In the brown bomber jacket, Randy’s father would wait for him outside the store. He’d stand with his back to the windows, his chin rotating as he scanned the parking lot. He looked as if he wished he were the security guard, someone official hired by the store to watch out for kids—or teenagers, like Randy. Randy hurried forward, hunching in his sweatshirt. Catching the clerk’s eye, he pointed to the Discman, the wires that led from the case clipped on his belt to the oversized headset clapped precariously over his ears. For the record, it was his. He’d come in with it.

    Not that there should be confusion about a Discman in a place like this, with its shelves of whitely gleaming iPods and iPhones; not that there should be confusion when it was a deaf kid anyway, Randy, wearing the ancient thing to begin with.

    You either got it or you didn’t. You laughed when you saw those earmuffs, or you didn’t get it at all.

    Randy’s shoes stuck to the floor like to a basketball court. The white orbs of the overhead lights danced continually forward, reflected in the floor’s waxy surface. Then he came to the CD, about four hundred copies of it. On its cover, the hood of a shining black car jutted forth as if intent on driving right out of the store, over the clerk and through the glass. Randy fingered his father’s money, deep in his pocket. Twenty bucks was more than Kyle deserved for a present.

    Randy’s fingers were thin and long and pale. They were like his nose, like the pink rims of his large ears, and the tiny bones of his shoulder blades. His brown eyes were his father’s. His scrawny chicken legs too, from before the original days of the brown bomber jacket, recently unearthed by Randy’s father from the closet where the dining room table’s leaves had been stored.

    Randy selected a CD and the one behind it slid into its place. Then, with the same fluidity, and yet without thinking about it—as if finding a natural adaptation, a simpler movement for improved efficiency—Randy shoved the long plastic case down his pant leg and tucked the top under his waistband. His pants hid the CD as completely as if they’d shuttled it to a separate dimension, as if this, all along, had been their purpose.

    Outside, the Brown Bomber stood in a warm patch of sun reflected from the brick of the building, his lips parted in a smile and his breath heaving, too heavy and too moist. “That was fast,” he signed.

    “Close your mouth,” Randy replied. “That’s so gross.” It was not a bad day, not bad for idiots, their faces strained toward the sunlight like baby birds. There was a woman standing next to his father, signing with him with her sharp nails. She had short, curling hair, and had appeared there as if out of the thin blue air.

    Along with her, there was a new feeling. Hot. Randy remembered only afterward about the posts on either side of the doors, the sensors that were to detect the bar codes.

    “May I introduce Melinda?” Signing, Randy’s father might have been playing an air harp. He held his hands high in front of his face. He stood with one foot bracing in the front, and rocked forward and back with his whole body. This was from when he’d learned, in the fifties.

    “M-e-r-l-i-n-d-a.” She smiled as if apologizing, and corrected the spelling with her fingers. “There’s an r.” Her eyebrows were shaped like horseshoes and stayed that way even as her mouth changed.

    Something like Chinese food came on a breeze that blew across their faces.

    “Would you join us for coffee?” His father asked Merlinda, or perhaps he was asking Randy. He bent his knees as his fingers worked. He pointed to the Starbucks, and for all the notice either Randy or his father had ever given any Starbucks before he might have summoned the place into being. Between them and it, only tar-dripped concrete lay glimmering in the sun. One stick-like tree had been planted in a gravel bed at its halfway point like the flag of a demilitarized zone between mega stores.

    No one had coming running out after him. Behind them, the entire building might have disappeared—evaporated through some ultimate radiation, combination of all this sunlight, tar, weirdness, and the interlocking motion of the traffic at the nearby light.

    Merlinda said she’d love a coffee. They left the store like they would the smoking ruins of a sacked city.


The Discman had been a gift from Kyle’s mom, an old thing of Kyle’s put out on the rummage sale table until Randy was caught looking at it, he was just killing time, and Kyle went to her and said, really, in all seriousness, how could she charge Randy, Kyle’s oldest friend?

