? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 3

Creative Nonfiction

Liz Dolan

An Ear for Language

  The first time I realized Ag was crazy was at Walgreens in the Port Authority. She had just returned from an eighteen month stay in Berkeley, California, the haven of hashish, hippies and hedonism in the seventies. Her yen to travel started after she had majored in French at City College. “I answered an ad in the New York Times for a position as a nanny in Paris,” Ag said, as she smoothed back her unruly red hair. “One odd thing, though, the father of the child requested a photo of me in a bathing suit, said we’d be spending lots of time at the beach.”
  “Sounds odd to me, too, Ag.”
  “But I need the job, great way to pay my expenses, practice my French.”
  “So get a job as a waitress; you’ll cover your expenses and practice your French that way. You may even earn a few tips, but not the kind Frenchie wants to give.”
Ignoring my advice, she worked as a nanny that summer in Paris never mentioning the man for whom she worked again; in the ensuing summers she traversed the breadth of France absorbing the liberating influences of the Gauls. It seemed to me that she was shedding like a snake the repressive layers of the Bronx-Irish Catholic culture in which she had been raised. After ten years of teaching French culture and language in as many New York City public schools, Ag announced she was moving to Berkeley; for eighteen months I never heard a word from her until a balmy September afternoon, “I’m home; it’s good to hear your voice, Eileen.”
  “I’m so busy reading all your letters, Ag; I hardly had time to answer the phone,” I said as I washed the last dish in the warm, sudsy water.
  “I’m sorry I never wrote.”
  “You’re forgiven, but you’ll have to make it up to me by telling me all about the interesting men you met. You called at the right time; we’re having a shower tonight for Rose at Diorio’s on Forty-Fifth street in Manhattan. The gang will be there. Come.”
  Glad for a few moments alone after the shower, Ag and I stopped for a quick coffee in Walgreens so we could really talk. She narrated a woeful tale of yet another unrequited love tryst with a guy, an artsy Irish immigrant much older than she whom she had followed to California, a detail she had neglected to mention to me before she left.
  “He treated you like trash in the Bronx, Ag; did you think California
sunshine was going to improve his character?”
  “I know, I know, but that schmuck is the least of my worries now. The FBI is after me.”
  “Why would the FBI be after you, of all people?”
  “They’re tapping my phone and reading my mail.”
  “Why are they after you?”
  “Damn it, I don’t know why; they just are. I’m afraid they’ll interfere
with my getting another teaching job,” she said, placing a napkin under her cup to absorb the coffee she was continually spilling because her hand was shaking.
  “Please talk softly, Eileen; he might be listening to our conversation.”
  “Who?” I asked, glancing at the bearded drunk listening to the right on the stool at the end of the green formica counter.
  “The waiter,” she said. A short, skinny, pimple-faced sixteen-year old refilled our coffee cups.
“Him?” I asked, laughing, my Sanka dribbling down my chin. “C’mon, Ag.”


