Conversing in a Universal Tongue


"Sandburg." Simon is still working on his first cup, the time when you need to tread lightly. "How are you?"

Okay, so I know I over-think. I mean 'how are you' probably just means 'how are you.' Not 'we're surprised you bothered to come back, you moron' or 'we've reconsidered the whole helping-with-the-dissertation thing.'

"Pretty good." I mean, that's neutral. Not too eager, but not quite the truth; the truth being you were worn-out before you even started on the hard stuff - trying to come up with a tutor for Jim, cobbling together a final that will get you a damn bell curve so the associate dean won't be breathing down your neck like last semester, enduring the holidays in Ellison splendor. "How are things down at the waterfront?"

I'd rung Paul a couple of times, once to apologize for ditching him on Thanksgiving, and he'd seemed upbeat.

"Quiet," said Simon, taking another sip from his Jags mug. "Actually got social services to send out a real mediator and they're at least acting like they're talking things through."

I tell myself again that 'how are you' is just 'how are you' and 'real mediator' is *not* a dig. A building fell on me. They didn't replace me because I was incompetent, just unconscious.

"No more attacks?"

"Nope. Probably have the perp or perps locked up for something else." Simon sets his cup down and rubs at his eyes, tilting his glasses up on his forehead. "Or maybe we got lucky and they moved on to somebody else's territory. How's Jim?"

"Okay. Signing like mad - at least to me and Steven."

Simon smiles wryly. "You really got yourself in it, didn't you, kid?"

The caffeine must not have managed to wind its way to my brain yet. "I'm not sure quite what you mean there, Captain."

"Sandburg, do you *have* a family of your own?"


Simon, unused to seeing my usual early-morning level of alertness, takes it on himself to refill my empty mug. "And Naomi is ..."

"My mother."

The captain settles back with both hands clasped behind his neck. "You call your mother 'Naomi'."

"Yeah ... well, you'd kind of have to know her to understand."

"Mmm," Simon grunts thoughtfully. "Well, you've got yourself a family now. How's it feel being an Ellison?"

I almost spew the flavored blend across the desk. "Wait. You think I've gone native? In friggin' Worthington Heights?"

"Calm down, Sandburg." The captain straightens in his chair. "It wasn't meant as an insult. You okay?"

"Just a little out of my natural element." I card a hand through my hair and lean my head back tiredly. "I'll be all right. I just didn't expect to be doing this. Jim's ... God, Jim's incredible, Simon. What he's been through - that he's still as together as he is ... but that's a hell of a long way from being okay, you know? It's just a little ... overwhelming."


I've got the tutors down to two final choices and I hope to hell Jim takes to one of them. I didn't have a lot of leeway - I didn't think a deaf tutor would work with Jim, and only four of the others were still interested after my think-of-it-as-autism speech where I explained about dysfunctional sensory systems. That Jim often withdraws when touched and cringes at sudden sounds and light. That his defensive reactions can manifest as self-imposed isolation or as general irritability. That on certain days Jim's distractibility will make it difficult, if not impossible, to work with him. And that, despite this, Jim had to have consistency - if there was any chance they were going to drop out halfway through I needed to know now.

When they survived that round I got down to the cognitive problems - where I explained that Jim's ability to process information had been seriously delayed by his inability to control his reaction to sensory input. That I don't know how much he retained from the years when he could still learn normally and I don't know how much he managed to take in once his senses went spiraling out of control.

Down deep in my soul, I think Jim Ellison's mind has got to be about the most amazing one on the planet, but at the moment I couldn't produce a shred of evidence to support a claim that he has even a normal IQ.

So now Jim gets to decide between Rob Michaels, a teacher at Washington State School for the Deaf and Lisa Goldman, an aspiring singer who happens to have a bachelor's in psych and who grew up with two deaf parents.

Rob we test on Wednesday and then we give Jim a couple of days to recuperate and try Lisa.

