I can barely stand these days, I’m so shaky and exhausted from lack of sleep. I hoped I would catch up during summer vacation, but it’s been getting worse and worse. When I complained to Henry last week that leaf blowing at 8am was too early, he was unapologetic. “Must be nice to be a teacher,” he said, his tone sarcastic. “Sure wish I was getting paid all summer for doing nothing.”
Henry has been a helpful neighbor, in many ways. In the twenty odd years I’ve lived in our cul de sac, he’s performed various home repairs for me. He’s a sort of unofficial neighborhood watch, alert to outsiders. A busybody, really. He’s not someone you’d confide in. He’s a gossip, with his nose in everyone’s business. I didn’t know how to explain that his leaf blower sounded ten times louder to me than it did to him.
“Hearken! And observe how calmly I can tell you the whole story.”
I expected mild deafness in my early sixties, but not this. When my hearing began to change, I thought of the murderer in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” who not only hears his victim’s heart beating under the floorboards (it’s just his conscience, is what my students say), but also claims to have heard all sorts of other things.
I’ve taught Poe’s story so many times that I have the opening memorized. It’s a crowd-pleaser when I teach the “unreliable narrator” in my short story survey. “Of course Poe’s not mad,” I tell the students, as if we’re all in agreement, sophisticated readers (half of them do believe that Poe’s mad, and a murderer, and a drug addict). “Poe asks us to read between the lines and put together the stories that his narrators aren’t telling us, either because they’re not able to, or don’t want to. Some are unaware of what they’ve done, or the implications of their confessions.” There’s the opium use of the narrator of “Ligeia,” the alcoholic self-justifications of the narrator of “The Black Cat” (it was the drink, it was my wife, it was the cat). And the paranoia of the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” whose insistence that he’s not mad immediately suggests that he is. “True! — nervous – dreadfully nervous, I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?”
I never paid much attention to what he says about his hearing. It sets up the scene at the end when he’s driven to hysteria by the sound of the heart beating under the floorboards. But he claims to have heard things long before that. He tells the reader early on that “the disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them,” and insists, “Above all was the sense of hearing acute.” Now I wonder what disease he was talking about. Is that what’s wrong with me too? Is it some kind of brain tumor or something? I’m not crazy, of course, or at least I wasn’t when it started. It’s the din that’s driving me insane.
“I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?”
It came out of nowhere. My hearing became especially acute at night, making it difficult to sleep. It’s never quiet.
I could hear dishes clattering in the neighbors’ sinks, reality shows and late night news on their TVs, snatches of conversation as they readied for bed. Nothing very interesting: “Did you remember to put out the garbage?” “Johnny’s teacher called again” (rest unintelligible), “My back is still” (rest unintelligible), “You know I can’t sleep when” (rest unintelligible, but the light went out). Then I heard the squeaking and scrabbling of mice in the walls of my house, the intermittent whirr of the refrigerator, the rumbling of the icemaker, the clicking of the battery-operated wall clock. Even with the windows closed, I could hear the rustle of tiny animals in the underbrush outside, the occasional hoot of an owl, the faraway whoosh of the freeway, the lawn sprinklers at 4am, the birds twittering with the gray light of morning, the car slowing down to deliver my newspaper, the thwack of the paper in the driveway.
I tried earplugs, which muffled the sounds but made me feel trapped inside my head, unpleasantly aware of a sort of ongoing inner static and the pounding of my pulse in my ears. I started drinking the sherry I serve guests at Christmas in the evening, trying to put myself to sleep. I switched to wine, then wine with the Ambien left over after my accident a few years ago. Just a parking lot fender bender, my colleague Morris said, but it shook me up and I still avoid the Safeway lot at peak hours. My friend Ada joked that I was becoming a wino. Ada won’t take Ambien because she read that some patients gain weight from midnight binge eating they forget the next day. That hasn’t happened to me, but I often wake up with a hangover, and lately I can barely remember what I read or watched on TV the night before.
At first I imagined it might be interesting, hearing things that other people don’t, but at the university I was privy to conversations I’d prefer not to have heard. Students complaining that Ada was an old bag with whiskers whose tests were too hard, or talking about drugs they’d taken or blacking out at parties. The associate dean joking with another administrator about a loophole that would let them fire more adjuncts with only two weeks’ notice. I worried: should I warn the adjuncts in her department? Contact the faculty union? In the end I did neither. I’ve always preferred not to get involved in university politics.
