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Sign Languages

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Sign Languages

  Sign Languages

  James Hannah

  Dzanc Books

  Dzanc Books

  1334 Woodbourne Street

  Westland, MI 48186


  Copyright © 1993 James Hannah

  All rights reserved, except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher.

  Some of the stories in this volume appeared originally in Descant (“Residue”), Kansas Quarterly (“Emollients”), Llano Estacado (“Interstate”), New Growth: Contemporary Short Stories by Texas Writers (“Friends of Beccari”), River City Review (“Sign Language”), and South Carolina Review (“Gypsy Moth”).

  The author also wishes to thank the National Endowment for the Arts for its financial assistance.

  Published 2015 by Dzanc Books

  A Dzanc Books rEbrint Series Selection

  eBooks ISBN-13: 978-1-941531-48-8

  eBook Cover Designed by Awarding Book Covers

  Published in the United States of America

  The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.













  Henry was exhausted. He had driven from Cincinnati through Kentucky and Tennessee, and now they passed to the west of Memphis. He rubbed his eyes with a knuckle and slowed the pickup. The interstate traffic mixed with crosstown drivers.

  In the seat next to him his six-year-old daughter, Maggie, played one of her tapes full of high-pitched voices and irritating tunes she sang along with under her breath.

  Just a few minutes ago, for the sixth or seventh time since they’d left home at sunrise, he had explained to her how they’d stay in a motel tonight and tomorrow they would arrive at his parents’ in Dallas.

  “And you’ll leave me and the houseplants at Grandmommie’s, go down to Austin, rent us a nice place until next spring when you and Mommie can find one to buy, and fly back and bring Mommie and brother down in the new car. Then the whole family will come up to get me and the ferns, right?” She had beamed at him because she remembered it all.

  Now he glanced at her face, long and narrow like her mother’s, and her eyes, which were the dark blue of very clear, deep water. The color often reminded him of a trip he and Martha had taken to the Bahamas years ago before the two children and all the other things that happen.

  Earlier he and Maggie had sung songs. They had talked about the colors of cars and trucks, played “I Spy.” She had napped, eaten a lot. The floorboard was full of bottles and candy wrappers and McDonald’s bags. Henry worried she’d get sick and want her mother.

  But she hadn’t gotten ill or even whined much, and Henry had thanked God a dozen times already. He’d never been on a trip alone with her where she didn’t have at least her brother to fight with and talk to. He considered the fact that he didn’t know her very well.

  All he wanted was for her not to make any trouble. To be still and quiet, to nap when she needed to, and to keep well covered with the old soft quilt they’d brought. The blast of cold from the air-conditioner was all that kept him awake now.

  He needed to try to think about everything. But he knew the driving was becoming dangerously easy and automatic. He had no reflexes left. They sped on at seventy-five. His exhausted mind was a tangle of projections about the future mixed with the past that would be Cincinnati soon. He knew how fearful he could be and so had that to combat. And now a lane change or a swerve to avoid a jolting hole in the concrete muddled it all.

  He had spent three weeks at the Austin office in February. And Janet had come to his hotel room for dinner. They had eaten awful Mexican food and drunk good margaritas and talked about nothing much and that was all there was to it.

  But since then he’d known that would not always be all unless he said it would. He had never before been interested in anyone else, but now he knew he was because despite all the worry about Maggie, about the move, and his insecurity and Martha’s loss of a good job, he tried not to think about the innocuous dinner. About how anything more would change everything at home.

  His eyes, even behind the prescription shades, felt needled from the thick summer haze complicated by the dusty harvesting of fields of winter wheat. And, in places, the remaining fields of stubble were burning in black and orange rows. It was all desolation. He thought of his father who, as a young man, had walked out of Burma with “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell. “Desolation,” his father’d say, a man with almost no words for anybody.

  Henry recalled a book about Stilwell he’d checked out of the library when he first entered college. Now he tried to remember the photographs of the chaos of escape. Smoldering villages; looting; huddled, frightened people. Bodies against the flimsy walls of huts. Stilwell was in most of the photographs, teeth clenched around his pipe. And behind him a line of emaciated men in tattered uniforms. Any one of them could have been his father; he couldn’t tell, though he had bent close, angling the glossy paper away from the light. They were hurrying through that countryside toward India.

  The farmers had already burned everything here as far as he could see. He put the back of his hand to the windshield, and the June heat leached through. The setting sun was in his eyes now. He adjusted the visor, but he could see only the car immediately in front of him. He shifted his weight and noticed Maggie had fallen asleep again. Reaching over, he covered her, raked some cookie crumbs to the floor, and switched off the tape player.

  He left the pickup running at a roadside park while he tried to defecate. When he returned, Maggie was still asleep. He thought he shouldn’t have left her. And he recalled how once, with David, he’d gone into a 7-Eleven and locked him in the car with the keys. He’d had to pretend calm and point with a steady finger at the door latch and motion for him to pull it up. But he’d laughed a toothless grin, and finally Henry had had to call the police.

