A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 5

When I left Ernie’s place it was still dark, but not very. Weaving up the sidewalk, I felt wonderfully relaxed and scarcely tired at all. The air was cool, and instead of smelling of car exhaust and fast food, it smelled of the earth — of dew and dust and recently cut lawns, and of the alfalfa fields growing only a few miles away, where the city ends and the countryside begins. It was almost as if, during the night, the gently sloping land surrounding the city had crept closer and reclaimed part of its rightful heritage.

What surprised me was that the world seemed to be such a beautiful place. I looked carefully at everything around me, including the over-trimmed bushes stationed along the sidewalk. Victims of neatness, they are never allowed to touch, almost as if their touching poses a threat to someone. In that quiet early morning hour, their struggle to survive made me appreciate them all the more. I stopped long enough to gaze upon a row of inexpensive colored bottles perched in a neighbor’s windowsill. Arranged according to size, the modest collection told a story of its own, a brave story about a life that had its roots in poverty, while its branches reached upward toward the light.

Delighted and amazed, I continued on. Since leaving Ernie’s apartment, time had ceased — or, rather, I had ceased to notice its passing, or to recognize a need for the concept at all. When I reached my door, I didn’t stop. Instead I followed the sidewalk past several more doors all the way to the end of the building, where it turned and went around to the other side, then turned again and passed in front of another row of apartments. Here and there, a light was on, but most everyone was still asleep. I saw an orange-and-white cat sitting silently on its hind legs, watching me from the shadows, simultaneously alert and bored.

I came to my own door again. This time I went in. After a satisfying, beer-induced visit to the bathroom, I got undressed, crawled into bed, and immediately fell asleep.

It would be nice to say I slept like a baby, but after an hour or so the alcohol I had consumed began to assert itself. In fact, I wanted to wake up, but couldn’t. Part of the time I thought I was onboard an old ship, and that I was chained to the rusty walls of the cargo hold. It was warm and humid, and I could feel myself sweating, and the sweat was running down along my face. I wanted desperately to free my hands in order to wipe up the sweat, which was triggering nerves in my skin and making me want to sneeze. All the while, I could hear water sloshing against the side of the boat. But the noise wasn’t loud enough to cover up the raucous voices of the crew coming from above. I didn’t know why I’d been taken prisoner, but I assumed it had something to do with my drinking — which didn’t make sense, because I knew the other men drank more than I did and didn’t care who saw them. From time to time, I thought I saw several pairs of closely set eyes watching me from the darkness. These eyes were the only source of light. When they closed, I was in utter darkness. But I knew they were still there. Finally, we hit a calm patch of sea. The sloshing fell to a minimum, and the voices above died away. Wanting to see, I waited impatiently for the eyes to reappear. When they did, there were hundreds of them. They were giving off so much light that I had to close my eyes. The insides of my eyelids were almost white. Unable to stand it any longer, I opened them again. There was a sudden scurrying sound, and a great, vibrating din from things being knocked over. But in that brief interval, the darkness had returned. Then someone said, “Help me find them.” I easily recognized the voice. It was my father’s. I tried to speak, but couldn’t, because my tongue had swollen from eating too much salt. I couldn’t open my mouth, or even get my lips apart. He spoke again. He said, “Stephen? Are you there?” With all of my being, I cried out, “Yes!” thinking, My father is dead, he will hear me. But he didn’t. He continued to speak my name, until he finally gave up and stopped, and I knew I was alone.

When I woke up later, I had the distinct impression that someone had hit me over the head with a two-by-four, and that whoever it was had meant to finish me off, but wasn’t quite strong enough. After picking up my clock and shaking it, I reluctantly accepted the fact that I was still alive, and that it was almost noon. I felt lonely and wrung out, and deeply disappointed in myself for having failed to help my father, or to even speak to him. As I became more awake, I felt only sad. I looked around at the walls, and recognized the cargo hold of my life. The room was full of overturned memories.

I closed my eyes again and tried to doze, but without success. I rolled onto my back and inhaled and exhaled slowly through my nose, thinking it might help disperse the grief and the pain, but after five or six deep breaths my sinuses rebelled. This brought the pain from the back of my head to the front, and from the top of my head to my jaw, forcing me to sit up, which got my stomach involved. On faith, and because I didn’t know what else to do, I pushed back the blanket and swung my feet out of the bed.

I had made it to the bathroom and was washing my face when I heard the phone ring. I took my time drying off, not wanting to speak to anyone, assuming he or she would call back if it was important. On about the tenth ring, I reluctantly answered, expecting to hear the cheerfully unimaginative voice of the printer on Water Street, who by then was probably wondering if I’d forgotten to bring him the camera copy for his customer’s business card. It was my mother instead.

I could hear her television going in the background. It was easy to recognize the news by the false urgency of the voices, and the way they alternated rapidly between a man’s and a woman’s, as if neither had the strength or courage to finish a sentence, much less a complete thought. I knew she had it on for company, but the way it made her raise her voice without realizing it made her sound like she was calling from a nursing home.

Feeling the way I did, after about two minutes, I was nearly beside myself with the distraction. Hoping she’d take the hint, I said, “Is there anything exciting on the news?”
This elicited a familiar response: “Oh, I just turned it on. I’m not even watching it.” My mother proceeded to lament the day’s top stories, throwing in details which she could only have known if she’d had the TV or radio on all day.

I gave up. Finally, I said, “You know, I was going to call you later.”

“Were you?” she said. “That’s nice.”

