No good deed
GUSTAV WERNER’S EYES were glazing over. He’d been staring at the screen for a half an hour or more. It was about the kind of saint he saw in himself. In his dreams. It was an op-ed piece on a man who’d given a shirtless beggar or vagrant a shirt. Gustav made it all the way to the part where the beggar’s friends, not knowing or being aware of the generosity of the man, had thrown empty beer bottles at the saint as he walked by an alley they were haunting; the beggars were looking out for their own, they claimed. The man with the shirt, the man with the extra shirt, was setting a bad precedent. “How’d he know Bran even don’t have no shirt else? He does! He has at least two. I seen ‘em.” When Gustav’s attention reached the end of the line, and took him back to the beginning, he would start reading all over, his hard crystal blue eyes blinking several times to try to regain some focus.
Gustav couldn’t have told anybody why he was interested in stories of this type; they didn’t seem like the kind of stories Gustav would like. After all, the man was tall and spare, with a stomach that was just beginning to protrude beyond his waistline in his fifties, with a long white and black goatee. He only wore black, or gray. His students thought he cut the perfect figure for the subject he taught: the Occult.
A light on the wall flashed. Gustav looked up, and then at the clock. 4:30 in the afternoon.
With a sigh, he pushed his chair back from the table. Rising to his feet, he bent close to the screen one last time: “Onlookers were shocked, even outraged when they saw the gentle Smith being attacked. ‘He was doing something good,’ one bystander said in disbelief.”
Gustav opened the door. A tiny woman with a blonde braid that hung to her waist was standing there; she signed: “Hi. How are you? Am I late?”
She frowned and nearly looked down at her wrist when Gustav signed back: “No, not at all. Come in.”
A huge smile wreathed the little woman’s face. She flowed into the condo; Seanna had such poise and presence it seemed that she dwarfed any room she swept into. Ever conscious about her outfit, she had worn a light blue embroidered empire-waist blouse over matte grey pants with pink pumps. When she’d arrived at Gustav’s place, she had a minx fur coat draped over her arm. Without his even noticing, Seanna had somehow draped the coat over the back of a white and gray plaid sofa.
The sofa definitely stood out from the dark army of furniture otherwise placed in the condo. The loveseat-sofa set had been Gustav’s sole concession to Siobhan so far as the décor of the living area in the condo was concerned. Two large solid-looking dark oak shelves flanked an electric fireplace. A maple roll-top desk posed on the wall opposite the fire place. There were an assortment of end tables that looked as though they’d been thrown in the air and left where they landed. The dining room table was a lighter stain than most of the furnishings. It was also the least imposing of the decorations. Gustav was happy here, though; his research and own publications on display for whomever would come over. Siobhan let him have his darkness. He was good like that.
Seanna froze when she saw the laptop on the table. “Ah,” she signed, “I have interrupted your work.”
“Oh, no. No you really did not,” Gustav signed back. “I was reading the paper. Ah, a news story of some sort.”
Gustav scratched his head, adjusted his glasses.
“Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, thank you. Perhaps later. Now tell me,” she signed, “what’s new?”
Gustav didn’t reply for a moment. He just stared at Seanna, studying her, his eyes going over every little detail as if he was verifying it was really her. Gustav detected a slight tremor running through the otherwise well-composed Seanna, almost a…shimmering. She looked as though she possessed some magical secret. Gustav knew, though, that he tended to seek out the mystic in the mundane.
Seanna sat down casually on the white sofa, while he strolled over to the roll-top desk and pulled out a plush cherry leather chair on wheels. Setting himself up directly across from Seanna, he finally sat down, bobbing his head in her direction.
“Where to begin? I don’t even know if it’s worth talking about; I’m not convinced it is even…real yet. Come. I’ll see. I will see, but you can understand, provenance is so important with these old things…”
Seanna interrupted: “Wait. What ‘old things?’”
“I’m getting there.”
She’d ruffled the old professor. He had not taken time to organize himself, not like he would have if he’d been given time to write out a lecture.
“Uh, some time ago, perhaps two weeks, maybe closer to a month, I received an email from a French colleague. He was very excited. He told me he had come across a profound and startling discovery while wandering close to Dole, in Franche-Comté. It is…something that appears to be a recipe, a list of ingredients of the strangest, most outré sort.”
Gustav’s eyes flashed with an excitement he was loathe to conceal, sending cracks through the stoic armour.
“My colleague thinks that he is in possession of the recipe for the salve that Garnier might have used to turn himself into a werewolf. He is coming, soon, later, I don’t know, so that we can study it together.”
“But that’s fantastic,” Seanna signed. “That could be ground-breaking. Kramer and Sprenger never even found such a thing; well, we don’t think they’d ever found such a thing…although…”
“Ha. I would argue that they must have had some such thing. It seems preposterous that they could hunt out the details of specific rites, special days, ways in which witches, demons, and so forth could come and play hell with your life. Far too detailed. Far too detailed.”
Seanna’s nostrils flared. If he could have heard anything, Gustav would have heard the sniff.
