Speechless

Simon, whose name will become increasingly ironic as the story progresses, was riding the bus home from work one evening when, at a regular stop, a clown wielding a gun jumped on and, in a friendly, upbeat voice commensurate with his attire, announced to the passengers that he intended to rob them. As is often the case in such situations, a brief moment of panic ensued, in which there was not only much stiffening on the one hand, and shuffling on the other, as each in their own way prepared for the worst, but also a few rather vociferous cries of distress: one man, for example, cursed, one woman, to give another example, shrieked, while an individual of an unspecified gender complained, “Not again.” But after receiving a few encouraging words from the clown, who assured them with a big red smile that no one who did as he or she or whoever was told would be harmed in any way, they all quickly settled into their new reality and began fishing out their wallets and forwarding their purses to the aisle, as though the occasional robbery were simply an additional fair that came with riding public transportation—all, that is, except for Simon, who, because he had grown up in a small, prairie town where criminal activity was as rare as a skyscraper, was not accustomed to thievery of any sort, let alone thievery at gunpoint, and who therefore remained in a state of panic, such that when the clown approached his row, not only had he failed to extract anything of value to place in the clown’s bag—an old burlap potato sack, of all things—but he had also, much like a turtle recoiling into its shell, put his head down and returned to the book that he had been reading since taking his seat, praying, perhaps, that the clown would let him be. Of course, the clown, for his part, could not do that, or he would lose all authority as a thief, though—and this may or may not say a lot about what kind of character lay behind the painted face—neither did he threaten Simon with violence, as another in his position might have done. Instead, after readjusting his red, yellow, and blue wig, he reached down with a puffy white glove and, with the tiniest bit of force, removed the book from Simon’s grip, as though it were in fact Simon’s one and only possession worth stealing. Perhaps moved by its title, Poems to be Read Aloud, the clown proceeded to thumb through the book until at last he found some verses of interest, at which point he once more placed the book before Simon’s downturned eyes, and while brushing his victim’s hair with the barrel of his gun, implored him to read a stanza as the book suggested, that is, aloud. For his part, Simon was as shocked by this request as he was by the robbery itself, but as he was beginning to understand that not doing just as he was told would be a terrible, perhaps bloody, mistake, after a brief moment of hesitation, and a rather large gulp, he somehow managed to summon up the courage to read the stanza to which the clown was referring—though not, it seemed, to the clown’s satisfaction; for as soon as he had finished, the clown once more ripped the book away, and after a few remarks about enunciation, recited the stanza himself:

“I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.”

The clown then added, as though his thoughts on the matter were still unclear, “Now that, professor, is how you read Coleridge.” And indeed, the others on the bus, had he polled them, would have judged the clown’s performance the superior, and not merely because he had the gun; for his voice—now, presumably, his natural—was more deliberate, more commanding, and therefore more in keeping with the cadences of the ancient mariner, who, as the poem implies, knew whereof he spoke. Simon, however, was more unnerved than ever, and for a time held his lips agape; unfortunately, this proved to be his biggest mistake, even more so than his lackluster reading, for the clown, seizing the opportunity—if one may call it that—dropped the book on Simon’s lap, removed the aforementioned glove, and shoved his bare hand inside of Simon’s mouth. For one full minute, as the driver, according to the clown’s instructions, bypassed stop after stop, the clown drew his fingertips along the back of Simon’s throat, pressed down his tongue, and boxed his uvula aside, until at last he latched on to whatever it was that he was searching for. As this was going on, Simon, petrified, put up little resistance, and did not even clamp down with his teeth as he felt a sudden pop—more surprising than painful—at which point the clown promptly removed his hand, wiped Simon’s saliva on his particolored jacket, and matter-of-factly went on with the robbery, as though nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred.

