The Sounds Have Gone Missing

The streets are quiet. I am quiet.

By Michele Weldon

The thud against the front door wakes me about 4:15, 4:30 a.m.. It is followed by the dozen or so rubber-soled rushed footsteps of the man who has been delivering the printed newspaper to my house for more than 20 years, the slam of his car door, and the loud growling of his car as he pulls out of the driveway and vanishes down the street. Headed south.

I lay there in my mismatched Percale sheets determined not to check email on my phone. Soon enough the birds start to chirp in the lilac trees flanking the front of the house; their call and response is soothing and bright.

Since the near end of the world began in March, the street sounds of cars passing in the suburb of Chicago where I live have nearly evaporated. The deep drumming of lawn mowers and hedge trimmers fill the afternoons and weekends. Occasionally barking dogs punctuate the hours that slide past. I understand these are the sounds of insulated privilege.

No one applauds the healthcare workers from balconies; we tie white ribbons around the trees. There are few ambulance sirens pronouncing catastrophes; two people have died in this small suburb since March. The sounds went missing from the outside in.

Odd when the expected sounds of daily life disappear; it’s as if you are seeing what is in the back of the cupboard for the first time, reminding yourself of how you placed it there long ago, wondering if it has gone stale, past its usefulness.

I live in this 1932 house in a compliant, quarantining neighborhood where people shelter at home, indoors mostly, except to garden or play in their yards. I am indoors working, as I imagine my neighbors are as well. I go for a walk alone in the evening — four miles round trip — after I stop working about 6 or so. I wave to the sometimes masked walkers, bikers, skaters and joggers. They sometimes wave back.

Save for the Saturday pool splashing children, crying toddlers, rare and random illegally begotten fireworks aglare every few weeks from the neighbor with his yard facing one door to the south, the block is quiet. Good.

I have grown to be noise averse.

Sudden loud noises startle me — in a cartoonish way like Elmer Fudd jumping back at the burst of his shotgun. Unpredictable sounds that erupt without warning scare me. I am not crazy about dogs. Aside from the allergy issue, the barking in my house would unravel me to the point of sobbing in a locked closet whispering ,“Please stop.” I don’t like amusement parks; they do not amuse me.

It is not just because I am old.

My workday is quiet and long — save the Zoom meetings where I put myself on mute most of the time. I write, edit and type for maybe eight hours a day or more, sometimes 9, 10 with the only sounds are my finger tapping on the keyboard and the whirr of the portable fan nearby. I am not one of those who works while listening to music in the background, never have been. If I loved the music, I would get up and dance. I would never get any work done in a Starbucks.

In the evenings, most all of what is on network, cable and subscription TV is loud — the cop shows, the SWAT shows, the fire department and hospital shows, even the music shows, the competition for the next champion whatever shows, finding the next best Taylor Swift, all that. There was one network show earlier in the spring with a lot of crying and snuggling about couples finding their perfect singing partner and also the love of their lives. Talk about high standards. Even the documentaries and the historic remakes are too loud; so much war, so many bombs, so much gunfire. And crying. I opt out.

Oh, yes, I love the “Great British Baking Show.” It’s like life in slow motion, with cubes of butter.

Not so many friends of mine like to go the movies with me anymore because of my low decibel criterion. If I won’t go to a war movie or one with car chases and screaming and shooting — that leaves the sappy romance movies, costume dramas and the foreign films where all that happens is people change clothes, partners and restaurants. If you can’t remember “My Dinner With Andre,” look it up, that’s the ideal. People just talk over dinner.

But no one is going to the movies anymore. At least until Disney says we can.

I do love music, though, and dancing. If the music is loud and thumping through my body, that is different than the sudden, unpredictable outbursts from an angry person or a car crash or gunfire. I hate fireworks.

With music, it is my choice and I can control the volume.

***

Growing up, our house on Clinton Place and then the one on Jackson Avenue was loud — six of us children in fewer than eight years. The white baby grand piano in the living room and all I could play was chopsticks, though I played the viola in middle school, rushing down to serenade my mother as she placed wet clothes in the dryer and I scratched my bow across the strings.

My two brothers were in the backyard or on the driveway playing basketball as they oomphed and grunted and dribbled a ball they never would throw to me. My sisters Mary and Maureen in their third floor bedroom we called Blue Heaven setting their hair at night in pink plastic rollers, the blue princess phone on the nightstand between their twin beds with the shiny blue bedspreads. My sister Madeleine always bossing me into doing her chores — saying she would time me.

