The Lost Art of Listening
Susan Taylor Chehak
The Moon Glow cottages were set back in the woods, backdropped by a mountain vista with a drastic drop-off toward the road, and from the front porch—it wasn’t really a porch, more like a stoop, four feet square with barely room for a chair—you could get the full vastness of the view, the sky wide and high and your own puny presence there amongst the chipmunks and the crows.
Sam was no one. He was nothing. She didn’t love him. She didn’t know that he loved her. Or if she did, she didn’t care. They were friends, that was all.
He’d unpacked and put away his things, such as they were. The compact rental gleamed in the glow of the yard light, now that it was dusk and its engine ticked. The other cottages were dark as far as he could see—which wasn’t far—as they trailed off down the winding path farther off into the mystery of the trees.
Yours has the best view, the old woman had said, handing him the keys. Her teeth were gray, her smile small. Her T-shirt was torn at the neck, and her boots were stones as she stomped off to her own house up the way. Neon in the night: Moon Glow. Vacancy.
The stars stared down, observing him with stunning unconcern.
~ ~ ~
The screaming started with the last beer. He’d popped the top and slurped the foam. The starlight had begun to blur in a way that let him know that yes, he would get some sleep tonight. He’d settled in the chair outside, bundled against the chill that seeped in from the shadows, from the trees. Bats had given up their swoop. The forest behind him was still. The silence had turned deep and cold.
At first he thought it was a cat, yowling. But then the shrieks widened, heightened, filled the air and the forest all around. A woman? Some violence being done to something. An owl’s screech? Some sort of attack, predator and prey. A coyote with a rabbit, say. A mountain lion with a fox. Or just the rutting bugle of an elk, though spring isn’t the season for that. One scream, high and mighty, and then two.
At the third, he was on his feet. Beer cans clattered off the porch onto the grass. The chair smacked back.
Sam was a coward. He was a chump. He was a drunk and lost and lovelorn fool.
~ ~ ~
The next morning he was up before dawn, as was his habit. Creeping around in the dark with the thrill of knowing the rest of the world around him might still be asleep and dreaming, but he’d got the jump, and by the time they were digging into their breakfast he’d have already put in half a day’s work. As if that mattered. As if he’d make good use of the time as it stretched out into emptiness and ended up swimming in beer. Or worse.
It was the dissertation, piling up pages on “The Lost Art of Listening,” which he’d been digging into for the last three years as if it were his own grave. Or so she said before she packed him up and sent him off to get the job done, once and for all. And don’t come back until it’s finished, she said. Her hair, a halo in the morning light. Eyes bright, smile wide. She loved him in her way, but not like that.
He slithered from his bed—it wasn’t a bed; it was a cot—and stumbled to the bathroom. Didn’t stumble, plodded. Slapped bare feet against bare wood as the mountain chill sifted in through the crannies and the cracks on the whistle of the wind.
A scurry of something—mice maybe. He looked out the window to see the night submerged in fog, with woodland gleaming through it—trees sentry to the horizon, marching up the gulch—and the surprise of lights in the beyond. Thick beams shafted upward from somewhere deep in the forest that rolled all the way up toward the tree line, before it staggered and fell short.
He leaned closer to the glass as if that might help him see. Blinking. Squinting. Shivering at the sight of five lights beaming upward. One began to move to the left, slowly at first, then slid off to fade in the fog where the meadow opened up toward the road that fell away into the valley and a winding rill of runoff after that.
A second light moved left—to the east, he figured—then dimmed and disappeared. The others shimmered, softened, faded, brightened, hardened, and again there were five. No stars. No black sky. Just a gauze of low clouds, hanging mist, and the lights.
He wanted to call out to someone and say, Hey, come here, Look at this, What the hell is that?, Do you see it too? She’d sit up, groggy, annoyed. She’d straggle over, pushing back her hair, nightdress falling open. Or no, T-shirt hanging slack. And then eyes widening, jaw dropping. What IS that?