This was a Friday evening, and when Simon got back to his apartment, he went straight to his bedroom and crawled under the covers, where he remained for the rest of the night and all of Saturday, except for eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom. On Sunday, he received a call from his mother, but let it go straight to voice mail, for she was the last person he wished to speak to, what with her having tried time and again to discourage him from moving to the big city, often citing his meekness in the face of adversity as her main reason for doing so. That said, it was the sound of her shrill, whiny voice on the recording, which differed little from how she sounded in person, that ultimately inspired him to pull himself together, if for no other reason than to prove his mother wrong, a not uncommon motivation for many young adults. And so, on Monday morning, rather than call in sick as he had originally thought to do so, Simon arrived at his office an hour early, and without saying hello to the secretary (she never returned it anyway) went straight to his desk and began his work—not, as the clown had erroneously suggested, as a professor, but rather as a simple, diligent, thankless copy editor. There he remained in silence, in comfort, and, thanks to his penchant for correcting his colleagues’ grammar whenever they spoke to him—an annoying habit off of which he was trying to wean himself—without interruption, until lunch, when, resiliently, he set out for his favorite restaurant.

Now, perhaps it is worth mentioning that Simon did not frequent the restaurant in question for its food, which was nevertheless quite tasty, but rather for the angelic waitress who often served it to him, a young woman named Claire, who had wavy brown hair and big, beautiful eyes, which were also brown—though the real turn on, at least for Simon, was her voice, which was sprightly and cheerful, much like a courtly air. Indeed, he was so infatuated with all of its mellifluous inflections (his words) that he would often ask her about the specials just to hear her pronounce the dishes, exotic repasts like Thai Red Curry and Batinjaan Zalud, though in the end, he would order what he always ordered, a lightly toasted BLT with cheese. Until today. Yes, because of his brush with death—for that was how he saw it—Simon decided that he would order something new, and not only to prove his resolve, but also to grab Claire’s attention, to show her that he was more than a BLT kind of guy, that he could, if he so chose, eat whatever he pleased. Because if you can’t show a girl you fancy what you’re made of after nearly meeting your end, then when can you?

Unfortunately, when at last Claire stopped at his booth, smiled, and asked him for his order, while his lips, tongue, and jaw functioned properly, all moving in such a way as to produce the sentence that he had intended to speak, no words—or sounds of any kind, for that matter—came out. Because of the din in the restaurant—the chattering of customers, the jangling of silverware, the banal adult contemporary music being pumped in overhead—Claire must have thought that she hadn’t heard him, for without giving it a thought, she asked him to repeat himself, which Simon, thankful for the second chance, did so, though—again, unfortunately—with the same result. Now, at least to Simon’s mind, there was cause for concern, and to cover his tracks, he lowered his gaze and took another look at the menu, pretending as if he hadn’t tried to say anything because, at the last second, he had decided to reconsider his order. He tried clearing his throat, and when that didn’t work, whistling, but as time went on, Claire, who had other customers on whom to wait, became impatient, and in order to hasten things along, asked if he would like his usual, which Simon, so as not to risk any further embarrassment—for he was feeling embarrassed—responded by nodding his head, mercifully sending her on her way.

Of course, as soon as she was gone, Simon realized what must have happened, namely, that he had stifled himself with his order, which, if he had managed to say it, would have been swordfish. Yes, that was it, for something similar had already happened to him on previous occasions when, in an effort to impress her, he had prepared in advance something clever to say, only to swallow it, like a piece of hard candy, the second that she approached, and certianly swordfish, what with its phallic implications, fell into this same category of impermissible utterances, even if this time he had not been aware of it until after he had tried to speak. Just to be sure, however, he waved over the busboy in order to ask him for a new set of utensils—purely for the sake of the experiment, of course, for not only would he not need them in order to consume his sandwich, but there was also nothing wrong with the set he had; unfortunately—there’s that word again—he was still unable to voice his request. And so, after thanking the busboy with a nod—which was just as well, as the poor gentleman did not speak a lick of English anyway—Simon began to review his recent past and soon discovered, much to his alarm, that the last time he could recall hearing his own voice was when the robber clown had forced him, at gunpoint, to recite the lines from Coleridge. Incidentally, after the robbery, he was supposed to have provided a statement for the police, and had he done so, he would have discovered the awful truth about his inability to speak a lot sooner; but as he was awaiting his turn to talk to one of the officers, he decided that, because the clown had stolen nothing from him—not even the book—and because the other passengers were providing statements no different than what his own would be, were he to provide a statement, there was no reason for him to get involved, and so instead, when the opportunity presented itself, he snuck away—a dubious maneuver, to be sure, but one that he now decided to repeat, so that he might, without further digression, proceed immediately to the emergency room.

