Song for the Deaf

2

When Tony Sutter gave his first solo performance in fourth grade music class, his chattering classmates shut up and his music teacher’s fingertips froze on the ivories. Up and down the hall of Ermine Elementary, the other teachers lost their places in mid-lesson monologues and their students quit strategizing about how to improve their positions in the lunchroom line, while outside, the playground lady, who had just put her lips to her state police enforcement whistle to break up a kickball fight, collapsed on the four-square court and died.

Only Jeremy Jones, standing on the far side of the diamond, passed over by the kickball elect for the twenty-third day in a row, witnessed the playground lady’s tragedy—the surprised look behind her granny glasses, her hands clutching her throat, her final slow-motion collapse onto the court. He darted through a tableau of slack-jawed classmates to reach her.

As he knelt beside her, her crow’s feet unfurled and her thin lips bloomed to a youthful fullness, and he saw her as if for the first time.

Jeremy Jones had never caused her grief—never cursed or fought or pulled a girl’s hair at recess—but neither had he paid her any attention before this. And now it was too late. He was no better than the others.

A shimmer of reflected light drew his eyes to the whistle resting on her chest. She must have bought ever bigger and louder whistles over the years, believing each time the new one would make a difference. He couldn’t recall the sound of a single one.

A shiver passed through him. He swallowed once and curled his trembling fingers under the playground lady’s head, slid the whistle’s cord past her crinkly gray hair. He jumped to his feet and ran.

Only later, as he buffed the whistle’s stainless steel skin with the front of his blousy T-shirt, did he discover the metal pea inside was missing. Had the playground lady sucked down the pea when she’d heard Tony Sutter’s golden voice? Had she choked to death on it? Or had she stood there blowing and blowing a defective silent whistle until her heart and lungs seized from the effort?

He preferred to think she’d died trying.

 

 

Jeremy kept the whistle in his pocket every day throughout elementary school, and when he had no pockets—when his ex-hippie single mother dressed him up in sissified pocketless shorts and then, in junior high, when he had to face the pubescent horror of showering in front of his classmates—he gripped the relic tightly in his fist. Sometimes at night, he took it out of his pajama pocket and put it to his lips, knowing the unjust fate of the only other person to do so. He blew. But without the pea, the noise was breathy and weak. If only it had worked for the playground lady, he thought, the pure, authoritative sound of it would have distracted the kids and teachers from Tony Sutter’s magnificent voice. Then Tony Sutter might have lived the rest of his life as the stuck-up loser he really was.

Instead, after his glorious day of school-wide acclaim, Tony Sutter began to hold himself in the highest esteem, and for some terrible reason nearly everyone else went along. He changed his name to Antonio—just Antonio—a name he decided fit better with his angelic singing voice. Even his parents had trouble with it at first. They’d been calling him Tony for nine years, so if they slipped up they were to be forgiven—by God, maybe, but not by Antonio, who’d already perfected his tantrum-throwing by studying the backstage antics of moody opera singers in Opera Talk! magazine. He stamped his tiny feet and snapped his LPs over the chair back until his parents apologized and promised to pronounce “Antonio” with the correct Italian inflection three times over.

“Say it! Say it! Say it!” he yelled, driving his little fist into his soft palm, and they complied as well as they could but never well enough. They were the fifth generation owners of a small ranch, and they’d never met a full-blooded Italian. They’d only heard the accent once years ago, when they’d seen an Italian maitre d’ in a movie smack his rounded lips to snap the waiters to attention. But he may have been French, they weren’t sure.

“Ain-toh-nee-yo,” they said but stopped short of popping their oh-ed lips.

It was okay by them that their son would never take the reins of the family ranch. In fact, everything Antonio did or didn’t do was delightful to his devoted parents; he was their golden-haired, angel-voiced baby boy, pure of heart even if his voice killed a hundred playground ladies.

