“The doctor will be here in a moment, Mr. Cameron.” The nurse pulled the door behind her as she left, and I turned toward Tommy, sitting at the end of the examining table, his white-sheathed arms wrapped around himself in an involuntary embrace.
“What happened?” I said. My voice echoed in the bare room.
He looked down at his dangling feet, the only limbs still free. He moved them aimlessly as if he were sitting on a dock, cooling his toes in the water. He acted like he belonged here, like it wasn’t all a mistake. But it had to be.
“Tommy, what happened?” I repeated, with a bit more force than I’d intended. He didn’t answer. That used to be his way of getting at me—acting vacant, giving me a “Duhhh…” when he didn’t feel like answering. Now, he wasn’t kidding. He was sitting at the edge of that table like an idiot—so help me, that’s exactly what was going through my mind—my older brother looking like the village idiot. I took him by the shoulders of that awful jacket and said, “Tommy, tell me what is going on!” He looked at me—an unfocused, distant stare—and then he looked away.
I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder, and heard a soft voice say, “Mr. Cameron, why don’t you join me in the next room?”
It was a thin, severe-looking, middle-aged woman with black hair pulled tightly back in a barrette. On her coat was embroidered in cursive writing, “Dr. Landis.” She was the man in the white coat, I thought. The one who comes to take you away.
We stood behind a one-way mirror and watched Tommy from the other room. I couldn’t shake the sensation that all this really wasn’t happening, that sooner or later I’d wake up. I’d call tom and we’d laugh about this dream. I touched the glass in front of me. It was solid.
Tommy went back to watching his feet. The doctor must have been standing back here before, observing my brother and me like two bugs in a jar. She had probably been sizing me up, too, diagnosing me.
“Could you please take that jacket off him?” I said.
“Yes, we will,” she said. Her voice was a low whisper. “He doesn’t seem to be a danger to himself anymore.” She stood behind me, the two of us peeping through the glass at Tom. “I was hoping that you might be able to elicit a reaction,” she said.
I was going to ask her what happened, but before I could ask, she began to tell me. Tommy had called the crisis center shouting, she said, shouting that something was about to happen. When the operator asked what he meant, Tom said something like, “I just need some talk-back!”
“Talk-back? What is that?” I said.
She didn’t know. She thought I might know. She waited, then continued. After he said this, he accused the operator of not wanting to listen to him, and dropped the receiver, leaving it off the hook. When the paramedics got to his building he was on the roof, sitting out on the edge of a cornice, dangling his feet, just as he sat now on the examining table. According to the rescue team, when they pulled him back to safety, he flailed and resisted, but he didn’t say a word.
The doctor stopped talking. I felt like screaming at Tommy, “Cut it out!” but with that glass between us, my words would have only bounced back to me, unheard. The doctor, standing at my shoulder, resumed speaking in her low tone, telling me that it might have been an isolated incident, but then what about his unresponsive state? Had he been acting erratically? Had he been depressed? No, no, I said. I couldn’t think. The last thing I heard her say was that they’d keep him there for observation, and then I stopped listening.
Pulling out of the dark parking lot I passed the “St. Mark’s Hospital” sign, and I thought of the directions Annie and I gave people who were driving to our house for the first time. We used this place as a landmark. “Turn left at the loony bin,” we always said. Ha ha.
When I got home, it was almost dawn. The blinds filtered lines of light over Annie, who was twisted up with the bed sheets and lying diagonally. I stood at the doorway of our bedroom and for a moment admired the straight lines falling into this room I’d designed—its length, width, and height all equal, with my lovely jumble of a wife in the center, now striped with twilight. I nudged her feet over to her side of the bed, lay down, and let her have the covers.
“I’m going home now,
she said, clear as day. Annie talks in
her sleep. She talks a lot in her waking
life, too, though that doesn’t seem quite so odd. I don’t know, though, the sleep-talking
doesn’t really bother me. It’s actually
kind of soothing to hear someone talking at night. Elizabeth
I thought I’d try to sleep a little before the alarm rang. I was wired, but I still managed to close my eyes and drift off. As my mind dropped over the edge, I felt myself physically falling…and some shred of consciousness told me to wake up. I came back to the darkened bedroom with a jolt, but it took a moment for my heart to slow. I heard someone speak, but it was only Annie, babbling on. I lay awake and listened. Her intermittent conversations with me and other’s somewhere on the other side of consciousness, were comforting. Tommy used to talk at night. Maybe she was talking to him.
I got up and went to work that day, but I went to St. Mark’s on my lunch hour. I didn’t see Dr. Landis. Tom was in a semiprivate room, sharing space with an ancient man in a wheelchair, who was a bout as communicative as my brother. “Hi,” I said, too loudly, too cheerfully. The old man looked scornful. I pulled the curtain.
Tom stared straight ahead. His face was sallow, and the blond hairs at his temple were matted. I wasn’t sure what to do. “Annie says to say hi, Tom.” I was speaking as if he were deaf, or senile. He did look older, somehow—not elderly, but older than thirty-one, surely, the way he stared straight in front of him, his jaw slack, his skin devoid of color. It wasn’t a matter of wrinkles—I was a year younger, and I had more worry lines than he had. “Annie really wanted to come with me, “ I said, “but she had to give a big test or something.” I paused, leaving a space where he might say something, anything. “Can you imagine? Third-graders getting a midterm? I don’t remember even having tests when we were that young. Do you?”
