Charles glanced at the clock. The noise was getting louder. Loud enough that it was slowing time. Only forty minutes had gone by but the bottle was a third done. He stood up and moved around the room. He felt fine. He was barely tipsy when he should’ve been unavoidably drunk by now. He hadn’t eaten since lunchtime and it was well after ten, now, but he’d never felt hungry and now he didn’t feel drunk either.
Charles shrugged, poured another shot and tried to find something to do. He’d texted everyone but no one had gotten back to him. Maybe there was something wrong with the network but that didn’t seem likely – the 3G was working just fine. Maybe there was something wrong with the phone. He tried turning it off but it just kind of froze. Yes, it had to be the phone. He tore out the battery, placed back in, and turned the phone on again. After a few minutes, still not text messages. He mused over how odd that was, on a Friday night. He sighed and poured another shot.
The noise was loud tonight. He needed to get away from it. He needed to get somewhere he could drown it out. A bar, he thought, a loud one. No, that wouldn’t work. Not on a Friday night. Any bar he went to would be too busy for him to be alone. The noise would just drown out everything else and remind him how alone he was. Yeah, maybe that would work on a Tuesday or a Wednesday night, a night when only serious drinkers are out and it’s okay to be alone and make new friends, but there is something strange about a man his age alone at the kind of bars he preferred on a Friday night. Something would have to be terribly wrong for that to happen and something was, but going to a bar alone was not going to help him get away from it – not on a Friday night.
Going out hadn’t been in the plan at all. Charles hadn’t slept well in days, maybe ten or eleven hours over the last three nights. He had trouble sleeping through all that clatter. Last night had been the worst. One hour stints at a time, intermitted with lonely stretches of lying alone in the dark and listening to the thoughts running through his head – the loud thoughts, the ones he’d gotten to know so well over the last nine months. At first they were strange and unfamiliar – very much unlike him. But as he got to know them, they’d gotten closer to him. At first they whispered in his ear when he was alone or wasn’t thinking, but now they jabbered on and one all day, every day. They wouldn’t let him rest.
At first it was enough to get tired or drunk. He’d go to the gym or drink a few beers with dinner, and he’d sleep through the banter, but that only worked for so long. Then he started getting tired and drunk. He’d go to the gym, work out for two hours, come home, eat a big, heavy dinner, and wash it down with some whisky or go out to a bar. That was okay because they were easier to suffer the next day when he was hung over. His will was down, he was open to suggestion, and he didn’t mind what they told him because it was pretty much in line with how he felt.
But now that had stopped working. Now the only way to dampen their jabber was to keep company. The thoughts were polite that way. They waited their turn to speak, and were in no rush when company came calling.
Alone, though, nothing worked anymore. Not fatigued and not drink. For the last few days, he’d even had trouble getting drunk. No matter how tired, no matter how sauced, his body seemed to burn through the ethanol like some kind of high performance hybrid. Come to think about it, he was running faster and lifting heavier at the gym, too. Maybe all that noise had put his system into some kind of survival state of shock. Maybe it was all the truths swimming around in his head. Maybe coming to terms with the kind of man he was had given him some kind of semi-permanent adrenaline rush. Either way, it couldn’t last forever. What goes up must come down, and this crash might kills him.
But so what if it did? What did he have left to live for? He hated his job and the kind of person he’d become. He used to have ideals and principles, but somewhere along the way he got distracted by bills and all the shiny things that he didn’t really value but wanted because everyone else seemed to have them, and he did worse than sell-out. He bought in. The Charles of five years would heckle the Charles of today. He’d heckle and mock him, and if Charles got uppity, his past would throw down and bust him in the jaw.
Maybe that’s what the noise was. Maybe it was his past coming back to haunt him – not for what he’d done, but for what he didn’t do. No wonder she’d left. Look at the man he’d become: no man at all. A selfish and vain little child he cared more about stroke his own ego than having any meaningful impact on the world or people around him. No wonder she’d gone elsewhere to fulfill her needs: he couldn’t fulfill them anymore. She needed a man, and was just a stupid and self-centered child.
That’s how the noise had started: whispering in the night about how he’d failed her, about how little of a man he was, about how she’d gone to find one and when she did, let him handle her the way only a man could, the way she needed to be. At first he’d hush it and it was easy. It was just the aftershock of discovery, he told himself. It would fade and he’d get past it. But it didn’t. It’d come back to him in the day, when he was alone and there was no one else to listen to. It would remind him of all the things they’d done when they started dating. No longer could he believe her account of how it went down – of how it was a drunken, sloppy mistake, devoid of all passion and meaning. She had to gone to get something that he couldn’t give her, and passion and meaning were part of that.
