The muffled thunder of dialogue comes through the walls, then a chorus of laughter. Then more thunder. Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead. The stomp and stomp and stomp of a drum comes down through the ceiling. The rhythm changes. Maybe the beat crowds together, faster, or it spreads out, slower, but it doesn’t stop.
Up through the floor, someone’s barking the words to a song. These people who need their television or stereo or radio playing all the time. These people so scared of silence. These are my neighbors. These sound-oholics. These quiet-ophobics. Laughter of the dead comes through every wall.
These days, this is what passes for home sweet home.
This siege of noise.
After work, I made one stop. The man standing behind the cash register looked up when I limped into the store. Still looking at me, he reached under the counter and brought out something in brown paper, saying, “Double-bagged. I think you’ll like this one.” He set it on the counter and patted it with one hand.
The package is half the size of a shoe box. It weighs less than a can of tuna. He pressed one, two, three buttons on the register, and the price window said a hundred and forty-nine dollars. He told me, “Just so you won’t worry, I taped the bags shut tight.”
In case it rains, he put the package in a plastic bag, and said, “You let me know if there’s any of it not there.” He said, “You don’t walk like that foot is getting better.” All the way home, the package rattled. Under my arm, the brown paper slid and wrinkled. With my every limp, what’s inside clattered from one end of the box to the other.
At my apartment, the ceiling is pounding with some fast music. The walls are murmuring with panicked voices. Either an ancient cursed Egyptian mummy has come back to life and is trying to kill the people next door, or they’re watching a movie. Under the floor, there’s someone shouting, a dog barking, doors slamming, the auctioneer call of some song.
In the bathroom, I turn out the lights. So I can’t see what’s in the bag. So I won’t know how it’s supposed to turn out. In the cramped tight darkness, I stuff a towel in the crack under the door. With the package on my lap, I sit on the toilet and listen. This is what passes for civilization.
People who would never throw litter from their car will drive past you with their radio blaring. People who’d never blow cigar smoke at you in a crowded restaurant will bellow into their cell phone. They’ll shout at each other across the space of a dinner plate. These people who would never spray herbicides or insecticides will fog the neighborhood with their stereo playing Scottish bagpipe music. Chinese opera. Country and western. Outdoors, a bird singing is fine. Patsy Cline is not.
Outdoors, the din of traffic is bad enough. Adding Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor is not making the situation any better.
You turn up your music to hide the noise. Other people turn up their music to hide yours. You turn up yours again. Everyone buys a bigger stereo system. This is the arms race of sound. You don’t win with a lot of treble.
This isn’t about quality. It’s about volume.
This isn’t about music. This is about winning.
You stomp the competition with the bass line. You rattle windows. You drop the melody line and shout the lyrics. You put in foul language and come down hard on each cussword. You dominate. This is really about power.
In the dark bathroom, sitting on the toilet, I fingernail the tape open at one end of the package, and what’s inside is a square cardboard box, smooth, soft, and furred at the edges, each corner blunt and crushed in. The top lifts off, and what’s inside feels like layers of sharp, hard complicated shapes, tiny angles, curves, corners, and points. These I set to one side on the bathroom floor, in the dark. The cardboard box, I put back inside the paper bags. Between the hard, tangled shapes are two sheets of slippery paper. These papers, I put in the bags, too. The bags, I crush and roll and twist into a ball. All of this I do blind, touching the smooth paper, feeling the layers of hard, branching shapes.
The floor under my shoes, even the toilet seat, shakes a little from the music next door. Each family with a crib death, you want to tell them to take up a hobby. You’d be surprised just how fast you can close the door on your past. No matter how bad things get, you can still walk away. Learn needlepoint. Make a stained-glass lamp. I carry the shapes to the kitchen, and in the light they’re blue and gray and white. They’re brittle-hard plastic. Just tiny shards. Tiny shingles and shutters and bargeboards. Tiny steps and columns and window frames. If it’s a house or a hospital, you can’t tell. There are little brick walls and little doors. Spread out on the kitchen table, it could be the parts of a school or a church. Without seeing the picture on the box, without the instruction sheets, the tiny gutters and dormers might be for a train station or a lunatic asylum. A factory or a prison.
No matter how you put it together, you’re never sure if it’s right. The little pieces, the cupolas and chimneys, they twitch with each beat of noise coming through the floor.
These music-oholics. These calm-ophobics.
No one wants to admit we’re addicted to music. That’s just not possible. No one’s addicted to music and television and radio. We just need more of it, more channels, a larger screen, more volume. We can’t bear to be without it, but no, nobody’s addicted. We could turn it off anytime we wanted.
I fit a window frame into a brick wall. With a little brush, the size for fingernail polish, I glue it. The window is the size of a fingernail. The glue smells like hair spray. The smell tastes like oranges and gasoline.
