Friday morning, at my weekly voice banking session — which I headed to only reluctantly, grumbling far more than I should — my speech therapist, Sarah Messer, tells me my numbers are mostly stable. While the spasticity in my legs has gone up a bit, my lung capacity has stayed at about eighty percent of what it was when I was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, three months ago. I should be — as Sarah says with a brief smile, pressing my file closed, relieved. Sitting beside me in Sarah’s office, Nicole hugs me, her flowered scarf flush against my neck, and I feel, for a single, brief moment, elated. Then my right elbow cracks, and my left leg bone quivers, and I’m imprisoned all over again.
“We can start the first session now,” Sarah says. “Now we’re into the real voice banking process. You ready?”
We leave her office and walk single-file to the end of the third floor. The two of them stroll more slowly than ever, but I have to push myself to keep up. Soon enough, I know, my entire body will be locked in, even though my mind will stay clear. I’ll have to communicate with eye-blinks or less, using the computerized system to call up my voice. Eye-blinks? I asked at the time, that early morning, blinking crust from my eyes, unbelieving. Even three months on, even as I’ve weakened, I can’t see myself paralyzed that way.
Now, taking keys from her pocket, Sarah stops at the last door, unlocks, motions me in. Following her, I settle myself in the glass-encased soundproof booth, imagining speaking and repeating sentences until my mind whirs.
Nicole waits outside with a stony, spent expression. Through the window, she looks like an anxious ghost, someone I can see but not hear. Maybe I look like a ghost to her: holding my hands out make sure they don’t stiffen, staring hard so my eyelids don’t droop. I’m not sleepy, of course. Must be muscle weakness. These days, my eyes need strong sticks to hold them up.
If I’d asked, my son Henry would have come, bringing his six-year-old daughter Erin, but I decided it was better if they stayed home. Why have them hear my fumbling and mess-ups, my fits and starts? Why have them sit through random sentences, getting increasingly bored (on Henry’s part) or antsy (on Erin’s)?
“We’ll start with ten screening sentences to see how you sound,” Sarah says.
“Only ten?” I say, thinking of the sixteen hundred I’ll eventually need.
We’re taking it slow, Sarah reminds me, hoping that we’ll have time to finish, if my health holds. I say I could do this recording at home, but she insists that the parameters are too tricky for me to deal with — even, she says, as if trying to placate me, for a professional. Even the silence level has to fit within a precise range, between -50 and -70 decibels. As we go along, she’ll monitor my voice quality, and we’ll stop working if it gets worse.
“Ten to start,” she says, handing me the sheet of sentences. “Start now.”
The set of Typical Folks, my old radio show, where I’d be giving orders, feels incredibly far. As the host — I had a nationwide audience, millions of listeners, a fact that’s unbelievable now — I used to tell my guests, You there, stand here. Don’t say a word until I give the sign.
Now, the air feels sweet and clear, like Leaf Lake air on a windless day, but crisper. Sarah sits directly across from me, her heart-shaped face downcast, holding an identical sheet to the one I’ve got. She needs to follow along, she says, and time exactly how long each sentence takes. As she holds out a stopwatch, I breathe in. An achy sound rises from my throat.
The sentences I start with sound ridiculous. Peter sold a piece of paper to Tom. Nothing that I’d want to say in my daily life. Nothing I would have asked anyone to say on my radio show. We’d talk about the exact opposite, my guests’ mishaps and adventures, their trips to Antarctica and Namibia and Chad, their round-the-world sailing trips and journeys on foot down the old pilgrim roads. Back then, I was seen as a fellow adventurer, one who would go along with any journey, no matter how outrageous, who would talk his way through anything, whether the renovation of an ice hotel in Norway or the tagging of penguins on the southern coast of Argentina, with scientists trying to count those funny creatures as they swam around madly or dropped down among the ice floes. No matter what conversation I was trying to have (getting more than a few words from a glaciologist was a major feat), I spoke easily and made people feel comfortable, and want to tell the stories I had to tell. Maybe, in the end, I was distracting myself — but I was distracting myself with the world, in all its messiness and all its weepy glory. Life could have been far worse than that.
Now I sit in front of two computer screens, both gleaming with light and buzzing, a buzzing way too audible in this otherwise soundless room. On the one nearest me, a bright green line shivers every time I talk. The peaks, Sarah calls them, as if they were mountains we’d only recently encountered. On the second, a messy gray bar startles up and down. Static, she tells me, peering at the bar. I nod, trying to make the static less. In her desk drawer, she finds a small black microphone and sticks it right up to my chin.
