The Silence of Small Rooms

The Silence of Small Rooms

The elevator is full to bursting. Intolerably hot is how you would describe it, if pressed. Wall to wall. Elbow meet elbow. You’re eyeballing the orderlies and patients and visitors all around you, trying to dead-reckon their weight and then compare to the oxidated inspection plaque that lists the elevator’s carrying capacity as Max 4 Persons/1000lbs. There’s a person in here in a wheelchair and you briefly wonder how much approximately the wheelchair weighs, and whether it’s crass and unfeeling to speculate, even mentally, about how much the wheelchair weighs in the face of this person’s maybe-debilitating-paraplegia.

It was hot like this elevator is hot. You remember that. You remember this sort of fetid smell wafting over from that large canvas pergola they erected on the lawn, which looked and smelled like a medical tent when you got close, looming and insectile with countless spindly anodized legs stapled to a big red thorax that swallowed all the quiet hunched high-waisted Greatsomethings and Grandsomethings in its big sanguineous shadow.

Everybody in that tent was getting checked on. Every ten minutes. Young sprightly bodies sidling up and down the aisles, doing that weird crotch-to-face or else ass-to-face sort of crabwalk you do when you’re stepping over people who are sitting down, so you can get close enough to audibly hiss in one hearing-aidless ear You alright? You want some water? Anything you need? You sure? Anything at all. No trouble. Like a triage tent after some disaster that everybody got dressed up for.

Some logistical mastermind set this tent up in advance in order that they get the old people out of the direct sunlight for chrissakes and everybody in the meeting, it seems, nodded their heads enthusiastically without considering that what tents also do, in addition to creating shade, that the other thing they do is trap heat. And since Prestigious Eastern’s got the real party liners acting as ushers for this specific ceremony, real zealots for the cause, even when you point out to them that there are plenty of open seats out there in the crowd with the rest of your family, and that it’s about 20 degrees hotter here in this tent than it is out on the lawn, and that, listen, just listen to that sound, people are physically moaning in here, fanning themselves and wailing like devotees at the Hajj, even with all these facts arrayed against them, in addition to that unignorable smell which you’re both pretending out of politeness doesn’t exist, these red-jacketed Babbitized true believers still just smile and shake their heads and tell you sorry, no-can-do, the rule is that older folks go into the tent, no exceptions can be made to the rule.

So you do your little crabwalk where you mutter apologies to all the old ladies you’re thrusting your ass in front of in order to lean in toward your Grandfather’s comparatively functional starboard ear and whisper Water? Food? Anything I can get you? Anything you need? Freshly laundered kerchief with which to mop the dangerous-looking flop sweat glistening on that receding shock-white hairline of yours? No? Sure? No trouble, really. And then preparing yourself mentally for the delicate crabwalk back out into the aisle as your Grandfather tries with one shakey hand to force 5 dollars into your palm. Past all the Grands and Greats. What age hath taken away title hath restored, probably being the reasoning behind bestowing such grandiose prefixes on these mousy receding forms.

You’re here celebrating Nathan’s graduation. But like every other thing at Prestigious Eastern it’s called something other than what it is. The Hospital where they offer free venereal disease batteries and prophylactics is called The Student Health Center. The antiseptic gray Cafeteria, staffed exclusively by underpaid minority workers is called The Dining Commons. A sexual assault allegation against a starting Power Forward is called Student Misconduct Subject To Further Review. Nathan murmurs all this to you out of the side of his mouth at family functions. Deadpan and confidential. Things he would never say in front of MOTH, who pays the tuition check and reminds everyone con frequencia of his paying the tuition check.

Graduation is called Commencement. No one seems to be sure what Nathan et. al. will be Commencing with. Just, the rest, maybe. The future. Life. Tireless corporate ascent. Postgraduate work. Monthly Stafford Payments. Boredom. Getting a handle on all the drinking. Falling into and out of love. It’s a sort of fool’s errand, you know, even at your comparatively foolish age, to call an end a beginning.

The elevator is this raucous rumbling mechanical thing. A symphony of sound as physical texture. Clickety clacking its way between layers of linoleum and concrete stretched taut underneath a factory of failing bodies, grinding out its steady aggressive work. Like all of your uncles. The importance of the work done measured in direct proportion to the amount of noise generated, the amount of bangs and curses and grunts and thrown tools. The amount of opinions rendered and the bellicosity of their nuptial disputes.

