The TV is too damn quiet. His neighbors insist that it's too loud, and bang on the ceiling every time he takes the volume above fifty, but they're wrong. The TV is too damn quiet. And so he adjusts the gain on his hearing aid again.
All at once, the apartment snaps into perfect focus. He can hear his talk show, blaring away like a opinionated freight train. He can hear the off-kilter buzz of the overhead lights, like so many bees trapped between the floors. He can hear cars on the street outside, barging their way through the mid-afternoon traffic. And he can hear Marjorie making something in the kitchen.
It's this last of these that catches his interest; that causes him to reach over to his cane—propped against the side of the end table—and climb shakily to his feet. He totters across the living room on unsteady slippers, trifocals scrunched up against his nose, and squints quizzically when he reaches the doorway.
"I said 'do you want me to bring you a sandwich, Robert? There's some nice, fresh ham.'" He blinks, and there's no one there. "Fine. Suit yourself." Footsteps patter away. Robert sighs.
This has been happening for several months now, although he doesn't have anyone else's testimony to corroborate his story. He started being able to hear his wife again two weeks after he bought the VT675, paid for through a combination of health care and veterans' benefits. It was an old model, cost effective, and anyway he didn't want all that fuss about surgery and implants. His ears had served him for nearly three quarters of a century. He wasn't going to just chuck them in a bin when they started to go. All they needed was a little boost.
When Marjorie doesn't come back, Robert decides to make the most of his time in the kitchen by going to the fridge for a Coke. The inside is filled with cans. All diet, of course. After being warned by his doctors for the twelfth time about the possible onset of diabetes, Robert had given in and made the switch. It doesn't taste quite right, but then neither does real Coke anymore.
He refuses to believe that this could be his sense of taste failing him. Lots of things don't taste the way they used to, but that's because they don't make them like they did. He remembers colas as a child. The syrupy sweetness from the glass. The way they mixed them at the fountain. He takes a sip from the aluminum can, tangy and metal and cold, and thinks that's what old age is: coming home to rest with all your disappointments.
In a corner of the room, Robert hears knitting needles clack. He looks up, but Marjorie isn't there either.
Maybe it's a side effect of the pills, he reasons. He has bottle after bottle of them, to be taken daily, with food or without, before or after a nap. There's one on the table right now that he's been putting off swallowing. It's a big white oblong, marked with orange letters he can't quite read. Picking it up, he pinches it between two unsteady fingers, turns it this way and that in the light. The doctors did warn him there would be side effects. Maybe that's all he's experiencing. Side-effects.
Plopping the pill on his tongue, he swallows it with a great gulp of Coke. There's no change. Marjorie continues her methodical clicking, stopping every so often to make a raveling noise as more wool is unwound. On the TV, two people shout at each other over the primaries. He ignores them. He's feeling too crowded in the apartment. The calendar on the wall says it's a Wednesday. Maybe it's time to go to the store.
The shelves at the Shopper's World are crowded too, stocked with more bright colors and complex labels than Robert can care about. He moves slowly down the aisles, fishing out the occasional item. A toothpaste he recognizes. A cereal the advertisements said was good for his bones. His basket is sparsely populated with stuff. He realizes he hadn't needed to leave the house at all.
Passing by a display in the frozen goods aisle, he pauses. Other customers eddy around him, paying little attention to the stooped old man in the jacket and faded flat cap. On the other side of the glass are stacks and stacks of ice cream cartons. Gallons arrayed on gallons, going as far back as the cold case has room. There's the standard fare: neapolitans and pistachios and strawberries with the chunks of fruit in them. But there's also gelatos and slow-churns and frozen yogurts and things in hues brighter than most kids can see, embossed with rabbits and birds and other impossible salespeople. There are dark, rich hazelnuts and aromatic sorbets. A single box of ice cream sandwiches sits crushed and wrestled to the side of the case.
Robert almost smiles against the glass. Marjorie had had such a sweet tooth. When they'd first married, there were mornings where he would come out onto the porch and find her sitting there, guiltily snacking away at a little cup of vanilla. This had been in the old house, before the repairs got ahead of them. Before they moved to the city so that they could see plays together on the weekends.
