If anyone’s interested, here is the short story I read at The Tandem Reading Series last Sunday:
Where the Boom Bands Play
by Jeff Somers
I stared out at the snow as it rained down, big fluffy kernels of white swirling around, a miserable, cold sort of damp trapped inside just waiting for me to go out in my thick corduroy pants and slip and fall on my ass to trigger it, free it so it could settle into my bones and ruin me. I looked back down at the newspaper, reading the same line I’d read four or five times already: sources inside the police department confirm multiple Santas in costume were part of the. I read it again, liking the sound of it: sources inside the police department confirm multiple Santas in costume were part of the. I couldn’t remember what the rest of the story had been about, and glanced up at the top of the column, but the story’s beginning was on page 34 and I didn’t feel like hunting back through the pages in search of it.
I sipped my coffee and spluttered; it had gone cold. I got up to dump it in the sink and see if there was any more in the pot.
Louise said something, but I didn’t catch it. Louise had taken to mumbling, her words slurring past too slickly for me to catch hold. I grunted something noncommittal in response, trying to appear engaged and interested. When Louise felt ignored she became unmanageable, so I had long ago learned to never admit I wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t say anything else.
The kitchen faucet was old, original to the house, and dripped constantly. We usually kept a little plastic bowl in the sink, with a paper towel in it, to catch the drips and stop them from making too much noise. At night, if we forgot it, the noise was unbelievably annoying, and I lay there for hours until I finally gave up and got up to pad across the freezing floor and replace the little plastic dish. We would eventually have to replace the faucet, of course, but we dreaded the idea. We were broke. Even a small plumber’s bill might sink us.
I took my cup back to the table, blinking in the glaring light of the sun coming in through the windows, and sat down, picking up the newspaper again. I’d lost my place. Sipping lukewarm, over-sugared tea I scanned the pages, shivering. The heat wasn’t working. Between that and the dripping faucet I knew I was supposed to hate our apartment, but I loved it. I loved it more the worse things got,. It was ours, given to Louise by her Uncle decades ago when he’d died. The taxes were all we owed on it and while it was just four rooms and an ancient, rusty bathroom it was ours and I loved it. I was proud of the way we’d fixed it up cheaply, with thrift store furniture and sale paint from the hardware store—when people complained about a color match the store put the gallons of paint on sale for five bucks, as-is. I was proud of the way we’d maximized the small space and made it work for us.
I looked back down at the newspaper. Valentine’s Day had been a bust for florists this year. Why anyone needed to know that—beyond florists and, I supposed, economists, I didn’t know, but there it was on page three. I raised my cracked yellow mug and took a scalding sip of coffee, spewing the lava-like liquid everywhere as I leaped back from the table, cursing.
Louise was standing in the bathroom doorway, just looking at me. I turned to her with my arms spread to invite sympathy for my coffee-stained shirt and burned tongue, but she just stared at me with an odd, quiet expression on her face.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She blinked at me slowly. “Are you joking?”
I frowned. Louise was amazing sometimes. “Of course not!”
She just shook her head and turned away.
I stood for a moment staring at the empty doorway. I remembered when we’d moved into the apartment, how excited we’d been. We didn’t have a television or a radio, no furniture, nothing. Getting the tiny apartment for free had been the greatest thing to ever happen to us—it opened up possibilities. The taxes were much less than the rent we’d been struggling to pay, and we knew that if we scrimped and saved we’d be on firm financial ground in a few years. Vacations, purchases—a real life. We’d spent the first few weeks sitting on quilts on the floors, sleeping in a sleeping bag together, her smooth, long legs wrapped up in mine. We showered together in the tiny, scaly old claw foot tub, soaping each other up. We’d spent hours after work measuring the rooms and plotting our decorations, and every scored piece of furniture had been cause for celebration, a cheap bottle of wine and some cheese from the corner grocery, feeling spendthrift and naughty.
I went to the sink and stared out the window again. The downpour was thick and gray, difficult to see anything through, and the heat coming from the old stove was like standing on the sun. It was old fashioned gas-on-gas, a heater on the side of the old stove in the kitchen. It made the kitchen boil, the living room and bathroom livable, and left the small dining room and bedroom frigid and death-defying. I started sweating the moment I got near it.
