Noise Hurts

“The doctor stopped asking questions. When he visited, and the mothers lined their children up for inspection, he took Rima’s temperature and measured her height and shone a light in her eyes and made her stick her tongue out. But he didn’t ask about the pain.”

“Noise hurts,” Rima said. But the doctor who came to the refugee camp didn’t believe her. His eyebrows went up and his mouth curled down; then he glanced at her mother as if to say, “Kids. What imaginations they have!”

But she knew it to be true. When the soldiers shot their guns, when the planes dropped their bombs too close, her whole body hurt, and she wanted to curl up into a ball and weep. The doctor asked again, “You mean that the noise was so loud it hurt your ears, or it gave you a headache?”

Rima shook her head. Her head hurt, that was true, but it often hurt. A pounding at the base of her skull, a tightness in the tiny muscles connecting her collarbones to her shoulders, and then the pain would shoot up the muscles of her throat into her jaw, all the way up the left side of her face into her temple. It was the only reason she could come up with to explain the toothaches, because her mother also took her to the dentist who visited the camp, and he said her teeth looked fine to him.

From the dentist’s eyes, soft and pathetic, Rima knew that he believed it was all in her mind. That she’d made up this fantasy like she would have pleaded a stomachache to get out of a test at school.

She missed school.

She and her family had been in the camp since her last birthday, and whenever she asked if there would be school again someday, her mother said they were lucky just to have food and water and a place to sleep, and to stop talking about foolish things. They were lucky to be alive.

Nobody believed Rima about the pain so eventually she stopped talking about it, but she still hurt and it was hard to get out of bed in the morning. “You are a lazy, ungrateful girl,” her mother said, her angry face glaring down from above Rima’s cot, her finger scolding. “You are an embarrassment to all of us.” Then, even though it hurt and getting up too fast made her dizzy, even though her feet shuffled across the dirt floor, not falling right as she put one in front of the other, even though she often dropped pans and glasses and sometimes even food—that earned a very harsh scolding—she got up and she helped.

The doctor stopped asking questions. When he visited, and the mothers lined their children up for inspection, he took Rima’s temperature and measured her height and shone a light in her eyes and made her stick her tongue out. But he didn’t ask about the pain.

More than having to leave her home, more than not being able to go to school, more than even the pain sometimes, Rima hated that nobody believed her. She didn’t have a name for the tightening noose in her stomach, the frozen tears stinging the backs of her eyes, the way her hands often balled into fists, so hard sometimes her fingernails cut her palms. Maybe it was anger. Maybe worse.

One morning her brother Armin came to fetch her. “Mama says get up, lazy bones.”

“Go away.” She turned toward the wall.

“She said now. She said ‘go get your crazy sister out of bed.’”

He grabbed her shoulder, but the knot of the noose slammed home. “I’m not crazy!”

“Lazy bones, crazy bones,” he sang. “Crazy bones, lazy bones, crazy bones, lazy bones…”

“I’m not crazy! Shut up. Shut up!” She turned so fast, pushed him so hard he stumbled backward and fell against the table with such a loud screech and clatter that Rima clutched her head and howled.

When the sharp pain grew quiet, she opened her eyes, and saw the pool of blood soaking into the dirt. “I’m not crazy,” she told his still, silent body. “Shut up.”

First Show

They came for the wine and cheese; they came because she’d begged them. Since the first day Caitlin had picked up a paintbrush, she’d anticipated this day: her first solo show, the opening reception a splash of bright, elegant people gesturing grandly with their plastic wine glasses and claiming the pieces they simply could not live without. Claiming them with red adhesive dots: sold. But as the last of her so-called friends trickled out, the only red she saw was the state of her finances. How much she’d laid out for this show—the framing, the refreshments, even the damn red dots—most of it borrowed, and how much she’d never get back. She might as well have some wine, since she’d already paid for it; nothing worked as well to drown out the voices in her head and the pity in his eyes, if he were still around to have seen this. As she filled a glass to the brim, she thought about Daniel, and wondered if this was why he’d been so adamant about never exhibiting his own work. It was one thing to be paid to paint something, and quite another to bleed your soul onto a canvas, stand by and watch as people pass with barely a nod. You are entertainment. An amusement to fill the awkward space before the dinner reservations, before curtain time. Like window-shopping for shoes.

The gallery manager drifted over, manicured fingers tapping slowly on the white tablecloth, and gave her a condescending little smile. It was an I-told-you-so smile. If her mother had not raised her to be polite and grateful, she might have thrown her wine in his face, but she only tightened her fingers around the plastic stem.

