Monday, April 14, 2014

Night Sounds and Their Meanings

The night before there had been this quick, staccato popping sound. The sky had been the sort of luminous dark that precedes a tropical storm. There wasn’t any thunder, but the heat lightening flashed behind panels of clouds in quadrants. There had been a small fireworks display earlier in the evening, so I assumed the popping sounds I was hearing outside were more fireworks. I hear fireworks almost every night here; I don’t pay much attention to them anymore. I stood by the sliding glass door of the balcony a while watching fulminating sky and hearing the distant popping sounds until I felt tired.

I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom, when I noticed that the sound had changed slightly. There was now a roaring, still not a roaring associated with the weather, but something produced by man, or men, in this case lots of men. The roar I was hearing was the combined voices of 100s of people. I turned off the electric toothbrush so I could hear better. “Soccer game?” Gina asked, leaning in the doorway, but looking out the bathroom window, toward the noise. “That’s what I thought,” I answered. “But listen to it, usually soccer games call for something like a song. The notes are drawn out oooole, ole, ole, ole, but this is something different. It’s military; short and precise, like a bunch of dogs barking in tune together.” We both listened to the orderly roar for a while and then Gina shrugged and said “must be that military compound down the street” and went to bed.

I stood there a few more minutes. Watching the lightening and listening to the fireworks and yelling, I began to have the disheartening feeling that I was experiencing a distant war. The shouts, the flashes and the muffled explosions, they were not disparate, but functioning in concert. The military shouted something over and over that sounded like “One!” I went to bed.

I woke up in the middle of the night to find the lightening had given over to rain. I got up to close the windows. The apartment had that dreamy effect that comes over the interior of any building late at night in the rain. The streetlights threw wet shadows through the sliding glass door of the balcony. As I closed the door the shadows rolled themselves across the living room floor. Everything was quiet, I decided to lie on the couch a while and have the rain and light all to myself. There was no sound of traffic, no car alarms; everyone in the city was asleep. I watched the rivulets on the sliding glass door bifurcate and change the pattern of light that fell on the floor. I got drowsy after a while and decided I should get back in bed before I fell asleep on the couch. As I was getting up, I heard it again coming from the bathroom window, the only one I hadn’t closed. The sound rushed right up to where I was standing, like it had been meant for me alone. “ONE!” I stood there listening to the chants like 100s of motorcycles being revved at once. I knew it was probably just some boot camp exercise, but to hear all those voices, yelling in unison, in the dark, when the whole town is asleep, makes it feel like they’re yelling at you, like they’re coming for you. I went back to bed. In the bedroom, I couldn’t hear the military anymore. There was only the sound of the rain, which was beginning to come down hard.

The next morning, I woke up to find the rain clouds were still hanging over the city like somebody’s old, grey sleeping bag being aired out: they were all bunched-up and dirty looking. After an hour, it began to rain again, hard at first, but then it tapered off before I had to leave for work.

I walked with the sort of peripheral attention that one employs on a route they know very well, one they walk every day. Down the hill toward downtown, behind the university building with its grey fa├žade and dead cat on the sidewalk. Past the guy with the bundles of herbs and the motor and pestle set up on a little table, his battered radio set to a Guarani talk radio program. Through the park with the fichus tree that dangles its roots just about the wet playground sand. The flooded volleyball court. Across Peru St. which the unmuffled buses roar down like diesel tractors. Lopez St. and the final stretch where I usually take off my headphones and start thinking about what I am going to do when I get into my office. I almost always make myself a cup of instant coffee, even when I have no desire for it. I began to think about doing it again today.

The building was nearly empty as it usually in the morning. The institute is really more of an after-school or after-work program. In the morning it’s a skeletal staff of janitors and security guards by the doors. The library’s open and a few people are seen moving around, sleepy-looking, like they just woke up in there and are trying to find their shoes or something.

I climbed the five flights of stairs to my office. After passing the third floor, all signs of coworkers vanished. Very few teachers go above the third floor and even fewer go above the fourth floor. Occasionally, a janitor will be up there sawing away at something, and Saturdays, when the place is packed with kids and parents a sense of equilibrium seems to keep the fifth floor well-attended, but on week day mornings, when I walk up there, it’s like surveying a domain, a tiled and empty domain.

