Fort Bragg, California
The vibration of someone moving through the house woke Joey. She opened her eyes with a start, her heart racing. The room was pitch black, but it was getting light outside. She could see the dim outline of the deck beyond her sliding glass doors and the redwood tree that grew beside it. It’s just Ray. Her heart slowed.
The blank face of her digital clock showed that the electricity was still out from the storm of five days before. Even Joey, who was nearly as deaf as a post, had heard the explosion of the transformer on the pole in the yard that made her mother flinch and her brother clap his hands over his ears a moment before the lights went out.
They weren’t alone; the winds had gusted to eighty-five miles an hour, knocking the power out along the entire coast, and they were sealed off. A mudslide to the north had covered the route to Leggett, and the Navarro River was out of its banks and over the south road to Cloverdale. Downed trees blocked the other three coast-to-inland roads. Only someone like her stepfather, Ray, with a knowledge of the web of logging roads that lay across the mountains, could have gotten in or out.
With the pattern of getting up for school broken, Joey couldn’t remember what day it was. Wednesday, she thought. No. It’s Thursday. Last night they’d gone to Fort Bragg for their first good meal in days. All the meat in Safeway’s freezer had defrosted, but instead of pitching it, the employees barbecued every scrap and invited the town. She still felt full, smiled, and wondered vaguely why Ray was up so early---a logging-truck driver with no logs to haul---before she rolled over and went back to sleep.
When she woke again it was light. She turned to look out the sliding glass doors beside her bed and brought her hand from beneath the covers to brush her hair from her eyes. Her left thumb was damp and wrinkled. It had been so long since she’d awakened to find her thumb wet that she’d lulled herself into thinking she’d finally outgrown sucking it. She grabbed it with her right hand and squeezed it over and over like a sponge.
For the first time in five days, sunlight slanted through the trees along the trail behind the house, though raindrops still clung to the redwood leaves, sparkling like Christmas lights. She lay and watched them, waiting for the wrinkles in her thumb to disappear so her mother wouldn’t know she had started again. She tried to remember what she’d dreamed that had made her anxious. That’s what the county psychologist had told her to do. Face her fears. Don’t let them burrow in.
A breeze brushed the redwood leaves but the raindrops held on. She imagined herself as small as a drop of water falling from the sky, thinking herself a goner only to be saved at the last moment by a spiky green finger. She stared at one drop in particular, as if guarding it, until a rougher breeze knocked it loose to shatter on the deck.
Joey examined her thumb. It was nearly back to normal. Why do I do this? she wondered again. I’m safe---in my own room. Her own room. Since his birth, she’d shared the front bedroom with Luke. Then, four months ago, the builders had finished the second-story addition and Ray and her mother moved upstairs. Their old room, with its view of the creek and the forested canyon, became hers.
Before she’d lost her hearing, she’d loved the whisper of wind through pines, and since she had no way of knowing how different it sounded in a redwood forest, the sight of branches swaying re-created that sound in her mind. Even after six and a half years of deafness, she sometimes awoke expecting her hearing to have returned, like her sight, with the dawn.
Joey wasn’t totally deaf. The doctors had told her mother that she’d lost about 70 percent of her hearing, leaving her able to hear lawn mowers, chainsaws, horns honking, sirens, her brother’s wails when he was hungry and his shrieks when he was hurt. All other sounds were lost. Still, over the years, she’d gotten used to the silence, and liked it in many ways. She did miss the quiet rhythm of normal conversation, birds singing, and music. Listening with her eyes always reminded her of Smiley, the nickname she’d given her nurse in the hospital because of the yellow smiley-face button she wore. On the day Joey’s mother told her she was deaf, Smiley had made it seem like a gift, promising Joey that she would always keep the memory of certain sounds---phantoms, she called them---like her mother’s voice, rain, and the wind through pines. Smiley said she could attach those remembered sounds to whatever she pleased, even to silent things like leaves falling and butterflies.
She lay for a while with her thumb jammed into her fist and watched the music of the tree limbs swaying until she was jolted by the slamming of the door to the bedroom she used to share with her brother. The house would soon shudder and tremble with the energy of a two-and-a-half-year old.