The kettle was whistling, so I turned and shut off the gas, head pounding and stomach in full revolt. I prepared honey and tea with shaking hands and hobbled over to the table, dropping into the creaking wooden chair with relief. I picked up the pile of bills from the table and weighed them in my hand. Our entire lives, there, in paper form. Everything we owed. We didn’t have anything but debt, any more; the plumber and utilities bills were the final nails and I was drinking the last of the tea. At least it was warm. I sat for a long time staring at the pile of bills and wondering exactly what the mechanism was for tearing apart an existence. We had nothing. They could come to the tiny place and search it thoroughly and find nothing to cart away to satisfy their demands. All we had was the apartment. But even when they took it—and they would, of course—it wouldn’t be enough. It would satisfy maybe a quarter, a third of what we owed.
I glanced up at the dirty glass in the window. I could hear the revelers outside, drunk at noon and only going to get worse as the day went on. The bars opened early and the police winked at the official closing time on parade day. I hated it. I’d never liked bars anyway, and I didn’t like drunks. A nip of good liquor now and then was wonderful, but how anyone could just sit around in a dark place for hours downing alcohol mystified me, holiday or not.
Behind me, Louise said something, and when I turned I paused for a moment, studying her. She looked tired, drawn and yellowed. Her hand shook a little as she raised her glass of water, and she just sat there staring.
“What?” I asked, pushing false cheer into my voice.
“I said I wish it were over,” she repeated, smiling a little, a secret smile.
I nodded. “Me too!” I said, immediately regretting it as her face folded up into something tight and pained. An awkward silence drifted into place, settling on us like thick humid smoke. In the darkness outside the drunks were in force, singing and shouting, some fights breaking out. I listened for a while, trying to piece together the tableau of the parade, wishing, for a brief moment, that I was one of them, carefree and inebriated on the streets. It was a pleasant fantasy: Free and happy, hours away from hangover and regret.
When I turned away from the window again, Louise had gone to bed, and the kitchen was dark. I crossed to the light switch and flicked it on, but nothing happened. A quick glance into the refrigerator told me the power was off, and after a moment’s shock I realized that they’d finally cut us off.
Feeling strangely jolly, I went to the overburdened table, found our neat stack of power bills, and tossed them into the garbage. It was not an ideal solution, but it was a solution and that excited me. We no longer had to worry about the power bill—we no longer had power.
I lit a stubby candle I found rolling about in one of the drawers and sat down with that day’s paper—thinner than I remembered, a skinny pile of greasy newsprint. In the peaceful silence of the evening I scanned the stories, almost all from wire services, no local content to speak of. It was unusually cold, one story reported, with summer so close at hand, and there had been unusual amounts of rain. I glanced up at the grimy window, the clear gray-blue night sky clear and cloudless; I hadn’t noticed so much rain. Looking up at the ceiling, I studied the huge stain framing the sagging tiles, fading irregular circles of brown converging on a glistening black center, where several fat drops of liquid clung.
On page three there were several articles about protests that had turned into riots, with several people killed and beaten. I squinted through the whole story, wondering how I’d missed it, just a few blocks away. Water kept dripping onto the paper, smearing everything, and each time I had to wipe it away with the cuff of my bathrobe, which was pitch black. It was humid and hot in the kitchen anyway, so I tore the bathrobe off, sweating, and crossed back to the window to open it up and let some air in. It didn’t do much good; everything felt like jelly outside, boiled into pudding.
The noise was deafening, explosions, booming cacophony everywhere. I wanted to close the window, but feared the end result would suffocate me—even the jellied air was better than no air at all. I noticed how silent the apartment was. Now that the power was off, it was much quieter—I’d been amazed to realize how much racket the appliances made on a regular basis. Now the place was serene and meditative. After a moment, I frowned, half-turning towards the doorway.
“Where are you?”
She didn’t respond right away. After a moment, measured only in my silent heartbeat, she called out “In the bedroom, of course!”
She sounded tired, and I nodded. No reason to bother her. Keeping the apartment under such conditions wasn’t easy work, even with two of us keeping at it. No power, no water, no money for supplies—cleaning had become a simple matter of dusting with a dry cloth and trying to at least keep everything neat.
I looked at our table, piled high with paper and trash. I couldn’t recall when I’d taken out the garbage last. I always felt like people were staring at me when I left the apartment, whispering. So I stayed in all the time.
A cool breeze pushed in through the window, sweet-smelling and reminding me, suddenly and forcefully, of camping as a kid. I’d grown up in the city, and camping had been an amazing adventure. Three times I’d gone camping with my Boy Scout troop, before I’d been forced to quit because we couldn’t pay the dues. The smell of the air brought it all back to me, the wonder of being out in the woods, dirty and not caring, the air calm and dry and cool around you.
It was raining again.