I felt foolish—I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t even know what was wrong with him, why he was here. They’d taken blood and tested for drugs, but I could have told them it wasn’t that. He wouldn’t even take Sominex when I’d suggested it.
“That stuff is addictive, David,” he’d told me not a week before.
Whatever the cause, I didn’t like having to keep up this goofy, one-sided conversation with my brother. I’ve never been the talker of the family, never had to be. Tommy was always there, speaking for me, even when I didn’t need him to. When we were little and somebody would ask me how old I was he’d say, “He’s eight!” Or they’d ask me what kind of sandwich I wanted and he’d say, “He likes peanut butter!” Some people said he talked too much, but I never objected. We were two peas in a pd, my mother used to say—two halves of a whole. We even looked alike. There’s a picture of us that Annie framed and put in the guest bedroom—Tommy and me at about six and five, sitting side by side in a big easy chair, wearing matching white T-shirts. Tommy’s elbow rests casually on my shoulder. His hand, without purpose, gently touches the top of my head. I felt the need now to touch Tom, to reach him, but I was helpless to know how.
The hook of a crane swung a steel beam past the elevator cage, and as it rose I thought about my brother, my talkative brother, afraid of heights, quietly dangling his feet over the side of a fourteen-story building. I wondered if he had even been aware of the sirens that must have blared just below him.
The cage stopped and I walked out onto the work site. My tie riffled in the sudden breeze, and my boots shook the plywood floor.
, the VP I’d been
dealing with all the way through the project, came toward me and said
something, but the sound of a metal drill drowned him out. I unrolled a fresh copy of my black-line
drawings. Gardner was a nice guy, but he was always
asking for things that he should have brought up before we drafted all the
plans. “You’ve got to listen to him—he’s
the customer,” my boss kept reminding me.
Listening to him wasn’t the problem; it was readjusting everything to
accommodate him. Gardner
“Look,” I said, and I pointed to the plans. “Even if someone is standing right here, right by the door, with this design he doesn’t have a chance of hearing what’s going on inside. It all has to do with trapping the sound, leaving a space between the walls where the sound can go, and using the right materials so that it’s absorbed. If we create that quiet space between two rooms, then the sound is caught, absorbed, and only those on the inside can hear.”
He looked at me blankly, but I guess he was satisfied. I have to admit, I didn’t pay close attention. I’m usually extremely focused when I work, but I found my mind wandering. I was thinking about Tommy. He and I used to build things in the back yard—elaborate tree forts with ropes and pulleys and platforms. The platforms were never too high—Tommy’s caveat—but our constructions were still great feats of engineering. We had planned to form our own company: Cameron Brothers, Architects. We should have done that, I thought, as if Tommy were there, as if I were telling it to him.
We didn’t do it, of course. I kept thinking of it as a real plan, but in junior high, when I started to love math, Tom found it too easy, too logical. Instead, he excelled in “written and verbal skills.” I called him “Mr. Essay Contest” to make him mad.
Once he was asked to read a prize-winning essay he had written, in front of the entire school. You’d think that reading aloud would be easy for a guy who could talk so much, but when his name was announced there was a long pause, then a murmur, and then all the kids stared to get unruly. Finally, this nun came to the microphone looking all flushed and windblown and said, “We are going to proceed to the final part of the program, the closing prayer. Father?”
Tome was in the bathroom puking his guts out. That night as he was lying in the twin bed parallel to mine, just as I was falling asleep, he said, “You know what the thing about it was, Dave?”
“The thing about it was, I wasn’t even very scared right before. It was just when they announced me that I knew I was gonna puke.”
“Mm-hm,” I said. I was thinking about my design for a toothpick tower I was building for the science fair, and I was right on the edge of sleep.
Tommy would always do that to me. He’d always start a conversation right as I was about to drift off. And he’d always ask me a question first—“You know what the thing about it is, Dave?”—so that I’d have to answer, I’d have to be awake, I’d have to let him know I was giving him my full attention.
“So why did you?” I said.
“Puke, you mean? I don’t know. I mean, all those people were looking at me, seeing if I was going to say something smart.”
“You say smart stuff all the time,” I said, my eyes still closed.
“Yeah, but, it’s different when I say stuff, like to you. Then it just comes out.”
“Well it just came out in the john, didn’t it?” I heard him laugh, and laughed myself, then settled back on my pillow and began again to drift.
Sometimes, though, when he’d finish on one subject, and I’d be giving in to the darkness behind my eyelids at last, he’d start on something else. “Because you know the thing about it, Dave?” And if I didn’t answer, he’d say, “Dave?”
And I’d say, “What, Tom?” And he’d go off on another subject: why writing essays suited his temperament, or why the reckless compliment he’d given to Mary Jo Caponati that day really didn’t make any difference, or why cross-country was number one for him, and it wasn’t a feeb sport, no matter what anybody said, or something else I’d be required to respond to, another “Right, Dave?” interrupting my latest journey toward sleep. He wouldn’t dismiss me from these conversations until he heard me snoring.
Occasionally it bugged me, but the year he went off to college and left me at home to finish my senior year, I could never get to sleep. It was too quiet.
I visited the hospital again, and I ran into Dr. Landis, who asked me into her office. She said Tommy’s silence was surely a symptom of a depression. She talked to me about depression for at least ten minutes, until I was depressed myself. “But how are you going to get him to talk?” I said, finally.
“I thought you might tell me that,” she said.
