by Billie Kelpin
(This story, previously titled “In Silence” has been registered with the Writers Guild of America and is a copyrighted work. All names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, places, buildings, or products is intended or should be inferred.
“Sylvia” was published in the January 2016 issue of “Lost Coast Review” and may in no part be copied or reproduced without the explicit permission of the author. Please email all correspondence to email@example.com.)
I never saw her smile—not once—not in all the months I would come to know her. Her eyes held something. I didn’t know what. It wasn’t vacancy. It wasn’t sadness. Maybe it was rage—maybe hidden, seething rage. Maybe that’s too strong. She was the most homeless-looking person who had ever walked into my classroom. The jacket she wore the first night had the unmistakable look and smell of Goodwill. Her slacks were dark plaid and polyester and the navy blue of them seemed to seep up into a haze that enveloped her, extending outward into an almost visible aura around her edges. Her hair was dark, her eyes were dark, and as she stood in the doorway she seemed dark…and lost. She had the look of a child who just awakened upside down in an overwhelming large bed. She was wearing neither hat nor gloves that night, but she wasn’t shivering. And silent. She was definitely silent. Not the silence of the other deaf students in my class. Not the silence that is willingly broken to make hearing people understand. This silence was different. It seemed purposeful like the closed mouth silence of a woman holding something in her mouth like raw liver that was too disgusting to swallow and too large to spit out.
She arrived late that first evening and I could feel myself trying to be gracious for what I knew would now be, at the very least, a ten-minute disruption. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was a deaf culture thing – a social phenomenon that swoops in like a wild-fire in a forest parched by the need to be understood. Most of the students in my class had attended the Wisconsin State Residential School for the Deaf back in the ’60s. Seeing an old classmate now, some 30 years later, would start a blur of concepts that would flash laser-like across the room on visual strings that begged to continue in vibration. And in the blur, all news would be told …Remember JK, senior year?… new job…g-r-a-p-h-i-c-d-e-s-i-g-n… Really? ... You?…twins?…cool! (the latter signed like deaf kids in the 60’s used to sign neat).
I didn’t mind the anticipated interruption. I wasn’t any longer the young “hearie” teacher who would catch but a few signs here and there, missing the subtleties, like a tourist in a foreign land. I was into the field long enough to feel one with this culture like the American Jesuit in Guatemala giving his homily in Spanish…the British importer in Beijing ordering lunch in fluent Mandarin. I had even dreamt one night in only signs.
But there was no interruption this night. No flashing lasers across the room…only sign-less stares at the reticent navy blue figure who still stood in the doorway.
“Welcome,” I signed, “Come in.” I hoped I was smiling as I gestured to a vacant chair.
“Your name?” I signed as she sat.
Only three fingerspelled letters later… “S”… stop… “y” stop…”l,” and I knew and my class knew, our group dynamic was about to change. There was none of the deaf style fluidity of fingers that makes unspoken words become calligraphy in space and time. Some thirty-five years old and she was clearly new to signing. “Perhaps she had been late deafened,” I thought. Could be hard of hearing. Raised orally without signs? Possibly. “S-y-l” continued, struggling for the next letters like a child at the piano looking for the keys. In the slow-motion of the waiting, my mind started playing with names that began with s-y-l. Sylvester. Sylvania…. like the light bulb… No, obviously it must be Sylvia…Come on, Sylvia, paleease get it out.
She continued: “v-i-a”.
“Nice to meet you, Sylvia. Do you have a name sign?”
Sylvia’s eyebrows knit as she just sat and looked at me.
Name sign? I thought. She doesn’t even know name sign? And with Spock-like observation, I thought, Fascinating! I turned to the class hoping for help to explain “name sign” to Sylvia. One by one my students spontaneously illustrated with drama and humor, the concept of their own name signs; Sylvia barely blinked in response to their efforts. Finally, we agreed that Sylvia would now be an “s” at the temple and hope she caught on. Class that night felt long. Sylvia’s lack of understanding was forcing me to switch back and forth from an ASL deaf-preferred signing structure to a more hearing mode of voiced Signed English in the hope that she might understand with lip-reading cues.
