Con Chapman is a Boston-area writer. His poetry has been anthologized in The Poetry Ark and Bliss, and has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Light, Spitball and Literary Dilettantes. He is the author of a collection of light verse, The Girl With the Cullender on Her Head and Other Wayward Women. He was the winner of the 2011 “Parody of Epic Proportions” contest, and a finalist in the 2009 Somerville Press Poetry Competition. He is currently working on a biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s alto sax player, for Oxford University Press.
A Prose Poem
By Con Chapman
They were a couple who looked much like any other.
He was shaped liked most middle-aged men, an egg
stood up on end; she was thinner, maybe she ate less
than him, trying to keep her figure. To look at them,
you’d have thought there were normal, which in most
ways they were, the exception being, they were mutes.
She was deaf, but he was not; they could both sign.
They worked at the county shelter for the disabled
and retarded; filling packages, making small objects
that were easy to put together. Other people at the
shelter had parents, or relatives, but they didn’t.
They’d come from someplace else, nobody knew.
They were trying to live a normal life, or as normal
as they could without the power of speech.
They didn’t want any handouts; they wanted to
earn their keep if they could. He had learned how
to play the accordion at some point in his life, and
so he had a business card printed up that said
“Liven up your next party or dinner with the sweet
sounds of an accordion!” He wouldn’t perform on
the street, like a common beggar, unless there was
something special going on, like Midnight Madness
on Main Street, or a traveling carnival was in town.
When that happened, he’d play as if part of the event,
discreetly taking a place on the edge of the scene,
smiling at the crowds who passed by. She’d take
a shoebox around with a home-made paper cover that
said “If you enjoy the music, please help us out and
make a contribution. We take no charity, but ask
that you give so that we can live. Thank you.”
One night he had been hired to play at a fish fry out
at the Community Center, the one on a pond south
of town. The man in charge of getting him to the
event picked up the couple at their home, and brought
them to his house first, so his children could meet
them. He thought it would be a good lesson for them.
“Kids,” he said when he got home, “come on down
for a second.” His son and daughter had taken their
baths and were already in their pajamas. “This here
is the couple I was telling you about at dinner last night.
They’re deaf and dumb, but they still work and earn
a living, and he practices his accordion every day.”
The children looked at the couple, who smiled down
at them. “It just goes to show,” their father continued,
“That you shouldn’t let anything hold you back, not a
speech impediment or a handicap or nothing. And if
you practice your instruments every day, you’ll get
good enough so that people will pay to hear you play.”
The man and his wife nodded at the children and smiled.
“Now say goodnight,” their mother said, and gave instructions
to the baby sitter who had come to watch the kids.
The children said “Goodnight,” and the mute woman bent down
to give them a hug. The children hung back at their mother’s
legs, but she gave them a nudge, and they hugged the woman.
When the couple had gone, the baby sitter took the children
upstairs for a story and then to tuck them in. “What did
daddy mean when he said those people were deaf and dumb?”
the boy asked. “That means they can’t talk and they can’t hear,”
the baby sitter said. “So it doesn’t mean they’re stupid?” the
girl asked. “No, ‘dumb’ also means you can’t make a sound.”
“How did they get that way?” the boy asked. “Some people
are born that way, and some people do things to themselves
that keep them from talking,” the baby sitter said.
“Like what?” the girl asked. “Oh, I don’t know,” the sitter
said. “Like opening up a soda bottle with your teeth,
or if you were in a car accident and got hit in the mouth.”
The boy and the girl went to bed and talked about what it
would be like to have parents who didn’t talk, keeping their
voices down. “We’d never get yelled at,” the girl said.
“They’d have to come get us instead of calling us to come
home from the park,” the boy said. “And they couldn’t
tell us to do our homework,” he added. “It would be fun.”
Out at the Community Center, the woman carried the shoebox
around under the Japanese lanterns while her husband played.
She thought about the house she’d been in, which was big
enough to be a boarding house—and those sweet children.
She smiled at the people, who were smoking cigarettes and
having drinks on a patio overlooking a pond; laughing, happy.
She thought back to the tiny apartment on the second floor
of the house they’d go back to later that night; one bedroom,
one bathroom, a kitchenette and a little living room with a
coffee table, a portable TV, a book case and a curio shelf.
An urge welled up inside her, twisting her air pipe like a dish
towel being wrung out, and she gave out a little moan, a cry.