From The Study of Animal Languages

By LINDSAY STERN

Animal_Languages

“All my life I’ve been waiting,” says my father-in-law, through the stall door. We have stopped at a rest area along the interstate, halfway between our homes. I would meet him back in the car, if only he would stop waxing poetic.

“Frank?” I face the mirror, smoothing the hair over my thinning spot. “I’ll be—”

“First for school to end,” he interrupts. “Then for my twenties, then for success. Marriage, children, et cetera. For them to leave. For their children. Then the waiting became less conspicuous. Waiting for the cry of boiled water. For the paper. For spring. It took a mighty long time to understand that what I’d been waiting for wasn’t each thing, actually, but the chance to wait for whatever came next.”

The toilet sounds, mercifully. It is not Frank’s, however, but the door of the adjoining stall that swings open. An elderly woman advances, angles toward the sink. She has been listening. She rinses her hands.

“Sorry,” I volunteer. “Men’s is out of order.”

Through the mirror she delivers a qualified smile, snaps her wrists over the drain, and departs. When I look up Frank is shuffling toward me, coaxing the tongue of his belt into its loop. His shirt is too broad for his shoulders, and his face appears, as it usually does, to harbor some inconvenient hope.

He follows me back into the food mart, where I pay for a lukewarm coffee and the packaged croissant he’s selected. My watch reads half past five.

“Looks about time for your meds,” I say.

Grimacing, he turns away, pushing open the glass door. Outside a shy rain has started, colder than it looks.

“You know what it does to me, right?” he says, as we fold ourselves into the car.

“Come on. I promised your daughter.”

“Promised her what?”

“That you’d be comfortable.” I stab the ignition, but the car resists. “She wants you comfortable.”

Prue hadn’t wanted him to come at all, in fact. He’s unstable, she’d said again this morning, as I downloaded an audiobook—a biography of Noam Chomsky I should have read long ago—for the drive up. This was an exaggeration, though Frank has been less predictable, lately, than in the six years I have known him, phoning Prue at odd hours to kvetch about the government, or to solicit her “scientific opinion” on matters completely outside her purview. She had tried to convince him to cancel the trip, but he had insisted. She would be delivering the College’s annual public lecture in the Life Sciences tomorrow, and he was determined to attend. With Prue scrambling to finish her tenure dossier, and with Frank lacking both a car and the money to rent one, the task of ferrying him from his studio in Chester, Vermont, to our home in Rhode Island had fallen to me.

The engine sputters to life. I swing an arm behind his seat, glancing back to find a Labrador between our taillights, towing a woman in heels. I slam the brakes. She flips me off and staggers after the dog, tenting a newspaper over her hair.

“It evicts me,” Frank says, “from my goddamn skin. Turns me into a sleeping and eating machine, is what it does.”

The Clozaril, he means. Prescribed for schizophrenia and, in rare cases—among them, Frank’s—bipolar disorder.

“Like there’s a twelve-foot margin between me and the world, is what it’s like,” he adds. “Between me and my own head.”

“You seem present enough to me,” I say. He has complained about the side effects of Clozaril before—the night sweats, the vertigo—but never this obliquely.

“Nothing like when I’m off them,” he says. “When I’m off them, I’m myself. Only trouble is the gaps.”

We coast onto the highway. To our left a Christmas tree shudders by, lashed to a van.

“Gaps in normality, and whatnot.” He pins the plastic sleeve of the croissant between his knees. “In my ability . . . ” The sleeve pops open, releasing a stale, buttery odor. I breathe through my mouth, feeling the swill of irritation and fatigue he so often compels in me.

“My ability to summon the cast of mind required to shop and chat and pay bills,” he concludes.

You can flush the pills, as far as I’m concerned, I do not say. While I haven’t confessed as much to Prue, I have always taken Frank’s diagnosis with a grain of salt. Part of my skepticism has to do with that increasing bloated leviathan, the psychiatric industry, whose ever-expanding DSM has become so lengthy that most people will qualify for one disorder or another over the course of a lifetime, making sanity itself a form of deviance. It doesn’t help that Prue invokes it every time Frank strikes a nerve, as though his provocations were nothing but the illness, ventriloquized. Not since her childhood, at least as far as I know, has he suffered the pivots from elation to despair that characterize manic depression. What she calls his “mania” strikes me more as a weakness for grandstanding.

“It’s not that I see things or anything, when the gaps set in,” Frank continues, through a mouthful of croissant. “And it’s not depression. It’s that everything . . . how to put it . . . signifies.”

Feeling his eyes on me, I say, “I’m not sure what you mean by that, Frank.”

“Have you ever been to Grand Central Station?” “Sure.”

“When you walk in, what do you hear?”

I blow out my cheeks, defeated—as usual—by his passionate sincerity. “I don’t know . . . footsteps?”

“Voices, kid.” He throws up his arms, showering my lap with crumbs. “Imagine that you could comprehend—couldn’t help but comprehend—every conversation taking place in that hall. That the voices untangled into words, hundreds of words, each one significant.”

“Fuck,” I mutter, so distracted I’ve missed our exit. Traffic is mounting. The detour will cost us half an hour, at least.

“. . . what it felt like,” Frank is saying now. “I could have been walking down any godforsaken street, sober as hell, and become suddenly aware of the wind, the vowel called ‘wind,’ aware of the trees and their dances, and it’s not that I could have named the language they spoke, or report on it now, except to say that everything, everything, meant.”

Through the mist a row of flashing lights comes into view, indicating the source of the gridlock: a totaled van—half-scorched, despite the drizzle. Shallow flames lap at the engine.

“You look tired,” Frank erupts, clapping my shoulder so firmly that I swerve. “What’s on your plate these days, kiddo?”

“I’m doing fine, Frank.”

“Work? Trouble in paradise?” “Prue’s fine. We’re fine.”

With a spurt of dread, I wonder whether it sounds as though I am protesting too much. Things have been strained between us lately—inevitably, I suppose, given the stress of her upcoming tenure decision, though that can’t be all it is. We have never been this out of sync before. Last week, if only to set myself at ease, I bought us discount tickets to the Galápagos for the winter holiday. She wrote her dissertation on the mating rituals of the albatross, and has always dreamed of seeing it in its natural habitat.

To change the subject I add, “She’s very touched that you’re coming.”

This “touched” is an accusation, neither intended nor deserved. Frank has been present for most of Prue’s triumphs and setbacks. Too present, at times.

“You’ll enjoy yourself,” I say gently. “There’ll be a party at our place after the lecture.”

Frank offers me the final claw of bread, which I refuse. He says, “Assumed I’d have to field some eggheads.”

Over time, I have learned to smile at his contempt for academia. Prue, who shares some of his scorn for the chattering class, despite being one of us herself, shrugs off most of his jabs. I read them as deflected self-reproach, the chagrin of an intellectual who never made much of his mind.

“Supper?” Frank gestures at a blue sign overhead.

“You just ate,” I say, although I could use a proper coffee.

We’ll be home well after dinner at this rate.

“Didn’t hit the spot,” he says. He roots around in his pocket, producing a washcloth too late to catch his sneeze. As he mops his nose I merge into the exit lane, provoking a blast from the truck behind us.

Frank scratches his head, his white hair so thick he has to dig to reach the scalp. He says, “You’ve read it, yes?” Prue’s lecture, he must mean. She hasn’t shared the document with me, and I hadn’t considered asking her to. Public lectures are a rote affair at the College, well advertised but sparsely attended. Since my first appointment, I have delivered two for the Philosophy Department. Both attracted a modest turnout, and the second boosted my upcoming tenure case. If it goes over well, Prue’s should do the same.

“Wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise,” I say.

The off-ramp deposits us onto a lunar stretch of banks and car dealerships. The diner, glowing on our left, looks festive by comparison. Across the road, a green air puppet throbs in time with our turn signal.

“You’re in for one,” Frank mutters. His voice is freighted with what he isn’t saying: I love her more. He has probably read multiple drafts of the speech by now. Despite everything, my heart goes out to him. He has so little else to occupy his days that I can hardly reproach him for caring so fiercely.

“She mentioned she’d gloss the birdsong study,” I say.