I entered Tom’s room, and, having come to realize it was better to ignore the roommate, I pulled the curtain and resumed the ridiculous small talk I had begun the first day. “Hi, guy!” I said, sounding like a game-show host. I’d brought lunch for both of us, just in case food might bake an impression. Tom had always loved to eat, and when he was a runner, never gained any weight. Lately, though, he’d started to look a big cherubic. I offered him a sandwich, but there was no response. I ate mine, and tried to keep up a patter. How did those morning DJs ever do it—sound friendly and funny, while they talked nonstop into nothing but air? My own speech was halting and forced. I finally couldn’t stand it anymore. I left tom’s sandwich on the table next to his bed and got out of there.
I started the ignition, dialed my assistant and told her I’d been detained. Pulling away from the hospital, I turned the car away from the direction of my office and just kept driving until
was almost behind
me—until I began to see open space. The
land around Tulsa
is flat, like home. Not quite as green
as Tulsa ,
but similar in the way that the sky is big and meets the land someplace beyond
where I could ever travel. Back in high
school, Tom’s cross-country route would take him out into the country. I imagined seeing him out here in this
slightly drier landscape, his skinny high-school self running as if he hoped
the road would never end. Indiana
I always envied him his running, not because I couldn’t run—I was a sprinter—but because it was an extended period of time when Tom was away from me, and silent. He loved just to go, for long stretches. If I needed him, though, like to talk about something, he’d ditch practice. He was like that—not just to me, but to everyone. You’d know something was important to him, but if he saw somebody who needed something, he’d stop what he was doing and help. It wasn’t uncommon to see him in the study hall, explaining Shakespeare in some teenager’s vernacular, or in the neighborhood, telling stories to the younger kids. Sometimes a pack of little kids would even trail him for part of his afternoon run.
I imagined him, out in this landscape. But I couldn’t pull up and ask him to get in, to help me with my problem, as he had always done in high school, because now he was the problem. Back in the hospital, Tommy was lying there expecting me to do the talking, and All I could do was fantasize that he’d do something for me, that he’d start a stream of words flowing, to comfort me with the sound he made.
I drove until the sky began to go gold, and then I turned the car around and came back toward town. But I didn’t go toward either work or home. Instead, I headed toward Tommy’s apartment building. I parked in the lot and called Annie. The machine picked up—her voice.
“Hi, it’s me,” I said. “go ahead and eat. I’m at Tom’s apartment. If you need me.”
I fumbled with the keys Tom had given us in case of emergency and opened the door to find a scrawny, yellow cat wailing at me. Tome had never told me he had a cat. It screamed at me and then ran toward the kitchen, leading me to its empty dish. There was a bag of dry food on the counter that had been ripped and gnawed at, and a rough-edged hole at the bottom must have given up enough squares and stars to keep the thing alive. God knows what the cat had done for water during the past few days. I opened a can of food that was keeping cold in the otherwise empty refrigerator. The cat went wild as I filled its bowl with brown mush that smelled foul, contributing to the other strange smells in the apartment. I watched the thing bolt down its food, and then I refilled the bowl.
The place was a wreck. There were papers everywhere—strewn across the rug in the living room, stuck to the walls with little bits of tape, spread across the couch. As I walked around I saw that in addition to the papers, there were crusty dishes here and there. No wonder Tom had never invited us over. Dirty laundry covered the floor in the bedroom, the bathroom, and the hall. Almost without thinking, I began to pick up the clothes and throw them into a pile. As I did, I checked out the wall coverings; post cards of famous works of art, a typewritten sheet entitled “GOALS,” and a couple of “To Do” lists with only a few items scratched out.
There was something I had to do here, and though I didn’t know what it was, I knew the place was way to messy for me even to think. I’d have to get the apartment in shape before I could figure anything out. I took off my tie, rolled up my sleeves, and picked up the pile of laundry I’d assembled. The laundry room was probably in the basement—I headed out of the apartment, creating a breeze that lifted a sheet of paper stuck to the inside of the door. “PAY RENT!!!” it shouted.
When I came back up from putting a load in the washer, I thought, This place stinks. But I didn’t have time to get to the deep cleaning just yet. I opened the windows, but no air moved the curtains. Noises bounced off the walls of the next building: car horns, a baby crying. I looked around for the phone so I could tell Annie I’d be a while. I saw the empty base unit for a cordless phone, but God only knew where the phone itself was. I’d have to wait for it to ring before I could find it.
I gathered up the papers from the floor and the couch and sat down at the desk. You couldn’t see the desktop. Even the computer monitor had little notes attached to it with ragged squares of Scotch tape. I tried to put the paperwork in order, neat piles at least. I set my watch to beep when I should go down and put Tommy’s clothes in the dryer, and I sifted through the piles I had made. Maybe I should have had qualms about invading my brother’s privacy, but I didn’t. If I had to read his mail to find some sort of clue about his silence, then so be it. Something here might get him to talk to me.
The cat made a figure eight around my ankles. I reached down and touched it absent-mindedly, but I pulled my hand away, thinking about fleas and fur and my dark suit. Annie had a cat when we first got married. She couldn’t understand why I would never pet it. She would sit, evenings, and talk and talk to the cat. I didn’t mind the sound of all the cooing and stroking, though I might have preferred it for myself. When the thing ran away, I thought she’d never forgive me. “You were jealous of that cat! Admit it!” she said. I wasn’t jealous. I didn’t tell it to run away.
Tommy’s yellow cat pushed its head against the heel of my shoe and I was suddenly profoundly glad that this one had survived the neglect.
