by Luke Boyd
forum: Noise
speculative fiction for the internet generation.

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        Before you get too far into this you should know.

        You should know this isn't the kind of story where anything important happens, or where anything matters much.

        It's not the kind of story where a carload of cheerleaders go on a road trip and one-by-one meet gruesome fates. It's not the kind of story where two lonely singles lost in the bustle of city life find each other through some random accident—choking in an uptown restaurant our hero is revived by a no-nonsense waitress and single mother struggling to make ends meet.

        If you like stories where the characters remind you of yourself, give up now. Although you may be in here, you probably won't recognize yourself. This story is not a mirror or a window. Or an hourglass whose slipping sands are trickling away. It's not anything glass at all.

        If you are hoping this story will help to explain some messed-up facet of your own life, don't bother continuing. If you believe that everything happens for a reason, and that everyone has a purpose in life, stop reading right now and find something else to do. Cook someone dinner, or go buy a cat.

        This story does not involve a showdown between good and evil.
        This story does not provide a glimpse of the future, nor does it explain the past.
        This story is a distraction from distraction. A diary of noise.

        Maybe you'll hear it. Maybe you won't.

        DING!         Sorry, you are out of time.
        DING!         Please return to your seats.
        DING!         You've got mail.
        DING!         The chicken is done defrosting.
                            Or was that the wash?
        DING!         Or the doorbell??

        This story was not written by some distinguished wordsmith, cloistered away in a rustic cabin somewhere in upstate New York, starving for an impossible pristine text. It wasn't put down deep in the night by the soft glow of a computer screen. Or by the flicker of candlelight. It wasn't born paragraphs at a time on legal tablets or in some battered spiral bound notebook either.

        In fact, this story wasn't even created—it was found. Floating around out there as all stories do. And it was never all that important to me until it got out. Until it was designed, defined, and refined—passed through disaffected hands, and measured for therapeutic value.

        How about five hundred hours of therapy? Or complete cochlear reconstructive surgery? Totally paid for.

        I scan the offer as it slides across the table. My answer—I'm not sure how loud.

        "I don't care. What good will it do me? I'm happy now."

        But you could be so much happier. We can make you better. But we need your help. We need to know where it went wrong.

        Just as I finish reading the pad is pulled back. There's more writing underneath when it comes back, now the handwriting more distressed.

        You should know something. You're the first, but not the only one. There have been ten more since you got here. Eyes, ears, hands, etc.

        I can't help but smile, but only at the corners of my mouth where it's just for me. The truth is that with all the gauze, tape, and cotton wound around my head I'm really in no hurry to go anywhere. I listen to the blood pumping through my head and the incessant droning that I've become used to in the past few weeks.

        I rock back and forth on the chair I'm secured to. Through the window I can see a spectacled herd of labcoats watching me from the hall.

        "Okay. Get a tape recorder or something because I'm not writing it all down."

        I plant the chair legs hard on the tile floor and clear my throat hoping it sounds calm and authoritative.

        "And when I'm done I want out."

        The whole thing comes bubbling up from slowly, steadily. The entire story without a problem, because when you can't hear yourself talk it's much easier to hear yourself think.


        This story is me, sitting with the dingy curtains pulled back as the cars whiz up the hill beneath my window. I peek out, around and down the corner to where the aluminum siding stretches away, and wonder if anyone can see me sitting here. On the toilet. A liar, a con, a thief, a maniac. This is what someone like that looks like I guess, on the toilet, looking out through curtains. I am everything, all balled up into one, because what does it matter if you are simply one or another? Or maybe a few combined? The distinctions between the things you did or didn't do, they don't really matter. For sure, everyone has done something.

        Everyone has a secret.

        I've got mine, sitting on the toilet, behind the curtains, wondering who might be out there, watching me look out at them while they look in at me, watching me watch them watch me. Everyone is made up solely of glances from watchers. Glances captured from the leveling eyes of people on the street, or their own as they pass a mirror, or look through rainy glass.

        Just in case you're wondering, this isn't really "headed somewhere" yet. So if you're thinking that way, just stop.

        I light up a cigarette here while I'm waiting. Too much fiber in your diet and you will always be waiting. I light it with one of the matchbooks on the sinktop. There's about twenty of them. Because you never know.

        I don't smoke, but smoking is something you can pick up instantly and it's like you're suddenly part of a family. You can get a pack of cigarettes anywhere and nobody is going to say, "Hey, I've never seen you buying here before! I bet you don't even smoke!" Instead, if someone else is in there getting cigarettes too, you can kind of nod at them as you pass on your way out. It doesn't even matter what brand you're buying.

        Then, too, if you're out somewhere, at a bar or a diner, you don't feel like an idiot. You can sit in the non-smoking section if you want, because you're not really a smoker. Or you can sit in the smoking section, lay your pack out on the table, maybe light one up or maybe not. You never look like you're lonely when you're sitting there with a beer or a coffee and a cigarette in the ashtray, just smoking itself away. Maybe a magazine or a newspaper, too.

        And of course, there's the fact that people will never quite have you pegged. They see you walk out of that gas station with a pack and a lighter and they think they've got you down. You're not truly happy with yourself. You don't care about your long-term health. They never even stop to think that you may not smoke them. Or that you may be buying them for your fading bedridden grandmother. Or your twelve-year-old nephew.

        Or if people see you sitting, say you're at a Dunkin Donuts or some diner or something. And you're alone. You're not smoking and you don't have your cigarettes out. You're just sitting. Again, maybe a magazine or newspaper, maybe not. They stand in line or they sit a few booths away and they watch you and they take you apart. That guy looks like a real nutjob. He's probably going through a divorce, or maybe his mother has recently passed. I bet he's a Democrat. Whatever. Then you reach into your jacket pocket, pull out your smokes and strike one. Through that first thin curl of smoke up around your eyes you watch the whole game change. Or you can just fish the cigarettes out of your pocket, making it real obvious, get up and walk out. Light one up as you go out the door keeping your eyes real shifty, whispering in low muddled Spanish to the people you pass. Oh my God, that guy's possessed or something.

        These are the kind of games you have lots of time to play if you're a kidnapper, drug addict, wife beater, if you're in a wheelchair. I mean, on the average we've got over sixty years to fill up. Are you making the most of yours?

        As I'm sitting here, not really peeking out through the curtains anymore, but letting my burning cigarette balance on the edge of the faux-porcelain sinktop, I'm thinking. I've been smoking, or not smoking as you may see it, on and off for thirty-one years. I'm counting the time from when I was born to age fifteen when I smoked my first cigarette as my first "off" period. It works. So how many cigarettes have I smoked or not smoked in that time? And how many cigarettes do you need to smoke before you can say, "Yeah, I'm a smoker"? I know you only need to kill one person in the alley behind the bar to be a murderer. And you only need to swipe one person's car left idling in a Wawa parking lot to be a thief. So in that light, am I a smoker yet or not?

        If so, I guess telling one lie should make you a liar. So why stop now? You've got the label, and there are a lot of stories to be spun. You can start by telling people you have some sort of terminal skin disease, that the scratching is manageable but the explosive diarrhea is really hell. Tell your next door neighbor that you saw her husband coming out of the Marriott last Friday at lunch. You waved to him but you weren't sure if he saw you. He seemed like he was in a rush.

