Minggu, 12 Februari 2012

VOW OF SILENCE by Peter Nolan Smith

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

This Sunday my phone has yet to ring.

I look out the window of my Fort Greene penthouse. Not a soul is visible in the alleys behind the brownstone. The sky is devoid of airplanes. I could be the Last Man on Earth, but I’m not Mada, Adam’s dead end. AP, my landlord/friend/architect, should be downstairs with loving wife and two adorable children and I opened the door to the stairway.

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,” AP said, walking down to the 2nd floor.

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

Those three syllables were my last spoken words.

There was no noise from below.

I called out their names.

No response.


Still no response and I shut the door.

I was alone and sat by window to more closely examine the windows in the backyard. It was too early for lights and I couldn’t discern any human movement from the neighbors. It was a quiet Sunday. People were out of the streets. This was Brooklyn. Five million people lived in this borough. If the zombies risen from the dead and eaten them along with AP’s familyy, I would have heard the screams. So far today I had heard nothing but the folk songs of Dave Van Ronk, so I resigned myself to a vow of silence rather than the panic of being the last man on Earth, for I had spent many Sundays in a vow of silence.

Today was no different.

People were out there.

They simply weren’t thinking about me.

Back in the late 80s I cut myself off from the rest of the world in my East Village apartment on the weekend. I would spend Sunday morning in bed with a book. A late breakfast was followed by a long afternoon bath with my evening devoted to finishing the book and 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 it meant I was on my own.

My Sunday vow of silence became a tradition, until I started dating Ms. Carolina. The former beauty queen liked talking and I couldn’t blame her. Ms. Carolina 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, 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 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. My ear were crammed by the constant blather of my co-workers and clients. New Yorkers, were addicted to the sound of their own voices.

“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 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 even believed blacks had a soul.

My once-silent phone rang at 11:15.

I was sitting 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 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. He was a gun freak. She kept the conversation low and ended with the wish, “Good luck with your vow of silence.”

Luck wasn’t part of Sunday’s silence.

My ravaging hangover had silted the mouth. I hadn’t really spoken with Ms. Carolina. My function was to listen to a woman’s yearning. I was good at it.

Two weeks passed before Ms. Carolina was able to visit me in New York. We went to a good restaurant. I drank more than I should, but I always did that on Saturday night.

I woke up before her and picked up a book.

Peter Freuchen’s BOOK OF THE ESKIMOS.

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. No one got more from me. 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’.”

“No.” 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.

“He’s got that right.” 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.

“I’ve been to the Trappists monasteries in Belgium. They made good beer. Actually not good, but 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 on our road trips through Guatamala, 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. Paris, London, Milano, Hamburg, and points in between. I finally contacted her in Madrid. She told me that she was going out with a dealer in Russian icons. I wouldn’t meet him until Vadim helped finance our after-hours club, The Continental in 1981. 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 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.” I was scared that it wasn’t the blonde model from Buffalo. “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.

It’s 5:48.

I hear AP’s kids downstairs.

There weren't eaten by the zombies.Fenway and Man will be awake soon.Calls on Skype cost nothing.I'm opening a bottle of beer.An Orval.It's a Trappist beer.It pours into my mug.Glug glug glug.No Sunday lasts forever and neither will my silence.

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