Mathew Michael Hodges lives and writes in Providence, RI. His work has appeared in Temper Literary Review and Irish Connections Magazine. He earned his MFA from San Diego State and teaches at the Community College of Rhode Island and Bristol Community College.
A Sound Man
Rory sat in the diner booth across from the much younger Ava, watching her thin fingers trace a gash in the formica, imagining if things could have been different with her. Her thin, blonde hair hung limp and greasy on either side of her face, which had a perpetual expression of dissatisfaction draped upon it. The skin had that healthy sheen of one who eats well, and the freckles dashed here and there flattered her. Something sarcastic lingered on the plump lips, and the sense that a devious grin might appear at any moment lent them a latent animation, a sense of anticipation. Altogether, she was quite a pretty girl even with those big, black sunglasses blocking out, to his mind, any hope for actual connection.
The waitress sloshed two coffees down and left before Rory noticed the lack of cream. Ava worked her hands over to the sweeteners, selected two sugars, flicked them a few times and dumped the white granules into her watery cup of joe. She took her first sip, and he stared at his black coffee, wishing the waitress would either bring some cream or look to see if he needed anything. While Ava enjoyed her coffee, he closed his eyes, reaching for the sugar packet caddie. His fingers grazed over the paper tops, trying to decipher a difference in them. He plucked one out and turned it over, guessing at whether it held sugar or some chemical substitute. Opening his eyes, he found himself surprised by the small, pink envelope.
“The real sugars are more full,” she said and spread a palm out under her cup, flashing that devious grin.
He wished he didn’t have to have the conversation with her that he was about to have.
As a foley artist, Rory filled his life with sounds. His nighttime sojourns across the city with his sound equipment had recorded some very strange noises, noises he had learned to adapt into unique effects for films. Engines with strangely faulty mufflers, a loose manhole cover rolled over by fat truck tires, the slaps and slides of thousands of feet echoed in a subway stairwell, the wind whistling between trash can lids, the apoplectic snorings of men passed out beneath el tracks, these and many other commonly ignored noises made up the palette of his art. Sometimes he would ingeniously blend two or more disparate sounds, sometimes he expertly modulated a frequency or tampered with the tempo, and sometimes the gem he captured remained perfect from the initial take.
Creating sound was his passion. He had a library of sounds for anything from science fiction to romantic comedies. A director filming a picture of high realism would want a gun shot or the sound of metal scraping on concrete, and he would strive for an exact rendering. He would listen and listen again, trying to hear the noise as an artist looks at an object. An amateur might think one could simply shoot a gun or scrape metal on concrete near a microphone and be done with it, but they would misunderstand the way noises get distorted in the capturing of them and especially in the blaring of them in audience packed theaters. Rory knew how to work around these and many other problems, but often the real problem was the directors’ expectations or their understanding of audience expectations.
He found it laughable how often he would turn out to be almost too good. “This doesn’t sound right,” a director would say, and Rory knew it was because this director had likely never heard the sound he asked for. Rory would not argue; he was professional. Instead he would rerecord a more artificial sound, one that met expectations. Expectations created not by reality, of course, but by previous films. How many people think they know what a gun shot through a silencer sounds like? It does not go, “phew, phew, phew,” like in every movie or television show. It sounds exactly like an explosive gun shot, only quieter.
Rory knew when he worked at his craft that he shaped the public’s view of reality, and by changing their view of reality that he could actually alter it. And he liked knowing he had this power. Back when he still drank, he used to love losing control, abdicating power over himself, surrendering to his id. It had perhaps all seemed too much. Life. But he had learned to take ownership, to love reality unmediated by alcohol, undistorted, pure. He had taken control of his life and now presented a world of sound to audiences who mostly remained clueless that his work even affected them.
Then Ava arrived, reminding him of his lack of real control, a control he constantly struggled to maintain. In fact, only a month earlier he had stumbled off track after being dragged to a cocktail party.
Cream finally in his coffee, Rory quaffed away and thought about what to talk to Ava about while he waited for the right time to have the real conversation. But the age difference was so staggering to him. She was barely eighteen after all. He tried asking if she’d read anything good.
“I just finished Pynchon’s Against the Day on audiobook, and it was either vastly overrated, or I’m just stupid because I thought it was boring.”
He’d never read it, never heard of either the book or the author, but he nodded. Then realized how stupid that was. “Could be the audio,” he blurted.