By age eleven, Antonio had let his golden hair grow out. By thirteen, he’d dyed it black. He was old enough then to be regarded as a town misfit, and he wore the mantle proudly—along with the black cape he’d mail-ordered from the opera surplus store. When he walked into town from his family’s ranch, his black hair and cape raking behind him like an airy, dual-action farm implement, the other ranchers stopped their work and stared. Antonio’s chin was too high, his posture unspeakably perfect. The ranchers leaned over the fence, put a boot up on the lower rail. They nudged each other and laughed.

And the shopkeepers in town didn’t like him lingering in their stores. Come back for Halloween, they said. We’ll have candy for you then.

In school, the kids used him as a litmus test for witches: touch his hair, and if the dye came off in your hand you were cursed. Bullies yanked at his cape, shouted obscenities in his ear, and tried to kink his perfect posture with well-placed shoves to the spine.

And Antonio didn’t care, a maddening fact that made Jeremy Jones squeeze his fist so tight the playground lady’s whistle imprinted itself on his palm. Tony had his voice, and everyone, even the bullies, stood in awe of that. The voice turned them so cowed and reverent that when the bullies threw a punch, they threw it considerately, so as not to hit him in the voice box. They blackened his eyes and bent him double with blows to the gut, but to Antonio the black eyes were just a little stage make-up, and a blow to the gut gave him the opportunity to practice his deep bow. The one bully who grazed his throat with a punch, just barely and of course accidentally, bore the wrath of the entire school and got his face scrubbed with a gravy-soaked slab of Salisbury steak.

So when the time came for Antonio’s final junior-high recital, the bullies attended, just like nearly everyone else in Ermine, including the ranchers who laughed at his freakish looks, the shopkeepers who hurried him out of their stores, and Jeremy Jones, whose mother had a compulsive appreciation for the arts and insisted he go.

When Antonio took the stage that night for the finale, all motion stopped, and the entire school auditorium held its breath. He didn’t disappoint. His oversized, somewhat rubbery mouth fired piercing volleys of bel canto ballistics, and each grateful casualty clutched his heart as if it were Antonio’s only target. The Erminers’ eyes fell shut and they forgot themselves and their cows and goats and pigs and new boots. They stopped chawing their tobacco and plinking the juice into rusty Del Monte cans. They stopped creaking in their fold-down aluminum chairs. And the incidental noises that usually ran through their heads on a continuous loop—the voices of conscience and desire, the radio weather forecaster’s droning report, the lowing and bleats of their animals, the theme songs of their TV shows, the rattles of their aging and overworked machinery, the complaints of their spouses and children slowly sorting themselves into the just and unjust—all suddenly shut themselves off, and then they imagined themselves riding through the valley and up into the mountains on Antonio’s voice, flying weightless and in love and as pure of heart as the Dead.

Jeremy sat in the back with his arms crossed and a John Deere cap pulled down over his watery eyes, trying not to enjoy himself. But when he looked at the others he saw a glimmer of what he felt in himself, and that scared him. He remembered the playground lady, how she’d choked on that voice and died.

Why couldn’t this Tony Sutter just look in the mirror and see himself for the loser he was? His blond eyebrows and jet-black hair made his face look ghoulish. And even the long hair couldn’t hide his droopy earlobes. He had a weak chin, a girlish neck, and a thin body with long arms and floppy clown feet. He wasn’t tall enough to be charmingly gawky, not small enough to be cute. By all rights, Tony Sutter should have been the bottom-feeder in the social aquarium, the one who slurps the filth off the stem of the plastic plant and the deep sea diver’s shoes. But there was that voice, and the voice had saved him. It had lifted him up just enough to leave Jeremy Jones alone at the bottom, forever pressing that useless pealess whistle to his straining lips.

While Jeremy wasn’t as ugly as Tony Sutter, he had an almost unspeakable plainness to him. He was beneath detection even by the bullies, who prided themselves at outing even the subtlest losers and freaks. The most interesting thing about Jeremy was his mother, the town’s only remaining ex-hippie, who scraped by selling organic fruit and vegetables at prices just low enough to make her feel she was doing a little good in the world but also suffering for all the good she’d intended to do and hadn’t. Unfortunately for Jeremy, the low prices at her fruit and vegetable stand had earned her the town’s grudging respect—and that made her less interesting. And she didn’t dress or act like a hippie anymore, so she wasn’t a source of gossip.