“Peter sold a piece of paper to Tom,” I say.
“Speak the sentence again,” she says, and I do, trying to sound as bland as possible.
“Is that all right?” I ask.
She looks in again at the screen, her expression blank. “On here, it looks okay. We’ll run the analytics afterwards.”
“Are all the sentences going to be like this?”
“Sorry. But we need all the different sounds of English in the right combinations, in order to cut them up and put them back into a natural voice.”
I think of Humpty Dumpty, how all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t fix him, couldn’t put him together again.
“Of course, if there’s some sentences you’ll want to have banked separately, as pre-recorded speech, we can do that as well,” she says, clicking through several screens on the computer with the static bar. Her finger goes too fast for me to track.
“Well, it all depends on what you want. On your quality of life. I’d suggest some basic health needs — a glass of water, please, that sort of thing — and some expressions to use with your family. I love you and so on. Of course, you can always just wait for the finished voice.”
“I love you and so on,” I repeat.
“I’m just saying,” Sarah says. She drags her white coat tighter across her shoulders, then fiddles with the top button, trying to close it without looking. Nicole gazes in on us from her perch outside as though tempted to interrupt but not sure how. I wish I could tell her this business would all be over soon, that we’ll soon enough get back to our regular lives, and she can stop worrying about me and start planning our around-the-world trip, but I can’t.
I wish I could tell her to find another husband, to start looking now. We don’t talk about things like that. We haven’t talked any more about Erin — how to tell her about what I have — which unsettles me. I haven’t told her how, last night, when Erin stayed over with us, I heard her walking up and down the stairs, quickly and quietly, as though trying not to wake anyone. For almost an hour, I sat up and listened, wishing she would soothe herself back to sleep. Then, seeing that she wouldn’t, I opened my door and called out in a whisper, Come out. I’m here.
But she didn’t come out. She ran into her room on fast feet and shut her door.
“Those are phrases you’re likely to want,” Sarah says, as I struggle to recall what they were. “I know they sound pre-planned, even robotic. That’s why we’re recording all the random sentences. So we can patch together a natural voice to let you say anything. I know it seems counterintuitive — saying limited sentences to give you eventual freedom — but that’s how it is.”
“That’s how it is,” I repeat, tired all of a sudden, and out of words.
Eventual freedom — sounds like a death sentence, if you ask me, or something my father would have said. He left when I was only eight, before I ever got to know him, saying he was headed to Vietnam. Years later, when I was sixteen, I found out that he’d died out there, wandering and dehydrated among those mountain peaks, at only thirty-eight years old. He’d lied about going to Vietnam, about being a soldier. Instead, he was a religious fanatic, a fact that he’d hidden from the whole family. He was proselytizing, apparently, or trying to, sending out flyers about the Four Horsemen and the Apocalypse into the landscape, letting them flutter down. Nobody was going to read those flyers, of course, but that didn’t matter. Maybe he’d met his death by accident, or maybe someone shot him. There was no autopsy. No one asked for one.
A shame on the family, my grandfather said one night at dinner. My son re-enacted the Civil War in his own backyard but couldn’t go to war himself.
Thinking back to that, as I say those random sentences, my voice flames in my throat. My lungs fill with a deep, hazy pressure, as though I’ve entered a submarine. As my chest muscles seize, my legs reflex and kick.
When I was young, in the midst of our backyard reenactments, I used to wonder how my life would end up, if I’d become an astronaut or a revolutionary, a soldier or a peacemaker or a chef. I wondered what use I’d make of my days. I never thought I’d be sitting in this glassy booth, trembling, staring out at my wife, wishing for good health, dreaming of crystalline sound.
“You’re looking peaky,” Sarah says. “A glass of water?”
“Sure,” I say and cough a little. The pressure in my lungs drops down.
With barely a sound, Sarah stands and leaves the recording booth. The door swings open. Outside, Nicole sits staring at the bare wall, tapping her fingers. An unfinished crossword lies open on her lap. From inside the glass, it looks as if there’s an entire sea between us.
I clench the paper with the practice sentences in both my hands. Then I ball it up slowly. Each edge folds into my hand’s crevices. Words hit words. Sentences flood into my palm. If only I could crush that paper until it disappeared. If only I could build a flat gold box and slip my body in, arms folded, with no complaints, and let my soul, or spirit, simply rise.
In my hand, the paper’s tiny, a crunched ball.
