The following is from Joe Meno's Book of Extraordinary Tragedies. Meno is a fiction writer and journalist who lives in Chicago. Winner of the Nelson Algren Literary Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a finalist for the Story Prize, He is the best-selling author of several novels and short story collections including Marvel and a Wonder, The Great Perhaps, The Boy Detective Fails, and Hairstyles of the Damned. He is a professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.
“Sound of the World’s Smallest Violin Playing for You”
Everything is okay until it isn’t. One morning my sister Isobel asks if I can drop my three-year-old niece, Jazzy, off at school. I make sure has her backpack and lunch and gold gym shoes then I put her on the handlebars of my bike. After that we zip through typical Chicago traffic as both of us sing the lyrics to a Beyoncé song as loud as we can, the two of us laughing our heads off.
The thing about Jazzy is that we found out she has significant hearing loss about a year ago. My sister ran all over Chicago trying to get Jazzy in front of a bunch of specialists but they all ended up saying the same thing: autosomal recessive hearing loss, which makes sitting in class all day unable to hear anything a challenge.
I do everything I can to make sure Jazzy is in a good mood when I drop her off. We tell each other knock-knock jokes, we sing old-school hip-hop lyrics, sometimes we even stop by the Polish bakery to get a donut or paczki. After that, I’ll pull up to the curb in front of her dreary-looking school and she’ll hop off and the two of us will stare at each other. Then she’ll get in line and try not to look like she is dying.
Today I can tell she doesn’t want to go in but she’s unwilling to say anything. I’ve seen that exact same expression on my older sister’s face many times. So I say, “Jazzy, I know this is hard right now but I also know you’re as smart as any of those kids.”
“What are you going to do today?”
She looks down at her feet and says, “Run it.”
I put a hand on her shoulder and smile. As she’s walking away she turns and says, “Wu-Tang forever!” and we both raise our hands to salute. Then I watch her walk into school without looking back.
After I drop Jazzy off at school, I ride over to the factory where I will stand in line for the next eight hours, pulling bright plastic animals from an assembly line, the kind that come in tiny, clear plastic bubbles, the sort you get in a dispenser at grocery store or bowling alley. I work on the line that does purple giraffes.
But today when I am locking up my bike, I see a long line of people standing outside, all in their coats and uniforms. The metal doors at the back of the factory have been locked with long metal chains. One person says that the bank the company uses has run out of money. Someone else says the factory has defaulted on its loans and cannot make payroll. Some of the workers bang on the windows. One woman, Rosie, who is in her late sixties, pounds hard on the glass. Someone puts an arm around her. After that, I go back home and lie in bed, put my headphones on and let the ringing my ears take over.
I don’t tell anybody but when I was ten years old I began losing my hearing, just like Jazzy. Both my parents took me to one doctor after another around the city and none of them could explain why it was happening, if it was from a virus, or an accident, or possibly genetic. Part of me believes it because I am part Polish and part Bosnian and that, because of that, I am completely doomed. So I don’t like to talk about my hearing. I don’t know ASL or like to think of myself as having hearing loss.
The thing I liked about the factory was you didn’t need to be able to hear and you could be pretty much invisible as long as you did your work. Now I have no idea who’ll be willing to hire me. I look through the newspaper and drop off application after application without much hope. I am twenty years old and it seems like I have already run out of options in my neighborhood at least.
I go to get an HIV test the next day so I can work at a retirement home off of Kedzie Avenue. I am sitting in the small waiting room at this clinic and the tinny loudspeakers are playing Chopin and even though I am pretty sure I don’t have HIV, I am almost moved to tears hearing the work of this Polish-born composer. I am not going to pretend anyone else will understand.
