They came at night to remind him of what he’d done, of what he hadn’t done. Sometimes they floated, blue-fleshed and shiny like a soaked body, their mouths hanging open in silent howls. Sometimes, they walked in like landlords, eying the cleanliness of his sheets, the piles of dishes. None of them had a smell, exactly, while they were there, but when they left, the smells of the apartment struck him anew, as though he’d left and just come in for the first time. When they left, he smelled mildew and rotting things: death.
They didn’t speak to him, but sometimes they chatted constantly about his shortcomings. That was okay with him; it wasn’t as if he didn’t know about them. They talked about the messiness of the apartment, about how friends never visited anymore; always as though whispering an aside, but loud enough for him to hear.
During the day, he worked as a teacher and tutor. This was something he did to pay off the debt of guilt he felt over what he’d done. His days were spent giving his time and energy, his love, away. Much like with his student loans, this work only allowed him to pay the interest on his debt. The principle sat there, an acorn in his brain, a bit of stretched skin in his stomach, waiting.
The babies came to him for much of the night, but occasionally during the day he’d catch sight of one of them lounging on the edge of his vision, leaning against a tree in the distance, in a James Dean pose with a cigarette dangling from its lips. He’d rush outside after classes and bundle things into his car while their sardonic eyes pretended not to watch him. On the road, he’d drown them with noise from his car stereo. At home, they’d let him settle into the silence of his loneliness—it took him a long time to realize this wasn’t an act of kindness on their part—before they came for him.
The man didn’t know what it was he’d done to them, but he knew it was horrific, the kind of thing one is never forgiven for. He could donate to churches and charities, spend time mentoring and doing everything he possibly could, but the greatest sacrifice served only to crumble the slightest piece from his shame. Many times, he’d asked them what it was he’d done, but they only shook their heads sadly, as though he were beneath even their disgust.
The man had tried all sorts of things to get rid of them—one can cower for only so long. He’d yelled and spent extravagant sums on psychics who made no progress. He’d begged and offered bribes. He’d even run his vacuum cleaner, which had always scared his mother’s cats. Nothing dented their stony faces.
One evening, he’d awoken late from a noise and gone to find them slumped on his couch. He’d left the television on, which he was usually fastidious about. They were engrossed in a situation comedy about a man who’d died and whose spirit had returned to Earth to inhabit a sofa. Now, along with his widowed wife and her new female lover, the trio endeavored to raise a child they’d adopted from Ireland to save her from the potato famine. It was called Couch Potatoes, which was in rather poor taste, the man thought.
The babies weren’t laughing; they were only watching, apparently boredly. At first, the man watched them watching TV. When the show ended, they channel surfed for awhile and then left, without bothering him at all. He thought this might be the solution to his problem, except that the noise was such that he couldn’t sleep. The next night, he tried turning the volume down, but the babies lost interest, started squabbling amongst themselves, and finally turned on him. The night after that, he bought ear plugs.
The man moved the TV to the farthest end of his apartment, put blankets over his door, and wore earplugs every night. The babies stayed away, and soon, he began to feel much better. He quit his jobs teaching and tutoring, cancelled all of his charity work, and got a job in investment banking. The man began a long and successful career on Wall Street, and was single-handedly responsible for the decimation of the economies of two Latin American countries. He married and adopted kids of his own, and set up a TV in the basement for the babies. Sometimes at night, he’d wake to visit the bathroom, and find myself watching over their shoulders, chuckling occasionally but never laughing, the nut in his brain and the sensitive stretched place in his stomach quiet.
CL Bledsoe is the author of two
poetry collections, _____(Want/Need)
and a fiction collection, Naming the
Animals. A chapbook, Goodbye
to Noise, is available online at
A minichap, Texas,
was recently published by Mud Luscious Press. His story, "Leaving
the Garden," was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story
South's Million Writer's Award. He’s been nominated for the
Pushcart Prize 3 times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings,
Bledsoe has written reviews for The
Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, The
Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere.