The sun has set, but the air is not as crisp and cold as it should be at the end of Fall in Flagstaff, Arizona. I don’t even have my coat on as I walk into the pub house. Barry Smith has just lifted his bow to his cobalt blue violin as I order a sarsaparilla. I pick out a seat on the warm oak bench, unpadded, unlike most of the seating in the room. Normally packed with the literary community for weekly readings, the bar is strangely empty on this night for music, and I am glad to have my pick of seats. As Barry begins his electric fiddle tune, I can feel it, the vibration of the speakers. The notes on either end of the spectrum, deep booming and high pitched, resonate through the wood planks. I have to splay out. The more flesh that makes contact with the wood grains, the more I feel it in my bones. Press my chest against the high back, let the sound vibrate through my breath. Let my occipital lobe, the very back of my head, rest there, send my brain into a tizzy with the shaking of it. Even my dead ear buzzes if I press it up against the wood.
I was ten years old when it happened. Thanksgiving 2004, Buttercup, Imperial Sand Dunes, California. It’s family tradition, to pack up our toy-hauler loaded with out ATV quads, stuffed to the brim with all of the Thanksgiving fixin’s, side by side with a caravan of trucks and trailers, friends and friends of friends, making the migration to the desert. Almost as soon as we left the driveway, I asked to turn the radio on, and I sang quietly in the back seat to classic country songs I knew by heart. After four hours of driving (though it felt longer than that to me) we rolled into loose sand and looked for a space large enough to set up camp. The trucks and trailers circled up, like wagons of the wild west. It was Wednesday night. We had already spent a whole day out in the dunes, tackling the steep sloped sand like it was a wave to be surfed.
Every night, when the setting sun had taken its warmth with it, we would light a fire in the center of camp, large enough for all of the near forty people to sit around. On this particular night, the fire was small, most people still finishing dinner in their trailers. I had eaten fast and decided to set up my family’s chairs in prime territory, out of the drifting smoke and close enough to roast marshmallows.
Out of some other trailer sauntered three guys, all late twenties to early thirties, each clutching a can of Bud Light in one hand. I think, now that I am closer to their age, I would describe them as stereotypical dude-bros, but I didn’t have the words for that back then. I didn’t know them; they had been invited by a friend who had been invited by a friend of the family. They seemed like they were there more to drink than they were to ride the dunes. Drunk, they pushed and shoved each other too close to the fire, chuckling and sloshing beer out of their open cans. The distinct smell of alcohol mixed in the dirt-tinged air. But I tried to ignore them and set up my chairs. Eventually, they finished their beers and tossed the cans into the fire, along with what I assumed was more trash, before running rather sloppily away. And then the world exploded.
There is a unique sort of culture that runs parallel to the gear-head nature of the dunes. Pyrotechnics. Near everyone is obsessed with them, and dangerously so. Over the holidays, when as many as 200,000 people gather to ride, there are almost as many injuries from fireworks as there are from crashes. Most popular are Sobe bombs, glass Sobe bottles filled with gasoline and placed in a fire pit (when the gas vaporizes, the cap shoots off and a mushroom cloud of flames can spill upwards of 100 feet into the air). It is illegal to light off fireworks at the dunes, and glass bottles have even been banned, but every night they are seen and heard for miles.
Unbeknownst to me as I stood two feet from the fire, they had thrown fireworks in along with the trash. I don’t remember much, other than the sound, like the first explosion in an action movie with the volume up too loud. I was knocked to the ground, covered in embers that began to singe through my clothes, but surprisingly not on fire. Our camping chairs were though, and the logs from the fire had been launched in all directions, one landing two hundred feet away, one camp over, shattering the front window of an unsuspecting diesel truck. I stayed on the ground, brushing off embers with one hand, and clutching my right ear with the other. My right side had been facing the fire and had taken the brunt of the explosion. I felt like someone had driven an icepick through my eardrum. Both of my ears were ringing.
The whole camp came running to find me writhing in the sand. I couldn’t hear their questions over the ringing in my ears. But somehow they worked out what had happened. My parents were furious. My dad, a 6’ 3” broad-shouldered firefighter gave them an earful about everything that could have happened, how they were lucky no one was killed, etc, etc. But my mother, 5’ 4” and petite, nearly beat them to death, according to family lore. I wouldn’t put it past her to have at least punched them in the gut and kicked them in the balls. Regardless, they were out of camp by morning.
