“The Sound Barrier, ” a short story by Bex Hansen, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 63rd Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.
The Sound Barrier
by Bex Hansen
…..Toby was a benevolent deity with vast ankles and squat eyelashes.
….. I stared at the blinking cursor, then plopped my head onto the desk. “If only,” I said.
….. Livingston lifted his head and murrped.
….. “There is absolutely nothing interesting about Toby, Livvy,” I told him. “Nothing.”
…..I’d been working on this story for three weeks. Four hundred words on Toby, the retiring accountant whose most significant accomplishment was a State Capital Thimble collection still missing Springfield because he refused to, and I quote, “Internet it.”
….. Shoot. Me. Now.
….. I heard a snap and hum through the wall. “Noooo.”
….. The Musician never listened to my pleas. She stuck to her routines like, well, like a neurodiverse marketing writer who just wanted to work in peace.
…..Every day of the week, the warm-up routine began at 2:00.
…..Monday – electric guitar and riffs from Santana
…..Tuesday – cello and T.V. theme songs
…..Wednesday – commercial jingles on the keyboard
…..Thursday – violin and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (the devil’s lick because we all know Johnny should not have won that golden fiddle.)
…..Friday – random instrument day. It could be Springsteen on the acoustic guitar, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the ukulele, or “Driver’s License” on the hammer dulcimer.
…..The weekends were mercifully quiet.
…..Today she’d settled on the 90s as her decade of choice on the cello. Soon the creepy notes heralding everyone’s favorite alien-hunter duo plowed through my walls.
….. “The X-Files is a show with music by Mark Snow,” I mumbled along with imaginary lyrics.
….. I picked my head up and compelled my fingers to laud Toby, the Springfield-deficient accountant.
….. Crammed into this sardine can of an apartment building, the sounds from above and below, without and within, snaked their way through the ancient pipes and crawlspaces and dumbwaiter shafts to create an awkward cacophony. When the boys on the second floor played “who can jump off the highest thing and crash into the floor” simultaneous to the parrot from the fourth floor swinging its cage into a shelf of tin cans, it felt like I lived in an immersive “Stomp!” experience.
…..Most of it washed over me. The Musician, however, was less water off a duck’s back and more duck’s been in an oil spill, and we’re out of Dawn.
…..The X-Files morphed to Friends.
….. “Joke, broke, and D.O.A. for suresies,” I sighed.
…..My D.O.A. happened when my hyperaware brain noticed that Howard smelled of Fantasy by Britney instead of the Good Girl Gone Bad I wore.
…..So, I flapped out of our love nest and into this temporary “apartment” just in time to not be able to leave it for months. After “the troubles” of the early 2020s, I never returned to the office. My brain hadn’t dealt well with the whole stepping-outside-and-taking-the-wrong-breath-could-kill-a-person thing. So, my therapy, my job, and my grocery delivery all went online and stayed there.
…..Livingston and I learned to live compactly. Bedroom and office on one side of the galley kitchen; sofa, television, sewing machine, and giant cat wheel in the room on the other. And while some of my friends continued dating on Zoom or IRL throughout, I couldn’t bring myself to re-up my dating account post-Howard or post-pandemic.
…..The music stopped mid-phrase. After a bit of scuffling, I heard her door open and then click shut. It took me 87 seconds to get down the two flights of stairs from my apartment and out the front door. Which is how, after a couple of weeks of listening and timing, I knew that the person I could see walking out of the building from the window near my desk was HER.
…..I had a Rear Window view of the entrance from my bedroom and noted that she was an average twenty-something like me. Long, straight brown hair, a lithe frame, and red glasses twice the size of her eyes. While I watched, she heaved a blue garbage bag into the dumpster at the corner of the building and headed back inside.
….. Two months after The Musician moved in, she started entertaining a steady gentleman caller. Once I realized what was happening (trust me, I didn’t need Barry White to make it clear), I would lunge for the window “after” to try and catch a glimpse of him leaving. At first, I only saw his back as he walked down the street to his car parked around the corner. He wore coated denim pants and a bomber jacket with a black beanie shoved over his hair—the fall uniform for guys.
