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A Song of Hand Music
by Mark Van Sciver
Mark Van Sciver -- all rights reserved
 

Barnes is dead.

The television had been turned down, so it took some time before somebody noticed. The bar got quiet after Donnie let out a bellow.

Sure enough, there was his picture -- or pictures I guess, since they showed him as the adult he was -- and in the child's body he wore for the last two years of his life. The news anchor was trying to trying desperately to put a positive spin on a life that rose from the gutter, sputtered brightly for a moment or two, then dropped back into the mud that spawned him. But even most norms are having a hard time coming to terms with the phenomenon of ex-City Councilman and failed mayoral Robert Atwell Barnes and his Humans First League.

For nearly a year, he and his hate-mongers made life for a SCAB a lot tougher around here. Now I wonder if we'll ever get the real story about Barnes. According to some, he was the victim of an unprovoked SCAB attack by a chrono-morph that somehow permanently regressed him to the physical age of a seven-year-old. Others speak of a sexual predator who preyed on SCAB prostitutes until he met one who fought back.

I guess we'll never know the truth now, unless whoever is responsible for Barnes' transformation steps forward.

Even now, after the fact, it's hard to believe how close he came to being mayor. He was leading in the polls heading into the final week before the election, almost coasting toward victory. I was in the crowd when it happened. Lisa had gotten a hot tip telling her to be at the shelter no matter what. I went along. I easily pass for a norm, unless someone happens to notice my true age on my drivers license.

I was standing less than 20 feet from Barnes when he shook the hand of that ugly kid who shrank before my eyes into a pre-pubescent boy.

Then the crowd started screaming "SCAB" -- Barnes was yelling -- it was pandemonium. When the police got things sorted out, the kid was gone, but there was Barnes trying to prove he wasn't a SCAB himself. There was a big to-do and hub-bub in the media over whether Barnes was a SCAB or a norm, and whether it mattered. Barnes got his doctor, and a bunch of other people to swear he was not a SCAB, but the damage was done, and the seed of doubt was sown.

In desperation, Barnes even went and had a public blood test performed, but since the results wouldn't be back until after the election, it really didn't come across as much more than a political ploy.

He lost the election by less than 1 percent of the vote. For awhile, there was talk of a recount or recall vote against Mayor Campbell, but then Barnes held an abrupt news conference and announced his immediate and total retirement from public life. Citing the strain his transformation had on himself and his family, Barnes passed the torch to his Human First League brethren and dropped completely out of sight. Without their leader, the HFL faded almost as quickly as it came into existence. Sure, we still have tensions between SCABS and norms, but not nearly as much as we had during Barnes' heyday.

For the umpteenth time this hour, the newscast is replaying the videotape of Barnes' regressing that kid. But my thoughts aren't on the TV, they're going back nine months -- to the day Lisa Underwood came in and plopped a newspaper on the bar in front of me.

"Thought you might like to read this before the papers hit the street," she said. Turning to Donnie, she ordered a Dewars on the rocks.

I gave her a puzzled looked, but picked up the paper and turned it over to the front. I felt the hair raise on my neck as the blood drained from my face as I read the headline of Lisa's byline story.

BARNES DIAGNOSED HIV POSITIVE

"When?" "How?" I sputtered.

"When ... who knows? How ... . how do you think? He didn't get it from a needle or a blood transfusion. He must have been exposed through a prostitute. Although neither he nor his doctor will confirm it."

"You mean he's admitted it?"

"He had to, I had copies of his tests. They were sent to me anonymously. There was no faking it. He admits that he's HIV positive, but won't say how."

In the days and weeks that followed, more and more people and stories surfaced involving Barnes. One by one, women came forward admitting to affairs or liaisons with him, both before and after his regression. I'll say this for her, his wife stood by him throughout the humiliation. No accounting for taste I guess. About three months later, Lisa received another anonymous tip that Barnes had developed full-blown AIDS. After that story, following Barnes pretty much became a death watch. It ended early this morning when Robert Atwell Barnes, age 7, died of pneumonia at St. Cristobel Pediatric Hospital alone -- his faithful wife had gone home for a few hours rest.

I tried to feel hate toward this man whose actions and life hurt so many of my friends and acquaintances, but it's hard to feel hate toward a little boy curled in a fetal position choking to death in his own fluid. Maybe some people around here can, but I can't.

Dead is dead.

Gone is gone.

Robert Barnes is both.

Let his name be spoken in Egypt no more.

A few months back Donnie started taking off Tuesday and Thursday evenings. About 6:30, he'd turn running the bar over to Colleen and Eddie and then he and his daughter, Ellen, would disappear for a couple of hours.

Lisa must have known what was going on -- there was some sort of huge conspiracy between her, Donnie and Ellen. I'd watch them when no one thought I was looking. I noticed that Donnie started using his voice box less and less. He always hated it. It took too long to type a sentence after someone asked a question.

Now that he had Ellen in the bar, she became his voice when needed. Donnie didn't need a voice to fill a drink or pick up a tab. So unless it was real important, it was up to you to figure out what Donnie was trying to tell you. He seemed to get much more animated after he stopped using his voice box -- jerking his hand and arms around the place.

Like I said, Ellen and Lisa could pretty much figure out what he was trying to say, which left the rest of us puzzled by Donnie's refusal to use a device that gave him a some-what human voice again.

I noticed more and more norms were starting to come in. Like I said, Donnie always knows how to make friends. The new group stick to themselves, and hardly ever speak.

When I finally figured it out a lightbulb must have appeared over my head. Lisa thumped my skull like she was testing to see if the melon was ripe.