As the junior high recital neared its close, the now Magnificent Antonio reaching new heights with each song, Jeremy raised the bill of his cap, desperate for some sign that Tony Sutter’s spell could be broken. There were all the bovine faces, eyes closed, eyebrows arched, some of their heads trembling just slightly on their necks like sprung jacks-in-the-box in a breeze, their hands on their knees, or else folded over their chests as though holding their spirits to their bodies, barely. All of them disciples of Tony Sutter.

Except one. Across the aisle, in the back row like Jeremy, she sat between her parents, straight blond hair dangling over the aluminum seat-back, hands in her lap, polite and attentive, but hardly bewitched. In fact, she was struggling against boredom. He could see it in her eyes. He remembered, then:

She was deaf.

Jeremy didn’t know her name, only that she was never seen far from her parents, the new owners of the Hats and Boots Mart. They schooled her at home, in the apartment above their store downtown. He’d seen her sweeping the store’s entry on his way to school sometimes, but this was the first time he’d gotten a good look at her face—small nose and tall forehead, little bulb of a chin, high cheekbones. From a certain angle under these lights, she was as laser-cut as a model, but when she turned her head slightly, the other half of her face folded up the promise of her perfect profile and her looks were plain, underachieving, maybe just underformed.

Jeremy had never gone to church and because of his mother was agnostic by default, but something about the cathedral ceiling, the enraptured crowd, and—he couldn’t deny it—Tony Sutter’s angelic voice made him feel a rare sense of mystery, and so he thanked God for making the deaf girl deaf.

As the Magnificent Antonio hit his final notes, each more beautiful than the last, Jeremy thought he heard a new edge in the voice, a fierceness that cut through all that dreamy sweetness. Tony Sutter’s face showed increasing annoyance. Not his mouth, which held shape to buff each note that left his golden diaphragm. But his eyes and his furrowed brow. He was staring now at the shopkeeper’s daughter and singing only for her, struggling to bring her into his fold. He didn’t know she couldn’t hear.

Meanwhile, the deaf girl was composed, polite, and totally unaffected. That had to sting Tony Sutter more than any bully’s punch.

Jeremy bent over and put his hand to his mouth. As laughter filled his cheeks and sawed out his nose, he missed Antonio’s stunning climax.

 

 

That night, in the dark of his room, Jeremy got down on his knees and rested his forearms on his bedspread. He unclasped his palms and brought the empty whistle to his trembling lips. He sighed into it, the weak rush like a breathy prayer to the God of the Unnoticed.

And so it went, the next night and the next. While Antonio rode the magic carpet of his wondrous voice, Jeremy Jones clung to its fringe with a card up his sleeve and only the faintest hope of bringing it into play.

In high school, Jeremy slid like a frozen fish off the stainless steel prep counter of teen society. Party invitations floated over his head and behind his back and sometimes, it seemed, right through him. Girls brushed past him in the hall and never broke the flow of their conversations, never even lowered their voices.

Then, when Jeremy was sixteen, his mother founded a local chapter of the Arts Appreciation League and made it her first order of business to take up a collection to send Antonio to a prestigious music school inNew York.

The townspeople were eager to give by this time, not so much as art patrons but as people who wanted some peace and quiet. Antonio’s endless singing carried throughout the valley and resonated off the surrounding mountains—causing avalanches, some said. People heard him on their ranches, in their shops and restaurants, even in their showers, the one place where they’d once thought it safe to hum a few bars themselves. They had business to attend to, lives to lead; they couldn’t just close their eyes and drift off into the clouds all day. Also, Antonio had grown stranger in his ways. He wore the same old tuxedo every day. The too-wide jacket shifted back and forth like a bell as he walked. His short-legged, wide-waisted pants snapped like flags in a stiff wind. At any moment he might drop to one knee and burst into song, gesturing melodramatically with his small but expressive hands. When he returned to his feet with his trousers drooped low in back, he’d hike them up and hold them with one hand, still gesturing with the other. He’d begun to wear dark make-up around his eyes, and people called him The Singing Dracula.

