Listen to the Deaf Man Sing
by Edward Ahern
One hundred thirty faces canted upward, staring at Stephen. Such smugness, he thought, such presumed entitlement while waiting for this odd little man to speak. An old woman topped with an obvious wig sat in the front row and stared raptly up at him. How much she looks like my mother, who never really listened to me.
“There’s no point in taping this, my recorded voice won’t convey what you’ll hear. I speak without a microphone to small groups because electronic amplification strips out the psychic flesh and leaves a shell of words.
“While you’re turning off everything except hopefully your ears you’ll see me staring at you all. What I say is decided by who you collectively are. If my sing-song reaches through to you, you’ll at first be uncomfortable or uneasy, but shortly thereafter will soar. Just wait for the awakening.
“I gather that about a third of you have paid five or ten times the face value of the ticket to get in. I’m gratified by your presence, but ask that you not come more than twice a year. The waiting list is long.
“Your faces are shaped and colored like fruit: bananas and upside-down plums and pears. And so resigned to being produce. I’ll show you the wholeness behind your rinds.”
Stephen stood in silence as the house lights dimmed. A single spotlight circled him and the rustling dwindled away. The overripe fruit faces dropped into dusk, but Stephen felt them more strongly in their vagueness.
And he began. His word rhythms surged in waves over one hundred thirty human pebbles. He felt their thoughts rustle like shaken stones, and he unthinkingly tuned his own sounds into harmony with them. And once again his consciousness washed away. When Stephen returned to self-awareness forty-five minutes had passed.
The house lights rose on a demented scene. Perhaps sixty persons sobbed and wept, while another forty prayed aloud. Almost thirty people sat motionless, beatifically transfixed. And a half dozen stood up, cursing loudly, and left.
Stephen sighed at their departure. Their fruit was already too rotten. And again I remember nothing. He glanced at Fenton, the stage manager, who nodded that, as always, his words had been recorded. Stephen would listen to these words as he had all the other recordings, but the replay couldn’t reveal the harmonics. I’m a drunken Hitler in a beer garden, too besotted to recognize what I’m arousing.
The old woman in the front row had a befuddled, bored look, and Stephen realized that she must have a hearing aid tucked under her wig. She’d listened only to words. I’m sorry, Mom, you still haven’t heard me.
He stood in silence, still tuned into the audience, then started walking off, stage left. The applause began raggedly, led by those already conscious, then palms pounded into a crescendo as the listeners came back into themselves. He walked back center stage to receive the skin-blistering claps and throaty roars. He bowed and left again, saying nothing, for he knew not what he’d wrought.
Fenton frothed at him as he walked backstage. “My God, I’ve listened to you thirty times and every time it’s like my first shot of heroin.”
* * *
The door to his dressing room was ajar. When Stephen pushed it completely open he saw two men in dark suits sitting at his dressing table.
“Can I help you? I don’t think you’re supposed to be in here.”
The taller and skinnier man held out a badge and ID. “We’re Connecticut State Police, Mr. Allan. I’m detective Sudvoy, this is detective Cranz. We need to ask you some questions.”
“Okay, but I need my chair back so I can clean off the stage makeup.”
The two men stood and Stephen sat. “Mister Allan, several people attending your talks committed suicide a day or two afterwards. We’re thinking that you’re the cause.”
Stephen dropped his cleansing tissue. “I’ve never heard that. It must be a mistake. My talks are uplifting.”
Karen stuck her head in the still open door, saw the two men and walked on without stopping in. Stephen spoke from his chair. “Would one of you please shut the door?”
Cranz swung the door shut and turned back to Stephen. “You have a suicide occurring about every other performance, way out of line with chance. We think there’s something you tell these people that sets them off, maybe it’s deliberate, maybe not, but we have to find out.”
Stephen took a closer look at the pair. They wore wingtip dress shoes and their suits looked expensive.
“That’s ridiculous. Did you listen to my talk?”
“No, we were waiting back here. Seventeen people that we know of have killed themselves. The circumstances are pretty clear, no one else was involved. Are you playing some kind of vicious mind game with your listeners?”
“Have you listened to the recordings of my talks? They’re milk and cookies, they’re vaguely like the Gettysburg address, uplifting, not Mark Antony’s incitement to riot after the murder of Julius Caesar.”