On Wednesday I take all of our clothes to Laundryland. I am not working so I might as well do everybody’s laundry. I separate the colors, force two loads into one washer, close the lid, put in some coins. I listen to the sound of all the washers humming together, which makes a lovely C#. I tilt my head against the wall, letting the single note fill my ears. I am just about to put on my headphones when I look over and see someone in the corner reading a book—some kind of textbook about Gauguin. It is a girl with dark blonde hair that hangs slightly over her eyes in an attractive way. Those eyes—large, brown—make her seem improbably cautious. I look at her quickly but she does not seem to notice and does not look back once.
One hour later, she gets up again and pulls the clothes from one of the dryers and begins putting them in cardboard boxes. It becomes obvious then—she works there. She’s in school someplace, working to cover her bills. Or maybe she wants to go to school, but can’t afford it, which is why she is reading about Gauguin. Something in me leaps at this possible realization, that maybe we have something in common. Even though it’s only the two of us, I don’t bother to try and look at her again. I pull on my headphones, bop my head a little as I finish putting our clothes into the dryer, and forget to add the dryer sheets I secretly like.
Every so often I see her writing something down. I jot down some ideas for another amazing, imaginary composition in the little notebook I carry around sometimes. Later my pen explodes all over my hands. I look for something to clean myself with and then the girl is standing there, holding out some paper towels.
“Oh, thanks,” I say. “Pen exploded.”
She smiles in a shy, forgiving way and then motions to my cheek and I realize I’ve got ink there, too. I rub my face and she looks at me, still pointing to a spot, until finally both of us seem to give up. “Thanks,” I say. “I think I’m just going to have to live with it for now.”
Outside, as I’m unlocking my bike, slinging the duffel bag of clean laundry over my shoulder, I realize I don’t think I’ve heard her say a single word.
Every day I wake up and go search for new signs on the computer to try with Jazzy, each a different movement, each a different shape. Bird. Elephant. Ghost. I even try to do some finger-spelling, which is a whole lot harder than it looks. Usually Jazz just ignores me as she eats her sugary cereal, so I decide to look up a few curse words and try those out too. For some reason she seems to learn those words much more quickly. And so we eat our breakfast, aggressively flashing obscene words and gestures at each other and laughing obnoxiously.
I get the HIV test back on a Wednesday and it is thankfully negative. I start working at Pine Hills, the retirement home on Kedzie. I don’t get to see a lot of the beauty of the world at that job. I mop and clean the hallways and take out the trash mostly. There is an odor of mortality, it’s everywhere, gets on everything. But the part I like best is conversing with the inmates. It’s a little like a funhouse, people talking to themselves, singing, crying, ramming their bodies into corners with their wheelchairs, other people leaving strange strains on the carpeted floor. I call them inmates because it’s definitely like jail. I know you are not supposed to call them that but that’s exactly what they are.
I wear my headphones when I mop, put on some old-school hip hop, and if I am passing someone like Mrs. Barbara Sheryl in the hall and I see her snapping her fingers and pretending to dance in her wheelchair, which is something she does, I will lean over and gently put the headphones over her ears for a moment or two and play Lil’ Wayne. The expressions she makes, the mischief in her eyes, is like nothing you’ve ever seen. She has a tattoo of a tiger on one shoulder and a blotchy portrait of her ex-husband on the other, which is just about all you need to know about her.
I get home late, after everyone is asleep. I go on the Internet on the old computer and find a free ASL class at the park office on Tuesday afternoons. I think about signing up, going back and forth in my mind. When I finally decide to do it a few days later, all the slots have been filled.
On Wednesday, I ride to the laundromat again. It is breezy and mild, and the sun suddenly acts like it has not forgotten us. The green smoke from the nearby plastics factory is a different color, faint pinks, blues. I ride with two bags of laundry over my shoulder and, by the time I get to Laundryland, I am covered with sweat. The glass windows and doors are all humid and foggy. I lock up my brother’s bicycle and go inside.
The young woman with the book about Gauguin has her feet up on a plastic seat. She is paging through her book and also glancing up at a reality dating show on a small television on top of the dryers. I nod at her as I enter and load a washing machine.