When the scholarship check was presented to him, the league’s co-vice-president patted him on the back. “I just know we’ll all be tuning in to PBS real soon to see you whoop the pants off them three tenors.”

Antonio accepted the check and the challenge in the name of all artists everywhere, most specifically himself. He bowed deeply, his black hair flopping over his head and sweeping the wood floor of the library meeting room.

The four other people in the room applauded: all three members of the Arts Appreciation League and Jeremy, whose mother had laid her usual guilt trip on him until he agreed to come. He’d had to suffer through dozens of other Tony Sutter recitals, Tony Sutter school assemblies, Tony Sutter special achievement awards broadcast over the school intercom. At least this would be the last.

In the library conference room, the clapping went on for an uncomfortably long time, as if they were waiting for a signal from Antonio to end their applause. Antonio, who had no such signal in his otherwise impressive vocabulary of dramatic gestures, never once looked any of them in the eye.

Finally, the librarian reached in and pulled the door shut, squinting her eyes to show mild annoyance.

 

Jeremy soon discovered he hadn’t gotten rid of Tony Sutter after all. The Magnificent Antonio wrote long letters home to his parents, who posted them on the city hall bulletin board. Even if Jeremy could have resisted the temptation to read the letters himself, he would have heard them all over town on the lips of others. People seemed to live and die by Antonio’s ups and downs, often allowing themselves to be overtaken by the drama of the moment, even when they knew things would turn out all right in the end. They were so certain of it that, even at the time, they referred to this period as the Years of Struggle and found each of Antonio’s failures strangely reassuring. Jeremy saw the myth rising up, and like the others, he sometimes found himself believing. He felt powerless.

Antonio’s letters related his New York struggles ad nauseam and with surprising candor. In the mountains, he reminded his parents, his voice had resonated perfectly in the bowl-shaped valley; in the city, the narrow concrete canyons thinned out its fierceness, while the car horns and bus brakes smothered its distinctive timbre. Failing all his classes, he soon dropped out of music school.

Only his own unflappable sense of self-importance kept him in New York. He picked up odd jobs around Lincoln Center, worked his way from the loading dock of the Met, inside to the café, and finally backstage, where he toiled as a stagehand’s understudy, moving sets around but only in rehearsals or when his man was sick. He sang as he worked, much to the annoyance of the others. To them, he was beyond aloof; he swam through life in an ego-massaging hot tub of self-praise. Almost universally shunned, his prospects steadily dimmed until the season they performed Wagner’s Ring. The craggy set of Die Walküre brought out the qualities in Antonio’s voice that hadn’t been heard since the mountains. The director noticed, and when both a singer and his understudy broke the rules and shared a poison knish, Antonio was tapped to play one of the bloodthirsty hounds who chase Siegmund and Sieglinde, a role unique to this production.

The Magnificent Antonio finally took the stage, chin perhaps not as high and vertebrae not aligned quite as neatly as they’d been a couple of years earlier, owing to the hard times and hard work. A drop of sweat found its way through his make-up and trickled down his snout.

When at last the moment came to bark out his lines, his vuf-vufs and rolling-r-grrrs, he balked.

According to the letter he scrawled at the bus station and which arrived home just before he did, Antonio felt a sharp pang of guilt up on stage for the way he’d treated the folk back home. He’d deprived them of his perfect voice and abandoned them to the unlovely clatter of the everyday (those words scrolled across his brain that night like a subtitle translation in his ongoing personal opera). And then, he wrote, a tear formed at the corner of his eye, right there in front of all the cosmopolitan operagoers and the incestuous twins he was chasing across the stage. He broke character, strode through the fog of the mountainous set, and yelled out at the stunned audience through his furry snout: “My voice belongs to the people!”

When he bowed, his dyed black hair fell loose and cleared a space in the fog.