*   *   *

The doctor, impressed with the thoroughness of Simon’s intake form (knowing that he would be unable to speak, Simon had recorded everything he remembered from the time of the incident on the bus up to his running out of the restaurant, perhaps, he only realized as he was filling out the form, leaving Claire with a sandwich that she would have to pay for), performed an equally thorough exam, running multiple tests on him, all of which, however, proved inconclusive. One test, it should be noted, did reveal some inflammation on his larynx at the spot where he had felt the pop, but it was nothing that should have resulted in him losing his voice. Thus, with no proof of anything physically wrong with his patient, the doctor concluded that the problem must be psychosomatic in nature, and as such, gave Simon the name of a good psychiatrist.

In fact, the psychiatrist, after reading what Simon had typed on a laptop in response to his questions, was inclined to agree, although he believed that the incident on the bus, traumatic though it may have been, was not enough by itself to cause Simon to become mute. On the contrary, he believed that the incident was but an inciting incident—an excuse, if you will—for Simon to silence himself, something, perhaps, that he had been wanting to do, for one reason or another, for quite some time. Of course, as often happens in therapy, Simon immediately blamed his mother, who had, since childhood, stifled his speech, often telling him to shut up whenever she had a headache or company or just didn’t want to listen to him drivel on—her phrase—thus causing Simon to swallow much of what he had wanted to say to the only person, as she would often repeat, who really loved him. But the psychiatrist, who was normally sympathetic to blaming one’s mother for one’s own ills—indeed, he had purchased a vacation house with his earnings garnered solely from patients whose mothers had ruined them—did not let Simon off so easy. Instead, he challenged Simon to dig deeper, to examine why this incident should have been the catalyst for his silence when it could have just as easily been a springboard for something positive in his life, as Simon himself had hoped it would be when he had entered his favorite restaurant with the intention of flirting with Claire—that is, if ordering swordfish should in any way constitute flirting. Why, in other words, should this incident have silenced him, rather than, say, caused him to become more confident in his speech, as he himself had initially thought it might?

Intrigued by this question, Simon accepted the psychiatrist’s challenge, and over the course of the next week, he began to review his past, investigating every memorable episode in which he had opened his mouth to speak, and, after a time, came to the realization that if anyone should be blamed for his silence, it was not his mother, but himself. What he discovered, much to his dismay, was that he had been using his speech, not so much to make conversation, as a normal, well-adjusted individual might, but very often he spoke for no other reason than to get one over on whomever he was speaking to, and thus make himself look superior. In other words, he did not so much “speak to” as “speak down to” other people. Already we have mentioned his penchant for correcting his co-workers’ grammar, though this was but the tip of the iceberg, for he found that whenever he spoke to someone, no matter the topic, he was always looking for a way to say something that would display how much smarter he was than his interlocutor, even in cases where his being smarter would mean nothing to no one except himself. Worse, he recognized that he would often experience a kind of smug victory whenever the other person frowned or became somewhat diminished by having been bested by him, as though he enjoyed the act of making others feel dumb. Of course, he had his excuses for speaking to others in this manner, not the least of which was the fact that he had often been made fun of for the sound of his voice, what with its high and whiny timbre, not unlike a chipmunk’s, as one of his junior high bullies had noted, though it remained an open question as to which chipmunk exactly—Alvin, Simon, or Theodore. (Obviously, his dimwitted adversary chose the middle chipmunk for the sake of not having to think too hard about it, although a more thorough analysis would have proven Alvin to be a more precise comparison.) The problem with the highness of his voice was made especially acute in high school, when he kept getting passed over for the lead in his theater class, not because he didn’t have the acting chops, but because his voice, as his instructor put it, did not command the sort of respect needed to play a Hamlet, or an Oedipus, or even someone waiting around for Godot. Thus, whenever he spoke, he wanted to make it count for something, and to make sure that what he said made it more difficult for someone to make fun of his voice, and one way to do that was to prove that he was smarter than everyone else. And so over the years he had developed a confrontational attitude that had caused him to weaponize his speech, to use it as a kind of dagger to stab his opponents rather than, say, a net in which to capture friends.