And I resented it. For the last two weeks, the profound deafness of this particular group of adults had propelled me to a peak experience. We were signing adult to adult, not teacher to child. And I was “in the zone,” my skills being challenged to their capacity…
Two fingerspelled letters here, and I would know the word… a flicker of movement there, and I could understand who did what to whom and why. Three hours of “saying” without speaking…three hours of connecting and feeling useful. I was the privileged hearing person let into a secret world, and now it had to change because Sylvia couldn’t understand!
I was thankful toward the end of the evening that Joyce, the director of Deaf Bridge stopped by to see how the students were doing. I could finally sit down and let her take over. She stayed to talk after I dismissed the class.
“I see Sylvia showed up,” Joyce started. “She appeared at my office to register this afternoon.”
(Appeared! It echoed in my mind. What an accurate word for how she entered my class.)
“I haven’t seen her other sessions,” I replied. “She doesn’t seem to understand much… or even lip-read for that matter. Just recently became deaf, I take it.”
“No…uh, no. It’s not an age or progressive thing. She’s been profoundly deaf from birth. Her sister told me.”
“What!? For God sake, Joyce, she doesn’t sign or even lip-read. Where’s she been all her life…in a cave? It’s the ’90s, Joyce, not the 1800’s! She’s well past thirty. Not one deaf student in the class seems to know her. Don’t you think that’s just a little odd?”
As I looked up, Joyce continued explaining that Sylvia’s sister was the one who had found the Bridge. “She can never help Sylvia register because she plays cello or violin for some philharmonic orchestra. Only flies in and out of town every so often.”
“How ironic is that?” I interjected.
As we walked out into the Milwaukee chill, Joyce explained that Sylvia was raised down south somewhere… “Arkansas? Tennessee?” She didn’t know. “Shows up for class every other year or so. Great writing skills though.”
“That’s what I mean, Joyce. I had her write a few sentences. “No dropped -ed or -ing endings…Perfect subject-verb agreement. It’s like she grew up hearing.”
“Talk to her sister. Trust me, you’ll have the chance. She’s called Sylvia’s teachers in the past. I’ll give her your number if that’s ok.”
I thought phone calls in the evening were over when I stopped teaching little ones, but I replied, “Sure.” The mystery of Sylvia was too intriguing to say no. The next week, the wind off Lake Michigan howled only to the hearing but chilled everyone indiscriminately. Still, there was full attendance at the Bridge. Even Sylvia showed up—again no hat, no gloves, no shivering. Again she simply appeared almost ghostlike, as if up from the floorboards or down from the ceiling. Again, she frowned through the first hour and a half of idioms and verb tenses. At break time, the other students filed past her, fingers chattering. Sylvia stayed seated at the end of the pressed-board tables, alone.
“Break time,” I mouthed to her, larger than I wanted.
In slow, straight “hearing” English Sylvia signed, “I-am-fine.”
It felt unnerving to scurry about finding transparencies for the overhead projector and checking papers with one silent, staring student left in the room. I forced the feeling of discomfort somewhere outside of my body and pushed the guilt for not engaging with her down to someplace I knew I’d be visiting later. When I arrived home after class late that night, the phone was ringing. I answered with my coat still on.
“I’m Sylvia’s sister. Joyce gave me your number. I’m Diana.” Her voice had the throaty-ness of sophistication and I could visualize her playing violin in an elegant long-sleeved black crepe.
I tried to not sound tired.
“Ah…yes. So happy you called,” and I jumped right in with, “I’ve been wondering about Sylvia.”
There was something cold and direct in her “Why?”
“I mean her educational background. She doesn’t seem to understand when I sign.”
“She hasn’t had much,” and there was that kind of silence that the controlling leave open for those not brave enough to leave it alone.
“No, not much schooling. We’re from Arkansas.” She continued with lengthened vowels that would seem to confirm that fact. “I wasn’t around much while Sylvia was growing up, so I don’t exactly know. I think she started school and then stopped.”
“Oh, I see.” But I didn’t. Not around much? But I was too tired to go there.New subject. “I don’t exactly know our goals yet.”
“She wants to learn more signs,” Diana offered.
“Yes, I see. But…I’m wondering if a class in basic sign language to begin with might be a better match for Sylvia right now. Our class focuses on the refinement of English writing skills and discussions of socially relevant topics.” I felt a twinge of guilt for wanting my “deaf only” class back to myself.