He could have just said nothing. Saying nothing would have gone down better than the excuses he did offer—that maybe she’d priced herself too high for a new artist, and we’re going through a soft market, and it’s a Friday night when so many other, more well-attended events were already scheduled.

Politely she cut him off, mumbling “Thank you for the chance.” She really should be grateful. He didn’t have to make room for her. There were a lot of artists in the city. He’d only done it on the strength of Daniel’s reputation. A student of his must be worthy of a solo show.

Or not.

She returned to the apartment in upper Manhattan she shared with four other women. Still a little woozy from the wine and the shame, she plopped down on the edge of her bed and stared at her most prized possession: the painting he’d left her. It might have been the wine talking, or the humiliation, or the bone-deep fatigue, but idly she wondered what it might be worth.

The voice in her head felt as real as a slap to the face: No. You can’t. You can’t ever. Aside from the memories, it was all she had of him, the only physical, tangible proof that he’d ever existed. She believed in things like life after death, like ghosts, like guardian angels. That he still lived in the brushstrokes, in the nerve endings of her face where he’d almost, almost touched her.

There had to be another way. She called the gallery owner and told his voice mail that it was okay to lower her prices, to whatever he thought they were worth. She could almost see Daniel smiling at her, saying that’s what he’d do. “Besides,” he’d say, “You can always paint more.”

Schadenfreude

I’m going a little dark this week. Sometimes you just have to get these things out of your head. The bunnies and sparkles will return at some point…maybe.

——-

After the doctor asks her question—they only give him female doctors now because of what he did to the male ones—she lets silence seep into the room. He pretends the silence is poison gas. It’s only spreading across the floor now, licking the soles of his laceless shoes, and the young man plays with the silent death like a game. There are so few other amusements here. The cloud can only rise so far before he answers. It snakes up his cuffed ankles and winds around his calves. To his waist and he closes his eyes, imagining the smell of it, the vaporous feathers that rise off the top of the cloud reaching his nose. When it gets to his collarbones, his throat tightens as if two hands are choking him. An oddly exciting sensation. Then he sees the images, the blood.

“Yes,” he says, his voice hoarse and broken. “I’m having the nightmares again. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

The corners of her mouth turn down; she taps her pen against her notepad and makes the usual inquiries—if he’s taking his medication. If he’s taking it on time. If he’s taking the right dosage.

“Yes, to all of it, all right? What do you want from me? These pills. All these pills. All these treatments. All these pointless queries about whether I am doing my self-care and writing in my journal and letting the negative thoughts float by like clouds on a summer afternoon…it’s bullshit. It does nothing. I keep seeing it. Over and over and over.”

Her lips compress. The corners of her eyes pinch. He is making her fearful of him, afraid of what he might do, and he’s enjoying that as well. Back when he was allowed to live at home, Mama explained that long German word to him, said it meant enjoying other people’s pain, and she told him that he mustn’t have those feelings. But how do you control a feeling? If they are, as the doctors keep telling him, these floating, ephemeral things, how can you let it drift from your mind if there is no breeze and it stalls over your head, building and turning gray and swollen?

After a moment, she says, “Is there anything different about the nightmares?”

“No. I still see it. The head. His head. The blood. Like a trophy.”

She leans forward. The expression on her face changes again, to that of someone who cares. He doesn’t know if he can trust it. “Which one?” she says. “The one that was supposed to be a joke?”

“No.” The word is so small he barely recognizes it as his own breath leaving his body. “The other one. The real one. The one the police said I was holding when they found me.”

Three Wishes

I have no idea what inspired this short bit. Sometimes a character appears and has something on her mind and you just can’t stop her.