But when finally confronted with a real weapon—a gun, no less—this method had all come crashing down. Somewhere deep inside of him, he must have come to recognize how futile his own weapon really was, how it was just as likely to get him killed as it was to make him feel better about himself, even when he was no longer in any imminent danger. In this light, then, it made perfect sense—to himself, and to the psychiatrist, when Simon made his return visit—that his subconscious might be using the incident on the bus as an opportunity to silence him for good, so as to prevent him from saying anything that might put him in danger. Unfortunately, becoming aware of the psychology behind his silence did nothing to bring his voice back, prompting his psychiatrist to suggest that they meet three times a week.

*   *   *

Now, if Simon’s assessment of the way he used speech were correct, then by not speaking—or rather, not being able to speak—we should expect to see a marked difference in the way he got on with others; and in fact, that’s exactly what occurred. Once he had apprised everyone at work of his condition, not only were they sympathetic to what he was going through, but after a time, they also became more friendly with him. No doubt in the beginning it was entirely out of pity, but as they got to know him through his texts, which were far less abrasive than his speech, seeing as the medium allowed him time to think through what he was going to say rather than spewing out the first conceited sentence that came to mind, they must have realized that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. They went out of their way to interact with him now, and even began asking him out for drinks after work. Finally, after a few weeks of amiable exchanges, Ana, the prettiest of his coworkers, asked him if he would like to see a play with her. The irony of this of course was not lost on Simon, who now had proof that how he spoke had been holding him back; but rather than dwelling on the negative, he instead chose to relish in his newfound success. He accepted Ana’s invitation.

Unfortunately, the play was sold out, so they instead wound up slipping into a nearby theater to see a ventriloquist act. They weren’t expecting much, just something to provide them with a few giggles, but as it turned out, Dr. Faustus—for that is what he called himself—was no ordinary ventriloquist. Though the act itself, if you’ll pardon the foreshadowing, was a bit clownish, there was no question as to Dr. Faustus’ abilities to throw his voice. For his opening bit, he drank from a straw while his puppet, James Madison, blathered on about the importance of free speech. Next, he placed a ballcock in his mouth while a puppet dressed as a dominatrix shouted bawdy orders at him. Sometime later, he performed with a carnival barker who continued to bark even as he, Dr. Faustus, placed a sword down his throat. And yet these were but parlor tricks when compared to the voices themselves, each distinct to the particular dummy, running a full gamut of pitches and accents, none of which sounded remotely like Dr. Faustus himself, whose voice thoughout remained very deep. In fact, the performance was so impressive that someone in the crowd, a rather drunken ex-jock by the looks and behavior of him, wondered if there weren’t something fishy going on, and took it upon himself to heckle the ventriloquist, accusing him of having helpers off stage whose voices were being pumped in through the sound system. Unfazed by this attack—indeed, acting as if he had hoped to be accused of fraud—Dr. Faustus turned off his microphone, tossed it to a group of teenagers in the third row, and then he and his Hitler puppet began shouting at the tops of their lungs about how they would not tolerate such insolence from their audience, at one point, perhaps out of habit, blaming the Jews.

Throughout all of it, Simon was mesmerized, and, frankly, more than a little jealous. For here was a man who had at his disposal the power of many voices, while Simon did not have even one. Indeed, as the act progressed, Simon become increasingly agitated at his own lot, and after the confrontation between Dr. Faustus and the ex-jock, he made to excuse himself. But just as he began to rise from his seat, Dr. Faustus changed out his Fuhrer dummy for one dressed up as a professor, and there came from the stage a voice all too familiar to Simon. At first he doubted it, for it seemed impossible. To be sure, the voice was high and whiny, with a hint of squeakiness trailing after every syllable, but because the voice sounded almost too much like his own, like it did in his own head, not as he had heard it repeated back to him on recordings, he assumed it was all just a coincidence: what with all the other voices Dr. Faustus had so far produced, it was only natural that sooner or later he would get around to doing one that sounded somewhat like his own, or, as it were, the most overbearing of the Chipmunks. But then Ana, innocently enough, whispered into his ear that she noticed a resemblance as well, and finally, to top it all off, the dummy, in an effort to prove his academic credentials, began reciting “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the very poem from which the robber clown had asked Simon to read. With no more doubt in his mind, Simon took a more careful look at Dr. Faustus, and realized that his height and build—not, incidentally, so different from his own—matched perfectly that of his former assailant; indeed, the only thing that didn’t match, surprisingly, was his voice.