  Looking up at the octagonal clock smeared with grease, I realized
I was going to miss the last bus home. Seeing that she was upset, I invited her to come for dinner on Saturday. I hugged her and told her she probably had jet lag. As I weaved my way through the homeless sleeping on the comfy floors of the luxurious Hotel Port Authority, I wondered what the hell she had gotten involved with in Berkeley. Riding up the escalator to my bus, I felt confident that the smog and traffic of New York would fix her up in no time.
  Ag looked anything but upset when she arrived at my home, red haired, relaxed and radiant in red slacks and a red mohair sweater reminding me of Lucille Ball in Auntie Mame. Ag looked as though she were reinventing herself. As I expected, she never mentioned the FBI but she did tell me she didn’t think she could return to teaching.
  “I was suspended before I went to California.”
  “Suspended, why didn’t you tell me then?” I stood by the sink with the kettle in my hand. “I thought we were best friends. For what?”
  “Insubordination, absenteeism, lateness, no lesson plans.”
  “For God’s sake, Ag, those charges were easily documented.”
  “Easily documented, easily documented? Am I on trial here?
  The charges were trumped up by a black principal who was scoring points for himself. Of all people, you know I was a good teacher.”
  Actually I didn’t know if she had been a good teacher; even though we had taught in the same school together for a year, I had never been in her classroom, nor she in mine. “I’m sorry I bothered to come.” She sat silent through the eye-round roast beef and mashed potatoes dinner I had cooked for her. Sitting next to her at our pine dining room table, my husband and two little girls ate heartily but were baffled by her silence. I begged her to stay over so I could drive her home in the morning.
  All night long I lay awake listening to her pacing back and forth downstairs in my white, beamed living room, the smell of her cigarettes wafting through the house as she chain-smoked her Marlboros. I felt ashamed that I was suddenly wary of her but I kept getting out of bed, tiptoeing into the hall to check that the door to my four and five- year-old daughters’ room was tightly shut. Totally surprised by what Ag had told me, I thought she had gotten caught up in the drug scene in Berkeley. Although I had always thought she was naive, she had been a perfectly normal kid, at least to me. I remember the fun we had to gether when I use to go to her apartment for lunch.
  Her tall, Olive Oyl mother, her jet-black hair tied neatly in a bun at the nape of her neck, fussed about the yellow kitchen, the sun streaming through the dotted Swiss café curtains. “Eat more rice pudding,
Eileen. Hurry up, Agnes; stop picking the raisins out of the pudding!
  You’re going to be late returning to school,” her mother spoke in a nasal tone that made me think her nose and mouth were inverted so she could avoid breathing the same air as the rest of us. I envisioned her words floating into, instead of out of, her mouth like little soldiers.
  As we flew down the steps of 533, Ag pinged rice-coated raisins at me. When her wrinkled artillery ran out, she bounced her Spalding, crossing her leg over the pink sphere on every “A.” “A, my name is Agnes
and my boyfriend’s name is Andy. . .” simultaneously dodging the cars on St. Ann’s Avenue as we heard the cowbell signaling our tardiness.
  As I sprinted up the street and attached myself to the fourth grade line, I could still hear Agnes, mesmerized by the rhythm of her own voice, “E my name is Ellen and . . . ” her leg turning over and over and over.
  Years later Agnes’s long leg almost got caught in the revolving door of Westchester Square Hospital where we were visiting a close friend who had delivered a baby born with a cleft palate. “Your mom must have had a cleft palate,” I said.
  “A cleft palate, what’s a cleft palate?” Ag asked, as we wended our way down the hall of the small marble-floored hospital.
  “It’s a separation in the hard palate on the roof of the mouth; it causes speech problems.”
  “Speech problems? My mother didn’t have a speech problem!” Neighbors use to say an extra decade of the rosary after Mass on Sunday to avoid exiting the church at the same time as Ag’s mother, rather than having to struggle deciphering her muffled syllables. How was it possible that Ag had never noticed it? I often thought her gift for foreign languages had developed from straining to understand the first voice she had ever heard.
  Ag and I had played and had prayed together through eight years of grammar school. And on one particular occasion, we almost drowned together. It was one of those really hot days in early June when thirteen-year-olds are eager to cast off the restraints of the school year. A slight breeze rustled through the maple and sycamore trees which arched like a cathedral over Rocky Point in Pelham Bay Park where we had decided to swim out to the moored sailboats and yachts, two lone swimmers in a prohibited area. Halfway to the boats, Ag suggested we should swim back to the shore. “No way,” I said, “the boats are closer; we’ve got to reach the boats.” And so we floated, side by side, the ice blue sky ignoring our peril.
  A red motorboat sped by; I waved and screamed, my voice drowned by the roar of the engine. “I can’t keep floating, Eileen, I’m exhausted.”
  “Please, Ag, we’re getting closer to the boats.”
  “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee,” she prayed.
  “Jesus, shut up, Ag.”
  “Pray for us sinners. Now and at the hour of our death, Amen.” Even though I was ticked off at her for praying, maybe her prayers saved us. A boat finally rescued us. I will never forget the sound of Ag’s voice praying that Hail Mary as I urged her to float on her back to save energy.
But in 1975, four weeks after she ignored my dinner, angry at both the FBI and me, she finally called me at eleven p.m., “I’m furious with my mother; she’s forcing me to have a hysterectomy.”
  “Do you know what time it is, Ag?” I said, grabbing my glasses to look at the time on the clock next to my bed. “How could your mother force you to have a hysterectomy? You’re thirty-four years old!” I said, as I sat up in my bed.
  “Trust me, she’ll find a way.”
  “Stop being so damned dramatic, are you pregnant?”
  “NO, I’m not pregnant! You’re suppose to be my friend; why are you always taking the other person’s side?”
  “I’m not taking anyone’s side, but the whole thing is ridiculous.
  I know your mother; she would never do anything so cruel.”
Five minutes later, Ag called again, “I think my mother is in cahoots with the FBI.”
“Are you drinking, what the hell is going on? Do you know what time it is? My kids will be jumping up and down on my bed at six o’clock in the morning.” Click, she hung up again. I lay in my bed with the phone cradled in my hand wondering if I was the one who was losing my mind, my husband next to me, still sound asleep. A few weeks later, almost midnight, she called, waking me up again, “Somebody’s breaking into my apartment; I’m afraid I’m going to be raped.” Rape and burglary were not extraordinary occurrences in New York in the mid-seventies.
  “Start screaming, Ag, use the fire escape, call a neighbor, call 911!”
  “It’s my neighbor who’s breaking in.” I listened for noise; I heard nothing but the drone of Johnny Carson in the background.
  “Calm down, Ag,” I said, throwing off my down comforter and searching for the light switch. “Listen to me; you know I’m your friend, don’t you?”
  “Yes, I do.”
  “You know I care about you, don’t you, Ag?”
  “Yes, yes, I do.”
  “Then do exactly what I say; call 911 or a cab and go to the nearest emergency room. They’ll help you. What hospital is closest to you?” I wished I wasn’t so far away from her.
  “Elmhurst General.”
  For weeks I could not contact her, nor anyone in her family. I finally received a letter which brought me enormous relief because I knew she was in safe hands:

