Listen to the Deaf Man Sing
by Edward Ahern
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The theater canceled the next day’s performance, refunding tickets at the box office. Stephen spent the day in his apartment, in his underwear, talking with his lawyer, his agent and the theater manager. They all used ego-stroking words to say the same thing: you can’t speak again until the accusation is cleared.
Karen called. “Can I come over?”
“No, K, not today. I’ve worked myself into a major bout of that self-pity you dislike. I’m not fit company.”
Stephen put her off for another week, three more theater cancellations. She banged on his door that Saturday afternoon. He answered the knocking in his underwear. “Stevie, things can’t go on like this. I want to get you through and past this, finding something else, but you’re rejecting me.”
“Not here, K. Let me get some clothes on and we can go out for a drink.”
Once boothed in at a bar, she started again, her expression sad. “Stevie, Fenton just relapsed. I don’t know where he is. Are you okay?”
“Fenton, Jesus. I’ve got this big hole in my life, K, and no matter what I fill it with, it’s still gaping. I get the shakes when I’m awake and the cold sweats when I’m asleep.”
“Let me in, I can help.”
Stephen waited several seconds before speaking. “Would you be okay with it, if I could figure out a way to start speaking again?”
Karen’s glass thudded onto the table top. “No... Why... How... You can’t do that, people kill themselves after hearing you.”
“I know, but I also know that I’m only really alive when I hear their feelings.” He paused again. “You’ve only known me since I’ve been speaking, I don’t think you’d be happy with who I was, what I’d have to become again. We need to take some time apart, K, not least because you think I’m a murderer.”
“I never said that!”
“Not exactly, no. I’ll call as soon as I’ve sorted myself out.”
Karen stood up, her face red. “No rush,” she said, and walked out.
The next week Stephen’s agent helped him find a job in a library that dripped just enough life support into him to stay warm, dry and adequately fed. I’m shrinking into subsistence. A half-life for half a man. No, worse, a phantom pain from an amputated part of me.
* * *
Four months later, in fall, two men approached Stephen as he left the library. Black dress shoes, dark, expensive suits. “I haven’t given any talks.”
“We know. Come with us please, Mr. Allan, we need to discuss something.”
Stephen realized his fists were clinched. “We can do that here in the parking lot.”
“Play nice, Mr. Allan. We have a way for you to resume your calling.”
“Not likely, you’ve already destroyed what I had.”
“Get in the car, please, Mr. Allan. You’ll get an explanation at the end of the drive.”
The car was a Ford Explorer that, judging by the ride and the engine noise, had been significantly beefed up. The trip ended at a low-rise office building and a door that read Global Expediting. The lettering looked new, the office furniture inside looked rented, used.
“Sit down, Mr. Allan.” The speaker was a pudgy, sweaty man whose expensive suit was rumpled. “Mr. Allan, you can call me Nobbs. I’m going to make you an offer.”
You’re not the state police, are you?”
“No. What I’m about to say is confidential. If you blab anything about this you’ll face confinement and reconditioning, maybe even disposal.”
Stephen felt the swirl of Nobbs’ emotions. “And the last two guys weren’t state police, were they? You set up this whole thing! But the cease and desist writ is legal according to my lawyer.”
“It is real. The state police were about to serve you when we intervened. We’ve done some investigation of our own and are prepared to make you an offer.”
Stephen hesitated. “I can’t do that anymore.”
The round man waved his arm dismissively. “You have a talent that we can put to ongoing use. You’re able to diddle with the minds you chant to, we don’t know how yet, and the weaker, more flawed minds break under your spell.”
Stephen jumped up. “That’s never been proved.”
“We both know it’s true, but you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Those people were defective, and would eventually self-destruct without your help. Look at it like cancer research that uses animals and the terminally ill for experimentation that lets others live.”
“Maybe, but you’ve thought that, haven’t you? Your schedule had been three, ah, performances a week. We want you to hold two sessions a week rather than three, during the working day, and will pay you what you were making from the admissions for the three shows.”
“You put me out of business, why would you be willing to do that?”
“We hire thousands of persons for sensitive intelligence work. Despite stringent testing and profiling, about twenty hires per thousand turn out to be flawed: security risks that, in the worst cases, become double agents. We believe that putting the problematic candidates through your screening will greatly reduce that risk.”
Stephen resisted the urge to jump up. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Because, Mr. Allan, about a year and a half ago we started sending suspect candidates to attend your talks. The ones that didn’t kill themselves proved to be reliable employees. The others, well, you know about them.”
“Wait, the people that died were actually planted by you?”
“Not all, most.”
“So you people are the ones that really killed them. If you quit sending me your culls I could get my life, my meaning back.”
“You’re still guilty of manslaughter, Mr. Allan, just not quite as many deaths as you’d thought. You’ll never be allowed to perform in public again. But we could see the pleasure you took in your on-stage mind songs, how addictive it was, how much it fulfilled you. We’re offering to give all that back to you, and pay you well.”
“But all the deaths?”
“Were inevitable anyway. They’ll be discreetly tended to. You’ll never even read about them. And you’ll be doing a commendable service for your country. You’ll have a suitable cover story and alias, of course.
“This is a lot to absorb, I know. We’re not monsters. If you decline we won’t bother you, just keep a continuing monitor on you to ensure your silence. But if you accept, think Mr. Allan, you’ll have your inner voice back, and provide most of those listening to you with an immense spiritual experience. I know, I was one of those attending, and you overwhelmed me.
“Take a day to think about it. We’ll pick you up the same time tomorrow.”
The interior of the Explorer seemed blacker on the return trip. I can’t kill people any more, can’t mind chant them into insanity and death. But they kill themselves anyway, don’t they, one way or another? Is theirs a necessary trial by spiritual passage, satori or suicide? Am I just a voicing of something outside myself? God help me, I so want to sing to their souls. God help me.
* * *
The small auditorium had been built for corporate meetings, with all sorts of audio-visual equipment that would go unused. Stephen, now documented as Ralph Wise, looked down at 120 faces whose names he would never know.
“I’ve asked for and been given authorization to tell you that there’s a lethal risk to your listening to me. If you feel unsure about the risk, or unsure about your present condition, I encourage you to get up and leave right now, before I start. There’s no shame in recognizing a limitation and acting on it. Please, please do what is best for you personally and not for your presumed career.”
The faces remained stoic, the bodies motionless in their seats. All of them.
No one ever leaves, and one in ten dies. Their veneers of self-confidence are brittle, but too thick for my warning to shatter. And they’re young, always so young. My song for many of them will be a Totentanz, a riding song of the four horsemen. Perhaps I can’t hear my singing because it would also kill me.
His word waves began rushing over the pebbles, dislodging the least secured and slowly washing them away.
Copyright © 2016 by Edward Ahern