By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 4/6/2020
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Chapter 3 of 'Words Apart': A Novel of Language and what makes us human.

Decker hurried out of his office building through the revolving door. The August glare and heat hit him like a bucket of hot water. K Street at 1 PM was a busy place, as crowded and full of smells as any amusement park. Vendors lined the sidewalk selling pizza-by-the-slice, egg rolls, hot dogs. People combined lunch and exercise by walking from vendor to vendor, eating a little from each one. The Post called it "grazing"; Decker called it foolishness. The food was full of fat and the four lanes of cars, cabs and buses spewed enough fumes to make deep breathing a matter of more risk than benefit.

The two nearest entrances to the Metro were each half a block away, in opposite directions. Decker chose the station nearest the zoo and walked as quickly as he could, weaving his way through the throng. He was at a disadvantage, because he couldn't excuse himself past a slower pedestrian without either touching or grunting. He had to wait for openings, then dart through them.

His wife and kids would plan to eat before meeting him, but he didn't have time for a proper lunch. He was thoroughly against eating junk food. On the other hand, when he was surrounded by it and hungry, it wasn't so easy to stick to principles. The tangy smell of fresh cinnamon donuts hit him and he gave in.

He smiled at the vendor and tapped the sign where it read 6 MINI-DONUTS—CINNAMON. The vendor grinned, wiping sweat from his ebony face, and poured batter from a scratched plastic container into his mechanical donut machine. Decker hadn't realized he'd have to wait for the treats to be fried, but it was too late now to change his mind.

The vendor smiled and moved his lips. Decker smiled and nodded. He had no idea what the vendor had said. Lip-reading was a skill that many Deaf people developed, but people who'd been born deaf, or lost their hearing in infancy as Decker had, found it almost impossible to learn.

Little paddles moved the doughy toruses along a channel. The smell of yeast was almost overpowering. When they reached the end, the vendor plucked them up with a pair of tongs and dropped them into a bag, then added liberal amounts of sugar and cinnamon and shook.

The vendor moved his lips and held out his hand. Decker had already calculated the amount, plus tax, in his head; he handed the man the exact change. As soon as he had the bag, he withdrew one of the donuts and popped it in his mouth. It was delicious, filling every corner of his mouth with warm cinnamon moistness.

Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the vendor frowning at him with a puzzled expression. Decker whirled around: sure enough, one of those bicycle-riding couriers in nylon shorts was scowling, vigorously opening and closing his mouth. Decker had no idea how long the kid had been calling to him to stand aside. Decker grinned apologetically, sheepishly shaking the bag of donuts, and pressed against the side of the donut vendor's cart. The cyclist threw his weight forward and sped off.

Decker inhaled his donuts on the way to the tall Metro pylon marking the station; it's against the rules to eat on the train. He was grateful for the dim coolness of the subway station, which enveloped him as soon as he stepped into the concourse at the bottom of the escalator. He already had his electronic pass, so it was just moments before he was on the Red Line platform. Being early afternoon, the trains ran every fifteen minutes; but he was in luck and in less than two minutes the lights at the edge of the platform began blinking in notification that a train was pulling in. In moments he was aboard and on his way toward the Zoo.

Decker took out his cell phone and texted Carole that he was about to arrive at the Woodley Park Zoo station, then put it away. Carole wasn't likely to text him back. He knew she'd be waiting and she knew he knew. They only bothered texting to convey actual information, not just pleasantries and never for idle chatting.

The car wasn't crowded but wasn't deserted, either. Decker noticed a Deaf couple at the far end of his car, a college-age boy and girl. They signed close in to their bodies, the Deaf equivalent of whispering. The distance was no barrier to Decker's eavesdropping; but he turned away. The Deaf have no secrets, at least, not from other Deaf folks.

And yet, the existence of Deaf culture itself was a secret from most Hearies. The result was a strange juxtaposition, two cultures, Deaf and Hearie, sharing the same infrastructure—this subway for example, and cell phones and highways and restaurants and stores—but each group communicating only with itself, occupying the same spaces yet each oblivious to the other. It was almost as if they lived on parallel Earths.

As expected, Decker found Carole and the kids waiting on the platform for him when he got out of the train. River, 4, and Forrest, 6, spotted him and ran to his arms, waving their own in frantic greeting. "Daddy, Daddy!" each signed, as he squatted and braced himself against their onslaught. Sometimes life with Carole could be a strain but Decker never, ever, regretted being a father.

The Woodley Park Zoo exit is the second deepest in the Washington Metrorail system; at 160 feet below ground, the escalator to the surface is almost frighteningly long, enclosed in a pipe-like tunnel of its own: Just the sort of thing a small child would find enchanting. And to be honest, the station had never lost its charm for Decker, either.

However, when the family emerged at street level, to their surprise the sky had clouded up. "Looks like rain," Carole signed.

"We'll be fine," Decker replied. Carole was a bundle of ambiguities. A stunning redhead with fine features and a killer figure, she was nevertheless a surprisingly negative person for all that she had grown up in a life of privilege. She hated the Zoo, for example, but would insist that Decker accompany the children there with her—and would then spend most of the afternoon complaining. Yet if he hadn't been able to make it, she would have complained about that.