Once I finish, I take a seat on the other side of the room and put on my headphones, trying to summon up an air of mystery. But I can’t keep still. I keep glancing up to see what this other person is doing.
I get up, put a dollar into the vending machine, and out come two cans of orange soda. I look at the perfectly cylindrical cans, beaded over with moisture. I don’t even like orange soda, but everything else is out. I definitely don’t need two. I head over to my seat, then stop, and meekly advance toward where the girl is sitting in blue cut-offs. I offer her one of the cans of soda. “It gave me two,” I say.
She looks up as if, until that moment, she had no idea I was there. I do not wait for a reply. I put the can down on the little table beside her and walk back to my seat, then slip on my headphones. Later I watch her pull wet clothes from four or five different washers and shove them into an industrial-sized dryer.
I put all my family’s clothes into a dryer and realize it has been months since I washed my hooded sweatshirt, so I take it off, and wash it by itself. I put in a couple of quarters but the machine begins to rumble and shake. The young woman puts down her book and comes over. Without saying anything, she opens the lid, shakes her head, and says, “It’s off-balance. These machines, you can’t just put only one thing in there or they will not work properly. I can put it in one of these if you still want to wash it.”
She points to a smaller machine, already filled with laundry.
“Sure,” I say. “That’d be great.”
I hand it back to her and she shoves it in with someone else’s laundry.
“It’ll be an hour, if you want to come back.”
“No, it’s good. I don’t mind waiting,” I say, both of us standing there, several feet from each other.
“I don’t drink soda,” she says, pointing to the unopened can. “But thank you for offering.”
“You don’t drink soda?”
“I don’t like how it feels on my teeth.”
“Got it. No orange pop for this person.”
But then, just then, she cracks open the can of soda and takes a sip. I don’t know what to think. Somehow I end up standing near her as I am folding my family’s clothes and shoving them in one of the duffel bags. I nod toward her book. “Are you studying for something?”
She nods and then shakes her head. “No, I just like to read.”
“So you just work here then?”
“It is my parents’,” she says. “They came here from Poland in the 1990’s.”
“Oh, really? That’s amazing. I’m part Polish.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“No. But my mother, her parents were Polish. From Poland.” I look around and try and think of something else. “I’m Aleks. With a K and an S.”
“Halina,” she says. “With an H.”
It is quiet for a while. I look over at her again. “So it’ll be another hour for the sweatshirt?”
“Do you ever get to go outside?”
“What?” The question is so fantastically dumb, I know she can’t help but laugh. And so then I ask it again:
“Do you ever get to go outside or do you have to work all the time?”
“Of course I can go outside. I go outside when I go home.”
“Is that the only time?”
“No. What kind of a question,” she says, shaking her head.
“Do you ever go dancing?”
“What about going for a walk? Do you ever walk anywhere?”
“You ask some very weird kind of questions.”
“It’s feels like summer outside. I was thinking we could maybe go for a walk?”
I can see her cheeks going pink from the question or from the heat of the dryers, I don’t know. “Anywhere. We could just pick up our feet and go for a walk.”
She talks to herself a little in Polish, and then takes a sip from the can of soda. The orange pop makes her lips red.
We end up walking together down 111th street all the way over to the overpass, where evening traffic roars by forty feet below. It’s like a silver river, the closest we can get to anything romantic around here. A fence and concrete barrier prevents anyone from jumping. All you can see are the headlights becoming one solid blur of color. Both of us stand there and watch the cars flying past in both directions. It’s almost impossible to be heard, especially with my hearing, so we have to stand closer than we otherwise would.
“I like to come and watch,” she says. “I like all the sounds.”
“I like the way the light looks, all the cars going together,” she says.
I stand beside her, our hands up on the fence. In the distance, the narrow shapes of towers, spires, skyscrapers demarcate the other realm of downtown. It’s only a few miles but might as well be a thousand.
“I can’t wait to leave this place,” she says.
“You don’t like the southside?”