Summer vacation came as a relief. No halls crowded with noisy students and teachers and the cacophony of hundreds of simultaneous conversations. I continued to lead the quiet, orderly life I enjoy during the school year. Dinners out a couple of times a month with single colleagues like Ada and Morris that I’ve known for a long time. Masterpiece Theater on Sunday nights. Masterpiece Mystery some times during the week (though I dislike Hercule Poirot, another know-it-all like Henry). I no longer had to worry about going to bed on time, or whether I’d be able to get up at 7am ready to teach. Sometimes I don’t go to bed at all. I wake up in the wing chair in front of the TV, half completed crossword puzzles in my lap.
Last week I’d just dropped off to sleep in the chair (delicious sleep!), or that’s how it felt, when I was awakened by Henry’s infernal leaf blower.
“It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object, there was none.”
You’d think after this many years I’d know more about Henry than I do. He was already living here when I moved into my tidy two-bedroom house diagonally up the hill from his in 1998. He lived alone too. I’d heard he’d been divorced a couple of times, which wasn’t hard to imagine. He’s controlling and officious. We were friendly for a while, years ago, when he was patching my roof. I guess you could say I’ve never really liked him, but I didn’t think about it.
He’s obsessive about his yard, and uses his gas-powered leaf blower all year round, not just in the fall, to clear up grass clippings and dirt as well as leaves. He’s complained many times about trees in other people’s yards dropping leaves in the street. He once cut down a small tree without permission on a rental property behind his. (When the tenants, students at the university where I teach, erected a piece of plywood with the word TREE painted on it, all the neighbors were talking. No one liked them much, music students in a band that practiced at all hours, but no one sided with Henry either.) He mows his tiny lawn far more frequently than necessary, cuts his hedge with electric clippers every few days, and runs the noisy leaf blower every morning at 8am sharp.
For years I’ve done my best to ignore Henry’s leaf blower, which makes it impossible to sleep in on the weekends, but last Friday I raised my voice. “There are noise ordinances,” I told him. “I could call the county, you know.”
I knew I sounded shrill, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. I realized my mistake right away. Henry thrives on conflict.
“Good luck with that,” he said, revving up the leaf blower mid-sentence. He smiled. “I’ll get the city to cut down your trees. One big storm and they’ll bring down the power lines. They could fall on someone’s house. They’re a menace.”
“You should have seen how wisely I proceeded. … every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it – oh, so gently! I put in a dark lantern, so that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. I moved it slowly – very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man’s sleep.”
Back inside after our distressing encounter, I felt short of breath, my heart beating uncomfortably fast. He couldn’t do that, could he? Henry’s brother is a real estate lawyer, and who knows, maybe he could. Henry is the litigious sort. Years ago I typed a series of letters for him when he sued a large contracting firm for parking one of their trucks in front of his house. (He lost, but enjoyed the lawsuit tremendously.) He tried to get the music students evicted, but they moved on before anything came of it. I certainly don’t have the energy or funds to employ counsel myself. Henry will never move. I will never move either. I can’t see Henry compromising.
I couldn’t stop worrying. Was I going to have to live with this forever? Hadn’t I put up with enough? And were my lovely trees in danger?
I started doing more yard work, weeding the petunia beds at the front of the yard, watering them in the evening. I didn’t have a plan for stopping Henry in mind, but I was hoping I’d overhear what was going on in his house. I’ve been inside a couple of times, years ago, and it’s very austere. It’s a lot like his yard, neat as a pin, hardly any furniture, colorless. We trade Christmas presents every year. He gives me a box of See’s candy. I give him an assortment of nuts, or sometimes See’s candy too. One year when I was late with my shopping I stuck on a new ribbon and gave him the same box of candy back the next day. I wondered whether it might circulate among all the neighbors on the street, everyone re-gifting the same box of candy they’d received themselves. Maybe it was years old.
As I said, Henry lives alone. There wasn’t much to overhear. He left the house in his white van for a couple of errands. I’ve always hated the way he roars up and down our street, driving much too fast. (“You drive like an old lady,” he said when I complained. I was in my fifties then, and anyway, he’s older than I am!) He watched the TV news in the evening before microwaving his dinner. I heard the drone of the news commentator, the ping of the microwave, the door slamming shut. He got some spam calls and told them he’d call the police if they bothered him again. No personal calls. I know he talks on the phone sometimes to his daughter, who lives in Minnesota, and his lawyer brother, who lives somewhere upstate and visits on holidays. I wanted to know whether Henry would consult his brother about the noise ordinances and the trees, but if he did, I didn’t hear anything. I thought I heard him leaving a voice mail message saying “trees.” He signed off with his first and last name and his phone number so it wasn’t his brother. I’d just gotten outside and couldn’t hear the whole message. Was it a city official? Did they call back the next day?