None of the mail was very compelling. Tommy had won a million dollars, he was an instant member of an auto club, only he could stop the infringement upon his right to bear arms…There were also a couple of bills in there, ancient and overdue. I paid them. At the bottom of the pile were my brother’s story manuscripts, full of cross-outs and scribblings, looking as though they hadn’t been touched in a while. He had stopped going to the writing classes he had come to
to take. Tulsa
He’d been so excited last summer when he called to tell me he was leaving
here to work with this writing teacher.
“Leaving Bloomington ? No shit,” I said. He’d been there since graduation—first
getting a Master’s Degree in Literature, which took a while, and then working
at various jobs. He had worked at a
bookstore, a frame-making place, a small press, and a recording studio for
Books on Tape. The last job was the one
he liked the best. It didn’t pay much,
but he’d call us from work sometimes and play choice lines onto our answering
machine. “Call me Ishmael,” our machine
would request of us in the some broadcaster’s deep baritone, between beeping
reminders of dentist appointments and invitations to dinner. A month or so later, a different voice would
intone, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house
which I had built myself, on the Bloomington .” Women spoke to us too, British women mostly,
about going to a lighthouse about finding a secret garden. If I didn’t know the quote I’d ask Annie. She always knew. shore
of Walden Pond
Through all his jobs, and even up to time he left
Tom still hung around with the crowd he’d been in since at least my freshman
year. Rebels without a job, I called
them. In college, they all went to
avant-garde films and smoked Clove cigarettes and stayed up late talking about
literature. I didn’t have anything
against them, really. I just had nothing
in common with them. It was a shock
when, after impatiently waiting out my senior year in high school without Tom,
I got to I.U. and discovered I was not a part of his circle. When I didn’t chime in on their riveting
conversations, the Clove crowd decided I was a wet blanket. Bloomington
So joined a frat—guys who drank instead of talking. Tom called them cretins. Accurate, maybe, but they had their good points. It was at a frat party that I met Annie. She talked instead of drinking. She talked with her voice, her eyes, her hands. She gestured with abandon, and her speech seemed to extend through her hands, as they waved, circled, pointed and pantomimed what she was talking about. They swam in the air, reaching out to her listener, drawing me to her.
Annie’s presence in my life made me seem less of a lost cause in Tom’s eyes. I still had my friends, and Tom still had his, but almost every Wednesday night, Tom, Annie and I would go to the B&G Diner and drink coffee for hours. Annie and Tom would debate the future of the world. I’d sit and watch Annie’s long, lean hands move excitedly—I still love those hands—and I’d listen to tom’s voice go up and down with each point he made. Occasionally, after making a point about which political leader was decidedly a dope, or what the citizens of the
know about the rest of the world, or what Shakespeare had to say about some
aspect of the human condition, Tom would look at me, as if to gauge my
reaction. Annie would stop then, too,
and look. I’d simply say to Tom, “Go
on…” Annie’d reach a hand out to touch
mine, and then they’d be back in the heat of the issue, and I’d be as content
as I ever remember being. I didn’t
realize it then, but those two defined me.
When things were going right, the sound of their voices was all I
thought I’d ever need. U.S.
But Tom wanted something else from me. What was it he wanted, for me to speak up? For me to be like him? Whatever it was, it was something I wasn’t able to give. And when he didn’t get it, he’d shut me out.
I guess I learned early on—from my dad—that people could disappoint you, and so I tried to stop needing Tom so much. I put my faith in other things: straight lines, good grades, getting ahead. I’ve put my faith in Annie, that’s true, but for the most part she’s been a safe bet. The bitterest moments in our marriage have been the rare times when she has, unintentionally, disappointed me. With Tom, though, since college, there’s always been a certain potential of that that I couldn’t bear to chance. I’d need him somehow and he’d be off with his other friends, or he’d want only to talk about something I just didn’t get. Maybe that’s why I moved so far away. I wanted the best for the guy, but out of self-preservation I had to try not to need anything from him.
After graduation, when I got this job offer in
I was read to go. Annie and I planned
our wedding, with tom as best man. “Don’t
move to Tulsa ,” he kept saying. But we did move, and he stayed where he
was. Eight years later, he called to say
he was moving here. Tulsa
He stayed with us for a week or so while he looked for a place, and it was fine. He seemed in a hurry to get established on his own. His only requirements for an apartment were that it be on the ground level, because of his fear of heights, and that it be “someplace quiet.” I guess so he could write his stories. He got an amazingly boring job, copy-editing the phone numbers in the Tulsa Oil Interests Directory. It was only until he found something better, he said, and anyway, he hadn’t moved here for a job, but for this writing guy. Tom said on the phone, “He only invites writers who he thinks exhibit promise.” I couldn’t help getting caught up in Tommy’s joy, even though I had no idea what he was talking about.
I sat now at his desk and looked through the manuscripts of the stories he’d come here to write. Most of these pages had little markings, word changes and things, but the front page of one story had a big circle drawn on it, a big scribbly circle like the kind you make while talking on the phone. It was the same story he had given me to read about a month ago. I looked it over again, reading through the scribbling.
In it, this father is so wrapped up in the projects he designs for an aerospace firm that he doesn’t have any time for his family, even when he’s home. His kids are always trying to tell him things, but he’s either working on something or reading the paper. The children act like they’re puppies jumping up to be petted or played with. Every once in a while the father glances up and notices, acknowledges whoever’s trying to talk to him, and then goes back to what he’s doing. The mother keep s coming in and getting frustrated because her husband won’t talk. She keeps saying, “Why do I waste my breath?” as if the kids have the answer. Oh, and also, there’s this radio playing all through the story.