A long silence fell between them, and Rory lost himself in the sounds of the diner, mentally rearranging and repurposing them: the constant chatter with some minor modulations could form an alien tongue; the cheap metallic clinking of the flatware fashioned into lab equipment knocked around in a melee; the pots and pans slamming around in the kitchen tweaked into a car crash; the squeak of the door to the back of the house morphed into a giant insect’s mating call.
“How about you?” she said.
He had forgotten what they were talking about, and his awkward silence clued her to this.
He really didn’t read, didn’t really do anything besides shape sound. He stammered something about not having much time for books, and as he floundered for a new topic, the waitress mercifully arrived with their meals.
Even the way he’d met her had been awkward.
He sat in his tiny studio apartment, earphones practically glued to his head by sweat, tinkering with the tone of some jangling keys. They were for a scene where a character returns home to an empty apartment, and he felt the notes all sounded too optimistic; he wanted the keys to reverberate in a more hollow and hopeless way. Just as he thought he almost had it right, a hesitant knock sounded on his door.
At first, he ignored it. Probably some lost drunk or a visitor at the wrong address, he figured. But the rapping repeated, and this time with more confidence and a hint of urgency. Annoyed, he rose from his work and walked the four steps across his apartment to the door. As he peered through the peephole, he was startled by a third set of, this time quite forceful, knocks. After regaining his composure, he looked through the tiny glass porthole again to see a young girl with dark glasses, a slouchy, knitted beanie and long, blonde hair.
He stood back and hoped she hadn’t noticed his shadow cross over the hole with those shades on or if he could creep away from the door and pretend to be out. His legs tensed and he couldn’t decide. Then, just as he slinked off, she whacked at the door again.
“I know you’re in there,” she said in lightly mocking tone.
His shoulders sunken in defeat, he undid all the locks and flung open the door. “Okay. Ya got me,” he said. “What do you want?”
She flashed a smile and said nothing.
A chill invaded his apartment from the breezy hallway and crept into his collar and swept up his pant legs. He didn’t know her. But how could he? Even despite a few mistakes here and there, years had passed since he’d been a regular at any bars or even celebrated to the point of blacking out. Besides, this girl looked way too young for any of that.
“So,” he said more to break the silence than anything else, “Can I help you?”
“Are you Rory Edward Jones?” she asked.
It bounced into his mind that he was being served a court summons, but then again, the relief of the in control, sober mind washed over him, and he slowly realized that he had already fully divorced his ex-wife and that he hadn’t done anything wrong in a long time. As the hot, tingling sensation across his face and neck subsided and he took a breath, he noticed that this girl stood there unmoving, patiently waiting for him to answer. Her little, black peacoat neatly buttoned over a dark purple blouse and a khaki, pleated skirt.
“Yeah,” he finally answered. “Who’s askin?”
She walked past him, one of those wheely luggage bags following behind and thrust out before her, a long, white walking stick with a rubber pad on the bottom and a dangling strap like on a cheap umbrella.
“Hey. Where do you think you’re going?” he asked even as she tapped the tip of her aluminum stick around his studio. Just then, it dawned on him that the stick wasn’t a gag or some new teen fad, but that she actually was blind. “Wait a minute. How did you know I was home? Did I make too much noise?” he asked.
“You ask a lot of questions,” she said, flashing him a mischievous grin. “Last one first though. I didn’t know you were home. I always say that. If nobody’s home, then nobody knows that I’m wrong. If somebody is, then I’m right.”
“Huh,” he said and he closed the door, more to keep the heating bill down than anything else. “Good one.”
“And where I think I’m going is right here. To see you.”
“Why is that?” he asked, feeling something terrible gestating and at the same time wondering at her word choice. Did blind people still go “see” one another?
“Because, to answer another of your previous questions, I’m your daughter.”
He dumped maple syrup on his short stack of pancakes and chopped them apart with his knife and fork, accidentally slicing into the plate, making that awful grating noise akin to nails on a chalkboard. He flinched and saw that she did, too. For a moment, they both shook their heads, shoulders tensed, as if trying to clear the memory of the sound from their bodies.
“Sorry,” he said. “So.” He stared at his pancakes, pondering what to ask a young person, “Are you seeing anyone?” And then he immediately flinched all over again.