Your uncles sit there, quiet, in their open-throated starched-collar shirts that you think maybe they all must get at some sort of clothing depot specifically dedicated to avuncular fashion trends. The same dark colored vertical pinstriped shirt with the button undone to reveal a big gold crucifix hanging off a small gold chain resting on a pale convex sternum with gray curly-cues for hairs. They lead with their sternums. Their sternums precede them into rooms, your uncles, like as prizefighters or roosters. You began to notice the resemblance last year especially, with Nathan being home and you seeing a lot of them while Nathan was home, for some reason. You thanked God for his being there, like one big solar panel. Absorbing all scrutiny directly. Deflecting attention from your weird unwieldy ever-changing body. Your soft haphazard lumbering pubescent form. Looking then, in your 16th year like a body slapped together on the fly. Or by some deranged sculptor who was trying to say something about modernity.

Under normal circumstances your mortifyingly weird physique would be ripe for just the sort of ribbing for which your uncles are famous. Strutting into rooms and physically poking your mushy oblique like So when are we hitting the gym good buddy?

Point being they lay off you, and your obliques, and focus all their blue-collar bluntness on Nathan, who’s on furlough or sabbatical or whatever-Orwellian-name-the-University-has-given-it from Prestigious Eastern, in order that he get his head Out of his ass and screwed back on straight (MOTH’s turn of phrase here).

The closest your brother himself ever comes to talking about it, his –pression (that ugly maybe-diagnosis you only ever catch the tail-end of, murmured in the cramped kitchenettes of adult concern, comingled with a not inconsiderable amount of contempt even in the saying) is on that hot cloudless day, at the party afterward, still wearing gown and mortarboard, still taking obligatory pictures and glad-handing everybody who flew up to be with him on this most momentous of occasions, when one of your uncles comes up to shake his hand and says, with characteristic bluntness, Took you long enough. Which Nathan actually laughs at, which you find amazing because you’ve never learned to laugh at your uncles like he does, like he really does enjoy their perspective, like it’s something that’s been missing from other quarters of his life, he throws his head back and howls earnest bellows of congenial laughter and says

I guess it was touch and go there for a minute, wasn’t it?

You mean last year when you were busy finding yourself? The uncle stressing these last two words so there can be no doubt as to how he views pursuits of self-discovery.

They’re talking in front of a mounted pointillist poster of Dylan from the Pennebaker movie. The one where he freaks out about someone throwing a glass bottle at the end.

Myself I could find just fine. It was everybody else I lost track of.

Yeah well. He leans in. That’ll happen when you spend too much time around these academics.

He says academics the way that men of the previous generation said fags.

Then finally: You got a good head on your shoulders. You’ll be alright.

Which is pretty much the highest compliment one of these spit-in-your-eye proletarians could give. Certainly it was never something they said to you. Good head on your shoulders. Instead they asked you about the gym, specifically RE: how often you planned on hitting it.

That party in Nathan’s cramped little SRO, with Bob Dylan and the Prestigious Eastern pendant on the otherwise bare walls, and a vague sense like someone, at some point, smoked pot in the vicinity. Stippled white ceiling backdated to the late 80’s which was the last time anybody painted or cleaned, looks like, dark brown colonial-looking floorboards that you’d need a topographical map to navigate safely. Your Grandfather sitting down on a seen-better-days tweed futon that Nathan and his roommates set up in the middle of the living room because it’s the only sturdy-looking surface for sitting and your mother whispered some minutes ago with a great sense urgency that Your grandfather needed a rest. MOTH meanwhile inspecting the place with X-Rays for eyes like as if looking for code violations. Your grandfather, when he’s sitting, always breathes as if he’s just received some really terrible news.

You’re stepping off onto a floor that’s still wet and smells fishy like ammonia or ejaculate. The fluorescents that line the hallway alternate on-off in what might be a bid to save money or might be a long-standing custodial SNAFU that everybody at this hospital is too busy with important life-or-death administrative and/or medical matters to notice and/or recommend fixing. Each squeak of your now-wet rubberized shoes on the sickly green linoleum feels like a scandal. You’re certain that any second now, someone is going to pop out of the hospital woodwork and shush you like in a library and you’re going to have to explain about how, sorry, you’re just visiting someone and you don’t mean to be raising a ruckus or disturbing the peace or anything but just how the linoleum tile is wet and now your heels, very much contrary to your best and most quiet efforts, are squeaking up a storm on the wet linoleum, and also, and this is a small thing, but maybe a Wet Floor sign wouldn’t be the worst idea, with elderly patients roaming around unmonitored, like free-range chickens. You’re rehearsing this whole speech and adding phrases like not that I’m trying to tell you how to do your job imagining modulating your tone so you don’t come off as totally dickish, but nobody ever shushes you or even really looks up from their clipboard to ask who you are. Like you could be someone in here with the express intent of kidnapping people’s older relatives for ransom and you’re fairly certain these bescrubbed sangfroidian medical professionals wouldn’t bat a single eyelash between them.