I unlocked the door, threw my stuff down and turned on the computers. I shook a little instant coffee into the cup that I reuse every day without ever washing and went back down to the teacher’s room on the third floor to get hot water.

I don’t like teacher’s rooms. At least not in different countries, when I still don’t know many people. In other countries I have worked, I always disliked going into the teacher’s room. It’s hard to ignore the fact that conversation always drops a few octaves when you enter. Everyone seems comfortable with each other, but you, you are the new guy, no one knows anything about you, only that you’re from America and perhaps you think you’ve got all the answers. One could certainly assume so by the cock-sure way you enter the teacher’s room every day for your hot water with nothing more than an hola or a buen provecho.

Everyone in the teacher’s room gave me a nod while I filled my cup. I walked out slowly to see if there was anything I might be able to comment on or say to anyone, but no one looked up or said anything loud enough for me to hear. Back up in my office, I opened my e-mail to get the day started. I took a few sips of the ignoble, but stimulating brew and started the pointing and clicking for the day. I was reading one of my mom’s short updates when there came something like a tentative knock at the door, only the sound was so vague and distant it sounded more like someone had dropped a couple of books two floors down. I decided to ignore the sound, no one ever came up here this early and just in case someone was out there cleaning, I didn’t want to start shouting adelante to no one, making myself look nuts. I went back to pointing and clicking.

I was in the middle of taking a sip of coffee when I heard the sound again. It was just as faint, but it sounded a little more intentional, like this time it was saying please. I called for whomever to enter and the door opened. Ahh someone was waiting outside. But what sort of person knocks so lightly and then waits a full five minutes for a response? This sort of person: a tall character in a baggy black sweatshirt and a high and tight haircut. An American with a heavy brow and a slightly dazed look in his eyes who, from the moment he walked in the door, never lifted his gaze from me, as if he suspected me of some treacherous intent. His brow was so heavy it was as if he peered from underneath it, like something would look at you from under a rock. “You work for the Embassy, right?” he asked as he crossed the room to me. “Well, sort of—“ I started. Before I could explain he began telling me how his passport had been stolen. I told him I really had no connection to the Embassy. I didn’t know much about its workings. The Embassy helped me, but I didn’t do anything for them besides work with English language programs. “I’m sorry,” I told him. “You should probably just go there and talk to someone.” He told me he did and that he’d gotten the forms, but that it was going to cost him 160.00 US to get another passport. I was about to sympathize with him a little. The cost was high, I knew, but then, almost in the same breath, he asked me if I could get him a job at the embassy. Clearly this guy had no idea who I was.

I began telling him I really had no pull at the embassy and that even if I did, I probably still wouldn’t be able to get him a job there. “People have to take tests,” I explained. “They have to study and go to lengthy, multi-stage interviews to work at embassies. I myself— .” He cut me off, telling me that he didn’t have any money, that his Paraguayan wife was only able to work a few hours a day, that she was pregnant and soon wouldn’t be able to work. I thought for a second and told him it sounded like he was going to have to go back home. “Get a job there and work for a while, then come back with some money.” This received the same steely, heavy-browed look as before. “I can’t go,” he told me. “They won’t give my wife a visa and to prove that we’re a real couple, I have to stay with her for at least a year.

It went on like this for a while. Everything I suggested to the guy, he seemed to have anticipated with a hard luck story. It sounded like he’d really gotten in over his head. I felt bad for him, but I was also feeling disconcerted. He didn’t seem at all prepared to accept that I wouldn’t be able to help him. His look seemed to be hardening into a stone mask, utterly bereft of emotion. There was something uncomfortable about the way he looked so directly and yet so blankly at me.

“Well,” I tried again. “You could always try to get a job teaching here. Isn’t that why you came?” As soon as I said it, I realized I had no idea why this guy was here. I had no idea how he’d found out I was in this office or that I had some kind of connection to the embassy. “I’m trying but…but I had some, uh, problems when I worked here before.” I didn’t say anything but waited for him to continue. “I started working here about seven months ago. I had been here in Paraguay for a few months when I witnessed a decapitation.” I drew in an audible breath. “Holy shit.” “…” “Holy shit, man. I’m sorry to hear that.” “Yeah, well, shit happens.” “Yeah, but not to most people it doesn’t, I mean not like that. Damn.” While he had been telling me this gruesome story, he had not once allowed his eyes stray from mine. I told him I’d do what I could to help him get a job. I couldn’t really offer much, but I wanted to do something. Before he left he went to write down his number and I noticed that his hands shook so bad he could hardly write. He thanked me. I told him to take it easy and he walked out.