    Kyle could speak to his own mother like that, teasing her even as she didn’t understand she was being teased, confusing her. Was he serious? Well sure, of course—of course!—the Discman was Randy’s, if he wanted it. Randy’s!

    “Uh, thanks,” Randy said, a poor gift-receiver his entire life, further caught off guard when she’d rushed over to present it. He eyed the already doubled-over Kyle over her shoulder. She hadn’t learned much more than the basics of sign in fifteen years of knowing Randy, the boy across the street whom she’d sought for a playmate for her son when the two were only infants. Kyle would be homeschooled, yet she wanted him to grow up learning a second language, or so she’d explained to Randy’s mom, shouting so that the movements of her lips were totally obscured.

    “That woman is crazy,” Randy’s mother had said of her, on multiple occasions. “Mentally unbalanced,” she would remark, speaking as well as signing, showing off her Galluadet degree as well as, it seemed to Randy now, some odd kind of admiration. Her eyes followed Kyle’s mother each time, back across the street, later with her pen and legal pad.

    All of this—with the Discman, and then stealing the CD—took place after Randy’s mother lost her vision, after its long secret deterioration was exposed and then she’d left, too, and then the divorce, a legal afterthought—clumsy, unreal, and more embarrassing than anything else—like a marriage after a pregnancy.

    She moved in to an assisted living community with a roof-top garden, downtown. So far downtown and so high, on the top of a skyscraper, that it could have been another plane to which she’d ascended, another state to which she’d absconded.

    I always did want a dog, she said, summarily, it seemed, of all the events leading up to and through her departure. That was the kind of leap in logic Randy’s mother had always made, some number of steps ahead, like a genius, a math whiz, who cannot show or explain her work.


Randy wore the Discman over to Kyle’s, across the street, where there was a computer with an internet connection and Kyle, downloading songs onto his new, whitely gleaming iPod. Now having reached the wind-swept summit of his parents’ combined knowledge, come January Kyle would attend boarding school in Denver, an announcement that had in part prompted the trip to the CD store. Partially, too, had Randy’s “new Discman” contributed, and the burned CD’s that went spinning in its case. There was no blaming the evil corporate greed of the music industry with the Brown Bomber.

    Randy let himself in through the back door and climbed the stairs to Kyle’s room—a stale, darkened chamber at the top of the house where posters of pubescent girl rock stars smiled down from the ceiling, their glossed lips plumped and parted.

    Kyle wasn’t impressed with the cellophane wrapped CD until he heard Randy had stolen it. “Sick, man,” he said, sufficiently moved to raise his fingers from his keyboard.

    “That’s not all,” Randy replied, and yanked Kyle’s comforter over the rumpled sheets. Next to the bed waited an empty (and still dirty) fish tank, and next to it an X-box, a TV with DVR, and another older computer now pulled apart to wires and boards. If there was anything new in the world to be had, Kyle had it and was bored with it before Randy even saw it advertised, so it seemed that marketers around the world conducted their business by first checking in at Kyle’s house, reaching with their long fingers from New York or California to peel back his roof and peer over his shoulder.

    “My dad went on a date with this woman, and she grabbed my crotch,” Randy said.

    “What? Where?”

    “At a Starbucks. The one across from the Best Buy.”

    “Shit! What did your dad do?”

    Randy shrugged. “I’ll tell you what I did. I jumped up and hit my head on this weird lamp.”

    “Did she sign?” Kyle asked.

    It was what had mystified Randy too. How had his father picked up a woman in the few short minutes he was inside Best Buy? How had he known she would stop to talk to him—that she could? It turned out that she had worked as an aide at Randy’s old elementary school. He didn’t remember her, but his father had, which meant that even when Randy’s mom was still around, still married to his dad, he had been checking out Randy’s teachers.

    “So, she grabbed your crotch.” Kyle demonstrated on himself. It was too much in the closed, dirty-laundry-filled confines of his room.

    “More like here.” Randy admitted, indicating the side of his pants, over the pocket. “She could hear my Discman. She said I had to skip to a different song, or turn it down.” He watched Kyle. She had said the lyrics were inappropriate.

