His vow of silence has failed because he rambles on to himself all day long. He tells himself he needs to deal with the source of the noise rather than focus on its surface. The problem is he can’t yank out his voice like a bad tooth. It keeps talking to him, an internal propagandist that constantly needs reasoning with. Even when he sleeps, words and scenes occupy his mind. He has too many words and arguments roaming around in his head, more than he can organize or control. Where does his voice lead him, or is he mistaken in thinking of it as the leader?
Tired of his own racket and solitude, he leaves his house on the pretext of picking up some things at the grocery store, but he suspects he’s looking for a subject to grind against. He grumbles at someone who’s driving too fast and turns up the radio, drawn by arguing voices. At the grocery store he grabs a plastic shopping basket and notices long lines at the self-check stations, though the lines with human checkers are short. A neighbor he prefers to avoid, the firebrand leader of their HOA, passes by pushing one of the smaller shopping carts and veers up an aisle as if he needs to bother to elude him.
Dreading the nearness of others, he eyes the short list he’s scribbled on a scrap of paper, his mind drifting to the HOA leader. Does he subconsciously want to pick a fight? He didn’t come here to make a menace of himself, did he? He goes about his business and eventually finds everything on the list, and with his limited number of items he’s eligible for the express lane. But his neighbor is at the rear of the line, sees him approaching, and looks as if he’ll pretend he forgot something and bolt to a far corner of the store. His neighbor shuffles his feet and looks away, not uttering a word. Does he fear a nasty exchange? Does he feel vulnerable without the HOA bylaws to protect him? Why speak to him? Keep quiet, don’t hover over his shoulder, don’t bump him or clip his heel.
His neighbor’s turn comes and he’s off, walking fast to the counter. He sets his items down, sticks his credit card in the machine and it soon beeps. His items are bagged, and as he starts for the exit he pivots and tries to smile, but it comes across as a sneer. He makes an effort to heave the low side of his mouth up, though he can’t quite lift the corner, resentment anchors it, and who could help laughing at this phony civility? A laugh does escape, wilting his neighbor’s attempted smile, causing him to step slightly in his direction. His neighbor then retreats, catching his breath and clutching the bag handles in what could be interpreted as a fist or a choking grip.
He has the neighbor’s phone number and email in the HOA directory, he reflects as his groceries are rung up. He could write something out, ask what was behind his sneer and his half step toward him. Would he like to elaborate? He lifts his bags off the counter and thanks the checker for her service, in the next moment asking himself why the neighbor should feel justified in his anger when he’d done nothing except chuckle at his pathetic smile?
He’s relieved to get his car inside his garage, the door shut. He drops his grocery bags on the kitchen counter and puts the items away, washes his hands, and plops in a comfortable chair. He focuses on calming himself. He sits for a few minutes, but the possibility of a reaction from the neighbor seeps into his consciousness. He goes to his computer and checks his email. No message from him. Is the idea that the neighbor would retaliate absurd? Is he the one who’s overdoing it?
He walks to his den and turns on the TV, looking to change the subject, but the sound of the TV gets on his nerves no matter which channel he tries. As soon as he shuts the TV off his phone rings, and his first thought is that his neighbor is calling to tell him off. He lets it ring, caller ID tells him nothing recognizable, and the ringing stops. He waits to see if the caller leaves a message. No message is left. If it was the HOA king he does have a basis for fearing retaliation for letting out a laugh, perhaps due to lingering resentment over the chimney work he did not ask for permission to pursue and the squabble over his tree limbs hanging too close to the sidewalk. He’s never regretted fighting back, and inside the fight continues, possibly on both sides.
His energy sags. He sits and again switches the TV on, sees people expressing conflicting opinions, the moderator gazing in disbelief at a guest and chipping in his opinion in the form of a flippant question. He mutes the TV, but the sight of moving mouths disturbs him, and he turns it off. People, he thinks, are often at their worst when expressing their opinions, and that includes him.
His doorbell rings, and he’s reluctant to answer it. He rises and creeps forward, tilting his head to see if a familiar person is peering through the side window. He sees no one and worries the ringer judges it best to remain hidden behind the door. If he edges into the hallway the ringer could spot him and then he’d be trapped, unable to pretend not to be at home. Another ring, a head peeks around. He jerks his head back, guessing the HOA king has caught a glimpse of him. An insistent knock follows. The HOA king has apparently come here to make trouble. He’s surely not here to offer a warm embrace, to grasp the wayward chuckler under his wing, all disputes buried too deep to remember.
He moves toward the door, fearing he’ll be viewed as a coward if he doesn’t respond to the knock. Why should he be afraid of the consequences of opening his door? He’s not concealing hostages, except his unruly gang of sentences unfurling one after another. He twists the bolt and pulls the door back, and the HOA king’s eyes widen.
“I’d about given up on you,” he says.
“I’ve about given up on myself.”
The HOA king blinks and shifts his head, considering the implications of the remark.
“I have regrets,” he says, “about my behavior earlier. We’re neighbors and I should have approached and spoken civil words, and if it seemed welcome, shaken your hand.”
He wishes he could stick a ribbon of paper in in the HOA king’s mouth to measure his level of sincerity or record whatever could be roaring in his interior, name calling, imagined physical damage to his listener, holding his head underwater and the like.
“I accept your kind words and extend my hand,” he says, and what else should he say to a repentant man at his door?
They shake, both of them awkward, their hands not fitting together properly. The HOA king is the first to remove his hand, appearing pleased he’s recovered some high ground. Could he be contemplating a run for county judge?
“Let me know if I can help you,” he says and starts down the walk, waving when he reaches the sidewalk, barely glancing at his wave’s target.
No need for a litmus test, he thinks, annoyed that the visit seemed aimed at reclaiming a superior position. He closes the door, muttering to himself. He’ll probably be solicited for a campaign donation, our next county judge grown right here in our own subdivision.
He sits at his computer and types the neighbor’s name into a search engine to see if there’s anything online about a run for public office. He finds no mention of it and suspects he’s just now laying the groundwork, feeling out donors and conducting polls so he can decide what his beliefs are. But why anger himself with the notion of his neighbor running for county judge? He’s being completely unfair. He should go to him and apologize for his attitude and thoughts, though a confession could cause the HOA king to view him with condescension and amusement. Is he going to abandon the idea out of fear?
He’s on his feet and out the door, urging himself toward his neighbor’s place, but he freezes at the sight of the front door. Words come to him, none of which he wants his neighbor to hear. Why should he open himself to a person who has had no charitable opinion of him? He reverses course.
Back at his house, he hopes his neighbor hasn’t seen him lurking outside and assumed he intended to air past grievances. Before a minute passes, his phone rings. Is his neighbor calling to ask why he was there? He watches the phone as if it might start moving. He imagines putting the handset to his ear but does not step toward it.
© Glen Pourciau
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Glen’s interview]