By Adam Allegro
You can’t shade out the whole world but you can sure try. I opened the front door and stepped outside and immediately had to shield my eyes from the blinding glare. The isolating darkness of my room had swelled my pupils and the dispersed, afternoon sun was still too strong for me to bear. I squinted and cursed myself for having sat on my sunglasses three days previous. Shielding and peeking, I noticed a grey-white quilt of clouds hanging above the opposing rows of overvalued houses that spread out before me. It sure didn’t feel like Halloween and the decorations this year were subpar at best. Some of houses had stretched cotton strewn around trees and stoops, huge black and white spiders clinging about. Across the street was giant inflated witch and on my left was a front yard full of body parts and grey Styrofoam headstones, some with crosses and others with stars. Reminders everywhere. I had been watching reports of a synagogue shooting in Pennsylvania on my laptop earlier, where 11 people were killed while they celebrated the life of a newborn at a baby-naming ceremony. They said this was the worst attack on Jews in America’s history. A few days before, attempted assassinations on critics of the president consumed the headlines. Tomorrow, it’ll be something else and today will be nothing more than a footnote, lost among the rest. When the walls began to close in on me and the sadness and anxiety and loneliness swelled, I decided I needed to get some air.
I walked up the street, past the fire station and into the shaded area of an adjacent park. The afternoon breeze slithered through the Eucalyptus trees above as I strolled, embracing my drifting mind and the earthly shadows that consumed me. It smelled of freshly cut grass and I could just make out the savory scent of a nearby barbeque. When my stomach started protesting, I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and now the afternoon was gently turning to evening. Besides the beating of my heart from the uphill hike and the subdued noise of a distant baby’s cries, the only sound in the world was the wind winding its way from the west through the branches high above, pushing and pulling along strands of fog from the salty sea. It should have been howling but there was barely a whistle. It seemed I was the only one around.
Laughter erupted from a few feet behind me. It was high pitched and seemed to belong to more than one person, maybe a pair of teenage girls. I automatically turned around to see who it was but to my surprise, no one was there, just tree trunks and the wind. I shivered and decided I should probably continue on. I swear I heard the laughing again as I popped out the opposite side of the park but wrote it off as my imagination messing with me. I didn’t feel cramped or confined anymore, which was a good thing, but something in the air struck me, made the hairs on the back of my neck stand taut. It was beginning to feel a little bit more like Halloween. It felt… eerie.
Slightly shaken from the mysterious laughter, I waited for a silent white Tesla to pass and then crossed the street, where more dark ornaments and allusions to the dead floated by on my left. I shot a guarded smile at a father and his son as they passed, their capes rustling as they headed off to fight crime, the sidekick taking two massive steps for every one of his father’s. When I turned back around, I ran right into a Jack-o-lantern, a ghoul-like creature dangling from a set of gnarled and bare branches overhanging the sidewalk. I thought it was a person at first and actually apologized to it, then felt silly for doing so. I pushed on and took another look at the swinging ghoul, laughed aloud at the misidentification and immediately felt better. Maybe all I needed was some fresh air after all.
“What’s wrong with you!” Asked an angry woman’s voice from behind the ghoul. But there was no one there.
“Don’t you have any empathy?” asked a younger female voice, closer. I looked all around but I was still alone, and wondered if maybe I could be hearing things. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. The argument continued.
“You people will believe anything! You’re sheep, fucking sheep!” a man screamed back at the two. The first two voices were unrelenting towards the third, who kept on with angered responses in turn. This continued as the voices got closer and closer to me, but there was nothing there! Three were arguing without bodies, just voices and sentiment, absent form. The heated squabble floated at eye level and I swiped at the ghostly jumble instinctively but met nothing and it passed by me without acknowledgement or deceleration. I watched an empty sidewalk and listened to the circular argument fade further down the street. Soon it was quiet once more. In a state of heightened confusion, I considered heading back, but the thought of going home was suffocating, so I warily pressed on, brushing away the bizarre encounter for the moment.
At the street corner there was a proposal, and she said yes, but the bride and groom were nowhere to be seen, and I knew then something peculiar and off was definitely occurring. There was clapping and crying and shouts of congratulations from witnesses who were absent as well. Puzzled and shaken, like waking in an unfamiliar place, I quickly departed the unseen, curbside ceremony. I had no idea what was happening but it seemed harmless. I wondered if other people having this experience too.
The intersection at Mission and Park was almost too much. The late afternoon Saturday surge of traffic flowed like salmon upstream, each impatient driver jockeying for position to get to their destination faster, sooner than everyone. I waited at the crosswalk and listened to the muted rumble of engines while the voices overshadowed all. Screams and tears and manufactured happiness zoomed past, dissenting and lonely in origin. Laughing- hysterical laughing, moans of joy, self-indulgence. My heart fluttered like a hummingbird’s wings and I struggled to catch my fleeting breath. Some of the voices were quiet and subdued while others were boisterous and loud with little love. Screams of joy were followed by screams of despair and I caught myself screaming along with them inside, temporarily lost in this sea of disarray. Everything felt wrongly skewed.