    “Oh, shit,” Kyle said, shaking his head, tears of laughter in his eyes. “What did you do?”

    Randy shrugged. He didn’t tell the rest—how his father had looked down at his pants too, and then everyone had been looking at the outline of the stolen CD.

    Kyle’s bedroom had smelled like souring milk and sawdust in all seasons, at all the ages Randy and Kyle so far had been. He turned back to his screen, playlist, and plugged-in iPod.

    “You don’t fill yours up?” Randy asked him.

    “When I have more time I will.” More and more often lately, he finished typing or clicking before pausing to sign.

    “You think you’ll have time to mess with that at school?” Randy asked. “You’re going to have actual assignments now. Tests.”

    In the piles in Kyle’s room lay strewn video games he’d never seen the second levels of. As a kid he’d pushed his GI Joes through the rain gutter. Now why did you do that? His mother would come outside and crouch down low to inquire. To her, everything Kyle did evinced a profound act of choosing.

    Kyle moved his mouse as if he were snipping wires to deactivate a bomb, as if each click were a decision that represented life or death, and then all at once he went fast, fast, fast, backing through a familiar sequence.

    “I’ll get songs from guys I meet there,” he said finally.

    Kyle could be a smug little prick, and yet still, somehow, he seemed to demand pity for the condition. Randy would have to remember to tell him not to bring the pictures of the girl rock stars to Denver, which were not the right kind of pictures, even he knew, for a highschooler’s room.

    “Yeah, well, make sure you give me all your new stuff before you go,” Randy said. He dropped the Discman to Kyle’s desk, popping it open to the last mixed CD. On his way out he tried for a look at Kyle’s face, to see how wide his grin was.


That year, Randy had just started high school, mixing in with kids from public middle schools all over the city. Unlike his mother, he would attend a regular high school. Unlike his father, he could expect to do so without it being a big deal for anyone—administrators, parents, other kids. Randy knew that his father, when he was Randy’s age, had been called a deaf-mute. Recalling that now, he shook his head with renewed astonishment, with the indignation he’d learned from Randy’s mother, the activist.

    Amidst that pack of anonymous freshmen, Randy was trailed by an interpreter, college-student Julie, with her dreadlocks, who had been approached on at least two occasions for drugs. Yet it had shocked Randy to realize one day in homeroom that other kids had heard about his deaf mother going blind, and his deaf parents’ subsequent divorce—like they all along had been the intolerant ones. Who had dropped whom? Had his father found his mother’s blindness disgusting? No—it came out that she had left him. The girls who sat near Randy couldn’t get beyond it. Deaf and blind. It was too much to happen to a person, they kept saying every time they saw Randy, or perhaps they repeated it all day long, no matter who they were around, shaking their heads and their wide, brown-rimmed eyes.

    Julie interpreted everything. She was obsessed with the girls’ ignorance and tactlessness. Sometimes she continued their whispered conversation even after the teacher strode to the front of the room, wagging his chalk and pretending to ignore his view of the back of Julie’s homemade tank top. (That joke Julie and Randy also shared. I’m getting you an A, she’d sign to him, right in the middle of class.) Randy might have told the girls that he agreed with what they were saying. At his grade school, they had made fun of the blind kids the most, their dead faces and their sticks.

    Most unfathomable to the girls who sat in front of him, Randy knew, was the idea of having any husband, blind or deaf, who would touch you, and then losing that or giving it up.

    “Which one do you think is better-looking?” Julie asked him, trying to match the girls mean for mean. “The tall one, or the one with the big tits?”

    He suspected that if he told Julie about stealing the CD she’d say right on. He suspected that if he told her about the CD she’d find out about the Discman too, how he wore it now when he was just walking around, or on the bus, and how on the bus with the volume up it had made a woman sitting near him get up and leave.


“I need someone I can talk to,” Randy’s father said in their kitchen after dinner one night. “I need someone to be a life partner, and to share my life.”