….. Then he started coming for dinner several nights a week. I would take up residence at the window to try and see his face. Unlike Toby, his eyelashes didn’t appear squat at all, but from two floors up, who could tell? I tried to get a better view through the peephole when he walked by, but the angle was all wrong, and from there, he did look like he could have vast ankles. He always brought something—a bottle of wine, takeout, a game, or, one night, guitar strings.
….. He could’ve skipped that one.
….. One evening, while listening to their sweet chatter and clinking silverware, I decided it was time to dive back into the stagnant waters of the dating pool. I scrolled my phone for a profile pic, but everything I had was either two years old or of Livingston and me living our best pandemic lives–doing the Aretha Franklin Peloton ride with Robin, eating homemade ramen, or showing off a newly-finished craft project.
….. I pawed through my closet and discarded the sequin tank tops and metallic leggings I hadn’t worn in two years to find something that said “fun, fiscally responsible, and fluent in the English language, so don’t ever message me ‘hey.’”
….. Three costume changes later, I hit post. New year, new profile, new chance for it all to go Jon and Daenerys/Game of Thrones bad.
….. In February, I got a message that wasn’t just “hey.” I mean, it started that way, but it got better.
….. “Hey! I work in marketing as well. You might’ve heard my jingle for the Quickie Mart on 103.5. If you haven’t, please don’t go find it. And when you do, please remember I have rent to pay and an orange tabby to support.
….. “Would I have seen your work anywhere? I’d love to hear more about Livingston. Forget about our compatibility; if the cats can’t get along, there’s clearly no future here, Lol. I hope to hear from you soon, Nate.”
….. My heart did one of those things where it feels like Mola Ram’s hand has reached through your chest wall, extracted an organ, and is showing it to the masses before sacrificing you in lava.
….. Not cool, Indiana Jones.
….. My finger hovered over “delete.”
….. Startled by a scream from next door, I jumped up, spun around to find my phone, and realized it was in my hand. With shaking fingers, I opened the keypad, but by then, the screams had turned to laughter.
….. The next day, the cello warm-up wasn’t West Wing; it was Sesame Street, SpongeBob, and one I had to Shazaam that came up Paw Patrol.
….. While The Musician and her mate were moving toward parenthood, Nate and I moved from email to instant messaging and kept each other apprised of the silly little things in our lives.
….. “Are you sure?” He messaged one night.
….. “Yep. Bomber Jacket carried in a bassinet box the other day. I heard him swearing at it for hours.”
….. “From what you’ve said, your place would not be big enough for three.”
….. “Correct,” I answered. “I haven’t seen them haul in any packing boxes. Oh! But I did see a bunch of flyers in the recycling advertising her one-woman show. And she’s composing short ditties. Commercials?”
….. “Would pay the bills better than coffee-house gigs,” he said.
….. We signed off, and I jumped in the shower. When I got out, Livingston was staring at the wall. After searching the ceiling for spiders and finding none, I went to my closet and said, “tell the wraith I said ‘hi,’ Livvy,” figuring this building had to be haunted by a few spirits that only talked to my cat.
….. Then, I heard what he’d reacted to. The walls were thick enough that I couldn’t make out words most of the time. Tonight I could.
….. “I can’t be the only one making sacrifices,” The Musician shouted.
….. “Why do you think I’m working all weekend?” Bomber Jacket retorted.
….. “At a job that pays $250 a night that you share with four other guys. We need health insurance and doctors and a million dollars worth of diapers.”
….. “Look, you could solve all our problems if you just got rid of it, stupid bitch. I never wanted this!”
….. I heard a crash. Then the door opened and slammed shut. Holding my breath, I waited for some sign she was okay. Soon pots were banging as she cussed them out.
….. I reached for my phone to message Nate, then stopped myself. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him being my first go-to when I wanted to share something.
….. And it wasn’t fun to gossip about her hurt.