It was basically autobiography, except for the aerospace thing, and the radio playing. Tom never gave up on my father, always knew if he bugged him enough he could get him to put down his pencil, take off his glasses, rub his eyes and say, “What?”
I, on the other hand, took the tack of acting indifferent, thinking Dad would eventually notice my cold demeanor and ask me what was up. It never did have much of an impact.
Anyway, Tommy had given me this story to read, and then asked me out to lunch. He didn’t say a word about it until lunch was almost over, and we were waiting for the check. Then, he sat across from me with this expectant look on his face, and he said, “So? What’d you think?
“About my story.”
“Tom, I don’t know the first thing about reading stories, you know…
“I know, but just tell me, like, what was your impression, the thing you noticed most.”
“I know, but just tell me, like, what was your impression, the thing you noticed most.”
“Well, uh…the radio. I guess I was thinking, you can’t hear yourself think in this story. The damn radio’s always on.”
“OK, yeah, did you like that, did you get that part of it?”
“Tom, I know there’s something you want me to say, and I don’t think I’m saying it.”
“Just, did you like it?” He seemed annoyed.
“Yeah, I guess I did, all except for the radio.”
The check came then, and we both had to get back to work. Tom seemed like he was in a hurry.
My watch beeped, and I went downstairs to the laundry room and slogged my brother’s wet clothes into the dryer. He should have shown the story to Annie, I thought, lifting a heavy lump of wet towels and placing them in the drum of the dryer. She would have understood it. I could have listened to her talk to him about it; she would have pointed a finger toward a particularly clever line. She would have said the right things. Maybe I’d have learned something. But he didn’t show it to Annie. There was something he wanted only from me.
When I came back up I smelled that strange combination of odors again. It was time to get at the grunge. I let out the putrid grey water in the sink and did the dishes. I’d tried to avoid dealing with the cat box, but the smell was getting to me. I held my breath and emptied the litter into a Hefty bag. Then I opened the lid to the kitchen garbage and an even sharper smell hit me full in the face. Everything that might have once been in the refrigerator or pantry was now in that trash can: half-eaten cheeses, wet cereal, rotting fruits with a bite out of each, ripped packages of cookies, pastries, lunch eat. I combined the two messes and held the bag at arm’s length as I walked out into the hall, where I thought I had seen a chute. The door clicked behind me. I had a moment of panic thinking I had left the keys inside, and then a moment of hope that I had. I felt in my pocket and they were there.
When I cam back in I washed my hands and hoped that Tom hadn’t also discarded the coffee, because I was going to be there a while. When I opened the cabinet that held the cups, I noticed a sheet of paper attached to the inside of the cupboard door. It was a typed letter.
Dear Mr. Brudlaker:
I wish to inform you that you are a toady. You superiors think so as well; however, they do not mind having a toady beneath them so much as I mind having a toady for a boss.
Your actions within the office have endeared you to no one, motivated as said actions are for political expediency over genuine efficiency or quality of work. While those under you rot with boredom and frustration, alternately bemused and distressed at your illogical and unpredictable decisions, absurdly misdirected goals, and transparently sycophantic maneuvers, you remain oblivious to your own position as the most disposable member of this firm.
Please be hereby informed, therefore, that despite your fascination with your own ability to posture (unrivaled by an corporate contortionist), you have no hope of promotion, either now or in the future. Furthermore, those over whom you now exercise your random tyranny (your intellectual seniors to a man) shall, before long, out-earn you as much as they now outclass you. You may do with this information what you wish; however, I strongly recommend that you seek employment elsewhere, posthaste.
Yours very truly,
Thomas H. Cameron
I laughed. It occurred to me, as I reached for a cup, that this letter, signed with a flourish, and positioned where it was, must have served as Tommy’s own strange little pep talk every day when he fixed his morning coffee. The letter answered a question I had never asked of him, but had often wondered: How does someone get out of bed for a job like that?
I looked more closely now at Tom’s notes to himself, which were stuck here and there on the wall, mixed in with the flyers for movies, plays, and readings. Half-covered by a notice for a long-past book signing was another letter, this one formally addressed at the top to one Mary Lester-Mauglon:
Dear Ms. Lester-Mauglon,
Please accept this missive from the unworthy simpleton in your writing class whose craft pales in comparison to your own. I know there is no possibility that you would ever look my way, or bestow upon me your coveted approval, but tonight during the critique of my story, I seemed to harvest the quality of attention you have stingily withheld from others. Your insightful comment—How did you put it? Ah, yes—“Shallow, sexist, not worth reading,” was spoken with eloquence unrivaled. As to the sexism in my piece: it was unintentional. I will review, and where warranted, mend my ways. Mightn’t the depth, however, be found in the eye of the beholder? Narcissus, too, saw only what was on the surface. As for the worthiness of my writing for thine eyes, only you can judge, oh Solomon, oh high priestess, oh arbiter of worth. Who could doubt your word? The scent of bacon-grease and VO-5, which follows you in waves, O wise one, flavors the air of absolute unquestionability you so heavily carry.
It stopped there. The guy could make you laugh. But even as I chuckled, I thought, Tommy, you have got to lighten up.
