“Our ability to attach layers of memory to sound makes us human.”
I know exactly how to proceed. Carefully, I lay myself down on my childhood bed—mattress from 1978, sheets from 1986—and put on an expensive pair of Audio-Technica headphones I’d been saving against the day. Jascha Heifetz, back in 1952, in Hollywood, plays Bach Partitas for Solo Violin. It’s vertiginous, sinister, and somehow a kind of duet, the way he plays it, a dance at the edge of a cliff.
“That’s the wonderful thing about Bach,” an old writer once told me, when I said I’d gotten into the habit of waking up to the Partitas. “He heals you.”
It sounds like Jack eating celery
“I suppose you’ll be going home soon,” she says. I’m having a good day and can hear her well enough. At ninety-eight, always, even on bad days, she remembers to speak up for me.
“I’ll be back in June.” Once I’ve taught a class in Denver, one whose only goal is to pay for the tickets back and forth. I miss it here.
“Well look, there’s something I want you to do for me before you go. I want you to go into that attic and, well first I want you to put peppermint down to keep the bats away—just sprinkle it everywhere—and then I want you to carry down that trunk by the stairs. I want to see what’s in it.”
Back in the living room, windows shut against a breeze, we pull handfuls of old snapshots and decomposing albums from the trunk in a wash of mildew. The corners of the windows are stained-glass and thin curtains block the edges just below them so the only light is the same amber and mauve as the tinted glass.
She hands me a snapshot of Art beside a grapefruit-sized ball with six antennas, like a daddy longlegs in rictus.
“That’s Sputnik.” She pronounced the u to rhyme with you. She might be right—I don’t know Russian—but her Jackie-comes-to-Southeastern-Connecticut accent (a late acquisition, I suspect) isn’t free of foibles: Hershey is Hurzy, Jay Leno is Jay Lean-o.
Wrong to call the little photo in my hand now black and white: It’s faded ochre, beige, gold. A vanishing man in a white mustache and an oversize ’20s overcoat stands beneath a bower of twigs (his stride has been arrested but he doesn’t mind) while a pool of overexposure creates a knot of light below his waist that threatens to pull him down into it. Viv no sooner gets a glimpse of it before she moves to take it. I won’t get it back.
“Oh but this . . . ” I’ve never seen her cry before, never really seen her sad. “ . . . oh dear he was my love . . . ” Italics are cheap. Love wasn’t strident, but everything went into it.
“He was my friend,” she said, and was quiet for a half minute. I looked at the photographer’s shadow, intrusive in the blur: His arms were down at his chest, dating the shot from when the camera’s sight was located on top of the box. Had they used mirrors?
“He always came into a room and . . . ” She took a minute. “He would stamp his feet one after the other to hello the house. He was so fun.” Fun she says like love. She’s blotting her eyes now but she isn’t putting the picture back on a pile. She was his granddaughter. It had been, she explained to me, eighty years since she’d looked at his face in life.
I think but I don’t talk about how every year until her balance went in her mid-seventies, she’d wait half a second after she walked into my parents’ house, and then she’d stomp her feet one after the other against the floor. I know more now and I smile at her a little more bravely than usual when I leave in the late afternoon. I’ll never see her again.
Seven p.m., my ears are a roar. In the quiet house, sky going blue, I’m arrested by a throb in the right ear like a jet taking off. There’s a dull hum in the left. Gradually, the dull hum rises, like some experiment in early electronic music, something for a Theremin and ham radio. By nine p.m., the roar is all I can find room for, so I decide it’s time to meditate. Health professionals, friends, various books, all have recommended this course and I have been trying. I set up a cushion in the study and shut the door. There’s no street noise, no hum from the refrigerator, no late calls of flying birds. As I look ahead and attempt to clear my mind, I’m called back at every second into the noise. If anything it’s louder here, the hum now something like a siren. My teeth clench, grind. I try to touch it away with the word thinking. But of course it isn’t thinking, it’s listening.
When I used to meditate years ago I’d happily anticipate that moment when the clutter in my mind was swept away. I’d relish the little noises that appeared when I could finally settle into them: the breathing of the hall, water pipes, the master’s shuffle behind us. I attained no satori but I did find I could think of nothing and that it brought me back to the space, showed me where I was.
I notice myself grinding my teeth. I’ve been in my head, escaping the noise. But it’s a mistake to try to find the other side of it. Instead I’m to . . . to what? Hear it but not feel it. Or feel it and let it go?
So as the hour waxes I dive in again, keep my teeth apart, keep my breath consistent, if inaudible. The siren has become something else now. Don’t think about what to call it. Listen.
“I’ll be just fine,” I tell Elisa on her way out of the house. “You just go and have a good time.”
She leaves for a party. I go out for a walk. It’s late on a Saturday afternoon and like every day in Denver this summer, there’s big sun and small rain. The sky’s just cleared and I’ll walk for a bit and then sit outside and write. I would rather go to the party with Elisa, but I’ve only been able to hear one voice at a time in quiet rooms this week—I’d just feel more alone there.
I order a mint tea in the quiet shop down the street and take a table. Suddenly, I’m aware that my hearing has dropped even further away. The roaring in both ears is louder, yes, but more telling is that the conversation at the table beside me—which I could never hear clearly—has dropped away entirely. Mouths move around me but no sound escapes. I click my wooden pencil against the metal table. Nothing.