Joey stretched and yawned, pulled the covers to her chin, and hugged herself. The air in her room was frigid because she never used the heater, even when the power was on. She hated the feel and smell of electric heat. She preferred socks, long-johns, and piles of warm blankets no matter how cold it got. Unheated air helped her fight down the memory of rusting, over-heated trailers or bare-bones apartments sweltering in the middle of winter.
Though she liked to sleep in a cold room, she didn’t like getting up in one. She scooted out of bed, jerked the spread up to cover the pillows, then darted into the woodstove-warmed hall with her shoulders hunched and her hands clamped in her armpits. She glanced down to see if the light was on in the bathroom, then remembered the power was out and opened the door slowly, in case someone was there. A candle burned in the wall-mounted candleholder her mother had bought the last time the power went out.
“Hi,” she said, when she came into the kitchen from brushing her teeth with bottled water.
Her mother turned from the little two-burner Coleman stove and smiled.
“Where’s Luke?” Joey asked.
“Outside peeing on the roses.”
“Ray told him it keeps the deer from eating the garden. As soon as you went into the bathroom, he grabbed his crotch and ran outside.”
Joey laughed. “Is that true about the deer?”
Her mother shrugged. “Who knows?”
“Is the power still out in town?”
Ruth nodded. “Except what’s on the mill’s circuit, the hospital, and the harbor.”
“Where’d Ray go?”
“Up there somewhere,” her mother said, pointing with the spatula in the direction of the hill behind their house, “splitting firewood. Pancakes?”
“Yes, please.” Joey caught Luke’s arm as he came in and kissed the top of his curly blond head.
“Ick,” he shouted, giggling and squirming to free himself.
“But I love kissing you,” Joey crooned and swung him off the ground to smooch the back of his neck.
When she put him down he whirled and stomped his foot. “No kisses,” he hollered.
Joey pretended to get the urge again and chased him a few times around the sofa.
Her mother waved to catch her attention. “Will you get ---------- outside to ---------- toilet with?” her mother asked, but mid-sentence she had looked down to check the underside of the pancake she was cooking.
“What?” Joey said.
Ruth faced her. “Sorry. Will you get a bucket of water from the barrel outside to flush the toilet with? And finish helping Luke dress, okay?”
“Are you going somewhere?” Joey asked.
“I told you. The radio said the power’s on in the harbor. I’m going to work.” She flipped the pancake. “Could get busy.”
Her mother had been a waitress at the Old Dock Café in Noyo Harbor for nearly six years. In spite of having met Ray during her second week on the job and marrying him six months later, she wouldn’t quit. Joey’s stepfather drove a logging truck for Georgia-Pacific, which had a big mill in town. It was a pretty good job, though there was always the threat that he’d get injured again or laid off. Her mother used that as an excuse to keep working, but Joey knew it was because having a job, any job, was her mother’s safety net. She would never risk another four months like their first four months in Fort Bragg.
When they arrived from Reno six and a half years ago, the job she’d been promised was gone. The money they’d saved, hidden in the belly of Joey’s teddy bear, bought them a month in a cheap motel on a back street in the center of town. It ran out three months before the owner of the Old Dock Café took pity and gave her a job. For that length of time, they had lived in their car, eaten one meal a day of handouts from local restaurants, and depended, for their safety, on the community of other homeless people. Her mother had sworn then that nothing short of losing both legs would get her to quit the job that had seemed like a miracle then.
Eating meals cooked on a Coleman stove reminded Joey of those days, but she smiled when her mother slid a huge pancake onto a plate and handed it to her. Joey got a knife and fork out of the drawer and the carton of milk from the ice chest in the middle of the kitchen floor. What was left of the perishables from the refrigerator were on ice in the cooler.
Her mother waved again for her attention. “Pretty day,” she said. “What are your plans?”
Joey shrugged. “I don’t have any. Want me to watch Luke?”
“I don’t think so,” her mother said.