“No,” she answered simply. Her voice was firm and seemed to echo in a room that sounded hollow to me, perhaps a sparsely furnished apartment that she rented when in town, I surmised. Again there was the silence that seemed to force my response.
“Well, she doesn’t seem willing to mix with the other deaf students. She sits alone at break and doesn’t go out to the hall to try to mingle or get a soda or anything.”
I thought I had mis-heard the sister’s next response.
“She doesn’t know how to use the Coke machine.”
“Uhhh…” I was scrambling for meaning…”Excuse me.”
“She can’t count money. She doesn’t know how to use the pop machine. I want her to learn that.” I was dumbfounded at the concept. It was obvious that despite her homeless look and novice signing, Sylvia was in no way lacking in mental capability; her written responses to my writing assignment clearly indicated that. How does one get to be some 35 years old and not know how to use a Coke machine? The other students in my class might have been deaf, but they were only deaf. Bob was taking night classes because he had an appetite for politics and wanted to discuss articles in Newsweek and Time. Bonnie was the mother of hearing twins. Her toddlers could sign and speak and wore Nike tennies and little jeans from the GAP. She wanted to learn to sign the nursery rhymes she had never heard as a child. Rich, the graphic designer, studied at the prestigious National Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York. His new role as President of the Milwaukee Deaf Club would require an understanding of Robert’s Rules of order.
I tried to explain the writing and vocabulary goals I had for this class, but Diana was insistent.
“Sylvia needs to learn things. Surely you could find some time…”
Of course, I could. What could be so hard in teaching someone to get a soda from a Coke machine—someone who didn’t understand a single word I signed or said or mouthed or mimed—during the one break I had all evening!”
Instead, I answered, “I’ll give it a try.”
God, this woman! “Yes, next week.”
I started next Monday’s class with a discussion on writing autobiographies. It would keep the group working while I pulled each person out to work on individual goals. I saved calling Sylvia to my desk until close to break time.
“Sylvia, your sister called me. She said you’d like to learn to use the Coke machine.”
I wrote what I had just said in her notebook.
Sylvia reached for my pen. Under my sentence, she wrote, “My sister called you? What did she want?”
“Yes.” And I pointed to the sentence above once again.
Sylvia nodded like an obedient child.
During break, Sylvia and I walked to the vending machine area. I took some quarters out of my pocket. “Twenty-five,” I signed “fifty, seventy-five.” There was the familiar look of Sylvia-confusion, but I proceeded. I pointed to the slot and motioned her to put the coins in. She wouldn’t take them from my opened hand.
Oh, Lord ….
“Ok, Sylvia, I’ll go first.” I placed the coins in the slot and when the last quarter was dropped in, I could hear the can drop in the tray below. Sylvia simply continued her stare at the coin slot. I pointed down to the tray, grabbed the can, and put it on the floor so I could continue signing. I took out three more quarters and handed them to Sylvia. Again, she wouldn’t take them.
Ok…start her off…geez… this is taking so long.
I motioned for Sylvia to press “Push Here,” but hadn’t expected her reaction. There was fear in her eyes and she backed away from the machine as if it would harm her. “It’s ok, Sylvia.” After looking into her eyes, the task seemed to take on more seriousness and compassion overtook my impatience.
I pointed again and mimed the action of pressing.
I was hoping I didn’t look like some missionary in Africa in the ’20s delighted with myself for exposing this soul to civilization, but I might have had that look. Sylvia simply looked confused, but she came closer.
“It’s ok, Sylvia, Press”
The Miracle Worker had first hit the cinema long after I had declared deaf education as my major and I never went into the field to be Anne Sullivan. That night, however, as Sylvia pressed the button and I pointed to the slot to where she hadn’t heard the soda come out, I felt as if I was at the water pump spelling out w-a-t-e-r. It was a fleeting feeling because I was the only one sharing in the triumph. Sylvia never reacted, never smiled. Her frown lines only shortened a bit as she walked robot-like with her soda back to the room.
I was hoping Diana would be out of town playing her fiddle or whatever in some city far away because I was too exhausted to rehash the evening. But no, again, the phone was ringing as I walked in the door.
I was actually excited to relay tonight’s victory. “Diana, yes. So glad you called. Sylvia learned to use the soda machine tonight!”