 

Like everyone else, Jeremy Jones read the letter on the city hall bulletin board. He, for one, had never minded the unlovely clatter of the everyday. During Antonio’s years in New York, Jeremy had escaped high school with a diploma and gone on to police academy. His mother sobbed at his graduation, partly because she’d never imagined she’d have a cop for a son, but mostly because she’d secretly been dating the town’s sheriff, indulging in the guilty pleasure of whispering his name in motel rooms and the back of his squad car, growling the r of his last name—Grrreeley—just slightly for effect. She worried that her son knew all about her affair and had turned cop either to spite her or to act out his unresolved Oedipal fantasies.

She was wrong: Jeremy knew nothing about it, not yet. And he suspected nothing when Sheriff Greeley hired him as his deputy, even though the town had never had one before.

Like almost everything else in Ermine, the crime was second rate. Every so often, there’d be a fight to break up, a drunk and disorderly to drive home, a borrowed tool not returned on time. But the fight was usually between the same pair of chubby girls in the trailer park who screamed a lot better than they scratched, the drunk and disorderly usually tipped him for the ride, and the borrowed tool was broken anyway. Few people outside the city government even realized that Ermine had a police force, and those who did figured that being a police officer in Ermine was the next best thing to not being one.

And then the Magnificent Antonio returned. Jeremy got wind of it and made a point of sipping coffee at the Trailways Station/American Legion Hall when the bus came in.

“Ain-TOH-nee-yo!” the Sutters said when they met their son at the back door of the station, holding their lips in the shape of an oh.

Jeremy had struggled his whole life just to feel part of the unlovely clatter Tony Sutter so loftily dismissed. With the Magnificent Antonio back in Ermine, he again felt cast out. But with his hand on the pocket of his police uniform, where he kept his pealess whistle, he reminded himself that now, at least, he was in a position of some authority. He had only to wait for an opportunity to use it.

Hopeful again, he touched his lips to his mug of hot coffee and blew a kind of prayer: whw!

 

 

At first, Antonio’s voice was welcomed back to the valley. He sang on the streets of the town and in the stores when he ran errands for his parents, and during weekly recitals at the school auditorium, sponsored by the Arts Appreciation League, Jeremy Jones’ mother still serving an indefinite term as president.

At his card table desk in the corner of city hall, Jeremy seemed to work at the exact point of resonance for Tony Sutter’s voice. After days of torture, he ventured a rare suggestion to Sheriff Greeley, who was watching a western with his feet up on the mayor’s rolltop, his usual position when he wasn’t out on mysteriously long patrols in the town’s only police car.

“Does that qualify as disturbing the peace?”

The sheriff kept his eyes on Rio Bravo. “What’s that?”

“The singing.”

“Mm. Pretty, ain’t it?”

Jeremy put a hand to his belt and asked permission to use the bathroom.

After a week or two, most of the town reacted to Antonio’s voice the way the sheriff did. Their lives spun like tractor wheels in the mud, full of unlovely clatter, and Antonio’s voice had become through overexposure part of the continuous loop.

Antonio seemed to sense this, and something happened that even New York hadn’t done to him: his unflappable sense of self-importance began flapping. His posture slumped and his blond roots showed and just maybe his voice wasn’t quite as lovely. He was on a downward spiral, but only Jeremy Jones saw it happening; his constant irritation had the undesirable effect of making him too-aware of Tony Sutter’s every expression, and the look on Tony’s face these days reminded Jeremy of that moment long ago at the junior high recital when the Magnificent Antonio was tormented by the deaf girl.

So maybe it was fate after all that led Antonio through the door of the Hats and Boots Mart one afternoon. In popular memory, Antonio arrives there on an errand to buy new boots for his mother’s birthday. In the diary of a local gas station attendant, Antonio was singing his way through town when a mannequin’s cape caught his eye in the window display. The editor of the Ermine Mountain Tribune-Gazette and Auto/Truck Flyer maintains that Antonio intentionally sought the challenge of the deaf girl, as he was singing what sounded like an Italian version of “Careless Love.” Nearly everyone now believes there were larger forces at work.

