A Voice Across the Room

I am sitting in the library. It’s supposed to be quiet. There are the bangs and buzzes of the construction, saws and hammers and glasses panes being carried by heavy-booted feet. These noises aren’t obtrusive… at least to me. But remember, I’m a weird one, and the sounds of trains roaring by in the night is a lullaby. Crowds yammering, shoutings, laughing, these don’t bother me either. I can’t understand anything they’re saying, picking out only a word here or there, sending me off on tracks after poems containing words that tumble through packed bars over the din of guitar strings and beer-fueled fights.

But no. There is one voice here in this library. One man talking loudly on his cell phone. “Yeah, he was doin’, and I ain’t gonna lie to you, he can go now, and yeah that’s what I’m sayin’, but uh… really? Them two back to back a couple years now… Cody’s goin’ nowhere,” and he chuckles.

The clock ticks.


Ten minutes pass.

“Yeah, and she’s holdin’ on for a while, now.”

Twenty minutes pass.

“That’s what I’m sayin’.”

Half an hour. There is no signal from his end of the conversation that it’s going to end soon. I can only focus on his voice, my writing paused, my reading crossing wires with the sound of a spoken language I understand.

“Brian, he still doin’ his thing.”

I wish he was speaking Spanish. Or German. Or Korean. These languages I don’t comprehend fade into the din of un-meaning, get lost in the background of hammer strikes and whirring saw blades. But he’s speaking English, and that is one of two languages I speak. Hearing it calls my active attention. It’s a reflex. I can’t deny it. It’s as clear as the half-understood Kreyole on the bus, pulling on the strings of my rusted French.

So I sit and watch the clock tick by, tapping fingers, reading the same lines over and over again, unable to flow down to the next paragraph for the—

“I don’t know, whatta you talkin’ ’bout? Ride that horse boy, ride that thing, mmhm.”

—that fills the air.

So what do I do? I listen. For instance the “mmhm” is one syllable, sliding from one sound into the other.

“That’s all it takes, that’s all it takes, right there. You know what I’m sayin’? You know what I mean, come on.”

I bend my ears. How is he saying it? Rich baritone, the dialect, noting the up tones and where they fall. I can’t see him. He’s obscured by the concrete library pillar. I can see his back pack: black with neon orange trim.

“Uh-huh, see I din’ know that. I din’ know it. He did good. Okay,” and he chuckles again. “All seventy, eighty years old.”

And I transcribe fragments, trying to catch an identity, a cadence, a richness of sound just in text.

“Oh, Lowd.” It doesn’t sound like “Lawd” or “Lord.” There is a specificity to it.

This is when I begin to question my own comfort, listening to his words, typing them out, transcribing them as I hear them. He’s saying them in a public place, and I can’t hear the person on the other end. They don’t really give anything away, who he is, who these people are, these bits and snippets I’ve recorded. I may have even misheard the names. But now I feel like a voyeur, like maybe I should move, give him a little space to talk.

But where can I go on this floor away from the sound of his conversation? Other patrons are taking up the spots near outlets, the computers open, fingers clattering over their keyboards. I stick it out, listening to the strange music of his voice. I stick it out, snatching phrases from the air. And I wonder how many times my conversations in public have given others pause, half-listening.

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