~ ~ ~
There was a family in the cottage next to Sam’s. Not a family, just a woman and a kid. He had a glimpse of her. Face at the window. Flash of flowered fabric in the doorway. That cottage had a better porch, with an overhang for shade.
The kid was in the yard. Sam was in his doorway—mountain sunlight clear and clean, whispering pines, scurry of chipmunks, swoop of hawk, call of crow—waiting for another sighting of the mom. Fat, he guessed.
Hey, mister, the boy said.
Sam stepped down from the porch. The kid had been scratching figures in the dirt with a stick. He was a lumpy boy, with thick limbs and big feet, a flat face and eyes that squinted through thick glasses beneath a thick tangle of blond hair. Damaged, Sam supposed. Something missing upstairs.
Until: Hey, mister. You see them lights last night?
~ ~ ~
Sam was supposed to be working, but instead he was searching. He was supposed to be disconnected, that was the whole point of this place—Moon Glow—and him in it. She had set it all up for him. The price was right in the off-season, when the snow was melting up top, then draining down to sodden the land below. He had a typewriter and his books and his files. No laptop, no Internet. Just Sam and his ideas and the pages piling up.
The kid—idiot or genius—turned circles in the grass. His mother sat on her porch, dressed now in big jeans and a T-shirt over bobbing breasts, gazing at the sky. Idiot or genius herself, it was impossible to tell. They might have been thinking the same of Sam over here on his stoop, poking at his phone, peering at its small screen.
Aurora borealis: A natural light display in the sky, particularly in the high altitude regions, caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the thermosphere. But the images featureless glow didn’t match Sam’s lights, which had shone straight up, like spotlights. Also, his lights had moved.
Now the kid was rolling in the mud, and the mother clapped and laughed and showed a mouth full of broken teeth when she turned to grin at Sam, her blond hair crazy on her head. He waved and smiled back. The kid was a pig in the muck.
~ ~ ~
Maybe it was something to do with the fog. Distorting lights on the road that wound through the valley below the crest, say.
Or hunters with flares and flashlights, moving through the trees, but it wasn’t the season for that.
She would have said this first, he knew. So he called her.
Hey. And, Hey. And, What? And, How’s it going? And this and that until he finally came around to the lights, and then she lasered right in and said, Are you working? And, Yes, sure, of course. I’m just taking a break. There’s this retarded kid and his mother here. He figured she’d find that funny, because that’s how it used to be. Her phrase: You’re a magnet for crazy people. Which was supposed to be an asset, but now it had become a flaw. Takes one to know one, like that. So off she went, and it was as if she had a right to her cold appraisal. Big sister. You loser, Sam. You’ll find anything, use anything, to keep from doing what you need to do. An idiot and his mother? You’re conferring with them about some lights in the sky that you think you saw? She sputtered. Her outrage bloomed until she couldn’t go on. That’s how much she disliked him anymore. She slammed the phone down. Or anyway the connection was lost. The planets turned. Stars wheeled.
The kid was naked in the yard, squealing as his mother hosed him down. The old lady in her boots was busy pulling weeds along the drive.
~ ~ ~
The mom stomped through the grass and up onto Sam’s stoop. She banged on his door, shocking him up out of the depths of his investigation—UFO sightings now and what they might mean. Extraterrestrials or glimpses into a deeper reality? Outer space or inner space and a bald man with glasses telling him to have no fear—so by the time he opened the door, she’d spun herself into a storm that blew the knob out of his hand and slammed him back inside.
It was something about her son and how he’d scared him. Sam looked past her to the cabin there where the boy sat curled in on himself and thought, didn’t say: Not me, ma’am, you scared him, you’re scaring me, I’ve got work to do, I don’t have time for this, you and your retard kid.
The old lady had come to her door then too, and she was glaring at the two of them, hands on her hips, baggy brown shorts, varicose shins.