As Antonio waited for the owner to dig up some plus-size boots for his mother (or to pull the cape off the mannequin), he sang a German aria he’d learned in the city (or the Italian “Careless Love”). Something caught his eye, and he turned to the deaf girl sweeping the floor. He didn’t seem to connect her then with that bored face at his junior high recital. Maybe he never did. He only admired her perfect posture and the way her straight blond hair fell over her shoulders and curled inward no matter how many times she flipped it back. He liked the peasant-girl dress she wore, which fit neatly with his now-famous decision to sing for “the people,” whom he imagined as European peasants with caps and dirty vests and noble but obsolete jobs.

Still singing, Antonio paid the girl’s father then pulled open the glass door. At that precise moment, it’s now believed, he glanced back at the deaf girl, and seeing her at exactly the right angle to accentuate her best features, he fell in love.

Jeremy saw the whole thing out on foot patrol. As deputy, he’d made it his habit to pass by the Hats and Boots Mart when he knew the deaf girl would be doing her chores. He’d never forgotten the effect her deafness and her mercurial face had had at the junior high recital, and he tried now and then to sneak a look at her, to decide once and for all if she were pretty or not, and whether that mattered or not. This time, he saw only the look on Tony Sutter’s definitely butt-ugly face, and he was certain Tony Sutter was doomed.

Because what did the angel-voiced Tony Sutter have to offer a deaf girl? Nothing at all. Or, put another way, exactly as much as Jeremy Jones.

 

 

According to witnesses, Antonio’s serenade began a few minutes after ten on a clear but moonless Wednesday night. A second-story light came on above the Hats and Boots Mart when his first sonic volley broke the calm. He paced back and forth under the girl’s dark window, singing and gesturing as if carrying on a melodramatic debate with himself.  By now he’d heard the girl was deaf, and he was convinced that his voice would soon transcend that minor obstacle. After all, who better than she could appreciate both the unworldly perfection of his voice and the fearful depth of feeling behind it? Her mind was absolutely uncluttered by the unlovely clatter of the everyday. She wasn’t looking for momentary escape. His voice, when she heard it, would be the only thing she heard, the only thing she’d ever heard. She might not hear a sound exactly, but something purer and utterly uncompromised.

When the townspeople heard him, they peeled back their curtains and pulled up their blinds, and some of them said aloud, “Mm, pretty,” not speaking to anyone but saying it because they thought it needed to be said. After a few minutes of silent appreciation, they turned back to their radios, TVs, and orthopedic pillows, hoping the pretty noise would again fade into the background.

But Antonio sang louder. He lowered himself to one knee and put his hand to his heart. He held the high notes until his neck trembled and the windows of the Hats and Boots Mart shuddered in their frames.

The girl’s father called the police, after first calling to see if there were police. Of course both sheriff and deputy had heard the singing the moment it began. The sheriff had been watching Viva Zapata! with his feet up on the mayor’s rolltop when he turned down the sound. “Mm. Pretty,” he said, and Jeremy, sitting at his card table stacked high with decades of incomplete paperwork, cringed. His new earplugs weren’t working.

“Come on,” said the sheriff when he’d hung up the phone. He tucked the front of his flannel shirt into his jeans.

They got into the old Dodge patrol car and drove the two blocks because the sheriff didn’t care for walking.

“Just leave this to me,” said the sheriff, “but watch carefully. One day soon you’ll need to handle these things yourself.”

Too distracted at the prospect of locking up Tony Sutter, Jeremy didn’t bother to ask what he meant. His best opportunity was finally at hand.

The lights were on up and down the town’s main street—in the apartments above the grocery store and the gas station/hunting supplies shop (“Fill Up and Shoot”), and in the trailer park wedged between them. Increasingly annoyed faces peered out the windows and the cherubic fighting girls in the trailer park began to shove each other. The peace was getting disturbed.

Antonio sang as though he’d been given a second chance at stardom. This time, he was standing, he knew, at the exact location on earth best suited to his voice.

When the sheriff stopped his car and shut off the motor, Jeremy had his hand on the door handle. The sheriff paused for a moment, as if enjoying the sound, then at last he took a breath and stepped out of the car. Jeremy followed.