        While you're at it, go into one of those mid-priced family style restaurant chain places. Get a table in the no smoking section. Then ask for an ashtray. The waitress will say something like, "Excuse me sir but this is the no smoking section. I can get you a table in the smoking section if you want?" Just say, "No, this is fine." Then light up a cigarette, or maybe two or three. As many as you can handle. Chances are the waitress (or if you're really making a scene the manager) will come over and request you stop smoking in the no smoking section. With the burning cigarette or cigarettes balanced delicately between your fingers you say, "Thanks, but I don't really smoke. This is just for decoration." So now you're a liar and a sociopath. Oh yeah, and possibly a smoker. A true rarity, the complete triple threat.

        These are the kind of things that will really get you some looks. And that's what we're all after, isn't it? That's the only way to really identify ourselves, by how people see us. Take my neighbor Bill for example. He lives a couple of waiting-to-be-condemned houses up the street from me. I'm not sure how old he is. I mean, I've been smoking on and off for thirty-one years and I know he's older than that, so let's just say he's old. He's World War II old, he's starched button down shirts and dress slacks seven days a week old. Bill's wife is already dead, somewhere back around the turn of the century I'm sure, so he's pretty well adjusted to living on his own. I see him every morning as I'm leaving for work, either when I'm leaving my house or when I'm pulling out into the street. Any time he sees me like this he flags me down with his blue-white flapping chicken arms. Then he sidles on up to my car, like we're talking at a bar over a pint or something.

        "So, where you off to so early?"

        "I'm going to work, Bill. Like every other morning." This is the truth, basically.

        "Ahhh, it's good to see a young person with such a work ethic. You know I worked down at the Steel for fifty-three years. And the Steel's been shut down ten years now."

        "Great, Bill. Yeah. I really gotta get to work though."

        I'm in my car now, starting to slowly roll my window up. He's leaning halfway inside though. His teeth are butter yellow and slimy, but at least they're his. His head shakes and bobs around like it's on a spring when he talks.

        "Ok, Bill. I'm rolling up the window now. Tell Jeannie I said hi."

        Yeah I know she's dead, but he still talks about her like she's around. I think deep down he realizes she's gone, but he doesn't want to look like he's all alone. Plus, he always talks to me about how often he still lays her. Sometimes if I'm coming home late from the bar or the bookstore, Bill will be outside standing on his stoop. At first when I crest the hill on my walk down past his house to mine I only see the glowing end of a cigar. I can usually smell it too, or hear him singing little snatches of Dean Martin or Sinatra. I try to stroll on by pretty quickly because I know he tends to be a follower. He'll be standing there in his underwear, with or without a tee shirt. In the winter he'll be wearing his old army boots, sometimes his fatigue jacket.

        "Goodnight, Bill."

        And I'm gone.

        Then I'll feel a wispy arm clutching at my sleeve or I'll hear him pattering or clunking (depending on the season) down the sidewalk after me.

        "Hey, hang on there! Where you going so fast?" He's always out of breath no matter how far he has to chase me and I don't want the old guy to drop over dead on the sidewalk. Not in his goddamn underwear anyway. So I always stop.

        "Oh Bill, hey. It's really late. I gotta get to bed. I have to be up early tomorrow."

        "Ahhh. I used to have to get up early too, when the Steel was open. Time and a half for working weekend shifts."

        "Wow Bill, yeah, that's great. Well, have a good night. Say hi to Joanie for me."

        I use different names Jeannie, Joanie, Mary, Claire, whatever. He doesn't care, he's just happy I play along. Like she's not pushing up daisies two blocks over in the beer bottle littered cemetery.

        "Say, you want to come in for a drink? I got some cognac I've been saving. Just the two of us, the Mrs. is asleep. I really gave her a working over tonight, boy. She might be out for a few days."

        He slaps me feebly on the shoulder like this is some sort of fraternal guy joke just between us. His hand feels like a raw-cold chicken wing.

        "Aww I don't think so tonight, Bill. It's late already. Had I known earlier, then maybe…"

        "Heh!" He kind of shrinks away and I know what's coming next. Old people are always guilting you into spending time with them by talking about how they're going to be dead soon. Bill's really, really old. Like, he talks about the Great Depression old. "Okay, suit yourself. Just keep in mind, I'm not always going to be around, you know. The Mrs. and I, we might be moving down to Florida. I got in on some prime land down there, you know they're practically giving it away. Got me a ten acre lot in the Everglades for three thousand bucks and, hang on here, I got the brochure here in my pocket…"

        He doesn't have pockets. He's wearing just his underwear. No place for a brochure.

        "Ok, Bill. I'll come in for a drink. But let me run down to my house first. I'll be right back."

        I start jogging down the hill towards my place because, for real, I have to get up at like 5:30 in the morning. He's yelling down the dark paved slope to me, "Hurry up. I have a few of those skin movies you like on tape, too. I'll put one on the rewinder."

        And then I'm in my house, dropping off a few things, trying to delay as much as possible because sometimes Bill will just forget he talked to me and go inside to sleep. So I consolidate a few piles of books and mail into a larger pile and go take a piss. If I turn my head just a little bit I can see right across the street to this apartment-style house where some college kids live. Usually this late at night there's always some sort of action—a fight, or a drunken makeout session, maybe a kid puking in the gravel. Tonight it's quiet but I can see through the shades that the lights are on downstairs. It's the kind of soft, flickering light only tv makes. As I'm zipping up I figure there's probably some lucky kid in there curled up on a ratty couch with some hot piece of ass tight up against him. And the couch is probably stuffed full of crumbs, food wrappers, and other girls' underwear.

        So I grab this cheap bottle of vodka I've been keeping around and twist the cap off, take a little slug. You know, to test it out. It's worth every bit of the nine dollars I paid for it. It tastes like it was made in New Jersey, or maybe Utah. Somewhere they don't know shit about vodka for sure. I twist the cap back down tight and take it with me back up to Bill's. I figure if he's awake we can start hitting the vodka and he'll wish he had gone to bed, and if he's asleep I'll just leave it on his stoop. Or pour it glug, glug, glug down some poor soul's gas tank. Who does that type of shit?

        Back up the hill and there's not many cars out now. Just the drunks and morons. The two cars that do go past me as I'm flip-tossing the bottle in the air and walking, one of them goes by doing about five up the hill and the next guy's coming up at about sixty. People always assume that they can get away with things real late at night, because it seems like nobody is around and nobody is watching. What a great time for doing donuts in parking lots, paintballing street signs, cruising around with a few six packs and chucking the cans out the sunroof. If they'd think about it they'd realize, when there are fewer people around there is always more attention given by the world of watchers to the few who make themselves seen. You stand a better chance of busting into the White House during brunch than you do at midnight. Really.

