This story is for anybody who is trying to find their own strong voice. It was named a "Notable Selection" in the Dylan Days Literary Contest (2011) in Hibbing, MN--there will be a reading this Friday afternoon at the Hibbing Public Library Auditorium. I'll be there! A special hello to any KAXE listeners who may have heard my interview this evening.
The Voice Store
Jackie went to the Voice Store, stood at the long counter, and rang the little domed silver bell. The clerk walked out of the back room looking sleepy or maybe drunk—she couldn't be sure just by looking at him. She wondered if a man who worked in a Voice Store could try on different voices on different days depending on his mood. Maybe one day he would be in a surly mood and try on a gravelly Bette Davis voice and other days, if his dreams were good dreams, he would put on a Humphrey Bogart or a Clark Gable voice. She couldn't help but stare at the big man with his belly rocking over his belt, and his hair thin and gray.
"Can I help you, Ma-am?"
Disappointing really, thought Jackie, a truly disappointing voice for a man who worked in a Voice Store, maybe even owned the place, she didn't know. She sighed.
"I need a new voice. This one is old and out of words. It just turned thirty-eight. Years old. I guess a change would be good, you know, it's time . . . . " She was fascinated by the way her sentences continually drifted off into a soundless nothing.
"What have you got in mind, lady? Anything special?"
"I’m not sure, exactly."
"Maybe you just want a rebuild on your current voice? It's cheaper."
"No thanks, no rebuilds, please. This one works fine, it simply has nothing more to say."
"You sure about that?"
She was growing frustrated with the shopkeeper. "Of course I'm sure. You see, I used to teach workshops and such. A few weeks ago I was standing in front of forty or more people all waiting to hear my voice when it hit me. I had nothing more to say.” She leaned over the counter and lowered her voice. She wished her hair was long again and sweeping the countertop for effect, but she had cut it short long ago. “You see, they all wanted me to say life is easy, change is easy, magic happens, you know, the usual workshop bullshit. And I said what they wanted to hear, but that is when it really hit me. My words were flat, tired, used up.” Jackie realized she was rambling and he was nodding but not really hearing a word of it. “Well, never mind.” She stood straight again. “Anyway, I need a new voice, that’s all, mister.”
Ah, that was it, thought Jackie. His was a “Mister” voice, a generic brand easily installed into a wide variety of male voice boxes. It was a nice, safe model, really, reliable for the most mundane levels of conversation at least—if perhaps a bit dull. She relaxed, her purse and arms dangling like lazy pets at her side. "So, how do I go about finding a new voice?"
The man pushed a small catalogue toward her. "Here, take a look through this. Kind of gives you an idea. We have lots of voices—good, strong voices for people with causes, straight-arrow voices for hitting the mark. Salespeople like that one." He chuckled at his own wit. "Or we have nice sweet voices—the little women usually go for those." He leaned forward and eyed her closely. "Probably not for you just yet. Oh yes, we also have a newly developed line of New Age voices starting on page twenty-six." Jackie shook her head when she saw his eyebrows arch into question marks.
“No New Age, please. And no old sixties. My God. I am so tired of fat syllables that say nothing."
The man nodded and stared at her while she browsed the little catalogue. She felt like a cat at the end of her nine lives or, in this case, her nine voices. She’d used them all—the drug-induced, marriage-induced, motherhood-induced voices, the voice of the lost child inside, not to mention the great depression (personal, of course), but every single voice had gone as thin as spring ice on a lake. Yes, this was going to be tricky. "Can I take the catalogue home with me? I'd like to study it a bit before deciding. It is such a big decision, you realize . . . " Once again her voice trailed off, the sentence drifting to nothing.
"Oh sure, lady, I understand. Take it home. Go ahead." He grinned. Jackie thought she detected a look of relief on his face as he turned and walked into the back room of the store and left her staring at an empty doorway. She wondered if he often had to deal with customers as undecided as she was.
Well, damn it. This was a big decision. It was particularly difficult because she couldn't put into words what the new voice should sound like. If she could do that, put it into words, then she certainly wouldn't need the Voice Store or the man's helpful little catalogue. In fact, if she could put it into words, she would already have a new voice. It made her head ache trying to think it through. She stuffed the catalogue in her dangling purse and left.
She walked slowly toward home letting the warm spring air wash her face in breezes and green smells. She flipped her fingers along the chain link fences that led home until her fingers grew warm and numb. So many fences, she thought. Were they to keep things in—or to keep things out, that was always the question.
A voice. A strong, new voice, thought Jackie. But sweet. Be nice if it could sing. Last week, while puttering around the office she had suddenly heard the most amazing voice singing. She had checked the radio. It was off. Finally, she peeked out the front door and there, across the street was a gardener down on his knees, knuckle-deep in damp spring soil and singing with the sweetest tenor she’d ever heard. She couldn't resist the voice and had wandered across the black pavement like a forest creature responding to Pan's pipe.
"You're singing." Jackie had said simply.