Joey didn’t bother to watch her answer. She knew what her mother would say. She’d never let her babysit. Not for a quick run to the store, not even last winter when paramedics took her to the hospital for stitches after she missed the kindling she was splitting and drove the ax through her shoe. She’d called a neighbor to watch him then had waited, bleeding and in pain, for the ten minutes it took the woman to get there before dialing 911.
It seemed to Joey that her mother treated her as if she’d stopped aging when she stopped hearing. “Do you think I might lose him or something?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. You know why.”
“Yeah. Right.” Too young, instead of the truth---too deaf. Joey accepted a second pancake. “Maybe I’ll ride my bike to the beach.” Knowing what her mother would say to that idea, she drew a happy face on the pancake with syrup to miss her objections, but looked up too soon and saw, “---------- sea is too rough.”
The rough sea was why she wanted to go. She’d never heard the sound of the ocean and she thought it might be loud enough today.
Ruth tapped her shoulder. “Did you hear me? I said I’d rather you not ride your bike today. There may be still be lines down and the sea is too rough.”
“Mom, I’m thirteen and a half. I won’t cross a downed line and I won’t go too near the water.”
“No bike. No beach,” her mother said. “How about looking for mushrooms for me?”
Joey gave up with a shrug. “To eat or for dye?”
Her mother boiled certain mushrooms to make a dye for wool with which she knitted sweaters, caps, and scarves.
“Both would be nice. There should be pine spikes on the hill and oyster mushrooms on that old alder by the creek.”
Joey only nodded. Her mother had taken a mushroom-identification class at the college two years before. The two of them had gone hunting after every rain that winter until she had taught Joey nearly everything she’d learned. They’d even made money selling oyster mushrooms and chanterelles, enough to buy Joey a used bike, which, to this point, she’d been allowed to ride only on the logging trails in the state forest across the road from their house.
While her mother dressed for work, Joey gave some thought to ignoring her this time and riding to the beach anyway, but after Ruth left, she chickened out. Even if nothing happened, she wasn’t good at deceiving her mother. The link between them had grown intuitive. If she went, Ruth would know.
Joey did the breakfast dishes with rainwater from the barrel outside the kitchen door, then added an old sweater of Ray’s over her sweatshirt and a waterproof jacket from the drying hook near the woodstove. She found a trowel and a big basket in the storeroom, and from the pantry she got a stack of wax paper sandwich bags to keep the dye mushrooms, which could make you sick, separate from the mushrooms they would eat.
Just outside the front door, Joey slipped into Ray’s rubber boots, then headed across the yard and down the hill to the creek. A chain girdled the bent trunk of an old tan oak tree. In summer, a rope chair-swing hung there. This was a favorite spot of Joey’s. She would sit for hours and watch the birds flitting through the woods and listen with her eyes to the little waterfall. If she took a book, she could completely lose herself in its pages, then look at the waterfall and the leaves trembling in a breeze and fill her sight with sound. She loved that about being deaf; Smiley had been right, that was its gift.
Joey stopped beneath the tan oak to watch the silty, butterscotch-pudding-colored water tumble over the rocks as if it were on the boil. The creek was still high from the storm, too swollen to cross. She walked the high bank instead, scanning the thick brush for chanterelles, her personal favorite.
Joey found the alder but someone had gotten there before her. Only a few very small oyster mushrooms were left, and they were turning brown and beginning to melt. This was the thing Joey didn’t like about mushrooms. They didn’t die like anything else. They filled with maggots while they still looked fresh, then darkened and liquefied like something from an old horror movie, leaving a black tarry spot.
A yard past the alder she spotted a Pacific Giant Salamander as long as her foot, eating a bright yellow banana slug. She squatted down to watch, imagining first what it would be like to be the slug sliding into darkness, then she nearly made herself sick by considering the role of the salamander. She got up and stepped over them.
The storm had blown several trees down across the trail along the creek and it had become overgrown since the beginning of the rainy season in November. She climbed over and under, searching the duff cautiously for lumps that hinted at a fresh, new mushroom coming up.