        The row of houses leading up the hill is pretty typical of the city and things in general. They are all separate but there's only about a foot of space between each one. They might as well be row-homes. I mean really, what are you gonna do with that space, build a sunporch? Install a Jacuzzi? Maybe fit your trash cans if they're plastic and a little flexible. The fronts of the houses are all different. Some have ancient aluminum siding like mine, with powdery residue so thick on it that the color becomes a non-issue. Mine's got a few dents in it too where people have thrown bottles, cans, and rocks at it from the street as they drove by. Again, most of this stuff happens late at absurd hours of the night. A few of the other houses have this fake stucco-plaster look to them. Kind of a white-trash-art-deco look. Most of the places with this stuff have really suffered—the rattling and shaking of big trucks going up and down the hill all day literally vibrates the plaster right off. Some people sweep it into the street, and bit by bit their house disappears. One guy actually gets out the caulking gun every weekend and tries to slime it back into place. That usually holds for a good few hours, then a line of trucks rumble on past and it's down again. My favorite houses are the ones with sagging front porches, usually with roofs supported by split and rotted four-by-fours. The porches themselves aren't so bad, they have a certain American Midwest desolation look to them, but it's the houses behind them that get me. Fresh coats of paint every few months, ornate decorated shutters, heavy framed front doors. Like every time they go through and fix the house up they don't quite get to the porch, and then it's time to start all over again. This time a new coat of paint and some fancy gold house numbers fastened to the front door.

        And by the way, we're not talking normal colors of paint here either. Two houses up, the Castillos, they started with a chocolate brown and have since gone through tangerine, yellow, electric blue, and now salmon. The porch? It's a sunbleached driftwood-rot gray.

        These are the houses I pass on my way up to Bill's. His place is brick and mortar, modest and out of place on this block. I'm almost there when I see some stuff running down the sidewalk towards me. It's dark so naturally the stuff looks black, soaking into the cement as it crawls downhill. It looks a little like blood and I'm thinking, "Tell me Bill's not laying up here in the street with his head bashed open or something." I mean, it's not exactly a great neighborhood.

        Then I remember the cars that went by—the guy that was really flying, what if he had to pass the other guy? Maybe he came up on the sidewalk and there was Bill in his underwear with his cigar…

        The stuff keeps running down the hill. But I'm not going to rub my fingers in it or anything, I mean, this isn't some lame detective show. People don't do that shit in real life. And besides, if Bill did get hit by that car or he got jumped, there's nothing me and my finger dipped in blood can do about it. I mean, at his age, I'm sure any decent shot on him would splatter his guts all over. And maybe send a little puffball of dust up into the night sky, too. Because seriously, he's really, really old.

        But no, I've got it all wrong because when I get to his stoop at the top of the hill, there he is. With his underwear bunched up down around his ankles he's facing the street, so I kind of just get a shadowy profile. His arms are thrown up high and I can't even make out where they end and the darkness begins. He's got the little glowing nub of his cigar dangling from his lips and he's taking a piss on the sidewalk. As I get up closer I see the worst part. He's turned slightly uphill, so his piss is hissing on the sidewalk right in front of him, running down over his bare feet and soggy underwear, and making its way on down the hill. I kind of just stand there for a second and watch him from a few feet off. It's like some sort of twisted Great Gatsby flashback, only I don't see what he's looking at across the street. Then he's done and he's shaking the last few droplets out and humming a little bit of "Strangers in the Night".

        "Hey. Bill. I'm back. Everything alright?"

        He doesn't even turn to look at me and he's still shaking it. When you're about a thousand years old I guess you've got nothing to be ashamed of.

        "Ahhh. Yep. Let's go in for a drink, eh?"

        "Yeah. Sure. You know, you could get arrested for pissing in the street like that? Your toilet busted or something?"

        "Oh. No, it's working fine. But, the wife's in there getting cleaned up. I gave her a pretty good going over, but she always washes up for round two."

        I'm picturing Bill in bed with some desiccated corpse and trying not to lose it as he's hauling his piss soaked underwear back up. Then again, he doesn't seem to be bothered by this situation, so whatever, why should I care?

        "Oh, well we can do this another night then, Bill. Go on in and give her hell and I'll just see you around."

        "Heh, you just hang on and listen here!" He puts a blue-veined chicken wing arm around me and I can feel his swamped underwear soaking through my pants. "With women, and especially my wife, they can always wait. In forty-two years of marriage there's an awful lot of waiting, so what's another fifteen minutes? So let's you and I go in and have a drink and smoke a cigar. And I'll show you the new movies."

        I don't exactly get up on time the next morning. Really I don't actually get out of bed until two. After we finish off Bill's cognac we're so whacked that we start right in on my vodka. It's so bad you need to have a bottle of something else down first to make it go alright. It's what you might call "mixing vodka" except Bill's got nothing to mix it with. So there we are, and it goes down straight. But it hurts the next day. So there I am back at my place in bed with the lights off at two in the afternoon, with a glass of water I can't bear to drink because my head hurts so damn bad every time I move. Because I'm dehydrated. Because I should be pounding water like there's no tomorrow. But I can't. Because of my headache. Because I'm dehydrated. But I do have lots of police chase video shows to watch. All in all it's not so bad.

        The problem with these police shows is the problem with about everything else, too. The idea of sirens and lights signifying trouble is pretty outdated. For starters, what exactly constitutes an emergency? An emergency for me might be that I'm just getting off the highway and I really need to take a shit. I drive eighty the rest of the way home, through the city, running lights, grimacing behind the wheel. That's my emergency. So where are my sirens?

        The college kids across the street, they have different emergencies. They're having a big party. More people come than are expected. It's about a quarter-to-two and they're about out of beer. Someone's got to haul ass down to the bar with a load of drunks and get some six packs. Or else the party's over. That's their emergency. And if they make it just a few minutes late the bouncers will be herding everyone out and these college kids will be trying to squeeze their way in, and they'll try to get six packs and the bartender will say, "Sorry, I can't serve you anymore. It's after two." So why can't the most sober kid just step up and say, "Sorry we're late but we need that beer. It's an emergency."

        This brings us to the next part, and the very core of who I am and what I do.

        Listen up.

        Things start out well-intentioned. There are firetrucks, ambulances, police cars—because when things go wrong you need them. Then there are alarm clocks, air raid sirens, horns, bells, and signs in neon. They take away from the original purpose of the emergency lights and the emergency sirens. Then we add terror alerts, warning lights, power-standby lights, breaking news bulletins, and construction signs. People are bombarded on all sides by warnings and notices.

        Stop—Hurry Up—Forget It, Just Move Over.
        Look Over Here—No, Over Here
        Stay Inside—Listen Closely—No, Not To That, To This.

        When I started working for Mercy Hospital I don't think I realized the problem. I got up every morning or afternoon (depending on the shift I was working) and drank two cups of coffee while I checked the news. I was looking for the accidents and tragedies that had happened while I slept. There was always something—a jackknifed tractor-trailer spilling toxic chemicals, a domestic shooting at South Garden Apartments, some kid stuck in a sewer tunnel or storm drain. These were the kinds of calls that came pouring in to Mercy, the calls that sent me flying out of the emergency bay all sirens and lights, dispatched to fly like a madman to the scene of someone's accident, slip-up, disease.

        Two years of driving an ambulance and I knew the city. I was beautiful, I was miraculous—there was blocked traffic on Linden, I swung onto 9th and barreled through the park—lives were saved. By day or by night people moved when I came, like a screeching terror I blew through intersections, parking lots, industrial parks. Then I started to see patterns in the kinds of people I was saving. They weren't people like me or like Bill. They weren't people who would ever (or could ever) return the favor. They didn't deserve the sirens and lights.


        I would charge the wrong way down one-way streets, weave through pedestrians, pass on blind turns—I'd pull up at outside a Denny's to find some cokehead lying in a pool of his own piss, sweating and muttering to himself about the Cosby Show.