He tried to work past it. He tried to accept it in a Zen Taoist kind of way, and change himself for the better. He tried to rebuild things with her, but the noise wouldn’t let him. Late at night, when he’d lie awake next to her sleeping, it would whisper about all the other nights and stories that didn’t add up. It appealed to his reason and deduction, and it helped him draw conclusions just in time for them to be sharing a moment together and it would ruin it. It would echo conclusions in his ear, and Charles would ruin it – time and time again, without fail, until their relationship had become series of battle lines, with Charles always as the aggressor. Things had gone from distant and withdrawn to close and ferocious. Of course she could only stand it for so long, and after six months, she left.
Charles was heartbroken but relieved. Maybe now, he thought, he could move on. Without her as a constant reminder, maybe the memory and the pain would fade. He could see other women and find other distractions, and in time, restore some kind of inner peace or stillness to the thoughts in his head.
At first the clamor persisted. It reminded him day and night that she’d left because of him. He’d been too weak to move forward, just as he’d been too weak to fulfill her. He was miserable disappointment of a man and he needed to accept it. So he did. He accepted it so that he could heal and finally move on.
He started choosing his habits carefully. He believed that if he acted strong, he would become strong. It was like exercise: the more you do it, the stronger you get.
He started working on a plan to carve out the kind of career he could respect and started going out to meet other women. He talked to them no matter where he went, and he was surprised how receptive they were. The noise hadn’t ceased, but he tuned it out by keeping busy and meeting new people.
Soon the novelty became routine and the noise got louder. He was in a rhythm now, and he didn’t have to think about what he was doing, so it was easier to follow the thoughts in his head – it was harder to tune them out. It reminded him that no matter how much he struggled, he’d never be caught up. He’d never hold the special kind of place in her memory that she’d hold in his. He’d be just another disappointment and failure that she’d had to suffer and get past.
Things had been looking too up for him to let them slide now. He’d just have to keep moving forward, keep doing new and novel things until the noise either tired or rambled on about something so far in his past as to lose its relevance. So Charles started dating again. He also started introducing himself differently. No longer was he another white-collar cubical hack. He was a mover and a shaker and man with passion and ideas who was moving in a clear direction with a sense of purpose. New people meant new beginnings. He could reinvent himself, and soon there’d be no one left from his past to know any different.
He started following up on all the strange girls he talked to in strange places, and many of them were happy to let him take them out for a drink. He knew he was healing and didn’t feel any pressure to prove himself or rush into anything, so conversation was easy and the chemistry natural. He still had his game, after all these years. He still knew how to talk and laugh and charm and leave them wondering and wanting for more.
And so first dates became second dates and third dates, and soon Charles was left facing the logical outcome of a brief modern courtship: he would have to start sleeping with the ones he liked if he wanted to continue seeing them. So Charles chose carefully, and booked a third/fourth date with a girl he liked, and it was comfortable and familiar and relatively early when she asked him to take her home. The directness caught Charles off guard, but he told himself that that’s what adults who like each other do – they don’t play games – and he’d been out of the game for a while and was just going to have to get used to how it was played at this level.
So they walked back to his place, and for the first time Charles felt awkward around her, and he thought he was hiding it well with his charming banter, but she smiled at him the way a school teacher humors a student who has a crush on her, and Charles realized how he was in over his head. When they got in, she was all business and straight to the point, and Charles found himself unable to comply. It turned out that he wasn’t up to the task and he was happy when she left.
Charles didn’t know what to make of it at first, and so he thought about it. Was it nerves? Was it performance anxiety? Or was he just not that into her? And then Charles remembered she hadn’t been Rose and that he was still in love with the girl that had broken his heart.
This is when the voices stopped whispering altogether. Now they only spoke plainly and frankly to him, or bark at him in the night, startling him from his sleep. There was no longer any ignoring them. They were right: he was no man at all. He hadn’t even been man enough to follow through with even trying to restore his dignity. No wonder Rose had gone elsewhere. No wonder she had probably been doing so for a long time.
Of course, Charlie tried to not be so easily discouraged. In fact, he took the taunting inside his head as a personal challenge. He had, after all, resolved to move forward, so forward was precisely the direction he chose to move in, and he made it a point to schedule another fourth date with another girl, on that he liked even more, but the same thing happened.
And then the thoughts did something curious. They stopped being just thoughts or ideas. They became questions, as well. And they wanted to know whether Charlie was curious at all to know a real man was like, whether he ever wondered what it like to be fulfilled the way Rose had been that night she didn’t come home – and all those others she had long after Charlie had fallen asleep.
At this point Charlie realized that there wasn’t really anything wrong with his plumbing, but that his failure to comply had been psychological, because any time the noise got inquisitive, Charlie found himself aroused and intrigued. And for a while, Charles was fine to entertain these thoughts on his own, but like the noise, they go louder and louder and Charlie had no other real choice. At first, he went online and found the kind of girl with the kind of accessories to mimic the kind of thing the noise had been taunting Charlie to try, and as much as Charlie enjoyed experience of being treated the way he felt about himself, the accessories were cold and hard and plastic and unbelievable – and once again, Charlie himself went un-aroused.
