by Raymond Luczak

[From Men with Their Hands: A Novel by Raymond Luczak. Hulls Cove, ME: Rebel Satori. Used by permission from the author © 2009]

Every time Michael visits the Lansel Speech Clinic, he feels like a big-eyed woman with lips distorted decisively like the woman in a Picasso painting he'd seen in one of the art books he borrowed from the library; yet his speech enunciation and reception are acclaimed as works of art for his hearing loss. Even though the clinic is affiliated with the Lansel School of the Deaf, which is situated outside the city, it is based in downtown, a few blocks away from Lansel High School.

The building is designed to hide the corners they cut to build it more quickly. No one can see into these brown-tinted windows, and this always makes Michael feel uncomfortable: What if each window has an audiologist sitting behind it, turning dials this way or that, testing to see whether Michael can hear this or that sound outside the clinic? He always keeps his hearing aids off when he comes here for his annual audiological exam.

Down a short hallway and through a door on the right, the audiologist usually a woman who always changed every year; they were usually graduate students of audiology studying nearby at Lansel State University would carry Michael's thick file containing every audiogram he's ever taken starting from the time of his diagnosis at the age of three, and set Michael up in his chair in an airless room padded from any noises outside.

In that numb world of tricky mysteriousness, he would raise his hand if he heard a faint beep, or a loud whisper while staring at himself in that double-paned window through which he could barely see the audiologist taking notes after turning the dial. Then he would repeat back words like "airplane," "root beer," and "ice cream." This was to see how well he could discriminate the words he heard from the audiologist's lips, which was covered by her hand. He usually did well.

But this year Michael feels different when he returns a month after his last exam. Feeling ready to turn sixteen, he had asked to have his body aids replaced with a pair of behind-the-ear models when the audiologist said his aids were getting too old. The look of mild shock on his audiologist's face upon hearing his request made him feel deliciously good in ways he couldn't articulate, but it would be years later when he realized what it meant: "A deaf person is telling me what he wants, not asking what I think is best for him." Nevertheless, she tries a series of behind-the-ear models and runs tests to see which ones are best. Two different models were chosen.

Today is the day to cut off those cords from his body aids hidden inside his shirt. Until he tried on his first behind-the-ear hearing aid, he'd never realized how badly he wanted one. These new aids made his deafness, his differentness, a lot less conspicuous.

The audiologist gives a perky smile as she uses a tiny screwdriver to readjust the mechanical settings of his new hearing aids, doublechecks the notes she'd made the month before, and hands them back to Michael.

It takes Michael a few seconds to figure out which bumps on his new aids are the on/off switches and the volume wheels, but he soon turns them on.

The world sounds a little crisper, except that he himself is feeling different. He is different for the first time, in knowing that he now looked like everyone else. He holds his chin up a little as he walks down the hallway away from the audiologist's office and out the front doors. The old body aids are in his jacket pockets.

It is spring.

Suddenly he feels a wind sweep past his neck, and he stops in front of a slushy puddle. The cords that usually irritated his neck whenever it got windy are no longer there. He rubs his neck to reassure himself that the cords that held him steadfastly to the world of otherness were indeed cut off, that he was floating a little higher than ever before, simply because he did not have clunky body aids for a bra or because he didn't have to put on his hearing aid harness over his undershirt before putting on his shirt every morning.

He takes out his new hearing aids and slips them beside his old hearing aids; this was not easily possible when he wore his body aids for these cords and his huge earmolds could entangle so. The tender feel of a young wind darting into his exposed ear canals is so thrilling, that he stands still for a moment, floating in that freedom of feeling with his eyes closed. The world around him is blooming with melting snow and the promise of daffodils.

He leaps across the slushy puddle and walks slowly back home, constantly holding his breath amidst that joyful rush of wind into his naked ears. He cannot stop touching his beautiful ears, starting to listen to the wind all over again.