Noise, Part I

by Luke Boyd

Before you get too far into this, you should know.

You should know this isn't the kind of story where anything important happens, or where anything matters much.

It's not the kind of story where a carload of cheerleaders go on a road trip and one-by-one meet gruesome fates. It's not the kind of story where two lonely singles lost in the bustle of city life find each other through some random accident--choking in an uptown restaurant our hero is revived by a no-nonsense waitress and single mother struggling to make ends meet.

If you like stories where the characters remind you of yourself, give up now. Although you may be in here, you probably won't recognize yourself.

This story is not a mirror or a window. Or an hourglass whose slipping sands are trickling away. It's not anything glass at all.

If you're hoping this story will help to explain some messed-up facet of your own life, don't bother continuing. And if you believe that everything happens for a reason--that everyone has a purpose in life--stop reading right now and find something else to do. Cook someone dinner, or go buy a cat.

This story does not involve a showdown between good and evil. It does not provide a glimpse of the future, or an explanation of the past.

This story is a distraction from distraction. A diary of noise.

Maybe you'll hear it. Maybe you won't.

DING! Sorry, you are out of time.
DING! Please return to your seats.
DING! You've got mail.
DING! The chicken is done defrosting.
Or was that the wash?
DING! Or the doorbell??

This story was not written by some distinguished wordsmith, cloistered away in a rustic cabin somewhere in upstate New York, starving for an impossible pristine text. It wasn't put down deep in the night by the soft glow of a computer screen, or by the flicker of candlelight. It wasn't born paragraphs at a time on legal tablets or in some battered spiral bound notebook, either.

In fact, I didn't even write this.

This story was not created--it was found. Floating around out there as all stories do, like untraceable sounds drifting across the open night. It didn't even exist all in one place until someone wanted to hear it. Then it was designed, defined, and refined--passed through disaffected hands, and measured for therapeutic value.

How about five hundred hours of therapy? Or complete cochlear reconstructive surgery? Totally paid for.

I scan the offer as it slides across the table. My answer--I'm not sure how loud.

"I don't care. What good will it do me? I'm happy now."

But you could be so much happier. We can make you better, but we need your help. We need to know where things went wrong.

Just as I finish reading, the pad is pulled back. There's more writing underneath when it comes back, now the handwriting more distressed.

You should know something. You're the first, but not the only one. There have been ten more since you got here last month. We need answers.

I can't help but smile, but only at the corners of my mouth where it's just for me. The truth is that with all the gauze, tape, and cotton wound around my head, I'm really in no hurry to go anywhere. I listen to the blood pumping through my skull and the incessant droning that I've become used to in the past few weeks.

I rock back and forth on the chair I'm secured to. Through the window I can see a herd of labcoats and glasses watching me from the hall.

Spectacles observing a spectacle.

"Okay. Get a tape recorder or something because I'm not writing it all down."

I plant the chair legs hard on the tile floor and clear my throat, hoping it sounds calm and authoritative.

"And when I'm done, I want out."

I hit the record button, and with a stack of blank cassettes next to me on the table this story--this story about nothing and nobody and noise--it comes out of nowhere. The entire story without a hitch, because when you can't hear yourself talk, you can finally hear yourself think.

That's me, sitting with the dingy curtains pulled back as the cars whiz up the hill beneath my window. I peak out, around and down the corner to where the aluminum siding stretches away, and wonder if anyone can see me sitting here.

On the toilet:

A liar, a con, a thief, a maniac.

This is what someone like that looks like I guess, on the toilet, looking out through curtains. I am everything, all balled up into one, because what does it matter if you're simply one or another? The distinctions between did and didn't, they don't really matter because for sure,everyone has done something.

Everyone has a secret.

I've got mine, sitting on the toilet, behind the curtains, wondering who might be out there watching me peer out at them while they look in at me--watching me watch them watch me. Everyone is made up solely of glances from watchers. Glances captured from the leveling eyes of people on the street, or their own as they pass a mirror, or look through rainy glass.

Just in case you're wondering, this isn't really "headed somewhere" yet, so if you're thinking that way, just stop.

What I'm doing is creating a pretext. What I'm doing is setting the table.

I light up a cigarette while I'm waiting. Too much fiber in your diet and you will always be waiting. I light it with one of the matchbooks on the sinktop. There's about twenty of them.

I don't smoke, but smoking is something you can pick up instantly and it's like you're suddenly part of a family. You can get a pack of cigarettes anywhere, and nobody is going to say, "Hey, I've never seen you buying here before! I bet you don't even smoke!" Instead, if someone else is in there getting cigarettes too, you can kind of nod at them as you pass on your way out and have a shared moment of understanding. Like soldiers passing in the road, on their way to and from battle.

