I awoke this morning with a headache and a roaring in my ears that took me back to that summer in the late 1970s when I went deaf for a time.
It was a hot morning; the air had scarcely cooled down during the night. I got up at 4:30, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, and had my breakfast. At 5 I rode my bike up to the grounds maintenance office and clocked in.
“I’m putting you on the sod crew for the rest of the week,” said my boss, Charlie. “Go report to Harrison. Danny and Diego can come with me.” That was good news, I thought. I was tired of working with the two high school kids. They had been all right for the first few weeks of the summer as soon as they found out they couldn’t outwork me, despite my being a short, skinny college coed and they being big boys. But they were, after all, boys, and they had some growing to do. They also had something to learn about jokes. I had kept them in line most of the time, but the day before they had dumped a can of Coke over my head when they thought I had teased them too much. I might have, but I thought probably not. It hadn’t helped that Charlie had busted out laughing before he told them to knock it off. I’d get Charlie back for that.
I grabbed my heavy gloves out of my locker and reported to Harrison’s crew. He sent me to ride in the back of a pickup with three other guys and two other gals. We hung tight as the boss gunned the engine up the hill to the new buildings where we were going to be laying sod.
As the sun rose and the air heated up, we rearranged our method to be more efficient. We designated four of the crew to stay on the ground pulling the pieces into place while the rest carried rolls, dumped them down sort of in place and kicked them to start unrolling. When it was our turn to carry rolls, we had stopped hoisting the sod to our shoulders. It was too hot for the extra effort. I was glad when it was my turn to be on the ground. It was cooler, slightly.
I was feeling pretty happy, humming as I knelt on the new sod, yanking and shifting the pieces tightly together, and before I realized it I was singing out loud. Nobody cared, but there was a new man on the crew whom I hadn’t seen before, and as he was pretty good looking, I usually would have been more careful about what impression I was making. But I didn’t care too much that day. My boyfriend had broken up with me for about the fourth time in a year and a half, and I didn’t really know what was going to happen next in my personal life. I didn’t much care what any man thought of me at that time. I only cared that the crew knew I was strong and could do my share and then some.
“Pollution, pollution, they got smog and sewage and mud, . . .” I was singing when a man’s voice joined in. It was this new man!
I had never then met anybody else who knew the songs of Tom Lehrer. This man knew them all. More than I did. We sang all the songs from That Was the Year That Was. He taught me “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and “The Elements” before we were through that day.
Ted was his name. He had a beautiful voice, a much better voice than I had. He sang in the university a capella choir, which was hard to get into. He had decided not to go home that summer but to attend summer school and work on the grounds crew, just as I was doing. He liked to sing while he was working, and during our lunch break, he was making up jokes and puns that had the entire crew helpless with laughter. Never had work gone so fast.
By the end of the workday when we rode back to the office to clock out, Ted had asked me for a date to a concert the next week.
I got on my bicycle to ride home, and Ted sent me off with some pun or other that had me laughing so hard that I wobbled giddily across the street and ran straight into the curb on the other side hard enough that I flipped right over the handlebars of my bike, landing upside down in the bushes, still giggling. He ran over with someone else from the crew, but I was just fine. I waved them off, embarrassed and still laughing.
After they left, I realized that my front bike tire had gone flat. I wheeled the bike down to the corner where there was a gasoline station with a free air hose. I hooked it up to my tire and began filling it. Suddenly I heard a loud pop and then a siren. I looked around confusedly, realizing my tire had overfilled but a little alarmed by the proximity of an apparent fire engine with full siren screaming.
There was no fire engine. No police car. No siren. It was inside my head. A roaring added itself to the siren in my ears. I shook my head, trying to clear it.
I realized I had burst my tire and that the explosion next to my right ear had damaged my eardrum or something. It hurt. And I now had to walk home wheeling my bike, two miles. In the heat of the afternoon.
My boyfriend’s house was the first one I came to, since my own house was straight through the block behind his and everybody used the alley next to his house formed by the driveway and a beaten path through what used to be an orchard long ago. He was outside. I waved and stopped. He came over.
“What’s the matter?” he asked. “You look funny.”
“Not funny,” I tried, my voice sounding very odd to me, over, or under, the siren noise was still going. “I think I broke my eardrum. Would you take me to the clinic?”
The doctor told me to wait a few days and see if my hearing came back, basically admitting he could do nothing for me. Both sides were muffled, but the siren was still wailing in my right ear somewhat. I wondered what I was supposed to do if my hearing never came back.
As evening fell, I was sitting on my boyfriend’s porch tipping back in an ancient metal chair with my feet on the railing. I watched the shadows creep up the mountains as the sun went down behind us. He sat on the swing on the other side of the steps, one foot pushing off the railing post. He was laughing at my predicament and I was scowling, thinking This is why you don’t really want to be with this man anymore. He laughs when he should console you.
But he had made us lemonade and he did agree to fix my bike tire. In return I told him I was going to start seeing this man I had met at work. It was, after all, my boyfriend who had said we both really ought to make an effort to see other people. It was hard to carry on a conversation around the siren and roaring in my ears. But I heard all right when he replied that that was a great thing for me. I scowled again at the mountains.
I didn’t go back to work the next day. I was sore from flipping over the bike and landing in the bushes after all, and I couldn’t hear well.
I was thinking hard about a pair of sisters who had shared my house the year before that. One of the sisters was deaf, having been born that way. She was smart and talented. She could speak, not plainly, but if you listened to her for any time you could soon understand everything she said. She spoke in ASL most of the time and had taught the rest of us in the house a lot of signs. But she could also read lips perfectly too, and mostly used that when she talked to me. I wasn’t as good about learning sign language as I could have been.
I spent that weekend of deafness thinking about how hard I was going to have to work to learn to sign quickly. I wondered how deafness would impact my chosen profession and my academic career. I wondered if Ted, whom I imagined considered music extremely important to his life, would reconsider dating someone who couldn’t hear.
He called after work Friday to ask why I hadn’t come in. My roommate told him, since I couldn’t hear on the phone, what had happened. He asked if he could come over, but she suggested he wait a couple days. I wasn’t seeing anybody, except when my boyfriend came over with my bike, fixed and back to normal. He laughed again about my mishap. I glared as hard as I could as he walked away back to his house. He should have felt daggers in his back.
Sunday night Ted came over to cheer me up. I could hear better. It didn’t seem as if I were underwater or had on thick wool earmuffs anymore. The siren had calmed down. Ted, thinking I would enjoy it, went to the piano and started pounding out Schubert’s “Erlkönig”—but he barely got through the galloping chords of the intro and into the first stanza when I made him stop. My head was absolutely pounding and the siren had begun again. I like Goethe and I like Lieder, and I liked Ted, but music wasn’t going to help my recovery.
We discussed Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan and various theories of language and language acquisition. I found him interesting, intellectually stimulating, and full of fun. Besides, he had floppy black hair and beautiful, warm blue eyes. Such a nice change from my boyfriend’s blank brown stare and wheat-blond curls.
We played three games of Scrabble after that. I beat him, two games to one. He said he let me win. I wasn’t exactly sure whether that was true. We were both English majors and his vocabulary was awfully extensive. Enough to make me wonder if I had a genius on my hands.
By Monday I could hear reasonably. I rode my bike to work at dawn and watched the sun come over the mountains. I had been assigned to water in the newly-laid turf around the buildings we had landscaped the week before. Ted was on the crew that was continuing sod laying. Harrison, the crew boss, had decided not to send me back to Charlie’s crew but to give me easy work for a week. Ted found me every day at lunch.
The birds sounded sweeter than they ever had before.