Kristen Harmon

WHAT LAY AHEAD (Three Linked Stories)*

Fingerspelling: Risa

When Rocco swaggered in, Marjie and Tyrone behind him, Risa turned away. She focused instead on Shane, and tapped his shoulder. When she made sure it was just them in the room, she practiced her voice and asked Shane, "Why did Rocco put condoms in his ears?" Shane reeled forward and shook his head. He grinned with the same waiting anticipation Rick had when she tried her voice with him and told her joke.

"Because he didn't want to get"–she paused and fingerspelled–A I D S. "AIDS. Hearing aids. Get it?"

Judging from how Shane paused and looked over at Rocco, in the kitchen, digging a beer out of the cooler, Shane must have heard something from Rocco about her. The little shit. All she'd done was spend one night out in the woods with him, watching him gripe. Eventually, they had stretched out beside the bonfire and messed around.

The next day, when they were sitting and waiting for math class to start, he'd taken her underwear out of his backpack and thrown it at her, laughing, but with a face like maybe he was disgusted with her. She had thrown them under her desk. See if I care, she had thought. I'm leaving, just you wait. With a wishing so deep that it felt like nausea, she wished that Rick could drive up right then in his pick-up and take her away somewhere.

Risa crossed her arms on the table and rested her chin on her stacked hands. Heavy-lidded and sweaty, Shane lounged in the kitchen chair. His gray-green eye opened wider than the other, and his hands formed fragments of thoughts. Doesn't matter, Risa caught, with and then some slurred fingerspelling, mostly consonants.

Her chest pressed against the table, Risa felt her heartbeat rattling the formica. She wondered if anyone else could see how she had a secret, how she was loved by someone none of them knew. Rick was the first hearing man she'd ever met who seemed not to need anything from her, who liked Risa for herself, and not simply because she was a pretty deaf girl. He was older, twenty-four, divorced, with a daughter he rarely saw.

They'd met at a bar; he'd come up to her and fingerspelled, H-O-W A-R-E, then laughed and pointed at her chest, bringing the slurred question to her. She'd fallen in love with his awkward, thick-fingered fingerspelling. He'd shown her a picture of a blonde, startled-looking little girl holding a Barbie doll by her hair, and told her how much he loved his little girl and how he wanted more kids.

She sighed, a heavy one, halfway hoping that someone would ask her what was wrong. Tyrone stood beside her, overenunciating to a boy who wore headphones, the music turned all the way up, heavy on the bass. Like she used to, he must be confusing thumps with whatever hearing people called music. When she went to the bars, she never wore her hearing aids, and the bass jarred her vision, in rhythm. The music pressed thumbs into her eye sockets, ba bump, ba bump.

Before meeting Rick, she'd never talked when a man sat down next to her, just nodded and smiled whenever his mouth moved. But then she'd met Rick and he'd encouraged her to use her voice and to wear her hearing aids even though they didn't work and the earmolds rubbed sores in her ears. He had a funny little blonde moustache under his lip. She smiled. He listened to her.

Across the room, her cousin Marjie looked down at her watch, her mouth pressed shut, trying to stifle a yawn. Loosen up, Risa thought. Their fathers were brothers and had gone to the school together twenty years ago. Risa's daddy had left for the city while her uncle stayed and started up a deaf Holiness church, called Tenderly and Sweetly Jesus, with a sign showing hands holding a dove. He talked a lot about Jesus Time.

Risa waited until Marjie looked up in her direction and with an exaggerated motion, crossed her own arms. Marjie rolled her eyes, and without uncrossing her arms, tapped her fingers together, asking, do do?

Still in love with W O O D S?

Irritated with her cousin's smug face, Risa hit the falling emphasis on crazy-in-love and used the name sign she'd seen the sophomores use. She felt Tyrone turning toward her.

Still S L U T? Marjie shot back from across the room.

Risa held up her middle finger.

Tyrone put a hand on her shoulder in a movement that held her in place and pressed her away. "Ladies," she saw on his lips. He windmilled his other hand in Marjie's direction, motioning her toward him. He must have a crush on Marjie. Risa shrugged his hand off her shoulder.

As if he were on tv, Tyrone put his hands together in a prayer. "You two--family," he said and signed, his eyes on Marjie.

