The Iceman

"Jimmy The Iceman Cometh: All heating and cooking is done with coal oil in the FSA (Farm Security Administration) housing project. Hartford, Connecticut. September 1941." by polkbritton is marked under CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

About 1937.

We had a large card with numbers on it which we put in the window to tell the iceman we wanted ice. The number on top of the card showed him what size block to bring in. When our ice was just about all gone, we put the card in the window with the number 25 on top. That was for a 25-cent block, a good-sized piece.

The iceman sometimes had a wagon pulled by a horse, but more often it was a truck. He drove slowly along the street and looked up for the cards in the windows. When he saw one, he stopped the truck, went around, and climbed up in the back.

I used to enjoy watching him work. He would climb into the back of the truck and slide a large block of ice away from the pack. Then he would dig the ice pick into the block in spaced places across the top of the block. This was to split it. I enjoyed the chinking sound it made as white sprays shot downward through the ice from the ice pick strokes. Then the piece would split off with a chunking sound.

The iceman put a piece of burlap over his shoulder. Taking hold of the chunk of ice with tongs, he hoisted it to his shoulder. Then he walked with it along the sidewalk by the house and up the shaky outside stairs to our second-floor apartment. Turning into the hall, he opened the top of our icebox and dropped in the ice.

“Twenty-five cents,” he said as he straightened.

“Right,” I answered, handing him a quarter.

“Thanks.” And off he went to get another piece of ice to deliver to his next customer. I wondered how many chunks of ice he carried on his wet shoulder in a day’s time.

Sometimes I followed him out and watched him break off another chunk of ice for the next customer. Then while he was delivering it, I climbed into the truck and looked for small pieces of ice that had broken off. If I found more than one piece, I would give some to my little sister or maybe my next older brother. My oldest brother was usually out working.

If I found a good-sized piece like a large icicle, I wrapped a bit of newspaper about the base of it. I carried it around like a big cone, but it was the narrow end that I licked, instead of the large end as it would be with an ice cream cone. I carried it until I had licked every bit of coldness and moisture from it. It seemed an hour before it was gone, but when I crunched the last bit of it between my teeth, I felt as if the chunk had only lasted a minute.

Joe was the iceman that usually delivered our ice. He was nearly six feet tall, slender, with brown hair and eyes that were an unusual shade of tawny brown. He was probably in his twenties, though it was hard for me to judge at that time.

Joe used to grin at us when we gathered around to watch him split a chunk of ice off the block. Sometimes he would pretend to make a mistake and would make several good chips fall off the block for us to pick up.

“Go on, freeze your teeth,” he grunted as he slung the ice to his shoulder. “Let’s see if I can make it up those stairs without breaking a leg.”

I followed him up the rickety outside stairs that old Mrs. Woodruff always promised to have fixed but never seemed to get around to.

“Look out for that hole,” I called out as he approached the landing at the top. There was a broken board about six inches from the railing where a person could easily plunge a foot through the landing. I always tried to warn anyone coming up the stairs.

“Yeah,” grunted Joe as he stepped carefully around the hole. “Guess Old Lady Woodruff wants someone to fall through before she gets that fixed!”

Joe opened the door and went into the hall with the load of ice on his shoulder. He flipped open the top of the icebox with his free hand, then dropped the chunk of ice in and moved it around a little to settle it on top of the remaining ice.

Shutting the lid, he looked down at a trickle of water appearing from under the icebox. “Better empty the pan, son,” he told me as he pocketed the quarter I handed him.

“Gee, yeah,” I muttered. “See ya later, Joe.”

“Right. Thanks.” And Joe departed while I stooped to pull out the brimming pan from under the icebox.

I carried the pan to the sink, trying to keep it from slopping over too much. I dumped the water in the sink and put the pan back under the icebox before wiping up the spilled water with an old rag.

I thought some more about Mrs. Woodruff and the steps. I wondered why she didn’t find it to her own benefit to fix the steps, because she climbed them every week.

I remembered the previous Saturday morning when she had puffed her way up the stairs to collect the rent. Her weight made the climb especially difficult. She grasped the shaky side rail and leaned forward as she climbed. I watched her progress from the kitchen window overlooking the stairs and wondered, as I always wondered, if the rail and stairs would give way all at once under the stress. With the window open in the summer heat, I could hear her grunts and the answering groans of the stairway. She maneuvered safely past the broken board on the landing and made the door rattle with her knock.

“Come on in,” I said through the window. I was both relieved and faintly disappointed that she had once again avoided the trap waiting for her foot. Not that I actually wanted her to be maimed or killed, but I thought she would be forced to fix the stairway if she had a small accident on the landing.

Mrs. Woodruff opened the door, and I could hear her footsteps in the hall till she appeared in the kitchen doorway.

“Morning,” she puffed out.

“Hello, Mrs. Woodruff,” I said. “Sit down. Mom’ll be out in a minute.” I indicated a chair at the drop-leaf table by the window.

Mrs. Woodruff crossed the kitchen and plopped her weight onto the chair. She was wearing a familiar brown dress, rather baggy, with a matching vest of a style that might have been worn by a child. On her head was a round brown hat with a limp feather. She fanned her face with her hand.

“Hoo!” she panted. “Sure is hot today!”

“Sure is,” I agreed. “We do get some air through here when the windows are open. ‘Course, we usually have to shut them at night to keep out the bugs, ’cause we ain’t got any good screens.”

“You can get some of them sliding screens cheap in the five-and-ten,” she said.

“I’d go broke if I supplied screens to my tenants.”