When they first met, seven years ago, Decker had loved protecting her from any slight or imagined misfortune that might come their way. It had not occurred to him until far too late that running non-stop interference between Carole and the world might eventually grow tiresome.

In any case, the rain held off and the Goodmans entered through the main gate. "Where to first?" Decker asked the kids.

"I want to see the fairies!" little River signed. At four, she was fascinated by fairies and would have worn her own fairy costume to the Zoo if Carole had let her.

"There are no Fairies at the Zoo," Forrest, a much more mature six, scoffed. "Only animals. We can only see animals." Then, sensing his little sister's disappointment, said, "How about the elephant? We can ride the elephant! My friend Alex said so."

That got River's attention, and a warning look from Decker was sufficient to forestall Carole's objection to her children getting on top of a wild animal.

Perhaps it was the combination of its being a weekday and the building clouds, but for whatever reason the Zoo wasn't crowded and when Decker's family reached the Elephant enclosure they were first in line for the next ride. The attendant said something to River and she signed back, "I'm four."

"You have to say out loud," Decker reminded her.

"I'm four," she repeated, this time moving her lips as she signed.

The attendant said something else, and River replied in both modes, "My daddy is Deaf, so we all sign." Decker hoped the pride in River's sign for "Deaf" carried over into her voice as well.

"I can sign, too," Forrest announced, not to be left behind. He listened to the attendant, then signed to his father, "Ted says one adult can ride with us. Would you?"

Decker read the letters on the attendant's name badge: Ted Morrison. "Perhaps your mother would enjoy the chance," Decker signed back generously.

"Not me!" Carole signed promptly. "You are more than welcome to get on that thing's back. I'll wait right here, thank you very much."

River's eyes flicked back and forth between her mother and brother, weighing Mommy's fear against Forrest's lack of it. "You ride with us, Daddy, please!"

Decker grinned. "I wouldn't miss it!"

The elephant returned to the ladder where they waited, onto which the previous riders disembarked. River's eyes grew very wide as she saw the elephant up close, twice as tall as the attendant. "It's so big," she signed.

Ted gestured and nodded to Decker to climb up first; he did so and got into the basket mounted up there. The smell of the animal was strong but not unbearable. Decker peered over the side, only to see Forrest charging up the ladder. But then there was a pause. River, overwhelmed with the animal's size and the height of the basket, was having second thoughts.

"You don't have to ride the scary old animal," Carole signed. "You can stay here with me."

But the attendant would have none of that. He caught the elephant's eye and made a gesture, not ASL but some other kind of hand signal; instantly the elephant wrapped its trunk around River and, before she could even open her mouth in surprise, placed her carefully in the basket alongside her father and brother.

Since Decker was smiling broadly as he accepted the precious bundle from the quickly-unwrapped trunk, River smiled too, and didn't react to what he was certain was a shriek from Carole.

Ted directed the kids to sit at one side of the basket while Decker sat on the other. Then, suddenly, the elephant took off, in a lumbering, rolling gait that made Decker wonder how the basket could even stay mounted.

As they walked, Forrest interpreted for his father the attendant's spiel: "The elephant's name is Shanthi. Shanthi is an Asian elephant, one of four that live here at the National Zoo. They have to have several because elephants need friends or they get sick and die too young. So the Zoo makes sure they have friends…"

"This is like riding a mountain!" River interrupted, and Decker smiled at her.

When they had completed a circuit of the area, Forrest asked if the elephant could pick him up, too; Ted explained that Forrest was a little too heavy for Shanthi to lift with her trunk. But River was still afraid of the ladder, and she mimicked the attendant's gesture to Shanthi, who was looking over her shoulder at the passengers. Immediately, Shanthi reached back with her trunk and once again transferred River, this time to the ground. Carole refrained from screaming this time, but clutched at her heart and blanched nevertheless. Ted looked nearly as surprised.

As soon as Decker was on the ground and had his hands free, he asked River, "How did you know how to tell Shanthi what to do?"

"I just asked her," River replied innocently. "Just like Ted did."

Ted spoke and Forrest translated, "Those gestures aren't that simple. I've never before had anyone pick them up just by watching once."

As they left the enclosure, Carole signed without speaking. "I cannot believe that man is allowed to put young children in such danger!" she ranted. "Are you all right, honey? Your ribs aren't sore, are they?"

"I'm fine, Mommy," River assured her. "Did you know Shanthi talks with her trunk?"

"What do you mean?" Decker asked.

"Shanthi was talking to me," River insisted. "I mostly didn't understand her, but she uses her trunk like I use my hands when I talk with them."

"Shanthi is an elephant," Decker corrected kindly. "She's an animal. Animals can't talk."

"But she did talk," River insisted. "She was talking to me. I saw her."

"Honey, I know the movements of her trunk looked like signs to you," Decker acknowledged. "But animals can't talk. Only people can talk."

"Shanthi is a people!" River protested.

Decker gave up with a smile, and Forrest signed close-in, "Don't worry, Daddy. I believe you. Animals can't talk."