“Well,” Seanna’s hands flew, “I’m not convinced by that. That’s purely circumstantial, pure conjecture and you know it.” She pointed an accusing finger at Gustav, as if he were a misbehaving child.
Gustav waved his hands to calm Seanna down. “Ah, it might be, but still. There’s definitely a chance that this is something worth getting excited over. Of course, there’s the same possibility that it’s just a hoax. Even if it is that, however, it may still prove enlightening. That will depend entirely on the age of the artifact, though. At any rate, it is impossible to do more than guess at the possibilities before we’ve even seen the damn thing.”
Gustav’s hands lapsed into stillness. He resumed his study of his friend, looking closely at every inch of her. She was still…shivering?
“Are you feeling alright, Seanna?”
“I am. Perhaps I am better than alright. I have some very exciting news. I had almost forgotten about it when you began telling your exciting news.”
. Gustav smiled; he always only had a tiny shift in the corners of his mouth. The smile was small, as if it was held in suspension and the next moment a judgement would be formed that would prove the falsehood of the thing. It was his habit to play his hands close to his chest. People who didn’t know Gustav very well thought he was either shy or timid, in spite of his height and undeniable physical presence. But those who knew him knew he was fearless. He’d taken up a role as an outspoken opponent to the idea of the occult in the realm of paranormal television shows; pretending to show white noise and static on small “ghost-o-meters”, he called them, as if proof of ghosts was really evidence of the para-normalcy of the producers and actors involved. For all his years of research in the occult, especially in the area of magic and supernatural transformation, he had never spent much time giving credence to the idea of ghosts. He admitted that the notion of the free-floating spirit, the consciousness no longer found in a body, was useful for an understanding death and moving on, but as the instruments of revenge from a bitter demon, or in the figure of the grudge holding poltergeist, it was ridiculous.
“But, tell me your news, Seanna.”
Seanna’s hands now fluttered about, but they weren’t saying anything. She fretted over her skirt, brushing at imaginary lint. Then she twirled and tugged on her hair, a habit she flat out denied having. Gustav waited. He wasn’t in any hurry. Seanna had known Gustav for so long, she knew that he could wait forever. Once he had sat still while she ranted for two hours. He hadn’t budged and he never tried to get a hand in edgewise until she had completed her filibuster.
“Well,” she signed, “I may not have to wear hearing aids for much longer!” Seanna fairly glowed. Her smile, small as his had been, was like a lantern in a dark room. Yeah, four ears is going to be gone for good!”
Gustav pursed his lips. His eyes narrowed.
The hands were distracted, his fingers going through the motions of finding words.
Suddenly, a movement caught Gustav’s eye. Siobhan flew into the living room, not even taking his shoes off. Gustav glared at his partner’s feet even while they joyfully greeted each other. He watched disinterested as they exchanged small talk. The sound of the words as his mind read their hands was distant. He didn’t know how to say what he thought. Yet. Siobhan was a welcome diversion just then. Gustav was grateful for the time to reflect. But soon, his partner and his best friend separated, having somehow caught up on many things in just a few instants. Siobhan glanced over at Gustav.
“Did you have a good shopping trip?”
“Of course. It would have even been better had I known that this gem of a woman was coming over. I’d have loved to have been here earlier but you probably have that professional curiosity to get out of the way, anyway.”
Without another sign, Siobhan rose up, taking his coat off as he walked away.
“He’ll be back,” Gustav signed to Seanna.
Seanna grinned, then signed: “But – but what do you think? Did you think about it? I’m so excited. I can’t tell you. Fifty years of these fucking hearing-aids. Fifty years of ear wax and batteries. Dear gods. And ALL the things got shoved down my ear canals! To be done with that! To be free of this little mechanical masterpiece.”
Seanna went still, hands falling limp in her lap, gaze fallen to the floor. She still glowed. She still seemed to tremble, to shiver in the warmth of Gustav’s condo. Gustav went on waiting for Seanna to look up, to give him her attention once more.
When she did look up, Gustav signed: “But you’ve always had one. You’ve always been this way. I remember, I remember the tiny girl with your poor ears flipped out with your big behind-the-ear aids. I remember the fun you used to tell me about when it the teachers would forget to turn off their FM units. Don’t you remember any of that with fondness, too?”
Seanna stared for a minute.
Her face, unable to restrain entirely the excitement that had pervaded her being since arriving at Gustav’s place, still trembled; but now confusion writhed its way maliciously across her features. In her angry stare, Gustav could read the line that he had crossed. It didn’t faze him. Much. Seanna had the ability to dominate a room emotionally. She was the very vibrancy of cells and consciousnesses colliding. She was the complete effigy of emotion’s art. Gustav thought about how to continue.
“There must be some benefits, I suppose. You are clearly excited…”
He couldn’t go on; his hands froze in place as though he’d become arthritic in that last moment. He wasn’t telling the truth. It was as if Seanna was burying a close friend, a relative. Did you burn or bury hearing aids? he wondered, alone for the moment. Staring at his friend’s ears, he thought about all the times he had actually registered their existence. Strangely enough, considering how long he had known her, he could recall only a handful of times that he actually saw them, thought about them, registered their existence.
