Sunday, October 05, 2014
Image by Elizabeth Vogan (2013)
Do not turn off the television
Do not turn off the television is chapter one of Alistair A. Vogan's first novel, How To Lose Your Voice Without Screaming.
The morning sun slipped through the Venetian blinds and crashed into Kingsley’s bed, Kingsley, and the floor and carpet. It sparkled in the polished wood of the television set, almost disappeared completely into the dark red texture of the wallpaper. What was left passed through the open bathroom door to his left, into the mirror, and weakly illuminated the opposite wall and the floral shower curtain purchased, out of necessity, just days before at Ron’s Hardware store.
Five floors below, a group of boys played stickball on the street. Periodically the cold crack of a rock striking a broken broom handle and youthful cheers cut through the quiet morning air. A male adult opened a window across the street and yelled at the boys to stop.
Kingsley couldn’t hear this. What he might have heard, however, where he was lying, beginning to glisten in the rising heat of the room, was the smart-sounding man on the television trying his best to persuade him to believe that his digestion would improve if he smoked Lucky Strikes, and then the theme song to The Fabulous Zeak The Sheik Show, broadcast weekdays and Saturdays between 7:30 and 8:00 am, and Friday evenings at 7:00 pm.
“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS. ...THE HINDU EVERYONE, AND I MEAN EVERYONE IS TALKING ABOUT...THE RAJA THAT’S ALL THE RAGE... ZEAK THE SHEIK!!!!” A manic studio audience screamed in response, somewhere up town, and their voices floated out of Kingsley’s television set.
Kingsley rolled onto his back and sighed. He was a big guy, looked like a former athlete who had nothing to prove. He arched his wide back, making the box spring creak, and opened his eyes a sliver. He took a long, deep breath in and exhaled, just on the cusp of consciousness.
Just then, somewhere at street-level, a large windowpane exploded. Without fully waking, Kingsley slid his legs across and over the edge of the bed, then stood up and stepped into his slippers. At the window, his bloodshot eyes followed the line of cars backed up the street and continued across to the far corner of the intersection. He searched below the unlit neon Laundry Land sign and could see that all the large panes remained unbroken. He saw a new washing machine placed conspicuously close to the entrance and thought it looked pretty fancy. He also noted the homeless man asleep on a duffel bag on the steps. Seeing this, he breathed in stiffly and swore under his breath.
Kingsley completed a perfunctory scan of the neighborhood. He saw the broken window in Ronaldo’s hardware store and the backed up cars beginning to move, the tops of heads behind a large out-of-place black Cadillac and, at the very opposite end of the street, several boys in undershirts disappearing around the street corner. He could hear yelling as it faded outside the window but couldn’t make out what was being said. Beginning to return his gaze to his bedroom, Kingsley caught sight of, and locked eyes with, Tito Ramirez, a middle-aged Puerto Rican man with large black glasses. Tito had been glaring out his own window across the street at the cars below. The man’s irritated face softened at the sight of Kingsley and Kingsley smiled. Tito blinked as Kingsley’s forearm and hand rose slowly into the air as if raised by tiny pulleys.
“Hi, Mr. Ramirez,” Kingsley mumbled into the glass and glanced down to the street again.
Without thinking, Kingsley reached behind himself and turned off the television just as the yelling stopped. This action, he regretted, almost immediately. He scratched himself and heard his nails scrape along the weave of his pajamas, the air pass through his nostrils. He listened to his tongue move around his dry, and drying, mouth. The weight of his shoulders, neck and head pushed down on his torso, forcing him to slouch even more. He blinked. It too seemed audible.
He shouldn’t have turned off the television, he scolded himself. What had he been thinking? It was too quiet. Soon, she would join him.
If you stood there by the window and looked at Kingsley in the light shining through the Venetian blinds, not only would you be able to count each black and grey hair pushing itself out of his face but you would be able to make out the twitch beginning on his cheek below his right eyelid, and the sudden shallowness and halting movement of his breath.
Kingsley waited motionless by the window for several minutes listening, and looking not unlike a hedgehog or how a deer might if you came across either suddenly in the bush. He took a sudden deep breath and began to turn but then changed his mind and stopped halfway, facing the wall where the dresser stood. Not moving his head, his eyes darted around the room.
She was coming, Kingsley knew.
Now he was fully awake.
Giving the appearance of being too busy to talk, Kingsley raised his chin stiffly and walked around the bed, proceeding in the direction of the bathroom door. He could see the toilet. As if on cue, a xylophone chimed above him and a person cleared her voice, as you would before making a speech, or telling a story.
...SHE was there.
Once upon a time
there was a fluffy blue jay who was very kind,
the disembodied voice of a woman began.
