IT’S THE NOISE YOU MISS MOST IN THIS GIANT NEW WORLD
by Henry Margenau
As soon as Ray’s wife had walked out, all the appliances stopped working, like she took all the electricity along with her. The refrigerator stopped humming and a few light bulbs blew out. The television wouldn’t turn on because the batteries in the remote had died. The angry voices were silent. Everything stopped but the heartbeat of the mantle clock, which ticked away sheepishly as if not to disturb the quiet.
It had been a long while since Ray was alone. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He made a turkey sandwich without the crust and ate it and then decided to go out. He put his hat, coat, and gloves on and called up the stairs, “I’m going,” before he realized what he was doing. When he left, he still closed the door behind him softly.
That was days ago. Since then, he spent most of the time walking. Walking in the park. Walking around town. Walking along the train tracks that hadn’t seen commuter transit in decades and whose ties were half hidden in the embrace of overgrown ryegrass. He passed evenings at the Rail House, drinking and reading, and slept in a rented room across the street.
“Lookie here now,” the man at the end of the bar said.
The paper was spread out in front of him on the bar. The edges had started to curl and there was a wet ring on the right page from his glass.
“The planets are moving away from the sun and each other at an alarming speed. The entire galaxy is spiraling forward and away.”
“Where’d you get that?” Ray said.
“The paper,” the man said.
“I don’t feel any different. Should I feel different? Shouldn’t I feel the speed like on a roller coaster or something?”
The man looked from Ray to the bartender who only responded with a shrug.
“And besides,” Ray said, “the paper’s not the gospel truth.”
“This is not just some scandal sheet. This is the New York Times.”
“My point,” Ray said.
“What the hell do you know about it?” the man said.
The man went back to his drink and Ray went back to his. It really didn’t seem so implausible when you thought about it. He felt it now in his own house, in his own life. Everything seemed like it was getting bigger and farther away. The negative space repelled him so powerfully that it drove him right out the front door.
When his wife left, Ray tried staying home in all that quiet, but now even the thought of it was unbearable. Everything in the house was made for two. Two chairs at the kitchen table, two sides of the bed. Now, the furniture seemed an odd fit for each room. Everything was too spread out. Ray felt too small for the house, or perhaps the house felt too big for him. The house was not just big but vacant, empty. He would have to replace the furniture, no doubt. Get rid of the loveseat and replace it with a few odd chairs here or there.
He knew when she was there, washing dishes and whistling under her breath, doing crosswords in the blue armchair with that constant papery scratch of her mechanical pencil (she was never bold enough to work in pen). He knew it even if he didn’t advertise it. The small sounds you barely hear until they stop making waves, he thought. Now he could feel the difference.
“You want another?” the bartender asked.
Ray looked at his empty glass. Then he looked at his surroundings. The loudmouth at the end of the bar was smoking the stub of a little cigarillo and sipping bourbon in between puffs and staring into space. There were usually a lot of sad characters at the Rail House, down and out middle-aged men, like the loudmouth, who should be home with their families if they had families, older women who sat in twos and threes, cackling and knocking over glasses, and people like Ray somewhere in between. Out the window it had begun to snow and Ray could see his little motel through the gray flakes.
“Not for me, thanks,” Ray said. “I should be getting home.”
He paid his tab and left a few singles for the bartender. It was colder than he thought outside so he wrapped his scarf over his mouth and pulled his wool hat down over his eyes. The thick veil of snow masked most of the foot traffic on the sidewalk. It made the air quiet the way snow usually does and Ray wondered if perhaps he was the only one out walking. He had just finished that thought when he bumped into someone right in front of him.
“Keep your distance, fella,” the voice said.
“Sorry,” Ray said.
He continued on and, after walking for what seemed like a few blocks, Ray realized that he hadn’t seen a traffic light or an intersection. He looked back but, even squinting, could just barely see the lights of the Rail House sign, a few hundred yards back. That’s strange, he thought, and looked at his watch. I’ve been walking for half an hour. He continued up the street for another ten minutes or so until he came to a light. There was a group of people waiting to cross. Ray tapped the guy in front of him on the shoulder.
“What block is this?” Ray said.
“Clarkson,” the man said.
“Yeah, Clarkson. The sign’s right there,” the man said and pointed.
“That’s the first light after the Crown Motel,” Ray said.
“The first light?” Ray said.
“Yeah, the first light. Are you lost?”
Ray thought for a minute. Am I? No. Drunk, maybe. That was it. Drunk as a skunk.
“No, I’m ok. Thanks,” Ray said.
When the light turned green, Ray went to step off the curb and was stopped short by the man who pulled him back by the arm.
“Hey, what are you doing?” the man said. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“Huh?” Ray said.
The man let Ray go, then sat down on the curb and lowered himself backwards off the edge.
“Take it easy,” the man said right before his head disappeared beneath the curb.
Ray looked to his right and saw other people headed down the curb. Some made their way down on their bellies like the man he spoke to and others went forward, reaching their hands down to be helped by someone at the bottom. Ray walked to the curb and looked down. The street was a good five feet down from the sidewalk.
