When the police finally found Della's seventeen year-old son in an alley, he refused to speak.
Instead, he shaped volatile words made of hands and motion, seized from the air and made over into anger. Sign language. When the police brought him home and struggled him in through the front door, she didn't recognize this skinny kid with a street face; he squinted now. He headed straight to the refrigerator and dumped out all the food onto the table.
This was not her baby boy, this sharp-nosed teenager, face marked with pimples and grime. While he ate, she sat next to him, and patted his hunched back, what happened? What happened to you?
After he had been diagnosed as deaf at the age of two, it had taken him nearly five years with a speech therapist to say a whole word, one that could be presented to strangers: his name, David. Day-vih-D.
Every time the speech therapist brought out her son after a session, David ran to his mother, his small arms circling her leg. He buried his face in her leg and shook his head when she tried to pull his face up to look at her. The speech therapist sighed. Della heard her and vowed she would do what she had to even if it killed them both in the process.
Focus, David, on my lips: You will speak. And then you will participate. You will not be a failure.
At the time, she had thought there was progress — look, he understood me, he put away his blocks — but eventually, she found he'd responded to her face and hands, not her voice, or her lips.
Shocked at each lapse into pantomime, she renewed her determination: focus, Della.
Each night, for years, she hated putting him down for sleep. He wrestled and threw toys as if he dreaded that long drop into blankness. Della craved sleep. But there could be no selfishness, for she had work to do, with her deaf son. And so, each night, she held him in a rocking arm lock and sang into the box of his square hearing aid, held up to her mouth like a microphone.
Hush, little baby.
He pulled the cords out of his ears and screamed instead.
She stood and brought down the Fritos from the cupboard for him. He looked at her and nodded.
In the middle of winter, on his twenty-first birthday, he came by, and when she let him in, he steered his girlfriend between his body and his mother's. Her hand grazed his arm as they walked past her.
His hair, always on the long side before, was cut short now. It shocked Della to see he did not have his hearing aids in. If you didn't know any better, he looked normal. She worried what would happen if someone tried to talk to him on the street and they didn't know.
His girlfriend, a hearing girl, signed to him, and he responded. This exchange of shaped air presented Della with a feeling so deep it made her ill.
Please ask him why he's so angry, she told the girlfriend.
The girlfriend made her face blank.
Please tell him I love him.
I can't do that, the girlfriend said and looked instead out the darkening window, winter branches a dirty, unraveling lace.
David waved a hand at his girlfriend, got her attention, not his mother's — this hurt Della — and then put his palms over his eyes. He motioned something — her heart rate shot up — then crossed his hands, hiding his face, and let his hands rest.
Please tell me what he's saying, she asked the girlfriend. What is he thinking? What does he feel? Why does he hide his beautiful, clean face behind his hands? He'd finally filled out into his body, and the pimple scars had faded. He looked healthy and pale. Looking at him, you'd never know he'd been homeless, his face squeezed tight with hunger and days wandering in the sun.
Ignoring Della, the girlfriend nodded — yes, that's true — at David, and he stood and turned on the overhead light and the table lamps. The room filled with light.
Della nodded at her son, and gestured — with a smile — toward the lamp, to show that yes, it was better, more light, but his adult face seemed harsh, his eyebrows drawn together. She wished her son back into his childhood; was that too terrible a thing to wish upon your child?
David stood to leave and Della patted him on the back, trying to say everything in that touch. He seemed not to know her hand on his back, and so later, when he left, Della wrote him letters instead.
Dear David, I hope you like school OK and that the classes are not too much to manage. I'm taking extension classes at the high school. Right now I'm in a nutrition course. The teacher goes fast, but your moma does pretty well with her diet plan. Even though I'm not as skinny as you are! You should have seen the snow we got last weekend. I'm taking ping pong in the spring. Can you picture your moma playing ping pong? I can't. The classes are fun and I like the people. The teacher makes me laugh. I have to shovel snow now, so I will let you go. Let me know if you need anything. Bring your girlfriend by anytime. Write me.
Della wondered what he remembered about being a violent baby. At two, he flung himself on the floor so hard he knocked the wind out of his chest. At three, he screamed for four days straight, until he had no voice, just an open, awful mouth. At four, he cut up new furniture with haircut scissors. At five, he kicked a glass door so hard it broke.
At the time, the rumble of her voice seemed to calm him, so she pressed his baby head on her chest and sang for hours. His hot, moist breath bubbled the cotton of her shirt.
Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird,
and if that mockingbird don't sing,
Most of the time, he pressed two middle fingers into his mouth, crying around them.
Mama's gonna buy you a diamond ring.
If that diamond ring don't shine,
Mama's going to something something.