I didn’t say anything more to her, but went to the curtained alcove that separated the kitchen from my mother’s bedroom, which branched off to the left, and the bathroom, which branched to the right.

“Mom,” I called, “Mrs. Woodruff is here.”

“Okay, son, be right out.” In a moment Mom came through the alcove, carrying her purse.

“Good morning, Mrs. Woodruff. Like some coffee?”

“Just some water, please,” Mrs. Woodruff said. “Gotta keep the radiator full, you know.”

Mom smiled. “That’s right; it’s a hot day.” She poured a glass of water and set it on the table. Mrs. Woodruff nodded her thanks and drank the water thirstily while Mom got a five-dollar bill out of her purse.

“Let me give you a receipt, Missus.” The landlady pulled a receipt book out of her handbag and laboriously filled out a receipt. She had a way of wetting the tip of her pencil with her tongue that made me think she was writing with her own substance.

“There, three and a half,” she said. “Here’s your change.” She fumbled a dollar bill and some change out of her purse onto the table.

Mom left the money there while Mrs. Woodruff heaved herself out of the chair.

“Thank ya, Missus,” said the landlady as she adjusted her hat.

“You’re welcome.” Mom followed her into the hall, and I heard Mom’s voice saying, “Better be careful on the stairs, Mrs. Woodruff.”

The door to the landing opened, and through the window I saw Mrs. Woodruff come out onto the landing. “Don’t worry,” she said as she stepped carefully around the broken board. On the way down she turned around and called over her shoulder, “I’ll see if I can get that fixed next week.”

“Good,” answered Mom, who had followed her out the door. “See you next week.” Then Mom turned around and came back in the apartment.

“I declare,” Mom said as she reentered the kitchen, “I don’t see how that woman can go up and down those stairs every week and not worry about falling through!”

“I know,” I laughed, “and she’s so heavy! But if anybody falls through, it’ll be one of us, not her!”

“That’s right. I sure wish she’d fix them.”

“She’ll never fix them,” I scoffed. “Not till they fall off.”

Mom picked up the money from the table. “Well, maybe she will, son. Anyway,

Mrs. Woodruff is good to us. She doesn’t charge us an awful rent, and sometimes she will trust us for the rent for a week or two.”

Mom put a quarter in my hand. “Delbert, would you go over to the store across the tracks and get some coal oil for the stove?”

“Sure, Mom.” I got the kerosene can from the closet beside the three-burner kerosene cook stove. We had a coal stove in the kitchen too, but especially in the summer Mom used just the kerosene stove for cooking to keep from heating up the kitchen. I usually went for kerosene (or “coal oil,” as we called it) a couple of times a week. Like emptying the water pan under the refrigerator, this job usually fell to my lot.

When I got back with the kerosene, Mom was just finishing some bread dough. She put it on top of the cold wood stove in a crock, and laid a cloth over top of the dough.

“There, I’ll let it rise for a while,” she smiled. “After a while we’ll have some fresh bread.”

“That’s great!” I said. “It sure beats that stale bread we been buying lately.”
The bread we usually bought wasn’t completely stale. It was what they called “day-old bread.” It was no doubt half a week old. We could buy it for half-price or less. It was something like three loaves for twenty cents–a price we could afford. We’d buy a week’s worth at a time. It wasn’t too bad at the start, but by the time we got to the last couple of loaves, it was quite hard, and moldy in spots. We would trim off the mold and eat what was left. When it was toasted and dunked in hot cocoa, it tasted pretty good. But when I ate it in a sandwich at school, it was rough going. It was food, at least, and we ate it. We didn’t throw it away. But when Mom baked her own bread from time to time, what a treat it was!

She had her own way of making bread, just as she had her own way of cooking any other kind of food. She seldom referred to a written recipe; she kept most of her recipes in her head. And she would alter the proportion of ingredients in the making. In making bread, she would stir the batter and throw in extra flour until the batter reached the bread-dough consistency she wanted. When it felt right, she would knead it on the breadboard, then put it into a crock to let it rise.

After a while the bread dough was ready to be kneaded again. “Delbert, would you like to knead it this time?” Mom asked.

“Yeah, let me at it,” I said enthusiastically. After washing my hands at the kitchen sink and drying them, I approached the table where Mom had dumped the bread dough onto the breadboard.

“Here,” she said, “get some of this flour on your hands so the dough won’t stick to them.” She sprinkled some flour on the breadboard beside the dough.

“Okay, Mom.” I rubbed my hands around in the flour till they were coated with white. Then I began to knead the bread. I dug my knuckles in it and worked it back and forth on the board. I liked the feel of its passive resistance as I attacked it. It was something I could hit without hurting. It was sort of like a punching bag but not as hard on the knuckles. It was soft and yielding but never gave way completely. In fact, it always came back. The more I kneaded, the better it would rise again later. I made a big ball of it and punched it with my right fist. Then I rolled it around on the board and slapped it a number of times. After that, I kneaded it again with the knuckles of both hands for a while.

“I guess that’s enough, son,” Mom said after about ten minutes.

“Okay, I’m ready to stop.”

I washed my hands again while Mom formed the bread dough into loaf shapes and put the dough in four bread pans. These she set on the stove, putting a dish towel over them.

“I’ll let it rise again, and then I’ll bake it,” she said.