No, Risa signed slowly for his understanding. Who cares? Not me. She pointed at everyone. You—you—you, I don't need.

She backed away from them and stood with her feet apart, ready to shout. Her cousin did the same. Tyrone stepped to the side, out of their line of vision.

Risa swept her hand in a circle before her, including everyone there. One month, we graduate, but you are stuck. She lingered on the v-shape, the fork in the throat. Ten years later, what will change? Marjie, a teacher at a state school. Rocco, living off his family. Tyrone, alone at a computer, or on the line, like everyone else here.

A sharp movement from Rocco: peabrain talk.

From Marjie: think yourself. You closed mind.

Tyrone looked puzzled. "What?" he asked his friend, who shrugged and tried to turn up the volume on his tape player.

Marjie shaped the signs a beat too slow, emphasizing the sarcasm. And yourself? You win L O T T E R Y? Marry rich hearing?

Take care of myself, can. Risa told her cousin.

Marjie turned away and signed something Risa couldn't see to Rocco.

Risa leaned forward and grabbed her arm. Look at me. Know I can. Believe me.

Curious: why?

As far back as Risa could remember, Marjie had been lucky. She just was, and it had nothing to do with looks or personality because as everybody knew, Risa was the good-looking, easy-going one. Marjie rubbed people the wrong way. But people didn't dare try to walk all over her. And she'd gotten a full scholarship for a university in the west, a school where many deaf people went.

I'm leaving, she finally signed.

Ok. Tell me. Marjie pointed at her chest, held the point for a moment, and then waved Risa forward, but with a movement that could mean, come here, or it could mean, confess. Or it could mean, come on, a challenge. Risa sighed. Marjie also looked as though she waved hello to her own self.

The last time things had been calm and easy was a few years ago, when she and Marjie, their brothers and sisters, and their fathers drove downriver one summer day. Only Marjie and Risa and her brother had inherited the deaf gene, but everyone signed and made up goofy name signs while they grilled hot dogs. On the way home, their dads sat up front, and the kids stretched out in the back of the pick-up, looking up at the stars scrolling by, the wind blowing over their bodies. She wanted that feeling again, of leaving and returning, comfortable, sweaty, tired, and close.

Risa paused. How to tell her family about Rick? She knew her father and uncle wanted her to be with other signers–hearing or deaf–just so she could always communicate and understand. Sometimes, though, she wanted to meet new people. She wanted to know things her family didn't know.

Her pulse raced at the thought of meeting Rick next month at the Greyhound and then leaving. It was difficult to lipread him, but she always put her hands on his shoulders and moved him so the light fell on his face. When she did, he seemed so touched, he put a hand over hers, and she knew he was the one.

They wrote e-mail letters back and forth. He'd talk about the sign language class he was taking, and sign it, luv u, Rick. Rick and Risa, she wrote in her notebook, with fancy handwriting, taking care that no one saw the scribblings. She wasn't yet eighteen, and so she had to keep it quiet. In the school's computer lab, she made sure to get a terminal over in a corner, and day after day, they made plans about the kind of house they would buy, what kind of furniture they would get once they figured out where to live, where he'd get a job. He had learned the deaf language for her, he wrote. She was his. She'd always be grateful.

Nothing, she told her cousin. Good L U C K college.

OK, fine, Marjie told her. Don't tell me. Your decision.

But then Marjie reached out and squeezed her cousin's arm. Risa nodded, feeling strong enough already, for what lay ahead.


*"What Lay Ahead" is presented in three parts. Part 1 appeared in the September issue. To read it, click here. Part 2 was published in the September issue. The Wordgathering version of this story is lightly edited from original publication in The Tactile Mind Quarterly, Vertigo issue (Winter 2003-2004). Copyright is held by author. Reprints simply need to acknowledge original publication.


Kristen Harmon is a professor of English at Gallaudet University. She has published short stories, creative non-fiction, and academic work on a range of topics, from Deaf Studies to sign language studies to narrative analysis. She is co-editor of two volumes of Deaf American Prose (1830-1930 and 1980-2010) with Jennifer Nelson. One more thing. The set of related stories in "What Lay Ahead" won an honorable mention in STORY magazine's last Carson McCullers Short Story Prize (1999).