In the meantime, Steven and I have been doing our damnedest to keep up Jim's sudden interest in vocabulary words.

"Blair, what's the sign for ice cream?"

"Ice cream?" I call back, stopping work on the latest chapter to the never-to-be-finished dissertation and dutifully clicking on the ASL animated dictionary. "Steven, what exactly do you need the sign for 'ice cream' for? Do we even *have* ice cream?"

First I was 'we' with the Cascade police force, now I've joined the upper crust and am discussing what is in the Ellison's gigantic brushed aluminum freezer like it's my own.

"We have ice cream and peach pie. I figure he can tell me which he wants."

This is a new concept - or rather, an old one that's finally gotten pulled back out of the closet - the idea that if you ask Jim what he wants, he might actually answer.

"Ice cream, I can get you - 'The motion of the hand is similar to that of licking an ice cream cone.'" I try to figure out how to search for peach pie and start down the P's. Pickpocket. Pickpocket? Hmm. Picnic. Picture. Pie. "Pie - 'The movement of the hand shows a slice of pie being cut.'"

I get up and go to lean in the doorway, watching Steven try to coax Jim's attention away from the kitchen faucet, which is dripping with a steady, hypnotic pattern that his brother finds fascinating.

"Jim. Hey, bro. You're the one that wanted dessert." Steven finds it a little harder to get Jim's attention than I do. He taps on the bar with a couple fingers to get Jim to look at him. "You want ice cream?" He shows Jim the box then makes an embarrassingly comical attempt at looking like he's licking an ice cream cone. "Or pie?"

Miming cutting a pie is probably going to have no resonance with Jim so I come over and perch on the stool next to him and take his hand in mine, snagging the fresh baked pie and the knife. Together we cut the pie and put the piece on a plate. "Pie," I try again, making the motion we just made with my hand. "Which one you want?"

Jim starts to reach for the bowl of ice cream, but I intercept him. "Tell me."

I repeat the signs again slowly. "Pie or ice cream."

He frowns at the desserts. Then he peeks at me out of the corner of his eye. I know this game. When I'm alone with him, Jim is much more interactive. I don't know if he's more distracted by having two people to deal with or if he doesn't want to have to work for what Steven and Sally will give him without question. A hand snakes out to capture the bowl.

"Oh no." I slide the prize out of the way. I didn't start this, but since Steven did, we're going to finish it. "I know you understand this stuff, Jim. So, if you want ice cream, you're going to have to ask for it." I repeat the sign. "Ice cream."

Jim stubbornly reaches for the bowl again. I move around to the other side of the bar, taking a spoon with me. Once out of reach, I dip the spoon in and take out a mouthful of butter pecan - which might be pleasurable if I actually *liked* butter pecan, but sometimes sacrifices just have to be made.

"Good ice cream," I sign. Jim practically growls. Oh yeah, there's definitely processing going on in his gray matter.

Jim makes a short, huffing noise that's just a bit too cat-like for comfort.

"Ice cream," I tempt, drawing the box back out of the way when Jim makes a flanking maneuver in its direction. Having failed to reenact the Battle of Chancellorville, he tries a more subtle approach. Tears cloud expressive blue eyes and he turns the full force of their misery onto Steven.

Who would have thought I'd been so happy to see blatant manipulation? I love it when Jim gets outside his box long enough to attempt social interaction this complex. I'm not going to reward it - but it's reassuring as hell that it's there. That Jim even is aware enough to know which of us will fall for it is a hell of a step. In there somewhere is an obfuscating, manipulating, all-too-normal soul. I could hug him.

That doesn't mean he's getting the ice cream.

"Oh no, big guy. Steven's not got the ice cream." I wave the box up and down in front of incredibly sensitive eyes. "I've got the ice cream."

I have now licked my invisible cone until my tongue feels like the Sahara but I do it one more time.

"Want," signs Jim, not quite giving in.

