A Day in the Life
Caleb walked outside into the morning and there it was again. As thin as the summer wind, but there—present. A piece of a song, the cogs and belts indistinguishable but the melody just turning over enough to start. He didn’t know what song it was, or where it came from. He didn’t really care.
As he knelt down to pick up the newspaper, wrapped as it always was in moist plastic wrap, he thought to himself: what a waste, this wrapping, and it was his first real thought of the day. He should tell someone. Write a letter to the paper. A letter to the paper about the paper. Was that irony? He wasn’t sure.
Either way, when Caleb stood up, barefoot, still stretching the night away from his bones, the song had disappeared. He glanced around sleepily. The sunlight blinked on the grass and said nothing.
Joni was in the kitchen, cracking an egg. The newspaper was spread across the table in neat squares. Caleb didn’t remember seeing her wake up, but come to think of it, he didn’t remember her being in bed this morning at all. There were dreams; gray, shrouded figures, firelight, then the alarm; a Beatles song that he immediately clicked off, then the groggy meditation of a long morning piss. His head felt cloudier than usual, and he couldn’t remember much else about last night, or, strangely, the days and weeks before today.
“Need a four-letter word for ‘excitement,’” Joni said, dropping a yolk. It sizzled.
Caleb walked over to the table, examined the sections, and slid the obituaries out of the way. He cradled her pen gently.
“Don’t!” snapped Joni. Her eyes never moved.
Caleb put down the pen but kept staring at the empty boxes. He wanted very badly to fill them in, but knew the feeling would pass.
“Shit. I’m burning it. Did you eat all the bread?”
He poured a half cup of black coffee and walked upstairs. His feet slapped gently on the wooden floor, a tired rhythm of routine. His knees popped on the off-beats, timing it right. Did they always sync up so well? Hands on hips, Caleb surveyed the bedroom: the fractured sunlight, the unmade bed, the books stacked neatly on separate night tables. It felt like Saturday, didn’t it? Was it? No, it wasn’t. What was this drowsiness—not in his head, but in his brain? It felt similar to a hangover, but he hadn’t had anything to drink last night. He was sure of that, at least. They hadn’t drunk, either of them, since last August.
He had to go to work, just like any other day. That was the illusion of summer on the East Coast, wasn’t it? That with the change in climate, other aspects of life would follow suit and maybe grow warmer, or more open. But they didn’t, unless you were in college or something. He peeled off his shirt, but instead of getting into the shower drifted over to the window. Last month, their cookie-cutter suburban street had come alive with kids—out of school, or home from college for the summer. Caleb would lay awake at night, listening to cars zooming into driveways, muffled laughter. One night he swore he could smell marijuana wafting through the window.
Next door, Jim was mowing the lawn, earplugs in. In about thirty minutes, he’d pop open a beer and sweat away his retirement on the porch. Olivia had graduated from Rhode Island College, but she was home for a month, and she spent every day by the backyard pool with the stereo at her feet. Caleb could see her long, skinny legs poking out from an umbrella. Her toes were painted silver.
He sighed. He was going to be late. Jim turned off the mower and the neighborhood lapsed into rapid silence, as shiny and bright as aluminum foil. But as Caleb turned away, he could already hear everything filling in. The birds started chiming and chattering, as if they’d been waiting. The voices of children squeaked indignantly from a backyard somewhere. And there was something else—Olivia’s radio, probably. It was the song from the morning, he thought, but a little louder. He could make out the whine of a harmonica, the strings of a guitar. At least he thought he could. It came in and out, and Caleb felt his ears perking up, straining. Did he recognize the song? Or did it just sound like other things—the buzz of a television, the drone of cars out on the highway beyond the house?
The bedroom door slammed. “Running late?” Joni said. She brushed by him, one hand holding her iPhone aloft. When she saw him staring, she put her arm down.
“Excuse me,” she said brightly. “Why are you standing in the window half naked?”
“Hear that?” Caleb pointed toward the window.
Joni slipped her phone into her pocket and leaned out. “Hi Jim,” she called. “Hi Olivia.”
Caleb shook his head. “Nothing. I’m late. I…”
“Caleb, I didn’t hear anything.”
Caleb straightened his tie in the steam-streaked mirror. He needed to shave, but he wouldn’t. Joni was gone—probably out jogging—when he left. She ran every morning now, and went to the gym in the late afternoons. Her body was lithe and strong, as if it had never betrayed her.
