Judith Gets a Good Night's Sleep
by Shawn Mihalik
Judith Schmidt, who I used to volunteer with at the hearing and speech center in Youngstown, Ohio, back before I packed my car and drove across the country and left everything behind, hasn’t been sleeping well lately—the last few years.
You probably think the Deaf, like Judith, sleep well every night—or even during the day if they want to—because after all they can’t hear any of the sounds that distract you and me. They can’t hear babies crying. They can’t hear the new neighbor’s dog barking—damn that neighbor and her dog who were not there when you moved in. They cannot hear the sound of gunshots firing three or four blocks over. They cannot hear the fire alarm, beeping, beeping. Beeping that the battery is dead or nearly dead.
But still the Deaf do have nights they cannot sleep. The light can bother them. Stray thoughts can like a stick in a drop trap keep their minds propped open and for a long time they may not be able to pull the string.
Judith when she was a young girl used to refuse to fall asleep because she knew when she did she’d have the dream of the monster chasing her. In the dream she could always hear the monster chasing her. Even though she was born deaf, in her dreams Judith could hear everything. But she could not herself make a sound, couldn’t even scream. So she’d refuse to sleep because the monster would chase her and she wouldn't be able to scream.
But of course she couldn’t stay awake forever: eventually her eyes would close and she’d run and try to scream but wouldn’t be able to and would wake just as it caught up to her.
She stopped having that dream when she was seven. Now it’s no dream that impairs her sleeping.
No, now Judith is just old. Her back hurts. Her joints hurt. Her mouth gets dry but if she drinks too much water she has to pee in the middle of the night. She can feel Bill next to her, snoring. The snoring is new—either for fifty-two years Bill never snored or for fifty-two years she could never feel it.
The lights on either side of the sofa flash, indicating someone’s rung the doorbell. Bill is in the garage building a sawhorse desk, so Judith answers the door and it’s two police officers and an interpreter from the hearing and speech center, where Judith used to volunteer herself but doesn’t anymore.
“Hello,” Judith says warmly, knowing her voice is clumsy. She wonders whether there’s still any coffee in the pot, whether she has any cookies or Little Debbie cakes she can offer.
At the hospital Judith and Bill are in the waiting room and Judith is watching her husband sign a prayer, asking for strength for each of them, and for their granddaughter, Madeline, may Madeline recover quickly.
And then before he signs amen he pauses and asks God also for strength for their daughter, Camilla, and forgiveness for Camilla’s husband, Frank, who is in custody, the police have assured them. Camilla is in custody, too, but that’s probably just temporary—investigators don’t think she had any knowledge of the fact that Frank had for a while now been sexually abusing Madeline, who is his step-daughter and who is ten years old. Indeed, they said Camilla said when she came home and found Frank raping Madeline, found Frank penetrating Madeline with his fingers, she jumped on him and hit his back again and again until he threw her off and punched her head and pushed her into a wall. Although—it was not Camilla who called the police but a neighbor who said she heard the commotion, and when examined by a doctor Camilla bore no evidence of a blow to the head.
Bill asks for strength for Camilla and forgiveness for Frank and then signs amen, bringing one forefinger from his temple to tap parallelly the other.
Judith nods and signs amen too. Her husband is a wise and gentle and generous man.
The waiting room is empty except for Judith and Bill and the interpreter, who sits a few chairs away respectfully until the doctor comes in and asks her to let Bill and Judith know they can see Madeline now.
When Madeline wakes from the coma a month later the police show up again and ask if Bill and Judith will look after her. She’ll need to testify next month in court, at the preliminary hearing. Normally a child so young wouldn’t be called to testify, not even the victim, especially not the victim, they say, if the victim in a rape case is a person so young, because a young person shouldn’t have to relive that experience. But in this instance Madeline is all they really have. Camilla ran off the instant they released her and no one’s heard from her since, and all the neighbor can say is she thought she heard a sound.
Frank’s still in jail, though, until the trial. No one’s posted bail. An anonymous source told the paper they thought Frank had ties to the Italian mob, but no one else with ties to the mob is going to confirm that by posting bail.
Of course Judith and Bill will look after Madeline, they tell the police via the interpreter, a different woman this time. She’s their granddaughter. She’s all they have now. And they’re all she has.
So Judith drives with Bill to the hospital the next day. When they get to her room Madeline is there with a nurse. Madeline is out of bed, holding a small backpack into which the nurse is helping her pack her things. When they walk in the girl looks up at them, looks right at Judith. Judith smiles and says, in her clumsy voice, “Hello. We’re so excited to have you stay with us.”
Madeline doesn’t say anything. She looks away. She looks at the nurse and then resumes placing things in her backpack: a small bear, a folder t-shirt, a handheld video game system.