What is it? she had screamed at him once. What do you want? When he looked at her, shocked into silence, she hugged him.
Use your words, David, and tell mama what you want. Looking heartbroken, he turned his head and howled.
Use your words.
David, use your words to talk to Mother.
She felt embarrassed of the need for repetition, like talking to a dog.
The last straw for this camel's back came when she found him flushing his third new hearing aid down the toilet.
She hoped he did not remember his childhood.
David, I hope college is working out good. I'm in ping pong now. It can be fun with the right people. Otherwise, it's just a little hollow ball being bounced back and forth. But the teacher makes jokes and we all enjoy ourselves. The next class is going to be calligraphy, you know, writing like on Hallmark cards. At pingpong, your mama is not the best player, but she doesn't give up. Do you remember the song I used to sing you to sleep with? If that diamond ring goes brass, Mama's gonna buy you a looking glass. Funny what crosses your mom's mind in her old age (ha ha, I'm forty now in case you forgot). Later this spring, when classes finish, I'm taking a casino riverboat cruise. Would you and your girlfriend be interested in going?
Love, your mama.
Please tell him I love him.
The girlfriend looked overwhelmed, then sad, and crossed her arms and looked out the window, a bright square of spring afternoon.
The girlfriend hummed to herself, some new tune that Della didn't recognize.
Della patted her son's knee, got his strained attention, and then pointed to the window. She drifted her hands down, like cherry blossoms falling. She thought he would be pleased at her attempt at signs, but instead, he mocked her halting gesture to his girlfriend, making a face like she was stupid or it was too little, too late.
David, I only wanted to send you a check. That's all. Hope all is well with you.
Thinking of you, Mama.
At thirteen, when David yelled that he wished he hadn't been born, Della had to restrain her impulse to correct his speech. You wishhh. Watch: shhh. She held it between her fingertips as if she could take it from her mouth and place it on his. He stomped to his room and slammed the door. She wondered what he heard when he did that. A boom? A thump? A tiny pop? Nothing at all?
By then, it was the end of the seventies and rainbow cool to be different even if David didn't want to be. Della saw a flyer for Sign Language at the community college and decided to bite the bullet. What she'd been doing wasn't working.
David lagged about four years behind his hearing classmates in his language development.
"Meaningful input," the sign language teacher said, "is necessary for any kind of growth." A shockingly young woman, she had feathered hair and heavy, round glasses with stems shaped like question marks.
Della raised her hand. "My son is deaf and mainstreamed," she said. "He lip reads. He follows the conversation if you're looking right at him." She meant this as a challenge to this perky young woman with no children.
"But is it meaningful input?" the young woman asked, her hands moving in time with her spoken words. Della wished she would stop signing English along with saying the words; both at the same time confused Della and made her anxious. Years before, when David had been diagnosed, Della had visited the state school for the deaf.
There, the teachers signed Ameslan, voices turned all the way off.
There, with sign language in the hallways, her heart pounded into the busy silence. She felt left out, startled by the foot stomps for attention, the small clapping sounds of signing, a child blowing his nose and then waving at a classmate.
"Yes, of course," she said to the perky young sign language teacher. "He understands approximately 15% of conversation. That's something."
I wish I was dead, David had yelled at her just the night before. Della barely understood his voice. He threw his plate to the floor, and ran to his room. She heard some kind of hopped-up disco coming out of his stereo, loud loud loud.
She walked outside and kicked the wall outside his bedroom. The siding was still dented.
"But is that 15% a consecutive 15%?" the young sign language teacher asked. "I mean, does that 15% add up to anything? Or is it like, you know, catching lightning bugs?"
Shocked, then embarrassed about kicking a house, Della stepped away and out into the yard. She saw a slice of light coming from her son's bedroom window. Feeling guilty, but righteous, she leaned forward. The window panes rattled with each drumbeat. David had yanked down the shade, and it gapped open a steep triangle of light.
In it, she saw half of her son lying on the bed, legs bent at the knees, a foot resting on the top of each stereo speaker. Spanish music. He must not know the difference, his feet resting on vibrations.
"But I did everything I was supposed to," Della told the young woman with the glasses shaped like questions. "I mean everything."
Except rubella. She'd had rubella when she was four months pregnant. She became convinced, after reading about the effects of exposure to toxins, that she was being punished somehow. Probably for wanting too much. Hoping too much. If she could give up a hand or an arm for her son so that he wouldn't be deaf, she would.
During his years of rocking out to Spanish disco, David grew his hair out like that awful rock star with the long tongue. Della hated it. At least nobody saw his hearing aids.
Della dropped the sign language class. David barely graduated high school.