        I would cut off a school bus, narrowly slice past some kids at a crosswalk, crush a wayward squirrel under my churning wheels—I'd roar into the lot of some apartment complex to find a shiny BMW full of bullets and blood, behind the wheel some teenaged kid with gold capped teeth sobbing with his hands full of guts. Maybe a bicycle laying over on its side with his kid brother under it, his own little pool of death spilling out around him.

        So I made a decision. And I started, it was sometime around Christmas I remember. I was just dropping one off at Mercy, a heart attack, when my radio started screaming. Shots fired with multiple injuries. 400th block of Pendleton. Suspected drug activity. Police en route.

        The dispatcher requests my number.

        "117, I need you over there. Finish your drop-off at Mercy and get there with lights. Do you copy?"

        I wait. Maybe someone else who is closer will pick up on the call. But no, nobody in their right mind wants these types of calls.

        "117 do you copy?"


        "I'm here. I'm finishing up here and then I'm on my way. With lights."

        But I don't put the sirens on. I don't use the bullhorn to tell anyone to get out of my way either. I don't even break thirty on my way there. And I stop twice—first to pick up a coffee at Dunkin Donuts, then at Exxon to fuel up and get a pack of cigarettes. As I ease off the street I take a wide circle around the pumps and park very carefully. I flip my sirens and lights on, get out and walk purposefully inside.

        I forget my coffee sitting on the dash, so I walk back and get it.

        It's December and the guy wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt working the counter sees me coming and meets me at the door. He's pretty excited.

        "Hey buddy, if you gotta go just give me your numbers and I'll bill the hospital."

        "Nah, it's ok. Don't worry about it. I need some smokes anyway."

        He scuttles back behind the counter and pulls down the overhead door where the cigarettes are kept.

        "Ok, let's hurry. What do you smoke, pal?"

        I pat my chest pockets then feel around in my pants pockets.

        "Shit, I left my wallet in the ambulance. Hang on, I'll be right back." I turn around and start walking back out across the lot to the pumps. Before I get to the door he's yelling and pounding on the counter.

        "Yo! Don't worry about it. They're on the house. I don't want to be responsible for someone dying over it, ya know? So come on, what do you smoke?"

        I head back to the counter and lean both elbows on it. I fiddle with a bucket full of plastic reindeer cigarette lighters. This guy's nervous as hell and this whole time my sirens are still wailing away.

        "Well, actually I don't smoke. Do you think I look like a smoker though?"

        "What?!? Don't you got people to save? You want the smokes or not?"

        "Eh, not really. I'm not really in the mood anymore. You're making me feel too self-conscious about myself now."

        "Here buddy. Look." He starts pawing around in the overhead storage. It's a stretch for him to reach and his shirt rides up over his shorts. He's got a big hairy gut and the top band of his boxer shorts says HAWAII-ALOHA-HAWAII-ALOHA. I'm thinking this guy must be clueless or something, and now he's sweating pretty hard working around in the cabinet.

        Outside my sirens and lights are going wild but I'm in no hurry.

        He finally comes out of the cabinet with two handfuls of cigarette packs. Various brands. He chucks them down on the counter, stuffs them in a bag, and thrusts it over at me.

        "Here, take em and get out of here. I don't know what your deal is but I ain't gonna be responsible for nobody dying. Now beat it."

        I take the bag and head back out to the ambulance. At the door I stop and turn around and look at the guy. He's watching me and watching the ambulance. I don't think he understands me. If he only knew.

        "Hey, thanks for the cigarettes. But really, I want you to know I'm not really a smoker. I mean I do smoke from time to time, just not on a regular enough basis that I think I can call myself a smoker. You know what I mean?"

        By the time I get to the emergency scene things are pretty well cleaned up—a few cop cars still sitting with lights flashing and doors open but no ambulances in sight. I park next to one of the cruisers and walk over to a taped off section of sidewalk. There are a few cops and some gawkers milling around and as I walk up everyone turns to look at me.

        "Where the hell you been? We put the call in to dispatch almost an hour ago!" This cop's all worked up about God-knows-what because I don't see any dead bodies laying anywhere.

        "I know. I ran into traffic."

        I take a swig of my now-cold coffee and wince a little bit at the taste. The cop just glares at me. I'm wondering if he's mad because I'm standing there an hour late and drinking coffee, or if he's mad because I didn't bring him any. Either way it's lousy coffee by this point.

        I feel something tugging at my pants leg so I look down and there's this dark snakepit of hair staring up at me. This girl can't be more than six or seven years old and she's already at her first crime scene. She's standing on my heavy boot and has her arms wrapped around my leg. Her soiled little jumper is riding halfway up her body and her hair is twisted into about a dozen braids that skew off her head at all angles.

        "Hey misser, you drive the am'blance?"

        "Uh huh."

        "You takes people to hop'sital?"

        "Sometimes, yeah."

        "What if they 'ready dead?"

        "Well. If they're already dead then I take them straight to heaven."

        She must like that answer because she starts giggling into my pants leg. I try to start heading back to the ambulance but she's clinging to me and standing on my boot. I make a few awkward steps carrying her along, then I stop and reach down and pry her off.

        "Sorry, sweetie, but I have to go. I have to take more people to the hospital, and maybe a few to heaven."

        She seems hurt and retreats a few feet.

        "Misser, ken you take me to heav'n? I don' like it here."

        She catches me off-guard and I don't know what to say. I crouch down and motion her to come closer.

        "It's okay. To tell you the truth I don't like it here either. Most people don't. You just have to find something to pass the time. Wait here a second…" I run to the van and grab the bag of cigarettes from the gas station. "Take these. But don't open them. Keep them in the bag but carry them around. If anyone gives you trouble about them, you tell them the nice ambulance driver gave them to you. They'll make you look sophisticated. And when you're old enough you can start smoking, and if you smoke real good I'll be back before you know it to take you to heaven. Okay?"

        She takes the bag from me, looking puzzled, and wraps the loose ends around her hands. I stand up and make for the ambulance, hearing her muttering from somewhere behind me.


        So I get fired a few weeks later.

        I think because I just stopped showing up for calls. I mean I'd answer the radio and confirm that I was on my way and all, but then I'd go pick up Bill and have breakfast or do some laundry or something. It wasn't that I was lazy or anything like that—this was just a much more efficient use of the vehicle and the time. Nobody else agreed with me though, not even Bill. And he was even getting free breakfasts out of the deal.

        The Mercy Hospital ambulance job pretty much translates over to what I've still been doing—driving an ambulance. Technically.

        Only not for Mercy Hospital, or for the dead and dying. After all, what can really be done for them? It's the rest of us that need the help.

        So that's what I do. I help people who have other emergencies besides dying. Dying isn't an emergency—living is. And these people appreciate it more, too. They appreciate the sirens, the lights, the suicidal driving, the sense of urgency. Because for these people, whatever is emergency enough for them is emergency enough for me. And that's what we all want. We want to feel like our life's catastrophes are just as important to someone else.

        So I flip the switches, hit the lights. I make people's hair stand up on the back of their necks as I go careening by at ridiculous speeds. I'm the driver. I'm the captain. I'm God, Jesus, and UPS all at the same time. I get things done. And I make my own hours.

        Sometimes I drive around and someone will flag me down—a flat tire and they're late for a flight, or a traffic jam and they need to be at the office in fifteen. Most of the time people call though, from their cell phones sitting in traffic or from bed just having realized they've overslept.