  At five-thirty he tried to listen to the NPR news on the radio. Something tremendous had happened somewhere far away. He kept adjusting the dial, but they were not close enough to Little Rock for a clear, strong signal.

  Instead they listened to music from quickly fading local stations and played a game she thought of. Actually only she played; he refereed. She’d listen to a few lines and tell him if it was a happy song or a sad one. He was surprised at how good she did, though when there was only music she had more difficulty.

  “I’m really tired.”

  “I’ll bet you are,” she nodded.

  Henry heard Martha in her intonation. “I really am,” he said and was embarrassed at trying to convince Maggie he was telling the truth.

  “I’ll bet so.”

  “Are you okay? Tired too?” He thought her mother read to her every night and sometimes rocked her to sleep. He also knew Maggie often slept with her brother and wondered if they should get one bed or two that evening. He was afraid she would miss her mother and wouldn’t be able to get to sleep in a strange room.

  “Yep, me too.”

  “And remember, tomorrow you’ll be at Grandmommie’s house. That’s something to think about, isn’t it?” He watched her smile and nod vigorously, and he was relieved.

  Just at sunset, on the other side of Little Rock, they pulled into the Mid-Arkansan Inn. Their room was on the second level a distance from the stairs. Pullin
g back the curtains, he could barely see the top of the pickup and, across the vast and empty parking lot, Chuck’s Best Steak House. The woman at the desk had given him two ten-percent-off coupons for dinner and the breakfast buffet. Though it was after eight, the place looked closed.

  Henry had dragged up their two suitcases and now lay on the bed farthest from the window, his eyes closed to the standard decor of a room under fifty dollars. Maybe I won’t do this thing with Janet, he thought. Then he considered managing an entire branch office. There’d be travel all over the southwest region. And though he was sure he appeared confident to others in the business, he knew exactly how deep all that went. He had always had to work harder, longer hours just to keep up.

  He listened to Maggie unpack her suitcase and arrange her bed. She sang under her breath. Once she whispered to her dolls and whistled a single clear note of surprise. He opened his eyes and turned on his side; his back was a complication of aches and dull dead spots he massaged with cramped fingers. He felt the sway of the pickup.

  “Well, I’ll fill the ice bucket,” Maggie said as she tore off the plastic wrap.

  “I don’t think we need it, you know. Nothing to drink. We’ll go over and eat in a few minutes, okay?” And Henry lay back. He and Martha had both wanted David, and David had outdistanced his attention. By the time this blue-eyed child had appeared, he had turned back to work for many reasons. It had been like college, where he learned he had to study hard without the interruption of companions. Maggie had come as Martha’s child and joined up with David. He figured it was just the way things work and thought it might have been different if they’d both been boys.

  “We always get ice. That’s my job, Dad. Brother finds the TV programs and helps me unpack, and Mom oversees us.”

  “Do you need help unpacking?”

  “Oh no, see.”

  Henry propped his head on his hand to watch her open the bureau drawers.

  “It’s all done. And I put your stuff in the bathroom.” She nodded and closed the drawers. “Be back in a minute.”

  “Hey, wait.” Henry sat up slowly and straightened his twisted clothes. “I’ll go with you.”

  “Nope, I am six now. It’s back around the corner. We passed it, remember? You can watch me from the door if you want to.”

  She wore shorts, and he watched her strong legs and hips. Her back was perfectly straight like the backs of women he’d seen riding English style. The parking lot of the motel was filling with late arrivals off the interstate. Two noisy older couples walked slowly between rows of parked cars toward Chuck’s Best Steak House. Lightning reddened the bottoms of distant thunderheads.

  Before he’d met Martha and before he’d turned to studying so hard there had been a girl named Alice. Alice Williams. She’d flown to Los Angeles on a special flight full of pregnant women and gotten an abortion. Now the cost seemed small—a car payment or two—but then it had set him back for months. He’d seen her once afterward. Now he remembered why he’d been unable to say no to Martha about this one. Though he had known it was foolish, he had believed for a long time he must do penance for the abortion. That he must pay back that thin, awkward girl. Thunder crackled in the distance, and Henry thought Maggie should have returned by now. He left the door open behind him.

  “Maggie? Maggie?” He hurried along the concrete balcony, but Maggie came racing around the corner giggling, her face red. The hollow tubular ice tumbled from the bucket and skittered through the iron railings.

  Henry ate slowly, letting the food soothe him. The steak was better than average. Across from him the table was littered with the jumbled debris of Maggie’s meal.

  “Wow, I’m tight as a tick,” she said.

  Henry nodded, recognizing a phrase his father had taught her. She had quickly devoured all of a chopped sirloin sandwich and a slice of cherry cheesecake. Then, finding he had access to a confused but huge salad bar complete with ice cream and the makings for exotic sundaes, she had eaten a half-dozen other things as well.

  Henry took more iced tea from the waitress and couldn’t tell if her face was smiling at the child’s excess or scowling at his obvious lack of control. “Thanks.”

