Yet: Jack Can Hear!
by Douglas Bullard
[From The Deaf Way II Anthology. Edited by Tonya M. Stremlau. Used by permission from Gallaudet University Press © 2002]
How is a boy to learn who he really is without discarding who he is not?
On his return to the school from yet another bout with surgery during the summer, Jack had to sleep flat on his back, just as at the hospital, and stare at car headlights swinging across the ceiling, just as at the hospital, too. He'd much rather sleep on his side, his feet tucked up closer to the warmth of his torso, his arms folded around the pillow, except that his new ears were uncomfortable when rested upon the pillow, and sometimes hurt the side of his head. And he was afraid they'd break or tear off and blood would spurt out.
His mother had told him to be very careful with his new ears because they were very expensive. Gripping him by the shoulders, she'd said they were his only hope of ever becoming a normal hearing boy that nobody would ever laugh at anymore. And she emphasized they were real ears, not cheap hearing aids. Then, she'd softly stroked his hair, his cheek, his eyebrows, and the back of his neck, careful not to touch the ears for they did feel funny to the touch, kind of repulsive to the finger, cold as the waxy skin of a cadaver, somewhat like the latex membrane of surgeon's gloves. She'd touched them once, just once, when he was wheeled out of surgery in a deep coma from the anesthesia. They felt so cold she nearly cried out that he was dead.
And the color wasn't quite right. It was all one shade of beige, almost like surgical tubing, unlike the subtle shadings from pink to tanned, pale to flush, of living ears. The beige had an unnatural light to it, as if the ears had been microwaved in a tanning salon.
Yet: Jack can hear! Jack can hear! He really could hear! The ears worked! The operation was completely successful! The patient did not die!
Dr. Bangs was immensely pleased. He'd finally achieved the stratosphere of a Jesus Christ. All the years of hard work and experimenting with cadavers and mice and dogs and monkeys had finally paid off in a --- a Miracle! All those mice and dogs and monkeys had to sacrifice their ears and endure severe discomfort and intense pain in order that Jack might hear! Dr. Bangs had had to sacrifice parties, picnics with his kids, and fishing trips and Monday Night Football with his buddies in order to pick up, besides his M.D., degrees in Chemistry, Physics, Electrical and Human Engineering, Acoustics and Audiology in order that Jack might hear! Jack, say thank you! Oh, so many sacrifices had had to be made so that Jack might be given the precious gift of hearing! Jack only had to give up his natural ears (what was left of them) and his father his fortune, his mother hers, his grandparents theirs, his brothers and sisters their inheritance, the United States Government its inheritance taxes.... Jack, say thank you!
The rubber ears were truly a work of miracle. First, Dr. Bangs removed the dead natural ears of Jack and fashioned threaded holes in their stead where the new ears could be screwed in, or out as may be necessary for cleaning, new batteries, upgrading, or new technology. There was one little disadvantage: it was necessary to make the lobes stiffer than natural in order that the ears might be screwed in by hand. Every once in a while, they'd come a little loose and hang at funny angles, and Jack would have to screw them back in tighter, careful not to turn them too far or to tear them.
The ears worked on the principle of microwaves, emitting electronic impulses directly into the brain, bypassing the auditory nerves. They really worked! Jack could hear everything --- approaching traffic, passing airplanes, music, flies buzzing, footsteps, children laughing, birds singing, the whack of bat on ball, the murmuring of a creek, the wail of his motheróeverything that brings joy to the ears. Jack was thrilled. His mother was ecstatic. His father was pleased. The Director was delighted and eager to get to work on Jack's speech. This is what Oralism is all about, isn't it, she cracked, so thrilled was she to finally, at long last teach speech, really, truly, actually, bonafidically teach speech, the way speech is meant to be taught! After all, Jack can't very well be said to be deaf, I mean subhearing, anymore, can he? Get it, uh? Ha, ha, ha. Get it? Ha, ha, ha.
Everybody was happy, very happy in spite of one little quirk: Jack could hear all right, except he couldn't tell a jet overhead from a siren down the street, a robin from Drew chirping to his little fairy, a scratching on a blackboard from a squeaking hinge, and, worse, cat from bat, red from green, love from hate, boy from girl, mom from pop --- all sounds sounded pretty much alike to him, almost as if all he could hear with those rubber ears was white noise.