Nevertheless, Simon was rattled both emotionally and psychologically—if not also metaphysically—and rather than join Ana for a drink after the show (who hinted that it would be worth his while to do so), Simon chose instead to go for a walk on his own. For over an hour he wandered the streets aimlessly, trying to make sense of how it could be that this Dr. Faustus, or whoever he was, by simply reaching down into his throat, had somehow stolen his voice. At one point he happened to pass a police station, and paused to contemplate whether or not he ought to go inside and file a report. But if he could not explain to himself what had happened, how on earth would he be able to explain it to a detective who, more than likely, would believe that he had better things to do than track down a stolen voice? Besides, he wasn’t interested in the sort of justice with which the law might provide him: he really didn’t care one way or the other whether Dr. Faustus wound up behind bars or not. All he really cared about was getting back his voice.

*   *   *

By the time he returned to the theater, the doors were already locked, leaving Simon in a state of ambivalence, for on the one hand, he was disappointed that he would not be getting his voice back as soon as he had hoped, while on the other, he was relieved that he would not have to confront, with no real plan in mind, the man who had once put a gun to his head. As it turned out, however, his night was not yet over, for as he was walking away, wishing now that he had gone with Ana, he happened to peer down the adjoining alley and catch sight of a man propping open a side entrance with a cinder block. The man, perhaps a custodian, went on to light up a cigarette and then walked to the rear of the alley where he whipped out his smartphone and made a call. Simon froze for second, unsure what to do; then, surprising even himself, he began creeping along the theater’s brick façade, using the door to shield him from view. When he finally reached his destination, he glanced round the door and saw that the man was still at the rear smoking, though judging from the smell, something far more potent than a cigarette; he was also still on his phone, having what sounded like a heated argument with his girlfriend. It was just the distraction Simon needed to slip around the door and into the theater.

The first thing he noticed upon entering was an open dressing room, long and narrow, with counters bolted to both side walls, plastic chairs stuffed beneath them, and lighted mirrors above. Hanging on the back of one of the chairs was the jacket that Dr. Faustus had worn onstage while playing the carnival barker, and nearby resting on the counter was a duffel bag stuffed with various props, including the sword that the ventriloquist had swallowed. When he heard the voice of the custodian getting louder, Simon dipped inside the dressing room and closed the door, and after turning back around, he spotted, at the far end of the room, pressed up against a portable clothing rack, a large wooden trunk. Curious, he walked over and knelt before the trunk, and after removing a padlock which had yet to be secured, he flipped open the two latches and raised the lid.

All the dummies were in there, from James Madison to Adolf Hitler to a theater owner with whom Dr. Faustus had had a rather lengthy dispute about his pay—all of their little bodies bunched together like corpses in a mass grave, their glassy, inanimate eyes staring out at him pleadingly, as though they contained within them many more secrets, and were desperate to share them. Startled, Simon fell back on his heels, and only after reminding himself that they weren’t really alive, and never had been, did he finally pick one out, the one that was foremost on top—Dr. Faustus’ mother, a natural-born nag. Carefully, he slipped his hand inside the dummy and placed a finger on the lever controlling the jaw. As soon as he moved it, the old lady began to speak.

“You’d better watch what you’re up to, young man,” she said in the same, harsh tone presented in the act: “You’re way out of your depth coming in here, snooping around the belongings of a man you know very well to be a criminal. If I were you, I’d watch my back.”