….. Instead, I went to the living room and fished my fabric bins from under the couch, where I found a fun pink, yellow, green, and black zebra print fabric. I had a yellow paisley fabric and a green fabric printed with white circles that would coordinate well. I laid out my cutting mat and set to work.
….. The Musician spent a couple of days on jingles that all had ‘break’ in them. The old McDonald’s one, Kit Kat. Then she moved to some Taylor Swift songs and, finally, one rousing version of “Good 4 U” that ended with the keyboard crashing to the ground.
….. By the end of the following week, she was back to Paw Patrol.
….. “So,” Nate messaged me a week later, “how’s the project coming?”
….. “Good. I think.” I snapped a pic and sent it to him. “The colors aren’t great here, but you get the idea.”
….. “You know what might help the colors?”
….. “What?” I was not going to put a beauty filter on a baby quilt before sending him a pic.
….. “Seeing them live….”
….. I froze.
….. Live was so…live.
….. I was still trying to get my brain to swim back to the surface when he messaged again.
….. “Hello? Please don’t hate me—just a thought. I’ve enjoyed our talks. I want to see your face when you sneer at the wall. I want to see Livingston stroll across the camera, so your face is all tail fluff and eyebrows.”
….. Deep breath. And out.
….. “Okay,” I typed tentatively.
….. And then my phone rang with a FaceTime call.
….. I jumped up and threw it on the couch. “No! Not now, you idiot.” I paced laps around the coffee table until it stopped.
….. “Did I lose you?” he asked.
….. My heart was thundering, and my brain buzzed. “So, um. I need some time to prepare,” I tapped out. “Like put on eyeliner and comb my hair or straighten my hair or dye my hair – something girly with my hair.”
….. “Sorry. I get it. I’ll call back in an hour?”
….. I laughed. “You’ll call back in like 20 hours; how about?”
….. The next day I could barely work thinking about my date. Date? Was that the right word? While lost in fluffy romance world, I almost sent out a press release dated two years ago proclaiming the “safety demonstration by the Fieri station ended in flan all around.”
….. I told my boss I was spending the rest of the day on professional development. And I did. Just not related to my job.
….. When 2:00 came around, the fiddle did not fire up. I’d already started humming about chickens and bread pans. I heard her door open around 3:15, and it was 107 seconds before I saw The Musician walk out the front door. Her head was down, her hair mussed, she wore sweatpants and Uggs.
….. I was debating between the “I cannot quit because I am currently too legit” off-the-shoulder sweatshirt and a low-cut, red, long-sleeved tee shirt when I saw her come home around 7:24. When she reached for the door handle, I glimpsed a plastic bracelet on her wrist. I didn’t need to be listening at the front door to hear her stifled sobs 124 seconds later.
….. The only music over the next few days was tears.
….. I took a frozen lasagna out of my fridge, rang her doorbell, and scooted back into my apartment before she could answer. Take the family food. It was what my midwestern mother taught me to do in times of tragedy.
….. On Friday, I saw the bassinet being fished out of the dumpster by a dog walker.
….. The quiet was nauseating. I could hear the boys downstairs again, jumping off the back of the couch. Through the vents and shafts and pipes, I heard the bird upstairs and the creek of a rocking chair thumping over a warp in the floor.
….. One week went by.
….. Then two.
….. I listened for daily signs of life. They came in microwave beeps, dishes tossed into the ceramic sink, and long showers.
….. But no music.
….. After a couple of weeks of video chatting, I Door Dashed another frozen lasagna and invited Nate for dinner.
….. He showed up at precisely 6:23 and only took 78 seconds to make the climb.
….. “I brought wine.” He shoved the bottle at me.
….. “I love wine,” I said and ushered him into the apartment. After I’d closed the door, he turned around to look at me.
….. “I know.”
….. He didn’t say it in a sassy Han Solo way, but in a way that made me feel seen and known and appreciated. Like a Springfield thimble found by a Toby. This wasn’t really a first date. It was the continuation of a relationship.