    He wasn’t referring to Merlinda, or the coffee date that had destructed. Since Merlinda, he had been on two other dates, with two other women presumably met in the same way: at a store, out in the world, charmed somehow by his brown bomber jacket. He’d assigned Randy the punishment of returning the CD to the store and apologizing, but hadn’t yet followed up by asking how it went. His trust in Randy’s acceptance of the order, and his willingness to do the right thing, was the seal of their new relationship.

    But was he ready? He asked Randy, rhetorically. Then he shook his head. He wasn’t ready until Randy was ready. His father explained as if he’d been watching Oprah all afternoon. Randy looked at his father’s overgrown eyebrows, at the acne scars on the sides of his roughened cheeks.

    “Just think of the problems we’ll have once you’re dating too.” He smiled. “There will be girls coming, girls going.”

    Randy said he was going to make some toast or something in the kitchen. He was still hungry.

    His dad followed him from the dining room, carrying their dirty plates and setting them inside the sink. “Two old bachelors,” he said. “We’ll have a jar of condoms in the bathroom. We’ll install a red light bulb in the hallway.” He grinned.

    “Can I just eat my toast?” Randy said. “Is that okay with you, lover boy?”

    One interesting, surprising thing about their lives this past fall—as interesting as Randy’s father’s satisfaction with his own good parenting—was this: how easily they fell into their routines, which had only to be altered slightly without her. They lived where they’d always lived. They continued to leave in the morning for school and work.

    Randy started making his own lunch, but he’d never liked the way she did it anyway, with gloppy mayonnaise and wet tomatoes that soaked the bread.


Half the semester passed. In homeroom, the girls moved on to discussing black men. Would they date one? If so, how would they handle it if he ever called them bitch? Julie was now writing a paper about the girls for a class she was taking.

    She also found out about the Discman. So Randy put it on, modeling, bobbing his head. Julie didn’t know what to think, he could see, and so she just laughed. Sure, she got it.

    But at the end of the day she said something else, clapping him on the shoulder. Congratulations. Now you’re just like everybody else.


Time passed every day, and yet did not pass. Still it would be another month before Kyle left, after Christmas. One night, one more time, Randy let himself in the back door to find Kyle on his couch, watching TV in the basement rec room.

    “Get up,” Randy said. For the first time, he didn’t feel weirdly guilty and regretful, or even happy and excited while watching Kyle mishandle or mistreat something—and this time it was their friendship.

    Kyle stared at him.

    “We need to try something out,” Randy said. When Kyle continued to lie there, Randy threw a pillow, hitting him in the head. Kyle left the pillow there, covering his face. Randy had to walk over and pull it off. When he did, Kyle was smirking.

    “Why didn’t that sensor go off?” he asked. “Aren’t you curious?”

    Kyle looked as if he were thinking for a moment, remembering, but Randy knew he remembered. “Maybe it did go off,” Kyle laughed. “Did you hear it?”

    “They just let me walk off with their merchandise? Sure.”

    Kyle sat up on the couch. “Broken,” he said, using one simple sign.

    “Or, it was fake to begin with. To scare people.”

    Kyle bit at his thumbnail. He liked games in which it was other people—everyone else around them—who were stupid. “So are you going to try it again?” Kyle asked.

    “I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking about a test.” He explained about bringing the CD back in to the store to see if the sensor went off, which was a plan that formed in his hands as they moved.

    Kyle considered this, then shrugged. “I already copied it.”

    “We’ll just walk in and out, and see if the sensor goes off.”

    “Great. What if it goes off, and then we have the CD?”

    Randy did what he did when he mimed that he was deaf, pulling at his ear, relaxing his face to look retarded—a gag that Kyle loved.

    “Oh man,” Kyle said. “You’re so sick, you know that? You’re so sick.”

    Randy wasn’t sure if the Best Buy would be open by the time he and Kyle got there. It was past rush hour, and December-dark. The longer you live, Randy’s father would say, snapping his fingers as if he were pleased, the days fly faster. Like to get older was to shift not only through time but hyperspace, too.

    Signposts and landmarks of their neighborhood streaked past the window as the bus careened around corners, choosing unexpected directions like a stunned animal in the woods. They came to the next neighborhood over and jerked through it.

