Sunday, December 30, 2012

VOW OF SILENCE by Peter Nolan Smith

Almost everyone in the world has a phone. Cellular service can connect my phone with Antarctica or Greenland. I can call Fenway’s mom in Thailand and Mam will pick up on the other end. Millions of cellular calls and SMS messages crisscross the globe searching billions of destinations. We are so close, yet so far away from each other.

Yesterday evening AP and I moved a set of headboards from the 3rd Floor to the penthouse landing. They were heavy and luckily neither of us hurt our back.

“Thanks,” my landlord/friend/architect said, walking down to the 2nd floor.

“No worries.” I ascended the stairs to my apartment.

Those three syllables ended my verbal communications for Saturday. I shut the door and pulled out my book. I was asleep by 11. Three beers had sung my lullaby.

Sunday morning I took my time getting up. Rain splashed against my window. I checked my watch. 7:30am. Today was a day of rest, and I shut my eyes in hopes of making it to noon.

My second stage of slumber came close and I stayed down until 11:16am.

The rain was harder than before and the skies were a charcoal gray. I pulled the cover over my shoulder and read a little of Edward Rutherford’s NEW YORK. The segmented series of interconnected stories about the city has a wonderful way of dismissing any urge for action and the book fell on my chest for another half-hour.

Waking up I looked at my phone.

No one had called me yet.

I got out of bed and looked out the window of my Fort Greene penthouse. Not a soul was visible in the alleys behind the brownstone. The sky was devoid of airplanes. I could have been the Last Man on Earth, except I am not Mada, Adam’s dead end.

I opened the door to the stairway. AP should have been downstairs with loving wife and two adorable children. This afternoon there was no noise from below.

AP must have gone out with his wife and kids.

shut the door and ate a breakfast of two slices of toast and milky tea with one sugar. I sat by the window to examine the windows across the backyard alley without discerning life from the neighboring houses.

Five million people lived in this borough, unless zombies had risen with the dawnand eaten the entire population of Brooklyn before noon.

I looked out the window again and sipped the tea.

There were no zombies or else I would have woken with the screams of their zictims.

AP was out with his family. People were having brunch at the restaurants in Fort Greene. Kids were playing with their friends inside the brownstones. Lovers were lying in bed. None of them weren’t thinking about me and I ran a hot tub in the bathroom.

After a good twenty minute soak I decided to resign my day to a monastic vow of silence. It was a tradition dating back to my old apartment on East 10th Street.

Back in the late 80s Sunday mornings were spent in bed with a book. A late breakfast was followed by a long afternoon bath with my evenings devoted to finishing the book while drinking a bottle of wine.

Once or twice during these Sundays I would check the phone to see if there was a dial tone. I was somewhat disappointed to discover that buzz, because that meant no one thought to call me on a Sunday and I returned the favor, as if we had a non communicato pact .

This vow of silence lasted, until I started dating Ms. Carolina. The former beauty queen liked talking and I couldn’t blame her. She lived in Deep Dixie. Many of her neighbors entertained very conservative thoughts about the intermingling of races and religions, but I had warned her about my Sunday tradition.

“I don’t speak to anyone.” More like no one spoke to me.

“But you’re an atheist.” Ms. Carolina had been educated at a convent school back in the era when convent schools were convent schools.

“Seneca said, “As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man.”

“Which means?” Ms. Carolina was slowly adapting to my odd behavior.

“After a six days of listening to New York bullshit, I need a day to clear out my head.” I was working as a diamond dealer on West 47th Street. My ears were constantly crammed by the blather of my co-workers and clients.

“Don’t worry. I respect your beliefs.” The blonde golfer was a true gentlewoman. “But what about if you just pick up the phone and listen to me. That’s not really breaking your vow of silence.”

“Let me think about this.” One Trappist sect was very strict on silence, but my rest of my life style was a complete rejection of the Cistercian dictates and I told Ms. Carolina, “As long as the phone calls don’t last longer than twenty minutes, I’ll pick up the phone.”

“Thank you.” Her gratitude was sincere.

Ms. Carolina was obliged to attend church every Sunday morning at home and the service at her husband’s church lasted two and a half hours. Baptists wasted the entire day trying to save their souls. Her congregation was very advanced for the area. They believed that blacks possessed souls.

That Sunday my phone rang at 11:15.