Kingsley’s right shoulder smacked abruptly into the wooden doorframe. This did not, however, prevent the rest of his body from entering the bathroom, or his left arm from reaching for his toothbrush, rotating the faucet clockwise and spraying the toothbrush, and his hand, with water.
His feathers were blue,
except for a small white patch on his tummy that made him
unlike any other bird in the entire world,
Kingsley squeezed a mound of toothpaste onto the mangled bristles and rammed the brush into his mouth. He looked into the mirror and saw the pleading expression on the face of his reflection. It locked eyes with him. The particular angle of the left eyebrow, the pursed lips and the abundance of the white (and red) of the eyeballs working in concert communicated the following message: “Don’t give away that you see me.”
He had little dark eyes
and a teeny weeny beak
for eating worms
and singing short, dark songs
inspired by ‘The…
Kingsley spat the toothpaste into the sink and, humming loudly, almost yelling, nearly tore his pajamas from his body. He spun the hot and cold taps on the bathtub and pulled out the shower knob. There was a momentary pause before the water shot out, and during this time he thought he might explode. Just then the water burst from the showerhead, drowning out the voice of the woman and he relaxed, if just a little. As he waited for the temperature to change, he caught himself in the mirror once more. He looked down at his torso and straightened his back. Though his arms were soft and hanging like large, pale sausages he imagined they looked muscular. Still hanging there, he flexed an entire arm and was satisfied. He could be an astronaut, he told himself.
Mornings were always the worst.
Inside the shower, with the cold water splashing against his chin, shoulders and belly, Kingsley faced the floral shower curtain. He looked from side to side, then up to the space above the shower-curtain rod.
The right side of his face was still dry as his flesh erupted into goose bumps, his nipples shrank and puckered and the long scar over his abdomen began to itch. Gradually the cold water grew warm. He shivered, then noticed the toothbrush in his right hand and began to brush. He turned toward the shower and let the water splash into his face. Putting the toothbrush down, he soaped his body, scrubbed his back and thought about folding. In his mind he could see that shiny washing machine just feet inside the entrance to the Laundromat. Bright and new, it was hard to miss when you walked into his beloved Laundry Land. In fact, it had been placed in such a way that he hoped new customers wouldn’t notice that it was the only new machine, that they’d walk in, see it and just stop looking. People did that, he thought. He also knew, to his discomfort, that this particular machine stuck out about an inch from the others. He made a mental note to pull out all of the old machines so that they’d be in line with the new one. “How much space would that leave people when they were folding?” he wondered. It was an inch, not a foot, he told himself. What the heck was he thinking? But, what about when this new machine became the old machine and the newer machines were even larger …like cars? Cars seemed to be getting even larger these days… Was it going to continue like this? Would he have to move to a new location, or buy the pet store next door and remove the walls to expand, to make way for the truly gigantic washing machines of the future? He shook himself. It was only an inch, he told himself, half smiling. Just an inch.
Still, give’m an inch… he found himself saying, streetwise as hell.
“Okay, knock it off!” Kingsley said out loud behind the shower curtain.
He shouldn’t let these thoughts get the best of him, he decided. Better to cross that road when he got to it. After breakfast, when he opened the Laundromat, he’d move out the older machines and not think about that at all. “First breakfast, then go to the Laundry-Land.” He had to say that a couple of times, like a mantra, otherwise he knew he’d get distracted: “First breakfast,” Kingsley mumbled, “then move the machines at Laundry Land…” No, wait. He realized he’d have to get dressed! Get out of the shower, dry off, then get dressed! He considered the sequence. After that, he’d have breakfast and leave the apartment. Then go to Laundry Land. He tried, once more, but this time couldn’t make it sound like a mantra.
The water started getting cold again. Kingsley looked from behind the shower curtain and bit his top lip. He knew it was irrational. Still, he often felt like he would turn a corner, open a door, or pull aside the shower curtain, and somebody would be there.
But who? Who was this woman?
Kingsley didn’t know.
He pushed the showerhead so that the cold water sprayed against the tiles and rolled down the wall into the soap dish. He reached out past the curtain and grabbed a fluffy towel hanging on the rack. He did his best to dry off while the water splashed against the wall and misted his side. Dry enough, he crouched and leaned in for the taps, exposing his left shoulder to the spray of the shower. He turned the taps and could feel his heart thumping in his chest. Kingsley’s calm was broken. It made him angry.
With the water off, the bathroom was silent. She must have finished the story, or was in the middle of it, he told himself. He knew she’d start up any minute, if not any second. He could see himself, standing there, uncertain, anxious, and he felt his head increasing in temperature.
With teeth clenched, he swore beneath his breath, “Goddammit”, then lifted his leg and, discombobulated, tried to walk through the floral shower curtain. Momentarily disoriented, he didn’t know where to stand and wasn’t sure where he was anyway.