The pattern of the bricks on the wall is as fine as your fingerprint. Another window fits in place, and I brush on more glue.
The sound shivers through the walls, through the table, through the window frame, and into my finger.
These distraction-oholics. These focus-ophobics.
Old George Orwell got it backward.
Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled.
And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.
I finger open a button on my white shirt and stuff my tie inside. With my chin tucked down tight against the knot of my tie, I tweezer a tiny pane of glass into each window. Using a razor blade, I cut plastic curtains smaller than a postage stamp, blue curtains for the upstairs, yellow for the downstairs. Some curtains left open, some drawn shut, I glue them down.
There are worse things than finding your wife and child dead.
You can watch the world do it. You can watch your wife get old and bored. You can watch your kids discover everything in the world you’ve tried to save them from. Drugs, divorce, conformity, disease. All the nice clean books, music, television. Distraction. These people with a dead child, you want to tell them, go ahead. Blame yourself. There are worse things you can do to the people you love than kill them. The regular way is just to watch the world do it. Just read the newspaper. The music and laughter eat away at your thoughts. The noise blots them out. All the sound distracts. Your head aches from the glue.
Anymore, no one’s mind is their own. You can’t concentrate. You can’t think. There’s always some noise worming in. Singers shouting. Dead people laughing. Actors crying. All these little doses of emotion.
Someone’s always spraying the air with their mood.
Their car stereo, broadcasting their grief or joy or anger all over the neighborhood. One Dutch Colonial mansion, I installed fifty-six windows upside down and had to throw it out. One twelve-bedroom Tudor castle, I glued the downspouts on the wrong gable ends and melted everything by trying to fix it with a chemical solvent. This isn’t anything new.
Experts in ancient Greek culture say that people back then didn’t see their thoughts as belonging to them. When ancient Greeks had a thought, it occurred to them as a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo was telling them to be brave. Athena was telling them to fall in love.
Now people hear a commercial for sour cream potato chips and rush out to buy, but now they call this free will.
At least the ancient Greeks were being honest.
The truth is, even if you read to your wife and child some night. You read them a lullaby. And the next morning, you wake up but your family doesn’t. You lie in bed, still curled against your wife. She’s still warm but not breathing. Your daughter’s not crying. The house is already hectic with traffic and talk radio and steam pounding through the pipes inside the wall. The truth is, you can forget even that day for the moment it takes to make a perfect knot in your tie.
This I know. This is my life.
You might move away, but that’s not enough. You’ll take up a hobby. You’ll bury yourself in work. Change your name. You’ll cobble things together. Make order out of chaos. You’l do this each time your foot is healed enough, and you have the money. Organize every detail.
This isn’t what a therapist will tell you to do, but it works. You glue the doors into the walls next. You glue the walls into the foundation. You tweezer together the tiny bits of each chimney and let the glue dry while you build the roof. You hang the tiny gutters. Every detail exact. You set the tiny dormers. Hang the shutters. Frame the porch. Seed the lawn. Plant the trees.
Inhale the taste of oranges and gasoline. The smell of hair spray. Lose yourself in each complication. Glue a thread of ivy up one side of the chimney. Your fingers webbed with threads of glue, your fingertips crusted and sticking together. You tell yourself that noise is what defines silence. Without noise, silence would not be golden. Noise is the exception. Think of deep outer space, the incredible cold and quiet where your wife and kid wait. Silence, not heaven, would be reward enough. With tweezers, you plant flowers along the foundation.
Your back and neck curve forward over the table. With your ass clenched, your spine’s hunched, arching up to a headache at the base of your skull.
You glue the tiny Welcome mat outside the front door. You hook up the tiny lights inside. You glue the mailbox beside the front door. You glue the tiny, tiny milk bottles on the front porch. The tiny folded newspaper.
With everything perfect, exact, meticulous, it must be three or four in the morning, because by now it’s quiet. The floor, the ceiling, the walls, are still. The compressor on the refrigerator shuts off, and you can hear the filament buzzing in each lightbulb. You can hear my watch tick. A moth knocks against the kitchen window. You can see your breath, the room is that cold.
You put the batteries in place and flip a little switch, and the tiny windows glow. You set the house on the floor and turn out the kitchen light.
Stand over the house in the dark. From this far away it looks perfect. Perfect and safe and happy. A neat red-brick home. The tiny windows of light shine out on the lawn and trees. The curtains glow, yellow in the baby’s room. Blue in your own bedroom. The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close-up. The shortcut to closing a door is to bury yourself in the details. This is how we must look to God.
As if everything’s just fine.
Now take off your shoe, and with your bare foot, stomp. Stomp and keep stomping. No matter how much it hurts, the brittle broken plastic and wood and glass, keep stomping until the downstairs neighbor pounds the ceiling with his fist.