“No. I’m ready to go somewhere else. I’ve been here ten years. I see the same people on the bus, every day. I would like to see something different.” Then she says something I don’t catch and I don’t feel like explaining I’m having a hard time hearing. So both of us stand there and watch the lights streaming beneath our feet. “I never came up here before,” I say. “I like it. I like talking with you. I like your accent.”
I think about kissing her but see I have said the wrong thing. Her face goes red beneath her eyes and she lowers her hands from the fence.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have mentioned it, I was just…”
“I have to go back,” she says. Later, as I unlock my bike beneath the yellow sign and sling the duffel bags over my shoulder, it’s like we’ve never spoken.
Jazzy’s preschool teacher calls our house later that afternoon and asks if maybe we have given any thought to her suggestion of putting Jazz in an immersion program for children with hearing impairments.
“We have,” I lie. “We’ve given it a lot of thought and have done a lot of research and are still debating all the finer points.”
“I really think Jasmine could do with some more inclusive one-on-one attention.”
“For sure, but what kid couldn’t?”
Ms. Green, who I know is only a few years older than me, laughs condescendingly. “I know this must be hard for you.”
“It’s not hard for me at all. It’s hard for Jazzy. We really appreciate you looking out for her, but right now there’s not a lot we can do. The closest school that has accommodations for deaf kids is forty-five minutes away. And it’s really expensive, so it’s not going to happen. Besides, she’s eventually going to have to live in a world where people can hear, even if she can’t.”
A few days later, I pick Jazz up from school and look at some of her papers. I see where she has scrawled her name in blue crayon. Everything else looks wrong: the spelling of all the words is abysmal, and most of her numbers are backward. On a math sheet about counting is a drawing of elephants in place of any answers. I turn the sheet over and find more elephants. I don’t tell my sister because I know, at the moment, there’s nothing else we can do. Then I think about it and think about it and realize that’s not exactly true.
On Tuesday, I ride up to the park district building with Jazzy and explain to the teacher how my niece and I tried to sign up for the class but it was filled. I tell her both Jazzy and I have hearing loss and we want to learn, that we will not make any trouble. She looks at us for over the top of her glasses for awhile and then nods. Then we watch the teacher give a new shape to the universe as I’ve come to know it. In that room, I do not feel embarrassed or self-aware about my hearing.
Later that same night, we have a contest, Jazzy and I: who can do the signs for certain words the fastest, who can go through the alphabet letter by letter. It becomes our own secret language, a way to share our thoughts, an exceptional kind of silence.
One day in the middle of May, I go to Pine Hills and lock up my bike in the back and see they are bringing out a black object on a silver gurney and it takes me a moment to realize it is a body bag, like on a police show, with black plastic covering the recognizable shape within. An ambulance pulls up and I look over at one of the nurses from Pine Hill, Sheree, but she wouldn’t look at me. Her eyes are runny with mascara. I know it before she even says it. I go down the hall and see Mrs. Barbara Sheryl’s room is a mess—her sheets torn off the bed and there are clear plastic wrappers that cover disposable medical instruments left all over the floor. I stand there and don’t bother to take off my headphones. I leave everything. I go through the back door, unlock my bike, and ride off without saying a word.
Things are bad enough that I just can’t handle people dying around me. Besides, with my mom being constantly ill and my sister’s ongoing issues, it’s just too much.
A few hours later, I ride my bike up to the back entrance of Pine Hill, buzz the door, and explain the situation to Sheree. She looks at me and nods, puts a latex-gloved hand on my shoulder, tells me to come collect my check at the end of the week. I do something strange then. I ask Sheree for a hug. I am so grateful that she’s not going to yell at me, and even stranger still, the way she hugs, patting me on the back, is the same way my mom used to. I don’t know why but it chokes me up. I have to turn away quick before the tears begin to show.
From Book of Extraordinary Tragedies by Joe Meno. Used with permission of the publisher, Akashic Books. Copyright 2022 by Joe Meno.