Ray loved beefsteak mushrooms, not because they tasted very good but because they cooked up to look exactly like bloody, raw, well-marbled beef. He and Luke liked to act pukey, letting strips of the bloody red fungus dangle from their forks, smacking their lips. When Joey found a beautiful fresh one at the base of a fir, she thought it would be her prize of the day, but later she found herself on an unfamiliar section of the trail, farther than she had wandered before. There, spanning the creek, was another downed alder covered with satiny white oyster mushrooms.
Joey took a wax-paper bag and left her basket on the redwood duff. She climbed down the slight incline past the broken base of the alder and collected the largest of the mushrooms. When that bag was full, she got another and waded nearly midstream to reach the ones along the center of the log.
It was when she turned back with the second bag full that she saw the old man. She froze, her heart pounding. He had her basket and he was very mad.
Joey gulped to keep a scream from escaping. Angry faces terrified her and his was red to the point of bursting. He was yelling at her, making it hard to read the furious flurry of words. He reached in the basket, grabbed the beefsteak mushroom, and shook it at her. “Thief,” he said. She caught that word because the tongue whips out like a snake’s with words that begin with “th.”
Instinctively, she took a step backward. The creek flowed over the rim of her boot and filled it with icy water. She was trapped now, unable to run if she had to.
He must have seen that he was scaring her, because he calmed down a little and put the beefsteak mushroom back in the basket. “You’re trespassing,” he said, shaking a gnarly figure at her. “I’m sick ---------- people ---------- mushrooms.”
“What did you say?” she stammered, though it was clear enough since he’d called her a thief. People were very territorial about the mushrooms on their property.
He said something else and pointed up the hill. Joey’s eyes followed the jab of his finger and for the first time she saw the small dark house nearly hidden by the trees. His head jerked and he blinked as if he’d been slapped. “Oh my,” he said. DEAF YOU? He brought his index finger to his right ear then brought his hands together like elevator doors closing then pointed at her.
Joey remembered that sign. It was one Smiley had taught her before she left the hospital. One secret she had successfully kept from her mother, who didn’t want her to learn to sign, was that she still practiced the alphabet with the old Sesame Street sign language book that Smiley gave her the day after the doctors said her hearing loss was permanent.
She nodded. Her foot was very cold. She slipped it out of the boot, which was so heavy with water it was hard to lift. Keeping an eye on the old man, she emptied it, then waded slowly toward shore. She froze when he stepped toward her.
He brought his fist to his chest and made a circle with it. “I’m sorry,” he said, and held out his hand.
She put the bag of mushrooms in it.
He turned and put them in her basket. “You can have them,” he said slowly, pronouncing each word carefully. “I don’t know one mushroom from another.”
The cold water was making Joey’s foot ache. She stepped up on the bank a few feet away, still watching him cautiously, though now that he was calm, she could see that this small, white-haired, brittle-looking man was too old to be afraid of.
She’d missed some of what he’d said about the mushrooms, but now he was asking her something that ended in “---------- sign language.”
By catching the last two words, she guessed he was asking her if she used it. People who did not depend on reading lips didn’t realize how many words create the same mouth shape. He had probably said “do you use . . .”---three words that only pucker the lips.
“No,” she said.
He shook his head, sadly, patted his pockets, looking for something he wasn’t able to find. “Can you read my lips?”
“Come with me,” he said, and pointed up the steep hill.
She didn’t move.
“It’s okay,” he said, signing, OKAY.
Still she didn’t move. “I don’t think I’d better.” She saw by a little facial flinch that he understood very well that he’d scared her.
“Wait here then,” he said, using a “stay” hand signal as if she were a dog. “Until I get a pencil and paper.”
Joey watched the old man climb up through the trees. He did so slowly, resting often with one hand against a tree trunk and the other at his chest. When he was still yards from the top, he stopped again, looked back, and tried to smile. His face was red and his chest heaved.
Joey watched him stand there for a full minute trying to catch his breath and staring up at the house, still a hundred feet away. He started to climb again, but had taken only a few steps when his left foot went out from under him. He fell heavily and began to slide down the trail. Joey grabbed her basket, jammed her foot into the wet, cold boot, and climbed the hill to help him.
