IT SPEAKS TO ME
by Joe Sutton
The son was watching the six o’clock news when he heard his mother speaking in tongues in the kitchen. She did this often as she washed the dishes, but he would have thought she’d have kicked the habit by now. The whispers rolled off her tongue acerbic and aggressive but the son couldn’t make any of it out. It wasn’t English—he didn’t think. He wondered if it would be acceptable to lower the volume of the television so he could better hear. But would that compromise the situation? Noticing a change in the background hum, she might realize that she wasn’t alone and stop talking, thought the son, and he would be left embarrassed or the both of them.
Issue #52 soundtrack: Instant Empire "Counting Backwards"
On the TV a balding gray man was busy apologizing for something said during the previous night’s newscast. A story about a shoplifting mall Santa, “In which I said,” the newscaster said, “that Santa Claus does not exist, which troubled our younger viewers. It was not in my place to make such a claim. I apologize deeply and would like to stress to the children out there that Santa Claus does indeed exist.” The standard of truth bastardized for the cult of comfort. Some kind of audible dance between a sigh and the poison tongue emanating from the kitchen, the sound of arms thrusting dishes into water, water flowing from the sink taps. The son lay on the couch. He strained to understand what she was saying. His mother, who spoke in tongues the next room over. “Mom,” he said.
The talking stopped, the sink stopped. “Yeah?” she asked. Her round figure stood in the doorway separating the two rooms: the kitchen bright, cluttered with cookware unused and surfaces overflowing with piles of magazines and mail; the living room shrouded in a dim gauzy glow from a single standing lamp in the corner beside the couch. What looked like a reflection of firework light pressing onto the son’s body from the aggressive graphics of the newscast. The mother wore her pale pink bathrobe and her hair held back in a tight little ponytail.
“Do you want help?” the son asked.
“No, I’m almost done,” she said. “Is there anything you want to eat tomorrow night for dinner? Or any day you’re here? I’m sorry mac and cheese tonight was a little boring, but I had a long day.”
“It was fine,” the son said. “There’s nothing really that I want.”
“Oh.” Her eyes fell to the floor, her red and wet hands clasped together holding a yellow dish towel. Momentarily deflated. She decompressed. “What are you watching?”
“News,” the son said. He watched the still scene of police tape that hung beside row houses in the snowy night.
“Oh,” the mother said.
“Since I don’t have a TV I never know what to watch when the opportunity arises.”
“I like to watch the Real Housewives of New Jersey,” she said.
“I don’t really like reality shows.”
“Well,” the mother said under her breath. “Did you ever get my package?”
The son looked from the TV to his mother. “It’s at the post office. My roommate and I are rarely home and I don’t know where the post office is.” The mother made a release of air. “It’ll come back here eventually,” the son said.
“I’ll re-send it to you then,” said the mother. She retreated to the kitchen and ran the water. Clanking of ceramics, gurgles of water drainage. The mother called out: “Do you want to get sunglasses while you’re here? We forgot about getting them last time. I’ll bring them up and visit so you don’t have to be home for them in the mail. It’d be nice to see the campus again.”
“Yeah,” said the son, “that would be good.”
The last time the mother was meant to visit, they hadn’t set her time of arrival to the city, and since the son would have to meet her at the train station—she couldn’t be expected to navigate the tight knot of subway and bus lines, requiring her to be picked up—the son called the evening before to see when he could expect her. “I don’t think I’m going to come after all,” she said. “I’ve been so tired lately. I’m sorry.”
The time she had in fact come to visit, the mother fought off any suggestion the son offered for things to do, places to go: the downtown art galleries, Brooklyn’s book stores and publishing houses, the enormous rocks jutting from the grounds of Central Park—anything to give her a sense of the culture in which he lived, that he viewed and reviewed in his writing. But the mother’s alternatives were vague notions of restaurants she had read about in Time Out New York, and after the two settled for one of midtown’s anonymous Irish pubs for lunch, the mother departed from the city only three hours after she’d met with her son.
“Actually,” she said now from the kitchen, “I might wait until the spring to come up. You won’t need sunglasses before then, you don’t think, will you?”
Pushing plans back already. “Come when you want to,” he said.
He said: “I’m going to go on the computer.”
“Okay,” she said.
The son sat in the corner of the upstairs room. The whole second story of the Cape Cod-style house was just this single room. It served as another living room, this one with a devoted office space, an ancient desktop computer under the sloped ceiling. The son checked his email: already 18 new messages since the last time he looked in the early afternoon: press releases and assignments for the website to which he contributed. There was an entertaining message from a lady who’d just gotten out of a three-month relationship, looking for a strong man to put her in her place.
The son selected a group of messages.
Label “please respond,” “to-do,” “wait.” More deletions. “Spam.”
The son wondered what he would be doing right now if he were in the city instead of his mother’s home in New Jersey. He would probably be drunk at a party. In a typical social situation he was remiss to say anything, lost within a mental mapping of conversations translated into flowcharts, navigable spaces. Too afraid of reaching a dead-end to get anywhere.
