by Sara Landers
Vera stands in the corner of the room watching what people are doing with their hands. She sees them hanging loosely at sides, patting backs or shoulders, fingering crosses attached to thin gold chains around necks. The light in here is soft, coming from lamps on boxy side tables. She thinks it’s meant to be comforting, but it’s too dim; she feels she has to squint. Her eyes pick out the hands of the mothers in the room. These hands look like mothers’ hands. They are veined, sturdy, soft. She thinks of her own mother’s hands and has to push the thought away.
What she’d like to be able to do, right at this moment, is to be in a glass enclosure. She doesn’t want to be invisible; she wants people to know that she’s there. She likes the indignant feeling that jabs at her insides when people look at her with pity. But she doesn’t want to be approachable. She doesn’t want to have to talk to anyone or have them talk to her. She wishes she could chop their hands off, render their arms into bloody stumps that spurt and stain the thick carpet. But that wouldn’t stop others here from articulating their opinions. Not all the people here need to talk with their hands.
Vera thinks of how her mother, Babe, can’t (couldn’t) articulate with her voice, because when Babe was five months old, her own mother (Vera’s grandmother) noticed that Babe’s fontanelle was protruding like a cartoon bump on her head. Vera’s grandmother took the infant Babe to the doctor and they did some tests. They told Vera’s grandmother that Babe had a bacteria in her blood that was causing swelling on her spinal cord and her brain. They told Vera’s grandmother that this bacterial infection was called meningitis and they gave Babe antibiotics. Her life was saved but not before the infection had spread to her cochlea and damaged the hair cells that must vibrate in order for her to be able to hear. She was left with permanent deafness and so learned to talk with her hands.
Vera makes fists at her sides and attempts a smile as some condolence-giver sidles up to her and offers some voice sympathy. His cologne is so strong that Vera feels the edges of her nostrils flare. She looks just to the right of his face as he talks to her, and she wonders if she’ll ever care about anything anyone ever says again, regardless of whether they speak it or sign it. Her mother’s name tumbles from this man’s mouth, and Vera wants to reach out and catch it, to cup it in her hand and bring it up to her lips and just rest them against it. He is reaching out to touch Vera’s shoulder and she physically recoils from him. She doesn’t miss the hurt look of surprise on his face that quickly turns to indignation as she swivels away from him and his grasping hands.
She heads into the crowd without knowing where she is going and is stopped again by someone who is signing to her and making the short ahk ahk sounds that often come from the mouths of deaf people as they sign. It sounds like home to her, and she sags under the comfort of it. It’s someone from her mother’s work. Penny or Pammy or some P name with a y. PennyPammy’s eyebrows are smooshed in, giving her the look of a baleful dog, and Vera wants to be embraced by this woman. Vera moves a tiny bit closer and PennyPammy reaches out and pats Vera on the cheek. Her hand is cool and Vera presses her face into it. She wants to ask PennyPammy if maybe she could come and live with her. She wants to tell PennyPammy that nineteen is too young to be on her own, even though she said the very opposite to Babe not two weeks ago.
As PennyPammy drifts away, Vera thinks of how tired she is (was) of being under Babe’s overprotective clutches. She thinks of their last argument, when she, for the millionth time, told her mother that she didn’t want to commute to college anymore. She wanted to go and live on campus with other kids her age and stay up studying and drinking and making out with strange boys in hallways. But Babe was terrified of what might happen to Vera and begged her to continue to stay home and commute. Babe was leery of late-night studying, underage drinking, and boys in hallways. To Babe, the world was full of hidden dangers that she couldn’t hear. To Vera, Babe was stifling and irrationally overprotective. A small, sad moan involuntarily slips from Vera’s lips as she thinks of this and she looks around to see if anyone has heard.
More people are approaching her and Vera feels the sudden need to be sitting down. She wonders what would happen if she simply dropped to the floor and sat with her legs outstretched like a small child, forcing everyone to stand around looking down on her, shaking their heads at the orphaned girl. She is on the verge of lowering herself to the ground and can see by the concerned looks on her mother’s friends’ faces that they are worried about her.
They sign frantically to her.
Are you okay?
You don’t look well.
Do you need some water?
Vera reaches her hand up to her forehead and touches her fingers to it, then flicks her wrist away, pushing her flat palm away from herself. I don’t know.
There is a hand on the small of her back, pushing, and she lets herself be guided to the bank of chairs against the wall. She sits down and after a few moments, someone hands her a cup of water. She looks at the hand that passes it to her. It is her Auntie Peg. Auntie Peg is no relation of hers but is (was) Babe’s best friend in the whole world. Chunky turquoise and sterling silver rings adorn many of her fingers and her long brown hair is frizzy and banded with strands of silvery-gray, like tinsel. Vera drinks her water and looks away from Peg. Peg reaches out and pets Vera like a cat and Vera feels a burning tidal wave of choking emotions rising up her chest that she’s not ready to face. She shakes her head at Peg who doesn’t understand and pulls her into a hug.