Across the street, four teenagers glared. Caleb managed a half wave, and one boy—shorn head, tight jeans—spit into the grass and nodded. Caleb wondered how he appeared to them, sliding stiffly into the used Volvo they’d gotten last July. As he pulled away, the radio DJ cut to commercial, and Olivia sidled in front of the car. Short jean shorts and a wrinkled button-down, her eyes puffy, she looked as though she’d just woken up.
The radio fizzed into static as Caleb pulled around. Olivia’s gaze just barely dusted his face. Just in case she saw, he pressed his lips into a tight grin.
On the way to the office, not one channel would come in. The static hummed and lurched until he clicked the dial and sat back, frustrated. Well, maybe silence was what he needed. To get his head together. To get rid of the sense that someone had poured sand into his brain, and that he couldn’t shake it out.
He shut off the A/C and opened the window. It was only then that he heard the whine of the engine. The bump of the cracks in the highway and the ragged rip of the breeze. The cacophony of car horns when getting off the exit. It wasn’t just noise, exactly. Instead, it was an orchestra of sound with some strange sense of rhythm to it, and it burrowed its way into him like a tick, searching for blood.
When he left the car, he was tapping his foot, and at the door to the office, he stopped abruptly and held the door for the woman who was leaving.
“Thanks?” she said, looking at him oddly.
Caleb paused at the entrance. He could smell the antiseptic scent of the building, the weak coffee and gray cubicles dirty with fingerprints. The sun warmed his back. Across the street, there was the park where he used to go to eat lunch. His ears bristled when he heard it again, his arm still outstretched, a group of people from the upper floor hurrying by him, not thanking him or acknowledging. It was clearer this time, and he recognized the rise and repeat of certain notes, the fading of the harmonica as the verse began. It wasn’t the song from earlier, though. It couldn’t be. Well, yes it could. Maybe it was some new radio smash, taking the summer by storm. A neighborhood radio, a TV spot, an iPod speaker in the park. It wasn’t crazy. Was the song following him? That was crazy. That couldn’t happen.
“Nice out there,” Caleb remarked to the secretary.
“Mmm hmm,” she said, her lips pursed. Her face was splotched with makeup that made her look angry.
“Music in the park, huh?”
“Sorry?” She peered at him sourly.
“There’s music playing out there, it’s gorgeous. I might go out there for lunch.”
She pressed her lips shut. “I didn’t hear anything.”
But Caleb did. In fact, as the hours stretched on, the clearing of throats, the click of keyboards, the clack of shoes and the ding of the elevator pulsed around him. Twice, he had to stop himself from nodding his head, and once, a co-worker—pale-faced, nameless, body odor masked by body spray—pointed to Caleb’s tapping foot and smirked.
“Could you please stop,” said Body Spray. “It’s just really disturbing. Thanks!”
“Caleb? Where were you this morning?!” Mr. Devendorf clomped by, an ideal bass drum, perfectly in time. “That’s another morning meeting you’ve missed. Don’t think that…”
But he was gone, sucked into the elevator and then presumably spit out into the parking lot, where he’d leap into his convertible. Done for the day at 2 p.m.
At 2:15, Caleb stopped drumming his hands on the desk. He hadn’t stopped for lunch yet, but his screen was blank. Had he even logged in? His laptop case was still zipped and leaning against his right leg. What had he been doing all this time? He stared at the remnants of Scotch tape at eye level, where a picture had once hung.
Outside, the sun punched a hole in the clouds and dripped through. Caleb walked across the street, the honk of a car horn grazing his face harmlessly, in the same way Olivia’s eyes had. She had a small tattoo on her right ankle, he’d noticed. He wondered if it had pissed Jim off. He wondered if it meant anything to her, the tattoo. If it was inked there as a way to remember something, or someone.
He made his way through the trees, the shade cool and darker than usual. Most of the grass in the park was dry and burned, shriveled against the dirt. Was it really August again, then? Had it really been a year?
Caleb found the bench. He remembered last summer, calling Joni from this spot every single day, but he couldn’t remember what they’d ever talked about. He vaguely remembered that Tuesday—or was it a Thursday? Caleb had vaulted up, the phone slipping from his hands, and began to run as if he’d been shot at. He’d tripped while crossing the street, and skinned his knee. Later, examining the stain on his pants, Caleb realized that blood, when dry, was a completely different color than when it was new.