        And just like that I'm off in my own ambulance, or what used to be one anyway. You can still see where the decals were on the sides. It's an '84 Chevy van that must have been part of the Mercy fleet before they went to the bigger ambulances, the ones I drove. It's white with spots of rust that send streams of red metal down the body whenever it gets wet.

        I first saw it down on 7th street at Carlo's Pre-Owned.

        "EXPERIENCED cars for EXPERIENCED drivers"

        It looked dead with the hood yawning open and two blown tires, so I told Carlo I wanted it cheap. Just for parts. His sales pitched that the sirens and lights still worked and the original factory cabinetry was still in the back. $900 firm.

        Now I advertise in the yellow pages and have my phone number painted in bold block letters on the side, captioned under the words "RealLife Emergency Transport". I tried to paint one of those zigzag heartbeat lifelines down the side of the van but it came out like a mountain range or something. The heart I painted at the end of the lifeline, it looks like it was drawn by a three year old. Lopsided. Uneven. When it rains the rust spots near the roof stream with copper colored water and the heart looks like it's bleeding. Some people pay thousands for effects like that—I just watch for storm clouds, or take it through the carwash.

        Just in case you're wondering why I feel the need to pass this on, all this shit that means nothing, I'll tell you.

        It's not my choice.

        I mean, it was my choice originally to get it down on scraps of paper and cardboard, but putting it all together, trying to make some sense of it, that part's not me. I was content with the story as pieces of disembodied paper and cardboard, fluttering all around me. It sounded just fine as disconnected poems and verbal snapshots scribbled on pizza boxes and used tissues.

        But then it happened. I became someone else's emergency. The most pressing issue in somebody's life—my health and mental clarity consuming someone else's life. Specifically, my habits filling up pages and pages of Dr. Leznick's observation journal and my voice thin and watery on dozens of audio cassettes. The file folder with my name got thicker and thicker, then it was emptied into a carton. Now there's an entire vault in the basement below Dr. Leznick's house full of cartons. All dated in chronological order with session numbers in black sharpie.

        And it's all for me!

        What a challenge! How many tapes can somebody possibly fill up talking about nothing? So far eighty-seven—but now the good doctor is converting them to CDs to maximize recording time. Sometimes he seems pleased with the progress I'm making and other times he insists I get to the point, stop digressing. As always, he can't help me unless I help myself.

        In all fairness though he has been very good to me. He always speaks softly with sincerity and he takes our relationship very seriously. After all, I've become his personal number one, four-alarm capitol emergency. I'm a crop circle, a map to the golden city of Cibola. Ever since the first time I was wheeled into his office bells and buzzers have been going off in every corner of his scholarly brain. They say, "This one's a keeper, doc!" as he measures me up sedately from behind the large desk.

        The initial amusement for me has worn off but that's the predicament of my present tense—trying to convince strangers of the sanity of my past tense. Because it really all goes back there, back to Robin, and I've tried to explain that to Leznick and the other labcoats, too. Nobody listens though. They're too busy listening to all the other bells, bleeps and beeps in their own heads, trying to decide whose emergency needs attention next. Meanwhile, I'm out here on stage trying to speak calmly and rationally into the mic, trying to make my present tense a plausible cause-effect chain. Trying to throw the blame.

        So I'm in business for a few months and really getting the hang of it. Really getting the feel for what people need, what kind of things drive them crazy, or constitute emergencies. I'm in between calls driving through the south side with Bill after a late night breakfast. I don't have the sirens on or anything, we're just cruising. The air rushing in through the open windows is cold and biting, but not the kind of cold that makes you want to close the window. It's the kind of cold that makes you want to hold your breath until your lungs burst. The kind of cold that lets you know just how warm and alive you are deep down inside at the core. Where things matter.

        Bill and I are passing a bottle of port back and forth. It's one of those big gallon jugs with handles on both sides of the bottleneck. Each time one of us passes it the wine sloshes around and splashes out the mouth. It's ok though. It's vinyl upholstery. And I own every stained and cracked inch of it.

        We come up on where the railroad crosses south 6th and the crossing lights are flashing. The gates are down too so I can't just scoot through. It's ok though, like I said we weren't in a hurry. So I throw the van in park and smell the exhaust leak from the manifold seeping in through the firewall. It feels like November—the open wine, the exhaust, and Bill taking his first pull on a fresh cigar.

        Then the train comes.

        A hulking black demon, roaring down the rails like some underworld god from a Tolkien book. The single eye-light doesn't search out prey or enemies, it just illuminates in a sick forecast anything on the tracks about to be erased. As it gets closer I can hear the cars banging against the sides of the track, getting louder and becoming more distinct, not just a mess of sound anymore but a repeated furious hammering. As the engine blows past the front of my van the conductor lets out two long blasts on the air horn. It shakes the van so hard Bill loses his cigar and I have to roll my window up to save my eardrums.

        Then I see her.

        She's standing just outside my driver's side window, perfectly still a few feet away from the tracks. The light from the passing engine hits just enough of her that I can see her hair flying around her head. She's actually leaning in toward the cars, her feet planted maybe a foot or two away but her head craned forward. Like she's inspecting the welds and riveting as they scream past.

        I feel the color leaving my face as I watch her. I can just picture her leaning in closer and closer, sobbing hard as inky mascara rivers run down her cheeks, wishing she knew another way out.

        DING!         Next up, please step past the line.
        DING!         Remain still and your problems will be vaporized.

        DING!         Clean-up and sterilization team to platform three.

        I imagine a passing door handle or exposed piece of steel taking her head smoothly. Then just her leaderless body standing there a moment longer, swaying. In limbo. Not really knowing just what to do—crumpling to the stones as the spinal cord's message to the brain comes back stamped "Return To Sender: Address Unknown".

        But I guess she's thinking otherwise because she stays right there, two feet from no more emergencies, bills, funerals. I open my door and slide off my seat as she's pulling her hair back and leaning in sideways to listen to the rumbling wheels. I come up behind her but I know she can't hear my approach, so I stand a few feet off to the side. I'm afraid to touch her arm or try to pull her away from the train because if she yanks herself out of my grasp…

        DING!         Premature execution, platform three.

        So I motion to Bill to hit the lights on the roof of the ambulance. When they come on the whirling red makes her pallor look hellish. She turns her head just slightly to look at me—she's still leaning straight into the steel wheels. She kind of smiles and nods. Like we have this in common or I know what she's doing or something. I stand there with my hands in my pockets waiting for the last car while she stays hunched over, watching me and nodding but intent on the hammering steel.

        Her head moves in time to the banging cars and wheels, her eyes go closed. This is her seat in the orchestra pit, her symphony.

        By the time the last car hammers away into the dark I can feel the heavy pressure in my ears, like my eardrums are seizing up. I try to work the feeling out by working my jaws open and closed, rubbing the mandibles. There's that and the tears leaking from my air-blasted eyes, the smell of creosote and oil thick in my nostrils.

        The girl is fine by the way.

        She flattens her hair down and walks over to me rubbing her hands together. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are all glazed over. Even though she's right next to me I can barely make out what she's saying—my ears are still on fire.

        "…ride in your…capper for me…sirens on…"


        She cups her hand around my ear and yells straight in. And it still sounds like she's at the bottom of a well or something.