There was a more serious note by his desk, begun and then apparently abandoned, though he had still managed to tape it to the wall. “Dear Arthur,” it read,
I’m sorry to say I’m going to have to withdraw from your class, at least for now. I have too much on my mind, too much to sort out—There used to be a space where I could have my voice heard, but I feel I’ve hit some sort of impenetrable wall—
I know you say to use this kind of thing, channel it creatively, but somehow it’s just getting in my way, keeping me from putting anything on paper that isn’t nasty and spiteful and full of
That was it.
As I walked downstairs to get Tom’s laundry out of the dryer, I felt an incredible sense of fatigue. There was a pay phone in the laundry room, and I fished around in my pockets for some change. I had used the last of my quarters in the dryer, but I found three dimes. I held the receiver in the crook of my neck as I folded. A friendly voice said hello.
“Hi,” I said.
“Are you still over at Toms?” Annie Said.
“Um-hm.” I was surprised she hadn’t called me. It was getting kind of late. “And how is it?”
“Weird,” I said. “Tell me about your day.”
She was used to receiving he kind of answers I was able to give. She knew what I needed.
came in today, to discuss Amber’s pinching problem…”
Annie went on—about
and the principal, about grading the tests and about little Peter Popielaski,
the sad-sack child she had taken under her wing. He had finally scored an A. It wasn’t so much that Annie liked the sound
of her own voice—she just knew I liked it.
“So about Tom,” she said finally. “The hospital called. He started wandering the halls tonight,” she said, “as soon as it got dark. He was peeking in and watching other patients sleep. They’ve restricted him to his room.”
I looked at my watch. It was already . I tied a pair of sweat socks in a knot.
“Has he said anything?”
There was silence on the phone.
“You coming home soon?” she said.
“I was thinking maybe I’d spend the night.”
I hadn’t known I was going to say that before it came out of my mouth. It wasn’t strictly logical, but whatever I needed to know was going to be at this address, if it was anywhere.
“Okay, I guess,” she said, and then there was a pause. “How about if I call you there later?” she said.
“Yeah, that’d be good,” I said, and we hung up.
I went back upstairs, not really paying attention, and almost tripped on the steps. I managed to hang onto the warm, clean shirts and socks I held. I fished for the key and opened the door. The place didn’t smell so bad anymore.
I stopped doing chores at some point, and began just poking around—looking in closets, sampling Tom’s dusty bottle of after-shave, reading more of the tidbits he had left lying or hanging around. I fingered a piece of paper taped to the lampshade in the bedroom. It looked like a list of names for future characters: Delbert Harmonger, Leticia Salamandar, Hoary Frost.
I was getting hungry, but of course Tommy had recently cleaned out the cupboards, hadn’t he? I wondered what it was about that food that had so offended him. I stared at the empty shelves of his pantry. Hidden at the back, in a lonely corner, was a plastic jar of peanut butter. I reached for it and opened it. The smell instantly brought back the grade-school lunchroom, brown bags, and notes folded up into little paper footballs, flying between the fifth-grade table and the fourth, my brother to me.
I sat on the couch, and ate spoonfuls of the stuff until I felt vaguely sick to my stomach. It was getting on toward bedtime, and my eyes began to droop as I sat there with the open jar of peanut butter on my lap. I wasn’t sure why I was there, but the more I tried to concentrate on some rational explanation, the sleepier I felt.
That’s one thing I can do, sleep. I know Tommy was having trouble with that before all this happened. I’d have to remember to tell that to Dr. Landis. I had just assumed he was feeling pressured at work. But he started to call me at the office every day, just to talk. About not being able to sleep, about not being able to write, about having quit his class.
I was surprised he’d quit, but I shouldn’t have been. Tom’s always been that way—everything is all or nothing. So he could be either an inspired artist, or just a number checker, but not both. Same with exercise. He used to be a total fanatic about running—even ran a marathon—and when he quit: couch potato. And now it was talking. All my life I had joked that Tommy was the
, and suddenly he
had become the Sphinx. Tower
But the sleeplessness, that was different. Tom had said he couldn’t get to sleep until about half an hour before his alarm was supposed to ring, and this had been going on for days. He called me late one night at the office just to tell me this. It was about and I was working on some drawings that had to be done by the next morning. I was almost done, I was hungry and I was tired and I was aching to get home.
“Annie told me you were at work,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m working against a deadline here. Tommy, can I call you tomorrow?”
“Wait, wait, Dave, I just want to tell you something, real quick. You know that book about insomnia you gave me? I’ve been reading it, trying to make myself sleepy, but the more I read, the less I can sleep! Isn’t that ironic?”
I was drawing as I spoke to him. I wasn’t really concentrating on what he was saying.
“Uh-huh,” I said.
Then there was a long pause.
“And how’s by you?” he said, finally. I didn’t get it then. I didn’t hear anything in his voice. He caught me at a bad moment.
“Huh?” I said. “Um, listen, Tom, how about counting sheep or something? Or better yet, stay up late working on a project, that’s what I do.” I laughed. I meant it as a joke. It was a stupid joke.
“Count sheep,” he said, as if he were mulling over the concept. “Count sheep,” he said again, and I could hear in his voice that old arch tone that he used to use with his Clove buddies. “Great suggestion, Dave, I’ll get right on that,” he said. And that was the end of our conversation. It was that night, after getting home and pouring myself into bed—just after I’d fallen asleep, when I got the call. St. Mark’s calling. Turn left at the loony bin.
Tom’s couch was uncomfortable for sleeping. I stumbled into his bedroom and scrounged in the bureau for something that would pass for pajamas. My brother’s bed was soft, and I began to doze off.