And if you're out somewhere, at a bar or a diner, you don't have to feel like an idiot if you have a pack of cigarettes. You can sit in the non-smoking section if you want, because you're not really a smoker. Or you can sit in the smoking section and lay your pack out on the table--maybe light one up, maybe not. You never look like you're lonely when you're sitting there with a beer or a coffee and a cigarette in the ashtray, just smoking itself away. A magazine or newspaper helps the image, too.

Then of course, there's the advantage that people will never quite have you pegged. They might see you walk out of that gas station with a pack and a lighter and think they've got you down.

You're not truly happy with yourself.

You don't care about your long-term health.

They never stop to think that you might not even smoke--that you might be buying them for your fading bedridden grandmother, or your twelve-year-old nephew.

In yet another scenario, you're sitting, say at a Dunkin Donuts or something, and you're alone. You're not smoking, and you don't have your cigarettes out. You're just sitting with a coffee and a defeated-looking cruller lying limp on a napkin. People stand in line or sit a few booths away, and they watch you, and they take you apart.

That guy looks like a real nutjob.

He's probably going through a divorce, or maybe his mother has recently passed.

I bet he's a child molester.

I bet he's a Democrat.


At this point, you reach into your jacket pocket, pull out your smokes and strike one. Through that first thin curl of smoke up around your eyes you watch the whole game change. Or you can just fish the cigarettes out of your pocket, making it real obvious, get up and walk out. Light one up as you go out the door, keeping your eyes real shifty, whispering in low muddled Spanish to the people you pass.

Oh my God, that guy's possessed or something.

As I'm sitting here, not really peeking out through the curtains anymore but letting my burning cigarette balance on the edge of the faux-porcelain sinktop, I'm thinking. I've been smoking (or not smoking as you may see it) on and off for thirty-one years. I'm counting the time from when I was born to age fifteen when I smoked my first cigarette as my first "off" period. It works.

So how many cigarettes have I smoked or not smoked in that time? And how many cigarettes do you need to smoke before you can say, "Yeah, I'm a smoker"?

I know you only need to kill one person in the alley behind the bar to be a murderer. And you only need to swipe one person's car left idling in a Wawa parking lot to be a thief. So in that light, am I a smoker yet or not?

If so, I guess telling one lie makes you a liar. And if you're already a liar, why stop now? You've got the label, and there are a lot of stories to be spun. You can start by telling people you have some sort of terminal skin disease, that the scratching is manageable, but the explosive diarrhea is really hell. Tell your next-door neighbor that you saw her husband coming out of the Marriot last Friday at lunch. You waved to him, but you weren't sure if he saw you. He seemed like he was nervous and in a rush.

While you're at it, why not combine your newfound talents?

Go into one of those mid-priced family-style restaurant chain places and get a table in the no-smoking section. Then ask for an ashtray. The waitress will say something like, "Excuse me, sir, but this is the no-smoking section. I can get you a table in the smoking section, if you want?"

Then you say, "No, this is fine" and light up a cigarette, or maybe two or three. As many as you can handle. Chances are the waitress (or if you're really making a scene, the manager) will come over and request you stop smoking in the no-smoking section. With the burning cigarette or cigarettes balanced delicately between your fingers say, "Thanks, but I don't actually smoke. This is just for decoration."

Congratulations, now you're a liar and a sociopath. Oh yeah, and possibly a smoker.

A true rarity, the complete triple threat.

Behavior like this will really get you some looks. And that's what we're all after, isn't it? That's the only way to really identify ourselves--by how others see us. Take my neighbor Bill, for example. He lives a couple of waiting-to-be-condemned houses up the street from me. I'm not sure how old he is. I mean, I've been smoking on and off for thirty-one years, and he's got aftershave older than that.

He's World War II old.

Starched button-down shirts and dress slacks seven days a week old.

Bill's wife is already dead, somewhere back around the turn of the century most likely, but he's pretty well adjusted to living on his own. I see him every morning when I go to work, and every morning he flags me down with his blue-white flapping chicken arms. Then he sidles on up to my car, like we're talking at a bar over a pint or something.

"So, where you off to so early?"

"I'm going to work, Bill. Like every other morning." This is the truth, basically.

"Ahhh, it's good to see a young person with a work ethic. You know I worked down at the Steel for fifty-three years. And the Steel's been shut down ten years now..."

"Great, Bill. Yeah. I really gotta get to work though."

I'm in my car now, starting to slowly roll my window up, and he's leaning halfway inside. His teeth are butter yellow and slimy, but at least they're his. His head shakes and bobs around like it's on a spring when he talks.