"Because it feels good."
The man’s voice must have been all taken up by the song because he simply turned back to the soil and ignored her. She stared at him for another moment listening until she imagined his voice rising up from the earth like mist or moisture.
Maybe that was it, she thought, now on her way back from the Voice Store. Maybe she needed a voice with few words. Or no words. What good are they anyway? Maybe her voice was giving up because of the words themselves. Silence itself had become like a voice lately as full and rich as the gardener’s tenor. Maybe her voice was just plain tired of talk and questions and more talk. Maybe it wasn’t that she was trying to figure out what thirty-eight means—but that she held some underlying belief that it should mean something.
Jackie was still pondering her voiceless state when she arrived home and then, without thought, she snatched purse and car keys off the kitchen table and left the house. She drove into the hills, turned off the road, got out of the car, and walked. Her mind dared not form a single word. As she walked, her feet made a crunching sound that rose up off the ground like sound dust and joined wind sounds whistling through the stick man trees (too early for pale green leaf buds). The crunching gravel and the wind formed unseen sentences. Bird sounds punctuated the sentences with periods and commas and an occasional clucking exclamation point. A forest language!
It was almost more than she could bear. Jackie stripped off her shirt and bra and stood top-naked in the forest to feel the language like a breezy Braille on her face, on her breasts, on her back. The wind lifted individual hairs off her brow and slid down the back of her neck like a lover until she shivered, or quivered really, and part of her strained to remember.
She stretched out on a dry, green place. Tall grasses fringed the blue-sky opening like lace, and even the earth seemed to pulse its own beat along her backbone. Her inner voice was silent and the sky seemed smiling and whispering like an old friend she had known long ago. Had she ever really been eight-years-old-once-upon-a-time, a girl on the northern range in love with this language of high sky and wind in the trees and grasses blowing in syllables only a child can hear? But was she child still? Perhaps? It almost came to her then. Almost. Jackie got back into the car and left and tried to forget.
But the new voice, the language of trees and wind and bird had recorded itself like magnetic tape in her mind and come along and confused her powerfully. She had images, dreams in full daylight, of herself as a girl still hiding and seeking in the trees, on the fields, eye to eye with berry bushes. The images teased her until she felt that if she drove there, to the edge of the world, the grinning girl-child would be there still playing in fields and forests with abandon and pleasure eternally. That pissed her off.
Maybe that is who was stealing her voice, leaking the words off one by one. It was that little sprite, the girl diva, living still on the edge of the woods.
Of course none of these images made it into consciousness but rather stayed flickering in her peripheral vision. She caught glimpses of the girl dancing with Gods in a sunny meadow but as soon as she turned her head to catch her, the images flickered out like stubby candles in the most exasperating way.
She tried to tell her friend Mary about it over coffee at Java Junke, but the words failed her once again. “It was the wind in the trees, Mary, as if they were speaking a separate language, not words really, more like memories, very old, old memories.
Mary sipped her coffee, stirred her cream, nodded, trying very hard to understand. “Yes, Jackie. Trees. Trees are good. I like wind in the trees.”
“Yes, of course you do, but did you ever think that maybe there is more to trees than just woody trunks and branches like bony fingers spreading the sky?”
“Yes, blue sky. Sky is good. I know exactly what you mean.”
A shadow, a numinous premonition trembled through her. Even her best friend Mary couldn’t understand her words. She tried again. “Did you ever think that even though our bodies are getting older, a little thicker around the edges, that maybe the girls are still wherever we happened to leave them? Like maybe they are real and trying to reach through time to tell us something?”
Mary stared out the window and then back at the coffee cup. Her slim fingers began to trace the rippled edge of the orange plastic placemat. “Gee, Jackie, I’m not sure what you mean.” And then Mary tried to kick start the conversation off in another direction. “Did I tell you what Charlie did last week?”
Charlie was her son.
Later, Jackie called her mother.
“Hi Mom. Guess what. I’ve been thinking about God.” Somehow Jackie had this notion that her mother would be pleased that at last, after all this time, her thoughts had turned to God. Her mother didn’t know that it was just a word Jackie used whenever she needed to condense all experience and sensation into a can like soup.
“You have been thinking about God?”
“What’s wrong, Jackie? Is something the matter? I always said that . . . . ”
Her mother’s voice drifted off until Jackie heard it no more. She still can’t believe that her voice is not my voice.
Jackie hung up the telephone and sat down. Silence was all around, broken only by her memory of that other language, of wind blowing in trees, of worms burrowing, of spiders weaving, of a girl laughing and dancing with Gods in a green sunny meadow. She listened.
In the end, Jackie decided there was no reason to pay good money for silence. She tossed out the silly catalogue from the Voice Store and decided her voice would be whatever it was going to be. Or it would be nothing.
Strangely, as the voice disappeared, her words going into nothingness, they seemed to gather strength and energy in their demise . . . and she heard . . .
Be still and know that I am God
Be still and know that I am
Be still and know