We had a special oven attachment that we would set on top of the kerosene stove. It was a large metal box, and it was made so that, when it was set on top of the two burners, the heat would circulate around the sides of the oven. The bottom part was open so that it would fit down over the burners, and there were air compartments between the outer shell and the inner walls of the oven so the heat could circulate around the oven about the same way it would with a regular oven. The kerosene oven didn’t heat up the kitchen as much as the coal and wood stove, but even so, Mom did not usually bake anything in it on the hottest summer days. This day was not as hot as some, so I was glad to see that Mom had decided to make bread.

My sister Ruth came in while the bread was in the oven. She was a gangly kid of eight years old at this time. She was very dear to me most of the time, though I sometimes got annoyed with her, as older brothers usually do with “kid sisters.”

I remembered a night when Ruth and I were sharing a bedroom, and I had sat up late working on some difficult arithmetic homework. Ruth was asleep in spite of the glare of the light bulb overhead, which had no shade. I don’t know how late I worked, but it was a long time that I sat at the end of a trunk, using it as a desk. I was sorry that I had to keep the light on while my sister tried to sleep, but it was the only light we had. The room was on the third floor next to the attic and was bare of any conveniences.

After wrestling with an especially hard problem for a long time, I decided to get up and walk around the room for a minute or two. The room was about ten feet square. I walked quietly back and forth in my socks a couple of times, then stopped and looked down at my sleeping sister.

Ruth lay on her left side with her left hand relaxed on the pillow in front of her face. Her hair was honey-colored and fine; it covered her ears but left the rest of her face visible. Her clear-skinned face, with high forehead, turned-up nose, and definite chin, was as peaceful in repose as that of a sleeping infant. I thought of the times when she was a baby, and we had all competed for the right to hold her. There was something extremely appealing about my sleeping sister that awoke a strong protective feeling in me. She looked so defenseless and innocent that I felt more like her father than her brother.

A song came into my head, a song that probably was written about a sweetheart rather than a child. But it seemed very appropriate.

“My little girl, you know I love you,
Though you’re many miles away.”

I sang those two lines quietly several times as I looked down at the sleeping child. The pathos of her trusting vulnerability moved me powerfully, and I stood there for several minutes with tears coursing down my cheeks. I felt that I must do my best to defend her from harm.

I went back to my homework then and concentrated on finishing my math before going to bed. But the memory of that evening stayed with me, though it was often submerged in daily activities, and the emotions that my “kid sister” had aroused in me while she was asleep reinforced my protective feelings for her while she was awake.

There were times, of course, when I was impatient with Ruth or when I wanted to get away from her to play with other boys. But most of the time I took seriously my role of older brother and protector.

I remember taking Ruth to the movies on Saturday afternoon. The admission was only a dime, but of course Mom didn’t have much money. She liked to let us go to the movies once a week if at all possible.

“Now be careful at the crossings,” she told me.

“I will, Mom.”

“Here’s a nickel for candy,” she said.

“Gee, thanks, Mom!” I pocketed the coin and kissed her on the cheek.

She hugged Ruth and said, “Have a good time, honey.”

“Okay, Mama.” Ruth kissed her, and we went out the door and down the shaky outside stairs.

Ruth and I walked along together, with Ruth skipping ahead from time to time. At railroad crossings or street intersections I called to her and made sure to catch up to her so I could hold her hand. She minded me pretty well because she knew Mom had put me “in charge.”

On the way to the movie, we had to cross the railroad tracks near our house and several street intersections. The railroad crossing was bad because trains would often stop for long periods and start up unpredictably. After waiting ten or fifteen minutes, we would get impatient–but I sternly rejected any thought of climbing over the train.

“Let’s go,” said Ruth. “It hasn’t moved in an hour.”

“No,” I asserted with a laugh. “Anyway it’s not an hour. It’s ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Well, I don’t know what to do,” she complained. “What can we do while we’re waiting?”

“I don’t know. But if I let you climb across, Mom would skin me alive–even if you didn’t get hurt, which you probably would.” The train gave a sudden jerk.

“There, it’s starting to move. Let’s count the cars.”

But it was slow counting. The train moved by fits and starts, and we were only up to thirty-seven when it stopped cold again.

“Let’s go home,” Ruth said.

“Don’t you want to see the movie?”

“Yes, but the train won’t let us.”

I was about to answer, when the train gave a shuddering jerk and started to move again—backwards.

“Oh, no!” I said. But the backward movement halted with a jolt; after a pause, the train began to move forward again, slowly at first, then picking up speed, and the caboose went by at last.

“Hooray!” said Ruth, beginning to skip across the tracks as the gates lifted.

“No!” I sprang and grabbed her hand. “We’ve got to wait and see if there’s a train on the other track.”

Many times I had seen another train appear on the other track just as the first train had finished passing. This time none appeared, but I waited till we could see down the tracks for a block before I said, “Let’s go.”

We ran across the double tracks and down the street to the corner, where we turned left. We had five more blocks to go to get to the movie, but only one intersection was bad. That one was bad enough to make up for a whole bunch of easy ones. Campbell Street was a through street running north and south, and we had to cross it without a traffic light. That meant watching and waiting for long minutes till both lanes of traffic were clear. It took a lot of patience—and timing.

“When can we go?” Ruth whined after five or ten minutes. At least she didn’t try to get away from me at this crossing, because she was afraid of all the cars. You see, the railroad tracks went through the center of town from east to west, and therefore north-south traffic was cut off except at certain through streets where there was either a grade crossing or an underpass. After the grade crossing on Fifth Avenue, there wasn’t another through street until Campbell Street, where there was an underpass. Because it was one of the few through streets without a grade crossing, Campbell Street was one of the busiest streets in the city. And there was no traffic light where we had to cross.

