LEARNING TO LISTEN | by elizabeth fischer


Anna wears a veil because of the operations. Each time they cut out some
more of her mouth and tongue. Now she can hardly speak and can only eat
liquid foods. She wears the veil because she doesn't want to embarrass her

There is a knock on the door and Herb rushes to open it. Anna can hear
excited murmurs from outside and Herb fumbling with the lock. Then she
hears the door swing open and Herb is saying it's Judith, Judith and her
friends. Then he says, oh please, please come in, we have been expecting
you. Our Judith and her friends. Any friends of our grand-daughter are
friends of ours too, he says.

They crowd into the living room and there's Anna, eyes twinkling above her
veil. She rises with difficulty from a chair. Judith says everyone's name
and Anna takes their hand. She says, welcome, so nice to meet you. Then she
looks at their faces and thinks, will I scare them. They look so young, she

Herb is running in and out of the kitchen, bringing food, setting the
table. Anna is watching from her chair. He's so happy, she thinks, happy
Judith is here. And she brought her friends.. She watches them. Then she
smiles with her eyes.

They have been married for a long time, Herb and Anna. Herb used to teach
in the city, before, before Anna got sick. Before Anna got sick, they used
to make plans. Plans to travel, to go around the world. Then Anna had the
first operation, and Herb had to quit work.

They sit down around the table, Rose and Jack on one side Judith and Ingrid
on the other. Herb sits on the piano stool and Anna stays in her chair.
Herb says, have some sandwiches, I made them for you, we thought you might
be hungry after your trip. And we gave you Anna's room, he says, she sleeps
out here, and that way I can be closer if she needs anything.
Doesn't Anna want to eat, Rose asks. Oh no, Anna waves her hand., later.
Anna will eat later, Herb says, she can't eat this kind of food. Anna waves
from her chair.

Anna is thinking, I can't bear to have them watch me eat.

It's a small apartment and it is very crowded with things. In the living
room, the big table with many chairs. A piano. Anna's bed. There are many
pictures around the walls, most of them of Judith. They look at a large
photo of Judith as a little girl with long braids. Then they look at
Judith, then back at the picture. Everyone laughs. It's like a secret, this
picture, and Judith looks embarrassed. But then she laughs too. Ingrid
says, Rose paints you know. Maybe, one day, she'll paint a picture of
Judith. The today Judith. To hang in this room, she says. Oh, Herb looks
pleased, oh. Wouldn't that be fine, he says and smiles at Anna.

After eating, they all follow Herb down the hall. He is showing them the
room where they will sleep. There are two beds for the four of them. Herb
says I will sleep in another room with the door open. That way I can hear
Anna. In case she needs anything. At the last minute, Jack decides to sleep
in the van. There is not much room, he says, and besides, I don't want
someone to break in and steal our stuff.

Anna looks around the little room with the two beds. The blankets, the
pillows, the chest of drawers. This used to be our room, before. She is
thinking. She's thinking, before, before. And before that, this was
Judith's room.

The next day, they get up early. It is Saturday and tonight they play in
the city. Herb makes them breakfast. and they sit around the table. They
are all very excited. They say, Anna too. Anna come sit with us, tonight we
play in the city. Herb pulls out a chair for Anna. Anna sits down beside

Anna looks at Rose, eyes twinkling. She says, we're so glad you came. Rose
looks at Anna, she doesn't understand. Rose looks at Anna some more. Anna
strokes Rose's hand.

Then it's time to leave. Herb follows them to the truck. He says, you're
coming back, aren't you. You'll be back tonight, won't you. I gave you the
key, didn't I, he says. Of course, they say, of course we'll be back
tonight. It's going to be late though, they say, don't wait up. Herb
laughs, oh, we'll be up allright. We'll be up allright, he says, and he
smiles at Judith.

They are driving into the city. Jack is at the wheel, and Rose sits beside
him. Ingrid and Judith are sitting in the back. Wow, Jack says, as they
drive by another wrecked car at the side of the highway, wow. Rose laughs.
A small town boy is this Jack, she says. Then she turns towards the back.
Hey, Judith, she says. How come there are no pictures of your mother, only
of you.