    Kyle had brought his iPod, and Randy the Discman. They sat there, nodding their heads. Randy shook Kyle’s arm and they got off, the bus rolling away, out of sight.

    Walking across the big parking lot, Randy dropped a step behind Kyle and almost, quite nearly, slipped the CD with the black car on the cover into Kyle’s thick army coat pocket.

    Kyle danced out of the way, slapping Randy’s hands. The CD spun to the ground.

    “You have to,” Randy said.

    “Me? You stole it.”

    “Exactly,” Randy said. Now his heart was thudding. Strange as it seemed, sometimes total firmness worked with Kyle, as if he only wanted to be made to.

    “No way,” Kyle said. “No way. I never said I would do it. Fuck.” Kyle signed like he was throwing the words. “You brought me all the way out here.” He pointed, finger shaking.

    A car shot across the far end of the parking lot, so fast it would have killed them if they’d been in its path. Teenagers.

    Kyle swooped down to pick up the CD. With it, he ran through the dark back toward the bus stop, his coat flapping, and the white bottoms of his shoes flying up and sideways.

    “Well it was yours anyway,” Randy said when he caught up to him.

    “It was a gift.” Kyle was tight-lipped, pained, now clutching the CD as if he’d resented the plan to return it, his precious gift.   

    Still breathing hard from the run, Randy looked down the street in the direction from which the bus would come. He checked the bus schedule again, the number you could call for information if you had a phone.


Later, months later, the woman’s name was Cherie. Her plump arms bulged from under the bands of her short blouse sleeves. Her skin was yellowish, like butter.

    His father was learning to cook. Now he baked. He collected recipes.

    Signing with his hands up in front of his face, it was if he were framing the woman who stood before him, framing her in his mind, in his memory. Like the other women in the past weeks, Cherie loved it. It seemed that she had his full attention as his eyes had to follow her lips, follow her hands. Randy’s father was good at dating.

    Yet, was his attentiveness due to the fact that his father, when he was a kid, would flick him in the face with his fingernails if he “didn’t listen”? His deafness had come at three, after a fever, and he would not have lost his hearing if his father had been sober and brought him to the hospital on time.

    Cherie’s cousin was deaf, she’d told them, and so she knew some signs, but not many. She kept apologizing for herself. When she didn’t know a word, she shook her head, let her hands fall to her lap, seemed to freeze up.

    Chill. It’s Okay. Randy tried to calm her. These were signs even hearing people understood, signs that led them to think that if they just tried they might discover they were able to sign all along, the words and sentences happening in their fingers like spontaneous combustion. “Okay? Smile?”

    “Cherie,” said his father, putting down his fork. “You remind me of someone.” He ducked his head, bashful. This room with the long table and high-backed chairs was the room where Randy now sat to work through his homework load. His father used the other end to go through their bills and the mail. They’d added the leaves to make the table even longer, and they could eat here too, and occasionally entertain. There was good light. Randy’s mother had thought of it as a room for holiday dinners. She’d found it stuffy, formal, not for everyday use.

    Randy’s father pressed his fingers in to his palms while he thought, as if warming his hands. “Kate Winslet,” he signed finally, spelling out the name fast like it might flash on a marquis.

    Cherie didn’t follow the letters.

    “Titanic?” Randy tried.

    He and his father leapt up as one. Charades? Randy assumed Leonardo DiCaprio’s pose, grabbing his father’s hips from behind. His father flung out his arms from the bow of their imaginary boat and the tractor beam of his smile, the joy of his flung backward face filled their small dining room. Cherie laughed.

    “I’m heading out,” Randy said later. He saluted Cherie, fingertips swinging on a hinge from his forehead.

    This was after he’d cleared the table, completed his end of the mock exchange. No, let me. You have company.




Jill Stukenberg lives in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches composition, and sometimes other things. She earned an MFA from New Mexico State University, and has been previously published in The Sonora Review.










Back to Freight Stories No. 3

 

Jill Stukenberg

Everybody Else