He followed a set of directions. Give the greeting. Receive greeting back. Ask a question. Listen to its answer. Offer how you feel about the subject, but do not press that viewpoint on your conversation partner. Listen. Ask another question. Important: always ask questions but never give answers. Tell them what they want to hear or don’t say anything. Make eye contact. Always the son wonders, am I averting my eyes too much? He keeps a mental tally of how many times his hands touch his face. How much is too much? He realizes it as a nervous tic. Does his partner pick up on his anxiety? Is this going to alienate his partner and change the social dynamic between them forever?
When drunk at parties he takes no care to any of this. When drunk at parties people are happy to see the son. Friends throw themselves at him one by one, tossing out a hand for a shake before he has the chance to return his greeting to the last one to say hi. Nights like these, the son would think: I love my life. So why was he in New Jersey checking his email?
Words exchanged between he and his mother were lost in the slurry of past conversation: separated from one another over the gaps of time, questions and answers were recycled and appropriated to fill the empty rooms of a home in which no one anymore lived.
He pitied her. He felt sorry for her. He hated her. She hated herself. The anger with which she spoke to herself, coded in primal language.
The son remembered that even after the nights of debauchery lingered the unshakable feeling of sadness after a good time, all too familiar and hung to dry like an outfit to be worn the next day. Another email arrived now, from a professor with last-minute directions for an assignment to be completed after break. Piles of work. No one to talk to but an anonymous online audience that rarely spoke back.
The son had wanted to be home because he was not happy.
He didn’t know when it happened. One day on his walk to campus it felt as though the city’s buildings had grown taller, cast longer shadows. Gradually, without noticing the transition, he saw the city less as the theme park of his teenage fantasies—the mythologized place of his mother’s magazines—and more like a labyrinth that many entered but only few would escape. It felt as though each day, fleeting in theory but excruciating and long in practice, was each but a single room passed in this bastion, this unwinnable challenge.
People moving across and throughout anonymously.
A hall of grotesque mirrors.
Crossing the streets, searching through alleyway trashcans, it felt more and more to the son as if the only thing he could be content with in this maze would be his own self.
He wanted to tell his mother all this but he did not know how.
He closed the web browser.
He wanted to be told that things would be okay but no one was sure they could be.
The son walked down the stairs that opened into the living room and saw his mother occupying the sofa. The television was not on. She just sat there in the darkness, like a stuffed animal so alive in play but tossed aside when imagination ceased, when the thing itself was outgrown.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “There are chips in the cabinet.”
“No,” said the son. “I’m going outside.”
“Without a jacket?” his mother asked as he walked across the room to the kitchen and out the side door.
The backyard was bare. Flat black grass. Flat surface of the in-ground pool cover. White Adirondack chairs grayed in the night. The son stood at the edge of the pool. He began to remove the cover and examined the water’s glassy surface. What lurked here in this darkness, impenetrable by the night’s naked eye? The son could see only the reflection of the stars above, an opaque façade separating the tangible from the unknown.
When his body plunged through the surface, it was overcome with a numbing chill. The son sank to the depths and drifted back upwards slowly, anchored in the weight of water-logged clothing, his form curled. He whipped his head above the surface for air and felt warmth. He looked at the sky, his entire field of vision. The sky pressed against him as if he could fall down onto it at any moment, this kind of void. He was floating between ground and sky, tethered by something—
Something just ahead of him—
He could not understand language, his mother’s words.
He never wanted to be separated from her. He clung.
He could not understand the words from her mouth, though he could feel them—her words his own, that he himself did not know how to verbalize—
What do you say to someone with no hobbies, no obvious interests? To someone with no a life before, or behind, them? I love you, you say, there’s nothing else to say—I can speak, listen to me speak!
The helpless cries of a baby—
Scorning one’s life while doing chores, nothing to live for but work—
Who put me here, how do I get out—speaking in tongues—
What do you say? Who to talk to? Where am I?
The son broke the surface and breathed his first breath.
You can be independent someday, but she had been saying it to herself.
Joe Sutton is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. His nonfiction work been published on The GROUND, The Donnybrook Writing Academy and Resource Magazine, among other publications. He has fiction published at the online literary magazine Screaming Seahorse, and an experimental work forthcoming in The Newer York. Follow him on Twitter.
Shannon Doubleday is an American based in London, whose work has been published in f-stop magazine and other places. View more on Flickr.
Instant Empire from Denver, CO, just finished recording their second album, Heavy Hollow, which has drawn favorable comparisons to The Hold Steady, the Mountain Goats, and Conor Oberst's side project Desaparecidos. Fueled by the powerful vocal styling of Scotty Saunders, the band creates a dynamic brand of indie rock that is both heavy on the hooks and emotionally charged. Guitarists Lou Kucera and Sean Connaughty weave a layered sonic web that keyboardist/percussionist Doug Chase criss-crosses with texture and nuance. A rhythm section consisting of Aaron Stone on bass and Matt Grizzell on drums propels the band from one impassioned song to the next with tightness and urgency. Instant Empire will be playing as many shows as possible to promote the album throughout the remainder of 2012, as well as recording a couple new tracks to release by the end of the year. For more, visit Instant Empire online at instantempireband.com.