When I was a kid, I had a friend down the street named Kwame whose older brother was mentally handicapped. This gave Kwame license, he felt, to make fun of other mentally handicapped folks he encountered. Of course, if anyone else made jokes about his brother, they’d get their ass beat quick.
It must’ve been similar reasoning that induced me, growing up, to make fun of my mom for being deaf. She’d lost her hearing through a mysterious illness three years before I was born, and I grew up speaking sign language with her. I picked it up easily, like any kid in a bilingual household, watching my dad and my older brother speak to her in sign. My first word, I’ve been told, was the middle finger.
I took advantage of my mom’s deafness in small ways at first. In the car, she’d be driving and trying to lecture me about something, but I’d have the radio cranked so loud I couldn’t hear her. As long as I kept the bass down, how was she to know that I was nodding along to the Fresh Prince song “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” and not to her instructions on how to clean out the gutters? She never understood the looks she got from other drivers, who must have been baffled to see a middle-aged mom tooling slowly along in an Aerostar, blasting Def Leppard at rock concert volume. Funniest, to me, was the time we pulled up alongside a cop and I slipped in my N.W.A tape from the glove box, cued to the song “Fuck tha Police.”
Then there were the stunts I pulled in grade school to impress the kids in my neighborhood. My mom would be washing dishes, her back turned to the kitchen, and I’d sneak up behind her, a few kids in tow, and yell at the top of my lungs, “Hey, BITCH!! Hey, you fuckin’ BITCH!!” Then we’d all run, laughing and screaming, out of the room.
Our house had an unusual feature–a doorbell in the dining room. The room had originally been a screened back porch, but the previous owners had enclosed it and added windows to create a one-room addition. The doorbell at the back door was now in the house–painted over, so my mom had never noticed it.
Our family dog, Prince, was trained to fetch my mom any time someone came to the front door and knocked or rang the doorbell. To the wild entertainment of my brothers and me, we discovered that if we rang the doorbell in the dining room, Prince would start barking furiously and tug my mom by her sleeve to the front door.
Even my dad got in on the action. We’d watch with barely suppressed glee as my mom opened the door and peeked outside, only to be greeted by an empty front porch. “But there’s nobody here,” she’d say to Prince, with a confused twinge in her voice. Most nights she thought the house was under siege by ghosts. She’d sometimes stand there a full minute, staring into the misty dark.
One day in sixth grade, I got into major trouble at school. The music teacher, Mrs. Machida, kept getting upset at me for horsing around with my friends during class. Finally, she ordered me to report to the principal’s office. I said, “OK, fine–you fuckin’ BITCH!“
I’d grown cavalier with curse words. But unlike my mom, Mrs. Machida heard me just fine. She turned magenta and hauled me out of the room by the scruff of my neck.
“We’re calling your parents,” said the principal, Dr. Burke, after Mrs. Machida told the story. I explained to them that my dad was at work and that my mom was deaf. Back then, my mom had no operator-assisted phone. When she wanted to make a phone call, whether to order a pizza or talk to a friend for an hour, she needed me or one of my brothers to translate for her. “Look,” I said to Mrs. Machida and Dr. Burke. “You got to wait till I get home so I can tell her what you’re saying.”
Tell her what you’re saying. I thought about it the whole bus ride home, not sure what exactly I was about to do. The phone was ringing as I walked in the door.
I tracked down my mom and told her the principal was on the phone. “What does she want?” my mom asked me.
I shrugged. My mom picked up the receiver and said hello, then passed it back to me.
Dr. Burke said, “OK, Davy, you need to tell your mom that there’s a serious situation based on your behavior in Mrs. Machida’s class today. That language was used. Unacceptable language. And that if this kind of behavior occurs again, there will be serious consequences. Suspension or expulsion.”
I held the phone low and started signing to my mom, keeping my voice at a whisper so she could still read my lips without Dr. Burke hearing me. “Dr. Burke wants you to know about something that happened today at school.” I paused. “It was … during recess. Some kids, they … they were torturing a butterfly. They were pulling its wings off. And I jumped in the middle of them and I saved the butterfly.” Who knows where this shit was coming from? A dream? A demented episode of 3-2-1-Contact? “The butterfly …” I went on, “… it was pink. It was from Madagascar. It was the music teacher’s pet, Mrs. Machida. She told Dr. Burke, and Dr. Burke thought you should know. But she has to go, she’s really late for her dentist’s appointment.” I passed the phone back to her, praying for the best.
“That’s a wonderful story,” my mom said. “Thank you very much for your call. And please thank the music teacher for passing word along.” She handed the phone back to me.
“See you tomorrow, Dr. Burke,” I said quickly.
“Wait, what did your mom say about ‘wonderful’?”
“She was being sarcastic. I’m in for the whupping of my life.”
I hung up in a hurry, my heart booming. The narrow escape should’ve taught me a lesson. That should’ve been it–one and done–the kind of trick you retire immediately, and count your blessings for. But it wasn’t. It was more like winning big on your first visit to a casino. It was a gateway drug.
I realized, in the days and weeks that followed, that helping my mom with phone calls, which had always been a burdensome chore, could be more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. My mom’s friends began to make odd suggestions, like that she take my brothers and me to Cedar Point or that she rent the Eddie Murphy movie Delirious. My dad, calling home before he left work, often requested that my mom pick up a bag of Soft Batch chocolate chip cookies from the store.
Then, when summer hit, it occurred to me that crossing the wires on my translations was Grapefruit League ball. I didn’t need a real person on the other end of the line. One afternoon I asked my mom if I could go to my friend Mike Kozura’s house to spend the night with a bunch of other friends, and she said no way–Mike lived alone with his dad, and she knew his dad was out of town for two weeks. A couple of hours later, I gave my new tactics a trial run. I was helping my mom in the basement, when, out of the blue, I dashed upstairs, as though the phone was ringing. I took the receiver off the hook and went back down to get her. I told her that my friend Donald Chin’s mom was on the line.