Alarmed, Simon shot a look over his shoulder, fearing that Dr. Faustus had entered undetected and was throwing his voice. But once he saw that he was still alone, he realized that the words that had spewed forth from the dummy—a dummy which, for all intents and purposes, could have been his own mother—had mirrored exactly what he had been thinking when he’d moved the levers. But how could this be? he wondered. How was it that the dummy had said anything, let alone the very thoughts that had been rattling around inside of his own head? Or perhaps he had only imagined it. Perhaps he was so caught up in the intensity of what he was up to—his heart, for a frame of reference, was beating so hard that he could feel it in his throat—that he had projected the words onto the dummy, believing that, as he moved its jaw, it was in fact speaking to him. On the other hand, what if the dummy had actually spoken to him? The mere thought disturbed him, and he quickly removed the dummy from his hand and tossed it aside. Then, after regaining his composure, he decided to try again, only with another dummy, the one with which he felt he had the least association—namely, the dominatrix. Once he had his hand properly positioned beneath her leather skirt, he carefully placed a thought before his mind, or rather a stanza from a poem that he had been contemplating for quite some time now, and with greater frequency tonight; and when nothing came forth out of her mouth, not even a peep, he felt a brief moment of relief—that is, until he realized that he’d forgotten to move the lever, at which point he really had no other choice than to try again.

“I pass, like night, from land to land,” the dominatrix sneered at him. “I have strange power of speech.”

Indeed, she did: the very fact that she spoke at all was strange; but before Simon could begin to make sense of things—or, for that matter, finish the stanza—the door, which had been closed the entire time, closed again, and audibly so. Simon swung his head around to find Dr. Faustus standing at the other end of the room, looking a bit surprised, though not a wit concerned, as though he felt himself just as in command of this situation as he was on stage—or while robbing a bus.

“I’d always dreamed of coming back to my dressing room to find an adoring fan playing with my puppets,” he declared, though not in the deep voice with which he had performed his act, but rather in the friendly, upbeat tone with which he had stolen Simon’s voice. “Although if I’m being frank about it, I prayed she’d be a busty blonde.”

Nervous, and perhaps a little embarrassed, Simon rose to his feet and set the dummy on the counter. He then slipped his hands into his pockets, with one hand taking hold of his keys, three of which he carefully positioned between his knuckles, in case he needed a weapon. But again, Dr. Faustus showed no signs of fear, and moreover, made no move to acquire a weapon for himself. Indeed, he was still quite cheery about the matter.

“You needn’t have stopped on my part,” he said, almost laughingly so. “I was fine so long as it was only your hand that you were stuffing inside of her.”

Simon, as much out of amazement as out of disability, uttered not a word.

“It’s my voice, isn’t it?” Dr. Faustus asked, pointing to his throat. “You see, I like to use a different one for my act, to really wow anyone who comes to speak to me after the show.” Suddenly, a new look came over him, what appeared to be a look of recognition. Simon feared that this would be it, that Dr. Faustus had recognized him from the bus and that they were about to have it out, but instead the ventriloquist remarked, “Tenth row, left of center. You were with a girl, if I’m not mistaken. Very pretty. Is she your girlfriend?”

Simon frowned as if offended, though he wouldn’t have been able to say why.

“That mean she’s available?”

This time Simon didn’t move a muscle.

Dr. Faustus paused for a moment, perhaps reconsidering his approach. “You’d like to know how I do it, wouldn’t you? That’s why you’re here.”

Simon nodded, though of course that told only half the story; but when Dr. Faustus made a move in his direction, he brought his keys from out of his pocket.

“Easy,” the ventriloquist said, raising both his hands in surrender. “I’ll need access to my partners—my puppets—in order to show you.”

Simon blushed apologetically and put away his keys. He moved to the side so that Dr. Faustus could pass.

“Truth is,” Dr. Faustus confessed as he brought a chair out from under the counter, “I’ve been dying to share my secret with someone.” He sat down and began rummaging through the trunk, as if trying to decide which of the dummies would serve best for a demonstration. “Here,” he went on, having made his selection, “try this one on for size.”

Simon couldn’t believe it. Evidently Dr. Faustus had recognized him from the bus, or why else would he be holding out the professor, the very dummy who had spoken in his voice?