Sarah heads back into the booth with an expression so hopeful it’s irritating. She has a water glass balanced in one hand, my file in the other. Who knows what’s written in there: man on a mission to save his voice, even if he can’t save himself? Maybe, even as she cringes at my case, she’s laughing at my poor attempts. Maybe they all are.
“Are you okay?” Sarah says, sitting down.
“Yes.” I unfold the paper.
“If you need a minute — we have all the time you need.”
“Well, I don’t,” I say. The paper shivers and drops to the floor.
“I don’t have the time.”
I start explaining the fact that I don’t know what’s wrong with Erin, about how she’s only six, and how we used to be close — I used to babysit her practically every weekend, when Henry was away at scientific conferences — but now she won’t even talk to me. I shouldn’t be telling Sarah all this, but I can’t stop. The way they used to on Typical Folks, the words keep on spilling out of me.
As I talk, that azalea-colored dress pops in my mind, the one Erin wore years ago. Every evening, Henry ran it through the washer to remove its mud and grass stains. It was her favorite, so much so that, for weeks, she refused to wear anything else. When I babysat on weekends, I ran it through the washer too, with an extra dose of stain remover. She’s been playing outside, her pinch-faced teacher Miss Maple said when Henry asked about the dirt after school. And yet that teacher spoke so quickly, and with such reticence, that he remained suspicious. Maybe she was being bullied. Maybe somebody was throwing dirt on her, or something more insidious, the way girls tend to do, whispering behind the teachers’ back, hinting she was uncool, idiotic, or worse. Maybe she was too proud to let us know.
More than I admitted, worry consumed me. Many nights when Erin was over, I sat up on the floor of the laundry room, my back to the slow-cycling air conditioner, watching that bright pink dress circle in the washer’s quick spool. That spool resembled nothing more than a body of water, churning and twisting, with enormous waves, and a tiny person caught inside.
One night, after I’d stared for twenty minutes, my vision blurred. I couldn’t bear how fragile that dress looked, how vulnerable. I stopped the washer and cleaned the dress myself, using hand-washing liquid. For half an hour, I soaked the dress in the sink with warm water, then cool, then wrung the fabric hard between my hands.
Back then, we tried to figure out what was wrong with Erin, but nobody knew. Her mother, Henry’s wife, had died in childbirth — maybe it was the trauma that had upset her — but it couldn’t be only that. Six school meetings later, Henry had no more clarity than before. She does have friends, Miss Maple said, as he reported later to us. But there are a few girls she has trouble with. When he took Erin to a child psychologist, the man said we should try to reduce all demands. We’re not so demanding, Henry said, but agreed to try. I said I would try too, and tried not to be offended when he said You’re the grandfather. She loves you, yes, but what can you do?
“How much have you told Erin?” Sarah asks, flipping a switch so the room goes dim.
“I’ve said I’m not well.”
Nicole stands up and taps on the door. Just a minute, I gesture. She shows me her watch. Her mouth opens and closes, almost fishlike.
“That’s all you’ve said?” Sarah asks, leaning over for the balled-up paper, which I offer without comment. She unfolds it with both hands, sets it aside.
She sighs, pushing back the short hair around her face.
“I’m going to talk to her,” I say.
“As soon as I can —”
“Can I come in?” Nicole says, opening the door so fast the air rushes in.
I say sure, even though Sarah looks disapproving. Nicole stares at me as if I’m new all of a sudden, as if there’s part of me she doesn’t know how to navigate. Behind her, the air is flecked with dust, a whole wide swirl. Sarah hands me a fresh sheet of paper, filled with words. The Grandfather Passage, she tells me: part of a standard battery, something developed exactly for the purposes of checking voice quality.
“Contains almost all the sounds in English,” she says, sounding unnaturally chipper. She bends over one of the computer screens, then flips the recording switch on. “It’s a good test of the quality of all your sounds. We’ll use it repeatedly over your sessions to check how you’re holding up.”
I cough and take the paper, imagining myself back on the set of my old radio show, Typical Folks, speaking to an unknown audience with mics in my face and my guests and assistants gathered around. The light back then was phosphorescent, the air crackling with unsaid stories.
“My grandfather?” I read the words out loud, holding the paper close, watching it tremble. My voice sounds not bell-like, but gravelly and worn. “You wish to know all about my grandfather? Well, he is nearly ninety-three years old. He dresses himself in an ancient black frock coat, usually minus several buttons. He actually still thinks as swiftly as ever. A long, flowing beard clings to his chin, giving those who observe him a pronounced feeling of the utmost respect. When he speaks, his voice is just a bit cracked and quivers a trifle. Twice each day he plays differently and with zest upon our small organ, except in the winter when the snow and ice prevents it. He slowly takes a short walk in the open air each day. We often urged him to walk more and smoke less, but he always says no. Grandfather likes to be modern in his language.”