We played pool and ping pong and danced in the basement, had friends over. It was crowded at our house and loud, but a good loud. It was also quiet when we were doing our homework in our bedrooms or in the library with the marble table off the living room.

The library with the leather club chairs and the shelves filled with two different kinds of encyclopedias that my father bought from a door to door encyclopedia salesman. My father said yes because we asked and thought we would never have to go to the library to do our homework. To find answers. Because we would always have the answers at home.

My parents expected us to be quiet, told us to be quiet, they never shouted for us to shut up like I heard some other fathers do to their daughters. Like mothers did to their sons.

The sounds in the house on Jackson were predictable — even the weekend sounds of “American Bandstand” or “Soul Train” on the TV, the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night. I remember watching The Beatles and being astounded by how loud the girls in the audience were screaming. Are those happy screams? Is there such a thing?

My mother sang to herself when she did the laundry — she was always doing the landry. My father whistled when he came home; I heard the electric garage door going up, the car pulling in, the engine stopping, him opening the door and walking briskly to the backdoor. Whistling.

Hi, Mich, where’s your mother?”

With him it was always your mother, not Mom, I guess so we would not forget whom she belonged to. Mrs. B, he called my grandmother, short for Mrs. Butler, who ate dinner with us every night after my grandfather died. JJ was his name, John my grandmother called him so that it was soft and marshmallow sweet, so unlike him. I never knew his middle name was Joseph until I read his obituary.

JJ was thin and hunched over like an apostrophe, lifting himself up off his armchair by the picture window, covered in plastic like all the other crinkly, sweat-sticking furniture in the six-flat on Wisconsin Avenue. He smelled spicy and sharp and would throw word darts at people he disliked; I remember thinking he sounded nothing like my father and I was grateful.

***

For me, the first time the sounds went missing was eight years ago when I was alone in this house for the first time, and the sounds disappeared from the inside out, not gradually like the evisceration of sunlight at the end of the day as a sweet, pink to blue to black denouement. Not gently like a rowboat gliding into shore, oars lifted into the boat, waiting for the time it is prudent to jump out ankle deep when the bottom scrapes the sand. But suddenly, like the flick of a light switch or the slamming of a door, punctuating the before from the after, separating them mercilessly so there is no confusion.

It was foreign — the silence, the un-noise — so much so that I could not identify why I felt upended, disoriented, fluish, like the time an inner ear infection made me unable to stand without falling.

My house is quiet again, save the sounds I could not hear before — the undertones, the backdrop of the air conditioner humming, the freezer kerplucking thin, half- circles of clear ice into the bin, cars pulling into other driveways. There is very little honking outside.

The years of my sons growing up were the loudest yet — the thudthud thudthud of an impromptu wrestling match upstairs in Colin’s room — Colin against one of his brothers or Sammy or Joey or Ellis or any of the muscled athletes who ate, showered and slept at our house every week, sometimes every day.

The heavy gait on the basement stairs plodplodplodplod and the accompanying yank of the railing rattling its screws and bolts from the wall. The clanging of pots and pans — pizza or grilled cheese sandwiches made at 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 a.m. The shower water running long, long, long, so long I knew there would be no hot water left to wash my hair. The shouting on the phone, the rap songs from laptops, the video game din with machine guns and bells and clinking and shouts. The swearing, no matter how many times I said, “Stop, please.”

I do not have one ear perked for the White Nissan Altima (the “White Knight” they called it) in the driveway, Colin or Brendan coming home late, the relief of the back door opening, the alarm buzzing once as the door opens. Then the clanking of the keys on the butcher block, the shoes thrown one at a time on the floor, the refrigerator opening, the cupboards, the clanking of plates and glasses. The water in the sink running, the teeth brushing, the toilet flushing.

I do not miss the sharp things they shouted to me. To each other. I yelled at them too; I do not miss my own voice.

Shouting reminded me of him, and the lifetime ago, when I could not predict his volume or his moods. Now how foolish as it seems, I was mostly caught off guard. Even the tornadoes warn you with the yellow sky and the eerie stillness. The early warnings sirens go off because our suburb has that system and that is why the property taxes are high or one of the reasons.

I need the yellow sky.

It’s not too quiet now, I do not miss the sounds, I am relieved. But it is just strange, unnatural, as if I have been treading water neck-deep in an ocean for so many years and suddenly I am on dry land, standing. Where did the water go? It was just here.

Author of Act Like You’re Having A Good Time +5 other books; NU emerita faculty; journo, OpEd Project leader; editorial director TakeTheLead, mother of 3 sons.