by J.C. Sullivan
One night the week before last Jane Parker clearly heard the sound of an eight track tape clicking from one track to the next. She had not heard that click, that quick, metallic click of an eight track, in more than four decades. The sound had disappeared from her life.
She left her bed to look out the window. At 4:15 in the morning Shadowridge Drive was as deserted as she would have predicted. She had no clue where the sound could possibly have come from.
It was Jane’s roommate in college who owned an eight track tape player, Halloween orange and with a single working speaker. Once a month Jane and Becky pooled money from their part time jobs and bought a used tape at the Rutgers bookstore. They lit cinnamon-scented candles around their dorm room, split a bottle of Blue Nun wine and listened to the new tape. They shared a love of John Lennon, dead all these years now. Becky was dead as well, of breast cancer the year before last.
Jane never did get back to sleep and she never did figure out the source of the eight track sound. Around six she jumped in the shower.
While showering Jane could have sworn she heard the excited ching! chingg! Chinggg! noises of a pinball machine racking up points. The clamor reminded her of family vacations at the Jersey shore growing up. She could just about feel the soft sting of the ocean breeze on her sunburned arms. After some consideration she convinced herself – or almost convinced herself — it must have been the air conditioner she’d heard.
Jane had a busy day scheduled, four closings. She’d been a real estate lawyer 30-plus years and handled more than 10,000 closings for the buying or selling of houses around Atlanta. She was very popular with her clients, considered especially skilled at relaxing first time home buyers.
When she pulled into the parking lot of the law firm on Marietta Parkway Jane saw, as she did most mornings, the firm’s paralegal smoking by the back door. Annabelle was 21 and lived with her boyfriend, whose job was scrubbing viruses from computer hard drives. He had explained a couple times to Jane how the process worked. To be polite she had nodded along as if she understood.
“Morning, Annabelle,” Jane said, as she did all the other mornings. Annabelle nodded and took another puff.
Jane hurried past, switching her tan leather tote to her left hand while reaching for the doorknob with her right. This, too, was a well-rehearsed part of their daily routine.
This day, however, Jane stopped and asked a question she had not even considered before speaking the words. The question and the memory had come to her at the same moment: “Annabelle, how would you describe the sound of a cigarette butt hitting the water in a toilet?”
Annabelle stopped mid-inhale, a puzzled look creasing her face. Jane assumed there was some puzzlement on her own face, the sound had returned to her so unexpectedly.
“You know, Annabelle, the sound a cigarette butt makes when it’s flicked into the toilet. There’s a hissing sound when the lit cigarette hits the water.”
“Uh, Jane, I don’t smoke in the office, you know that. I never have.” She went on, defensively, “I don’t put cigarettes in the toilet. I don’t know anyone who ever has. I wouldn’t know-“
“It was kind of a pffftttt sound.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“There was a nice finality to it; pffftttt.”
Annabelle took another drag and dropped the hardly-smoked cigarette onto the gravel. She crushed the butt with the toe of a leopard skin pump.
“I wouldn’t know,” Annabelle said again, still clearly puzzled. She added, “The buyers are here. They showed up an hour early for their closing.”
From her closing file Jane knew that Luciana and Augusto de Leon were first time home buyers. She didn’t need to check the file for that information; a glance in the conference room would have told her. The de Leons sat silent and rigid, sipping Styrofoam cups of coffee. Three or four empty cups surrounded them on the conference room table. Jane would have bet they had not tasted any of that coffee.
“We’ll go through the documents,” she told the thirty-ish de Leons when she joined them at the table. “And by the time we’re finished the lawyer for the bank will be here. I’ve set up a conference call with the title company. We’ll have you out of here in two hours or so.”
Jane slid a completed HUD-1 across the table to the couple and started explaining the lines of information on the form. “Okay,” she began, “you’re financing through FHA. Here’s what that means … Here is the contract sales price. You’re getting a good deal on your house,” she said, as she did to every one of her clients. “… Now here are the taxes you’ll pay. I wish I could say you won’t have to pay taxes, but you’d know I was lying, wouldn’t you?” It was a joke she slipped into every closing and the de Leons smiled dutifully.
Jane had handled so many closings through the years she could do so with only half her attention. The rest of her mind hurried back to the question she’d blurted out to Annabelle.
It was Jane’s Uncle Charlie who had flicked his Marlboros into the toilet. He lived two towns up the Garden State Parkway from Jane’s family. She loved visiting him. Her uncle and aunt never had children and spoiled Jane wonderfully. Uncle Charlie had lost half his arm to a German machine gun on Omaha Beach. He never complained and he never gave up smoking. Watching him light a match with only one hand was a marvel. He could send smoke rings across a room.
The Germans and the cigarettes could not kill him. Her uncle was still alive in a nursing home. Jane tried to visit once a year. Her uncle smiled when he saw her as he always did, but she could tell the Alzheimer’s had stolen his memories of her. Jane often wondered if that meant she no longer existed for him.
The next closing, at eleven, was part of a contentious divorce. She looked around the conference room, crowded with lawyers from both sides, yellow legal pads at the ready, and the divorcing parties glaring at each other. She announced, “We’ll be done in an hour, less if we can.”
Jane turned down an invitation to join the rest of the firm for lunch at La Parrilla. Instead she went to the Starbucks on Roswell Road and grabbed a tall to go from a barista with neck tattoos and nose ring. She drove to a parking lot near East Side elementary school, empty on this day in February. Schools were closed for President’s Day, two separate days when Jane was in school, now condensed into a single holiday.