“No,” she answered and deftly plucked a slice of bacon from before her and crunched on it.
Her tact at ignoring his lack of it lent him some relief. “But you, uh, have…”
“Are you trying to find out if your little girl is still a virgin?” she asked in an ironically scandalized voice.
“What?” He felt a chill run across his forehead. “No. I was just trying to make conversation. I was going to ask if you have been on dates. Sheesh. I don’t ever wanna know if you’ve…” clearing his already clear throat in an effort to find the right words and settling on, “done it.”
She responded with an enigmatic, hmm.
“That is, of course, unless you want to talk about it,” he said, recalling how women like to talk about things. Then concerned he had just opened up a potentially wide-ranging discussion, he blurted out more to clarify, “You know, like for advice or something.”
“Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be taking sex advice from you, Rory,” she said.
Mortified, he sunk into silence and dug into his breakfast with an energetic ambition, an ambition to have it all over with. He still needed to get real with her, and in a way that most parents find difficult with their children, even after the years of intimacy of raising one. He needed to skip some steps, metamorphosize from a tadpole of a father to a bullfrog immediately. And not because he needed to regain control of his life, and not simply because he feared he might lose it, but because for once in his life, he feared for someone else in a way he found more terrible than any threat he’d ever encountered.
Until he could find the right words, he focused on the food before him. He cut a bite, stabbed and ate, cut, stab, eat, repeat.
He had fallen into a seat at his tiny dining table in exasperation. “I don’t have a daughter,” he said.
She swiped her stick around as she neared him and slid very deftly into the only other seat. “But you do. I’m sitting right here,” she said with her head tilted as if she was looking above his head.
“Who’s your mother then?” he asked and even as he did, he felt sure there were any number of possible answers. Perhaps even some woman he didn’t know about, from a one-night, booze-fueled, carnal evening long lost to memory through black-out or shame.
“Melinda Fields,” she said. “I understand you two were a couple in college or something like that.”
Melinda. The name instantly transported him to a more youthful and, now looking back, more outrageous time, a time where all the answers came easily and nothing was complicated. Not a college love, but soon after, she represented his first truly adult relationship while he pursued his career. He’d had an internship in San Francisco for a small video game company that he’d parlayed into an entry level position, making just over poverty wages, but feeling like life had finally started and that his whole path lay cleared before him.
Melinda had gotten him to realize he drank far too much, practically tricking him into noticing it. She would literally beg him and use sex as a bargaining tool to entice him to stay sober for one day here and another there, one day at a time as it were. Once she’d made him see it, it was a short step to attending meetings.
However, going to that first AA gathering was the only easy part of it. If anything, the meetings often convinced him he had no problem at all. Listening to a woman drone on about waking up in alleys, a guy blowing an ex for a bottle of cider, that one wacko with the wild hair who regained consciousness two states away, not knowing how he had gotten there. Whereas Rory sometimes got too drunk to remember the heartfelt conversations he’d had with Melinda, sometimes whooped and hollered to her embarrassment, or grew sensitive and lost his temper only to kick the stove and hurt his foot, and maybe once or twice pissed himself in his sleep. It took a lot for him to continue going, to think deeply about how his actions—even if they didn’t seem as extreme as those of others—had hurt someone he loved and to take ownership of his problem.
Along the way, he still skipped on meetings to go to a bar, or found excuses that made just one or two drinks acceptable, incidents that quickly escalated into a level of intoxication that left him unfit for work the next day.
He battled it. Boredom would fall on his soul. He didn’t understand how to live without a buzz and had to relearn his very existence, finding constructive things to occupy himself with, taking sober walks around town on routes especially planned to dodge liquor stores and bars. He would stroll the streets and listen. It became meditative and therapeutic, something he looked forward to.
After that, he’d thrown himself into his career, determined to transform his newfound clarity into a revenue stream that could justify a wife and children, a house, a yard, a dog, the American Dream. And that’s what didn’t make any sense. He worked so many long hours just so that he could have this very child with Melinda. It made no sense at all that she would have left him while pregnant with their child.
“Where have you been living?” he asked, feeling dazed.
She and her mother had been living in Slagville, a small town in West Virginia where her mother taught elementary school. But when she turned 18, Ava insisted that she know all about her father. Melinda had told her very little, but she did relent and offer up a name. From there, internet searches provided the rest that she needed to track him down.