Dear Eileen,
Because I have been responding to treatment, the doctors say I will
be able to go home soon. Unfortunately, my mother succeeded in her plan and now I will never have children.
Love, Ag

Another letter arrived two weeks later:

Dear Eileen,
I am happy to tell you that I will be released soon. In addition to getting an apartment near the hospital, I will also have an easy clerical job. My mother has had me lobotomized and mated with a bull. The FBI is reading my mail. Be careful what you write to me.
Love, Ag


  I ask my sister, a psychiatric nurse, if Ag will ever recover. “She’s paranoid schizophrenic; her best hope is thorazine.”
  “Doesn’t it have horrible side effects?”
  “Sure it does; someday she may end curled up in a corner with her tongue flapping, but at least she’ll have periods without fear. Some schizophrenics see their own bodies attacking them. Don’t be seeing her alone either; you two were always very competitive. She might be jealous of you.”
Upon hearing of Ag’s illness, a dear friend who had been our supervisor when we were rookie teachers together, told me she had recommended
that Agnes find a less stressful profession.
  “She was my best friend and she never told me that; I was so upset when she left our school. Did you see signs of her illness back then?” I asked.
  “No, I thought adolescents were too hard for her to handle.”
And so she bounced from school to school in the big city system until she locked horns with a principal who had either the guts, the compassion, or the patience to complete the documentation needed to suspend a teacher.
  When I told my mother about Ag, she told me that Ag’s mother was the only woman she had ever known in the old neighborhood who had her husband arrested for abuse in the nineteen-fifties. “It must have been a terrible situation that forced her mother to expose the privacy of her family in that way, the poor woman.” For thirty years I had considered Ag a close friend, but she had never really shared her deepest fears with me until there was little I could do to help her.
  Today, instead of waxing poetic in her beloved French, Agnes babbles about Michael the Archangel and George the Dragon Slayer. Her babbling invades my dreams.
  Once again we are swimming, lost in the billows of the blue Aegean
Sea. An Adonis stops his boat to rescue us just as the bronzed sailor saved us from the murky waters of Rocky Point so long ago. Rejecting the safety of Adonis’s boat, Ag raises her right, then her left arm, in perfect arcs, pointing her fingers as though she is the star of a shimmering water ballet, her eyes glowing with serenity and wanderlust. “Give me your hand,” I say, as I try to pull her into the silver boat. But it is as though the sirens are luring her away from me and I have no wax to stuff her ears, to silence the voices that are pulling her farther and farther out to sea.