Cars came whizzing out from the underpass on our left, more frequently than those approaching the underpass from our right. Perceiving that, I watched the traffic from the left, which was nearest us, for a break in the flow. Occasionally one occurred, but when I looked to the right, the flow from that direction would be for that moment uninterrupted. Finally a break in the traffic from the left came when there were half a dozen car lengths between cars in the opposite lane.

“Come on.” I gripped Ruth’s hand, and we walked to the middle of the road. Then I looked in the faces of drivers coming from the right until I saw one who smiled and waved us across. By that time, traffic was coming from under the viaduct again, and I had a fearful impression that the cars were touching our clothing before we scampered across the second half of the street.

“It’s a good thing you didn’t hold back like you used to do,” I told Ruth, “or we’d have never got across.”

From Campbell Street it was a short block to the theatre. We paid our ten cents apiece and went into the lobby, where we lingered in front of the candy case for some minutes trying to decide how best to spend our nickel apiece for candy. Eventually we both decided on some green leaves—little green gum drops shaped like leaves, with a delicious mint flavor. With our little bags of candy, we groped our way down the aisle—the theatre didn’t offer usher service for Saturday matinees—and found seats near the front where we settled down with grateful expectation of an afternoon’s entertainment.

And an afternoon of entertainment was what we got. There was a feature-length western with lots of galloping back and forth across the screen—and lots of stamping and cheering by the kids; an Our Gang comedy short full of silly antics by Spanky, Alfalfa, and the rest of the gang; a newsreel during which we went to the restrooms; and a Flash Gordon serial episode in which Flash escaped at the start from a trial by fire ordered by Ming the Merciless–to the cheers of the audience—and appeared inescapably trapped in Ming’s cave with collapsing walls at the end. The children all groaned, “Oh no!”

The neighborhood movie theatre provided a lot of wonderful family memories. Dad and Mom separated when I was young, so I treasured the times when Dad took us three boys to the movies. Ruth was generally too small, so my older brothers Norman and Don and I went with Dad to see a number of classy films, adventure movies like Captain Blood and Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and quality movies like The Tale of Two Cities starring the great Ronald Coleman, based on the famous novel of Charles Dickens.

Little wonder that when the time came, I went to work at the local movie theatre. After Mom remarried, we’d moved from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to Elmira, New York, in 1938. In 1941, I took on the job of usher at the Keeney’s Theatre.

In modern times, movie buildings often contain a bunch of little theatres, but in Keeney’s Theatre where I worked there was room for maybe 1,400 people on the ground floor and another 1,200 in the balcony up the stairs to the right. Once you got past the ticket-taker, you entered the theatre on the ground floor, with the seats slanting down gradually toward the screen. I’d report to work before the theatre opened to the public, sometimes in the morning. I’d get dressed in my uniform and get ready for work. First I’d take off my shirt and jacket. We wore a starched shirtfront called a dickey, connected to a starched collar. I wore a light blue uniform with a long-sleeved jacket, trousers, and a bow tie.

Sometimes I would tear up tickets at the entrance and sometimes I’d work with my flashlight as an usher leading people down the aisle. And sometimes I’d clean out the restrooms after the show was over.

Each ticket was about two inches long. When you tore it in half, you still had a square inch of ticket, made of a better-quality cardboard bearing the legend Admit One, not the name of the movie. The tickets would have a date stamped on them. The usher would split the ticket and drop one half into the receptacle, then give the other half back to the customer. But you didn’t need a ticket stub to get back in. And we didn’t leave the theatre to go to the restroom. Most people went at the end of the feature film, at the beginning of the previews of coming attractions—what we called in the trade “the trailer,” because it used to be the trailer after the main feature. We’d usually have a cartoon, a newsreel, and coming attractions, and then the movie. Sometimes they would have two features for the price of one—a double feature.

Most of the time while I worked in the theatre I didn’t have a driver’s license. I think my pay for a week of work at the theatre was $10, and there was a deduction of 2% for Social Security.

The Maltese Falcon, as a matter of fact, came out while I was working there. I came in early before my shift started in order to sit down in the theatre and enjoy seeing Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor without being interrupted. I watched it a couple of times.

With war declared, I enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Dec. 30, 1941. We saw a lot of great pictures in the Eighth Air Force. I treasured every letter from Ruth and Mom, and from our family.

When I returned from the war, I drove a taxi in Elmira for a while and went to work with Dad and brother Don to sell various things: Filter Queen vacuum cleaners, TVs, food freezers, and so on. I lived with Mom and Pop in Elmira during the summers to work and save up money for room and board at Syracuse University, which I used the G.I. Bill to attend–a first for our family. Through it all, Keeney’s Theatre was still there to provide great entertainment.

Photo at the top of the page: “Jimmy The Iceman Cometh: All heating and cooking is done with coal oil in the FSA (Farm Security Administration) housing project. Hartford, Connecticut. September 1941.” by polkbritton is marked under CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

Tinnitus

"[mb] Tinnitus" by Merrick Brown is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

I

The first time was in the fifth grade, where I sat in the back of the room, with a large window behind me. One late-winter day, I heard a shrill whistling. Startled, I made a dramatic jump to the window. While not outgoing, I liked getting attention, and I got it, causing a stir in the class. Irritated by the disruption, the teacher asked, “What are you doing?” followed by a glare more stinging than the words. I said, “I heard something.” Not impressed, she said, “Sit down.” While my behavior was inappropriate for a phonics lesson (or whatever the subject was), the teacher’s harsh tone surprised me. I wasn’t playing a game. I did hear something, though I couldn’t prove it. Through the metal-framed window, I saw only the faded, winter grass sprinkled with gravel and dirt next to the building and a swing set in the distance, with no hint of the origin of the noise that interrupted our humdrum instruction. I sat down, chastened by the glaring adult and embarrassed by the giggling kids. So went my earliest acquaintance with tinnitus.