I insisted I was fine and once my dad gave me a once-over to be sure, camp life returned to normal. I spent the rest of the week in our trailer though. The pain and ringing gradually faded but prevented me from getting close to the roar of quad and dirt bike engines. After the holiday, it was not apparent that any permanent damage had been done. But every year since then, I have lost more and more of my hearing in my right ear. That, I don’t mind much. There are other ways to hear. When I drive, I place my leg against the speaker in the door to feel my music better. I stand with my left side angled toward people talking to me so my better ear hears all it can. For the most part, I don’t notice the deficit, unless someone calls out to me in a wide open space. In situations like that, it’s hard for me to locate where the sound came from. But like I said, I can deal.
However, I was left with an additional effect from the explosion. It left me with category 3 hyperacusis in my right ear. That is, in layman's terms, hypersensitivity to what sounds I am able to hear. A medical professional would say that the damage in my ear causes even normal sounds to seem overly loud, but that’s not an accurate description. What I hear instead sounds like a mix of TV static turned all the way up and the feedback from a microphone placed too close to a speaker. And even worse, it occurs with a broad range of sounds, at high and low decibels and frequency levels. Plus, it’s completely different every day. Some days, something as simple as talking will set if off, other days I can blast my music in my car with only feedback at the highest notes. Indeed, hyperacusis has fundamentally changed music for me. There are some songs that trigger it, no matter the day or the volume setting. It’s often just one note, repeated in the chorus or maybe its just in there once, at the climax of the song, but it’s a note I don’t get to hear. Not truly. To me, these songs sound different from what the artists intended, as if my ear has remixed them.
But here’s the thing: some of my favorite songs are the ones that trigger my hyperacusis the most. They are songs with that one note that seem to have the best rhythm, the best lyrics, that speak to me on some level and send a flood of energy through my body as I listen to them, and I listen to them on repeat for days on end until my ear rings from the abuse. And I love it. In every other aspect of my life, I take precautions to avoid the ear-splitting sound of hyperacusis. I spend most of my time with an earbud in my ear, with nothing playing through it, because it acts like a protective barrier in my mind (even though noise-canceling headphones couldn’t do much to ease it). I sleep with an ambient noise machine (that ironically sounds like TV static) so noise from outside my room doesn't set off the static in my brain. I only stay so long at family functions because the Dyer clan together can be very loud. And yet, music has never been like that for me. I am a little bitter, perhaps, that I will likely never see my favorite artists in concert. Between the volume of the music and the noise of the crowd, it would be too much for me to enjoy the music. But otherwise, I take no care to avoid triggering my hyperacusis with music.
However, I do wonder what my favorite songs really sound like. What is Annie by SafetySuit if not “Annie, you are the one song left in my symphony, thisshig like you were made for me” or Van Nuys by Sixx:A.M. without “everyone’s mouth is dry, but nobody wants to die kgkkkrrr in Van Nuys gkrlgkrl”? There’s a way I can find out, a non-invasive treatment, called HRT. But it is experimental, expensive, not covered by insurance, and not a one-hundred-percent fix. In essence, it is a way to retain the tonal tolerance of an ear through sound therapy, but it’s really just desensitization.
And even if I could afford it, I’m not sure I would do it. I think I like my music too much to risk changing it. Because of my hyperacusis, music I listen to is uniquely mine; no one else will ever hear music the way that I do, even someone else with hyperacusis. And I do not want to desensitize myself to that.
Back in the bar, Barry’s final song has reached a fever-pitch. His bow is sending out waves, reverberating through the very air, tangible even through the glass of my soda bottle. It makes my hair stand on end with the tingling of it. The final note rings through the bar, rings in my ear with one last crackle. After applause, I stand and leave the bench for the cooling air outside. I pop my earbuds into my ears, not satisfied with the silence after such a performance. I shuffle through the first few songs before settling on “Face Everything and Rise” by Papa Roach. Down the street, a rowdy group of boys exits one bar, crossing the road to enter another, shoving each other and laughing loudly. I roll my eyes and walk the other direction and Jacoby Shaddix’s voice sings in my ear, “Running in the fire, I'll never be the same, I come alive when I am burning in the flames.”
Mekenzie Dyer is recent graduate of the MFA program at Northern Arizona University where she also received a bachelors in English Education. As a writer she is fond of coming of age stories, particularly where violence impacts the process of maturing. She writes everything from fiction to nonfiction, and even poetry. Dead Ear is a piece where she ruminates on one small moment of violence in her life that lead to unique developments later on. When she is not teaching or writing, Mekenzie enjoys practicing martial arts and finding other ways to stay active. She has also been published online through Thin Air Magazine.