Judith looks out the window. My mother was fucked up on drugs, she says. So
she left me with her parents. I was raised in this city, she says, I ran
away from here and now I'm back.

Ingrid puts her arms around Judith.

It's Saturday afternoon and the city is very crowded, cars and people
everywhere. All the cars are honking their horns and all the people are
yelling, Pedestrians, shop-keepers, beggars, everyone. Or that's how it
seems to Rose. Hey, I can do that too, yells Jack, and weaves a zigzag with
the van, horn blaring. A man with a dirty rag looms out of the car-exhaust
and gestures a wipe at their windshield. Jack stops yelling and steps on
the gas. Ingrid says from the back, hey Jack, I bet you're getting paler by
the minute. Rose looks over at Jack, who's tightly clutching the wheel.
Yep, Rose says, our small town boy has lost his small town glow. He's now
an unusual shade of light green, I believe. Fuck you all, Jack says, crazy
women. And then they all laugh and jump up and down in the seats. We're
here, we're here, they say. Yuh shit, Judith says, I'm here. But she laughs

Judith is giving directions. She says right here left here, oh no turn
back, that's it, turn right. The city changes as they drive. Here, the
buildings are getting shabbier, and then come broken windows. Gee, they
sure have a lot of fires around here, says Ingrid in a small voice. Rose
thinks to herself, a war zone. It's strange, and I like it, she thinks.
Burned gray stone, blind.

Then they stop. This is the address they were given. The address of the
club where they are going to play.

It's a small ruin in a landscape of larger ruins. The windows are bricked
in and there is an iron grate across the door. It is barred They pile out
of the van and Judith yells, hey Then she yells, hey, wake up, we're here.
There's an answering shout from inside the building and steps come running.

The man undoing the lock at the gate looks like he just woke up. We didn't
expect you quite this early, he says, you'll have to excuse us, we haven't
cleaned up from last night yet. He creaks the gate open. Come on in, he
says, come have some coffee, and then you can bring your stuff in.
They pile out of the van and go inside. The club is downstairs, in the
basement. They look around, bewildered. It's very small, and he walls are
painted to resemble something roman. Or just Italian, they are not sure. At
one end is a large stage, twice the size of the room itself, draped in
tattered velvet. The whole place is ablaze with colours. It's also
phenomenally dirty.. Rose slowly turns in a circle, looking. Then she looks
at the other. They are all laughing. Wow, this is great, we love it they
say. The owner of the place smiles at them and wipes a piece of cloth
across the bar. Well, Rose thinks to herself, well. The glory that was
Rome, she thinks, and here I am.

That night, the place is full. First one band plays, then it's their turn.
Jack is nervously screwing drums into drums into drums. Ingrid helps them
set up on the stage and then she's off to wrestle with the sound-system,
which is, at best, barely functional,. Before leaving she says, I guess
I'll just have to turn you guys up real loud, maybe it'll cut through the
din. Judith laughs and says, fuck it, it's okay, doesn't matter, I'm having
a good time anyway. And what about you, she says, looking at Rose. Yeah,
well, Rose says, I like it here. It's so, ah, historical. And then she
says, hey, Ingrid, get us some beers, will ya.

The noise in the place is deafening. They put on their instruments and then
the owner gets on the microphone. He says, and now from this and that
place, this and that band, they have traveled a long way, give them a hand,
etcetera., and then the sound system groans into action. A wall of
feed-back emerges and rattles the glasses at the bar. No one pays any
attention, they just talk louder. Jack is beating his drums, grinning
idiotically into the void. Judith has shut her eyes and is jerking around
the stage, propelled by her bass. What the fuck, Rose thinks to herself,
hits her keyboard with one hand, grabs the microphone with the other, and
shrieks into it as loud as she can. Still, no one gives a shit, except
Judith who has now opened her eyes and is killing herself laughing. She
sidles over to Rose and yells let's play as loud and as fast as we can and
then it'll be over. Well, I can't hear a fucking thing I'm doing, Rose
yells back, so what the hell.. Poor Ingrid, she yells, there goes her
reputation. Judith takes a slug of her beer, turns her back to the audience
and yells, hit it Jack, hit it as loud as you can, let those male hormones
fly, this is your big chance. Jack wipes the sweat out of his eye, stands
up, then leering maniacally smashes down on his drums with a big crash.,
Judith flailing madly along. So much for poetry, Rose thinks and let's out
a long, vile, deafening scream.