  The waitress ducked her head and hurried off to her corner to resume a long brown cigarette. The only other customers were a trucker whose rig idled under the motel sign and a woman young enough to be his daughter. Her bare left shoulder was a patchwork of dark tattoos over her pale redhead’s skin. Her hand, under the table, was in the man’s khaki pants. They laughed and talked quietly. Henry wondered if they’d known each other for a long time, or if they’d met down the road somewhere when she’d asked for a ride or he’d been kind enough to stop.

  Just as Henry finished eating, a thunderstorm rolled over them, rattling the stacks of tea glasses and causing the lights to flicker. The rain came down in heavy sheets, obscuring the parked truck, blurring the red, white, and blue neon of the motel sign.

  “Wow… boom… bet Mom and Brother are scared, huh? Bet they wish they were here.” Maggie wet her finger and lifted bacon bits from the edge of his salad. “Hey! We could have gone swimming. Mom packed the suits!” She looked up, her blue eyes suddenly sad.

  Henry nodded. “We got in too late. Grandmommie’ll take you to the pool. Remember there’s one right down the street in the park? You’ve been… but you don’t remember it, do you?” He was afraid that now with the dark and the loud storm and the strange bed coming up she might think too much of Martha and home. He was afraid she’d cry and he wouldn’t be able to console her. He recalled some truly awful night in a motel room in Wisconsin when David was nine months old. Looking out into the rain at the watery headlights of cars still on the interstate, he thought about how much things were going to change in less than a month. Soon their furniture would move past this café and over the exchange and west to Texas. He pictured himself and his family in the back of the van doing their usual stuff—watching TV or cooking dinner.

  They lingered, waiting for the rain to diminish, until the waitress asked them to leave. She had another job somewhere else. They took a newspaper from the tiny vestibule and made a dash through the downpour that had brought a hot blanket of steam up from the concrete.

  In the room, Henry toweled off their hair and prepared Maggie’s toothbrush. She brushed methodically. He wanted to hurry her but didn’t.

  “Hey, let’s phone Mom and Brother and tell ‘em about that cheesecake and sundae bar. Brother’ll be mad as a wet hen.” Maggie laughed. “That’s like us running across the parking lot. Two wet hens.”

  “They’re at camp, remember?”

  “Oh yeah, that’s right. I’m being silly now.”

  Henry put her wet clothes over the shower curtain and dried her hair more thoroughly against the chill of the room.

  “It’s past eleven. You should have been asleep hours ago. What would your…” He bit his lip and gave her a kiss as she settled into the bed near the window.

  “Can I color some?”

  “Oh Maggie, aren’t you exhausted?”

  “Nope, not a bit.”

  “I shouldn’t have let you have a Coke.”

  “Well, you did. And now I’ll just have to color.”

  “For a minute.”

  “For two minutes.”

  “Two minutes and that’s all.”

  She jumped down to her huge canvas bag of toys and brought out a cigar box of crayons and a thick coloring book.

  In the bathroom Henry could hear the rain better. He undressed and washed his face. Though he was all aches, he decided to shower in the morning. If he closed his eyes he saw the interstate ahead and the desolation of flaring fields. The sky was dust and smoke. He thought about his father. He was two different men. One a starving young soldier forcing himself to keep up, to stay on the narrow roads leading from the fields into the more dangerous jungle. The other they’d see tomorrow morning standing behind the screen door. He’d wave brusquely with his left hand and fum
ble with the latch, mumbling to himself about the conspiracy of all things that stick or come loose.

  He thought about Janet; saw her long thin arm on the back of the couch. Martha had never worn nail polish, and he had never asked her to. The memory of its dazzle further pained his eyes.

  He put on his pajama bottoms and turned out all the lights except the dim one over Maggie’s shoulder. Her head was down, her hand busy.

  Henry read the HBO guide and found that a movie he had wanted to see for years had started less than fifteen minutes earlier. He rolled the TV stand as far as it would go and turned its back to Maggie.

  “Not for kids, huh?” she said.

  “Right. And you need to go to bed now.”

  “I’m in bed,” she giggled.

  “To sleep. You know what I mean.” But he kept his voice light.

  The movie was about alien things like long worms with terrible eyes and teeth. They crawled down throats and became people. You had to catch them in the dark when they became disoriented or something. Henry couldn’t understand it all, though he couldn’t believe missing fifteen minutes was the reason.

  The movie was truly violent, and he kept glancing at Maggie and turning down the volume when they emerged to claim new victims and turning it up when the good guy, a smalltown doctor, was begging people to believe him, that he had the answers.

  “Oh God, not them, they’re ones too?” Henry spoke softly.

  Near the end there was the butchery he expected in a movie where the violence is done to aliens that only look like people. When the credits came on, Henry remembered where he was and slowly turned his head to look at Maggie. But she wasn’t asleep, though she hadn’t made a sound in over an hour. She was staring at him, her face half in shadow, the eye in the lighted half bright and moist.

  “What is it? Maggie, what’s wrong?”

  He switched off the TV but still sat on the edge of his bed.

  “I have a funny feeling.”

  “Is it your stomach? Do you need to potty?”

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