Tinnitus, “a ringing or similar sensation of sound in the ears” without an external stimulus, is most often associated with age-related hearing loss, afflicting up to a third of adults over sixty-five. Although not everyone who is hearing impaired has tinnitus, everyone with tinnitus has a hearing deficit, sometimes minor but sometimes significant. Incessant ringing due to genetics, obstruction, or damage to the fragile inner ear can bring on fatigue, sleep deprivation, memory loss. The resulting stress and anxiety can induce, in some sufferers, psychological problems, including depression.

I no longer have a silent moment. When an audible activity has my attention—street bustle, people talking, running water—I don’t notice the tinnitus, but when it’s otherwise quiet—the moments before falling asleep, reading a book, sitting at a stoplight—I’m aware of a droning sensation. It may be a muted but rapid, cicada-like humming, though occasionally it will take on a piercing timbre like worn-out brakes. There are moments when I’m not sure of the source of what I’m perceiving: Am I listening to actual cicadas on a summer evening, or is it an illusion? Either way, the constant, internal hubbub is always present.

When in my fifties, an audiologist told me exposure to loud machinery in my youth caused my tinnitus. As a teenager, I drove a tractor each spring and summer for seven or eight years plowing, mowing pasture and hay. The old tractor’s worn-out muffler did little to stifle the engine’s thunderous eruptions. Some days I’d sit on it for an hour or so, some days for eight to ten hours. There were times, too, when other machinery—a hammer mill for grinding grain and a hay baler—engulfed me in a clamor.

Since seeing the audiologist, I notice my hearing has declined: I may have trouble determining what someone is saying if on the phone or if the other person has a quiet or piping voice. And while the steady humming in my ears still doesn’t irritate me, the intermittent shrillness I experience does. I’m troubled by the possibility that someday the shrillness won’t end. Fifteen years after the first exam, I had a second one with an ear, nose, and throat specialist who said the primary cause of the tinnitus came from hearing loss, though he didn’t deny the impact of loud noise. When he learned my mother was nearly deaf in her last years, he told me I inherited my problem from her.

II

My mom was in good health until a few months before her death, in all but one aspect. Her inability to discern what people were saying progressed from an inconsequential annoyance to an acute infirmity during the final two decades of her life. From when she was around seventy-five, I often had to speak up and repeat myself. She would become embarrassed when she failed to comprehend what someone said to her but compensated by learning to read lips, at which she became adept though not flawless. She refused to acknowledge her limitation. One night, while I drove her and my dad home from our house, she asked, from the back seat, how my daughters were doing. However, she couldn’t see my lips and didn’t register what I said. She asked again, and I answered in a raised voice. After her third request, I was shouting, not only sounding but feeling angry. I couldn’t control my wrath. I resented her unwillingness to accept her condition. She didn’t catch what I was saying, but she knew I was yelling. I saw her hurt frown in the rearview mirror and detected an aggrieved tone in her mumbled words, acting as if she understood me. Abashed, I kept my eyes on the road.

About six months before he died, my father went to a nursing home, and my mom moved to an apartment complex for senior citizens. In some respects, it reminded me of a cruise ship, with social events, daily activities, and wine with afternoon snacks in the common area, yet, because of Mom’s poor hearing, she couldn’t follow conversations, thwarting her penchant for mingling. There was also a well-appointed dining room with wait-staff, and despite sitting at a table with other residents, she ate dinner in silence, isolated by her disability. My wife and I would see her every week, making small talk for ten or fifteen minutes—we talked while she pretended to listen— before taking her to church, and my sister would drop by on a different day. Mom seemed to get pleasure out of these visits, but they amounted to just two or three hours a week. The rest of the time, she was alone, reading the closed captions on a cable news channel.

In the last few years of her life, my mother made sporadic comments, when we were alone, about the other occupants of the residence. For no apparent reason, she would say most, or all, the women living there were men. Incredulous, when she first said it, I thought I misunderstood her. I asked (in a loud voice), “What are you talking about?” She repeated, “I know they don’t look like it, but they’re men dressed as women.” Her resolute expression conveyed she wasn’t kidding or being ironic. I made a mild protest during several subsequent reiterations of this tale but eventually dropped it. I knew arguing with her would be a wasted effort.

I later found out that while aberrant, her behavior wasn’t rare. People who have hearing problems are more likely to hold beliefs that defy proof, to be delusional. For instance, some see peril in non-threatening surroundings, believing others are denigrating them or, as with my mom, trying to fool them. Stress is a leading trigger, with isolated individuals being the most vulnerable. Deliria of this sort runs in families.

III

I grew up and lived most of my life convinced that my mother and I were not alike, and in some ways, opposites. She was religious, and I’m not. She was precise in her language—saying she’s going to “lie down” to rest, while I, not a stickler for correctness, say “lay down.” In some situations, her speech struck me as pretentious, causing me to cringe: I recall a stranded motorist, waiting at our house for someone to get her stalled car running, asked my mom if she was from England. Yet, realizing my hearing has diminished brings to mind various of my traits that mirror hers.