"Ok, Bill. I'm rolling up the window now. Tell Jeannie I said hi."

Yeah I know she's dead, but he still talks about her like she's around so I just play along. I think deep down he realizes she's gone, but he doesn't want to look like he's all alone. He even tells me about how often he lays her. Sometimes if I'm coming home late from the bar or the bookstore, Bill will be outside standing on his stoop. At first when I crest the hill on my walk down past his house to mine, I only see the glowing end of a cigar. I can usually smell it too, or hear him singing little snatches of Dean Martin or Sinatra. I try to stroll on by pretty quickly because I know he tends to be a follower. He'll be standing there in his underwear, with or without a tee shirt. In the winter he'll be wearing his old army boots, sometimes his fatigue jacket.

"Night, Bill."

And I'm gone.

Then I'll feel a wispy arm clutching at my sleeve, or I'll hear him pattering or clunking (depending on the season) down the sidewalk after me.

"Hey, hang on there! Where you going so fast?" He's always out of breath no matter how far he has to chase me, and I don't want the old guy to drop over dead on the sidewalk--not in his goddamn underwear anyway--so I stop.

"Oh Bill, hey it's really late. I gotta get to bed. I have to be up early tomorrow."

"Ahhh, I used to have to get up early too, when the Steel was open. Time and a half for weekend shifts."

"Wow Bill, yeah, that's great. Well, have a good night. Say hi to Joanie for me."

I use different names every time I see him. Jeannie, Joanie, Mary, Claire, whatever.

He doesn't care--he's just happy I remember that he's forgotten she's dead. We both pretend she's not pushing up daisies two blocks over in the beer bottle-littered cemetery.

"Say, you want to come in for a drink? I got some cognac I've been saving. Just the two of us, the Mrs. is asleep. I really gave her a working over tonight, boy. She might be out for a few days."

He slaps me feebly on the shoulder, like this is some sort of fraternal guy joke just between us. His hand feels like a raw-cold chicken wing.

"Aww I don't think so tonight, Bill. It's late already. Had I known earlier, then maybe..."

"Heh!" He kind of shrinks away, and I know what's coming next. Old people are always guilting you into spending time with them by talking about how they're going to be dead soon. And Bill's really, really old.

"Okay, suit yourself. Just keep in mind, I'm not always going to be around, you know. The Mrs. and I, we might be moving down to Florida. I got in on some prime land down there; you know they're practically giving it away. Got me a ten-acre lot in the Everglades for three thousand bucks and, hang on here, I got the brochure here in my pocket..."

He doesn't have pockets. He's wearing just his underwear.

"Ok, Bill. I'll come in for a drink. But let me run down to my house first. I'll be right back."

I start jogging down the hill towards my place because, for real, I have to get up at 5:30 in the morning. He's yelling down the dark paved slope to me, "Hurry up. I have a few of those skin movies you like on tape, too. I'll put one on the rewinder."

And then I'm in my house, dropping off a few things, trying to delay as much as possible because sometimes Bill will just forget he talked to me and go inside to sleep. I consolidate a few piles of books and mail into one larger pile and go take a piss. If I turn my head just a little bit while standing at the toilet, I can see right across the street to this apartment-style house where some college kids live. Usually this late at night there's always some sort of action--a fight, or a drunken makeout session, maybe a kid puking in the gravel. Tonight it's quiet but I can see through the shades that the lights are on downstairs. It's the kind of soft, flickering light only tv makes. As I'm zipping up, I figure there's probably some lucky kid in there curled up on a ratty couch with some hot piece of ass tight up against him. And the couch is probably stuffed full of crumbs, food wrappers, and other girls' underwear.

I grab this cheap bottle of vodka I've been keeping under the sink next to the bleach and the drain opener, and I twist the cap off, take a little slug. You know, to test it out. It's worth every bit of the nine dollars I paid for it and tastes like it was made in New Jersey or maybe Utah. Somewhere they don't know shit about vodka, for sure. I twist the cap back down tight and take it with me back up to Bill's. I figure if he's awake, we can start hitting the vodka and he'll wish he had gone to bed, and if he's asleep, I'll just leave it on his stoop.

Back up the hill and there's not many cars out now. Just the drunks and morons. The two cars that do go past me as I'm flip-tossing the bottle in the air and walking, one of them goes by doing about five up the hill, and the next guy's coming up at about sixty. People always assume that they can get away with things real late at night because it seems like nobody is around and nobody is watching. What a great time for doing donuts in parking lots, paintballing street signs, cruising around with a few six packs and chucking the cans out the sunroof. If they'd think about it, they'd realize that when there are fewer people around it's easier to watch those who are.

