Peter Toeg has lived in the Midwest USA for twenty-five years, taught English in a university, and worked as a technical writer. He writes full-time now: mostly memoir and short stories. Writing is his avocation. He has two published mystery novels, one through the traditional publishing route and the other self-published. His characters tend to be offbeat or different and he’s met most of them in his travels in some form. You’ll find a bit of darkness, humor, and twists in his writing.
The Last Words He Never Heard
By Peter Toeg
After not listening for twenty years, my friend, Gravely flew too close to the sun. His was a particularly resounding fall to earth.
We attended the same school, G-Man the wild, gregarious extrovert with a slight speech impediment and loads of energy and ambition. On a full scholarship, no less. I was his passive counterpoint, the quiet, studious one. “Old cerebral Leo,” he called me.
We vied for the same woman in our last year. Apparently, Gravely charmed the mysterious and beautiful Norma enough for her to drop me from contention. C’est la vie!
I never could quite understand Norma, the fact that she openly dated two men. To break the courting deadlock, I gave her an engagement ring. She rebuffed me, laughing. “We’re still friends, Leo…until you cross me,” she said on parting. A hint of frost in her voice. Hmm. She never returned the ring.
But what a looker.
We slugged beers in the summer following graduation. Fate—Gravely really—handed me a job in the same upstate New York town where he lived. The entrepreneur had started his own business.
“You win, brother. I couldn’t offer Norma what you have,” I conceded when he told me of their engagement. “Say, what do you have to offer, Gravely?”
“I have a gift, Leo,” he said in that nasally voice, quite boozy one late June night. “I discovered it as a child.”
His grin, once so annoying, charmed me now. I couldn’t quite finger what made the difference. He could be cocky as hell and yet gently sincere.
“You know when children first rebel against parents?” he said. “Oh, at maybe three or four years of age, when adult domination cracks just a bit?”
“I do. That’s when I learned the word ‘no’,” I said. ” So I was told. Tell me something I don’t know.”
Gravely’s eyes were on a young brunette at the end of the bar. He was getting married in two weeks. He was always on the prowl but, tonight, too unsteady to even walk. “Say that again Leo.”
I repeated, as I’d done so many times before.
He nodded, a shit-eating grin on his face. “Well, chum. When my moment came—to say my first ‘no’—I providentially elected not to. I kept silent.”
“So you did what your mom or dad wanted you to do?”
“No, I did nothing.” He looked upward for the perfect words to describe what must have been a grand moment. “Actually, my mom told me later I tilted my head, you know like a dog does when not understanding a new command. I’d answered her before but, at that moment, she realized her words made no sense to me. That alarmed her. Big time.” His grin got wider. “She took me to the doctor, convinced I had lost my hearing.”
“But you hadn’t lost your hearing?” I said. “The doctor found no hearing loss?”
“No to the first question. “No, to the second.” “Keep in mind, I got bored easily and found conversation at age four to be rather predictable. I’d simply tuned her out. The doctor. He was easy to fool. Same technique.”
I thought hard on that, now six beers into the night. “Ah, you conned your mother—and the doctor.” The dawn broke for me. “And you were four years old!”
“My gift.” He raised both arms like an athlete in a victory pose.
Gravely shared with me a litany of other “gifted moments” over the summer. I became his confessor, the deal being I never reveal his secret to anyone. Keep it between just us. I agreed.
He sealed the agreement with a promotion, doubling my pay. His new company continued to grow rapidly.
“I started the company with a grant as a disabled business owner,” crowed Gravely. “Lots of money available.”
I nodded to my boss. “Good news, yep.”
“What?” he said.
“When I started school, I discovered teachers were plenty willing to help me—overcome my disability.” Sincere-sounding Gravely spoke as we downed beers at a pub. “Great classroom seating and sympathy. Later I received tutoring and other accommodations for note-taking and testing. ‘Special services’ they called it. I realized people give us disabled folks a lot of slack.”
“How did the kids treat you?”
“Well, I was different to them, no question. Before I was fitted with a hearing aid, some kids avoided me. Others were curious.” He gave me a go-figure look. “Many wanted to be my best friend.” Gravely couldn’t conceal his glee and tittered. “I had a bunch of best friends, Leo.”