MOTH or the thing that used to encase MOTH is over by this small East-facing window which overlooks the parking lot and through which hot white rays of UV are shooting, spilling onto the green linoleum (which to its credit no longer looks quite so sickly) re-dilating your pupils, which had adjusted to the energy-efficient gloom of the every-other-fluorescent chiaroscuro. There is no decision to make, per se. The heavy lifting is done, from a moral standpoint. He said, If I go back in the hospital again, it’s for the last time. Signed the DNR. This isn’t out of the blue. This is very much expected. You’ve been expecting it your whole life, really.

It was Nathan who came up with MOTH. He went and saw Les Miserables on a class field trip and came back humming it. Master Of The House. Stalking around the yard on weekends like everything pissed him off. Like the fact of your moving or breathing was enough. Doling out the charm. Annoyed when you tried to help, annoyed when you didn’t. Nathan and you began to call him that behind his back.

That year that Nathan was home was both the best and the worst. Nothing pleased MOTH. MOTH felt that if someone was –pressed enough to leave school they should be permanently –pressed at all hours of the day and night. Whenever he saw Nathan laughing or joking with you, his jowls began to stick out, like as if the fact of his anger was enough to make his whole face expand such was its terrible power. Those jowls were a warning-sign. Then came question after question.

What’re you doing?

As in, what job have you gotten yourself while you’re not in school to both remind you of the value of a dollar and reinforce the mind-numbing unrewarding nature of jobs that do not require a college degree.

I check people in at the gym.

And you enjoy that do you? Checking people in at the gym.

You had better not say that you enjoy checking people in at the gym, and you had better not complain about how unenjoyable it is.

Is what it is, I guess.

You planning on taking any classes at Suffolk Community anytime soon, or would that be too overtaxing for you on this, your hard-earned vacation?

The credits won’t transfer when I go back to school. I already told you. You want me pay for a bunch of credits I can’t use once I’m back in school?

Who says you’re going back to school?

Check and mate.

MOTH orchestrated it so every conversation they had eventually regressed to this fundamental question. Who? Who says? Nathan tried like hell but he could never outflank him. For all the snickering Nathan did at his expense, MOTH was a maestro of reductio ad pecunium.

Who says?

To which the answer was, of course: You say.

Oh, I’m sorry, this is you asking me to spend even more money on an opportunity you blew once already? Is that what this is?

You do what you want, Dad.

Right, because what I want is to be spending my paycheck on my adult son’s room and board, so that he can go check people into a gym. That’s what I want out of life, right Nathan?

I really couldn’t attest to what you want out of life, Dad.

I want for you to wipe that smile of your face before I smack it off. How is that for starters?

MOTH sitting there impassive in the summer sun. He has one of those faces that looked 40 when he was 20 years old and, herenow, coming up on 60, looks 40 still. You’ve never seen sweat stains on his clothes. The man is a statue.

Your white trash cognomen, carried downstream like driftwood from the bloody Plains of Abraham is Bipovoir. One of the first to be announced. Nathan is one of the first students with a degree in hand. As the Dean travels farther down the alphabetized ranks, announcing the matriculants and their impressive awards and accomplishments in the clipped impersonal tone of a DMV clerk or, like, horserace announcer, the crowd begins to thin all around you. The people at the front of alphabet and their families are trickling out, leaving the ceremony early, a great self-selected winnowing. The Dean has reached Spitzer, Maria and you think privately how this girl could have cured some rare and deadly disease during her undergraduate tenure and the Dean would still urge everyone to save their applause until the end of the roll, please. As families of graduates stand up and drift out toward the exit your father emits a sniff of withering distaste. It’s the second brief lacuna from his typical bas-relief impassivity that’s occurred during the course of the ceremony. The first came when the commencement speaker, some wildly successful international financier you’ve never heard of, promoting his new memoir Win Every Compromise, imparted the second of three itemized pieces of advice to the newest members of Prestigious Eastern’s alumni fundraising call list (the first piece of advice was, perhaps predictably, win every compromise): Marry early. At those two words MOTH did three things simultaneously—grunt, nod approvingly, and give your mother’s hand a firm little squeeze. And now this furious affronted sniff. You think how your father must by now be dog-tired from all the emoting he’s been doing today. Maria Spitzer is graduating with honors and some genius near the front has seized on this moment and shouted Maria comes loud! Poor honorable Maria Spitzer flushes and sprints offstage like as if people have begun hurling rotten fruit. There’s some really disappointed headshaking going on in the Friends & Family section.