She had been eating a cup sundae on the day she died. The kind you bought for five dollars and then wondered why there wasn't more in it. She hadn't seemed to care, though. Her gray hair was wispy and askew, her smile weathered and warm. It had almost been one of the better days, where all the routine was somehow comfortable again. At least before the calls. Before the ambulance.
Robert fiddles with a ring on his hand. He's seventy three, all made of history now, but there's still some things that ache when he remembers them. Setting his face with a frown, he moves on down the aisle through the grocery store twilight. A kid replaces him at the ice-cream case.
It's 2:53 in the morning when he rolls over in bed and thinks that, for a moment, he can feel her nearby. He can hear the breathing, a soft snore from the other pillow, but there's no weight but his on the bed.
He must've forgotten to turn his hearing aid down while he was drifting off to sleep. The night is alive with sound. Dogs bark and howl, paying tribute to a moon that hangs just out of sight. People whisper, arguing from the open privacy of their balconies while cars slip by in the dark, a soothing reminder that the world is still in motion. From upstairs comes the quiet drone of a TV on low, playing some old Western. Beside him, his wife snores.
Except she doesn't.
And all at once he can't stay here.
Robert rolls out of bed, slowly so as not to wake her. In the five years since she's been gone, he's never really forgotten the trick. It's a gradual, creaking process, where he sets his feet one at a time on the floor, steadies his weight on the cane, and then cautiously shifts himself out and up. When he was first learning this, she used to stir every time. Now he's quiet as a ghost. As he leaves the room, he hears Marjorie resettling herself among the covers, flinging her arm out across his pillow. She used to do that all the time. Saving a spot for his return.
Still in his pajamas, Robert makes his way to the living room window and raises the shades. Thick with dust, they clatter and rustle their way to the top. Without his glasses all he can see is a blur, but past the window the city is moaning.
It starts like static, a million individual sounds meeting and mixing. Pigeons mumbling as they shelter under their wings. Doors closing with quick little claps. Buzzers groaning, and car alarms dopplering on the wind. They swell and mix together, and suddenly they're like the ocean. He can hear waves breaking, like trucks passing in the dark. All around him, under him, over him, is the patter of lives unfinished.
He sits down on the couch. It gives slightly, and he can feel the bad springs through the cushion. Mostly he avoids this side of it. It has a brokenness that persists in spite of his every attempt to fix. But now, like some ascetic craving hardship, he feels the creaky metal pushing through the worn covering, and it steadies him.
They used to sit here together, ten years ago. She'd never cared much for displays of affection. "What do I have to prove?" she'd say, as they left a movie theater and got in the car. But when they were at home they'd sit together sometimes, side-by-side, not doing anything at all. It had reminded Robert of old cats, sleeping on the same sun-lit rug.
He knows that he's not going back to bed tonight, even though the doctors have been very clear that he needs his rest. There should be a rhythm to his day. A proper place for everything. A bitter part of him wonders where Marjorie is supposed to fit into that.
On the end-table is a copy of MacLean's HMS Ulysses. There's a bookmark halfway through, where he keeps picking it up and putting it down. Reaching up behind his ear, he dials down the volume on his hearing aid until the city fades away. Even still, his fingers are numb with the turning of pages before he finally falls asleep.
He hasn't dreamed in a while. When he does, they're always vivid. Things of flickering picture and sound. Movies so real you can peel them off the projection screen and shake them out into the crowd. This one is no different.
He's in the apartment and Marjorie is dead. She keeps telling him that. He argues. Says he's never seen her so vital and alive. But then her remembers.
She comes to him intubated and frozen. There's an IV drip in her arm like a bad habit, and monitors all around her are charting her vitals, pacing her pulse.
"It's okay," she insists, but he agrees only to humor her; agrees only because there's precious little humor left in a world where she dries and withers in a narrow bed changed daily by nurses who are paid to care, paid regularly, but not paid enough for times like these. He sees her lying under empty sheets, even though that should be impossible. Cataracts cloud his eyes.
Now they're living in an apartment where all the walls are glass, thick as sheets of ice, and they have to pretend not to see each other. He wants to smash right through. Seize the foundations and shake them down. He knows he would if he were younger, but now his bones are lead. He can barely putter to the kitchen for water and pills that taste like truth, provided truth is an atheist.
He swallows one and remembers what it was like to lie in the sun on her front porch, head resting against the folds of her summer dress.