The mom stopped. She took a breath, pulled herself up, and threw her shoulders back, causing her breasts to lift in an appealing way. Her hands were in her hair. It occurred to Sam then that her life must be very difficult. A woman alone. With a moron for a kid. Or whatever it was that was wrong with him. Maybe it swung the other way and he was a savant. Autistic, like. Maybe he played the piano, songs he’d never heard. Or counted in prime numbers. Calculated calendars forward and backward in time.
I’m sorry, Sam said. Keeping his eyes on hers—which were a surprisingly brilliant green—Sam stepped back, two paces. Her hair seemed to glow in the sunlight. Her cheek was bruised and her mouth was slightly open, pink and moist, revealing that feral gleam of ruined teeth.
Two steps back. A nod. And then, slowly, carefully, gently, he closed the door.
* * *
He waited until he was alone. Staring at the wall, the floor, the small print painting of a field, green with grass, bright with some kind of yellow flower that didn’t seem real.
The mother and the boy had gone rattling off in an old truck. Hillbillies, he decided. There was something wrong there, besides her looks and his dim wit. Maybe she’d stolen him from somewhere—a mall, a school, his father—but why not a better kid if you were going to go to the trouble of that? And then the loop: Because if the kid was stolen and he was smart, he’d tell, so she’d had to take an idiot and make him hers to keep. Too dumb to know the difference, like.
He shut it off right there and got up and got going. He wasn’t sure why it mattered that they’d gone, except he didn’t want questions or comments or conversation or explanations or expectations. The old lady’s place was dark too. He guessed it was siesta time for her, with the TV and a beer and the fan cranked to high. The sky was so bright and blue, it was like a migraine up there waiting to descend and swallow Sam whole.
~ ~ ~
Behind his cabin there was a path that dipped down into the gully, between the trees, and then wound along its way, getting colder in the shadows. It was wet too, so maybe there was a creek down there. A stream anyway. Runoff from the snowy peaks, feeding the river full of fish, the reservoir, the city down the way. All those toilets flushing, then off toward the sea. The intricate connections between things killed him sometimes.
He was looking for evidence. Burned turf. Broken trees. Flare remains. A suggestion of fire. Or boots tromping. Pressed grasses, crop circles.
Was it as simple as a gang of school kids in the woods for a party? There was evidence of that: bottles and cans and rubbers and butts.
The stillness scared him. The woods, pristine and ancient, seemed primeval, as if no one else had been there since the beginning of time. He felt there must be predators around, hidden just out of sight, following him with yellow eyes. Animal or alien or human. Such thoughts stopped him in his tracks. He could feel the crawl of eyes, that shiver of attention, that buzz of contact, his skin was singing with it. You’re not alone, son, his father said, meaning something else altogether. Where were the birds? Where was the wind? The stillness was so deep, it felt like death.
Except Sam’s own clomping around as he shook free and moved on, tearing through the brush and stomping on the path, coins jangling in his pockets—if there was anything out there, it would hear him coming and would flee or hide. Critters anyway. Hunters, maybe not, and in his white shirt and khaki shorts, he didn’t want anybody guessing he was anything but a human and not a target or the meat for their next meal, animal or man or alien, any one of them.
He had a talent for whistling that was useful for parties and drunken walks back home from the bars in the city after dark. It was good for the girls too, if there were any. For some reason they seemed drawn to a man who could whistle a tune. Good lips, maybe. Good tongue. Gap-tooth man, whistling goat, twinkle in his eye.
Ultimately, she got sick of it though. Another charm that had become an irritation. Shut the fuck up, and all that. Because he was always putting pop tunes in her head, and she couldn’t shake them out again. Now, on his own, hands in his pockets jangling change and a whistle in the air--Take me home, country road, or some-such nonsense, with variations in the trills—he was strolling in the woods like a regular gentleman farmer. Like he owned the place. And expecting to find what?
Footprints, huge and ragged in the mud. Bigfoot? A yeti with a flashlight. A whole gang of them with a whole bag full of flashlights.