Mr. Skinny spoke again. “Yes, we’ve listened to them, and yes, they’re pretty bland. Are you using some kind of stage hypnosis?” He pulled a stack of head shots from an attaché case. “Look through these, please.”
Stephen was only halfway through the stack when Sudvoy spoke. “Recognize any of them?”
Sudvoy pulled a document out of the case and handed it to Stephen. “Until we figure this out you’re under a cease and desist order. That means that you can’t give another performance unless we’ve cleared you. We have to put a stop to the suicides.”
“You can’t do that. We’re booked solid for the next three months. There’d be thousands of refunds and claims.”
“Watch us, Mr. Allan. If you give another performance in violation of the court order you’ll be taken into custody. And we’ve notified the adjacent states to issue the same writ. We need to have you come in for questioning tomorrow morning. Would 9:30 be suitable?”
“You’ve fixed it so I’ve got nothing better to do.”
Karen had been lingering outside the room and walked up next to him as soon as the two men left. “They look like IRS accountants, Stephen. Everything all right?”
He nestled his hand on her abundant bottom. She was his anti-muse, an affectionate reality principle that kept him balanced. “No, K, it’s definitely not. I’m being shut down.”
“They can’t do that!”
“This court order says they can. I’ve got to call Murray and tell him to start refunding money. Worse, I think we’re stuck for the cost of the theater rental.”
“That’s horrible. How can they do that?”
“They said I’ve been killing people, K, driving them to suicide with my talks. It can’t be true, I feel their elation, their joy.”
“Ridiculous. I’ve listened to you a dozen times. All I do is happy-cry.” She paused. “Do you want to get drunk and laid?”
Stephen smiled wryly. “Enticing, but not tonight.”
She held him and said, “I know this can’t be true. I’ll do some checking, but the idea is stupid.”
By the time he left, his mood had darkened with the theater. Yes, there are the ones that leave in a rage. But how can I be responsible for their insanities? Doing this is who I am. Fenton and I would have cold-sweat withdrawal without our fixes.
* * *
Karen called him the next morning after he’d left the interrogation. “Are you still a free man?”
“Yeah, but they don’t like my answers. I kept telling them that I never remember what I’ve said or how I’ve said it, and they kept telling me that I was a liar who was hiding something, that nobody could affect people like I do and not know what was being said. They’re going to come after me hard, I’m afraid.”
“I’m sorry, Stephen. I did some checking, and they’re at least partly right. I’ve identified eight people thus far that killed themselves within two days of attending a performance. Different ways: gas, razor, head-on collision. They mostly didn’t leave any explanation, but the one that did said he wasn’t worthy to continue living.”
“Jesus. Did you ever feel like killing yourself?”
“No, but neither have most of your listeners. I hate to say it, but it looks like some people go off the deep end after your presentation. If you can’t control what you say, maybe stopping for a while isn’t a bad idea.”
“I don’t think I can do that, K, I’m hard wired into it now.”
Nervous tension bunched up his muscles, and Stephen started walking, clumsily at first, then more easily once he found his pace.
I can’t prescreen the audience... Maybe insist they sign waivers? No, that would only advertise that the families of the deceased should sue me. Move to England? Not likely. But how can I live without sensing their emotions? It’s my nectar and ambrosia. Without it, like the gods, I’ll just decay.
Pain. My feet hurt like hell, and my calves are cramping. Stephen realized he’d been walking for three hours in uncomfortable dress shoes. His toes and soles smarted from blisters that he suspected had already opened up and were oozing. He hailed a taxi and went back to his apartment. K was waiting for him.
“Stevie, I’ve located another five deaths.”
“Yes. It’s not surprising they’ve figured you’re the cause...”
“I’m not the cause!”
“Sorry, but if this goes any further you’ll be prosecuted or sued, or both. Right or wrong, you’ve got to quit.”
They stood three paces apart. “I can’t quit, K, I’m hooked.”
“I’ll help you. You can go back to teaching—”
“And have one of my students off himself? No, I’d have to become a night watchman or janitor, and we wouldn’t have nearly enough to live on.”
“You could go back to school.”
“I can’t, I haven’t saved anything. And I’d hate it if I could.”
“Stephen, you have to quit pitying yourself. People change jobs all the time. They do what they have to.” K left without touching him, facial muscles clinched.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Edward Ahern