We clomped upstairs, my mom said hello to Mrs. Chin, then passed the phone back to me. For a half-minute I nodded my head, pretending to listen, and at last signed to my mom that Mrs. Chin wanted her to know that she’d agreed to stay the night at Mike’s house to chaperone the party. Mrs. Chin, I told her, had offered to host the sleepover at her house, but some of the kids were afraid of their pet python and boa constrictor.
The Chins really had these snakes; my mom had seen them. It had taken me all afternoon to conjure up just the right vivid, walloping fact that would blot out the fictions in its shadow. I handed my mom the phone. “Thank you so much,” she said, as the phone kept buzzing. “I really appreciate that. You know, I’d invite all the boys over here, but the basement’s all flooded and the house is a complete mess.” An unexpected low, sinking feeling overcame me as my mom went on, getting chatty with Mrs. Chin about her other kids, the Chins’ family restaurant, and some local school board brouhaha. I felt like Oppenheimer, both thrilled by and afraid of the awesome power of my new, terrible weapon.
All of a sudden, my little brother Peter popped into the room. He sized things up for a second–my mom yammering away into the buzzing receiver. “What the hell’s going on?” he demanded.
“Mom thinks she’s talking to Donald Chin’s mom. I had to do it so I could go to Mike Kozura’s house tonight. I’ll kill you if you tell.”
The genius of it made Peter smile. “Then I’m coming, too.”
“You can’t! It’s my friends.”
“Want me to tell? I’ll tell.”
My mom, done talking, was passing the phone back to me.
“OK, fine,” I said to Peter. I put the phone to my ear and told my mom that Mrs. Chin suggested I bring Peter along.
“That’s a great idea,” my mom said into the empty phone. “I’ll drop them off in an hour.”
“Wait,” I told my mom, before hanging up. “Mrs. Chin wants to know if you can stop on the way and pick up some Soft Batch chocolate chip cookies.”
That was the beginning; it was also the beginning of the end. The phone started “ringing” all the time–Mrs. Chin, hosting another sleepover; a teacher asking me to bring twenty bucks to school the next day for a field trip; an elderly neighbor asking if I could help her move boxes when I was supposed to be doing homework (really I was at the arcade). The phone was like a magic wand–every day I was creating new, alternate realities for my mom. I’d been acting as her ears my whole life, and she’d learned to rely on me. The only limits seemed to be the boundaries of my imagination.
But it didn’t last long. My brother Peter took up the game, too, and we began to fight viciously about each other’s technique–we each felt that the other was being too clumsy and over-the-top, and that we’d get found out and our fantastic potion would be gone. Soon enough, our older brother got into the act, and at that point we all kind of went nuts, abusing the phone trick like a stolen credit card you try and max out before it goes dead.
It went dead on my watch. My mom was on the phone, thinking she was talking to my dad, who was visiting his sister in Atlanta. My dad, as I wove it, was trying to convince her to buy me a “pitch-back,” a net you could throw a baseball at and have it bounce back. “It just doesn’t make sense,” she kept saying to the buzzing receiver. “Honey, it costs seventy-nine dollars. He can go to the schoolyard and pitch into the backstop.” But my dad was insistent. After all, he pointed out, hadn’t I worked my butt off in school the past year? Hadn’t I worked hard around the house? I deserved a special reward, right? Hadn’t I … hadn’t I … saved a pink butterfly from cruel hands of evil?
It was at that exact moment that my dad walked in the front door, home from his trip two days early. My mom’s face had a look of such profound shock and confusion–think Socrates at the San Dimas Mall–that I immediately began to cry. All my feelings of betrayal and shame poured out of me, and I spent the next hour and a half in tears, lined up next to my brothers on the floor of the dining room like three broken jailbirds hauled back in after an escape attempt gone rotten. My mom was furious–and maybe at the same time a bit dazzled by the extent of our chutzpah and ingenuity. She slammed us and stretched us until every invented phone call had been dragged out into the light. I even came clean about Mrs. Machida and Dr. Burke. My mom kept putting her head in both hands and moaning, though sometimes it seemed like she was laughing, too.
“You guys are all in more trouble than you’ve ever known,” she said at last. “You’re obviously grounded for the rest of the year. And there’ll be more to it than that. I might need some time to dream up a punishment harsh enough to fit the crime.” She surveyed us. “Is there anything else you need to tell me about? I want to know now. No more surprises.”
Peter’s sad, weary gaze had come to rest on the door frame between the dining room and the kitchen, where the painted-over doorbell was tucked. He raised his hand and pointed, too deflated to even sign to her.
“Wait!” my dad cried. “Don’t get carried away! You got to leave us something.”
So we kept the doorbell a secret, though our joy at ringing it never felt quite the same. The dog barking, and my mom quizzically staring out the front door, only reminded us of our earlier treacheries. The magic was gone.
Twenty years have passed, and I’ve been typing this whole thing at the cabin in the woods where my mom spends her summers these days. I told her I was writing something about what it was like to grow up with a deaf mom, so all day she’s been peeking over my shoulder, reading passages here and there. I didn’t know how she’d feel when she learned about the doorbell. She’d always had such a glowing sense of wonder about those phantoms knocking at the door–to reveal the secret made me feel like an old silent-movie villain crushing a child’s toy.
Here’s what my mom just told me: “I knew about the doorbell. I knew it was your game. It was your game, but that’s the thing, it was my game, too.”
Excerpted from My Heart is an Idiot, by Davy Rothbart, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.