It was no wonder Pops was going deaf. He had worked on a Ford assembly line most of his life. He didn’t seem to care much about losing his hearing, but I noticed how more and more he sat off to the side at gatherings, not participating. Most of the family gave up even trying to call him on the phone. We could tolerate him shutting down; it was his choice. But when the bathroom overflowed because he couldn’t hear the water running, and he didn’t go to the shelter because he didn’t hear the tornado warning sirens, something had to be done.
I was the one who pushed most, the oldest of the siblings and the one who lived closest to Pops, so I got the job. His condition bothered me more than the others, I think. It was like he was dying a slow death. He used to be a man who flourished as the center of attention, an inveterate flirt, always at the head of the table. He loved telling ancient, Borscht Belt-type jokes, as embarrassing as they were hilarious.
“A little boy wrote Santa Claus,” he said to the grandkids. “‘Santa Claus, give me a sister.’ And Santa Claus wrote back, ‘Okay, send me your mother’.” I’m not sure my kids understood the joke, but they howled. “See how red your grandmother’s face is,” he said to them. “What do you suppose that means? Santa Claus might be your grampa.” And the kids shrieked.
He lost interest in a lot of things after Mom died. The stream of jokes dried up. The one thing he kept at was his woodworking. Maybe he had an addiction to noisy machines. He kept turning out useless objects (wooden candle holders, cracked soup bowls) and pawning them off on whoever faked admiration.
He was in his workshop, his arms covered with sawdust when I came over to take him to his audiology appointment. He acted like it was a surprise, and I was afraid that he had forgotten, but beneath his coveralls he was wearing his good slacks.
On the way to the clinic he didn’t say a word. I couldn’t tell if he was resentful or simply passive. I felt almost obligated to review the forms he filled out in the reception area to see if he’d been truthful about his hearing loss.
When Pops’ name was called, he told me to stay put, he’d be okay going it alone. I resumed my reading of an old Vanity Fair.
The appointment seemed to take forever. I heard Pops’ laughter before the door opened, a sound unheard for a long time.
“Is this your son?” the audiologist asked, indicating me.
“That’s him. The one who keeps bugging me,” Pops said.
She took my hand, introducing herself. A lemony smell, faint but sharp, drifted my way. Her eyes were dark and amused. I could tell she liked Pops, and he had a sizzle that wasn’t there before. It was not surprising; Doctor Rivera with her shiny black hair and her almond skin was a knockout.
“I’m going to take your father outdoors to test some hearing aids with background noise,” she said. “It shouldn’t take too long.”
I watched the silent show through the lobby windows. The audiologist helped Pops situate the devices first in one ear and then the other. Except for her thumb, she had a ring on every finger of her left hand. Once the hearing aid was in place, she and Pops waited until a bus or a big truck drove by and when it did, the audiologist kept talking. Though I could barely hear the rumble of the bus, I imagined I could hear her voice, not the words but the tone, smooth as caramel.
Pops kept sidling up to her, not in any way that would seem outrageous or blatant to a casual observer. She engaged his hands in putting in and removing the hearing aids. She had a lot of experience in directing and deflecting male attraction.
Back inside, Doctor Rivera told Pops to make another appointment for a fitting. On the way home Pops was more talkative than he had been in months. I asked him if the aids had worked, whether he was going to buy a pair.
“Hell, no. Too expensive,” he said.
“Then why did you make another appointment?”
“Are you blind? Did you get a look at that flight deck?”
“Flight deck” referred to an old joke involving two sex-starved pilots home on leave. A “chestnut”, Pops once called it. The “flight deck,” featured an oval neckline dipping down to a glimpse of cleavage.
“I told her the one about the deaf guy and the prostitute. ‘Member that one? Right up her alley.” Here emerged from his shell was the old Pops. Be careful, I told myself, what you wish for.
A week later he had not changed his mind: he wasn’t going to spend that kind of money. I knew he had the money to spend. I told him then that there was no reason to keep the appointment, that I wasn’t going to take him.
He said, “I’ll get there on my own.”
He was waiting on the porch when I arrived. He had on a tie and was carrying a narrow package.
“What do you have there?” I asked.
“I made something for Doctor Rivera,” he said.
As we drove across town my curiosity swelled. “What did you make her?”
He took it out of the box and undid the tissue. I audibly gasped, though not audible to him.
“What is it?”
“Are you blind? It’s a whale,” he said. “Doctor Rivera loves whales.”
That was a whale and I was Doctor Freud seeing penises in unlikely places. Pops swaddled it in the tissue and put it back into the box.
The appointment seemed to last longer than the first. Again I heard Pops cackle before he emerged. Doctor Rivera was wearing a lilac colored blouse. A strand of amethysts festooned the “flight deck.” She barely acknowledged me. She bussed Pops’ cheek when she said goodbye. It did not seem very professional.
“Listen to that,” Pops said as we were walking to the car.
“That bird. Are you deaf?” It was a mockingbird, high on a wooden light pole over Anza Street. Pops was wearing hearing aids.
“I can turn them back in within twenty-eight days,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to do.”
“How did the audiologist like your gift?”
“Loved it. Said she was going to add it to her collection. You don’t need to shout.”