"Want *what*?"

Jim, as a two-year-old, must have been hell on a tricycle. He rocks slightly back and forth in the seat, consoling himself, before finally yielding. "Ice cream."

"All right!" He won't look at me, won't take the bowl or the spoon. He lets Steven console him, rocking against his brother's chest. Eventually he makes a move toward the dessert, clutching the bowl and taking it to the den so he can sit in front of the fire.

Steven smiles wanly. Some of the battles are hard. Usually the ones you don't expect will be. I go back to the laptop. Ice cream steadfastly disappears from the bowl until Jim is done. He hands it back to his brother. Covertly I watch him as he easily mimes the sign he was refusing to make. "Ice cream."

"Good ice cream," replies Steven, and Jim agrees.


One person Jim isn't eager to sign for is his father.

He accepts William's touch, but more distantly than he does mine or Steven's or Sally's. He shyly will exchange "hello" or "goodbye", but he clams up when it comes to anything more meaningful.

My fear is this is exactly how he's going to react around the tutor.

I take Jim to the studio. I want them to meet him there, where he's most whole. All morning I've been watching him, studying what they'll see. Jim is a beautiful man. Almost aristocratic features. Guileless blue eyes. Strong and well proportioned. Kneeling down, examining the last work on his morphing sculpture, he looks like any other intent artist. Only when he completely fails to acknowledge you, fails to meet your eye when you finally force the issue, do you realize Jim's absorption is abnormal.

I kneel down to face him, disturbing his communion. "Hey."

Jim's forehead wrinkles in a slight frown. One hand leaves the clay to trace a cool, chalky line across my cheek.

"Hurt?" he signs.

The one thing he seems to worry about. Anytime I seem unhappy, Jim equates it with pain. And I'm not really even unhappy, more like nervous. I want Jim to like these people. I want them to like him. But I feel like a translator of some unknown tongue. The only one who's allowed to speak the language of both -- explain a stranger to Jim and Jim to a stranger.

"No, not hurt."

I slip my arms around him, leaning him against me. I need the contact, for some reason I feel cast away, adrift. Like it's a mistake to allow someone I don't know well into our sanctuary. But if I were all Jim needed, we'd have been having nice talks about a certain dark feline long before now.

"I'm sorry, man," I whisper into soft hair.

Jim tenses, knowing we're about to be disturbed. I can't hear anything yet, but I know Jim overhears things said in the house, even out here.

"It's gonna be okay, I promise. You're gonna like them."


I'm trying to determine at what point we went from iffy to complete-disaster.

Rob is experienced. He's calm. He's spent fifteen years of his life controlling unruly high schoolers.

The deities only know what Jim doesn't like about him. *I'd* say he's a bit patronizing. Jim chose in the end to just growl.

The meet-n-greet went ... okay. I'd disentangled myself from Jim and he was alert, but not really tense, when Sally led Rob to the door. In fact I'd say the introduction went really well. I wasn't expecting Jim to do more than sign a shy "hi" at most.

I showed off Jim's sculpture and managed to take the question about idiot savantism with a smile.

"How many words did you say he has?"

"About eighty or so."

Rob nodded. He reached a hand to Jim, not quite touching him, his other hand indicating me. "Jim, who is this?"

I nodded to Jim who warily brought his right hand up to clasp his wrist.

"Self-made sign," I put in when Rob frowned.

"And the other seventy-nine words?"

"They're all ASL."

"I see." He looked skeptical.

"Jim, I'm Rob." His fingers made what I recognized as the letters "R-O-B" in a quick smooth motion over his heart.

"Uh, Rob. I don't know the alphabet is the best way to go right now."

A superior eyebrow was raised. "I have worked with clients with minimal language skills before."

He returned his attention to Jim. "R-O-B," he repeated meticulously. "At this stage he'll probably just learn it as one continuous sign. The alphabet itself will come later - if he progresses that far."