And, also, the xylophone chimed.
His foot touched the floor and with a sweep of his arm he sent the shower curtain behind him in a circular motion. It looked like a cape, and he a shirtless musketeer. He caught this in the mirror and was hurt: he felt, somehow, the bathroom was making fun of him. Yes. He knew. His life was a big joke! And everything, at that moment, was seemingly complicit. He reminded himself that this was an irrational thought and tried to drown this out by humming the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto which he’d heard while reading Time Magazine in the waiting room of his general practitioner sometime in the distant past and, like too many things, still floated in and out of his consciousness.
He looked at himself in the mirror and tried to imagine he was someone else. Or rather, anyone else. He wasn’t a bad-looking guy, he told himself. He shouldn’t be afraid all the time. He shouldn’t have such low self-esteem. He shouldn’t be living this way. He looked into his own eyes.
Often he would soar through the air
and land on the slanted thatched rooftops
of the nice village in which he lived...
Kingsley ran from the bathroom.
* * *
Slices of toast glowed orange in the toaster; two eggs bounced against each other in a small pot of boiling water. On the small kitchen table, pushed into the corner, were laid two fat stacks of science fiction magazines. (On one cover a man’s tense face glared out of a white spacesuit across the landscape of a red planet. He was unfastening the laser pistol at his side. Something was approaching.) The kitchen table was pushed into the corner to make room for the television. This was on. Filling the screen was a man in a sparkly grey turban with a big, infectious grin and fiery dark eyes. He spoke directly to, very closely into, the studio camera, and appeared to be examining Kingsley’s kitchen. He also seemed to be yelling, if calmly. His voice distorted as it passed through the shredded television speaker. Dishes on the shelves rattled.
Kingsley stood in the middle of the room with his legs apart, squinting, as if in a burning building, listening for directions from a fire chief. A person pounded the floor above. Without looking up, Kingsley turned the volume knob ever so slightly. The pounding from above continued. Kingsley glared at the ceiling and jerked the knob counter clock-wise, lowering the volume to a barely audible level.
In the ensuing quiet, as if on cue, Kingsley made out the disembodied voice clear its throat in preparation to begin again.
Think: breakfast, then Laundry Land, he told himself. Stay focused. The toaster popped. He grabbed the slices and dropped them on the plate then walked the plate over to the boiling water and scooped up the eggs with a spoon. “I’ll move those machines,” he said aloud as if to a wife in the next room, but was drowned out by the voice.
For the sake of anonymity,
we shall henceforth refer to him as ‘Nick’.
* * *
An invisible page, in an invisible book, turned. Or, maybe it was simply in a different dimension and visible there. Then the xylophone chimed and he thought he heard the lampshade beside the couch in the living room resonate, hoaaaaaaaaang!
“Where’s the jacket? Where’s the jacket? Where’s the freaking jacket?!” Kingsley lumbered through his apartment, wearing a yellow golf jacket. His eyes caught the yellow material on his wrist and his gaze continued up to his shoulder. At the sight of his jacket, he stopped, turned around and moved towards the entrance of the apartment. “Lock the door, then go to Laundry Land and move machines. Lock the door, then go to Laundry Land and…” At the door, to his irritation, he noticed a note (and an old wrinkled photograph) taped just above the door handle. He tore the note off and, squinting, read it:
“Meet Lubelsky’s guy. Lose the voice NOW…”
And, Kingsley remembered he had an appointment. He glanced at his watch then noticed, below where he’d taped the note, an old black-and-white family photo that he’d thought he might bring to this meeting. He ignored the photo and began listing all the reasons he did not have time to do anything but close his apartment door then go to Laundry Land and… but then stopped and looked around the apartment glaring.
Emanating from everywhere and nowhere all at once, the voice said,
Once upon a time
there was a fluffy blue jay who was very kind.
“No one cares!”
It was the fourth time he’d heard her say this that morning.
In the hallway, Kingsley pressed the elevator button, waited three seconds then continued onto the stairwell. In less than two minutes, he’d scurry along East 7th Street and cross Avenue B, leaving behind Laundry Land Laundromat.
Needless to say, he was followed.
How To Lose Your Voice Without Screaming
is now available in paperback and as an ebook at www.amazon.com and can be ordered from your favourite bookstore.
I have mixed feelings about talent contests - especially when there is a fee - but have just entered (the 2nd edition of) my first novel How To Lose Your Voice Without Screaming into one:
The Montegrappa First Fiction Competition 2015 at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
I guess it couldn't hurt to ask you to cross your fingers.
Just do not do it while operating heavy machinery.
If you have something to submit here's the link: