Listening

Well, I feel like throwing another one of my stories online, so the following is a story I wrote the same semester that I wrote “The Sound of His Crying,” another straight fiction piece  called “Listening.”  Enjoy!

My court-appointed therapist told me I was making myself depressed and was probably developing agoraphobia by sitting inside doing nothing all day.  Dr. Auburn suggested– prescribed— that I go out and spend time in public places.  Lots of time.  “Walk around the mall or park or the like.  Talk to people, even if it’s just saying ‘just looking’ to salespeople.  Or, if all else fails, try people-watching.”  So off I went, wandering around the mall, gaping at old people “mall walking” (isn’t that what they invented parks for?) and wondering why there were so many packs of middle-schoolers with their parents’ credit cards in hand, arms loaded with purchases.

Why I was “sitting inside doing nothing all day” was, in part, because I can’t get a job.  I can’t get one because I’m twenty years old with no diploma or GED, and in every job interview I have to tell potential employers that I have a legally-enforced curfew of 10:00 PM.  My parole officer, a self-righteous prick named Officer Hardy, who is the only person besides Dr. Auburn who I have regular contact with, has refused to budge on that issue.  Being two years out of juvenile detention with my lack of qualifications or skill set, the curfew destroys the chances of getting the only job I could realistically do– night shift stocking and truck unloading.  The result is living off a welfare check in a tiny apartment with just enough money for food.  I’ve seen others in my apartment complex somehow stretching their welfare checks to make car payments or to buy a nice TV, but those things were not for me– I got used to not having those things while I was in juvie, and I needed every cent I received to fuel my black hole of an appetite.  I’m a big boy, six feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds, a mixture of natural bulk, fat, and muscle.  Even when I’m eating well I always feel hungry.  So I have time without end, but no TV, little interest in books,  and no friends or family that will have anything to do with me anymore since the incident that got me sent to juvie.

I sat on a bench, too nervous and awkward to talk to anybody.  I was never good at talking, especially not without a clear purpose: I couldn’t chat just to chat.

I decided to try people-watching, but I didn’t like it.  I can’t understand why anybody does it as a hobby.  It seemed too fake to me.  Too much of it depended on my imagination, on putting words into people’s mouths.  I found myself judging others for their surface selves and for what I imagined of them.  I hated the excess, the phony faces, the people trying to one-up and impress.  The people in the mall made me sick, and the longer I watched the nastier the conversations I invented for them became.  I imagined a grandmother with a severe face assaulting a young child with a stream of profanity, a young couple mocking a store worker, a young mother teaching children racial slurs.  I fled from the mall, my head aching from what I saw and imagined.

As I walked home I thought about why it was that everybody had made me so sick.  I realized that my problem was partially with the greed: I had spent three years in a place where money didn’t really exist, and looking back  saw that it was the one thing about juvie that would be worth having back.

Even though I don’t care for books, I do love learning.  I’ve just always had issues with reading because I have dyslexia.  That’s the big reason I never got my GED in juvie– they offered a do-it-yourself program with plenty of reading and almost no instruction.  Just a once-a-week tutor hired by the state, and he didn’t even try.  I’ve always learned best by hearing things explained, and the time or two I tried to go to his classes he did very little explaining.  With my appreciation of learning in mind I came up with a new plan of how I could go out in the world and spend time among people without rubbing my face in what I hated about people and the world.

The next morning I walked three miles up to the nearby college campus.  Even though I had lived in the city my whole life, with the exception of juvie which was just outside of city limits (though it may as well have been a whole world away), I had never been on campus. I had always just rode by with a sense of innocent awe of the antiqued buildings and the knowledge contained within.  Finally setting foot on campus, I quickly saw that my long-standing perception was a little exaggerated, realizing that college was essentially a bunch of people my age mixing learning with socializing, much like how high school was for me before I went to juvie, though a little more mature in this setting.  That realization should have made me feel more comfortable, but juvie just taught me to not trust teenagers and young adults.  They often were the ones who would do the cruelest things, and were much more likely to get away with it.  I was shocked by the stories I heard about the things the others did that weren’t the reason they were in juvie.

I pushed my fear down the best I could, though admittedly I was still nervous as hell.  I  wandered between buildings and over a long lawn I later learned was called the Quad and found a bench near a stop for the shuttle system that bussed students to the far ends of campus.  I pulled the hood of my black hoodie up, ignoring the added heat it gave in the spring sunlight, and closed my eyes.  I wasn’t there to people-watch.

I was there to listen.

During the next few weeks that spot became my favorite place in the world.  I didn’t always do my listening there– I rotated through four different locations between 8:30 and 4:00 to avoid suspicion of those who may pass by multiple times, but my two and a half hours near that shuttle stop was always the highlight of my day.

I started to think of each spot as a unique TV show, or rather, more like a radio show since the visual element had been eliminated.  Two of them seemed to be soap operas, constant tension and drama.  The shuttle stop spot tended to be the juiciest.