So Charlie moved forward evermore in the direction that the noise pushed him, and he turned to the real thing. First another man who claimed to be trying things out for the first time but who seemed a little too confident and eager to be trusted at his word. Regardless, Charlie choked on him and then submitted to him, but still he felt empty. So then Charlie found a couple looking to spice up their relationship, and he let them use him in any way they needed to, and spent hours between them, tasting them and letting them in from so many angles – but still Charlie felt empty and alone.
And the noise only grew louder and louder. There was repose whenever Charlie acted out any challenge it dealt him, but was tireless and relentless whenever Charlie was alone. It mocked him and sneered at what he’d become. It congratulated him on fulfilling his potential, and it reminded that the pain and repose he endured was what Rose had craved and taken pleasure in behind his back.
Now, Charlie sat alone in his apartment, trying to drown out the clamor one shot at time, the bottle of whiskey now two-thirds gone, and Charlie still unable to slur or stammer or stumble or sleep. Still, the noise clamored on, growing louder with each passing encounter, and immune to Charlie’s defenses. Charlie needed rest to overcome this adversary, but he needed silence to rest, and so the very presence of this opponent precluded the possibility of any clear victory for Charlie. Indeed, there remained only one recourse for Charlie: mutually assured destruction.
Such measures were normally far beyond the scope of Charlie’s will, but this struggle had left him a changed man – and not much of one at that. So Charlie when to the closet and rummaged around until he found some yellow, nylon rope he’d used to lash his new mattress to the roof of the car when he had to replace the bed that Rose had taken with her when she’d left. And in a dramatic and formal fashion that recalled the man that he’d once hoped to be, he tied it into a noose complete with thirteen coils.
Then he searched his office for stationary befitting the moment, but only found a yellow legal pad. At least it matches the rope, he mused. On it, he scrawled:
It would be petty and cruel of me to say that I’m doing this because of you. Besides, you would soon console yourself that it must’ve been something that was in me all along and was inevitable, and then scorn my memory for having been so selfish and deliberate. And so to that, I’ll say only: It would’ve never been possible without you.
Charles read over the note carefully, and please with sentiment, he was unsatisfied with the presentation. He recalled a fountain pen in his office and went to get it. It was in a drawer still in its packaging. It was as beautiful as any pen could be and had been given to him as a Christmas gift by his company – much more personal and meaningful than a bonus, he’d mused. Charles wasn’t quite sure how to use it, and tested it across several pages of scrap before re-writing the note in deep and heavy longhand.
Examining his handy work, Charles took a moment to admire it. It looks so very authentic, he thought.
Charles then went to the kitchen and began tapping on the ceiling with a broomstick and followed the hollowness to a rafter. Getting a stepladder from the storage closet, he used a hammer to knock out the drywall on either side of the rafter, and secured the noose around it. “There,” he assured himself aloud. “Now we shouldn’t have any embarrassing mishaps.” Then he placed back the stepladder and swept up the jip rock that had fallen to the kitchen floor.
With the mess cleaned up, he fetched the heavy, oak armchair from the office and placed it below the noose. This should complement the note nicely, he thought to himself. Then he arranged the notepad on the counter at an angle from which he could admire it from above, and lined four shot glasses up next to it. There was just a little more whiskey in the bottle than the shot glasses could hold. Charles considered sucking it dry, but decided to leave it for aesthetic affect. He arranged the bottle a few inches from the notepad, and the cap a few inches down and to the right.
Charles still felt too in control of himself for someone who had drank so much whiskey, but he decided to see the glass half-full and assured himself that at least his final actions would be done of sound mind.
He raised the first shot glass. “Here’s to a life, a good one,” he said aloud, tossing the whiskey into his mouth. Charles placed the empty glass gently on the counter, and took up a second. “Here’s to a death, and easy one,” he mused, and smiled before pouring it down his throat and replacing the glass neatly between the first and the third. Charles picked up the third. “Here’s to a woman, and honest one – if there ever was such a thing,” he lamented. He tossed it back quickly, and hurried to the fourth. “And here’s to a drink, another one,” he giggled, his eyes watering up.
Charles plunked the last shot glass back onto the counter, and sighed. He wiped his eyes and let his vision refocus. “Well, if that doesn’t do it, I won’t be around to find out,” he observed. Then Charles climbed up onto the heavy oak chair, secured the noose around his neck, the coil behind his left ear according to tradition, surveyed his tidy surroundings, and then kicked the chair out from under him.
The fall wasn’t enough to break his neck and he hadn’t expected it be. He also hadn’t expected the force of his weight to prevent him from looking down at his note one last time. Either way, Charles still found some strange comfort in knowing what it was like to float above the room that his memory would always haunt for some people.