I couldn’t stop thinking about my trees. Obsessing. I have two particularly nice trees in the front yard, tall and graceful: an oak and an elm. The shelter and shade they provide was one of the reasons I bought the house. Surely he couldn’t get them removed. Or could he?
I considered marching over to his house and ringing the bell. Confronting him. But what would I say? How dare you go after my trees? Those trees were here long before your house, or mine. He wouldn’t care. It might make the situation worse. The contractor that Henry sued just ignored him, which was very effective.
I’ve been keeping the TV on low 24 hours a day to drown out other sounds. So many people mow their lawns in this neighborhood! I’ve started watching True Crime shows, not really watching them, using them as background to my reading and crossword puzzles. I catch a snatch here and a snatch there. One thing that stands out is how poorly planned the murders generally are. Most murders, even those anticipated in advance, happen when the murderer reaches his breaking point and acts on impulse.
That’s true in “The Tell-Tale Heart” too. After eight nights of carefully checking on the old man, the narrator leaps into his room and smothers him with a mattress! The cover-up afterward might have worked, though one wonders how much blood would be left after dismembering a body and burying it under the floorboards. Nineteenth-century forensics wasn’t up to today’s standards, but could he really eradicate traces of the crime so easily? Still, the police wouldn’t have showed up that night if the old man hadn’t shrieked. Maybe they wouldn’t have showed up at all, since the old man lived alone with the narrator and might not have been missed. Would Henry be missed? I’m not sure how often he talks to his daughter, but I get the impression they’re often on the outs.
On the True Crime shows, many of the murders, really most of them, seem to involve husbands murdering their wives, boyfriends murdering their girlfriends. Their mothers are looking for them, their sisters are looking for them, their friends never liked the husband. A photo flashes on the screen, perhaps a college graduation photo of a fresh-faced ambitious young man. Who would ever have guessed it would come to this? Occasionally a dissatisfied wife colludes with a lover to kill her husband, but mostly the murderers are men. Women are above suspicion.
“As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart, for what had I to fear? … I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream.”
All week I drank far too much wine every evening, knowing I’d be nauseous and have a pounding headache the next day, calculating that a night’s sleep, even half a night’s sleep, might be worth it. I was taking more Ambien than the doctor had prescribed. When sleep finally came, it was sodden and heavy, haunted by bits from the True Crime shows that didn’t make sense, or at least not a full story. A saw hanging on the wall of a tidy garage. A shot of a courtroom before the beginning of a trial. Blood splatter on a white wall. An interview with a neighbor who’d never harbored suspicions about the murderer.
I stopped answering the phone and finally unplugged it. I’ve never liked the phone, and I couldn’t face talking to Ada or Morris, and the cold calls from contractors and charities and fake IT specialists were driving me mad. I was finding it impossible to concentrate on puzzles or TV and spent a lot of time staring out the front window at Henry’s spotless yard. What kind of madman would devote so much time to eradicating every leaf that fell? Did he know that gas leaf blowers exceed 100 decibels and can actually make you deaf? How bad they are for the environment? A leaf blower emits nearly 300 times the hydrocarbons emitted by a pickup truck. What was wrong with him anyway?
Last night I was half aware of a nightmare I couldn’t escape. The kind where you’re trying to scream and no sound is coming out of your mouth. The trees in front of my house were gigantic, the wind rustling through their branches was moaning and getting louder, and I was thinking that no one could possibly cut them down. It was a dark night with no moon, the sky was awash with stars, and I was outside on our street, running, running, I felt like I was underwater, running in slow motion, but the water was red, swirling down the drain.
When I opened my eyes this morning, I was sitting in the wing chair. The sleeves on my blouse were damp and there were dark spots on my shoes. The Morning edition of the PBS News Hour was on, the sound turned down as low it would go. The time on the clock read 8:04. The street was so quiet that I could hear my heart beating in my ears.
Jacqueline Doyle is the author of the flash collection The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press). She has published in New World Writing, The Gettysburg Review, Post Road, Passages North, Fourth Genre, Midway Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and can be found online at www.jacquelinedoyle.com