My cast of characters was great– I almost used the word “beautiful,” but that generally implies something you see, and I honestly didn’t know what they looked like.  Looking was against the rules I set for my journeys out in public after the people-watching incident.  Instead, I just pretended to sleep or read the book I bought as part of my farce.  No, if I was going to go out in the world, I was going to really try to learn the people on a deeper level than basic visual recognition.

My regulars (nicknames invented where I don’t know the real names): Marcy, Jaymee (yes, this is the correct spelling, I heard her spell it out during a phone conversation), Terrance,  Epping, Jake, “Ernie” (he sounds just like the puppet on Sesame Street), and “Deep-Voice Woman.”  And these were just those waiting for the bus.

I lived through them.  I heard their tales of romance, particularly of the exploits of Marcy.  Tears silently roll down my face for their heartbreaks.  I smiled as Jaymee lectured to anyone who would listen on literature.  I listened as Jake and “Ernie” debated almost every topic conceivable, from politics to brands, using pseudo-intellectual language, and in spite of their differing opinions it was clear they had been longtime friends.

Some of my favorite episodes were on rainy days.  Tension was heightened.  On those days Jake and “Ernie” became the stars, their arguments being taken to more exaggerated levels.  On my first rainy day they almost got into a shouting match over computer operating systems, Jake a staunch Windows supporter, “Ernie” loving something called Fedora.  “Deep Voice Woman” got involved, voicing support for Mac, which somehow managed to anger both of the young men.  Another of the most memorable episodes, though this one was on a sunny day, featured Epping trying unsuccessfully to get out of a conversation started by Jaymee about A Farewell to Arms.  Surprisingly, she managed to pique my interest in the book, in spite of my dyslexia, while driving Epping crazy until the shuttle bus arrived.  I never got the book, but it sounded interesting.

Through all of the installments, no one ever spoke to me more than a simple, “Is this seat taken?” in reference to the other half of the bench, and none of the handful of people who spoke to me were among the group whose lives I was obsessed with.

I went to the campus with a dedication that most people don’t even have for their jobs.  It became kind of like a job to me, but not menial labor, but rather the type of job one would dream about their whole life and turns out to be better than they imagined.  I got a check regularly from the government, plus I felt productive and happy.  Happier than I had been since I was little.

I made some changes in my life: I started eating less because I was no longer always within a few steps of my fridge and I hated bringing snacks because chewing made it harder to listen.  I lost weight, about twenty pounds, from that and from the six miles I was walking each day to get to and from campus.  I also spent money on a new wardrobe to better blend in with my new environment– three or four new t-shirts, two pairs of pants, and a dark brown hoodie with the name of a band I’d never listened to across the back.  I improved my hygiene habits because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, or drive people away by being “that smelly guy on the bench who always wears the same clothes.”  It wasn’t long at all before I went from looking (and smelling) like a homeless man to looking like a college kid living on a budget, which, with the exception of class attendance, I was.  And from some conversations I’d heard, there was a good number of students who were about as active in their class attendance as I.

Dr. Auburn said he was very impressed at the progress I was making and praised me for finding a creative way to learn to break away from my introversion and make steps towards functioning normally and safely in society.  Officer Hardy just asked me why the hell I didn’t have a job yet.

I followed my ritual every weekday– woke at six, showered, dressed, ate cold breakfast, walked to campus, spent most of the day listening, then walked home, made a big dinner, and went to sleep.  I left campus early on Fridays to meet with Dr. Auburn.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Until today.

This afternoon I was pretending to read my book when I felt somebody sit next to me.  After a few moments the person tapped on my shoulder.  I looked up to see a beautiful young woman with dark eyes and brown hair looking at me with a smile.  “Hi,” she said with a  voice I instantly knew belonged to Jaymee.  I stared in response, my mind screaming, This is against my rules!  Her smile not faltering, she continued.  “I’ve seen you here almost every day this semester, and you’re always reading that book.  You must’ve read it a dozen times.  I’m really curious– what is it about?  What makes it so good?”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I realized that I didn’t know a single thing about the book other than the title– Night: Washington Boulevard— and the author’s name– Mayer Clark.  I wasn’t even sure what genre it was.  The words on the page were the furthest thing from my mind when I had the book open.

I  struggled to make a sound, but my body resisted.  I cleared my throat several times before it would allow any noise.  “Y-you know,” I said, the stuttered words feeling like they were being spoken by a different person, “I- I’m trying to figure that out myself.”

She laughed.  “God, that’s how I feel about half the stuff I read.”  She put out her hand.  “I’m Jaymee.”

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Published in: on January 16, 2014 at 10:23 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Loved this story. I think it needs a bit more polishing before it’s publishable but you definitely show promise as a writer.

    • Thanks! I’ll definitely give this and a number of other stories more polish after I finish my second draft of my novel.


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