In the grey darkness I heard footsteps and thought, as if I were sleeping in our old house, Tom’s back. I sat up, alarmed, until I realized the sounds were resonating through the floor of the apartment above. I lay back down. The pipes groaned as the same neighbors flushed their toilet. I couldn’t hear ay voices, but what I could hear were the sounds a building holds in the space between its inner walls. Poor design, I thought. As I rested there, I began to lay out the anatomy of the building. Given its age, it was probably full of structural flaws. Noisy wood-joist floors, no sound insulation. I redrew the building in my mind, correcting mistakes in the original design. Of course, when it was built, there would not have been any of the same codes I had to design for. My buildings all had to be earthquake- and tornado-proof, as if at any moment the structure could be barraged from above or below. On my imaginary black-lines, I drew in everything Tom’s building would need to guard it from natural disasters. I made each apartment soundproof, scribbled in energy-saving sealed windows, and scratched out that damn cornice that stuck out from the building’s top edge---ridiculous, unnecessary, gaudy decoration. If hat cornice hadn’t been there, Tommy wouldn’t have had anything to climb out on, nothing to dangle his feet from. On second thought, maybe it was a good thing it was there. I don’t know, though. Something told me that, despite what the rescue team or the crisis people or the doctor might have thought, Tommy did not go up on that roof to jump.
There was a dripping faucet somewhere in the apartment. If I had been at home, I would have gotten up, gotten my tools, and fixed it, no matter what time it was. But here I let it drip. I just lay there and listened to it until I noticed that it stopped, and I heard another sound, a strange, organic sound like someone smacking his lips. I got up cautiously, and followed the sound toward the bathroom. The door was half-closed, and without opening it any wider, I peeked in. Perched precariously on the sink, desperately lapping each drop from the faucet before it fell, was the cat. And I had wondered how it had survived.
I flipped on the bathroom light and pushed the door open, and it banged against something hard. I looked around the door and saw the phone lying on he floor, the cordless phone, with its battery light blinking. It had been here all the time. Had been here, of course, since Tommy had used it last. That night when he hadn’t switched it off, hadn’t hung up, had simply dropped it on the floor. What did Landis say? He had called the crisis center, screaming “I need talk-back!” whatever the hell that meant, and then he had dropped the phone, here. I stepped in, pulled the door back and shut it behind me. I sat down on the bathroom floor, and I did what y brother had failed to do. I switched the phone off.
When Tommy sat here last, what might have been going through his mind? I looked up and saw, in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door, the reflection of a guy dressed in my brother’s pajamas, sitting cross-legged on the floor, disheveled and maybe even confused, though the face was blocked out by a letter-sized note stuck into the frame of the mirror. This letter, unlike the others, was full of mistakes, as if it had been hurriedly typed. I read the first line. “Dear dave,” it said.
I just got off the phone withi you and I just thought that you should know a few things that I’m thinking because I dont’ think you hear me when I talk, so even if I said these things to you, they just woulnd’t…I know that you put me on your speaker phone when I call lately I know you’re a busy person, but dammit, couldn’t you just hold the phone to your ear? The yes, tommy, no tommy, mm-hm tommy’s I hear would at least sound a lot more personal. I’m sorry I call you at work, Dave, but see, you’re the only person who might evern come
Close to understanding me . I have to know that you’re listening…it’s just that I haven’t, well, not being able to sleep makes it hard for me to think.
I call you at work because at least while I am talking
With you I can think alittle bit straighter, like when you and I used to talk and stare at the ceiling, life just seemed to make sense when we could talk about it then, when all the rest of the house was quiet and I could hear myself, I could hear you talking. Did you know you talked in your sleep sometimes? Not very often, but every once in a while. I never told you
that because I knew that it would make you paranoid, but
those times you talked, if I was awake, I’d listen, I’d listen to whatever you said, most of it didn’t make sense, but then maybe you think I don’t make any sense, maybe I’m not making any sense now,
it just seems sometimes like I’m wound up so tight, like I’ve got to talk to you, to hear you talk back,
or something is going to happen, but you don’t want to hear
that, I can hear you now, “Tommy, don’t be that way, take
it easy, lighten up.’ David, what exactly does
that mean? Do you know? Or is that just something like MMm-hmm. Yeah tom. Yeah tom, shut up tom, I hear you I hear you,
but really you do not.
The cat jumped down from the sink and meowed at me as if it were hungry, but I didn’t move. It came right up behind me, pushing its head against my back. I pushed it way, and it began to wail. I’d fed it. I’d given it water, though it seemed to prefer a more difficult way to drink. I had even cleaned out its reeking cat box. “What do you want?” I said out loud. I got up, trying to escape its insistence, trying to get some peace, trying to think about things. It followed me around the apartment, relentlessly pursuing me with its high-pitched cry. “What do you want?” I shouted.
I picked the thing up and set it outside the apartment door, hoping then I could tune it out, but is cries became more insistent, more infuriating. I went out into the hall, picked it up roughly, held it up away from me, and looked it in the face. It started to purr. I stood there for a moment like an idiot, and then pulled the thing close to my chest and felt the vibration of the sound.
When I turned to go back in I felt for the keys and realized that this time, I had none. Shit. It was the middle of the night, I was locked out of an apartment that was not mine, and I looked like a hobo. I had on Tom’s ugliest pajama bottoms, a ratty old T-shirt and a pair of slippers Annie and I had given him for Christmas, which he obviously never wore. I sat on the floor and leaned up against the locked door. The cat curled up next to me and purred. Dammit, Tom. Why did you drop that fucking phone? Where did you think you were going?