“Great,” Sarah says, and shuts the recording switch off.
“Great,” I repeat, trying to stay stony, impenetrable. “How was that?”
“Well, I can’t say for sure — I’ll need to run the statistics to be sure. But — to the naked ear at least — it sounds all right.”
“Good,” I say and let air from my lungs, trying to make the muscles release.
“He’s good to go?” Nicole says, clenching her jaw.
“Yep,” Sarah says. “I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I say, crumpling the paper, wishing I could leap out of my chair, out of Mercy Hospital entirely and back to Leaf Lake, back to where my ancestors were buried.
As I start to stand, that feeling of wanting to get away somewhere, anywhere, starts taking me over. I can’t stop breathing in and out, seeing every breath as a memento mori, letting each breath burn my chest and fill my eyes. I can’t stop wanting to tell my children, and my children’s children, about those diamonds, the constant, shimmering collection of details that make up the aching, crystalline surface of everything.
Holding my chest with both hands, bending over so far my belt loops cut, I start to cry. I want to flick the switch and turn those tears off. Let those tears dissipate of their own accord. But the tears won’t dissipate, and the air won’t cool, and my face freezes, embarrassingly wet.
“That was a bad choice of a passage,” Sarah says, patting me on the shoulder with an air of comfort, or pity. I shiver, holding the crumpled paper. “Sorry I upset you. Shouldn’t have chosen that passage. There were others we could have used.”
“It’s not that,” I say.
“What’s wrong?” Nicole says, leaving her perch and coming to crouch beside me.
That grandfather’s long, flowing beard: the same as my grandfather’s, as I remember him, trapped in a single photograph in my mind. Back then, I hadn’t thought a second about how he treated my father, or about forgiveness. I was simply furious about his Civil War obsession, which he passed on to my father, and then to me. The two of them set up those reenactments religiously, every Sunday. They stitched up their Reenactment coats whenever they had the slightest hole. They pored over Civil War maps as if they held the key to the treasure, as if they’d give us a clue to ourselves.
“I’ll never be ninety-three,” I say.
“You’ll never be —” Sarah starts.
“Ninety-three years old,” I say.
The air has turned dry, almost raw, and sears my throat. My hands wing open, fill with empty space. A small span. A lifeline. Three years left, or one year, or maybe less. A blister on my left hand opens up, a sad red moon. At the center of my vision, a dark spot rises: rises up and, before I can speak, buries me. Rolling my eyes back, I look again. There’s this frame around me, or an edge, I can’t see around. In the darkness, in the cold, I’m zooming fast, or imagine I am — and as I travel, that edge finds the edge of my face and pushes in. Even as I startle, the edge stays right beside me. Won’t push away. The window of my vision shrinks and, all of a sudden, zooms forward, until it’s right in line with my eyes.
“In line with my eyes,” I say.
“Yes,” Sarah says, softening.
“Sorry. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“It’s okay,” she says, although her look betrays otherwise, and stands and flips the overhead lights off. The computer screens glow more vividly, one with a green flashy line and one with that awful static bar. I listen closer, to the rush of white noise filling the room, as if listening more would reveal some hidden words, words that could save me, or soothe me at least. Words that could help Erin heal. Nicole wraps one arm around me, pressing into each small bone in my shoulder. Her hands are gentle, the hands of a nurse who knows the right pressure, who’s careful and calm until it’s impossible to be. I wish she wasn’t so sensitive, or didn’t have to be. Really, I wish she could be spared from all this: from my sickness, and the process of sickening. I wish she could be spared from watching me.
“Let’s go home,” Nicole says, lifting her head almost hopefully. “He’s good to go?”
Sarah nods, says she’ll see us tomorrow, in a sure but careful tone.
“Hold on,” I say, and unfold the paper.
There are more sentences on them, and phrases I haven’t spoken. I ask for five more minutes, and Sarah says fine. I ask because I want Nicole to hear. I grit my teeth, press both feet to the floor, smooth the paper again, and start to read:
“I say this to my friends.
See papa pour peanuts.
Beech of boyd
On a boat
Please tell me if you don’t understand what I’m saying.
I can hear and understand everything that you say.”