It's winter again by the time he wakes.
If he squints, he can just make out the scuffed brass numbers on the door. 406. Robert pauses with his hand by the handle. Does he even want to be doing this?
The door swings open. There's a boy standing on the other side of the threshold, skin several shades darker than his own. He's wearing a sweatshirt and shorts, the former hanging most of the way down the latter. "Can I help you, Mr. Thompson?"
Robert knows what he wants to say. Marjorie is in the kitchen. I can hear her cooking bacon. Do you believe me? What comes out instead is "My TV set is too damn quiet. I think there's something wrong with the cable box."
The boy just looks at him. It's ten in the morning on a Saturday. From the background of 406 comes the sounds of cartoons.
Robert flusters. He grabs his hat with one hand to steady himself. "That's not what I meant to say. I never say what I mean to anymore." He turns around. This had been a stupid idea in the first place. A flight of stairs for no reason. "Forget I came here at all."
"Is it true you still talk to your wife?" The voice halts him in his tracks. "Everyone always says so, but they're afraid to ask."
He's got his cane braced on the rim of the first step. He's leaning forward, back hunched, and he knows that soon he's going to have to move or fall. "No. She can't hear me."
"You hear her, then?" The boy is expectantly silent.
Robert can feel his feet starting to ache. "Sometimes."
"If I let you in, will you tell me about it?"
They sit at opposite ends of the small dining room table. He drinks orange juice from a cracked Disney classics cup while the boy fixes a baloney sandwich. Ieason, he learns his name is, after some hero from Greek myth. Everybody calls him Jason.
Jason settles into his chair, pushing his plate way out in front of him before he takes a bite. "So, when did it start?"
Robert looks around the apartment. At the bare walls. At the box of easy-mac and the jar of jelly left out in the kitchen. The two cardboard boxes stacked by the trash. "You should pick up after yourself."
Jason looks sour as he wolfs his baloney. "Don't you start too, Mr. Thompson. If I spent all my time cleaning up, I'd never be able to do anything else."
Robert takes a slow sip of his orange juice. "I learned my discipline from a man with a green and gold badge over his pocket. He'd stand on a crate and scream into my ear."
Unrattled, Jason lets out an expansive sigh. He pushes his chair away from the table and takes his plate over to the sink. "If I clean up, will you at least tell me why you're hearing your wife again?"
Robert nods, even though he doesn't have an answer. It'll do the kid some good to start picking up while his mother is away. He just sits and thinks while the boy bustles about, putting everything in bins with huffy carelessness. At last, they're both back at the table again. Jason clears his throat loudly.
"It's been going on for three months. I'm taking pills for it too, you know."
The boy listens, unfazed. "But you did something to bring her back, right? You talked to a psychic, or left flowers at her grave, or prayed real hard?"
Robert remembers weeping. Red eyed days and the dreary blur of afternoons in the waiting room. He remembers faith slinking away in the night like a kicked dog, her bedside finally deserted. "Sometimes," he says. "No more than other people."
Jason drums his legs against his chair. "So maybe she came back to haunt you."
Robert shakes his head. "She doesn't even know I'm here."
"Well, have you tried talking to her?"
He had. The second time it happened, when he was convinced that she couldn't possibly be an illusion, he'd run from room to room shouting, cane forgotten by the sink. Blundering blindly around furniture with the neighbors pounding on the ceiling, he'd gone straight through where he was certain she was. And then fallen on his side.
"She won't listen," the words come out as a whisper.
They sit in silence for a long time after that. With nothing else to do, Robert finishes his juice and hauls himself to his feet. He starts for the door.
"Maybe you just need to talk to her the right way."
He buys the box off the internet with some help. It's not very large, and it takes three to five days to ship, but the price nearly robs him of his breath.
Unboxed, the device inside is roughly the diameter of a very small dog. It sits on his empty kitchen counter while he scrutinizes the instructions. They're written in a font so miniscule that he has to scrunch his eyes almost all the way closed to make his way through them, but he persists.
On TV, there's a physicist sometimes. He uses a device like this one to talk when no one else would be able to hear him.
It seems appropriate.
Bending over the outlet, Robert plugs it in and begins to type.
"If you can still hear me, I love you," reads the DECtalk.
Two rooms away, someone starts to cry.