I was sitting in my bathtub, which was in the kitchen. My apartment was very East Village. I picked up the phone. It was Ms. Carolina and she recounted the preacher’s ranting sermon in accent.

“He believes that all homosexuals are damned to Hell. I told him after the service that I knew that he was going to some Richmond bars where men were dancing with men and gave him a check for $25. It’s going to fix the roof.” Ms. Carolina was originally form New Jersey. Her family was Old Yankee same as half mine. We had more than those genes in common. I knew her husband. The doctor was a good man and I was feeling bad about ‘us’. She kept the conversation low and ended with the wish, “Good luck with your vow of silence.”

Luck had nothing to do with my Sunday’s silence.

A ravaging hangover had silted my mouth with rust. I hadn’t really spoken with Ms. Carolina. I had listened to a woman on a phone. Words never left my lips.

Two weeks passed before Ms. Carolina visited me in the East Village. We went to a good restaurant in Soho. I drank more than I should, but I was a sucker for a good Saturday night drunk.

Sunday morning I woke up before Ms. Carolina.

Light filtered through the shades. My eyeballs were socketed in sandpaper. My guest lay on her side facing me. She liked to watch me sleep. I picked up Peter Freuchen’s BOOK OF THE ESKIMOS,and read away the pain in my head.

A little before 11 Ms. Carolina opened her eyes and said, “Sometimes I think you’re dead when you’re reading. You barely breathe.”

The blonde heiress accepted my shrug as an answer. We slept one weekend a month together. She deserved more, but I could only give what I had to give.

“You know the Trappist monks never really had a ‘vow of silence’.”

This was news to me. My mother loved the quietude of their monastery outside of Boston.

“St. Benedict, their founder, had three tenets; stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. Benedict preferred the monks to exist in silence, because speech was disruptive to contemplation.” Ms. Carolina was as good as a nun and only wicked with the lights out.

Like my Irish mother I have the gift of gab, although dampened by my father’s preference for silence.

The Maine native had held his piece for years under the blitzkrieg of my mother’s monologues, but today Ms. Carolina wanted to hear my voice and I surrendered to her need.

“I’ve been to the Trappists monasteries in Belgium. They made excellent beer. Did I ever tell you how my ‘vow of silence started?”

“No.” Ms. Carolina was a repository of my vocal history through our road trips through Guatemala, Peru, and the Far West. Listening was one of her better traits.

“Back in 1979 the phone in my 10th Street apartment was shut off.”


“Yes.” I had racked up a $700 bill tracking down the whereabouts of my blonde model from Buffalo. My broken heart remained broken all that time. “My service was cut for years. I never could get together the money to pay the bill. The phone gathered dust under the sofa. One Sunday I was watching a BONANZA re-run and a telephone rang. I thought to myself, “I didn’t think they had phones on the Ponderosa.”

“And they didn’t.” Ms. Carolina laughed at my reincarnation of that morning. She was my best audience.

“No, it was my phone. It rang for a minute and then stopped. I picked up the phone. There was a dial tone. I tried my parents' number. I hadn’t spoke to them in ages. It worked and not only that, but I could call anywhere in the world.”


“Even stranger was that the phone would ring the same time every Sunday.”

“During BONANZA.”

“Correct.” I liked the chemistry between Little Joe and Hoss.

“Did you ever pick it up to find out who was calling?”

“No. The phone remained in service for two month, then went silence again. After that I never spoke on Sundays. At least until I met you.”

“You’re still quiet on Sundays.”

“I try my best.” I led Ms. Carolina by the hand into my bedroom. There was no need for words in the darkness. Our bodies did the speaking and this Sunday I’ve yet to say a word to a living human being.

That Sunday was over fifteen years ago. The sky was getting dark over Brooklyn. A scream shivered up the stairs. AP was back with the kids. They hadn’t been eaten by the zombies.

I went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of beer.

Orval is a Trappist beer.

It poured into my mug with a pleasant glug glug glug.

There’s was no danger of Ms. Carolina calling me. She passed away in the winter. I raised my glass to her. She had been a good friend. Another five hours and it would be Monday.

I would call Mam. Fenway would get on the phone. He likes to speak with me and tell me to come home soon and I like to say, "I will."

My vow of silence would end then as it always does, for no Sunday lasts forever.

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