A Listening Thing
A Novel by William Michaelian

Chapter 9

That night I spent like most others: mumbling to myself and having nightmares. Seeing Terry had set the wheels of memory into motion — and, fool that I am, I had to ride that train right to the bitter end. In my sleep I walked the halls of Norris High School, alone, listening to my footsteps echo off the rows of lockers. The doors were closed to all the classrooms. I tried them one by one and found them locked. Eventually, I wandered into the auditorium. The place was empty, and the seats had all been folded shut. I made my way to the center aisle. Keeping to the familiar, well-worn runner in the middle, I followed the gentle slope down to the stage. When I reached it, the floor of the stage was at eye-level. The hardwood, so well cared for when I was a student at Norris many years ago, was covered with a heavy layer of dust. There was a light shining from above, and I thought, or said, “I wonder who left that on?” Since there was no apparent answer, and because it was a waste of electricity, I decided to turn off the light. I climbed the stairs on the left side of the stage. There were a total of about ten steps, then twenty, then more. By the time I reached the top, the stage and the area around it had been transformed into a rugged mountain scene. There were mounds of granite everywhere, and out of the granite there grew small, wind-tortured pines. The stage itself was a wide, uneven area comprised of decomposed granite, small twigs, pine needles, and ant hills. I looked up. Instead of finding the stage light, the sun bore down out of a clear sky. Realizing it was impossible to turn off the sun, I sat down on a rock facing the empty auditorium. While I was sitting there, I was joined by a friend of mine who had almost died in a car wreck during my junior year. George was a tall, thin boy who took things seriously. As a matter of fact he was downright melancholy, and this was what I liked about him. George was melancholy, but in a way that endeared him to others. He possessed a rare listening quality. That’s the only way I can describe it. He cared, and you knew he cared, without his having to say so. This is why, while he was in the hospital, an amazing number of his fellow students came to see him. They dropped off cards, said hello, waited outside, and looked in at him from the corridor. When George was well enough to come back to school, he was on crutches, and was more melancholy than ever, and even more respected. We used to talk. We’d eat lunch together, and he would tell me about the things he was reading. One thing I found remarkable was that he held no religious belief. Just about everyone I knew believed in God, whether or not they attended church. But not George. George was sufficient unto himself. After giving it much thought, he had dismissed the notion of an afterlife. Anyway — as I was saying, George joined me on the stage — which miraculously turned into the old stage again with his presence. I stood up. We shook hands, and I started to cry. George smiled. “It’s all right,” he said reassuringly. “It’s only me.” He put his arm around my shoulder. Together we walked to the edge of the stage. As we looked out over the empty seats, he raised his other arm and said, “The emptiness is not emptiness at all.” And then he was gone. He was gone, and I was no longer on the stage, but walking instead on a wooden platform set in a leafy green wilderness. The platform supported several small bamboo-lined rooms. In the rooms were beds made of dry leaves, and on the beds were people who were sick and dying. I found George on one of the beds, connected to lines, tubes, and monitors. His eyes were closed. I was about to say something to him when we were joined by an irritated nurse in a dirty white uniform. The nurse hastily began unhooking the equipment. When she saw how upset I was, she smiled cruelly and said, “He’s dead. George is dead.” Then she ordered me to leave, and said she had to hurry, because there were other sick people who needed to use the room. “They’re all dying,” she said, with obvious relish. I started to tell her she was wrong. But, as so often happens in dreams — in my dreams, anyway — I couldn’t open my mouth or move my tongue. It upset me so much that I woke up yelling, drenched with sweat.

In real life, it was just like George to see potential in an empty auditorium. What disappointed and hurt him was when no one else saw it. What disappoints me is that I see it, but I am unable to do anything about it. What frightens me is how much my life is like an empty auditorium.

I stayed awake for a long time after that. I kept thinking about George, and I wondered if I should try to track him down. After high school, with the help of scholarship money, George attended Stanford. He later spent a year in Europe, and then wound up in Wisconsin, I believe, teaching. So many years have passed now that I have no idea where he is or what he’s doing — or if he’s even alive. That bugs me. Eventually I decided to let it go, for that very reason. If George is dead, I don’t want to know about it. And I don’t want to call his parents, if indeed they are alive, because if George is dead their having to tell me would only make them unhappy, and that isn’t something I want to be responsible for. Oh, yes. Noble me. The fact is, I am old enough now that many people I have known have died, and I can see my own time steadily dripping away, so I’d just as soon change the subject — to what, I don’t know. Sports, maybe? — which is all nonsense, because I really do think about death a lot. I am preoccupied with dying. But it isn’t because I’m worried about what happens after I die. How I die, that’s another thing. Being a natural-born coward, I hope to sleep through the event. No. That’s not true, either. I want to be conscious. I want to watch as the light slowly fades, and to let go — of myself, especially. At least that’s the way I feel now. I might look at it differently when the time comes. What it boils down to is, there is no way of knowing until the final moment. How could it be otherwise? Isn’t that what makes us who we are? — the awareness of the clock ticking, our inevitable demise, the ever-present possibility that it could all be over during the very next moment? What I’m worried about is dying without accomplishment, before my work is done. I’m worried about dying before I find out what my work is. It certainly isn’t typesetting. I don’t know. Was I born to babble?