He sat reluctantly on the curb, with his feet dangling over the side. Far on the opposite side of the street he saw people climbing up the curb to the next block, some making it on their own, finding little footholds from the cracks in the pavement, and others being hoisted up on the hands of strangers. Suddenly he felt a foot nudge his back.
“Come on, buddy. Today,” a voice said.
With that, Ray slid forward and pushed himself off the curb. He stood up to dust off his coat and was startled by the sight before him. It was the main drag that he had been down hundreds of times before only on a much larger scale. There were cars and buses as usual, but the street was as wide as a tarmac. People scampered up and down the five-foot curbs on each side, trying to make it up to the sidewalk before the light turned green. Rather than scale the curb again, he walked on the shoulder of the road. The streetlights projected onto the street the tall shadows of the people walking above. A cab pulled over alongside him.
“Need a ride?” the driver said. “You should probably let those socks dry off.”
Ray looked down and saw that he was ankle deep in slush.
“I’m alright,” Ray said.
“Ok, then,” said the driver.
The cab pulled away and merged back into the four or five lanes of traffic. Ray kept walking until he could no longer ignore the people honking their horns and yelling at him to get out of the road. He found an unoccupied piece of curb and made his way up the concrete wall to the sidewalk.
He sat down on a bench next to a forty-foot tall streetlight and let the snow land gently on him. The main street looked the same as it did that afternoon, same newsstands, same bars, but the buildings looked as if their proprietors had added an extra story or two to the top of each. They were set far back from the street as well. The walkway from the sidewalk to the entrance of the post office, for instance, was at least twice as long as when Ray mailed a letter the other day. It was a little after rush hour and people went about their business, helping each other up and down the enormous wall of a curb, walking the hundred feet or so to the front door of a restaurant, like nothing had changed.
Maybe nothing had changed. Maybe it was just that he was only now feeling it, the space he put between himself and everybody else. If he felt it earlier or just more deeply, the distance, maybe she would have delayed her exit, Ray thought. He didn’t know why his life had always carried on so inwardly but, watching the snowflakes and the little life going on around him in every direction, he regretted that it had.
Across the street, directly facing his bench, was the Abstand Building, the tallest building in town even amidst the towering masses in this strange new world. It rose away from everything else around it, alone up there, profiled by the bright lights below, no one to talk to at that height. Ray stared up into the Abstand until the wind became too much and he lost feeling in his brow. The people on the street went about their business, which was something unmistakably separate from his. There was a couple coming down the street, arm in arm, looking for a place to take in the sights, looking much a part of the expanding world around them, and so Ray gave up his seat.
Eventually, the center of town began to fade behind him as he walked on. It didn’t seem to matter which way. The night air was so unforgiving that he couldn’t feel his fingers or toes, like parts of his own body were separating off and floating away in contradictory directions.
It was a poignant exit; he had to give that to her. One final clash of voices, hers more than his, and then the purest silence. It was the same silence that Ray had kept until she was gone. It wasn’t malicious. He simply failed to realize that other people aren’t as content in the company of their own thoughts, that other people depend on conversation to reaffirm their own sense of being.
At some point, what felt like hours later, Ray found himself in his neighborhood. Though it was still early enough, the neighborhood was nearly pitch dark except for the streetlights. The houses on the block were set too far into the blackness to be seen from the street and so Ray was alone between the giant furry skeletons of sycamore trees that leaned tiredly in his direction. It was so quiet, he felt like he was the last man on earth. How strange, he thought, that the drink had still not worn off.
When he got to his street there were more ghostly sycamores and as he walked along the block, the streetlights burned out one by one. He could see his house in the distance. Really, it was too dark to see the actual house but he recognized the mailbox and the way the curb broke there.
The driveway had to be at least a mile long now. If it weren’t for the moonlight, the house would have been impossible to see in the distance. As it was, the only thing discernable within the jagged silhouette was the porch light, nearing extinction now, glowing a downcast honey orange. Ray must have left it on when he went out. He couldn’t help but feel like the house was trying to keep him at arm’s length.
Ray surveyed the landscape. On all sides was darkness and, sitting on his porch swing, he felt like he was on an island or his own planet. He stopped the bench to see if it was the swinging he felt or the planet hurtling away through space. Entranced with the night sky, Ray was surprised to hear a barely audible voice in the distance.
“Is that you, Wilt?” Ray said.
Wilt’s house was so far away that Ray couldn’t really see it, but if he squinted he could just make out a few small lights dotting the dark horizon like the last embers of a firecracker that had wept back to earth. It wasn’t until he was alone in the midst of the blackness that he realized how sensitive he was to the sound of other people. There was only Ray now, his house, and the moon, bright and big as a serving plate, painting the landscape with porcelain light.
“The universe is expanding!” Wilt shouted.
“The universe is expanding!”
“So I’ve been told,” Ray said.
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
Henry Margenau is a writer from Montclair, New Jersey. His work has previously appeared in Prick of the Spindle and The Normal Review. He has an MFA in fiction from The New School and currently teaches writing at Montclair State University, Drew University, and Fairleigh Dickinson University. This is his first headshot.
Image credit: NASA on Flickr