Or burned spots. Scorched earth. Faint prints of peewee feet. Little gray men hunkered in the bush or looking down on him from the tops of the trees.
Boys with headlamps and guns out hunting coyotes and deer.
What he found instead was blackened trees and broken glass. The glitter of it stopped him in his tracks. His whistle was cut short, and the tune was left to hang. There was the screech of a jay. Skitter and squeak of chipmunks. Marmot bark. Crow swoop. Hawk’s slow turn.
A little ways beyond a stream flowed past, pretty as a picture book, and on its other side a cabin, all dressed up in No Trespassing signs and tangles of barbed wire, was busy falling in on itself, an implosion of logs on a weedy hump of land. Violators will be prosecuted. Hunting on private land is prohibited by law.
The water looked too wide and deep to cross, and anyway Sam had seen enough. He crunched back through the broken glass, past the blackened trees that yielded to the green glory riot of sudden spring. Bursts of yellow dandelion. Wildflowers of every color waving in the breeze.
None of which explained the lights Sam had seen out there that way the night before.
~ ~ ~
The mom was hanging clothes on a line, and the kid was inside doing who knows what. Equations, maybe. Poetry. His little pants and shirts flopped in the breeze. Her skirt tangled in her legs.
Sam sat on his stoop throwing back a beer or two or so. Sips of bourbon in between. He examined his legs—the bloody scrapes and scratches evidence of some battle he’d won, because after all, here he was. Until the old woman came tromping over—in her boots and her T-shirt and her tits flopping and her yellow hair like chicken fluff—to tell him not to leave his empties in the grass. Just the sight of her drove him back inside again. That and the mom glaring at him like he was doing something wrong by just being there in the world at the same time as her.
He tried to read but couldn’t do it. He closed his eyes and was gone to another place, until he woke to the last dusk and dry mouth and fuddled head. He warmed a can of beans, then sat at the table shoveling them in with his fork held awkward, throwing back the bourbon to wash them down.
~ ~ ~
A vigil at the window then. He set himself up just so. Chair. Binoculars. Bottle. The kid had stopped his caterwaul and must have been sleeping. Sam pictured the mom, curled on her own bed. Snug. Fan turning, sifting a breeze in her hair. Cooling the sweat on her throat.
That was far as he chose to take it.
He was at the window, looking out the other way, facing the forest and waiting for the lights. To him they were a sign that there is more to it than what’s already here, more beyond all this, more than just him. More than only her.
~ ~ ~
Long past dawn and the heat of the day was already settling down on the world, pressing, full of flying things—mosquitoes, bees, butterflies, hawks and crows and screaming jays. If there were lights in the night, he’d missed them. Snoring at the window, forehead on the sill. He pulled his hair down forward to hide the indentation when he saw the mom and asked her if the boy had seen them again. She said nothing, only looked at him, then turned away—the anger coming off her in waves so strong, he almost reached for her, to touch her, put his arms around the storm, and hold it close against himself, feel it rage.
So then he couldn’t ask the kid either.
The old woman was out sweeping the walks. Flaccid butt beneath baggy pants.
The sunlight moved across the floor. The typewriter was still. His cellphone was dead. This is what you wanted, he heard her say. She’d kick him if she could. Like pounding on a motor to cough it into life. Or a dog to get it to stand up. Or a door to get it unstuck. Fly open. Walk through.
~ ~ ~
Sam will try to see the lights again tonight. And then again tomorrow. He’ll be watching, waiting, for as long as it takes.
A coyote howls on the rise above the Moon Glow cottages, chasing rabbits through the dusky meadow off beyond. The rill spills between its rocks. Crows scab the trees. Jays scream. Woodpeckers knock. A mouse shudders in the high grass.
In the yard the child runs and squeals. His mother lights a cigarette. Smoke roils; she smiles. The old woman, on her knees in the dirt, leans back, lifts her face to the sun, closes her eyes.
All this, he thinks.
She told him. She said: Sam, it has to be enough.