I turned and stopped. The table. The table was a tower of mess. Anger swept through me, anger at myself, at both of us. For letting things get to this state. With a snarl I swept my arms through it all, pushing it onto the floor with a crash. I stood there panting, triumphant.
“What’s happening?” Louise called weakly from the bedroom, and then dissolved into a series of wet coughs. “What’s happening!?”
I was annoyed at her tone, so melodramatic. “Nothing,” I called back, feeling too tired to argue. “Absolutely nothing.”
She laughed, a weak, phlegmy sound that lingered too long. “That was sure loud for nothing!”
She wanted me to respond, to laugh with her. She wanted me to walk back to the tiny bedroom, cluttered with things, and laugh with her. I couldn’t. The idea of walking through our tight, constricted apartment terrified me. I needed space. There was none to be had, and less than anywhere else in the bedroom, which was now a bed in a web of objects. The idea of burrowing into it with her hot body next to me was horrifying.
I kicked listlessly at the detritus of our financial life—the corpse of it, really—and circled the table. The cool air felt good, pushing in through the window. I wanted a cup of coffee but there was no coffee to be had; we were sliding back towards primitive times.
I wanted a sweater, but they were all in the bedroom. It was too quiet back there, too still, and I didn’t want to disturb the waters. There was an unpleasant smell back there as well, I thought, and made a mental note to investigate its cause someday, root it out and sanitize it. We’d neglected the housekeeping and something had taken root back there, spidering its way into the walls, black veins of rot. I didn’t want coffee any more. I wanted liquor. I would have sold a kidney for a bottle of rye. But no one would want my dry, tinderlike kidneys.
Stopping at the window again, I shivered in the cold wind blowing in and watched the tiny ghosts and goblins crossing the streets, plastic faces glowing in the streetlights. I remembered being one of them. The sound of tires on the boulevard nearby was an endless, looping buzz, tiny voices floating up to me, incoherent and cheerful. I could smell cigarette smoke in the air—kids standing on our stoop again, smoking and drinking beer hidden in a paper bag—and the sharp hint of ozone that warned of rain. It had been like this when I’d been a kid, too, everything fresh and exciting, waiting for me. Now it was all ruined and lost.
I turned away and faced the doorway that led to our claustrophobic living room. Silence and shadows poured from it, flooding the kitchen and the dim light feeding into it from the streetlights outside. Wind howled. I listened, straining to hear something from the bedroom, and a sharp, confusing icepick stabbed into my chest, making my heart pound. I faced the doorway and willed a sound to come to my ears, anything. Nothing came.
Through the walls, I could hear people shouting in the next-door apartment. Cheering and clapping, touchdown, a football game—happy people. I hated them.
Through the frigid air, I took a hesitating step forward and stopped. I did not want to go back to the bedroom. I did not want to pass through the suffocating, frozen living room and then into the tight, stuffy air of the bedroom.
Behind me, someone began pounding on the door. Shouting.
I stepped into the living room, where the drapes were pulled tight and it was pitch black. I was relieved. I didn’t want to see what we’d let it sink into. Long ago, it had been bright and sparse, perfectly balanced—there were enough comfortable places to sit, enough flat surfaces stained with rings of endless teacups and beer glasses, but it wasn’t crowded. We’d worked hard to make sure it wasn’t crowded. But we’d stopped working, and it had become a dumping ground, a garbage pit.
I waded through the night towards the slight outline of the bedroom door. The banging on the door continued. There was singing outside, beautiful voices in harmony. For a moment they seemed to be in rhythm, the pounding and the singing, singing and pounding. It was just coincidence, and slowly the singing faded away, muffled in darkness.
I stood in the doorway for a moment, blind. The air was cold and still, absolutely still. With the moonlight from the small bedroom window, I could see her outline on the bed; she was so small, so thin. So still.
I took a hesitant step forward. I knew the pathways around the bed by heart, the narrow bits of blank floor. Left would take me towards the closet and the dresser. Right would take me to the lane that led to the bed, just wide enough for us to crawl in, one after the other. I went right and placed my hand on the mattress. It was cold, and I began to shiver as I climbed up into the bed, gently pushing her body aside to make room. I didn’t embrace her. I just lay next to her and stared up at the blank, dark ceiling.
So much time.
I closed my eyes. The singing outside was still audible, barely, drifting away, children walking through the night. More distant, somehow, I could hear the pounding and shouting from the kitchen as if through a pillow, distant and obscure.
Turning my head, I stared out the window at the snow as it rained down, big fluffy kernels of white swirling around.