The experiment, which tested songbirds’ ability to discriminate between melodies, was published over the summer in Nature Communications, a distinguished multidisciplinary journal. It is Prue’s first contribution to the study of animal “languages,” which, after languishing for thirty years, has recently resurfaced as a branch of biolinguistics. Thankfully, her approach bears no likeness to the hijinks that passed for research in the seventies— anthropomorphized chimps, sex with dolphins, and worse—but the phrase itself still doesn’t strike her as the oxymoron it is. Most discouraging about the recent scholarship I have skimmed is its interchangeable use of the terms “communication” and “language,” a confusion to which Prue succumbs regularly. When I press her, she usually concedes that communication—the exchange of information—is not remotely synonymous with language, that sine qua non of thought: a finite set of elements capable, like the Arabic numerals, of infinite variation.

We park before the diner—all chrome and scabbed leather. Though it is barely six, and a Thursday, the place is close to full.

“What do you know?” he says, tucking his napkin into his collar.

His belligerence usually amuses me, but now I feel a stab of indignation, blunted by weariness. Before meeting Frank, I had allowed myself to imagine him as a surrogate parent, cosmic recompense for losing my own. No such luck. Though we have made our peace with one another over the years, each reunion reaffirms that Prue is all we share.

“Well,” I concede, “Prue’s team began by recording a phrase of birdsong, and then . . .”

The waitress descends with my coffee and turkey salad. Frank, a longtime vegetarian, has ordered lentil soup.

“You haven’t read the study,” Frank says, addressing his soup.

“Of course I have,” I lie. Prue had summarized it for me. No

point in wading through the jargon myself.

“So what did she prove?” His spoon quavers as he lifts it to his mouth, emptying back into the bowl. He tries again. Essential tremor. According to Prue, the fluttering in his hands will only worsen with time.

“Nothing monumental,” I oblige. “The birds responded differently to different configurations of the same sounds. Which indicates that there may be a grammar to their songs, but the study is hardly conclu—”

“Speech.” Frank stabs the air with his spoon. “Their songs are speech.”

There is a note in his voice—somewhere between wonder and rage—I have not heard before. His eyes glitter.

“Did Prue say that?” I ask, carefully. “Or is that your—”

“Tell me,” he says abruptly, leaning back. “Do you give a single crap about your wife’s work?”

I set down my fork, embarrassed to feel my cheeks go hot. “That’s a ridiculous question, Frank.”

Feigning innocence now, he shrugs.

“Listen.” I lock eyes with a patron to our left. “I don’t know what game you’re trying to play here. Prue added a feather to her cap. I’m very proud of her. What more do you want me to say?”

Frank sniffs. To my disgust, he raises his bowl to his mouth, downing the sludgy remains of his soup. When he has finished it off he says, “You don’t get it, do you?”

I gird myself. Behind me, the baby shrieks.

Before he can speak again our waitress reappears, smiling nervously. As she leans down to clear Frank’s bowl her scent—floral, with an undertow of musk—wafts toward me.

“We’ll take the check, thanks,” I say, feeling, in spite of everything, a pang of desire.

“No, Prue didn’t say that,” Frank says, too loudly. “I read it in the goddamn New York Times.”

One pill by dinnertime, Prue had said. Promise me you’ll watch him take it.

“That guy”—he points at a heavy man in the corner, sitting alone—“and this guys”—a couple—“and them”—a family—“they’ve all heard the news, probably. So have laypeople all over the States.” Suddenly plaintive, he adds: “It’s a breakthrough, and nobody—”

“Are your meds on you?” I interrupt.

“Nobody saw it coming.”

“Are they in the car?”

“The implications…”

“Go get them.” I toss the keys across the table, desperate for solitude.

He stares at me. Only when I pull out my phone does he obey, trudging down the aisle of booths and through the door.

The Times? He must have been hallucinating. I wake the phone, Googling Prue’s name and a few relevant keywords. But there it is, seven entries down: an article titled “Mind or Bird-brain?” published last month. Numbly, I click the link, only to find Prue’s study buried in a middle paragraph. The citation is respectful, but decidedly tangential, and the article is online only.