        "I said 'A ride in your ambulance would be really be a capper for me, but you've got to keep the sirens on'."

        "Oh. Ok." What the hell does she want a ride in the ambulance for? I mean, she doesn't seem to mind sticking her face into the wheels of trains, so what does she want, a ride to the E.R. now? "Well, it's not really a hospital ambulance. Sorry. I could probably get into trouble if I showed up with it."

        She's looking at me like I'm an idiot. Like I just had my head halfway under a moving train.

        "Yeah, I know it's not a hospital ambulance—a real paramedic would have pulled me away from the tracks. I just want a ride in it. And I don't even care where. I just like the sirens."

        And for real, I can tell she's not lying about it because she's looking right through me to the ambulance. Her face goes white-pink-red with each revolution of the lights and I can see the sirens in her widened eyes. I don't really know what to say to her—it's like she's having one of those intensely personal moments right here in front of me. Her mouth is hanging open and each time the sirens swing around they glint off a mine of fillings.

        "Wow. They're so pretty up close."

        She speaks more to herself than to me as she's heading for the ambulance. By the time I climb in she's already scrunched down between the front seats fiddling with the toggle switches on the dashboard. They're each labeled underneath with old yellowed masking tape—they work the auxiliary lights and supply power to the outlets in the back of the ambulance.

        Bill is completely unfazed by her presence. He's busy with his pants bunched up around his knees, pissing in the now-empty wine jug.

        Side Note: You are only as good as the company you keep.

        So where do I end up taking Robin that first night I meet her at the railroad crossing? Somewhere I figure she can really get the full effect—the sounds, the lights, the near death experience.

        The airport.

        I know a place you can get over the fence where it runs through a stand of trees. Back in high school we would go out there sometimes, take a six-pack and lay on the grass watching the planes roar overhead. And of course don't forget the pulsing fields of neon runway lights, they're everywhere. From above it must look like you're landing directly on top of a cityscape.

        So it's Robin, Bill and I out there until the pink starts seeping into the eastern edge of sky. Bill's already asleep, wrapped up in a corner of the heavy emergency blanket we are all sitting on. Robin just talks. Nonstop. Except for when there are planes taking off or landing. Then she lays very flat with her ear to the ground and her eyes fixed on the blinking light show spread out all around us.

        Audio Stimulus Dependency Disorder.

        That's what Robin says it is. An addiction to noise (and sometimes light) activity. And she tells me she's got it bad. So bad that when it's totally quiet she has to talk rhythmically to herself. To keep from losing it she says. Other times if there's only one sound going on in a room, she will latch onto it and amplify it in her head, searching for patterns. She records lots of stuff too she says, like the train tonight. She's come other nights too and made recordings of it. Usually she does that a mile or so farther down the line where it echoes between the concrete bases of a broken-down overpass. The tapes are never as good as the real thing though she says. They just hold her over, when she's laying awake at night or at a wedding.

        So I lean down over her as she's lying with her ear cupped to the ground and the whole world sounds like it's shaking to pieces over my head. I lean down real close and whisper into her skyward turned ear.

        "So what is it about sound or light that's so addicting? Like, what does it do for you?"

        She doesn't answer right away and for a minute I wait, not even sure that she heard me. I mean, if she routinely does this type of shit she's got to be damn near deaf by this point.

        Then she rolls over on her back and her hair spreads out on the blanket behind her. And she fixes me with this stare. It's the same kind of look she had when she was watching the sirens on top of the ambulance, when they were turning round and round in her eyes. Only this time she's looking dead at me with that hypnotized look. She sucks in a long deep knife of cold air and the slowly exhales it, whistling it out through her teeth as her chest rises and collapses back down.

        "Well. It's kind of like sound taking up space, not only outside but in your head, too. And for me when there's no sound it's like the world is empty, like there's nothing worth feeling out there. Haven't you ever watched TV with the sound turned down?"

        "Yeah. Like if I'm doing something else and the noise from the tv is a distraction, but I still want to catch what's going on."

        "Okay, yeah. Well for me silence is a bigger distraction. Everything is empty and hollow until there's sound to fill it all up. People, cars, airplanes—anything. It's all tumbleweed just blowing around out there, getting tangled up in wires or stuck under fences. Until you can hear it all happening, but not just hear it with your ears, hear it with your whole body. Your body—like a huge receptor that you can tune in to anything you want. And that's the thing is with sound, you can feel it and you can hear it. And those are the purest ones, the sounds that leave you shaking even after they go away. The sounds you can hear in the background of everything else all day long."

        "I think I kind of get it. I mean, I can still hear the train from earlier tonight, and with the headache it gave me, I guess I can still feel it, too."

        She gets real excited and props herself up on her elbows. Her face is only a few inches away from mine and even though I doubt she's thinking about kissing me, every time a girl gets this close to me I always think about kissing them. And she has perfect skin—backlit by the runway lights half of her face is cast in blue.

        "Yeah, okay, so you have a headache. I got really bad ones the first few times, too. But they go away. You have to kind of work yourself up to really big stuff—like the train. It's taken me years but now I'll pull fire alarms at the mall and just wrap my mouth around the whole fucking box. For me it's kind of like growing—it's something my doctor says is getting progressively worse but I think it's getting better. He says he's seen cases where people have ended up puncturing their eardrums on purpose because they've lost control but for me it's not that way at all. I mean, I never hate it or wish I was different. Even when I wake up at night and I can still feel that fire alarm going off inside my mouth, or I get a migraine from staring directly into a strobe light, I'm still in control. This is something I want to do and nobody gets that. There's no way to understand it unless you get into it, unless you really listen."

        She doesn't kiss me but instead pulls me down on the blanket. Her fingers are laced around the back of my neck, smooth and hot. There on the blanket with Bill huddled up asleep next to us she closes her eyes and pulls my mouth against her ear. I'm not sure what to do with my breath loud and rough going into her ear and coming back out to me. I guess I'm not supposed to do anything—she must be waiting for another jet to come roaring low over our heads. I feel like a jerk for asking so many questions but she seems eager to make me understand. My mouth is crushed against her ear and when I talk my lips press on her earlobes.

        "So then what about the lights? Where do they come in?"

        "Oh, I don't even know. Just something I kind of picked up along the way, I guess. I don't really need them. Not like I need the noise. The lights just kind of add another dimension to it all. When you get really close to them like I do you can feel the heat and hear the filaments vibrating and the energy crackling. But they really are just an extra. I can go long periods of time without needing them—sometimes I have to because I'll get too close to a flash or stare too long at a bulb and go blind for a few days. My eyes just haven't adjusted the way my ears have."

        With her fingers in the hair at the base of my neck and my mouth directly against the opening of her ear, I swear I can almost hear a buzzing sound. I try to quiet my voice to a whisper but it comes out a throaty mess.

        "So it doesn't even hurt your ears anymore, all that noise?

        "Mmmmm, no." She purrs and tightens her grip on my neckline. Like she's getting off on my voice or something. "Every once in awhile I'll really overdo it and wake up with an earful of blood, but really your ears can handle a lot of pressure if you work up to it."

        "Man. Weird."

        "Mmmmm, yeah."

