King of the Hill [a portrait of Joseph Grigely]

Infinite Ear: Portraits is a collection of stories of individuals who were confronted with a transformation in their perception of sound and relationship to hearing. A number of authors accepted the challenge of translating these experiences through writing. Authors, readers, and the portraits’ subjects are confronted with the main questions behind Infinite Ear’s research: how can we understand and feel perceptions of sound radically different from our own?

Joseph Grigely is an American visual artist and scholar. He was deafened at the age of ten, when he fell down a hill while playing with friends. Louise Stern, a London-based artist and writer who grew up in an exclusively deaf community, asked him what happened that morning of 1966 in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.

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The earth in the field was often wet, and even a short walk meant the mud sucking like all get-out on your boots. If you worked your way through the tangled ragweed, your hard labor only got you to the swamp beyond. And there was all the trash concealed beneath the amber waves of grain to be reckoned with. Cans so old that the brand had rusted over were joined every day by shiny new brothers; in the summer, waterlogged newspapers dried out again, becoming pale, brittle husks. The names that had once fleshed them—always Vietnam, Dylan, and the Beatles—had died, along with all the other designations that clustered around, holding up until everything fell away into the dirt. Other words came around on chance to stand in. Narragansett, placed on the diagonal across pop-tops; King Cole BBQ; Coca-Cola. Sometimes lists of groceries blew over the fences, or homework sheets lacerated with red.

When Joe was out and about, it was hockey and it was shouting words that you could not see. Hey, you, I’m the King of the Hill; you’re dead meat; my father says your father is whatever; my mother says your mother is whatever; my sister says your sister is whatever, my brother says your brother is whatever; I say you are whatever; did I hear you say I was whatever?

It was fun, especially because Joe always won. He was big, he was smart, and he knew how to get people to like him. The words he found in the field were strange and different; he could stand closer to them than he could to the ones in his books.

He stood on top of the small hill in the middle of the meadow. There were a few older boys there, because today was Saturday. Fat Irving was the only one Joe had never beaten in anything: not at King of the Hill, hockey, debate, or baseball. When everyone was down at the lake, Irving always caught the biggest fish too, with bait from his father’s shop. On top of all that, he knew how to talk to girls. Now Irving came rushing up the hill, his soft belly flopping over his belt, his big fingers red with clamping together and his breath shaking heavily up. Joe pushed his feet into the soil as far as they would go, feeling slime gloop into the tops of his boots. Above him, radiance bled slowly through the clouds.

“Come on you fat head freak, come on! I’m ready for you, pig!” Joe whooped down the hill, lobbing his words at Irving clear as a pitcher with a meatball. And here Irving came, hurtling solidly up to tackle Joe. Down he went, the ground smashing into him as thickly as the water after a bad belly-flop as Irving bellowed “Suck it all up. Kiss my blimp ass.” Instead, Joe’s nose slammed into Irving’s stinking armpit, and there it all stayed.

But Irving had not knocked Joe off the top of the hill. Joe was King, nearer the top of the world than any other loser. His hand flapped around in the muck and closed onto a scrap of paper. It was hard work turning his head past Irving’s ponderous weight to look at it, this thing that was still within his reach. A shred of newsprint, the thin paper blemished with moisture. Black against the spreading wet were, “Came down, and never went up again.” Joe squirmed, wriggled, twisted, wormed, and finally writhed out from under Irving and lay on top of his hill. Bringing the ragged piece of newspaper up to his face, he yammered the line at Irving who he had finally, finally won over. But the words stayed where he could see them. Irving looked at Joe and Joe saw that the message had reached the kid, even though it had gone out there past the fences where Joe could not reach it at all, as sure as a hardball. Why could Irving get to it?

King of the Hill, King of the Hill, I do not hear you say I am King of the Hill. The King of the Hill does not hear you say anything anymore.

Joe looked up at the drifting nebula, now spread out and allowing only fragments of blue through. All of the shouted words had been swallowed up. It left more space.

Through that expanse a torn corner of white paper came flying, and Joe recognised his mother’s handwriting. It must have slipped out of her kitchen window and found a surge to ride on. “A question,” it said in her chicken scratch. Irving saw it too, and Joe realised he could understand on the fat boy’s fat lips, “I’ll give you the answer, you dip!” And with that he plopped down off Joe and ran down the hill. Came down, and never went up again.

Joe stayed there, and never left again. There, on top of the hill, in that wide blue, with that question floating.

King of the Hill, King of the Hill, I do not hear you say I am King of the Hill. I see you say I am King of the Hill. I read you write I am King of the Hill. I write I am King of the Hill.

TEXT BY

  • Louise Stern


    The portraits, designed by Goda Budvytytė, are printed on the occasion of the exhibition Infinite Ear at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, taking place from June 8 to September 2, 2018.

Top image: Joseph Grigely, Blueberry surprise, 2013, view of the exhibition Rose at CEAAC, Strasbourg.