Jim continued to eye the man suspiciously. An occasional glance flew in my direction as well, as if he were checking my reaction to the guy. And, maybe my reaction wasn't that great, but I really don't think I was giving off 'he's dangerous' vibes.

"R-O-B" he persisted. Jim's attempts at ignoring him became rather pointed. He returned to his examination of the sculpture.

Kneeling back down beside him, I mimicked the letters as best I could. "Jim, that's R-O-B."

All I got for my trouble was a blue-eyed gaze boring into mine.

"R-O-B," I repeated, raising my eyebrows pleadingly. I'm pretty adept at this coaxing stuff. I could have gotten it out of him - if Rob, with his fifteen years of qualifying experience, hadn't decided it was time to take matters quite literally into his own hands.

He hunkered on the floor and placed an attracting grip on Jim's arm. It turned out to be attention-getting all right. Jim growled low and rose with the alacrity of a wary Doberman. The would-be tutor stumbled to his feet in shock while I tried not to look bemused. 'Cause I knew bemused would wear off quickly when I thought of Jim snarling his way through a whole line of tutors.

"I think he said 'no thanks'." I offered gamely. Jim can talk. You just have to know how to translate.

"Look." I draw the still-shaken teacher towards the door. "We knew this was going to be at Jim's discretion. Let me give the other candidate a try. I'll let you know how it goes."

Rob looked back where Jim was crouched and eyeing him defensively, a few feet away. "No, I completely understand. I've also worked with the mentally-challenged before."

Either Jim gets the term 'mentally-challenged' or he's pulling a Clever Hans the Wonder Horse and reacting to my irritation because he immediately comes to his feet. He joins me at the door, watching Rob's retreat across the well-manicured lawn.

"You better like Lisa, big guy." I rub a circle lightly in the small of his back. "Or we're in definite trouble here."


Friday in Hargrove is the usual ignore-all-semblance-of-posted-office-hours chaos you always get right before finals. I'd already had tearful students of both genders before 10 a.m. as the realities of falling GPAs overtook the normal undergraduate desire to sleep away the morning. By the time I shut the student conduit off at one o’clock, dealing with major crimes - rather than the minor ones of the ethical academic variety - is starting to look pretty good.

That's before H and Rafe put me to work babysitting the gun moll of some gang snitch. So, I know they aren't gun molls any more; they're rukas or boxcars or something. This one is an Asian American teenager of indeterminate vintage dressed like an escapee from Our Lady of Seifuku's after-school detention. She slouches in the plastic chair, dangling a teddy bear from manicured talons and popping pink gum from meticulously outlined lips.

"I'm Blair."


"H said to call you ... uh," I glance down at the name tattooed in Sharpie on my palm, no sticky notes being available, "Happy Sunshine Love Juice."

Or maybe that had been 'Love Jelly'. It was a little smeared.

Pop. Bored eyes rise from their crotch-level stare. Pop.

"I know a couple of people at the Magdalene Project. If you have any interest in --"


At least she has the advantage of not being tearful.

"Here's the card."

The teddy bear swings restlessly. Pop.

"I'll just lay it down on the desk."


"Just in case you're interested."


And they think Jim is non-verbal.


"Sandburg!" Simon has obviously been calling me for some time. He looks almost concerned. "You okay, Sandburg?"

The bullpen blinks back into focus. "Yeah, Captain. Sorry. Just thinking."

"Looked more like sleeping with your eyes open to me."

I run a hand through my hair. "Uh, yeah, it's a trick of graduate students everywhere."

"So, everything going okay with Jim?"

The snigger takes work to squash. Exhaustion must be setting in. "He growled at the first one. Thought for a moment he was gonna ask to see Jim's rabies tag."

"You didn't like him, I take it."

I get a little defensive that Simon thinks Jim is Clever Hans, too. "I'm sure Jim had his own reasons. The guy touched him unexpectedly."