        She releases her grip on my neck and rolls over facing away from me on the blanket. I'm wondering if she's replaying the sounds of trains and airplanes in her head right now, or if she's just waiting for me to make some sort of move on her. Either way I'm just trying to wrap my head around the idea of her life. I'm hoping she doesn't think she's freaked me out, because she hasn't. After all, I hang out with Bill the public urinator and I'm not embarrassed by him. Everyone's got problems.

        Now that we are quiet and there is some space between us I realize how cold it is and how tired I am. I'm thinking about sleep and getting Robin back to wherever she calls home. I sit straight up and stretch my legs out.

        "We should probably get going pretty soon. It's getting light and the morning patrol will be coming through soon."

        I look over at her but she doesn't move. She's still turned away from me curled up in the fetal position, in her own chaotic solace. Or maybe she's pissed off at me for something I said? Or maybe she had some sort of sound induced brain aneurysm?


        "Hey." I lean over her but I'm afraid to touch her. I mean, what if she is dead—I sure as hell don't want my prints all over her. "Hey, are you asleep?" Her hair is swept over across her face so I poke a stiff finger into her back.

        She rolls over and whips the hair out of her face in one motion, looking at me with one of those annoyed "WHAT?" looks. I can see the tangled wires running from a pair of headphones to the cassette player she's clutching to her chest. She pulls the phones down off her ears and I can hear a little of what sounds like air raid sirens blaring from them.

        "Sorry," she says kind of lowering her eyes, embarrassed. "You scared me. I was just starting to fall asleep."

        I say it's okay and as I'm nudging Bill with my foot and shaking the dead grass clippings out of the blanket, I feel the remnants of the train-hot steel pounding through my forehead. And my own internal voice, nearly buried behind the chaos of crashing cars, droning persistently—

        "This one's a keeper, doc."
        "This one's a keeper, doc."
        "This one's a…"
        "This one…"

        So that's what everyone is looking for—where it all began. I mean, all these experts are dissecting my tapes and interviews looking for some chain of events—something about a gateway to my mental unrest. Talk about ways to make someone clam up—how about asking them about their gateway to mental unrest?

        Revenge equals the first time Dr. Leznick uses the mental unrest line on me multiplied by me spending a week singing Bruce Springsteen songs into the recorder. The whole time imagining Leznick listening late into the night by the light of his desk lamp. Rubbing his temples, clutching at his unkempt, thinning hair, thinking, "There's got to be a meaning in here somewhere." Bullshit. That shit's for psychological thrillers and crime drama t.v. The rest of us, with our gateways to mental unrest and our spirals into psychosis—we don't mean anything.

        The saddest part of this whole story is that right now anyone listening is going to realize just how close to the beginning and end could have been. They're going to realize that I could have easily fit the nuts and bolts of my story onto one stinking tape. But that would be no good because the internal vibration from my voice is about the closest thing left to sound that I've got.

        Eat your heart out, VanGogh—what I've done here, I've made a real statement.

        Maybe you'll hear it, maybe you won't.

        After seeing Robin a few more times I start getting used to her withdrawal from everything around her. Like when she puts on her headphones and reads William Carlos Williams poems right through her blaring Cannibal Corpse tapes. Or when she methodically stuffs a pillowcase full with wind-up alarm clocks, all set for the same time, and falls asleep clutching the bundle to her chest. Stuff like that.

        I'll admit it, with shit like this going on I start to feel pretty inferior after a couple of weeks. I walk around with these splitting headaches all the time and she just begs me to keep blowing a miniature air horn into her ear.

        But then the headaches start to go away—or maybe I just stop registering the pain. Either way, things get better. I start to fall asleep most nights listening to the racket seeping out from the foam pads of her headphones. I find myself sitting closer to the t.v. than I used to. Turning the volume up higher. Little things like that. By this point Robin and I are pretty much living together so I guess I'm just adjusting myself to her lifestyle.

        A couple weeks later and Robin and I are on my ripped up couch flipping through t.v. channels—I'm sure she's subconsciously searching for the channel with the loudest volume. She's the same mystery she's been for the three months I've known her, but I'm not sure if she realizes that I've changed. I know she sees me sitting in my straight back chair directly in front of my living room stereo, listening to baseball games or the Oldies on Saturday mornings. But to her that's normal. Just like sticking your head under the steel wheels of a moving train is normal.

        So anyway, these are the changes that are coming over me after spending so much time around her. Most of the noise related stuff she used to do alone we both do together now. All the electronics in my house—anything at all with a volume—it's juiced up to the max. We go through about three stereos a month, mostly blown speakers and fried tweeters. It's around this time I stop seeing Bill, too. He isn't too keen on all the noise that has become an increasingly important part of my life. Plus there's not room in the ambulance for more than one passenger anymore. The entire back section is gutted and filled with heavy speaker cabinets—mostly fifteen-inch combos and bass boxes. Driving around in the ambulance has become a Robin-and-I-thing now. It's different with her because I feel like we are on the same wavelength—like we're probably the only two people who could possibly understand either of us. So you can imagine how weird it is the first time I see her eyes well up with tears, as she's clamping her hands over her ears and trying to bury her head between her shoulders. We're at the First Unitarian Church, up in the belltower. Taking turns putting our ears against the bells after they ring and come to a rest. They look copper or bronze and they're cold when your ear is squashed against them. And even though they're at rest, the metal is still ringing and it sends a piercing low drone straight through the middle of your skull.

        "It's too much. Too loud."

        I don't even really comprehend what she's saying the first few times. My own head is buzzing like a colony of bees and I can feel the hot blood rushing between my ears. I pull her against me, pry her hands off her ears, and scream straight in.


        "I said it's too much noise."

        "YEAH! I KNOW!"

        I still can't really hear what she's saying. My head is vibrating so much that she sounds like she's yelling from a distant mountaintop.

        "I need to go back down. I don't think I can handle it."

        She pulls away from my grasp, she seems agitated. I'm thinking maybe she has to pee or something. The real heavy sound vibrations do all sorts of crazy stuff to your body. Sometimes it feels like you're going to fly apart because your insides are sloshing around so fast.

        But that's not it at all and when I finally come down from the belltower she's sitting in the passenger-side seat in the ambulance. Curled up in a ball with her knees hunched up against her chest.

        In total silence.

        I wrench open the driver's door and hop up.

        "Whoa, that was amazing! For awhile there I thought my eardrums were gonna go!"

        "Your ear is bleeding." She is crushed up against her door looking at me with something like disgust.

        "Huh?" My head still feels like it's on a spring—all the sounds around me are muffled and suspended in the air.

        "Your FUCKING ear is bleeding."

        I hear her the second time and stick my pinky in to blot a crimson trickle that is making its way down my earlobe. I think it's supposed to be like when a cokehead snorts so much blow that they bust open some veins in their nose. It's supposed to be some sort of reality check, a wakeup call or something. Except it never is. Instead it's kind of funny, and I chuckle at my stained fingertip.

        Robin is gone two weeks later. She leaves pretty much the same way she came—in the darkness, with an Armageddon of sound assaulting the air all around her. Only this time it's not Robin who is indulging in the noise—it's me. Laying under the van (I can't call it an ambulance anymore because I haven't "saved" anyone in months) with the muffler and exhaust system in rusty twisted heaps around me. It's me—with the engine running, the muffler disconnected, and my head wedged way up underneath where the exhaust manifold yawns open. Unbridled aggression from those pistons screams out through the block of the engine and right into my face, my greasy face crushed against the left frame rail, taking the pain just so my right ear can inch closer to the source.