"Gee, you're thick! Yes, Donnie's been learning sign language. Both he and Ellen have been going over to the community college for classes twice a week," she said.

"Well, how did you find out?" I asked as sarcastically as I could, embarrassed that I failed to see the obvious.

"It was my suggestion," she answered smugly.

"Well why didn't you go if it was such a great idea?" I retorted.

"I already know, smartass. Both my parents were deaf, I learned to sign before I learned to talk. I got to thinking that Donnie didn't need an artificial voice. Sign is much more expressive a language than any electronic box. People who aren't deaf or mute don't realize that. When Donnie talks to me now using sign, I know not only what he's saying, but the feeling he wants to convey."

Donnie walked over to us and made a series of gestures.

"He asked if you finally figured it out. He says that he thought you weren't as dumb as you looked, but he was starting to think he was wrong."

Donnie looked a me with his soft brown eyes and slowly winked. He reached over the bar and chucked me on the chin softly (but still enough to lift me off the seat) and set a beer in front of me.

"He says it's on the house if you'll do a favor for him," Lisa translated. "He wants you to deliver a package to a shelter over on West Street.

Producing a box from in back of the bar and the directions, I finished my beer and walked the five block distance to West Street. The place was dingy, bleak and run-down, little more than a stopover for prostitution, drugs and the homeless. In a line of boarded up and dirty store fronts, one place was open. The sign in the window "West Street Shelter" -- always open, everyone welcome.

I was surprised to see a pictures of Dr. Bob, Donnie, Mike Prischelli, Bryan Derksen, Wanderer and Jack DeMule hanging on the wall.

"What the hell do you want?" a voice growled at me.

I turned to see a tall redheaded woman looking at me like she wasn't sure whether she was going to give me her hand or hit me. She would have been beautiful if not for her scowl.

"I ASKED you want you wanted."

"Uh, Donnie from over the Blind Pig asked me to bring this box to you," I stammered.

Her scowl softened into a smile -- she was indeed beautiful.

"Thanks, I've been waiting for this," she said, taking the box from me and opening it on her desk. Inside was Donnie's voice synthesizer.

"Donnie promised we could have this for the shelter when he finished his sign class. We get so many SCAB homeless or SCABS who can talk. This will help a lot."

"Do you run this place?" I asked.

"I help," she said bruskly. "I'm managing the place while I'm in college. Going to get a degree in counseling. Maybe do some good around this shi... , ah place. It was Dr. Stein's idea before he left. He helped organize it and got a board of directors for the place. That's them up on the wall."

I kept thinking I knew this woman, but I couldn't place her.

"Do I know you?" I finally asked.

"No, you met me a bunch of times, but you didn't know me. I used to turn tricks over across the street. Was even in the Blind Pig a few times, but I always respected Donnie and never did no business there. That's the way it is with prostitutes -- we're there, but we're also invisible. I know you. I know where you like to sit at the bar. I know you like that reporter, but won't admit it. I know who your friends are. I even know who pulled that skunk joke on you. People don't see prostitutes and homeless people -- whether SCABS or norms -- they talk around us like we're not there. And for the most part, we're not. But a few of us listen."

"Now instead of walking West Street, I protect it. Nobody comes down here and messes with West Street folks. Those that try answer to me."

One look of her eyes told me that she meant every word she said, and I had no doubt she could take care of anyone or anything that stood between her and her self-appointed charge.

"Dr. Stein thought I was worth a second go at life. And I owe it to him and a few others not to blow this opportunity. Tell Donnie thanks."

I started to leave, but stopped. I turned. "I never asked your name."

"Call me Splendor."

Two weeks later I was sitting in a classroom -- Introduction to American Sign. I looked around and noticed quite a few familiar faces: Several of the Lupine boys, Barney Storfe, Eddie, Peggy, Randy, and Jack, to name a few. I heard a voice in back of me say, "Didn't expect to see you."

I turned to see a guy I'd never met before.

"Do I know you?"

"Yep."

"I'm sorry, I can't place you."

"You must be sitting under an air conditioner vent, your brain's getting torpid."

"LIZARD LIPS!!!" I shouted. "I've never seen you human before (pause) Now I know why you stick with the reptiles, kid, you'll scare babies with a face like that."

Before the end of the second class, most of us had already learned and mastered many of the best crude expressions. I knew that not everyone here would finish the class, but the fact that so many of us were here tells you a little bit about the kind of people who hang out down at the Blind Pig.

Are there any more Barnes' out there in the world?

Sure there are. Turn over any rock and your bound to find at least one disgusting thing.

But if the world produces a few mistakes like Robert Barnes, it also produces people like Jack, Copernicus, Mike, Randy, Polly, Lisa, Wanderer, Kim, Bryan, Splendor, Dr. Bob (never forget Dr. Bob), Ellen and others who took the mountain to Mohammed and learned a new skill for an old friend.

The news is signing off. I suspect in a few months or years, no one but a few people will even remember Robert Barnes. Maybe that's best.

I look around my favorite bar -- Jack's trying to teach Eddie to play Chopsticks on the piano while desperately trying to look down the front of her dress. Rydia's over in a booth by herself -- she's been quiet lately, I hope nothing's wrong.

Kim's got another headache, I can tell. I hope he's been to the doctor. I'm waiting until it's closer to Halloween before I ask him if he'll help me morph into an orangutan for a few hours. I want to go to the bar party as my favorite character from some books I've been reading.

Lisa's heading out of town on assignment. So there won't be anyone to fight with for a few days. I slam my open hand on the top of the bar. Donnie turns.

"What a man got to do to get some service?" I sign.

"Keep it up, cowpie, you'll have to unbutton your pants to drink it," Donnie signs back.

Life is good.

 

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