You will stay until the very end, occasionally wandering back beneath that bloody groaning thorax with water and saltines and one of those motorized spray-bottle fans you snagged from a Somali street vendor just outside the ivied campus walls, who is making an absolute killing today off of people just like you. One old woman has fainted and two muscled paramedics hustle her onto a stretcher while a man clutching a smart phone berates an effusively apologetic red jacket. You will be hearing about this believe-you-me friend. You have fucked the dog mightily on this one. Is what the guy is saying to the terrified volunteer usher as he records his face for nebulous legal purposes. You’ll stay because while your father is peculiar man who doesn’t seem to care much about Les Miserables, or being liked, or his oldest son, there is something within him that cares deeply about conduct. About how a person conducts himself and his affairs. Witness the derisive sniff, the small squeeze of the hand. Rigid adherence to the No Applause Until The End rule, even when it becomes clear, relatively early on, that he is perhaps the only person who will be adhering to said rule. He will stay precisely until the moment the Dean dismisses the crowd. Near the end of Commencement he will literally be standing on ceremony.

It was Nathan who started inviting you to the gym during odd shifts at the desk. Who looked the other way while you didn’t swipe-in. Who told you that cardio was the fastest, most effective way to burn off extra fat, and taught you to run for time, not distance. Time, like Nathan’s maybe-diagnosis, is fixed, immutable. Time erodes. That’s what you understand now. Given enough time a body can physically contract. The miracle of it hits you like a fastball one day in the shower, staring down at what used to be the parturient tumor affixed to the front of your abdomen. What used to be two soft, fleshy mounds of boy-tit. The fact of you is one smooth hard violation of the conservation of matter. In this way (and permanently in your mind) your brother is recalled principally as a miracle-worker. What else to call someone capable of altering principal facts, through sheer force of will?

The moment in Nathan’s dirty little apartment when it comes time for the Toast and it is, to all bodily present, obvious who the Toaster must necessarily be—payer of tuition checks, master of ceremonies. Raising the one lukewarm Michelob without even the suggestion of a smile on that 40-year-old face. You look down at him now as the Doctor talks you through what’s about to happen. You nod and he instructs the nurse to begin shutting off machines.

The miracle-worker couldn’t make it today on account of one day in February jumping off a pedestrian bridge into the Charles River and suffering brain damage and massive systems failure. Not that he would do much good here in this hospital room. His one great trick was that he understood erosion. But MOTH has already been eroded past recognizability. No one in your family ever got around to teaching you how to add more to a person. The history of your tribe is a history of bodies falling out of orbit and drawing into themselves. A dense lineage whittled down now to just you.

He looked directly at Nathan and raised the Michelob and said To all the times we had doubts.

It was as quiet as the elevator ride up to this linoleum floor. Everybody afraid to break the spell of the silence of small rooms. When your father got that call about Nathan in the river, years later, he sighed like somebody’d just told him that the transmission on his car was shot to shit. A sigh like of having been once again let down by the world and the people in it. Their petty discomforts. Their disqualifying conduct. Their leaving the ceremony early.

Here he is now, shoulders bucking from a breathing machine that’s ceased its breathing. He’s not conscious, which means that these shudders or conniptions or whatever, what they really represent is the fact of him rebelling against its own cancellation. As if this was never part of the contract. The reason elevators are hot is the people inside them are burning alive. Cells replicating and screaming out into space just to keep pace with their own immolation. The heat comes from the people. The silence comes from the room. The shoulder-bucking stops and you lay your head sideways on a chest that encases a heart that’s forgotten how to beat, and tell the man one more thing he doesn’t care to hear: I’m not ready I’m not ready I’m not ready I’m not ready.


About the Author

J.C. Breen lives and works in New York City.