Reading the Signs

Photo: © Ona Tzar. All rights reserved.

After the hospital calls, hands appear in his dreams. Clutching. Flailing in frustration. He has three sleepless nights in a row before he tells his Marta over breakfast, “They’re my father’s hands.” He tries to keep his voice steady.

At the start of pre-school, he doesn’t talk. He’s held back a year and enrolled in speech therapy. Slowly, words are given sounds. Then the sounds are given meaning. His childhood is one long process of learning, unlearning, re-learning.

There are good memories mixed with the bad. Baseball games at Wrigley Field. Large pretzels encrusted with salt grains the size of diamonds. The crack of the ball hitting the bat—an impact so satisfying he is sure his father feels the vibration through the blue-green plastic seats.

Much later, they find out his father is colorblind. It doesn’t matter, when he considers everything. Still, he often thinks about how the seats at Wrigley Field must have appeared different to them.

He won’t think of it as abuse for a long time. Just another form of communication, like speech or sign language. After their fifth anniversary, he finally tells Marta about some of it. She repeats it all back to him out loud: “Bed without dinner. Sleeping outside.”

“But it was never physical.”

“Those things are physical, Jerry.”

His father gets the name from a television show. The cat and mouse run across the fuzzy screen. When they hurt each other, his father laughs. The cat and mouse are sort of friends.

Other good memories. List them. Tell Marta.

He lies to her. Leaves out details. He drops food at Wrigley Field, and his father forces him to eat it. But he understands they’re poor. He understands why.

He’s an interpreter now. It’s common for someone with a deaf parent like him. He translates for families in courts and in doctor’s offices, assignments that often require mandatory background checks. His results always come back clean, but sometimes he worries they’ll know he once dropped a pretzel at Wrigley Field.

The hospital calls to tell him that his father’s been moved to hospice.

The hands float above him in the dreams. They are just as he remembers. Thick, square fingertips. Olive skin. Big boxy knuckles. They don’t sign anything. They only reach out.

Days pass. He gets another call, from a doctor this time, to tell him that if he wants to say goodbye, he should come tonight.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to go,” Marta says. She thinks he’s scared.

He is scared, but not of hospitals or his father or even death. He’s scared of seeing those hands, once tanned and calloused and powerful, which struck fear and awe into his heart, now wrinkled and pale, lying limp across sallow bedsheets.

He does not go, and the dreams do not change or subside. Even after the burial, they float above him night after night, grasping, and he does not tell Marta, because at least the hands are strong, and that is a good memory.

Nicole Lynn Cohen studied English and Film at Tufts University. Following graduation, she moved to Hollywood and became a Coordinator at SpectreVision (Mandy, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night). She won the 2021 Subnivean Fiction Award for her piece, “You should talk to someone.” She writes screenplays and fiction. Learn more at

Appears In

Issue 17

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