“Son!” the sheriff shouted at Antonio. He strode over and dropped his big hand onto Antonio’s bony, cape-covered shoulder. The golden voice didn’t waver. All the windows in town were lit but that of his beloved.

“Son! I ain’t gonna ask what you been drinking or smoking. I’m just gonna insist you step into the squad car.”

When Antonio didn’t respond, the sheriff fumbled behind him. He’d forgotten the cuffs, but Jeremy was right there with his own, scoring an assist. The sheriff snapped them onto one of Antonio’s hands, and he was reaching for the other when he got a call on his cell phone. He could have quickly completed the arrest, but the sheriff was then the only one in town with a cell phone, and in Ermine there were only a few narrow shafts of unobstructed reception, so he flinched in amazement when it buzzed. He took the call, still holding Antonio’s arm with one hand, leaving the cuff to dangle from Antonio’s wrist.

All Jeremy could think about was the open dangling cuff. How easy it would be to grab Tony’s other wrist, twist it behind his back, and clamp it closed.

“I know it’s beautiful, darlin’, but the whole town wants him put away,” the sheriff was saying into the phone. “There’s a motion down at city hall to declare these the Nuisance Years. People’re getting tired of waiting for the Glory Years.”

Antonio’s free hand lifted and fondled each Italian syllable that left his lips. The window above remained dark. The other second-story window had filled with the girl’s father, hands on hips, undershirt half-tucked into his pajama bottoms, belly pressed against the windowpane, the model of a peasant patriarch.

The townspeople had begun to open their windows and make unlovely noises. They’d turned up their TVs and radios and still couldn’t hear their shows. Some of them were trying to sleep. Some of them had to work for a living, goddamnit. And the chubby girls had begun to pull each other’s hair.

The voice was so strong and full of yearning, the notes so purely sung, Jeremy began to think Tony might pull it off after all, and soon. He wondered about the deaf girl in bed. Was she stirring? Was she tucking her straight blond hair behind one ear because she thought she heard something? Were her smallish red lips just parting in growing astonishment?

Jeremy stepped closer and put himself into position. All he had to do was to snap out at that lifted, vibrato wrist and yank it down and he’d be rid of Tony Sutter for good.

“Sure thing, darlin’,” said the sheriff. He gave Jeremy a sharp pinch on the bicep as he pulled the cell phone away from his ear. He held the phone up over his head, and for a moment they all stood there—Jeremy, the sheriff, and the person on the other end of the line—and listened. Jeremy clenched his fists, unable to deny the voice’s heartfilling beauty. As tears welled up in his eyes, the shouts of the townspeople became operatic sobs, the chubby fighting girls became supernumeraries, and the Hats and Boots Mart became the set of a riveting drama: his own. He’d devoted his entire youth to his hatred of Tony Sutter, and yet here he was on the verge of giving up, wishing despite himself for the serenade to work, for the deaf girl to curl her fingers around the thin white curtains until the light captured her astonished blue eyes and made the whole town fall in love.

Smiling dreamily, the sheriff put the phone back to his ear. “Here we are, front row at the Paris opera house, just like you always said…”

A window broke nearby—one of the chubby fighting girls had gotten the upper hand.

Jeremy tensed himself. Antonio was coming to the end of a song, and when his wrist fell with the final note, sheriff or no sheriff, Jeremy would cuff him and bend him into the patrol car like he was taught in police academy.

“We could have that for real, darlin’,” the sheriff was saying. “All it takes is the courage to tune in and drop out, to paraphrase a little someone I know…”

As Jeremy raised his hand to strike, a big smile broke over the sheriff’s face, and he said something Jeremy didn’t catch. He snapped his phone shut and slapped down Jeremy’s wrist.

“You keep this situation under control,” he said. “But let him sing, by God. For a good twenty minutes. Then you do whatever you like with this godforsaken hole of a town.” He unlocked the cuffs and freed Antonio’s thin wrist.

Jeremy watched the sheriff, suddenly thirty pounds lighter, trot back to the patrol car, fling himself inside it, and peel down the same dark side street where Jeremy and his mother still shared a house. He’d taken Jeremy’s handcuffs with him.