“Yes. I am excited.”
A formality had entered Seanna’s fingers, clipping her signs off as though she were new to the signing game, as if they hadn’t known each other their whole lives: “But I guess I did want to know what you thought,” she came back. “What do you think, Gustav?”
His mouth registered a bigger grin than before.
“I am hesitant. You know I’ve always been deaf, just like you’ve always been hard-of-hearing. I’ve never even imagined a world where I could hear; or, well, maybe I’ve imagined it, but I’ve laughed it off just as quickly. It’s ridiculous.”
If it was possible, Gustav’s grin had gotten bigger.
“I am Gustav, an old deaf man. Siobhan is deaf, too, though not from birth. I would wager that feels as I do. Even if it is a newer state for him, it is irrevocably tied to how he sees himself. Just as we don’t entertain, any longer, the notion of maybe being straight, we know that this is who we are. And life, as you know, can be, is, just wonderful. I suppose I don’t understand; I can’t understand. No one has put the offer that you have in front of me. No one has ever given me the option to be hearing. Be impaired, Seanna. Be un-impaired, Seanna. You know we love you. Don’t think badly on your condition. We don’t. You’ve always been for us, so we’ll support you too.”
Seanna blushed, and grinned, too.
“You know I can get carried away. I wasn’t thinking about what it was like for you. But deafness has never seemed to get you down. No one shoves foam blocks down your ears to make a mold.”
She paused while a sadness came over her features, warring with some other violence in her memory.
“You had a place, she signed, anger in her eyes: No one called you four ears. No one pumps an uncomfortable amount of water down your ear to rid you of wax build-ups. You don’t have to deal with hearing aid batteries as an expense…all hells, Gustav. I didn’t belong with you and the deaf. I didn’t belong with the hearing.”
“You’re right,” Gustav replied. “But don’t downplay who you are just because of some discomfort. We’re not getting younger. Aren’t we too old to adapt to new lives?”
“No, I’ve got a bone to pick with that.” Seanna puffed out a breath, an exaggerated sigh. “Well, I don’t know. I just don’t know. I didn’t think about the identity part, though; for me, this thing has always been a drag. But it doesn’t have to be, I suppose.”
“I know that I couldn’t do something like that, follow through on whatever operation was held out to me, cochlear implants, or whatever. I can’t be conceived of as Gustav without being deaf; there is no plane of existence where I am a hearing individual. If there were, it would not be Gustav Werner, it would be some other manifestation of existence. It wouldn’t even touch me. Seanna, my dear, it wouldn’t be me.”
Gustav’s fingers seem to slow, to become ponderous movements of a heavy, heavy flesh.
“You couldn’t be dearer to me than the way you are. I’m sure that Siobhan feels the same way. There’s no version of you that we wouldn’t love, that we wouldn’t have by our sides, within reason, of course. Hearing, or otherwise, you belong to us as friend. But I wouldn’t have you damage your relationship with yourself, either. Not over something so trivial as hearing aids. They are not your enemies; they are little vehicles of your essence which we cherish, which fill our lives by coming with you as a total package. Know this, at least: We Love You. We don’t believe it’s necessary for you to do this thing. We could not live fruitfully, be living, working deaf people if we thought for one minute that our condition required anything like a cure. We couldn’t be pressed upon in that way. Or, if we were, we’d rise up out of the ashes of the abled nightmare to stand before them as whole and on fire. We have passion. We have love, we have life. There’s nothing else to be desired.”
Seanna went still, taking it all in. He was performing open-heart surgery right, as if he had been opening up a vein in front of her to show where the pulse of identity lay, where it could dominate and infuse with passion the kind of dialogue that either she knew she hadn’t had or hadn’t thought of.
“What about all the things I’m missing, the things that hearing people take for granted?”
“What about them?”
“They have something, a kind of experience that you and I don’t. Well, and your experience is different again than mine. Don’t you think about that?” Seanna’s eyes brightened in hopes of scoring a point.
“We do as well, whether you like to think of it as something they don’t experience or not.”
Gustav sighed. His patience was beginning to run thin, but he wasn’t sure why. He normally projected a calm surface to all who would sail on a dialectic journey with him. He took a deep breath, and, glancing at the time, he stood up.
“Sweet Seanna. Dear Seanna. We have to say good-bye for now. I’m afraid I now have to run off to a meeting, then get prepared for the hoax/discovery to come by. Forgive me.”
He stood and gently raised her up, hand in hand.
She came to a little and signed, “I hope it isn’t a hoax, Gustav. I hope it really is a real find.”
“Yes, well, the stuff dreams are made of, I’m sure.”
They hugged each other at the door.
As she turned around, Seanna caught sight of herself in the mirror hanging beside the door. Though Gustav was still right behind her, all she could see at that moment was herself. She wasn’t sure about the operation anymore, whether to do it or not; but for the moment, she didn’t hate the hearing aid she was looking at. She tucked her hair behind her ear, and gracefully strode to the elevator.