"Like Taggart did last time he was here?"

"Not at all the same thing. Joel's a pussycat - even the gun doesn't hide that."

Simon crosses his arms, about to go into his lecturing-police-captain mode, for which I am way too tired. "I'm just saying..."

"I hear you, Simon. I need a karma adjustment." I'll work on it before tomorrow.


This time we wait to meet the next prospective savior from my ASL stupidity in the kitchen. Like most of my generation, I'm calmer with a cup of personality-defining mass market consumables in my hand. I try not to grip my cup of Café Canopy's shade-grown, bird-friendly, dark roast until my knuckles blanch. So far I've hidden my nervousness pretty well. Jim is engrossed in dissecting Sally's Saturday morning blueberry pancakes, but, again, before I hear anything, Jim tilts his head, listening intently. By the time the doorbell rings his breakfast is long since abandoned.

What Lisa lacks in actual credentials she made up for during the interview in sheer appreciation of sign itself - its idiosyncrasies and its lore. Just the kind of thing that appeals to an anthropologist, so of course I was completely swayed.

As she follows Sally into the kitchen, I notice Lisa's previously enthusiastic expression is masked by what I've come to know as Ellison-induced culture shock - the sudden realization that the reason that vase in the foyer looks like something out of the Ming Dynasty is that it is out of the Ming Dynasty.

It's quickly replaced with a smile of relief at recognizing a familiar face in the midst of all the museum quality decorations.

"Hey! Blair." Lisa looks around me to Jim, who's peering cautiously over my shoulder. "Hi, Jim." She then takes in the half-emptied plates with a groan of envy. "Are those blueberry pancakes?"

Despite the past couple of months, I have not forgotten how desirable food can look when a splurge is the ninety-nine cent menu at the local drive-thru.

Sally is, of course, happy to serve up another portion and smiles only slightly when the heavily buttered pile gets a look of pure rapture.

"Could I? Are you sure?" Even as she's politely asking, Lisa is heaving herself up on one of the tall bar stools. She takes a bite and chews blissfully. "Oh, wow. This is ... this is ..." She puts down the fork long enough to bring her middle finger to her lips and make a gesture sweeping it against her thumb and index finger. Immediately she looks embarrassed. "Oh, that was real professional." She snatches the fork back from the bar top. "Sign was my first language. You know how some people revert to Spanish or French when they get emotional? Afraid I resort to sign."

Lisa's looking at me apologetically, but I'm looking at Jim who's watching her - not with wariness, almost with curiosity.

"Tasty." She makes the sign again, realizing she's got Jim's attention. "Absolutely tasty."

Jim doesn't repeat the sign, but he is watching her raptly. He only breaks his gaze when Sally replaces his half-eaten stack with a fresh plate. After a moment and a couple glances in my direction he picks his fork up.

It may not be sign, but at least he's not growling.

We adjourn to the den, where we end up teaching Lisa all the signs Jim knows - or at least I do. I'm still happy with the lack of a rabid dog impression, actual participation at this moment is not something I'm going to require. When I'm done, Lisa looks not at me, but at Jim, and says it's only fair if she knows Sally and Steven's sign and mine (she makes the hand-clasping-wrist motion without a disparaging comment) then we should know hers.

"My *nickname* actually." She puts her thumbnail against the tip of her nose then curls the two nearest fingers making a kind of synchronous bobbing. My own hands make the universal palms up sign of I-have-no-idea.

"Bug," she translates.


"Yeah, these are my antennae." The fingers wiggle again. "So the parents were a little odd maybe ..." She pinkens slightly.

I take Jim's hand into mine and guide him through the motion. "Jim this is Bug."

He's complacent in my grasp. Not really eager, but not resisting either. It's a start.


"Bug," signs Jim, identifying the far-off putting wheeze of Lisa's '72 VW.