….. Since I didn’t have a dining room table, we ate on the couch, balancing wine glasses and plates too small for lasagna and garlic bread while we talked with our mouths full and our hands flailing.
….. “You did not call him out because of perfume,” Nate said.
….. “I did.” I washed my bite down with a swig of cabernet. “He didn’t bother to fight about it, it was obvious we were over.”
….. “Easier said than done after three years with someone.”
….. “Yeah.” I set my glass down on the coffee table and turned back to ask him about his new jingle at the same time he lifted his fork. My hand came up under his arm, and I sent his fork flying across the room.
….. It landed with a marinara splash right on my tiny sewing table.
….. “No,” I gasped and jumped up.
….. Nate followed me. “I’m so sorry,” he said as I handed him back his fork and picked up the fabric to survey the damage.
….. “It was my fault,” I said and held up the little blanket with a red bullseye in the middle of a yellow paisley square. “I never did get to show this to you.”
….. He grabbed the bottom and held out the wrinkled patchwork of yellow and green and pink and zebra. Five rows of six-inch squares. Just the right size for a crib. It wasn’t quilted or bound yet, just raw edges and broken dreams.
….. “She would’ve loved it,” he whispered.
….. I flopped it back on the sewing table and shrugged.
….. “Can it be saved?” He snatched it up again.
….. I held him back. “I can always just replace the square.”
….. “Okay.” He let it fall back down, the bullseye facing up and away from the rest of the piece. “It’s that easy?”
….. “Well,” I grabbed his fork from him and went to get him a new one. “It requires ripping out that row and separating things that were joined together for good. Lots of ironing to firm up the edges again.”
….. When I turned around with a new fork, he was right there. Just enough taller than me that I could nestle my head on his chest. A whiff of wine and Polo hit my nose.
….. I held my breath as he leaned down and placed a soft kiss on my lips. While I exhaled, he backed up to gauge my reaction, then bent for a second kiss that lingered. His arm slid around my back, and I melted into him.
….. “Wait.” I put my hands on his chest and listened.
….. “Sorry. Was that too fast?”
….. “Shhh.” I slapped my fingers over his lips.
….. Soft music was coming through the bedroom wall. I motioned for Nate to keep quiet and pulled him behind me into the bedroom, where I sat at my desk.
….. The keyboard. A lilting tune. My heart thrilled at having the music back.
….. “Should we be worried?” he asked.
….. “What?” I turned to look at him. “She’s playing again. It’s great.”
….. “She’s playing the theme to M.A.S.H.”
….. “I told you she plays old theme songs. I don’t know this one, I guess.”
….. “The official title is ‘Suicide is Painless.’”
….. The music slowed and faded before a crashing cord blared, and then – nothing.
….. “Oh, God!” I ran to the living room for my phone.
….. “I’m going over there,” Nate called as he ran out of the apartment. I heard him banging on the door as the line rang for 9-1-1.
….. Two days later, I heard voices in the morning. Quiet, friendly. Water running for the dishes.
….. Someone cleaning out the apartment?
….. Fetching essentials for an extended hospital stay?
….. Picking the right clothes for the casket?
….. At 2:07, the speaker popped, and a single-finger player noodled around on the keys tunelessly.
….. Someone testing it for resale?
….. Then I recognized the State Farm jingle and grinned.
….. I placed my palm on the wall that our keyboards shared. “Yeah. I’m here.”
Bex is an English Professor, debate coach, and freelance writer. Her work has been featured in publications such as Thriving Family Magazine, Shooter Lit Magazine, and several volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul. When she’s not writing or telling students they can’t have an extension, she can be found beating her husband at Ark Nova and reminding her children to feed the cats.
Listen to the 1980 performance of Bill Evans playing “Theme Song from MASH (Suicide is Painless)”, with Marc Johnson (bass) and Joe LaBarbera (drums). [Universal Music Grouop]
Click here to read “Company,” Anastasia Jill’s winning story in the 63rd Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
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