The owner is yanking on Rose's pant leg. She stops screaming and bends down
to him. He says into her ear, great, great, twenty minutes are over, time
for the next band. She stands up, gestures a stop at Judith. Judith stops
playing, then Jack stops too, bewildered. The audience keeps talking.
What's up, Jack says, why did we stop. Judith turns to him and says, well,
Jack, our twenty minutes must be up, welcome to the big city. Aw shit, Jack
mutters into his snare drum. Then he starts unscrewing things again. Judith
laughs. Can't say I didn't warn you.

Since they can't get their equipment out before the place closes, they
decide to stay and watch the next band. Jack stays near the stage so he can
stare at his drums which are stacked at the back of the stage. Rose is
thinking, well, I guess this is a humiliating experience, but I don't. feel
a thing. That's life, she thinks and hums a little tune, that's life ha
ha.. She wanders over to Judith and Ingrid who are leaning on the bar and
says, I think I'll wait for this to end outside. I need some air, she says.

It's three in the morning, the street is deserted.. In the darkness. a lone
street light spreads a misty halo, It's quiet, the din below is but a faint
murmur dissolving in the night air..

Rose leans in the doorway.

The buildings around her are splintered and worn, almost all windows nailed
silent with boards. There is the occasional scurrying flutter of light that
seeps through the cracks then disappears. The doorways are littered with
garbage, pieces of crumpled paper whisper stories to weeds sighing assent,
listen Rose, clapboard slaps blackened brick, the luck ran out is all, but
the footsteps echo still if you only listen, Rose, a life a death an empty
hole and the flickers of light timid choir chant in the tremble of dust:
hope! visitors! a story, alive.

Rose is thinking. I see a wall, a house, a city. I see the wheels rolling
by. I see babies cry and babies soothed. I see cooking in a kitchen. I see
bathing in the bathtub. I see summers on the stoop and winters around the
table. I see the store on the corner and talking to the neighbours. Walks
around the park and afternoon rain. I see rooms and windows, sidewalks, a
car, a family vacation, serious talks, children growing, a bigger
apartment, then children leaving when did they get so tall.

I see the remembered footsteps dimly echoing down.
I see two old people and pictures on walls.

There is a tap on her shoulder and Jack's voice says hey, we were worried
about you, you've been out here a long time. Oh, Rose says, it's so
beautiful here, these buildings and this light, I was just looking around.
And thinking about things. Are you out of your mind, Jack says, it's
dangerous out here at night, you could get killed by a crazed junkie or
something. Rose looks at him. For what, the five bucks in my pocket, she
says, and by the way, did we get paid. Yeah, Jack says, we got paid, we
made a big fifty bucks. Well great, whoopee shit, Rose laughs, bring on the
crazed junkies.

It's late, Judith says as she fumbles with the keys. We'd better be quiet,
they might be asleep. But no, as the door opens there is Herb coming down
the hall. You're back, you're back, he says putting his arms around Judith
and herds them into the living room. We've been waiting up for you, you
must be hungry, Look I made you some sandwiches, he says bustling around,
bringing plates from the kitchen. He stops and looks at Judith. Are you
sure you have to leave tomorrow, he says, we see you so seldom. He looks at
her friends. Are you sure.

Anna is gesturing from her bed, don't embarrass the children. Herb looks
sad for a minute then runs back in the kitchen for another plate of
sandwiches But tells us how it went, was it good, was it fun, he says from
the kitchen. Then, sitting down at the table, he says, we've been so
nervous waiting, we wanted so much for you to be a success here. Our
talented granddaughter, he says, and her friends.

It was great, Jack says putting an arm around Herb's shoulder, hey, Herb,
come show me your maps.

It was great, Rose says sitting down beside Anna, tell me about the Judith
with pigtails

It was great, Ingrid says picking up plates, no me, I will do the dishes.
It was great, Judith says, the best. Did I tell you my grandmother used to
write to famous writers. Can I get the the letters from the drawer, she
says, can we read them again.

Rose paints a picture of Judith.

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