After the first day of excitement and marvelment, Jack was disappointed. White noise isn't exactly the nicest sound in the world, you know, and it has been known to be an effective weapon of torture in certain prisons. Jack would have unscrewed the ears and thrown them away except he didn't know how he could endure people laughing at the holes in his head. It was bad enough the ears were noticeably phony, but at least no one looked his way so long as he didn't draw attention to himself.
His mother cried, "How could you be so ungrateful!?"
His father demanded of Dr. Bangs, "Why can't he understand what we say?"
"You see, it's the little hairs in the cochlea that give normal ears their marvelous ability to distinguish the fine shades of speech," the doctor explained, making a rolling gesture, now understanding why the dogs chased their tails the day long and the monkeys tried to hide their heads between their legs and howled round the clock. The rats also ran at top speed in their treadmills until they died.
Mr. Hassleback butted in, "Thought it was old men got hair in their ears . ."
"Jack's new ears unfortunately don't have those fine hairs," the doctor went on earnestly while Mr. Hassleback paced in disgust that his joke had fallen on deaf ears. "But we're working on it, we're working on it. This is exactly the purpose of making those ears easy to replace without further surgery. Remember, your boy is the very first person on earth to have these ..."
"Fake ears!" bellowed Mr. Hassleback.
Mrs. Hassleback cried, "Let's don't ruin this wonderful miracle!"
"Don't worry, don't worry," the Director orajected. "Everything is going to be fine; everybody is going to be very happy. Your boy will positively learn to talk! I promise!"
"How's he going to learn to talk if he can't understand nothing!?" snorted Mr. Hassleback.
"Please! Please!" pleaded Mrs. Hassleback. "We must never lose faith!"
"Okay, Okay." Mr. Hassleback threw up his hands and took out yet another mortgage on the house so the good doctor could get to work on growing real fur on a new model.
* * * * * *
"Jack can hear!" Melba exulted to the class that first day of school after the summer of Jack's miracle. "Isn't it wonderful?" She applauded, encouraging with sharp nods everyone to applaud too.
All the children gathered about Jack and stared at him, or more precisely at the rubber ears. Satha reached out from behind and fingered an ear, a touch Jack never felt. "Yuck!" she yanked back her hand. He heard but did not know the source of the sound.
"Satha!" remonstrated Melba.
Tylone slipped behind Jack and ran a finger along a lobe. Wally and Casey jockeyed for their turn. Jane and Jaime got in a feel too before Melba broke them up and made them sit at their desks.
"Naughty! Naughty!" Melba scolded them. "That was not nice!" "Jesas saw you," Jonas piped up in all earnestness.
Melba grabbed Jonas's wrist and put his palm to her cheek. "Jes-uhs," she corrected him.
While she was thus engaged with correcting Jonas, Tylone again sneaked behind Jack to see how far the rubber ear could be made to bend. Jack turned his head away and the ear came half-unscrewed, so that it hung horizontally.
"Ha, ha, ha," went the kids in an uproar, pointing at the funny ear and slapping their thighs.
Jack began to bawl and Melba hastened to gather him in her arms. Tears ran down her cheek as she rocked him and shot glances pregnant with reproach at brat after brat gathered about the classroom. So full of disappointment and sadness was her reproach that all the children sat down abashed.
"It's not Jack's fault he has funny ears," she said by way of teaching them the ways of tolerance, compassion, understanding, empathy, and other kindnesses. "You must understand he can't help them. God made him the way he is."
* * * * * *
On his back in his bed Jack wanted so much to fall off to sleep, but the white noise wailed up and down in rhythm with the arching of headlights across the ceiling. The noise jumped sharply every time David coughed. It buzzed with the snores of Wally and Jaime. It hummed as Drew responded to the little fairy in his ear. It growled with Casey fighting a dream and grunted with Tylone and yelped with Jerome. Volume and sharpness was all the white noise could convey to Jack, and he could distinguish nothing. He moaned and kicked his feet. A shriek accompanied beams of red light whipping across the ceiling.
Jack hurried to the window in time to catch a fire truck disappearing around a corner a block away. He opened the window; from the fine vantage of four stories above the corner and high above the rows and rows of two-story brownstones, he could follow the flashes of red glow upon windows and walls down the next street. He closed his eyes, hoping his rubber ears could follow the siren, but all he could hear was the white noise gradually diminishing in volume, only to be confounded by other passing traffic and David's coughing.