I fish the tiny remote from my hip pocket and click the volume up. No, just the roar. I clear my own throat to try to hear it sound. Blank. I click the volume higher. Nothing. Click more. I can hear something faint now—you know how voices sound when you’re far off and you can hear that they’re coming, but not the words they carry? That’s how my own voice sounds. I max the remote, knowing the distortion will obliterate any sense out of human speech at this volume.
What surprises me is that it’s not just the human speech that blurs and falls apart but every report around me: A cup on a saucer, a barking dog, or a laugh from two tables away, all sound with the same electronic pock.
The chances, I remind myself, that this roar will last longer than a single day or two are low. It’s been over a year since something like this made me panic. But I can’t help but feel lonely. I’d been looking forward to an evening with a book at the coffee shop, and now what I want more than anything is a human voice. The phone is inutile, even with the headset. I couldn’t understand anyone if I drove to the party; I’d just end up making a spectacle of myself. People only like so much of that.
It’s when I’m home that I give in to panic, but only after the door’s shut behind me. Then the vertigo starts: My legs go out from under me and my cheek hits the floor. It’s more accurate to say the floor circles up toward me, followed by the ceiling it’s merging against, hovering with. I’m caught inside it now, the spin, clutching onto the underside of a sliding closet door as though it’s my mother’s hand. I’ll unsettle it from its hinges if I keep grabbing at it like this, I know, but I can’t stop. I can’t stop spinning or holding on. I whimper like a kid. I can’t move.
Where the greensward dips to the stone wall and the wetland, on what used to be the banks of a tributary of the Yantic River, I set up one of the ancient card tables from Viv’s house. This one had lived in the upstairs kitchen, unused since the sixties when Viv and Art paid off the mortgage and quit renting out the upper floor. Once that’s done, I reach for my black Boston Bomber backpack and extract from it a bottle of Viognier and two twelve-inch grinder sandwiches from Irene’s. I set the steak and cheese on the side facing away from the big old white barn and the BLT (fist-size tangles of bacon, iceberg flakes, some rumors of white tomato) on my own side of the table.
In a few minutes Adam is there and we tuck in to eat. I apologize for the spot, although I don’t have to. “I think I got attached not just because of Viv, but because this place was my last connection to this kind of shabby gentility dream I’ve always had. You know, the guy in the frayed sweater who’s got stacks of dough in the bank. Getting the dough was step two.”
“Is there any way . . . ?” He wipes the corners of his mouth with a non-absorbent grinder shop napkin but there is nothing there, never was. Adam plays shabby genteel better than I ever could. “I just wonder if there was some way you could convince your parents to hold off selling so that you and Elisa could move in and live for a few years and fix the place up . . .”
“That ship has sailed.”
“It’s just a shame because I know you and she had a real attachment. Just the last time I was here, when we were walking through that graveyard, you were telling me about how she was ninety-eight and she’d told you a joke—and it was a good one!”
He’s indulging me. That’s all right. And it had been a good joke.
This fat woman gets stuck on the toilet. Her husband says “I’ll call the plumber.” He gives her his derby hat to put over her lap, for modesty. The plumber says “I can get her unstuck, my friend, but the guy in the derby hat is a goner.”
Adam says “You know, I hate to say it, but do you know what would be perfect?”
“Another bottle of wine?”
He sits back, emphatic. “Yes.”
“We’ll walk through the meadow.” I haven’t walked through the meadow since 1994 and I assume it’s a blizzard of Lyme ticks. But I lead him down the tree-shaded streets two houses to the north and down the slab steps into to a meadow clear out of a dream.
“You have this in your backyard?”
“Once upon a time.”
Everywhere the sea-waves of grass are high. At the end of the sward of it, just distinguishable in mild haze: Viv’s white barn. I’d been up on the roof of it two months earlier, tweeting pictures of my face in a sanitary mask, big iron fireplace shovel in my hand, scraping out bat guano. I couldn’t imagine a situation in which I’d stand in this meadow again.
“You and Elisa could have hosted poetry readings on the lawn,” he says while real butterflies beat their wings around us. “I’m sorry about that. What if you offered to pay rent?”
“No, the house is gone and I’m going deaf. I just feel like, I don’t know, like my narrative is just loss lately.”
Adam said something I wasn’t hearing and I registered the click down in my ability to take in sound along with the soft look of the meadow and the stone bench beside us and the high-summer green of encircling trees. The next afternoon I’d be out west again, where to find green like this you’d have to climb to it.
Denver. I wake up while the dark drains out of the sky and I can hear the birds. The calls wake me. I’m so unused to hearing them that they stagger when they filter in, pull me out of an anxious dream.
Elisa’s awake too and she isn’t groggy. She takes as a given that they’re there.
“There’s one of them, the angry one who’s fainter than the starling.”
“He’s farther away,” she says. Of course.
“All right, it may be starting to disappear again now,” I tell her. She takes hold of my arm and rubs it with slow strokes while I listen to the birds fade. Then she nuzzles against me and she’s asleep again, a gentle weight on my chest.
I can hear them fading, going—they’ll be gone at any second. As I listen to the last catches of song, I can feel my heart break in every sound. Don’t let that one be the last one. Don’t let that one. Don’t let that.