edited by professor dan leo
illustrated by rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus
executive producer: kathleen maher
part four of fifteen
to begin at the beginning, click here
“What was that?” said Mr. Jones.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“I heard a voice. Like a girl’s.”
He spoke more quickly now, with fewer and shorter pauses.
“A slightly muffled voice,” he said, “but still --”
“Just the breeze,” I said. “In the trees.”
He looked up, around, then down.
“Can it be I’m finally losing my mind?” he asked. “At the age of eighty-three?”
There was a light on in a yellow fixture above the doorway, and I could see the consternation in the old man’s eyes.
Above our heads the branches and leaves of a tree made a hushing sound. The crickets continued to snicker, and from inside the house came the sound of a television set, Saturday Night at the Movies I think, they were showing Sayonara tonight. Various gnats, mosquitoes, and other insects added their respective parts to the evening’s symphony. But none of these sounds could remotely be mistaken for the small voice we had both just so clearly heard.
“Well, let’s get you up to your room, Mr. Jones,” I said, with attempted bonhomie.
“You went insane, didn’t you, Arnold?” he asked, not budging.
“Well, I did have a slight nervous breakdown last winter,” I said, shifting my weight around on my Keds. “But I’m much --”
“I heard you were hospitalized for three months.”
“Not quite three months,” I said.
“And you weren’t able to go back to work on the railroad.”
“Well, I did go back --”
“And they sent you home again, didn’t they?”
“So did you hear voices?”
He was swaying again now, facing me, swaying back and forth on his heels, holding his cigarette at shoulder height.
“Yes,” I said. “I heard voices.”
“So I’m going mad.”
“Not necessarily,” I said.
“No,” I said, trying to put at least an ounce of conviction in my voice.
He paused, taking a drag of his Old Gold, staring off into the darkness with his filmy old eyes, his body swaying gently, forward and back.
“Good night’s sleep you’ll be fine,” I posited.
“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in ten years,” he said. “Fifteen years.”
I had no response to this. Now he looked straight at me, into my eyes.
“So this is how it ends,” he said. “Dementia.”
I stood there, holding the doll box. At least she was keeping quiet through this, for the time being, I thought.
“Try not getting absolutely drunk every single night of your life,” she said. “Then perhaps you won’t hear any strange disembodied voices.”
“What?” he said.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“You didn’t hear that?”
I struggled with a moral quandary. I could admit that I had heard the voice also, which would be admitting that I was insane, or I could deny having heard it, which would be tantamount to telling Mr. Jones that he was insane.
But then I remembered that he was drunk; chances are he would remember none of this.
“I didn’t hear anything,” I said.
“A voice just suggested I stop getting drunk every night. Or at least not absolutely drunk.”
“Oh. Well -- maybe it was, uh, just -- uh --”
“What?” he demanded.
“The voice of reason?” I offered.
He stopped swaying. He looked at his cigarette. He opened his fingers and let it drop to the old flagstone at our feet. The cigarette bounced, shooting up tiny sparks, and rolled off the slate into the grass, still lit and smoking. I stepped over, ground it out with the sole of my sneaker.
“What am I supposed to do if I don’t drink?” asked Mr. Jones, opening his arms as in supplication.
This was a question I’d asked myself often enough.
“You could read,” I suggested.
He stared at me.
“You know -- books, Mr. Jones,” said the doll.
He flinched ever so slightly.
“Yes, books,” he said, after a pause. “I used to like to read. Jack London. H.G. Wells. O. Henry. Even some of these newer authors -- Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, James Branch Cabell -- although I must say my favorites among the younger boys were Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs...”
“You can still find their books,” I said.
“Yes. Yes, I suppose I could.”
“You could even take them out from the library. Wouldn’t cost you a dime.”
“Yes, true, true. But --”
He took one of his long pauses here.
“Get to the point!” said the doll.
“Well,” said Mr. Jones, “isn’t it a bit pathetic to spend one’s last days reading? Reading instead of living?”
“Is it any less pathetic just to get drunk every night?” (This was me, not the doll.)
Mr. Jones paused again.
I realized that a mosquito was feasting itself on the tender flesh on the reverse side of my left knee. I refrained from swatting him. I didn’t want to spoil the mood, and after all the mosquito was only doing what it had to do.
“You have a point,” said Mr. Jones.
"I do?" I asked.
“Getting plastered every night is no great accomplishment,” he said.
He then resumed his gentle swaying, back and forth, staring off into God knows what.
The mosquito continued to draw my blood.
Both the doll and I remained silent.