While I was thinking about George, I was also thinking about Terry. My first impulse was to get out of bed and write him a long letter, then send it off the following morning. I wanted to tell him everything would be all right, just as I had been told by George in my dream. I wanted to tell Terry he was all right. I wanted to tell him not to be bugged by his job, because it wasn’t worth it — until I remembered that wasn’t what I really believed. It is worth it to be bugged. It makes sense to be miserable when you don’t like what you’re doing. If you are miserable enough, then maybe you will do something about it — or go down in flames, depending on the type of person you are. On the other hand, maybe misery isn’t the answer. Maybe the answer is laughter. What happens if you laugh at your predicament? What happens if you decide it isn’t a predicament at all, but rather a temporary condition — a bump in the road, so to speak? What happens if you refuse to be miserable? I know one thing. Based on my own experience, if I had refused to be miserable, Mary and I would have probably stayed together. Now there’s a thought. Miserable people make other people miserable. Of course, in my case, being naturally miserable, denying my own misery probably would have made me miserable. I’m an idiot, in other words. And so I gave up on the letter idea.

At this point, my brain began kicking up memories at random, and I was forced to lie there and sort through them all. My mother making pickles. My father eating an apple. Main Street in Norris, with the barbershop, the drug store, and the Bank of America building. The bank entrance was made of marble. During the summer, old men in overalls used to congregate by the door and pass the time of day. Old women wearing floppy straw hats, driving little electric carts at five miles an hour. The fire in the old wooden building that housed the Chevrolet dealership. The old-fashioned hardware store owned by Hiram Seligman. I went there with my father to buy a piece of rope. Driving in the foothills east of town with high school classmates. The noon whistle operated by the city fire department. The old two-story library in the city park. Watching old men play dominoes from the library windows. Singing Christmas songs in my third grade Christmas program. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Watching the girls skipping rope in their frilly dresses. Skinned knees. The first funeral I attended, for my father’s friend, dead of a heart attack at the age of forty-six. The apricot tree in our backyard. The shape of the leaves. The smooth bark on the branches. The blossoms and fruit. My mother crying when she accidentally broke a vase given to her by my father’s mother. The ties my father never wore. Milk trucks driven by men in white. Seventy-eight RPM records with blaring horns. Leo Johnson, the town’s only black man, wearing a San Francisco Giants baseball cap and smoking a cigar outside the barbershop at the age of ninety-five. My father saying, “Hello, Leo,” and Leo saying, “Mr. Monroe, that’s a good-looking boy you got there. Is he going to play for the Giants?” Me, smiling.

Once, during my senior year at Norris High, I took a girl I knew for a drive in the country. It was a warm fall afternoon, not long after the school year had started. After our last class, we bumped into each other outside. I offered her a ride home. She thanked me and said that would be fine, because she didn’t feel like walking anyway. Halfway to her house, I asked her if she felt like going for a ride. She said she did, and asked me where I wanted to go. I said I didn’t know, how about riding around out in the country? This sounded good to her, so we went. We took our time, and talked, and looked at the orchards and grain fields. We were gone for about an hour, and then I dropped her off at her house. The next day, much to our surprise, word was out that we had been fooling around. We laughed about it. Our lack of concern, however, was interpreted as proof of our transgression. Of course people were just bored and looking for something to talk about. They were also jealous — something we both found amusing. And so when school let out that afternoon, we agreed to go out for another ride, just to see what people would say. Once again, we had a nice time. We talked about school, and about people we knew, and even a little about our parents, who knew each other, at least in passing. We were out about half an hour when, apparently to lend spice to our little charade, my partner in crime moved over and sat next to me. Not really thinking anything of it, I put my arm around her shoulder. Before long, what little gap there was between us disappeared. Rather than drive off the road, I found a place to park at the end of a driveway lined with poplar trees. The driveway was about an eighth of a mile long, and led to a clump of trees where a house had been. I turned off the engine and we kissed. As we found the experiment agreeable, we kissed again. After two or three minutes, we stopped for air. We looked at each other and we both started to laugh. I told her she was a naughty girl, and that she should be ashamed of herself for trying to take advantage of me. Then she told me that I was the naughty one, and that it looked like the kids at school had been right about me after all. “What about you?” I said. “If they were right about me, then they were right about you.” “Well, what if they are right?” she said. “What are you going to do about it?” I said I didn’t know, that I’d have to think about it. The truth is, I didn’t know. I had never been in a situation like that before. As it turned out, neither one of us knew. For a while we did our best to find out, but nerves and common sense finally got the better of us. We had fun, but not the kind of fun the kids at school had assumed, claimed, and hoped we’d had. The gossip at school lasted all of about three days. The weekend arrived. On the following Monday, we were old hat. Nobody talked about us at all. After that, for a month or so we spent quite a bit of time together, but we didn’t go for any more drives in the country. Eventually we drifted along to other friends, thus ending another wild and steamy episode of my youth.

