an excerpt from Quantum Physics & My Dog Bob, the new story collection from the author of The Call and Puzzling Through the News.
The man hadn’t slept well that night, and at dawn he was already up and dressed. He opened his bedroom window to the winter air, startling a flock of cackling grackles from the branches of his backyard oak. His wife, still snugly quilted in bed, murmured a cranky protest at the draft. “Shut it,” she complained, and at that moment, though he’d be hard pressed to articulate why, the man decided to cease speaking for the rest of his life.
At first, no one seemed to notice. He sat lost in thought behind his newspaper as his children bickered over breakfast, their mother threatening them no less than three times with revocation of television privileges before they shoved each other out the door to catch the school bus. She looked to the heavens and swore. “Why do I bother?” she said. “And you’re certainly no help.” The man pursed his lips and exhaled heavily, as if to say: “I can tell them precisely nothing that will change their lives. (And it’s best, by the way, as I’ve mentioned many times before, not to harangue them with punitive strictures you don’t intend to follow up on.)”
At work that morning, he nodded at his colleagues in the hallways and settled himself quietly in his office. Almost immediately, his project manager appeared in the doorway, curtly reminding him of the report that had been due on her desk first thing this morning. The man bit his lower lip, shuffled together the scattered pages of yesterday’s draft, and wagged his head wearily as if to say, “The world whirls about me at an ever quickening pace, but I’ll finish it PDQ and have it for you ASAP. (Mea culpa, BTW.)” After she’d gone, he scrutinized the draft. He’d planned on revising again, cutting it back, clarifying it, refining it. Instead, he carried his report to the copy machine and stood idly duplicating page after page of thoughts whose germs could only prove fruitful through multiplication. When he placed the required number of copies on her desk, the man’s project manager bristled slightly, though apparently not because he’d delivered the document without a word.
“It’s about time,” she said.
There’s a limit to how long a person can remain silent in this world before arousing curiosity and concern, and soon enough, the man was required by both family and employer to seek counseling.
In the interest of streamlining therapeutic inquiry, the man spent a full day preparing a written explanation of his behavior. (“On My Silence” he entitled the single-paragraph abstract, the last words, as it happened, that he would ever write.) In brief, the statement professed that he suffered from no mysterious mental disturbances. He’d simply gotten to a point where he couldn’t stand hearing the sound of his own voice. The hemming and hawing, the holding forth, the repeated explanations, remonstrations, reiterations: all were for nothing. Hadn’t the world heard enough from him to date to last it the rest of his relatively brief life? Really, he hadn’t anything of importance to add to what he’d already said countless times, to what others had already said countless times before him. Everything he’d ever had to say now struck him as tautologically tedious. His voice, he insisted, had come to display all the gravity and import of a fart chasing the wind. He was through wasting his breath.
“I’m all talked out,” he penned in conclusion. “Enough said.”
A lengthy line-up of psychologists and psychiatrists lateraled his case, one to the next, each dumbfounded by his apparent obstinacy. The man hadn’t always been easy to live with, his wife informed each new therapist. Their marriage had seen its share of disagreements, especially once the kids came. So many of them so soon! he used to complain, as if he’d had nothing to do with bringing them into this world. Once upon a time, they’d argued regularly, and he’d certainly been at no loss for words back then. He’d fire salvos of wounding words late at night when the children were in bed, words that once or twice had her on the verge of filing for divorce. But she attributed their former troubles to his drinking, something he’d given up years ago (cold turkey, just like he quit smoking, one day at a time without the benefit of a 12-step program). No, aside from the occasional (and perfectly normal!) hissy-tiff of no great consequence, he’d been a model husband.
Until he clammed up.
Psychologist and psychiatrist alike puzzled over his case, some prescribing years of analysis, others opting for the quick fix of anti-depressants, several suggesting a rigorous course of operant-response conditioning, and one diehard insisting that a healthy dose of electro-convulsive therapy would have the man jabbering like a monkey in no time. The man proved himself to be a pleasant if uncooperative subject (listening attentively to all of the questions he refused to answer and keenly inspecting all of the tests he refused to take), and, eventually, all of his therapists confessed themselves stumped, stymied by the man’s stubborn refusal to yield them a single syllable of speech. Still, the man seemed otherwise sane and certainly posed no danger to himself or others. Despite his blatantly passive-aggressive idiosyncrasy, the man should be capable of leading a relatively normal (if socially and professionally disabled) life.
Given the man’s (relatively) clean bill of mental health and faced with the decision of placing him on disability, his project manager (in a brilliant stroke, if she did say so) had him transferred to another department. His new duties took him to a floor full of cubicles that held dozens of quiet employees independently involved in making sense of long and seemingly senseless columns of numerals and esoteric mathematical symbols. Many of his colleagues wore personal CD players and headphones to work. The man followed suit, and soon he could not be distinguished from his fellows.