The music swirled with the colors when he closed his eyes. He hadn’t seen anyone, but he concentrated on the image of a couple asleep in the grass, an old blanket soaking in sun, a six-pack, a radio playing the same old song. There were no lyrics yet, but there were spaces for them. Words drifted through his head, nonsensical and absurd. The song faded and then began again, fresh, every time.
On the way home, the car radio sparked and hissed at him until he turned it off. Was it a problem with his radio, specifically, or could it be that some satellite was down? He pictured an enormous disc burning in a grassy field, the metal melting. It was strange, the things we relied on without thinking about. It was also strange how clear his thoughts felt now as opposed to this morning—translucent, even. And what about the radio he’d heard in the park? Unconsciously, Caleb probed his right ear with an index finger. Maybe it was a ringing that he’d been hearing, a song stuck in his head? Stranger things had happened. But brought on by what? Wasn’t there tinnitus? Couldn’t it be permanent?
Stop. This was stupid. There were other things to worry about, right? The highway hummed under him, a strong tenor, agreeing with him as it blended in harmony with the rush of the sky.
“Caleb?” Joni was not dressed for the gym. She was wearing a short skirt and heels. Caleb put his hands into his pockets. Someone splashed into the pool next door.
“Where’s your briefcase? Why are you home? Did something happen?”
“I’m home early, that’s all.”
“I’m going to lunch with Meg. At the Grill. If I’d known you were coming, I… We’ve got plans. I’m going to get that salad I love? Meg’s all excited. She left work early.”
Caleb watched her mouth open and close. There was a bit of lipstick on her two front teeth. Her voice sounded out of tune.
“I’ll see you when I get back. It shouldn’t be long. I’ll see you in a bit, OK? OK.”
Her heels whacked against the asphalt, her legs folded into the car, and she was gone. The motor rattled and faded. Caleb would tell her about the bench, and that he’d gone back to it, later. He’d wanted to, but she was leaving. It might have been an important step. Or, maybe she wouldn’t care. He couldn’t tell anymore.
Caleb leaned against the car and listened. The splashing next door drifted over like a fog. The DJ introduced a brand-new song on the radio, describing it as “what might be the song of the summer.”
Hadn’t Joni said that she didn’t feel like Meg understood her anymore? That they weren’t as close as they used to be? Or was it that Meg spent the summers out of town? Caleb couldn’t remember. Maybe it didn’t matter. As he walked inside, he wasn’t surprised to hear the familiar strum of chords, the kick of the syncopated drums in the chorus that he now knew so well.
The bedroom was a disaster, clothes all over the bed—skirts, shirts, bras. Caleb left his own clothes on the floor and pulled on a pair of shorts and an old T-shirt. In the mirror, the charcoal shadings of a beard had begun to give his face some definition. He’d lost weight over the last year, too, and his muscles pressed anxiously in his arms.
Home early with the house to himself, he rummaged aimlessly through the fridge, scratching at the imprint of his work socks on his ankles. He hesitated, then reached back for an old bottle of Sam Adams that’d been shoved in the crisper so long ago. He placed it on the counter and then found some Glenlivet in the dusty cabinet above the fridge. Setting the scotch up on ice, he popped the beer and grabbed a chair from the table, which was still strewn with the newspaper.
The backyard was overgrown, but Caleb moved with intention, yanking a small table from the weeds and jamming it in the grass next to the chair. Then he leaned back, drank, and closed his eyes. He wanted to listen.
He opened his eyes. The shade had whispered in. But there was still the warmth of the sun on his toes, the liquor in his belly, the teasing edges of melody.
She scratched a bare arm and cocked her head, standing next to the line of bushes that divided the lawns. The sun was beginning to inch down behind her, and the tips of her blonde hair glowed.
“You dropped your beer,” she said, pointing.
“Oh.” Caleb reached down into the damp grass and picked up the bottle. He drained the dregs and cast it away.
She laughed nervously. “My father wanted me to ask if they could park in your driveway.”
Caleb looked around lazily. “If who could?”
“It’s just, he’s—they’re—having friends over, and they don’t have the space in—”
Caleb nodded and signaled her to stop talking. “I love this part,” he said, taking a sip.
Olivia pursed her lips. “What part? What are you doing out here, anyway? Where’s Mrs….”
“You should wear your hair down,” Caleb heard himself saying.
“It would frame your face. You’re beautiful—don’t get me wrong—but try it.”