As soon as he left, I breathed a massive sigh of relief. Whom the hell had I just talked to! Who was this guy who just showed up, unannounced at my office and told me he’d witnessed a decapitation? I had wanted to ask him more. Was it an accident or was it some kind of drug cartel thing? How the hell did you end up in such a scenario? Furthermore, if you had seen it and had gone back to the States afterward for much needed rest and medication why the shit did you come back here? Were you already married? There had been so many questions, but I hadn’t wanted to run the risk of rehashing old memories in this guy who stared so vacantly and who spoke with almost no trace of affect. I tried to put the encounter out of my mind, but it took me a while to get back to work.

Just as I had opened up a document to revise, there came another tentative knock at the door. The same soft, unsure knock I had heard before, like the way someone might knock on your door if they want to talk, but have good reason to think you’re asleep. When the door opened, it was him again. He came right back over to my desk and sat down, as though he hadn’t just been there 20 minutes ago. I felt myself tense but tried not to show it. “What’s up?” He asked if maybe I could loan him some money. I told him that it wouldn’t be possible because I didn’t bring any with me to work, which was true. He remained sitting there for a while, like he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with himself. I told him to go try the bars. I told him he’d be perfect to work the doors at a bar. When he left the second time, I felt the urge to call all my friends and family just to make sure they were OK.

That night, I went to sleep early. I usually go to sleep early here because I can’t sleep in later than seven due to the incredible amount of noise outside that starts around six. I was also worn out from my day and it was raining again. I sat on the couch for a while and watched the lightening before I had to wrench myself up to make it to bed.

I fell asleep almost immediately and probably would’ve slept through the night had I not been awakened by someone yelling around three o’clock in the morning. I woke up and realized that Gina wasn’t in bed. It took me a moment to realize she was over by the window. I guessed that whoever was yelling had been doing it for a while and Gina had tried to see what was going on. I was about to fall back asleep when the yelling recommenced, only now that I was more awake, I realized that it wasn’t yelling, at least not in the conventional sense. It was a human being making a vocal noise, but there the resemblance ended. What I heard from the street below made my blood run cold. I’ve felt my spine thrill in the past at particularly well-done ghost stories, but I’ve never felt everything go cold like that. It was a very curious sound, but from the very beginning, I tried not to listen. It was horrifying and, in a way, disgusting, but at first it was so alien I couldn’t even comprehend it. Eventually the screaming stopped and I thought maybe I’d still be able to fall asleep and forget it ever happened, but just as I was feeling like closing my eyes. It started again.

How can I begin to describe the way this fiendish cacophony sounded? Perhaps the most horrible aspect, is that the screaming was coming from an old woman and that she was yelling so loud inside her home that it sounded like she was up on a roof somewhere. What she yelled made no sense; in fact, it sounded more like some kind to terrible echolalia than anything that had been purposefully constructed. Like an incantation, the same grisly syllables were repeated over and over in tones so piercing they sounded like someone begging to have their sanity taken away so they would no longer have to endure whatever horrific torture they were being subjected to. It sounded like the Exorcist being told through the banging of trash can lids and the sickening thump of something being dragged down old basement stairs. It was rushed, like it was rushing to you, seeking you out and now that you had woken up it knew where you were in your dark bedroom.

The sound went on for about twenty minutes before it abruptly stopped. After it was done, the tired night sounds of far-away traffic and solitary barking dogs didn’t sound the same: it was like everything took on a sinister note. Eventually, I feel asleep again.

The next morning, most of the rain had evaporated. The streets were dry but for little puddles in the deeper depressions. Despite the bizarre twenty-four hours I had passed, I felt happy and well-rested. I walked to work feeling confident about a workshop I was going to give and when I got to the office, I decided that I had enough time to day dream a little and look up visa requirements for Mozambique.

I was reading about border crossings into Tanzania when I was disturbed by a quiet knock on the door.

My conversation with my affectless friend wasn’t quite as odd this time, but it was still very unusual. It’s possible that after the various shouts and screams in the night and stories of decapitation and employment I was getting inured to strangeness of all types. But the one thing I was dying to ask him was “How the hell do you people keep finding me?”