“One exception. The school bully in sixth grade made me a target. He was a little dim and didn’t understand us disabled kids. The big punk blocked my path in the woods on the way home from school one day.”
“You had no disability defense in that spot, eh?”
“Technically, Leo, I was handicapped that d-day. That’s the term we used,” he slurred his words on another beery night. “My environment prevented me from succeeding. ‘Disability d-doesn’t.”
“So you explained the difference to him?” I said, trying to draw a laugh.
“My first step was to ignore him,” said Gravely, ignoring me. “Then I gave Bully Boy my quizzical look. You know the same dog-not-knowing-the command look. Of course, he simply showed me his fist. No words needed.”
“At that point, I pulled the ‘protective maneuver’. Standing firm, I pressed my hands on both ears and screeched as loudly as I could. Like a wounded animal.” He waved his arm with the beer bottle in hand, foaming over. “I may have faked some tears. Didn’t need ‘em.”
“What’d he do?”
“He freaked. A total terror freak. He had absolutely no idea what to do. So he ran off.”
“Great story, Gravely. So you mastered grade school. How far did you go with the ruse?”
“Hey, my man. College was the next hurdle, but not much of one. With a little research, I found universities willing to pay my way—free ride— just to meet institutional “diversity” requirements. You believe that? Athletes and vets aren’t the only ones to get education benefits? Nope. Enough of a decibel loss became my ticket.
“Why continue with the charade, G-man? You got what you wanted. Your needs are met.”
“Some secrets are better kept, Leo.” He looked weary, his voice labored, the alcohol buzz now dulled. “My disability has become…part of me after so long. You know, Leo?”
Ah, the tender side of my friend was showing.
“Then again,” he said, perking up, “you never know what else you can catch with the same bait. Hehe.”
No, this was classic Gravely, for sure.
Nothing could keep Gravely down. It was a wonder he stopped moving long enough to run his company. The consummate adventurer.
We hiked the Appalachians. Man, did we hike. I was his sidekick. Three states in five days, scaling rock tumbles and going off-trail, blazing paths in the wilderness. Then onto Denver and we took on the big peaks, nearly freezing at times. Getting campfire-drunk at high altitudes where alcohol works fast.
And we faced the elements—especially wind. Gravely usually went hatless. He wore no hearing aid (no one to fool). His ears exposed to the elements.
“Leo! Leo!” Gravely yelled in panic on our last night as he burst out of the woods. He ran to me as I nursed my sore feet at the campfire. “Talk to me. Say something!”
I stood. “Say something? What are you talking about?” He looked ashen—a rare grave Gravely.
“I’m losing my hearing, Leo. I can’t hear myself. Keep talking.” He came up close and turned his head from side to side as I recited the words to a drinking ditty.
His face relaxed, but only a little. “Is that your normal voice, Leo? I hear it, but it’s like you’re ten feet away.”
Gravely, at least for the moment, became disabled—for real.
“…those dirty sons of a bitches!” I repeated the lyric, then again, watching my friend struggle for composure, his eyes wild, fidgeting.
He started pacing and then regulated his breathing, as he did when lifting weights.
“I’m twenty-four, Leo. I can’t be going deaf at this age.”
“This is for real, Gravely. I can’t offer you absolution.”
Norma joined us at their kitchen table, where Gravely had lauded the wonders of the Americans With Disability Act to me three months before. She listened as her husband, confessed his charade. She took it well from my perspective.
“You numb nut! And just why are you telling me now? You know lies have consequences.” She spoke in a heated, measured voice, somewhere between a threat to deny him conjugal benefits and a threat to divorce.
“I’m losing my hearing, Hon,” he said, contrite. “I feel terrible. I hurt you. I’m sooo sorry. Forgive me.”
When Norma looked at me sternly, I got ready to excuse myself. “You knew Leo.”
Uh oh. “Gravely had to…tell you on his own, Norma,” I sputtered. “You know me well enough. I, uh, believe in personal responsibility.”