And then there was the war in Vietnam. Watching the war on television turned me inside out on a daily basis — the helicopters, the mounting death toll, the faces filled with anguish and horror — the tragic waste. Once, when the war was still semi-popular, I actually left the barbershop before my turn came when a handful of World War II vets vehemently agreed that a certain slant-eyed corner of the world should be bombed — not into submission, but into oblivion. I remember the day perfectly. It was hot outside and hot inside, and the tiny fan in the barbershop was working overtime trying to keep the air alive. I’d waited for almost an hour when the conversation took a turn from local sports to the war. Positively licking their chops, three short-haired, pot-bellied good old boys — who I now know weren’t really that old — entered into a friendly competition over ways of handling the current military situation. Their conversation displayed a casual acceptance of violence and a basic disregard for humanity. To put it simply, they were self-centered morons who had been licensed by society to hate. And of course their tirade was partly directed at me, because, while I wasn’t quite of fighting age, I was going to be before long, and they sensed my discomfort. I had already decided not to participate in the war if or when I was called, but I wasn’t prepared to defend my position in public. I was a kid, for crying out loud. Torn between my convictions and my quickly eroding respect for the older generation, a lump rose in my throat. I stood up and in a trembling voice said, “You’re wrong,” then left the shop before anyone could answer. As it happened, the war ended before I was old enough for the draft. But that doesn’t change the fact that my mind was made up. To this day, my thinking on the subject hasn’t changed. And Matt knows exactly how I feel, because I have told him many times, in no uncertain terms, that laying his life on the line for the unholy profit of this or any other country would be the most foolish waste imaginable. Some people are convinced that dropping bombs on perfect strangers will solve the world’s problems, but I am not. In my view — based on my paltry experience and limited by my rapidly decaying gray matter — our only real chance lies in fighting the war that’s raging within ourselves. If we can somehow learn to live without stepping on others and without crushing the life out of them in order to get what we want, we might have a chance. Oil isn’t worth it. Religion isn’t worth it. Pride isn’t worth it. Blood is blood. Life is life. This is something that no amount of flag-waving or rhetoric can ever change.

I remembered other things as well. In a strange and sorry way, I actually began to enjoy myself. Memory, after all, is a delicious thing. It is also a dangerously inaccurate medium in terms of self-exploration. Often, what we think we remember is not what happened at all, but, rather, what we wished had happened. Or, depending on what has taken place since, memory can supply us with a litany of excuses for why we are the way we are. Experience settles on us layer by layer. In time, with geologic force, information is distorted, compressed, or even obliterated — until it surfaces again in a different, yet familiar and recognizable form, triggered by a sight, scent, or sound. This causes things to shift and buckle at a psychological level, shaping us in the process, making us who we are. All the while, to preserve our hard-earned identities, we tell ourselves stories. These stories are endlessly fascinating. They also provide nourishment for our egos, which prefer fable over the challenge of new, reality-based information. We often mistake the comfort that results for sanity. Unfortunately, sane people are capable of cheating each other and killing each other, and then coming up with excuses for their actions. In this way, we actually become victims of our own memories — bringing about the need for further adjustment, which is achieved through more storytelling. It’s all great fun, and it beats admitting that we really don’t know what the heck we’re talking about. I know I don’t.

Little by little, I began to get drowsy again. Several times I dropped off altogether, then awoke with a start. As I relaxed, it occurred to me that for years now I have been on a mental treadmill, and that I am in the process of wearing myself out. The thought wasn’t a comforting one, but I fell asleep anyway, and slept the remainder of the night.

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

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