The cat looked up at me as if I were its best friend. I scooped it up in one hand. “come on,” I said, “we’re taking a climb. We’re going to see what was so damn attractive about the roof.” I went toward the exit sign and started up the stairs. At about the third landing I began to feel winded, and at the fourth I began to sweat. At seven I could smell my own perspiration. “I’m listening now, Tommy. I’m listening!” I said, not caring who heard. The cat was hanging on around my neck for dear life as I went faster up the stairs. His claws dug into my shoulder, and his fur stuck to the sweat on my neck.
I passed fourteen and came out onto the roof. As the cool air hit me I felt a sudden relief, and I stopped for a moment. Morning was just barely starting to lighten one corner of the sky, and a breeze blanketed any sounds that might have risen from the street. I surveyed the gray roof, and walked straight ahead, toward that damn useless cornice my brother had so cleverly found a use for. Just in front of me, it rose up to meet the edge of the roof. Just here, it was big enough to sit on. I looked down, and for a moment I felt dizzy.
The cat and I climbed out onto the cornice. We sat and dangled our feet for a long time, just listening to nothing. The breeze blew. It was like sitting at the edge of a canyon. But if I had called out just then there would have been no echo. My voice would have been lost in the quiet. Had Tom called out, hoping to hear and echo? Talk-back, he said he wanted. Had he been asking me for something I was unwilling to give? All these years, I’d been so carefully insulating myself from disappointment that I’d never considered my own ability to disappoint.
Since we were kids in matching T-shirts, echoing each other in looks if not in temperament, I’d heard Tommy’s voice whenever I wanted, and I’d switched him on and off at will. Now we were suddenly separated by the absence of his speech, a loss I never knew could be so great. What had come between us was like the quiet space between walls—we were on opposite sides of that space, soundproofed from each other. I wished I could design a place where there was nothing between us, where Tommy would know his voice was heard, where I could listen, absorb the sound, and talk back. A place where he could know he wasn’t wasting his breath.
I looked like a bum, and I was cradling a skinny, flea-bitten cat, but I managed to convince the cabby I was just locked out. He must have seen worse-looking fares, because he took me. When we reached St. Mark’s I asked the driver for a pencil and a blank receipt and I wrote him out a grubby I.O.U. with my name and number. He looked at it, then looked at me. I’m sure he thought I was an inmate returning home.
I hid the cat under my arm as I walked past the desk, and I got to tom’s room without questioning. I guess they knew me. Or maybe I really did blend in. Tom was strapped to his bed, and his roommate had been removed. Annie had told me about this, but hell, I hadn’t seen him strapped. I gently shut the door, and set the cat on a vinyl chair, where it curled up and got comfortable. I loosened Tom’s restraints. The buckles clinked as they hit the floor. I stared at my brother. He looked wan. He wasn’t getting better.
I lay down on the other bed in the room, and put my filthy, street-sullied slippers on the new sterile sheets. What was I doing here? Nothing I could do was going to make any difference. I lay there until my breathing slowed, and I began to think more random thoughts. Maybe I was falling asleep. They could open the door and find me here, another loony asleep in bed, ready to be strapped in, ready to give up. I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling.
“You know what the thing about it was, Dave? Up there on the roof?”
I heard his voice, and it was just as though he were continuing a conversation he had started not a minute before.
“What, Tom?” I said, automatically. But I looked over at him, looked away from the ceiling and looked up at my brother, like I can’t ever remember doing. He started up.
“The thing about it was…” He waited so long that for a moment I feared I might never hear him finish, might never again hear the sweet sound of my brother’s voice. “The thing about it was…It was so quiet.” He stopped, and I didn’t answer. He turned his head to look at me, to see if I was listening.
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
“The Conveyance of Sound” began with a technical challenge and a nodule of anger. I wanted to write a story around one of the nondominant senses, and I was annoyed at someone who was holding me at arm’s length. To carry the spirit of that situation into a work of fiction, I made both characters men (I am not a man), and focused on listening and images of sound. I was in the MFA program at American University at the time, and an imaginative and playfully serious writer came there to give both a reading and a master class. Bernard Cooper (Maps to Anywhere, The Bill From My Father, My Avant-Garde Education) said to me, “Enough with the sounds!” And he was right. I had bells ringing, music playing—the story was cacophonous. I quit hitting the motif so hard, and the story quieted down. I remember working on that story in my apartment in Glover Park, DC, while I played the songs from Don Henley’s “End of the Innocence” over and over until I could no longer hear the words.
ABOUT VIRGINIA HARTMAN
Virginia Hartman’s writing has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Liars League NYC, Potomac Review, Delmarva Review, Washingtonian, and the Hudson Review, among others. Her work has been anthologized in Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington Area Women (Paycock Press), and she co-edited a literary anthology called A More Perfect Union: Poems and Stories about the Modern Wedding (St. Martin’s Press). Her writing has been supported by the Sewanee Writer’s Conference and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and her stories have been shortlisted for the New Letters prize, the Tennessee Williams Festival Prize, the Dana Awards, and the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize. She teaches fiction writing at the Writer’s Center, Bethesda, and poetry at Miriam’s Kitchen, DC, and has taught creative writing at American University, George Washington University, and the Smithsonian. She tweets from @virginiahartmnvirginiahartman.com