The reality of her revelation broke through the haze of initial shock as her answers continued to make sense. Something in her face registered an eerie familiarity, too. Once he’d stopped seeing nothing but a blind girl in sunglasses, an unsettling set of details unnerved him: her nose stood up at the end in the same way his had before having been smashed in a barfight, her cheekbones recalled his mother to him, and those plump lips were the very same set that he longed for when he dated Melinda. How odd to see such a portmanteau of humanity with parts recalling erogenous zones of a former inamorata on this young girl sitting before him. Thinking fondly for a moment of Melinda, he began also speculating what she had told their daughter—his daughter—about him. Surely that he worked for films. Maybe even that he made a good living. Perhaps Ava had come for a handout or a leg up on some sort of job. And what of it, his conscience piped in, suggesting he might owe it to her. After all Melinda had not collected a penny of child support.
“You can’t stay here,” he said desperately. “”Look at this place.” He waved his arm around in an ironically grandiose gesture that he stopped halfway once he realized how stupid he was being. “There’s just no room,” he said, and his eyes fell hopelessly to the futon which he used as both couch and bed.
She shrugged and insisted that any corner of the place would do. Rory looked around his studio and sighed heavily.
And she really did, too. She took an extra comforter, a pillow and an afghan and slept in a corner on the floor, right beside his work desk. He tried to give up his bed, but short of picking her up and dropping her into it—which he was not comfortable trying—he could find no way of inducing her off the hardwoods.
For the first few days, she spent long hours kneeling on an armchair with her head out the window, taking breaks from that to read some thick book written in those raised bumps, or listen to soap operas. When he took breaks from the desk to go on walks, she would get up and tag along uninvited. They didn’t talk much. He would take her out for lunch, to the grocery store, to the park, or they would simply stroll the neighborhood together. At first, he found it a nuisance, but after a few outings, he realized that unlike your typical first time visitor, her head didn’t get drawn upwards by the tall buildings. In fact, nothing that usually distracted tourists caught her attention, and they were both out there, both of them listening to the great metropolis.
One day, strangely distracted by her practice of hanging her head out the window as if surveying the rooftops, he asked her what she was doing.
“Listening to the city, it’s like a cacophonous, postmodern symphony.”
He considered this for a moment and then nudged in beside her, closing his eyes and imagining his neighborhood as a John Cage composition. An industrial, high-anxiety piece played freely outside his window at every hour of the day or night. He felt his very own daughter’s smooth arm pressed against his flabby, hairy one, and for the first time in his life, he felt the intense pride of fatherhood. Somehow, he had created this amazing person beside him, and from her brain had come this magnificent moment they now shared.
It didn’t take him long to find Melinda Fields once he joined a few social media sites and she responded fairly quickly to his message: was she aware, was it okay, etc? They exchanged a few emails, catching up with one another, and Rory learned that Melinda had known about the trip, and, though she had serious reservations and still didn’t think it a great idea, she told him that if he was willing, then Ava could stay.
He had already been hunting for a slightly bigger apartment for two weeks by the time the curveball came, and it came hard.
Ava had gone out looking for a job, a chore she’d embarked on every day for the last few days. It had grown dark without his realizing it. He sat at his desk, as usual, glued to his earphones when the door flung open and several bodies came crashing through, limbs whipping wildly about torsos and colliding horribly with his only table, skittering a chair across the room. He tore off his headset and stared at a skinny young man, stringy hair strewn across his face, lying supine on his dinner table; a young, dark-haired girl sprawled atop his daughter, both of them giggling ferociously on the floor.
“Get the hell off my table,” he yelled as he grabbed the boy by his black leather coat.
The young man grunted out a fake laugh as he allowed Rory to manhandle him off the table and out into the hall.
“And get off the floor!” He grabbed the strange girl by her arms and impatiently escorted her up and out. He slammed the door and turned to find his daughter chuckling on her back and reeking of alcohol.
His belly full, the procrastination having dragged out for long enough, he looked once more at the the simalcrum of his youthful nose combined with the lips of Melinda Fields across from him. Her lips poised to utter another, no doubt biting, remark, but remained still.
He reached out and put his chubby hand over her delicate and bony one. Her hand flinched at the unexpected contact, almost pulled away, but immediately relaxed and allowed the gesture although he thought he saw her eyes roll under the glasses.