He wouldn’t listen. That’s been his problem from the beginning. If he’d only listened when I said, “Ernie, don’t take that bottle down off the shelf,” we would have avoided a whole mess of trouble. Trouble like you wouldn’t believe. Like you don’t even read about in books, cause nobody would even believe that you made it up. But no, I saw it with my own eyes. Well, there not as good as they used to be, whose are, right? But I saw. And he took down that bottle and I said, “Ernie, you oughtn’t go messing with stuff you don’t know,” and him being a man and all, he just had to. You know how they say “watch out, that plate’s hot” and they gotta go touching it anyway? Yeah. Just like that. Wasn’t even a real pretty bottle, neither, not like the ones in the museum or in the catalogs, even. You know. That pretty blown glass all shot through with colors. No, he musta thought he was that Aladdin boy or something, the way his eyes lit up, the way he’s giving me the elbow and whimpering and all. Like, “Oh, Sylvie, look at that. Now that’s something you don’t see every day.” Uh huh. Right. You see them all the time. In the horror movies! The one you pick up and say “Oh, it’s so fragile, I can’t even believe…” and then some axe murder comes through the door and you drop it and it shatters into a million pieces. Well, okay, we didn’t have no axe murderer. Just that bottle. And then he has to shine it all up, since he can’t read the label. Thinks he might have hit the lottery with some expensive bottle of wine that got bought up in one of those auctions, rich guy died and they had to auction off all his stuff and it ends up in some shady secondhand store. Then what do you know, this smoke starts pouring out. Oh, he went and done it now. Then this big ass guy in fancy pajamas is hovering over him, and I damn near fainted. He looks like that big blue dude Robin Williams played in the movie. I damn near peed myself. And Ernie, he’s looking like the fox in the henhouse. Already he’s planning his three wishes. He didn’t even get one out yet when the big blue dude cuts him off cold, says, “Let me tell you how this is gonna work. I’m sick and tired of you guys coming around here asking for stuff and me always doing all the work. This time it’s gonna be different. This time I get the three wishes.” Well, that sounds fair to me, ‘cause he’s got a point and who asked Ernie not to go touching that bottle? And Ernie just stands there like a dodo. Like how’s he gonna grant a genie three wishes. The guy says, “One. You’re gonna do me a favor. You’re gonna get me a pack of cigarettes. Cause I’ve been stuck in this gol darn bottle for a hundred years having one serious nicotine fit. Two. I want a burger. Like the biggest burger you can find.” Ernie’s just about as white as a sheet at that point, cause the guy’s huge and leaning over him. He looks like he’s gonna faint and can barely talk, but he says, “What’s the third wish?” And the guy just leans back and crosses those damn big arms over his chest—who’da thought a genie would have that kind of muscle? Then he says, “You get me the other things, then we’ll talk.” Well, Ernie looks at me and I look at Ernie and I say, “You heard the man.” I’m starting to kinda like this genie and maybe while Ernie’s gone I can take a lesson or two in getting my way once in a while. So Ernie takes off down the street and we’re just chatting away, trading tips about how to clean bottles and stuff and you know, we don’t even notice when Ernie comes back in. “I got your smokes and your burger, now you gonna let me have one wish at least?” Yeah. Mr. Genie didn’t care much for that. He sits up a little taller and says, “For my third wish. You’re getting into that bottle, cause I kinda like it out here.” Ernie should have known better. Before he could even say a word, there’s this big puff of smoke and a whoosh and Ernie’s gone. We keep him on our shelf, Mr. Genie and I do, where he won’t get himself into any more trouble.

Prodigal Son

“There was not a cell of modesty in Pop’s bloated old body; he’d probably want to raise PT Barnum from the dead to put on the show of all shows.”

Amid the chaos, the family arguing about who would get what, you figure no one will miss you. He’d told you where to find the paperwork. Which car to take to the house in the country. Your older brothers call it “the cabin.” What a joke. Pop only bought it because he thought it would make him look smart. Because some wise man in the past droned on about doing his best thinking in his cabin in the woods. Pop had been there once. He stayed exactly two hours, pronounced it “boring as hell,” then went back to the city. But you’ve always liked it. You really want nothing from him, and told him so the last time you spoke, and somehow he respected you for that (probably calling you a schmuck behind your back). Now a small part of you hopes he left you the house in the woods. Maybe that’s why he’d hidden his will there, and gave you, as final instructions, the job of driving up alone to read it and bring it back.

The house isn’t easy to find. A highway to a series of two lane roads to a dirt path to a cluster of pine trees across from the remnants of an old barn. The gate, cleverly designed to look like scrub and deadfall, opens with a touch of the remote. Soon you’re inside, lighting the fire to chase off the chill and drinking his good scotch out of the bottle.

A manila envelope sits on the coffee table. During the drive, you’d speculated about the funeral he might want. There was not a cell of modesty in Pop’s bloated old body; he’d probably want to raise PT Barnum from the dead to put on the show of all shows. Pomp and goddamn circumstance.

But when you get all cozy to read his last wishes—images of showgirls and champagne dancing through your head—you are stunned to find, attached to a standard will, a page with your name on it that reads: “I don’t want a funeral. They’re depressing as hell, no matter how much you tart them up. So, put on a party if it makes your mother happy. Otherwise, use the money for something better. That, I’ll leave up to you. You were always the smart one. The good one. The others, not so much.”