My mom was vain about her looks and wouldn’t admit it. To hide the gray strands of middle age, she dyed her hair black, changing the shade to a mature bronze as she grew older. I, too, am preoccupied with my appearance. I used to dislike my thick, hard-to-comb, curly hair, but with age, my hairline has receded, the curls are gone, and I have a bald spot. Trying to hide it, I carefully brush my hair back to make it appear thicker than it is.

And Mom always looked young—a handyman painting our house one summer guessed she was twenty-five when she was forty. She never told her age (misleading the handyman to think he’d made an accurate guess) until her grandchildren began entering high school. But even at ninety, she was elated when a doctor, taken aback when told how old she was, exclaimed, “I don’t believe it.” As for me, I like to think I look half a decade younger than I am. On several occasions, an old (older than me) lady in a nursing home has told me I’m “fine-looking.” I make an effort to appear unmoved, but such compliments are secret thrills.

We shared another kind of self-centeredness. For eight years, my mother had to look after my partially paralyzed father. They were in an assisted living facility where staff did tasks such as dressing and bathing him. Still, Mom had to keep a constant eye on my dad and aided him with less demanding undertakings, such as eating. Even with the help, she resented having the extra responsibility and sometimes moaned that she couldn’t keep caring for him. I could see she felt sorry for herself, becoming more vocal about her travails as his condition worsened.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve fixated on evidence of my insignificance. After my sister was born, I was no longer the center of my parents’ attention, which led to frequent tiffs and a sense I was a victim of unfair treatment. I desired to be among the most favored, such as being someone’s best friend or the top choice when choosing sides for schoolyard games. But I was no one’s boon companion and a middle-of-the-pack pick for competitive contests. As an adult, I was the outsider, the guy who ate lunch at his desk, not understanding the cliquish jokes or in on the latest gossip. Though my circumstances have been different than my mother’s, I often feel sorry for myself.

IV

About six weeks before she died, the place where Mom lived contacted me. They told me there were several incidents in which she was making nonsensical statements and appeared disoriented. Two days later, she fell in her apartment, and the staff had to call an ambulance to transport her to the emergency department. By my arrival, a doctor had seen and admitted her to the hospital. When an aide was taking her in a wheelchair to a room, I heard my mom tell her, in a weak voice and pointing at me, “He’s my son. He’s my favorite.” I was embarrassed and confused; from my viewpoint, she held us all in the same regard. So, I don’t know if she meant what she said, was humoring me, or her mind was slipping away. And I can’t say with certainty my hearing wasn’t playing tricks on me.

I didn’t realize until the doctor’s exam revealed my mother had an advanced case of shingles that she had been suffering from severe pain for a couple of weeks, overlapping the period her troubling figments had escalated. Despite the pain, she didn’t tell anyone. Initially, her silence mystified me, but I now see she didn’t want to worry us or be a burden.

Some people adapt to the noise, and tinnitus doesn’t rattle them. So far, I’m in this category, but tinnitus is associated with hearing loss, and as mine worsens, I’m concerned other problems will emerge. I worry about latching onto fanciful beliefs and becoming emotionally agitated.

The cicada-like hissing and teakettle whistling never stop. I relive memories of my mother stepping out of reality, and I wonder if there is a connection between my tinnitus and her delusions. As I grow older, I envision the discomfort I may face one day. Chronic or infrequent, mild or acute, the images vary, but they are simplistic reveries. I’m painting a picture of my situation with a drab backdrop in which shadows are absent, without nuance. Fearing I’ll become delusional as my mother did, I overlook her example of selflessness in considering her family’s feelings. Her fantasies didn’t vitiate her humility and kindness. My musings about my future mental stability have missed the point: I’ll have the capability to deal with what happens to me until I don’t. Ingrained habits and character will determine how I grapple with a fate I can’t foresee.

Photo at the top of the page: “[mb] Tinnitus” by Merrick Brown is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Snapshot

"Writing words.." by _StaR_DusT_ is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

When I was nineteen, I moved to Montreal both for school and in the hope that the city would be for me what Paris was for the Lost Generation. That moveable feast, to quote Hemingway; that Babylon to be revisited, to quote Fitzgerald instead. Unlike Hemingway or Fitzgerald, I wasn’t chasing the modern novel. I thought I’d write a few plays before making my fortune writing sci-fi.

Montreal was cheap in those days and, for the first few years, I bounced between apartments and soon ended up with a roommate in a spacious two-bedroom that cost less than six hundred dollars. When our lease ended, she decided to live with her boyfriend and I decided to save money and so, for the love of a man on her part and a hundred dollars on mine, I moved to a place with two less rooms and twice as many problems.

In Montreal, new leases start on Canada Day, mostly because the separatists like it that way. July opens with tenants roaming like snails with their homes on their backs. My new home didn’t amount to much and, once my futon was interred, there was only a desk and my cat and many boxes of books. It was a sad place with a common room/kitchenette and an optimistic bedroom, which is what you call a bedroom that’s anything but. There was a small balcony but the floor creaked and every movement was a shot in a war with the woman below.

I knew right away that moving had been a mistake and I felt like the surgeon who realizes, long after the patient is sewn, that they’re missing their watch: I had lost something I could never reclaim.

***

It was that liminal period after Y2K didn’t change the world and before 9/11 did. I got a job cooking at a Mexican restaurant and wrote at night. The science fiction wasn’t going well and, since I had become a Gershwin fan, I decided I would write a play about his life. Gershwin wasn’t part of the Lost Generation, but he was their soundtrack—the American in An American in Paris could have been Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or any of their friends.