“Well, I don’t know how nice it is,” I said. “I’m sure you have better things to do than to listen to me babble.”

My mother laughed. “You never babble,” she said. “If anyone babbles, I babble.”

“It must run in the family, then.”

“That must be it.”

Suddenly, the noise from the TV stopped. The quiet was almost startling.

I lowered my voice. “Anyway,” I said, “how would you like a little company this weekend?”

“I’d love it. Who’s coming? You and Matt?”

“No, Matt’s staying at a friend’s house.”

“Oh, he is. That’s too bad. I hate for you to make the trip by yourself.”

“Well, it’s not that big a deal. Anyway, I’m not. Mary’s coming too.”

“Is she?”

“It looks like it — unless you’d rather she didn’t.”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. I’d love to see Mary.”

I could tell by my mother’s tone of voice that she wasn’t going to say she’d talked to Mary the night before. This struck me as being just a tad silly, since my news that we were coming strongly suggested that Mary and I had talked since then. I let it go. I told her we’d be coming on Saturday, and that we’d arrive sometime early in the afternoon, probably around one o’clock. I said not to worry about lunch, knowing full well there would be a large meal waiting for us whenever we arrived, no matter what I said.

After talking for a while about things in general and about nothing in particular, my mother informed me that I sounded tired. I admitted I was, but that it was because I’d been up most of the night gabbing with one of my neighbors. This pleased her, because she thinks I don’t get out enough, which is true. The trouble is, going out requires money, and it also requires enthusiasm, both of which are in perennial short supply.

Since she brought it up, I confessed to having a headache, and explained that I still needed to go out and deliver a job. Once I’d satisfied her curiosity about the kind of job it was, she said, “Well, then, I’ll let you go. You’ve got things to do,” in that way mothers have of letting you know that they are your mother, and that they are there waiting, and will go on waiting forever, should the need arise.

It was depressing. We got off the phone, and for half a minute or so I thought seriously about disconnecting my service and using the booth at the nearby Shell station on the rare occasions when I had business to conduct. Then I realized hating my telephone was a rather lame thing to do and decided against it. Besides, it would have been hard to explain the new arrangement to Matt:

“Oh, by the way. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”


“I had my phone disconnected. I’m using the booth at Randy Gray’s Shell station.”

“You are?”



“Why? Because I hate my phone. We had an argument. One of us had to go.”

I must admit, though, the idea still has a certain appeal. Of course, so does hitting my computer with a sledge hammer. And if I start doing things like that, then I really will be a candidate for the rubber room. On the other hand, maybe I can find an old rusty bicycle and wobble around downtown, talking to the pigeons. Pigeons don’t have phones. If they have something to say, they say it in person. That’s the way we should be — lined up in the shade on the marble ledge of the Bank of America building, with bubbles in our throats.

I also decided to take two aspirins, make a pot of coffee, and take a long, hot shower. It was either that, or admit defeat, but at the moment giving up would have been too easy, and by nature I resist doing things the easy way. I prefer complication. I revel in convolution. I don’t believe in taking the shortest route between two points. I don’t even believe there are two points. I believe there are dots, millions of dots, and that someday I will have connected them all, and in so doing will have revealed to the world an amazing and wonderful picture, a picture called Hope. Yes. And they will call me “The Dot Man.” They will shake their heads sadly and say, “He was wise, and for his wisdom, he suffered.” Then the heavens will open and a thundering voice will say, “No, the guy was an idiot.” And of course I won’t say anything, because I’ll be dead — free at last from having to listen to myself go on and on about things I don’t understand.

The shower helped. The hot water relaxed my muscles. The steam soothed my riled sinuses. All the while, the playful gurgling of the drain kept me company. I shut off the water half an hour after turning it on and emerged an oversized, hairy prune. I dried off and headed straight for the coffee, not bothering to dress, preferring instead to let my skin breathe, hoping this would help my body get rid of the toxins.

The coffee, especially the first two or three sips, was wonderful. I stood staring into space with the cup about six inches under my nose, inhaling the caffeinated steam. I tried to visualize the two aspirins I’d taken combining with the caffeine in my stomach, and the newly formed healing molecules entering my bloodstream and speeding to my aching head. This is one of the few benefits I’ve found in living alone — to be able to parade around the apartment absolutely naked while holding a cup of coffee under my nose in the middle of the day — right during business hours, so to speak. Not that I’ve made a habit of it. But maybe I should. Maybe we all should. Maybe what we think is practical is really impractical. It can’t be good to go around in tight-fitting clothes all day, especially after clogging our pores with deodorants, powders, and perfumes. Of course, we don’t all live alone. A great many of us have spouses, parents, and children who would find our nude self-healing difficult to be around, if not downright disgusting. Given time, though, maybe they would come to accept the idea, once they realized the therapeutic benefits.

By about two o’clock, I had returned to a semi-human state — an accomplishment on one hand, but disappointing, because it meant I was fit to deliver my typesetting job to the printer and could no longer put it off. To simplify matters all the way around, I got dressed. I also brushed my teeth, after looking unsuccessfully for something to eat. What I really wanted was a bag of Ernie’s peanuts, but I would have settled for some crackers — a couple of saltines, say, just to have something solid in my stomach. Instead I found half a bag of ancient noodles with a rubber band around it, a partially rusted can of tuna, and a small, unopened bottle of green hot sauce Matt gave me about a year ago. There were a few other miscellaneous items of dubious quality. Other than that, my cupboard was bare. Completely bare.

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Also by William Michaelian: Winter Poems and Another Song I Know

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