The Sound of Silence
Taken from Quiet Fury: An Anthology of Suspense
Harry was talking again, blathering on about inconsequential nonsense that fell somewhere in the realm of I don’t give a shit. I put my book down. He took that as a sign of active listening and continued speaking. I stared at the hair sprouting from his ears and suppressed a sigh.
We’d been married forty-four years. I should have been used to his incessant prattling. He never stopped. Weather reports, updates on the neighbors, the status of his ingrown toenail. When no one was around to listen, he talked to himself. His voice droned on, background static to my every waking moment.
How had I managed to keep from killing him over all those years?
I’d once found his chatter endearing. Most men didn’t have much to say. Before meeting Harry, I’d been out with a few men who collapsed beneath the strain of stringing together enough words to form a sentence. Our first night out, Harry had carried the weight of our conversation. I’d been enamored of his charm. My mother did her best to talk me out of marrying him so soon. Hazel, she’d said, you’ve only dated three months. Give yourself time. I’d been a stubborn twenty-three year old, insisting that love would conquer all.
Back then, we’d had jobs and friends, then children and dogs to take the edge off. Now, my few remaining girlfriends constantly complained that their husbands hardly ever talked to them anymore. They’d sit with the TV remote in one hand and a beer in the other, virtually silent all day. Harry couldn’t even watch TV without giving running commentary.
“I pulled a couple weeds from the garden this morning,” Harry said. “Saw Tonya hustling the kids out the door. They’re getting big, her boys.”
I nodded. I barely knew Tonya and couldn’t come up with her boys’ names if someone waved a million dollars in my face. I didn’t care, either. Tonya’s a young working mother. I’m a retired old lady. The two of us weren’t going to be best friends any time soon.
Tonya’s husband is a martial arts instructor. Harry had told me that during one of his marathon speaking sessions. I’d seen the man out mowing his lawn and damn near lost my false teeth when my jaw fell open. His muscles glistened in that sunlight, toned and perfect. I might be old but I still know perfection when I see it.
I looked at Harry, sitting there in those awful plaid shorts he loved so much. Skinny legs, flabby arms and a big gut. He’d been trim once, with muscular arms and a stomach made hard from daily sit-ups. He said my cooking made him fat. We both knew better.
“I saw on the news that it snowed up in Iowa today,” Harry said. “Only a couple inches but it’s hard to believe winter’s already started up there.”
Iowa? We didn’t know a soul north of Fort Lauderdale.
“Ever think we missed out?”
“On what?” I asked.
“Snow. You know, with the kids. Making those, what do the kids call them? Snow angels?”
I shook my head. “They got to water ski instead.”
“That’s true. But maybe we should’ve made it a point to vacation in the snow now and then.”
We had four children. Our youngest moved out of the house twelve years ago. None of them had rushed off to snowy states, in search of snow angels.
“We could take the grandkids,” Harry said. “Maybe during Christmas break? We could fly everyone out to Colorado and stay in one of them ski lodges.”
“I don’t want to go to a ski lodge.”
“Aww, c’mon Hazel. Why not? It’d be an adventure.”
“For one thing, not one of us has clothing warm enough. We don’t own boots, winter coats, gloves, scarves or hats. I don’t think the girls even own sweatshirts.”
Harry rubbed his double chin. “I suppose it would get too costly to buy those things for everyone.”
We had six grandchildren and our youngest daughter was pregnant again. Spending thousands of dollars to shiver in a ski lodge made no sense, particularly when one son-in-law was out of work and two of our grandchildren needed braces. Besides, not once had any of the kids expressed the desire to ski. Or, for that matter, make snow angels.
I lifted my book and managed to read two sentences before Harry spoke again.
“What do you think about planting a cherry tree?”
Without taking my eyes from the page, I said, “That’s fine, if you want one.”
“I thought about it. The orange trees are doing well. Can be a lot of work, though. Getting all that fruit off the top gets harder each year.” He laughed. “Used to be when I could run up and down a ladder. Now I’m a teetering old fool up on that landing. Getting old is a bitch, ain’t it darlin’?”
An hour passed and Harry was still talking. He’d just finished telling me a story about someone he’d worked with whom I’d never met. Why did I care about this person or the rash he’d developed from whatever medication he’d been taking? I didn’t care. Not one iota.