I face the window, my reflection yielding to a view of the parking lot and the streaking lights beyond. It has gotten darker. By the diner’s neon glare the strip mall looks even more desolate than it did when we arrived. No sign of Frank, from here, nor of our Subaru. As a hatchback reverses out of its spot, one taillight blown, I feel my stomach plunge. Lunacy, to trust him with the keys. Snatching my phone, I bolt for the door, nearly colliding with our waitress, who is shouldering a tray of ice cream sundaes. She gasps, catching one of the teetering glasses, but another tips forward, sloughing off its whipped cream and pitching its cherry onto a nearby table.

“Sorry,” I call out, registering the sudden hush. When I turn back Frank is standing in the threshold.

“Where’s the fire?” he says. As the door eases closed behind him, his bib flutters.

“Christ.” I stumble over myself. “I thought you’d taken…”

“It’s a nice car, but not that nice.” He pats my shoulder and then bends—wincing—to help the waitress clean the mess. By the time I fetch some extra napkins from the bar they are finished, and the voices around us have risen again.

“Your pill?” I venture.

“Finis.”

The tightness in his voice suggests otherwise. Bunching up his napkin he adds, as though sensing my misgivings, “Entitled to some privacy, aren’t I?”

Our waitress returns with the check. As I fumble for my card, Frank hands her a twenty-dollar bill.

We are quiet for most of the next hour. Frank leans his head against the window, his breath smoking up the glass. When he starts to snore, I turn the audiobook on low, relaxing into the author’s account of Chomsky’s teenage years.

“God’s dead,” Frank mumbles.

My phone trills. I pull it out to find an unfamiliar number—a telemarketer, probably—and switch it on silent.

“Cognitive science is way beyond universal grammar,” he adds, over the narrator.

He casts me the steely look that still has the power to unnerve me, to remind me of what he does all day in his attic apartment, crowded with secondhand books. For all his dogmatizing, the man is formidably well read.

“I thought you were sleeping,” I say.

We reach South Kingston, and weave through the warren of roads flanking the campus. Music thuds from a ramshackle house, and then recedes. In a moment there is only fog again, everything black but the shining road and the tall silence of the pines.

“You’re pissed,” Frank says.

“I’m just tired.”

“If it’s about before, don’t bother.” He claps me on the knee. “It is what it is. You are who you are. I’m her dad. I’ll always think she could have done better.”

“Jesus, Frank,” I say, mortified to feel myself blushing again.

He laughs. “I’m just playing with you, kid.”

Instead of replying I jab the volume button, and the car goes mute.

He glances at me, then says gruffly: “You know I’m here for you, if you ever need me.” We pull into our driveway, pebbles crunching under the wheels. The living room light is on, and I wonder as I turn off the gas whether I have imagined the dash of motion by the outdoor stairs, receding now behind the elm. Our upstairs neighbor, the pianist, it must be. Out for a smoke.

Frank squeezes my wrist. “I’m serious.”

“You’re the one I’ll turn to,” I say with irony, though it comes out as fatigue.

The back door opens and Prue steps out, her face awash in the headlights. Her eyes are smiling, but her breath is clouding my view of the rest of her face.

“I’ve been calling,” she says, coming around to my side of the car. “What happened to you guys?”

“Sorry.” I check my phone to find I’ve missed her twice. “It was getting late, so we stopped for a bite.”

She folds her arms, shivering. Her hair is wet, her cheeks raw from the shower. Ducking her head, she waves at Frank, but he is clambering out of his seat.

To me she murmurs, “He took it?”

“Of course.” I kiss her forehead. “Now get inside before you freeze.”

“Pumpkin!” Frank crows, approaching us.

Prue steps away from me, organizing her face into the look of bright repose she wears for her immediate family. Frank reaches for her, dropping his duffel bag on the gravel.

“Hey, Dad,” she says.

He traps her in a hug so tight she rolls her eyes.

“Calm down, Frank.” I hoist his bag onto my shoulder, squinting against the cold. “She’s not going anywhere.”

 *

From THE STUDY OF ANIMAL LANGUAGES by Lindsay Stern, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Lindsay Stern.

Lindsay Stern is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Maytag Fellow, and the recipient of a Watson Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Prize, and an Amy Award from Poets & Writers magazine. She is currently pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at Yale University. The Study of Animal Languages is her first novel.

 

Griffin LessellFrom The Study of Animal Languages

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