Monday, May 30, 2016

VOW OF SILENCE by Peter Nolan Smith

Almost everyone in the world has a phone. Cellular service can connect my phone in New York with Antarctica or Greenland. I can call Fenway’s mom in Thailand and Mam will pick up on the other end. Every minute millions of cellular calls and SMS messages crisscross the globe searching millions 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 CITY OF THE NIGHT.

I was asleep by 11. Three beers sang my lullaby.
Sunday morning I slowly rose from my slumber . Rain splashed against my window. I checked my watch.

Today was a day of rest and I shut my eyes in hopes of making it to noon.

My second unconscious state extended another five hours and close and I woke at l 11:16am.

The rain was falling harder than before and ominous clouds crawled across a charcoal gray sky. I pulled the cover over my shoulder and read more John Rechy's novel about gay hustlers. The book fell on my chest for another half-hour.

Waking up I looked at my phone.

No one had called me yet.

Not my wife in Thailand.

Not my family in Boston.

Not my friends around the world.

I got out of beed and looked out the window of my Fort Greene penthouse. Not a soul was visible in the alleys behind the brownstone. The dark sky was devoid of airplanes. I could be the Last Man on Earth, but I am not Mada, Adam’s dead end. AP should be downstairs with loving wife and two adorable children and I opened the door to the stairway.

This afternoon there was no noise from below.

AP must have gone out with his wife and kids.

I shut the door. My breakfast consisted of two slices of toast and milky tea with one sugar. I sat by the window to examine the windows across the backyard alley. There was no sign of life from the neighbors.
Five million people lived in this borough, unless zombies had risen from the dead and eaten the entire population of Brooklyn.

I looked out the window again and sipped the tea.

There are no zombies. I would have heard the screams of their zictims.

Families were having brunch at the restaurants in Fort Greene. Kids were on playmates with their friends. Lovers were lying in bed. None of them weren’t thinking about me and I went into the bathroom to run a hot tub.

After a good twenty minute soak I decided to resign my day to a monastic vow of silence, because if I didn’t leave my top-floor apartment, I could spend the entire day without speaking.

This was a tradition dating back to my old apartment on East 10th Street.

During the 80s I regularly exiled myself off from the rest of the world. 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 and drinking a bottle of wine.

Once or twice during these Sundays I would check the phone for a dial tone. I was somewhat disappointed to discover that buzz, because it meant that no one thought to call me on a Sunday and I returned the favor, as if we had a 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 a redneck community below the Mason-Dixon Line. Many of her neighbors entertained very conservative thoughts about the intermingling of races and religions.

"Sometimes I need to speak to someone sane." Her accent was pure Tarheel.

"I'm not really sane." I warned her about my Sunday tradition.

"You don't speak to anyone on Sunday."

“Is it a religious thing?" Ms. Carolina had been educated at a convent school back in the era when convent schools were convent schools.

"No, I'm an atheist."

“Then why the silence?”

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

“Which means?” Ms. Carolina was used to my odd behavior. She thought I was an eccentric.

“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. New Yorkers were addicted to the sound of their own voices and my ears were constantly crammed by the constant blather of my co-workers and clients.

“Don’t worry. I respect your beliefs.” The blonde southerner 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 North Carolina. They believed that blacks had a soul.

The next Sunday my once-silent phone rang at 11:15.

I was laying in my bathtub. It was in the kitchen. My apartment was very East Village.

I picked up the phone.

It was Ms. Carolina.

She recounted the preacher’s ranting sermon.

“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 that Sunday’s silence.

A ravaging hangover had silted my mouth with rust and 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 and Ms. Carolina drove north to visit me in the East Village.

Saturday night 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 a book, 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 had one week 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 good beer. Actually not good, excellent. I ever tell you how my ‘vow of silence started?”

“No.” Ms. Carolina was a repository of my vocal history. She had heard many of my stories on 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.”



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, “That’s funny, I didn’t think they had phones on the Ponderosa.”

“And they didn’t.” Ms. Carolina laughed at the image. 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 a number.” My parents. I hadn’t spoke to them in ages.

“It worked and not only that I could call anywhere in the world.”


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

“During BONANZA.”

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

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


The phone stayed in service for two month, then went dead 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 lightening over Brooklyn. A scream shivered up the stairs. AP was back with the kids. They hadn’t been eaten by the zombies after all.

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

Orval is a Trappist beer.

The suds poured into my mug with a pleasant glut glut glug.

There was no danger of Ms. Carolina calling me.

She had 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 tells me to come home soon.

“I will.”

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

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