He’d caught hold of a redwood sapling, so he’d slipped only a few feet back down the hill. Joey helped him get his footing and let him lean on her until they reached the steps leading up to his back deck. That was when she saw the jungle gym in one corner, a tipped-over tricycle, and a litter of toys. Though she was no longer afraid of him, it made her more comfortable to know he was someone’s grandfather.
“I’m an old goat,” he said slowly, emphasizing each word, “but clearly not a mountain goat.” He smiled, patted her hand, and indicated that she should sit and wait for him. When the sliding glass doors opened again, he stepped out onto his deck with a pad of paper, then turned and motioned to someone inside.
Joey was watching his mouth, waiting for him to say something, when she saw small but very long, dark fingers reach up and curl into his hand.
The man stepped aside. At the height of his knee, a big-eared, amber-eyed face peeked around at her from behind his legs.
Joey gasped. “A monkey.”
The old man shook his head. NO. NO. He signed with sharp snaps of the letter “N” hand, the right hand. “She’s a chimpanzee.”
For a second, Joey thought the chimp was clutching a stuffed toy, but when it opened its hand a gray kitten scampered away and jumped off the deck. The chimp brought two fingers to its eyes, then stretched the V toward Joey.
“She is saying, ‘I see you,’” the old man said, and made the same sign.
I-SEE-YOU, Joey signed back, then grinned.
“Don’t show your teeth,” the old man said, covering his mouth.
The little chimpanzee was wearing a diaper and a T-shirt from their local lighthouse, Point Cabrillo. “My brother wears that same outfit day and night,” Joey said and laughed, then clamped a hand over her mouth.
The chimp began to sway back and forth, then ran toward her on bowed legs and knuckles. Joey held still like her mother had told her to do when a dog runs up to sniff you. But the little chimp veered off and grabbed the basket Joey had left on the top step. She dumped all the mushrooms out, put the basket over her head, and began to spin until she got dizzy and fell down.
The chimp peeked from beneath its wicker bonnet, grinned, and signed, I-SEE-YOU, again.
“I-SEE-YOU, too. May I pet her?” she asked the old man.
He nodded, then wrote on the pad and showed it to her: But let her come to you.
Joey sat down on the deck and crossed her ankles.
The chimpanzee rolled over and stood up. Her eyes locked on Joey’s face, not boldly, but not shyly, either. Joey knew she was being judged. She knew this because it was how she herself judged the intentions of strangers.
The old man held the pad down for her to see. He’d written, Friend.
When Joey looked up, he signed, FRIEND hooking his index fingers first one way, then the other.
Joey pointed to herself, then hooked her index fingers.
The chimpanzee mimicked the sign, then glanced up at the old man, who nodded. “A new friend,” he said.
She came toward Joey with one hand extended, bent at the wrist. Joey touched the back of her own wrist to the chimp’s, then patted her own thigh. The chimp glanced up at the old man, who flipped his hands for her to go ahead.
The chimp turned a couple of circles, then stepped across Joey’s legs and sat down. She linked her arms around Joey’s neck and put her forehead against Joey’s.
“Wow,” Joey said. “What a wonderful girl you are.” She stroked the coarse, thin hair on the chimp’s head and watched her staring at her own index fingers at work in her lap, signing, FRIEND, to herself. When she lifted her head, her eyes sparkled and her lips were puckered. She kissed Joey’s left eye, then pulled her head to one side and began to pick through her bushy, auburn hair.
The old man held the pad out. She’s grooming you. Her name is S-U-K-A-R-I. He’d added the phonetic spelling: Sue-car-e.
No one had ever thought to do that for her. “Sukari,” Joey said.
The old man nodded and smiled, then finger spelled her name. It’s Swahili for sugar, he wrote on the pad. A nickname for sugar-butt.
As if she understood, Sukari turned, put her head against Joey’s knees, and pulled her diaper down so Joey could admire the fine white hairs on her bottom.
Joey put her head back and laughed out loud.
Copyright © 2006 by Ginny Rorby. All Rights Reserved.