The last car to pass was a timeworn, royal blue Toyota Tercel that was wobbling on a threadbare spare. The voice accompanying it was beatific and divine, and sang a song of warmth and hope. It was about a mariner returning from sea to the woman he loved after a devastating war. I hoped the Toyota would break down so I could hear the rest of the melody but it rattled on. It was a futile attempt, I admit, but I ran after the melody for a spell, desperate to cling to something beautiful. Then, there was more of before and it all bled together again. Finally, there was a break in the current and I bounded off the curb.
“Love is lacking today”, I muttered as I crossed the street. Traffic picked up again and the confusion returned, so I picked up my pace and quickly reached the bridge crossing San Jose Ave. Below, a train whizzed by amongst the cars and trucks and none of it made much sound. The real world was being quieted and now some bizarre overlay filled the space, revealing something that wasn’t normally accessible.
I heard a young voice floating just on the other side of the concrete bridge, hovering over the traffic, screaming racism and hurling hate into the vacuum below. Oral ejaculate to appease a trigger, unthinking, I thought. “You can’t fill emptiness with fear and ignorance”, I mumbled to the bodiless voice.
These voices… I wondered if they had bodies somewhere. What were their origins? At the far end of the bridge there was giggling and chuckling and a cat meowed and moaned in the background. The cat sounded digital and unnatural and it was annoyed, like it was being forced perform for millions around the world, on loop, forever.
Heavy breathing came from behind me, the kind a runner makes towards the end of a workout. The voice was intense, full of testosterone and subdued aggression.
“Get some! Yea, Motherfucker, get some! Almost there. Push through, push, pussy, push it through. Yea! Yea!” My body pulled me aside, away from the mindless fury, but it still ingrained itself in my skin like an invisible tick. Uneasy and elevated to a higher state of angst, I cautiously marched on.
The fog was thicker and the breeze more biting as I finished crossing the bridge. I turned left and walked along a lonely path that ran parallel to San Jose, popping my ears. I wanted so desperately to understand what was happening and wondered if this was the new normal for me. The thought terrified me.
I passed a young woman who was looking out into the unspecified distance with lost eyes and she didn’t acknowledge me. The path rejoined a street and houses suddenly surrounded me again. I passed a planter, a half wine cask bogged down with death. The skeletal remains of morning glories rested unmoving in the dusty container, soil cracked and desiccated like a desert lakebed. There was quiet sobbing coming from the vicinity and it hurried me on. In front of the next house was a single pink and yellow rose in a mess of weeds that swayed gently in the wind. The contrast was stark, and so was the voice, which was timid but vivid, reassuring herself that she was indeed, beautiful.
Kitty corner from me, an old man watched me out of the side of his gaze as he smoked a cigarette. I was paranoid, on edge, considering what was happening as he followed me with accusing eyes down the slope to the footbridge. I picked up my pace as I zigzagged up the concrete slope, past a grandma who was angrily countering someone about older people ruining this country, who were ignorant and stuck in their ways. After my next turn up the ramp there was another invisible lady in front of me, maybe in her late fifties, complaining with another invisible man around the same age about millennials and their distracted apathy, their laziness and their entitlement. I found myself caught between this generational argument of our time, stuck physically between a bunch of critical, roaming voices duking it out in the increasing mist. I kept reassuring myself that they were just voices, as I had walked through many of them without consequence.
There was another strong gust as I reached the center of the footbridge. This one almost drove me off balance and I grabbed the barrier fence to keep from blowing away. The fog was more like a river now as it flowed in the air currents above. With the foggy wind came more hitchhikers - novelty, discontent, prejudice. Their voices rushed past me like a flock of pigeons. I turned and half jogged, feeling a need to move faster, away. But away from what? I countered to myself. The utter confusion was overwhelming.
On the opposite side of San Jose I followed the path along the highway and up a grassy hill to a swing. There was no one around but still it swung. I told myself it was the breeze and tried to avoid looking at it. Not directly, anyway. Back and forth it swung in my peripheral. Then, out of nowhere, a tiger jumped in front of me and roared mightily. He was only four feet tall and was followed by a three-foot dragon that I assumed was his little sister. Their tiny growls and requests for candy sounded distant, as if I was enclosed inside a bubble or encircled in plastic. I told the children “Sorry, no candy right now!” in frenzy and hurried off. Their quieted roars faded further in my wake as I turned right at the next street. I was overwhelmed and now felt a growing yearning for the security of my room, feelings and sentiment shifting like San Francisco weather.
An actual jogger passed on my left. She was holding an iPad awkwardly as she ran, trading the real for a lie.