Nights are never total in cities, what with millions of street lamps furnishing a dirty yellow, almost umber, tinge to the air so that it, the air itself, becomes quite visible, tangible, palpable. You can actually see that it is air. The heavens above are more mud than night, and only Jupiter shows as a faint, lonely sentinel up there in the muck when the moon is out visiting elsewhere in the world. Even when the moon is up, the city does not need, does not welcome its light; you have to really look to find it. Even the huge park to the left of Jack, which from his perch four stories above the ground gives the appearance of a black hole in the midst of the city, never enjoys a true night that would make a flashlight necessary.
Jack had never known there was so much noise in the world, even so late at night. Of course, before the rubber ears, he had known there was sound all about: engines, slamming doors, bells, hearing people. His mother had told him about the noises, he had observed hearing people responding to noises, and his old hearing aid had given hints of the existence of noise, but it took the rubber ears to confirm to him that he was living in a sea of sound as much as a world of sight, and that hearing people receive images of sound as vivid as images of sight.
But the rubber ears, being synthetic, not living flesh, only gave him the sound without the image so that it was only so much noise, as featureless and meaningless as a blank white page. If only he could get something, even a crude drawing! His heart broke, as had those of the mice and dogs and monkeys in Dr. Bangs' laboratory. He made preparations to jump out the window. He didn't care if he broke his mother's heart or ruined Dr. Bangs' reputation. He was going to splatter himself on that sidewalk down there and wreck those rubber ears.
Miss Racher grabbed him just in time and dragged him back into the room and enclosed him in her tender embrace. His struggles bumped awake Tylone.
"He was gonna jump!" she cried to Tylone. He dropped his jaw, touched Jack and Miss Racher, and quickly summoned Wally, Casey, and Jaime, and they gathered about Jack now sobbing at Miss Racher's breast. She was sobbing too and rocked Jack in her arms.
He almost jump! Tylone explained, nodding at the open window. Miss-Racher caught-him. He ended with a gesture of plucking a hair out of his head by way of emphasizing it was a close call. Miss Racher was too astonished to remind him to use his speech. She understood every gesture clearly! She never thought she would be able to, but it seemed the gestures fit the situation so well they made perfect sense.
Jaime closed the window and the boys comforted Jack and Miss Racher with pats, hugs, and caresses, with Casey giving Miss Racher a kiss on the cheek. He thought her the loveliest person he ever saw, her hair down so that it fell upon a shoulder bare except for the strap of her nightgown, her features soft with love as she rocked Jack in her arms on her lap. In the daytime she was austere, severe, almost harsh, but now Casey thought her beautiful. He kissed her again. Her smile said thank you.
Noise, noise bother, bother me, Jack wailed. Thought new ears help me hearie, but noise, noise bother, bother.
Miss Racher thought she understood every gesture but glanced anxiously at Jaime for help, and he explained, "Jack said the noise bothers him. Thought the new ears would make him hearing, same as hearing people, but the noise ..."
"Poor Jack!" Miss Racher wept again and rocked Jack.
Wish can OFF! Jack tugged at the ears. Noise scream, scream all time!
Jaime interpreted for Miss Racher and she agreed, "Let's see if we can turn 'em off."
They went to her room and studied the rubber ears, Jack sniffing and trying to be manly under the bright lamp and their scrutiny. Where batteries?
See none, Tylone frowned at the absence of little trap doors for batteries like on watches.
How? How? Jaime mused.
Jack unscrewed an ear to show how it was done, and it fell out in his hand. Even he was surprised at how easily it came off, and this made him anxious that maybe he couldn't ever get it back on again. Tiny wires connected the ear with something deep in the hole in his head, and he couldn't bring it out front far enough for a look himself.
"Let me," Jaime assured him and took the ear. The battery was now easy to see, and as tiny as a button on a dress shirt. Jaime took it out and screwed the ear back in. He did the same with the other ear and Jack beamed Me deaf.
Nothing wrong deaf, Casey agreed with an elaborate shrug that as much as said, what's the big deal.
Me deaf! Jack exclaimed again.
Jaime made to toss the batteries in the trashcan, but Miss Rachel said, "Let me have 'em. I'll think of a way to make 'em dead and put 'em back in. Nobody will know."
Secret! Exulted, the boys and Miss Racher swore to each other to keep the secret always.
Jack was very happy to be an object of a dangerous secret and to be deaf, finally. Deaf at long last! His relief was evident and Miss Racher did not require much persuasion to let him go back to bed alone. He slept well that night and every night thereafter.