She wrinkled her nose and took a step away. “I just came over here to…”
Caleb watched the weeds ripple in the breeze.
“Wait, I do wear it down! Just not around here!” Olivia crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently.
“Good. Now, hear this song?”
“The one playing right now.”
She glanced at his house and then shook her head slowly. “Nope, I don’t hear anything.”
Caleb took a sip and shrugged. “Of course you don’t. Of course. But you played it before, when you were listening by the pool?”
She considered this, hands on her hips. Then she narrowed her eyes and stepped closer. “What? On my stereo?”
“Righto.” Caleb drained the scotch and let the glass thud into the grass.
“Um, how’d you know I had a stereo out there? It’s barely loud…”
“Olivia, it’s fucking blaring,” he said simply.
She stepped closer again and her eyes seemed to refocus. “Or, have you been watching me?”
In the silence that hung between them, Caleb could hear the song restarting, going back to what was that now familiar groundswell of major chords and elastic bass. The drums would kick in momentarily.
“There, you hear that? Right there?”
But Olivia was trailing away, one arm in the air. “Bye Mr. Benson,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.” She laughed, the tinny ripple dissolving into the air.
When Joni pulled in, Caleb was still out in the yard, watching the mosquitoes descend and the moon rise. There were still no lyrics, but he sang along anyway, making it up as he went. He could hear the neighbors gossiping, and the hum of bike spokes, and the drone of the highway in the distance, as headlights burned and strangers headed somewhere new.
He closed his eyes and waited.
“Phew, we had so much to talk about that I lost track of time! We ended up doing lunch and dinner and drinks and all of it. I’m tired now. What—what are you doing?”
She stood over him. A tendril of hair had sprung free and hung limply in front of her eyes. Her makeup, though, was perfectly applied. Reapplied. There were deep ruts under her eyes, and he noticed a small tear in the corner of her shirt.
Caleb reached up and touched the cotton, where it was torn. His wife flinched.
“So strange, it was so strange. My shirt ripped. It’s a new shirt, and it ripped. Just like that.”
“Just like that,” Caleb repeated softly.
“Why are you…” But she faltered.
“Do you hear it?” he tried. His hand rubbed against her hip, and he tried to pull her closer.
But she was already kicking off her heels and limping through the kitchen, a bottle of water in her hand, mouthing the words I’m so tired. He knew that lyric by heart. So he stood up and followed her upstairs, tripping a little on the steps, the music welling up behind him, coming from outside and inside at once.
He caught her at the door to their bedroom, and she turned and leaned against it, facing him. Her breath smelled of rum and cigarettes.
When she opened her mouth, the silence finally came, blanketing everything, sliding a smooth pane of glass around them. Her breathing quickened. His eyes blinked. Their faces were very close, closer than they’d been in twelve months. Caleb could hear the blood pounding through both of them, swirling and spiraling to where it was needed. It was amazing, really, the things they relied on without thinking about.
He reached to take her in his arms but her body hung there limply. He saw her mouth parting. I’m so tired.
“I just don’t,” she finally said, “I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.” The back of her head knocked a single beat against the door, and her hand covered her lips as she turned around.
There was the slam of the door and the click of the lock. Seconds later, the lonely squeak of the faucet in their bathroom. The soft rasp of Joni coughing, or crying. Then Caleb could only hear the rumble of the steps beneath his feet, as the song carried him out the front door, gliding along with its familiar lilt.
Caleb swung into the car, shut the door, rolled down the windows, and let the music engulf him. There was the blare of the radio next door, and that spark of throaty, gleeful surprise in Olivia’s voice. There was the clicking of keyboards, the whack of high heels on asphalt, the hoarse vibrato of his wife’s voice. There was the crackle of static and the growl of lawn mowers and car horns bleating and phones chiming, and blood running through all of them, rushing to keep them there for at least one more day.
Caleb started the car. He knew that beyond the hum of engines on the highway, there were other roads. Mountains, then deserts, then the gray, stone glint of the Pacific. As he pulled away, there were birds singing and children wailing, their voices so hoarse that they hurt.
Brian Sousa is the author of the linked collection “Almost Gone,” forthcoming in March 2013 from Tagus / UPNE Press. His stories and poems have appeared in Quiddity, the DMQ Review, Babilonia, Gavea-Brown, and Rutgers Press’ Anthology of Luso-American Literature, among others.