Time passed, and the man and his family settled back into their normal routines. At first his children conspired to goad him into speaking. “Dad?” one would say, “I’m pregnant.” “Have you seen my crack pipe, Daddy?” another would try. But the man only smiled and shook his head, and soon enough they let him be, making room for him on the sofa during Friday night movies and passing him the popcorn without him having to ask. In time, his children turned solicitous of his silence, speaking in hushed voices around him, affording him a semi-reverent respect he’d never elicited with reasoned lecture nor top-of-the-lung tirade. His youngest, barely old enough to speak herself when her father cast off his yoke of words, took on the role of spokesperson for him, generously forgiving certain failings of his that, heretofore, his children had righteously railed against. “That’s just Dad’s way,” she’d explain to her siblings when he somehow, unremarkably, betrayed their expectations. If she caught him frowning in speechless disapproval, “What Dad’s trying to tell us,” she’d interpret, “is we should give his poor ears a break!” But if the older children sometimes grew nostalgic for the long-gone sound of their father’s voice (reading Goodnight, Moon, say, or Now We Are Six by the soft glow of a bedside lamp), they had to admit that he maintained an inexhaustibly pleasant demeanor, now that he’d silenced himself. All of his children felt free to share their problems with him. He’d listen patiently, brightly compassionate, and, when the rendition was finished, lay a hand on the child’s shoulder as if to say, “I, too, was once young and uncertain of my place in this world, but things have a way of working themselves out. (And if money can help, I’m at your service!)”
The man’s wife, of course, had a more difficult time adjusting. Initially inferring his silence to be a veiled criticism of her naturally chatty disposition, she countered with a grumbling, cold-shouldered silent treatment of her own. When that tactic didn’t serve to loosen his tongue, her restrained resentment often boiled to a lid-popping tizzy. “Talk, you selfish son of a bitch!” she’d hiss. “Open your mouth and say something!” She coaxed and pleaded, threatened and cursed, all to no avail. Finally, she gave up on him and (for the first time in a long time) once again considered divorce. But his quiet tears of desperation (supplemented by the repeated pantomime of pointing to his eye, his heart, and then to her) softened her resolve. He loved her, it was true, and if he wasn’t able to tell her that in so many words, the soft moans deep in his throat while they made love, the semaphores of his hands flagging secret messages across her flesh spoke volumes. He showed his love in countless ways, from helping out around the house without complaint to surprising her with flowers and jewelry (gifts easy enough to point to through a glass showcase). What more could a woman want from a man? What more was there to say? Over time, she became accustomed to his silence, though she occasionally missed the rumble of his baritone crooning pop love songs, the tickling whisper of sweet nonsense in her ear late at night after the children were in bed.
Before long, the man’s children were grown and gone, returning on visits to deposit their own darlings for Grandpa, beaming brightly, to dandle on his knee. Soon, even the man’s children’s children had grown too old to cuddle, and their infant gurglings and nonsense syllables evolved into whimsical rhetoric as intricately pointless as a game of chess. They could yackety-yak the livelong day about nothing at all! The world had come to seem like a call-in talk show on the radio, the gist of which the man could follow in a disinterested manner without feeling obliged to join the debate. He was on the same frequency—he listened, he understood, he even empathized—but he was wired as a receiver, not a transmitter. Which was just as well, for the more he listened, the more he became convinced that, despite the ubiquitous chatter in this world, no one seemed to hear anything anyone had to say anyway. His thoughts remained unremarkable, but they were all his own. No need to share something the world had an abundance of.
But as his allotted time in this world drew closer and closer to closure, the man sometimes caught himself trying to recall the last words he had ever spoken, as if those words were somehow important. Words, he thought. Birds. Fright. Flight. Sing. It had been so long now. At first, he dimly recalled, he’d felt the temptation to speak daily, more so than anyone could imagine, but he’d always fought the urge. He was used to fighting urges (one day at a time). Once, lying in bed beside his wife, unable to sleep, he’d reached for her, touched her, and at that moment nearly let his heart pour out a torrent of tormented testament (the subject of which he couldn’t for the life of him imagine now), but he’d restrained himself. A single word, he knew, would be his downfall. Words. Birds. Light. Sight. Sing, he thought. His final words didn’t matter, he supposed. Whatever they’d been, they weren’t worth preserving: no call to etch them on his tombstone. They were words, just words—used up, played out long before he’d been born.
One evening, he lay in a hospital bed, his wavering vital signs chirping like crickets in the dusk. His wife sat at his bedside, humming the melody to some long lost torch song, life’s sweet and salty lullaby echoing in his ear. A spasm shook him: the chirps grew frenzied. A hand squeezed his tightly, fingers nervous as starlings, and he opened his eyes.
“Are you all right?” his wife said.
His mouth was unbearably dry. He gestured toward the water pitcher on the bedside table.
His wife touched the pitcher, raised her eyebrows. “What’s the magic word?”
The man smiled. He pointed to his eye, his heart, and then to her, but the well-worn pidgin pantomime failed to satisfy her.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Say something. Anything.” Her eyes glistened. “Don’t leave me without a word.”
Dark wings clouded his vision, and suddenly a thought occurred to him. It was a new thought, it seemed, one he couldn’t recall ever thinking before in all his days of sunrise and twilight, one that he would take to his grave unless he spoke it now. He swallowed. He worked a creaking rumble from deep inside his atrophied larynx. His lips trembled, and his wife leaned close, closer, heart teetering with desperate hope. “Say it,” she pleaded. “Say it!”
And so the man opened his mouth and cleared his throat one last time. He sobbed with effort, wondering for the first time in a long time at the best way to put what he had to say, at the proper way of phrasing his final breath in this age-old world of unspoken promise. Please, he thought. But the sudden chirping deafened him, and the cool light of awe took his breath away.
“Oh,” he managed, and then he died.
Aside from that solitary exclamation, the man left only his legacy of everlasting silence. In time, his widow recovered from her grief and remarried. Her new husband, a retired man of the world, filled her ears with endless renditions of his storied past. This was a man who just wouldn’t shut up. He droned on and on in a humdrum nasal monotone day after day about God knows what.
And oh! How she hearkened in dumbstruck delight! His voice was a gong, a wonder beyond words.