber on and on while she purred. She had come to expect it and now ... all of a sudden there was something threatening in the air, something more important for him to do. She jumped up on the windowsill just in time to see him walking quickly down the street.