It was getting dark now and the fog was heavy. I heard crying ahead, followed by yelling, and more crying. It was coming from a white van with no windows. The color was as white as death, the color of wood after it’s had every last bit of its life scorched out of it, or like bones dried in the hot sun. I couldn’t tell if the sound was really there or not. I wasn’t even sure what that meant at this point. I put the sobbing and the van out of my mind as I passed it and struggled to keep my wandering mind at bay.
At the corner of Mission I noticed a man on his cell phone, apparently confused and not altogether there. He looked at me with puzzled dread in his eyes. A moment later he turned and walked away with the urgency of someone who just remembered they left the stove on. I watched him walk away and wondered if he was hearing the voices and feeling the sentiments too. I was breathing heavily again and could feel myself losing grasp of what was real. I took deep breaths but they didn’t help. I tried to ignore the mass of noise in front of me while waiting for the light to turn.
The wait only lasted twenty seconds but the traffic was more intense than before. There was more anger, more frustration, more sadness. As cars cut one another off, the voices inside vied for attention, all yearning to be heard by someone. Some screamed into emptiness while others cried. So many of them cried; men, women, children... I wasn’t sure how much more I could handle.
The light turned and I bolted across the street and didn’t stop. I had an uncontrollable urge to get away from all the noise. It was suffocating, the same way I felt inside, earlier. I ran by voices flirting, followed by arguing, followed by one-sided lovemaking. These noises were heavy and penetrating, like choking fog in a dense metropolis. I passed a woman pushing a stroller, looking around confused, and an old man in a worn suit who was praying quietly to himself, and finally a child who running, sobbing wildly.
I arrived at my house, out of breath, unlocked the front door and collapsed on the couch. My heart was beating as if I had just completed a marathon. I remember taking deep breaths, one after another, to calm myself down.
It was quiet for a few moments. Then these incomprehensible whispers began and the building relief escaped me like air from a lightly filled balloon. I turned on some streaming music and it came out muted, distant and lacking treble. I opened my laptop and turned on the news. More on the shootings, but it sounded like I was hearing it through a cave. The whispers, jumbled and incoherent, were increasing in intensity. I finally realized that there was nowhere else to go and I didn’t know what to do.
Suddenly, without warning, it all stopped. The streaming ceased and the laptop went black. Across the room the Wi-Fi router was dead, as well as the power indicator on the television. No life in my phone either.
“What the hell?” I asked myself aloud, feeling utterly lost at this point. I couldn’t remember the last time I was without connectivity… I looked out my living room window and through the fog I saw figures moving in the street. Neighbors? I felt so isolated inside the house and before I knew what I was doing, my body led me up and out the front door. When I reached the street I realized that the bodiless voices had ceased as well. I heard talking but now it was from actual people. Nothing appeared to be stuck in the ether anymore.
“Hey, Travis right?” said a voice from behind me. I turned around and noticed a familiar face from the neighborhood, one that I saw all the time but had never interacted with.
“Hi… yea. Hi. What was your name again?” I replied, slightly caught off guard.
The older man extended his hand. “I’m Terry. Nice to meet you finally! I live a few doors down the block, 634 Lavin. So, do you have any idea what’s going on?”
“I haven’t a clue. I was out for a walk earlier and I heard so many… voices. It was like they were being sent somewhere and somehow I got stuck in their wavelength. It sounds… I know, its crazy.” He was glaring at me with eyes open, disbelief and relief intertwined.
“I thought it was just me… Thank God. I was out back gardening and I heard these awful slurs being hurled and then these intense debates, and crying… there was so much crying. When I went inside I couldn’t escape those unnatural whispers. Eventually I came out here when everything turned off. It seems like all that crazy noise stopped when the connections were lost. Like it all hit critical mass or something…” Terry had the look of someone traumatized, different than I had remembered seeing him on all those occasions when we would pass each other and intentionally look to our feet instead of acknowledging each other.
“I’m glad to hear I wasn’t the only one freaking out here. It was all so… dreamlike... so different.” I looked around and met other neighbors’ eyes. This was the most people I had ever seen out in the street, an impromptu block party born of necessity and confusion. People were acknowledging each other and embracing and shaking each other’s hands. They were smiling now and it made me smile, and then Terry smiled.
“Maybe this isn’t all bad” I pondered aloud. I looked down at my phone and it was still dark. “What now?” I asked Terry.
“I dunno…” He paused a moment and thought. “Wanna to see my garden?”
With nothing to do and nowhere to go, I agreed and we spent the evening drinking beers under crisscrossed strings of market lights in Terry’s bountiful garden. First we exchanged our tales of the voices and tried to figure everything out, but only comfort in shared experience arose instead of the comprehension we so greatly yearned for. The consolation was sufficient and we carried on telling happy stories, eventually becoming friends and laughing ourselves deep into the foggy night, completely forgetting about the lifeless phones in our pockets.