Sipping her coffee, the oldies station playing softly, Jane admitted to herself that she had not actually heard the click of an eight track tape at four in the morning. Nor had she heard a pinball machine or a Marlboro sent flying into a toilet by a favorite uncle. How could she? Obviously the sounds could not have been there. Still, she could not deny she’d heard them. It wasn’t like she’d imagined the sounds as much as she’d let them return to her.
Sitting in her Corolla, Jane waited for more disappeared sounds to find her and eventually they did. She heard, as clearly as if she were back in the basement of her best friend in middle school, the scratchy crackle of a vinyl album before the first song starts. It was a sound of anticipation. That best friend was now retired to Flagstaff with her second husband, whom Jane had never met.
She heard again the chugging click of the dot matrix printer at her first job. That job had led to a transfer to Atlanta, where she met her husband, a professor in medieval history at Kennesaw State. They bought the house on Shadowridge Drive. Like all their neighbors, they came to Marietta from someplace else.
Growing up in New Jersey there’d been an air raid siren which went off once a week; Jane hadn’t thought about that siren in countless years. It was part of the national defense system during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The siren was loud enough that for one minute each Thursday outside conversation became impossible. The siren was gone and of course the Soviet Union was gone as well.
Next she remembered the Ka-ching! button of the cash register at the local Penn Fruit, also long gone. When the cashier hit that button the cash drawer flew open with a sudden, loud thonk. However many times Jane saw the draw fly open she’d blink in surprise. Self-scanning her groceries was not nearly as much fun.
Jane knew she was working toward the memory of a particular sound, but could not figure out which sound. Trying to locate the memory wouldn’t work, she could tell. Jane needed to wait for the sound to reach her on its own. But the coffee was gone and it was time for her two o’clock closing.
Her two o’clock was the Patels, both cardiac surgeons, buying a five bedroom house in Vinings. The closing went smoothly but slowly, with husband and wife each checking their I-phones for messages on a nearly constant basis.
At one point Jane checked her I-phone as well. In her mind she kept hearing the high pitched scraping sound the massive cars of the early Sixties made as the car approached the curb. Wikipedia informed her that the sound was made by curb feelers, which were attached to the car near the right front tire. They worked sort of like metal cat’s whiskers, alerting the driver that the car was getting close to the curb. They had apparently been replaced by electronic curb sensors. Jane could not recall the last time she’d heard the sound. She assumed she would never hear it again.
Before the last closing Jane called her daughter Abbie, who designed websites for a multi-national company based in Denver. Jane guessed her daughter wouldn’t be able to chat long and she was right. Their two minute conversation abruptly ended with Abbie announcing, “Sorry, Mom, gotta jump.”
The last closing of the day began at 5:15. The buyer was an investor Jane had worked with three or four times before. He was balding with a salt and pepper beard, which had more pepper the last time she’d seen him. Twenty minutes into the closing she realized she could not recall his name. Hirani? Ciranni? She could have looked into her file for the name easily enough but never bothered. If the investor minded he never said anything. Everyone was eager to get this last one done.
The investor was experienced and had no need for Jane to explain anything. He’d heard her jokes before. Jane’s role consisted of sliding papers across the conference room table and instructing him, “Initial here and here” and “Sign and date here, if you would.”
Her attention was free to let the memories of disappeared sounds find her; they did. She remembered the sound of coins pushed into the slot of a pay phone. She heard the sounds of a rotary phone as it was dialed, the sssttt as her index finger pushed the number up, the sliding click as the dial slid back. She heard the clipping sound of a push mower and the relentess fuzziness of television static.
The closing ended sometime after six. Sitting alone in the conference room Jane considered stopping into a reception a title company was having downtown that night, but remained at the table. The prospect of another night alone at the house on Shadowridge Drive held little appeal. She knew how the evening would go: Jane would fall asleep on the den couch, eventually stumble into bed, then wake at four. Sleep would stubbornly elude her the rest of the night. It had been that way since Abbie left for her job in Denver the week between Christmas and New Year.
The law firm was quiet enough Jane could hear the distant swishing of traffic on Interstate 75. The sound reminded her of waves sliding onto a beach. It was then that the memory came back to her, the one she’d been heading toward since hearing the click of the eight track.
Jane remembered being at the beach in Avalon, on a day in late August. She was with her then-husband Doug and their daughter Abbie, at that time two. Jane’s parents were sitting on beach chairs watching their graddaughter by the ocean’s edge. The pancreatic cancer of Jane’s father was still a few years away and her mother’s ovarian cancer a decade beyond that.
The sun had almost disappeared for the day, leaving only a narrow sliver of gold on the water. With her plastic bucket Abbie was scooping water goldened by the setting sun and pouring the water onto her toes. With each pour she laughed delightedly.
Abbie turned three a week later. The week after that Jane learned her husband’s graduate assistant was providing services beyond researching the economies of Thirteenth century English mill towns. All that was in the future. Sitting in the deserted conference room Jane could again hear her daughter laughing with delight, scooping water turned gold by the setting sun. Jane turned off the room’s lights and, as she hoped, could hear the sound more clearly. She sat there a while, knowing that from now on she could summon up the sound whenever she needed it.
About the Author:
JC Sullivan is a lawyer in Baltimore, Maryland with two daughters, Kira and Meredith. JC’s novel, Shark And Octopus, is awaiting a publisher.