Judith turns her head and cries a little and wonders how much we really know people, anyone. And how guilty should that make us feel?
Madeline is quiet for weeks, after they take her in. “Quiet” more of a metaphorical term, because Judith’s whole world is and always has been quiet.
Madeline does not talk to her. She does not fingerspell or write words on the dry erase board they give her. Besides the alphabet she knows certain other signs Camilla taught her—water, toilet, hungry, dog—but she does not use them. But can you blame her? Unspeakable things have happened to her, and she hardly knows her grandma and grandpa. All her life they’ve lived in the same city (all Judith’s life she’s lived in this same city; for most of my life I lived in that same city, until I moved away), but Camilla never brings her, brought her, by. Judith hasn’t babysat Madeline in three years, four years.
They’re keeping her out of school, for now. Every day a tutor comes by and sits with her. Twice a week a counselor. The rest of the time Madeline sits in the living room watching television, cartoons, or she sits in the room Judith spent hours making up for her: it has lace curtains and a lace bedskirt and purple blankets and an antique tea set on the dresser. And also on the dresser are pictures of Madeline when she was a baby.
How she looks like Judith did….
The day before the preliminary hearing, while Bill is in the garage finishing the sawhorse desk, Madeline comes to Judith and holds out to her a large, thin hardback book.
Judith takes the book and opens it. The spine threatens to crack but holds together. She looks at Madeline. “The Little Prince?” Judith says.
This is Judith’s book. Her own grandmother gave it to her when she was seven, and soon after she stopped having the monster dreams. “Want me to read it to you?” Judith asks.
Madeline nods. She joins Judith on the sofa, presses herself against her.
Judith turns to the first page and starts reading.
After a few paragraphs she looks at Madeline and Madeline is frowning.
“I’m sorry,” Judith says. “I don’t speak so clearly.”
After a moment’s introspection Madeline shrugs and motions for Judith to give the book to her.
Judith gives the book to Madeline and at first she’s worried Madeline is going to get up and walk away. But Madeline doesn’t walk away—she snuggles closer. She looks up at her grandma, smiles, looks back at the book and starts reading it out loud, silently.
Judith watches her granddaughter, following along. She long ago memorized every word.
The next morning my mother, who I haven’t spoken to in over a year, probably closer to two, calls me. She tells me I should check Youngstown news. Why? I ask her. Just check, she tells me. It’s obvious she doesn’t want to talk to me; it’s obvious this call is a courtesy call. She feels obligated to call me, to let me know something’s up, but not to talk to me long enough to give me the details herself. I press her some more. Finally she tells me that last night Judith Schmidt and her husband and their granddaughter were killed in a fire. I ask her what does she mean killed in a fire and she says that’s all she knows. Then she hangs up.
I get online and check the papers, the news websites. It’s on the front page of all the local ones. By this evening it will be on CNN. Neighbors said they heard a loud bang, coming from the basement. But it wasn’t your normal sort of bang. It was more like a thud. Like a dull explosion. It was a matter of minutes before the house was engulfed in flames. They found Judith in the remains of her bed. They found her husband in the remains of the bed. Their granddaughter the forensics unit identified by her dental records, next to her bedroom door, the antique tea set not far away.
There will be an investigation. But despite the news coverage the investigation will go slowly, too slowly. Within a few days the public will lose interest. When finally the police say there were no signs of foul play—go figure—no one will care enough to challenge them. No one will question the force’s own ties to the once-great steel city’s mob. No one will care.
When things like this happen we insist we care. I care, I think as receive the news, I’m devastated. But then why, and only in a fit of delayed guilt, does it take me years to write about it . . . ?
One of the papers interviewed Judith’s husband’s sister. In the paper, she says, “We’re devastated by this loss. Madeline was the apple of Bill and Judith’s eye.”
Maybe she was, the apple of their eye. I don’t actually know. Maybe there was no strain in the relationship. Maybe before the assault Judith and Bill saw their granddaughter all the time. The truth is I made up many of these details. Madeline’s name wasn’t really Madeline. The assault was real, the rape. The fire. Lots of those details were real. I got them from the papers.
But the truth is I didn’t know Judith all that well. I never met her family. I don’t know how well she did or didn’t sleep. I just volunteered with her at the hearing and speech center, before I moved away.
Shawn Mihalik is the author of four works of fiction. His most recent novella, The Assured Expectation of Things Hoped For, was published by Asymmetrical Press in 2015. Shawn briefly studied journalism at Youngstown State University before deciding his talents were better directed at fiction. Shawn currently lives in Helena, MT, with his wife and their two cats, Worf and Oliver.