I suppose I expected back a “Great,” “Fantastic,” “Thank you, Ellen, so nice of you to take the time.”
Instead, Diana, simply responded, “Good,” and not taking a breath added, “She needs to learn how to ride the bus.”
“Oh, brother! Will this woman never relent?” I could hear a Dr. McCoy voice echo in my head, “For God sakes Diana, I’m a teacher of the deaf, not a social worker! And the concept of social worker became the new rope I reached for.
“You know, Diana, I would be more than happy to set up a meeting with you and Sylvia and a social worker.”
But Diana couldn’t meet us at class, she said…her “schedule and all…not possible.”
I suggested Mondays since she seemed to be able to call on Mondays!
Diana then raced her response along some convoluted trail of logic paths that circled back and around and lost me somewhere in the middle. I abandoned the social worker idea and ended up capitulating once again to Diana’s plan. I would try to unravel the Metro bus schedule myself, I promised, and later would help Sylvia to read it. I would have preferred teaching gerunds and participles.
Sylvia missed class the next week and I was glad. As I mimed turning an invisible lock near my larynx, the sign for not talking, a collective dropping of student shoulders seemed to take place simultaneously. Like a secret member to a special club, I could now sign silently, fluently, to my deaf-only students. Everything flowed that evening and I felt released and connected, the way lovers do when it’s good.
The next week I signed, “Welcome back,” as Sylvia slipped in after class had begun. Students were finishing their autobiographies and I was introducing “Little Bunny Foo Foo” to Bonnie for her twins. Sylvia read her assignment and got busy writing her autobiography.
Just before break time, I walked over to her desk and signed, “Finished?”
Still stoic, Sylvia nodded her head and motioned down to her paper. I pulled up one of the folding chairs and started reading. Her written English was simple, but somewhat straight (as teachers of the deaf like to say) and would need little correction. I could tell that from the first two sentences. I’d read for content I decided. It was a decision I wouldn’t have had to make for the content was such that I had never read in fifteen years of teaching.
I was born in Arkansas. My mother died when I was six. I think in a fire. I had two brothers. My first brother drowned in a lake. My father was yelling at him. I was in the boat. He fell in. John drowned.
I was aware of my head moving back and forth to retrace the page as if reading the sentences again would change their meaning. Sylvia lowered her head to look into my eyes as you’d look under a shelf to see why it was not seated properly. She knew the sign most hearing people use for “what” and signed it under my face three times as if I had found some spelling error that she was sure she hadn’t made.
Not looking up, I wiggled my fingers to sign “wait, wait” with only one hand and read on.
My second brother died from being shot in the head. There was a lot of blood. I saw pieces on the floor. I saw it. I think that was his brain. I went to the hospital. He died. I want to learn sign language.
Is this possible? I looked at Sylvia. Her face was impassive, stoic, resigned, and in that incongruity there was congruity, and I had to assume the sentences were true. I could feel my chest release the breath I had been holding. I told the other students to go on break and I sat down and looked directly in Sylvia’s eyes.
“What?” she signed again, “What?” more insolently now like a teenager asking, “What did I do this time to get me in trouble?”
I looked in the pools of black-blue tar looking into mine.
“Sylvia, I’m so, so sorry. The “s” of sorry pressed the center of my chest as it circled slowly over and over.
Sylvia’s eyes became more opaque and her frown furrowed deeper in apparent confusion.
“Why?” “Why are you sorry?” She signed every word.
Perhaps “sorry” didn’t make sense to her in this context, I reasoned and tried again.
“I mean, Sylvia…I’m sad,” and I mimed pulling down an invisible mask of my face. “I’m sad this – this all – happened to you.”
Again she signed, “Why?” as if she was becoming irritated, and for some reason, I could imagine her voice. It would be a low, raspy voice, I thought, with a sarcastic edge of inflection.
“This, Sylvia.” I pointed to the paper. “This!” “Death.” I signed it again. “Death…your mother….fire” And again…”Death…your brother…drowned,” and again “death, your brother shot.” “I’m sad all this death, death, death happened in your life.”
Sylvia’s frown lessened, she moved back to the support of her metal chair as if relieved that was all.