As Antonio began a new song, the chubby girls’ fight spilled out of the trailer and into the dirt. Their mother stood in the door yelling at them. Others banged on their walls and windowsills and shouted at Jeremy to just for God’s sake do something. Does this town have a police force?! Are you it?! Wasn’t there another guy there a minute ago?! Are you all being paid by the hour?!

Alone with Tony Sutter on the dark street, Jeremy couldn’t move.

Some would say he didn’t have the courage to shoot out the tires of destiny. But that wasn’t it. Something else had come over him. Despite all his prayers for Tony Sutter to suffer, to be stricken so badly it would take him down for good, it was Jeremy who’d fallen in love with the deaf girl. And now each beautiful note out of Antonio’s golden throat expressed with almost unbearable precision the yearning Jeremy felt in his chest. He wanted more than anything—even more than he wanted Tony Sutter to be shackled and gagged—for the deaf girl to appear at her window in all her somewhat bland but ethereal beauty.

As he stepped out from behind Tony Sutter and into the cone of the dim streetlight, he reached into his pocket. He and Antonio stood together now, the one singing, the other just staring up at the dark window with an ache he did not know how to fix.

The tears started down Jeremy’s cheeks. In a last-ditch attempt to steady himself, he pulled out the stainless steel relic and raised it to his quivering lips. He blew as hard as he could, the way the playground lady had tried to in grade school long ago.

The townspeople who witnessed it would say now that even a sheriff’s whistle couldn’t stop the angelic voice of the Magnificent Antonio. So strong and insistent was his voice that it blotted out whatever shrill unlovely noise Deputy What’s His Name had hoped would steal Antonio’s thunder. It was a sign, they said. For at that very moment, the deaf girl’s light came on and her plain but vaguely pleasing face appeared at the window.

Antonio turned to Jeremy Jones and looked him in the eye for once, smiling in a way that showed how humbled he was by his own great talent. All the doubts about his ultimate destiny flooded out of his eyes and he was once again the Magnificent Antonio, now at the dawn of his Glory Years.

 

 

After that, nothing could hold Antonio back. He left town, sacrificing whatever true feelings he might have had for the deaf girl, because how could he let himself love just one person when his voice expressed such deep love for all mankind?

The rest of his story is public knowledge. The quick rise to opera stardom, the great performances on the world’s stages, and a victory over the three tenors in the PBS special, “Sing-off in Stockholm.”

At first it bothered Jeremy that the whole town attributed the deaf girl’s awakening to Tony Sutter’s voice instead of the miracle of the whistle. But he soon got over it. The only people who counted knew the truth: himself and the deaf girl. Her name was Marietta, and she was impressed that he took signing lessons so he could ask her on a date. After only a few months, during which he was promoted indefintely to Acting Sheriff when it was clear Sheriff Greeley—and Jeremy’s mother—would never return to Ermine, he signed the question to her, and they were married in June.

Sometimes at night, he still takes out the playground lady’s whistle and tells Marietta its story in bed, concluding with that moment under her window when he finally ran the Magnificent Antonio out of town for good. He signs the story expertly, adding exaggerated hand flourishes for emphasis.

And she believes it all, affirming always that the whistle is indeed what she’d heard that night. Jeremy smiles, not caring if she’s lying—sort of hoping, in fact, that she is, because then it means she’s doing it out of love, and love, he’s decided, is the Great Consolation he deserves for his years clutching the chain-link fence of Tony Sutter’s undeserved fame.

And then, at Marietta’s request, he blows the whistle once more, and she puts her hand on his chest and softly closes her fingers to ask him to please dim the lights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Source: Munich 24




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About Author

John Fleming's stories have appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, The North American Review, Mississippi Review, Fourteen Hills, and Carve, among others. He is the author of The Legend of the Barefoot Mailman, a novel, and Fearsome Creatures of Florida, a literary bestiary. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida and is the founder and advisory editor for Saw Palm: florida literature and art. He blogs at johnhenryfleming.com.

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