The big guy added one slightly unorthodox tutor to the small list of people he looks forward to seeing rather quickly. So quickly, actually, that Steven calls her 'Blair 2' as if all non-family members can be divided into Blair and non-Blair types.

Vocabulary is going slowly. Teaching Jim, even if he's clearly happy to see you, is no easy task. Lisa and I have been talking about how to work in words that might be helpful to dream analysis - which is what brings us to a chilly morning meeting in the thankfully pre-warmed studio.

It's the first time we've brought Lisa out here and she's appropriately wowed, as I was, at the artistry on display.

"This is the cat?" she asks after doing a delighted double take at the Blair-bust.

"I think it's Jim's spirit totem. He says the jaguar speaks to him. He just stares at me."

"Jim?" frowns Lisa.

"Uh, no, the cat."

"So, you see this cat, too." She's working to take this in; you can see her wide brown eyes narrow as she processes.

"He started showing up in my dreams a couple months after we found Jim. Then the wolf arrived."

"This wolf," she clarifies, laying a light hand on the sculpture's head. Jim, who's tagged along as she walked the gallery, joins her in stroking the smooth, hard surface.


"So, Jim sees your spirit totem as well?"

"I think the wolf is just Jim's representation of me."

Lisa watches Jim's hand move reverently along a well-sculpted muzzle before giving me an appraising glance from under her lashes.

Okay, go ahead and say it. I'm still not willing to deal with this. I am open to a *lot* of things. Naomi made sure of that. I do not judge by race, gender, preference of sexual partner or belief in any, or no, deity. I have no difficulty believing that Jim, a Sentinel, possesses a spirit totem. I'm just currently not prepared to believe ... well, let's just leave it at 'I'm just not currently prepared to believe.'

But we can work out my difficulties with the numinous later.

"Cat. Speaks. Jim." Lisa's signs echo what Jim told me on that surprising night. "Wolf. Speaks. Blair." She makes the sign for wolf again, her hand mimicking the muzzle, before sweeping again over the clay. "Wolf."

Jim looks startled. It takes a minute for him to gather himself then he makes a clumsy attempt at recreating the sign. I take his hand, help him draw out the dog-like snout.

"What does he say, Jim?" I whisper.

Lisa translates my oft-repeated plea into a rough approximation that I see as "Cat. Speaks. What."

The double assault puzzles Jim. His response is to make my name sign. I think it's his way of asking what the hell is going on. Lisa sees it differently.

"Cat. Speaks. About. Blair."

This is where I get into trouble. To and from are easy enough. And the nouns are fine. But the prepositions are hell. Lisa adds the rotating sign to the previous sentence.

"Cat. Speaks. What. About. Blair."

The guessing game here could be eternal. The big kitty says what about Blair? I'm thinking 'Blair is supper' may yet be a possibility.

"Jim." Lisa reaches toward him but stops before she's made actual contact. "What is Blair?"

She primes the pump using signs Jim knows.

"Blair. Is. Funny."

I can live with funny.

"Blair. Is. Smart."

I can live with smart.

"Blair. Is. Short."

I offer her a mock glare.

"Blair. Is. ..." This time she doesn't complete the sentence. She prompts Jim again. "Blair. Is. ..."

Jim looks at me for a long time. Finally his strong hands slowly echo the unfinished sentence.

"Blair. Is. ... " His right hand moves in a circle and then ends up in the palm of his left.

Blair. Is. All.

I feel the breath leave my lungs in a muted whoosh. To say I realize there is a disparity in what Jim and I experience, how we see this relationship, is not to say I expected this. I've worried Jim with my reaction. He's become anxious and rocks slightly on his toes, blue eyes starting to fill with tears. In contemplating my obvious inadequacy I am only making things worse. The 800,000 or so words in the English language are not enough to adequately explain the almost automatic bond between us, never mind the eighty that Jim can sign. I gather the still swaying body into a hug. Jim lowers his face against my neck, snuffling slightly.

We rock for a long, long time.