“Why are you sad? Don’t be sad.” She shrugged again as if the story were about an insignificant sliver she had just described. She shrugged once more and finger spelled “s-o”. “So? So what? So nothing. That’s life.” Don’t look at it and it will go away.”
The words she signed felt ice-cube cold with rigid straight corners — words, I thought, practiced over and over again, to cool hot grief. And the words in sign slapped me in the face and chilled my blood, and froze the moment in my mind.
I needed to explain what was most likely evident in my face.
“Sylvia, do you know that most people don’t have this… this death… all this death… in their lives… Some death yes, but like this? No.”
For the first time, Sylvia looked scared and I stopped. Somehow I felt like I was tugging on something fragile. And who are we to be so careless as to break the silken thread that holds someone together?
Coming home from class that Monday evening, I was spent. I went to the frig for the Chardonnay without even taking off my coat. As I reached for the glass, the phone rang. Diana barely waited for my “hello” before saying,
“Sylvia needs to understand the bus schedule.”
“We’ve gone over that schedule several times, Diana. It’s just not meaningful to her. ”
“She needs to get to her new psychiatrist on 55th Street.”
“I see. Yes. Well…” That topic was over for me and I shifted the conversation, “Diana, Sylvia wrote an autobiography. I wanted to discuss that with you.”
“What did she write?” Diana seemed concerned.
I hadn’t had time to put my briefcase away and I quickly found Sylvia’s paper and read it to her sister.
At the end, Diana simply replied, “It’s true. That’s all true. But that’s only the half of it,” and she began a story that seemed to belong in a movie no director would be daring enough to put on the screen.
“My father abused Sylvia from the time after my mother’s death all through high school. It was August when we moved to Little Rock. He’d bought a small farm and kept her at home. He never registered her for school.”
“Then she never went to school?” I asked.
“I can’t remember. I think she did, some days, I think. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.”
Wasn’t there again. There was silence as my mind scrambled to fit those pieces together. It was Diana who filled the space before the solution came.
“He’d have sex with her in her bed and then go out to the fields. I think she was seven. He’d lock her in the closet so she wouldn’t run away. There were wires on the doorknob. Electric wires.”
I was getting sick to my stomach as the possibility of causation came to my mind. I could make no sound to even acknowledge I was hearing this story. Diana continued.
“He rigged it up so that if she tried to open the door, she’d get a shock. He left a light on though. Thank God, he left the light on. There were books my mother had. There was a card with finger spelling that someone gave me at the State Fair one year. She would lie on the pile of shoes and dirty clothes and look up at the light bulb and onto her card. “S-y-l-,” she’d practice. “
“You mean, the name on the light bulb?”
My stomach felt like it was at the top of a roller coaster that was ready to fall. I was surprised at my fear.
“He raped her… all through grade school….he raped her…different ways. He made her do things. He told her she had to be silent.” Diana stopped and waited.
I couldn’t speak.
“What?” Diana asked. It was a familiar what and gave me the feeling that she was lowering her head to look into my eyes.
“What?” she asked, “What’s wrong??”
“Diana, it’s just so…so…horrific. I’m shocked. I’m sad.”
On the other end, I could hear a sigh, not of resignation, not of shared sorrow, but of relief. I could imagine her slinking back onto a metal chair relieved that that was all. I could almost see the shrug of her shoulders as I heard the words from a voice that was raspy and low with a sarcastic edge of inflection.
“Why are you sad? Don’t be sad. So what? So nothing. That’s life. Don’t look at it and it will go away.”
If one word would have been different, just one word; if her tone didn’t match the tone I saw hours before, I might not have guessed. If the story were less horrific, I might not have known. If she hadn’t said “gave me” the finger spelling card; if her name hadn’t started with “S-y-l…” But in this conversation, I knew. And from Diana’s silence on the other end of the line, I knew she knew that I knew. My knees were shaking from fear I couldn’t explain…that strange kind of fear arises when you don’t know if you could be in danger.
Now everything made sense…paradoxically unbelievable sense. I felt a surgical matter-of-fact-ness and resolve as I spoke now.
“What do I need to do?” I asked.
“She needs to learn how to take the bus. Dr. Holland has never met Sylvia. She needs to meet Sylvia.”
“I understand” With hands still shaking, I hung up the phone.