You set down the papers, drink more scotch, watch the flames dance in the hearth. Wondering. True, you’ve been away for a while. Unable to stomach the political circus, the election, the mockery he made of every institution. But was it the office that changed Mr. Flash-and-Dazzle’s tune? The consequences of his decisions? The bombs he dropped, the ruined lives, the plummeting poll numbers, the flag-draped bodies coming home?

You can see that. Even his handwriting on the note looks less self-assured than the confident scrawl of his prime. No doubt the government will feel obliged to give him a proper funeral. No doubt your brothers will want a four-story golden mausoleum in the middle of Park Avenue, emblazoned with the family name. Part of you doesn’t give a shit what kind of pharaoh-like send-off they envision, and you realize there’s nothing you can do to stop them. But a portion of his estate is legally yours.

Maybe you can do some good with that. Maybe he would have wanted one of his children to spend his legacy righting some of his wrongs. When and if you have kids, maybe you’ll want that, too.

There’s no need to return to the city right away, so you slip the letter into your pocket, take the scotch and head outside to watch the sun set, marveling at how beautiful the light looks, melting into the lake. You drink a toast to the old man. If he’d stayed long enough to see this show, maybe he would have had some good, wise thoughts in his cabin in the woods, and maybe everything would have worked out differently. Maybe you wouldn’t have had to kill him.

The Interview

You sit in the waiting room, sweating in your best suit, your tiny espresso with a twist of orange growing cold. The receptionist’s long legs cross beneath the desk made of glass and wire. A soft ping sounds from her sleek phone. “He’ll speak with you now.” She unwinds herself from the chair and shows you to what you never thought was a door. When you first walked in, it merely looked like part of the expensive woodworking, but with a touch, it swings inward.

The room is empty except for an impossible chair, like the one the receptionist had been sitting in, and another near-invisible table. Atop which is a tablet.

You look at her, confused. Her smile is smooth, practiced. “Push the green button,” she says, and retreats.

You push. The red camera light flashes on. A voice oozes from the tiny speaker: “Hi, Johnny.” It doesn’t sound fully human; perhaps it’s being filtered. You wonder if this is a joke. A reality TV stunt.

“Uh…hello?” Your voice cracks and you clear your throat. You wish you had the miniscule cold espresso you’d left on the glass coffee table.

Robo-pad speaks up. “Why do you want this job?”

For a moment your brain locks. You were in a bar, wondering how many shots of tequila would kill a human about your size, when you saw the email on your phone. It intrigued you. No subject line. All the body contained was “You don’t even know how bad you want to work for me” and a time, date, and location. When you sobered up it was still there. You took it as a sign.

“May I ask, what kind of job is this?”

The voice laughs and abruptly stops. “You don’t get to ask the questions, Johnny. It’s not that kind of interview.”

“Well, I”—you wipe your damp palms against your thighs, hopefully out of camera range—“It’s hard to tell you why I want this job when I don’t know what my responsibilities will be. I mean, I didn’t even apply.”

“You were carefully picked from a pool of very, very qualified people. Majorly terrific people. I already knew you’d be perfect. But you gotta just tell me, why’d you show up?”

Since this seems like such a laughably fake situation, you decide to tell the truth. “Because I was in a bar trying to commit suicide by Jose Cuervos? Because teaching history to seventh graders pays shit and my last girlfriend left me for a backup singer in a Justin Bieber cover act? Because it was Tuesday and I hate Tuesdays because it’s too far from the previous weekend and too long until Friday? Because I owned a suit and I hadn’t worn it in a while? Why does anybody do anything?”

“Good point,” the voice says. “You’re hired.”

You blink a couple times. “To do…”

“Whatever I tell you.”

“And why would I do that?”

A dollar figure flashes onto the pad. You nearly fall off the nearly invisible chair. “Believe me, Johnny,” the voice says. “You won’t care what day of the week it is when you’re waving that around.”

“Okay.” You clear your throat, cross your arms over your chest. “Assuming I take this job, give me an example of one thing that you might tell me to do.”

“It depends on the situation. If it’s one I don’t like, your job is to make it better. We can quibble over these tiny details all day long, Johnny. But I’m very selective. If I chose you, you gotta know it’s for a very good reason.”

You start wondering what that reason might be. You thought you’d drowned all of them in tequila by now.