He disappeared the Monday after the last day of classes. She had known he would. She warned him about cults so he wouldn't get targeted by the Mata Haris or whoever.
When David disappeared, Della stopped sleeping.
David, I'm glad you're going to be stopping by for the Fourth of July . I look forward to seeing you. I'll have a Cool Whip cake made up special for you.
Please tell David I like his short hair.
The girlfriend heard Della and made an irritated gesture from Della to David, as if to say: you tell him.
Her heart pounding, Della pointed to her hair, and then wrote on a piece of paper: I like your hair. She handed him the note. He seemed surprised, but he took it anyway.
He nodded and smiled. He turned to his girlfriend and signed something about hair, long hair. He flicked his tongue.
Della laughed. "Like Gene Simmons," she told the girlfriend, who then relayed what Della said to David. Her son rolled his eyes and shook his head. He made a gesture as if to say, how silly.
Her son smiled at her, and Della couldn't remember the last time they had ever been so relaxed together.
If that looking glass gets broke,
Mama's going to buy you a billy goat,
but if that billy goat won't pull,
you'll still be my baby.
When David disappeared, Della called the police and then bought a map. With a pink fluorescent marker, she outlined routes she thought he might have taken. She ordered information and glossy travel brochures from different states, places she'd always wanted to see when she had the time and energy.
Maybe David stood at the top of the Grand Canyon and breathed the smell of cedar. She imagined him meeting upstanding and helpful young forest guides with names like Brad or Roy, boys who pointed out the railing at the edge. She wondered what he felt, standing on the edge of light and air. A trick of the eye, your life coming so close you grip tighter.
Or the Monument Bridge. Wind pressing your body to the ground. Or flinging you to the skies.
To Alaska, maybe. The tundra in the springtime, a brown rocky mossy empty place. Look closer and see that the tiny flowers spiny plants hold on, releasing the sky and the wind to that long drop.
Five months later, David was found in an alley, emaciated and dehydrated, but alive.
Della was found passed out from the flu in her garage. They both required stitches, David in his arm where he had gotten tangled in a grocery warehouse's security wire, Della in her head where she had hit the corner of her car door. She then got a pixie haircut that made her look like a cancer survivor.
For the rest of her life, Della never forgot how when she fell, it was like she was riding in a car and she saw her son, standing on a street corner and talking with his hands to another boy and girl. She knew he was alive and would be found and brought home.
Dear David. I'm glad you're doing well at the deaf university. I miss having you near me at the state school, but I know it's better for you to be with more people like you. You must feel less alone. I'm glad you and your new girlfriend will come by for Thanksgiving, but I am surprised to hear that you're not dating that sweet hearing girl anymore. I liked having her to communicate between us. I look forward to meeting your new deaf girlfriend. You'll have to help your Moma to know what to do to communicate better.
I may be inviting somebody too. Ray is somebody I met in the calligraphy class. It may sound funny, but he draws beautiful cards. He should be an artist. I hope you like him. Since your father left, I have had a hard time. I was young. You do what you have to do to get through sometimes. We had some tough times. In any case, here we are now.
Much love to my young man, your mother.
When the police brought seventeen year-old David home from the alley in Del Rio, he struggled against them, and they escorted him into the house with a gentleness that surprised her. While David dug through the refrigerator, one cop stood in the doorway of her kitchen and told her the whole story; David had been shot at when he didn't hear the security cops shouting behind him. When a bullet grazed his arm, he turned and raised his hands. When the security cop approached him, speaking Spanish, David pointed to his ears and shook his head. Lucky for David, the cop had a deaf wife. He tried Mexican sign language, with a mix of Mexican and American signs. Bleeding, David shook his head again and again, a desperate, shocked question on his face. The cop tried pantomime.
"Lucky for him, we got through" the cop said. "They might have had one dead boy on their hands."
Della nodded, seeing her son as he must have been, legs shaking, nodding and nodding when the man mimed eating food. Yes, yes, food.
"He could have been just one more statistic, and nobody the wiser," the cop told her and shook her hand good-bye. "Evidently, the cop introduced his wife to David and she taught him some of her sign language, and so forth. He picked it up real quick."
She tensed. Now what? One more mess of words to fight over.
"Life's funny, isn't it?" he asked her, his eyes on David. The cop seemed pleased with fate.
Yeah, it's fucking hysterical, she thought, and stood to get the Fritos. But thanks anyhow.
She sat next to David at the table. He looked at her with bruised-looking eyes, and the mechanics of spoken words stalled in her throat. He pushed away the plate and lay his head down on the table like he used to, and she patted his back. What happened, what happened, happened, she patted.
She kept the map, crisscrossed with highlighters, feeling that somehow they had taken those roads together, roads lit only by lightning bugs.