Vera thinks wildly of something to distract herself and insanely settles on masturbating clowns. She wonders what is wrong with her but is relieved to feel a breathless hysteria replacing the threat of tears. Auntie Peg pulls away and sees Vera laughing. Vera signs to her that she is picturing clowns with rainbow jizz arcing across the gladiolus. Not only does Auntie Peg look stricken, but as Vera makes the extremely well-known sign for male masturbation, she sees horrified looks from faces around the room. As she tries to make eye contact with people, they look away and she feels powerful. Emboldened, she signs to Auntie Peg, I’m ready. Auntie Peg cocks her head and her eyebrows become a zigzag.
Vera stands up and smooths her skirt with both hands. She walks through the throng of people straight toward the dais. She needs to see her mother’s hands one more time. Even if they are clasped together over her middle as she lies in a wooden box. She rushes up to the casket where someone she doesn’t recognize is kneeling on the cushioned footstool. It is an old woman clutching a rosary. It is threaded through her fingers and the beads that dangle are swaying slightly as if in a breeze.
* * *
Vera doesn’t know how to get her grief out of her. At home she has shut her mother’s bedroom door and will not enter. She sits for days in the window seat that overlooks tar-blackened roofs with pigeons fluttering and their heads bopping in time to the sounds of honking taxis and wheezing buses.
She is becoming obsessed with hands. She wanders around the Village and Washington Square Park looking at people’s hands. She sees the man with the piano and his tattooed hands as they dazzle on the keys. She watches little kids holding plastic bubble sticks in their small and sticky hands then clapping them together to burst the bubbles with wet smacks. She sees hands in the air showing that their owners just don’t care. Hailing cabs and giving the finger. She sits on the edge of the fountain wall and thinks of how hands are used to hit. To pleasure. To pray. She pictures painted nails, ripped cuticles, and fingers bent with arthritis. She notices mothers standing on curbs, reaching their hands down, fingers outstretched, waiting for small hands to slip inside to be guided across streets.
This is when Vera has to look away. The thoughts come anyway. She thinks of her mother’s hands and how she watched them knead bread. Delicately hook a necklace. Press Band-Aids onto bleeding scrapes. Vera sits on her hands and hangs her head and tears drip from the end of her nose onto her corduroys.
She stops going to school but doesn’t stop her mother’s subscription to Birds and Blooms. When the magazine comes, she opens it randomly to a page with a large glossy picture of a vibrant red hibiscus on one side and a delicate hummingbird with an iridescent green throat on the other and she wonders how these things can still exist in the world. She picks the magazine up and hurls it at the wall as hard as she can. It makes a smacking sound that is so satisfying that she rushes over, takes it from the floor, and does it again.
She looks wildly around for other things that might shatter or burst with even louder sounds, but her possessions are saved when Auntie Peg comes in the door. Auntie Peg comes by almost every day, throwing open curtains and bringing food that smells like nothing. She puts toothpaste on Vera’s toothbrush and holds it right up to Vera’s face but Vera turns her head. With her hands down at her sides she closes her thumb, pointer finger and middle finger together over and over. No. No. No.
The days are getting shorter and darkness comes sooner. Vera knows that her money will soon run out and she must face the world again but she has no idea how to go about doing it. She’s angry at her mind. She wants to want to get out of bed, but she stays in it until past noon, one, two. She wants to return the texts from her friends Violet and Danny and Jamel but her fingers slide across the screen and delete the messages before her eyes have the chance to do more than glance at the words. Every time she attempts to go into her mother’s room to clean it out, she is overcome with nausea and she shakes so badly that she has to grip the sides of the sink or the toilet bowl or whatever fixed object she can get to.
She stops crying in the park and starts running instead. She takes the train up to Columbus Circle and gets off and runs through Central Park. She pounds her feet hard into the pavement and doesn’t look at people’s hands. The squirrels are getting fatter and braver as they stockpile for winter and she envies their animal instinct. Auntie Peg brings her a pot of mums and a bag of pears from her co-op. She reminds Vera that pears always look the same, that they ripen from the inside out, and so to test them Vera should press on one and see if it gives. When Peg leaves, Vera sits in the apartment staring at the door until it gets dark. She expects Babe to pop in signing, I’m back. Why do you look so sad?
One day in early December, she is sitting in her window seat looking through her reflection in the glass. She has her legs tucked up under her and she has a book in her lap. It’s the same book she has been pretending to read for months and still hasn’t made it through the first few pages. Auntie Peg was over earlier and talked to Vera about trying to move up even one rung on the ladder to being okay again. Just one. Vera pretended that she’s been trying but the truth is that she doesn’t even know what trying looks like. She worries that she has some internal failure that makes her simply unable to climb out of her grief. And as she thinks about it, her grief—this awful thing that she associates with a dark mass of ugly purple swirling blood clots—she remembers the ridiculous images of clowns she conjured at the viewing. She remembers this as though through a backwards telescope. The memory seems small and far away and then it comes to her. She remembers PennyPammy’s name. It’s Daphne. Daphne!
Sara Landers is an empty nester who recently earned a BA in English and Creative Writing. Her short stories have appeared in Marathon Literary Review, The Tiny Journal, and Spank the Carp. She lives in Baltimore with her sweetheart and Kirby the Cat.