The row of houses leading up the hill is pretty typical of the city and things in general. They are all separate but there's only about a foot of space between each one. They might as well be row-homes. I mean really, what are you going to do with that space, build a sunporch? Install a Jacuzzi? Maybe fit your trash cans if you're lucky--if they're plastic and a little flexible.

The fronts of the houses are all different. Some have ancient aluminum siding like mine, with powdery residue so thick on it that the color becomes a non-issue. Most have dents in them too where people have thrown bottles, cans, and garbage at them from the street as they drove by. A few of the houses have this fake stucco-plaster applied to them. Kind of a white-trash-art-deco look. Most of the places with this stuff have really suffered--the rattling and shaking of big trucks going up and down the hill all day literally vibrates the plaster right off. Some people sweep it into the street, and bit-by-bit their house disappears. One guy actually gets out the caulking gun every weekend and tries to slime it back into place. That usually holds for a good few hours, then a line of trucks rumble on past and it's down again.

My favorite houses are the ones with sagging front porches, usually with roofs supported by split and rotted four-by-fours. The porches themselves aren't so bad--they have a certain American Midwest desolation look to them--but it's the houses behind them that get me. Fresh coats of paint every few months, ornate decorated shutters, heavy framed front doors. Like every time they go through and fix the house up they don't quite get to the porch, and then it's time to start all over again. This time a new coat of paint and next time some fancy gold house numbers tacked to the warped and dry-rotted porch post.

And by the way, we're not talking normal colors of paint here either.

Two houses up--the Castillos--they started with a chocolate brown and have since gone through tangerine, yellow, electric blue, and now salmon. The porch? It's a sunbleached driftwood-rot gray.

Bill's place is brick and mortar, modest and out of place on this block. I'm almost there when I see some stuff running down the sidewalk towards me. It's dark, so naturally the stuff looks black, soaking into the cement as it crawls downhill. It looks a little like blood, and I'm thinking, "Tell me Bill's not laying up here in the street with his head bashed open or something." I mean, it's not exactly a great neighborhood.

Then I remember the cars that went by--the guy that was really flying, what if he had to pass the other guy? Maybe he came up on the sidewalk, and there was Bill in his underwear with his cigar...

The stuff keeps running down the hill, but I'm not going to rub my fingers in it or anything. I mean, this isn't some lame detective show. People don't do that shit in real life. And besides, if Bill did get hit by that car or he got jumped, there's nothing me and my finger dipped in blood can do about it. I mean, at his age, I'm sure any half-decent shot would do him like a lawnmower hitting a mushroom. Probably send a little puffball of dust up into the night sky, too.

But no, I've got it all wrong because when I get to his stoop at the top of the hill, there he is. With his underwear bunched up around his ankles he's facing the street, so I kind of just get a shadowy profile. His arms are thrown up high, and I can't even make out where they end and the darkness begins. He's got the little glowing nub of his cigar dangling from his lips, and he's taking a piss on the sidewalk. As I get up closer, I see the worst part. He's turned slightly uphill, so his piss is hissing on the sidewalk right in front of him, running down over his bare feet and soggy underwear, and making its way on down the hill.

I stand there for a second and watch him from a few feet off, and it's like some sort of twisted Gatsby scene--only there's no green orgiastic light shimmering from across the street, there's only a run-down rental painted seafoam green this week and an abandoned shopping cart tipped over out front.

Finally he's done, and he's shaking the last few droplets out and humming a little bit of "Strangers in the Night."

"Hey. Bill. I'm back. Everything alright?"

He doesn't even turn to look at me, and he's still shaking it. When you're about a thousand years old, I guess you've got nothing to be ashamed of.

"Ahhh. Yep. Let's go in for a drink, eh?"

"Yeah. Sure. You know, you could get arrested for pissing in the street like that? Your toilet busted or something?"

"Oh. No, it's working fine. But the wife's in there getting cleaned up. I gave her a pretty good going over, but she always washes up for round two."

I picture Bill in bed with some desiccated corpse and try to turn away as he hauls his piss-soaked underwear back up. Then again, he doesn't seem to be bothered at all by this situation, so that makes me feel better.

"Oh, well we can do this another night then, Bill. Go on in and give her hell, and I'll just see you around."

"Heh, you just hang on and listen here!" He puts a blue-veined poultry arm around my shoulder, and I can feel his swamped underwear soaking through my pants. "With women, and especially my wife, they can always wait. In forty-two years of marriage there's an awful lot of waiting, so what's another fifteen minutes? So let's you and I go in and have a drink and smoke a cigar. And I'll show you the new movies."