Harry motioned to the book I’d been holding. “That a good story?” he asked.
“I don’t know, since I haven’t had much of a chance to read it.”
He broke into a wide grin. “Isn’t it great that, after all these years, we still have so much to talk about? Walt tells me he and Josie don’t even sit in the same room half the time. She likes to be on the sun porch, where she does her knitting and listens to the radio. But you know Walt. He’s stuck in front of CNN all day long. A shame, really. Two people work most of their lives, passing each other by and trying their best to steal moments here and there. Hell, between the kids and work, we were lucky if we had a few hours alone every month! Then you retire, seems like you’d want to make up for all that lost time.”
I tried to smile. Really, I did. Harry was good to me. He never cheated, never hung out at the bars with the guys. He always provided for us and loved our children to a fault. I just wanted him to shut up.
He squeezed my hand and asked, “You want some sweet tea and a couple cookies?”
I agreed because maybe the food would keep him from speaking for at least a few minutes. Sometimes I thought about poisoning that sweet tea he loves so much. I’d seen a show once about a woman who’d poisoned a bunch of her husbands. She’d killed them for their money. I didn’t want to kill Harry for money. I wanted to kill him for the silence.
After our snack, I told Harry I was going to sit outside and enjoy the late-afternoon sun. He’d had a tiny spot of cancer removed from his bald head last year and the doctor recommended that he avoid the sun as much as possible. I sometimes managed to sneak outside by myself on the pretense of wanting to sit in the sun, which, to be honest, made me a little queasy since I’d gotten old.
“I’ll come with you,” he said.
“You shouldn’t be in the sun,” I reminded him.
“I’ll pull a chair under the tree.”
My days went on this way. I couldn’t hear my own thoughts over his constant monologue. I researched poisons on the Internet. He asked what I was doing and I told him I was making sure we didn’t have anything dangerous within reach of the grandchildren.
We watched a show about a woman who shot her husband in self defense. I knew I couldn’t shoot Harry. I couldn’t do anything that violent. Besides, we didn’t even own a gun.
I looked up the medication he took for his high blood pressure and the other one he took for his gout. I wanted to know how much it would take to kill him, if it would kill him or only make him sick. When he pulled a chair up beside me, I told him I was making sure that his medications were safe.
I considered asking my doctor for sleeping pills, then slipping a handful in a cup of hot coffee. How many would it take to kill him? That was something I’d have to research. Maybe I could do that while he showered, during my ten minutes of alone time.
On a rainy Wednesday morning, I woke up to his voice coming from the kitchen. He was making breakfast, talking to himself about the rain. By noon, my head was buzzing so loudly from his chatter that I had to take two Extra Strength Tylenol. I wanted it all to stop. While he sat beside me, his jaw working overtime, I closed my eyes and prayed for his death. I asked for it to be painless because, as I said, he was, at heart, a good guy.
The next morning, I woke to silence. Harry always woke before me. He’d get the coffee going and make us breakfast. And he’d talk. And then talk some more. The sound of his voice always preceded me opening my eyes.
Today, though, I woke to silence. A glance at the clock startled me. Nearly nine a.m.! I turned over to find Harry sleeping soundlessly beside me. Silence!
I eased out of bed and went to the kitchen. As quietly as possible, I poured myself a glass of juice and sat at the table. For thirty blissful minutes, I absorbed the quiet and heard my own thoughts. Then, as the novelty wore off, I grew concerned. Harry had never slept this late in all our years together. Maybe he was sick. I should at least check on him.
I tiptoed back to the bedroom. Still no sound. Not even the heavy breaths or occasional snorts that had driven me crazy for nearly a half century. And what was that smell? Had he… had he shit himself?
A tinge of fear slipped down my spine, causing me to tremble. When I touched his forehead, I nearly recoiled at the horror. His skin was cold. So very cold.
Thirty-seven days have passed since the funeral. My kids have been great, gathering around me and propping me up during the rough patches. Friends brought food, people called to check on me. That couldn’t last, though. They all have their own lives. This last week, my phone rarely rang. My kids are back at work, my grandkids back at school.
As I sit in my chair, holding my book, I realize that Harry’s voice is gone forever. I have my silence.
Tears spill from my eyes, fall onto the page, blur the ink.