“Oh, really!” Norma locked eyes on me and I was strangely chilled. Once again.
At that moment, I realized I didn’t know Norma. She believed in a greater force.
“What?” It was Gravely. “Personal…what?”
He could hear some, and fortunately, he already had hearing aids. He just needed to turn them on.
By November, Gravely had recovered enough to deal with his now-real disability. With the aids, he could handle most conversations at a normal sound level. He perked up noticeably. After Denver, we deep-sea dove in the Bahamas and planned on visiting Mexico in January. The two of us.
“Why don’t you go with him on the trips?” I asked Norma at the same kitchen table as I waited for Gravely to return from an appointment. I had been studying maps for our planned trek in Guadalajara two weeks off.
“Not a big traveler. Now that I’m co-owner of the company, I have a full plate.”
Co-owner. Penance. Gravely paid up.
“How did you miss discovering Gravely’s lie during your courtship?” Norma deserved my frankness after being kept in the dark.
“You know, Leo. That was a good lesson for me. I’m finding out about myself more in the process and now being involved in the business.” She smiled the college smile I remembered. “I think I have a gift. I pay attention now.”
She looked so good to me, like old times.
“No way. I’m not stepping onto this plane. Has the FAA checked this tin box out?” Three hours of training in Guadalajara did not prepare me for my first skydive.
“Relax , Leo,” Gravely said. “It’s a controlled jump. These Mexicans know their business. The company was recommended to me. And I received a discount. Two jumps for one. Buck up!”
The plane looked like a refitted DC-3, not airworthy. Gravely, with me in tow, still pushed the limits of a good time. I preferred to keep my feet always on the ground.
Six of us piled into the plane, all fitted with our chutes, focused on the plan. Strap into the jump seats, ascend to jump height, and follow the jumpmaster’s simple instructions.
I suspected Gravely had a few shots at the bar before we left the hotel, but he approached this and any situation like a film director. He knew everything to do and expect.
“Is this great or not, Leo? We’re freakin’ paratroopers! I got dibs on John Wayne.” He turned to me, already seated and pointed to the hand scrawled “John Wayne” nametag on his chest.
“You go first, ‘Dude,’” I said.
“It’s Duke, dumbass!” He laughed and faked a punch.
We’d rehearsed the jump procedure a half dozen times before in the hangar and still my knees turned to rubber as the turboprop climbed into blue sky.
Ten long minutes later we got up and formed a ragged line. I stood at the end behind Gravely. Some bumpy air and I grabbed for anything as a handhold. But, hey, I had a chute if the plane went down!
Simple as pie. I re-read the pocket instructions: “Approach the jumpmaster, await his attaching one end of a bridle to the airframe, listen for his command, and step out. When the bridle is fully extended, it catches and pulls the D-bag, for deployment, and your chute automatically opens.”
Air whooshed by the open door. When Gravely’s turn came, he moved right up. The jumpmaster struggled a bit with the bridle hook. A slight delay.
“Don’t jump!” he commanded, loud enough for me to hear.
Gravely stepped out.
He was always late in life, but this time he was early.
I nursed a tequila on the secluded hotel plaza as the sun set over solid ground. Somewhere out there lay a lost hearing aid, turned off, on the ground or in the brush.
“Well, it was only one word you didn’t hear, Gravely,” I mused.
“No inquest,” said Norma calmly, sitting across from me. She’d come up that afternoon after she’d been notified. I hadn’t been able to call her. “The Mexican authorities called it a ‘hazard fatality’. It’s so easy to die South of the Border, isn’t it, Leo?”
She looked great, a killer body coiled in a tight dress like a beautiful snake. And what’s with the writhing? The sunlight distorted her face somehow. I was three sheets and feeling no pain on only half a glass? Whoa! I nodded. “Yep, easy to…do a lot… down here. No…questions asked. You…you…”
“Drink up Leo. I’ve got to vamoose. I have a company to run back home.” She looked at her watch. “Oh, look at the time. I’m off. One final thing, Leo…”
Her face dissolved before me and the only sound I heard had to be my head hitting the table. In that moment, I guessed what the last words were.