        That's about where I figure I am when she leaves but I'm not sure. What I do know is that the few things she's been keeping at my place are gone when I come back inside—with my head wrapped in my shirt. Pushing too far I had mashed the side of my face up against the engine block and gotten a nice blistering burn from my temple down to my chin. I can feel the skin popping and bubbling, oozing into the greasy shirt pressed against my cheek. A small price to pay really, because I also have that great sense of total vibration about me. The one I only get when I hit a real good sound and hold it.

        The one that starts to wear off about the same time as I'm trying to peel the shirt off my scorched skin—first with my hands, then with the edge of a plastic spatula. By this point I really can't feel that entire half of my face so it's ok. It's like operating on a dummy. I finally pry the shirt out and head to the bathroom to check the damage.

        Not pretty.

        The entire right side of my face is black—I can't tell what's grease and what's torched skin though. I poke around in the mush but it all feels dead and a few shreds of charcoal-paper skin flake off onto the vanity top. Underneath it's all bright red and pitted.

        I wonder how long I had my face up against the engine block, because for real, this looks serious. I grab a box of gauze and tape from under the sink—it had previously been sliding around the back of the van before I put the speaker boxes in. My patch job is pretty bad and the blood and pus starts seeping right through the bandage so I yell for Robin and head into my room. The bed is still unmade from the morning and I can see where she had wrapped the covers around her legs. On my side of the bed sits her walkman with the cord and headphones neatly wrapped tight around it.

        It's pretty obvious to me right away that she's left. Sometimes you can just walk into a room and see how things are set up and know exactly what has happened there. Like I could see her, in that bed for the past three nights alone. While I was asleep in the van on top of the speakers with my face pressed tight up against the bass cone, there she was, curled up or maybe stretched out across my side of the bed, asleep with her headphones blaring. But I imagine it was probably different recently for her. Maybe they were wrapped around her wrist, lifeless. Or muffled under the pillow—the same one that used to be stuffed with wind up alarm clocks.

        Something like tears comes to my eyes, but I can't tell if it's because of her or the pressure of the swelling. Either way a few big drops slide down my right cheek and get lost in my mush of melted face.


        I snap the flimsy plastic headphones in half. She doesn't need them anymore, and this whole thing was her addiction to begin with. It's like a curse that she wearied of and passed on to me. And what do I have to show for it?

        Well, I'm alone.

        With half my face melted off. My eye swollen shut.

        Bits of fabric fluttering like streamers from the edges of my wound.

        Grease and oil smeared across my face.

        And holding in my hands the snapped-in-half wishbones of her headphones.

        But for the first time in a long time the house is silent. Robin is gone with most of her stuff and all I've got is quiet and a basement full of busted up stereos and televisions. They're all heaped in a pile at the bottom of the stairs—a growing junkyard of imperfection and failure.

        Still standing over the unmade bed, squeezing those headphone pieces between my fingers, it hits me that there's got to be an end somewhere, a destination for whatever it is that I'm doing. I'm taking slow deliberate breaths at this point—measuring the solution that has come floating up to the surface of my mind. From deep icy depths, black and bloated, belly up like a dead fish…

        I wonder if the other senses really do become heightened to make up for the loss of one.

        And then I just do it. It's not set up or planned out or anything. I just have those two busted arms from the headphones clenched tight in my fists. So I start first with the right one, stabbing it hard into my ear until it hits something solid. It sticks in and I feel the pop. The pop I've heard other people warn me about, saying, "Go ahead, keep blasting that shit into your ears. See what happens."

        This is the answer.

        After the first few tentative jabs I just start whaling away. There's no order or method to it, sometimes left then right and sometimes both ears at the same time. My head feels cleared out after a few upward swings and my grip starts slipping on the blood slicked plastic arms. My aim gets worse as it soaks into the foam earpieces and runs down my arms. I readjust my grip and keep working and I guess that makes sense because that's what this is all about. Readjusting. Making changes so that you can continue on.

        It's a tough learning curve.

        Finally one of the plastic arms snaps off inside me somewhere. It's deep in there and feels like I've dropped a twig down an open well. A couple more plunges into the other ear and then I quit. Leaving four or five inches of black plastic buried somewhere in there with just the bloody foam earpiece hanging outside.

        I stagger to the bathroom realizing I'm losing quite a bit of blood. In the mirror there I am—the new me. A+ for artistic merit. C- for style. I'm thinking I'd better slow the bleeding down or I'll never get to enjoy my new makeover. So I jam a handful of cottonballs into the craters where I once had delicate ears and decide I'd better try to get help somehow. Of course the phone hasn't worked since I tried to wire the ringer into one of Bill's old hearing aids.

        So I slide my ass down the steps and crash into the front door, realizing I just don't have the balance I used to. One of my mounds of cottonballs slips out with a sploosh of blood so I jam it back in with my pointer finger. Then I begin the crawl up the hill to Bill's house. It's a crawl I've made before, but only ever down the hill—and usually then dead drunk but not bleeding to death. It's slow progress but the scenery is nice. Passing the Castillos' house I see they've repainted again. This time it's a two-tone aquamarine and burnt orange disaster. The porch is still sagging dangerously and now seems like it's ready to fall off the front of the house, too. I've got to remember to keep my eye on it—maybe it'll end up collapsing into the street soon.

        I count two or three more houses but then my arms start to get weak and stiffen up on me. I know I won't be able to make it so I flop over and roll into the street, laying with my arms and legs spread out wide. I figure the worst-case scenario is I get run over by a truck. Not that bad all things considered.

        But I guess I should consider myself lucky, because I wake up as I'm being strapped to a gurney and loaded into the back of an ambulance. There is a lot of commotion—sirens, horns, and the slamming of doors—but it's a silent slow motion film for me. One of the paramedics straps an oxygen mask over my messed up face, says something that is probably very grave by the look on his face. He ends it with a reassuring pat on my shoulder. I think I say thanks or something but it's hard to remember without hearing it come out.

        Either way the word must get out that my injuries are self-inflicted because I go straight out of Intensive Care into Psychiatric Monitoring. Where the rooms have heavy doors with tiny square glass windows—the shatterproof kind with the diamond patterns.

        Everybody has their own clipboard. Some doctors come in with clipboards holding other clipboards.

        Nobody has a stethoscope though. These aren't those kind of doctors.

        There is no noise. Not for me, of course. But seemingly I imagine this place as if I could hear and still it is dead silent. Tomblike. Painted over in coat after coat of lustrous white, a fresh coat applied every time you blink. The orderlies and nurses, they flit in and out like phantoms. They are solemn and avoid eye contact with me. The doctors are more solid—they carry giant yellow pads and write notes to me in sweeping hands. Things like, "You're making remarkable progress" or sometimes, "If you cooperate we can have you back home in a few weeks". Other times, "If you don't help us, we can't help you".

        DING!           You have no new messages.
        DING!           You have reached the ground floor.

        CLICK!         Please insert a new audio cassette.
        CLICK!         The door will lock automatically behind you.

                              Maybe you'll hear it. Maybe you won't.







copyright 2007 Luke Boyd.

Luke Boyd is a high school teacher and also enjoys music. His past successes include the bands Man vs. Machine, and Le Concierge. He is a prolific reader and writer based in Pennsylvania.

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