Every night I worked and vowed not to sleep until I was unashamed of what I’ve done. In other words: I became an insomniac. This didn’t help the war with the woman downstairs and, one day, I came home to find felt-pads for furniture waiting by the door. I put them at the bottom of everything, including myself. When I wasn’t writing, I was reading and when I was being pretentious, I was reading Shakespeare and, either way, I was on the balcony in the light of the rising sun.

There was a laundromat on my street and, for the first month, I stuck around due to the misapprehension that my clothes were something others want to steal. The understanding that I was wrong became a moment of what the Greeks called anagnorisis: the protagonist makes a critical discovery, after which his life is never the same. Oedipus plucked out his eyes but I just threw my clothes into the machine and left to buy every Gershwin album I could find.

These were the days of video stores and the one nearby was open late. I wandered the aisles and memorized the names of directors. I was an actor too and pretended this was research, but what I was really doing was working up the courage to rent porn. I never found it and, for months, I was stuck with whatever scrambled French films my antenna could find.

***

The city was a paradise of colorful personalities. Banana Man mugged people with his eponymous fruit. Tattoo Man had a skull etched on his face. Guru Man offered the secrets of life if I bought him a burger. I’d tell you what he told me but, naturally, you’ll have to feed me first.

There was an all-night bistro where they left me alone while I wrote. I wanted it to be my Café des Amateurs, that haven on Place St. Michel where Hemingway liked to work. I fell in love all the time but I never approached because I thought the whole point of writing was to dream and if you live the dream then you become the story. “It doesn’t take long to write things of which you know nothing,” says Francine in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. “When you write of actual things, it takes longer, because you have to live them first”.

Of course, you get tired of writing about things of which you know nothing, especially when you’re writing about women (Gershwin had a lot of lovers). Soon, I had fallen for a French-Canadian artiste with Rapunzel-like hair framing a face that could launch a few hundred ships. It’s an old saying that one has to date a French girl to speak French but that only works when the French girl is on the visiting team. I was on her home turf; there was no need for la belle femme to settle for the likes of me. But Rapunzel took pity on me. My apartment was a humiliation but she was kind. “You have the sort of place writers write about writing in,” she told me. Then she pretended to enjoy having sex on a futon.

Things went well until she tired of having long hair. I didn’t care for the haircut—what is Rapunzel without her locks?—and told her she’d made a mistake. Of course, the mistake was mine. Insulting your lover’s new hair is akin to crossing the Rubicon, from whence there can be no return. A week later, the woman downstairs surrendered and broke her lease. Simultaneously, I found an infestation of ants and, after following the troop back to headquarters, I took care of the queen. So that’s three women I drove away. In the theatre, this is called rehearsal; I was learning a skill I would someday wish I had never had.

***

In September, I went back to school and filled my schedule with classes in U.S. History and mythology courses taught by a professor I adored. I daydreamed of afternoon delights interspersed with private tutorials on anagnorisis and xenia, that concept of showing virtuous hospitality when a stranger is in your home. The Gods punish those who violate it; this, along with a certain face, is what started the Trojan War.

On tests, I apologized when I didn’t know the answer. “I’m sorry I don’t know this,” I wrote. “But might I add, you’re looking great today….” A pathetic attempt at courtship and, thankfully, one which the professor ignored. We never had a single private conversation; in spite of my compliments, she remained fair and gave me a B.

Although I went to Concordia, I found opportunities to produce theatre at McGill and, that winter, the miracle occurred: I was given the chance to produce my play about Gershwin. The play’s focus was on Gershwin and Kay Swift, his great forbidden love. She was the first woman to ever write the complete score for a Broadway show; the “forbidden” part stems from the fact she was someone else’s wife. The impossibility of this situation would later drive him to work in the movies. “I am not marrying Kay Swift,” my fictional George declared in one scene. “I came to Hollywood specifically to get away from Kay Swift.”

I built the set at home and my apartment became overgrown, like a forgotten jungle. Friends had moved away and la artiste didn’t return my calls. I was out of shape and lonely and tired of writing and thinking how, as Fitzgerald once remarked, writing was a dog’s life. I thought about Gershwin and Kay and thought that even forbidden love wouldn’t be so bad.

Before going home for Christmas, I needed someone to feed the cat. Someone recommended an acquaintance friend who was studying to be a vet. I barely knew her but she was pretty and, when you’re shallow, this is the only reference letter you need.

I returned to find the girl had been living in my apartment—she didn’t get along with her roommates and her boyfriend lived at home. She asked if she could stay an extra night and I agreed. And so opportunity had presented itself: here was my chance to walk into the world of forbidden love. But she was a guest and there was xenia to worry about. My professor had taught me well. To please her—and, for that matter, the Gods—I remained a gentleman. We shared the futon, but I stayed on my side.

I never saw her again and this, mixed as it was with the holiday season, imbued the encounter with the magic of ether and dust. Sleeping with her would have likely brought disaster, so I suppose things are better as they are. Still, one never knows and the moral of the story, if there is one, is that if I had taken Introduction to Economics, my life might not be the same.

***

At the end of January, we moved into the theatre. Things went well until one of my actors booked a commercial and announced she couldn’t make one of the performances. She offered a solution: a friend from theatre school who could play the understudy and replace her for the night.

During this time, I was working at the restaurant, running rehearsals, and preparing to play Gershwin. Like hockey players, I had a superstitious aversion to shaving. This turned me into an unkempt actor-playwright, plump like a pumpkin. I was grouchy all the time and barely acknowledged the understudy who was saving my show. Naturally, she declared me ungrateful and smug. At rehearsal breaks, she ignored me and passed the time in the corner, doing crosswords with a pen.