“You’re thinking,” the voice says. “I don’t get why you’re thinking. Because I tell ya, this is the best job you’re ever gonna have. But why don’t we do this? Try it for a day. Less than that. Say you’re on my staff for, oh, an hour. Two, tops. You don’t agree this is one terrific way to make a living, you’re free to go.”

That sounds reasonable to you. “Okay. Where do I start?”

“First thing I need you to do. There’s a situation happening right now. I need it to go away.”

A shiver snakes down your spine. Just what have you agreed to? “I don’t think—”

“One hour, Johnny. That’s all I ask. That’s what you agreed to. You don’t want the world to know that you’re such a loser that you go back on your promises. You don’t want the stink of that following you to your next job, do you? Because I can make that happen. I can make anything happen.”

“If you can make anything happen, then why don’t you take care of your own little situation.”

“Hey. You decided to come here. Frankly, I got lots of better things I could be doing. And people I could be doing them with if you catch my drift.”

“Just…fine. Whatever. Tell me about the situation. Please.”

A document appears on the screen. You squint. It’s the US Constitution. “You want me to read the Constitution?” Okay. There are weirder things you could be doing for a hell of a lot less money.

“No,” the voice says. “I need you to explain it to me.” The receptionist slithers in and presses a stack of hundreds on the table next to you. “And consider this my request not to tell one living soul what we’re doing here.”

“Okay, well, um… The Constitution, originally comprising seven articles, delineates the national frame of government—”

“Johnny, stop. Use smaller words.”

 

 

 

Pen Monkey

“Come on.” The voice was like a bowl of thorns coated with honey. “You can do it. You did it before. Tell ya what. You do this now, I’ll let you write my next book.”

Happy Equinox…just wanted to share a bit I wrote for last week’s Two-Minutes-Go. Inspiration? It’s everywhere.

As a prison guard in a medium-security facility, Chip had seen some real doozies—CEOs who thought they were due time off from their sentences for golf holidays, celebrities demanding big-name designers upgrade their uniforms. He’d kept notes on all of them for his maybe-someday career as a bestselling author. But this new inmate made taking the graveyard shift worthwhile. Since the old guy was a night owl, that was when the fun really started.

He’d just stepped into the corridor to begin his two a.m. sweep when—

“Chipper! Oh, Chippieee… Aw, come on. Where’s my little friend? Where’s my little buddy?”

The voice repelled yet fascinated him. In the space of seconds, Prisoner 84235 could go from sounding like a creepy old dude trying to lure a kid into his van with candy, then sink into a lower register, like he was aiming to get a girl into the vehicle instead. The other guards said he was crazy and probably should have been sent across the river, where they had the good drugs and quiet, padded cells. But Chip guessed his lawyers kept him out of the bin. Why the legal team hadn’t been good enough to keep him out of the system altogether, Chip could only speculate about. Some of the guards thought that was his wife’s idea. That doing time had more cache than doing psych time. That a stretch in Club Fed would make him worth more when he got out.

When Chip reached his cell, the voice crooned to him. “Chippppp-ieeeee… My phone doesn’t work.”

Of course it didn’t work. Prisoners weren’t allowed to have phones. He’d whined like a toddler when they tried to take it, then he’d threatened to sue everyone in the building. One of the female first-shift guards gentled it out of his hands long enough to remove the battery and the SIMM card, and he’d been content. For a while.

“Did you try turning it off and turning it back on again?” Chip asked.

“Yeah. Twice. This is very sad. And totally unfair.” He beckoned with his small fingers. “Come on, Chipster. Let me use yours, okay? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“You know I shouldn’t—”

“Come on.” The voice was like a bowl of thorns coated with honey. “You can do it. You did it before. Tell ya what. You do this now, I’ll let you write my next book.”

Chip cocked his head. It was probably a bullshit offer, but at the very least, hearing this guy out could be entertaining. Maybe something he could use in his own book one day. He slipped the phone out of his pocket. “Okay,” he said. “What are we doing tonight? Email? Blog post?” His eyebrow hooked up. “Angry tweet?”

Prisoner 84235 grinned, his face bunching like one of those wrinkle pooches. “Yeah. That. Tell ’em—” He waved a hand. “The wire-tapping, the plague, that little business with the nukes… the fact that there’s never any pistachio ice cream anymore…not my fault. It was fake. It was all fake.”

“Like the fake news?” Chip wondered if he should pull up a chair.

“No. All of it. The campaign. The election. The presidency. Me, even. What. You don’t believe me? Believe me.” He pointed at Chip’s phone. “Start tapping, pen monkey. I got a story to tell you.”