In some circles, this is called a wonderful beginning.

She played Mollie Charleston, a chorus girl from Gershwin’s past, and on the day she was to appear on stage, I arrived to find her nervously running her lines. By then, I had shaved and was in better spirits. Once a show opens, it no longer matters if the show is any good. All you can do is hit your mark and hope nothing falls on your head. In a rare moment of self-reflection, I realized I’d been an ass and offered to buy Mollie a drink.

Later, in the entertainment district, we swallowed martinis in a fashionable club. She noticed I was still smug but a little more grateful and mentioned she might get into Heaven if she did a good deed. So she came home with me. I had class the next morning and left a key so she could sleep-in and rifle through my drawers. Love is a game of discovery. We believe we’ll unearth treasures no one else has found. Whatever she found didn’t scare her; she was still there when I came home.

***

Mollie works for an accountant but doesn’t enjoy it. She finds my apartment bohemian and the cat paws through her hair while she sleeps. She smokes on the balcony and chews gum before we kiss. We rent movies and make love while they play in the background. She calls me “Sunshine” and signs her emails with a row of Xs and reads my literary efforts. She tells me they’re very good, which is a lie, but wonderful to hear.

When my lease ends, she helps me find a new apartment. It’s just around the corner and, on another Canada Day, we drag everything by hand. I leave the futon behind—Mollie pulls rank and demands an actual bed. The new apartment is a glory and, as we unpack, I discover the camera I received for my birthday. I never used it. A pictorial history of my love life would suggest I’ve lived as a monk; there are few pictures of me with my arm around a lover, a fact that is likely a relief to those who would prefer to forget the whole thing. This photographic deficiency stems from an unhappy talent for having too much faith in my brain. Why take a picture when you think you don’t have to? I may forget things all the time, but you’ll never convince me this is true.

However, on this day, Mollie is disheveled and sweaty with a kerchief holding back her hair and she looks tough and strong, like a soldier on break from sacking a city, and I’m so in love that I recognize the moment for what it is. “Smile,” I say and, with that, the moment is preserved.

After that, I start keeping the camera around, waiting for more moments. Mollie and I don’t start living together, but her toothbrush moves in and her unmentionables are loafing about, not paying rent. It’s common for her to lounge on Sundays while I work away. One weekend, I glance over to find she’s fallen asleep with the cat nestled in her arms. Again, I reach for the 35 mm camera. The resulting picture is black and white, 5×7, with a white frame. The cat sits in the crook of Mollie’s arm, splayed across the cover that’s been pulled to her neck. There’s a pen in her right hand and the unfinished clues of the crossword that put her to sleep. 42-Across: French Lady Who Still Carries a Torch. Her head is turned and she wears a beatific look as if she’s dreaming of stardust. The cat, if you’re interested, looks at the camera with the what-is-the-silly-human-doing-now expression that is typical of the race.

There’s a silence in pictures; too many things aren’t there. A picture, for instance, can’t tell you about the smoking or the nicknames. It also can’t tell you that, two weeks after I take this picture, Mollie decides we’re better off apart. I’ve been told men mourn relationships after they’re over while women do it before they end; the spiritual departure happens long before the physical one. Put another way: by the time a woman leaves, she’s already left. It wasn’t stardust she was seeing as she slept; it’s more than likely she was dreaming of her great escape. In trying to preserve the moment, I had captured something already lost.

***

All relationships go well until they don’t; if yours is going well, it just means you’re still trying to run out the clock. In our case, the problem was my age. When Gershwin was my age he had written the hit song Swanee, had shows on Broadway, and was mere months away from premiering Rhapsody in Blue. I was an unpublished writer graduating with a useless degree. My late-night writing sessions were fruitless. I hadn’t read Shakespeare in weeks. Fearing I was falling behind, I buried myself in my notebooks. Suddenly, I had many desperate pieces on the go. Mollie saw she’d been left behind. I suppose she could have rushed to catch up but it’s likely I gave the impression I wasn’t worth the sweat.

During the post-love malaise, I developed several manias. One was for salad—I was never healthier than in those anything-but-halcyon days. Another new trait was that, whether from shame or self-flagellation, I refused to have my picture taken. When a mutual friend married, Mollie was a bridesmaid while I was asked to read from Corinthians. If I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing… Perhaps this was what drove my prohibition. No one wants a picture of nothing. When I fled the wedding, it was just so the photographer wouldn’t waste her time.

Near the end of his life, Gershwin was, like most in Hollywood, completely miserable. After a lifetime of romantic near-misses, he wrote to several ex-girlfriends with redemption on the mind. No one replied. He’d enjoyed a lifetime of symphonies and Broadway shows, he had looked up from the piano to see he was alone. “I am thirty-eight, famous and rich, but profoundly unhappy,” he told Alexander Steinert. He was blunter with his cousin, Harry Botkin: “This year, I have got to get married.” The year in question was 1937, the same year he died from a tumor in his brain.

Researching Gershwin in those early years, I was smart enough to see the warnings but foolish enough to believe they didn’t apply to me. After all, a piano is not a notebook. But women haven’t changed since the Jazz Age. There were those who would have liked George to put away the music just as, I’m sure, Mollie would have preferred for me to put the notebooks away. I could have been in that bed; I could have supplied the name of that French lady who, after all these years, still carries a torch. 

Image at the top of the page: Image by “Writing words..” by _StaR_DusT_ is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/