“Go on, take it. It’s not going to bite.”

But you might, Simon thought, though he nevertheless took the dummy and slipped his hand under its tweed jacket.

“Good,” Dr. Faustus said, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms over his chest, “now have it say something—anything at all.”

Simon didn’t have to think for very long—he knew exactly what he wanted the professor to say to this man, and as soon as he had his finger pressed firmly upon the control lever, he had it say it: “This is my voice.”

Dr. Faustus grinned and nodded.

“You stole my voice.”

Again, Dr. Faustus nodded. “It was nothing personal.”

“But how is that possible?”

Dr. Faustus crossed one leg over the other as though he were an old man teaching his grandson a life lesson. “Why don’t I let you discover it for yourself? Go ahead, move your fingers up higher until you reach its throat. Do you feel that? Pop that out—careful now.”

Simon did as he was told, steadily removing the small object in question. He then set the professor on the counter next to the dominatrix and more thoroughly examined what it was he had between his fingers. It was a tiny sphere, about the size of a pearl, and just as smooth.

“You were expecting it to be a box, weren’t you?”

Simon ignored the quip as he squeezed the sphere a bit, noting its slight sponginess, much like a bouncy ball. Then, as if sensing Simon’s interest in the boldness of its color, Dr. Faustus remarked:

“Of course, they’re not all bright yellow. It all depends on the voice itself—and the character of the person it came from.” Dr. Faustus gestured toward his own mouth. “Go ahead, slip it in.”

Simon wasted no more time: he placed his hand into his own mouth and brought the sphere all the way to the back of his throat, and after locating the place where he had felt the tear, which was still quite tender, he pressed the sphere upon it until it “popped” into place. He then removed his hand, and after contemplating what his first words should be, he muttered, “I don’t understand.”

Dr. Faustus hesitated—still not out of fear, but to give Simon the opportunity to get over the shock of hearing words once more echoing out from inside of his own head. “The details are not important,” he answered finally. “Let us just say that one day I shall have to pay dearly for the knowledge that I have acquired. The more pertinent question must be put to you.”

Simon shook his head. “What question?”

Dr. Faustus sighed. “Was it worth it to come down here and get your voice back, knowing full well that I cannot let you leave?” And then, as calm and collected as he had performed everything else, Dr. Faustus reached deep into the trunk and pulled out a gun.

Simon stared at the barrel, saying nothing.

“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue?”

And then, quite spontaneously, Simon broke down and cried. “Please, don’t kill me. I swear, I won’t tell anyone.”

“Simon. Simon, look at me.”

Simon removed his hands from his teary eyes.

“Answer the question. I’m curious. I want to know why it was so important for you to risk your life just so that you might speak again. What is it that you have to say?”

Simon nodded, and squeezed hard his chest. “There’s a girl—not the one from tonight, but another one. I swore to myself, that if I ever got my voice back, the first thing I would do was tell her how much I loved her, no matter how it might sound.”

Dr. Faustus laughed. And then again. He lowered the gun and rested it against his lap. “Well then,” he said, gesturing with his free hand toward the door, “I guess you’d better hop to it, before someone else beats you to the punch.”

Again, Simon didn’t understand. “You mean I, I can leave?”

“Why not? You’re not here for vengeance, and what good would it do you to go to the police?”

Simon smiled in agreement. “None. None whatsoever.”

“Same goes for me shooting you. That’s all I need is the police sniffing around here, asking me all kinds of questions. And if they were to put two and two together and realize that you were on that bus I robbed, well, then I’d be cooked, wouldn’t I?”

“I suppose so.”

“So we’re on the same page. Neither of us wants to deal with the police.”

“Like I said, I’ve only got one person I’m dying to talk to.”

Dr. Faustus grinned. “Good. Now get out of here, before I change my mind.”

Simon nodded, and nearly thanked the man, but stopped short, remembering that he was still a thief. He turned and headed for the door, and it was only at the last second that he sensed that something was amiss. Perhaps he heard the ventriloquist rise from his chair, or caught a glimpse of him in one of the mirrors, or perhaps it was simply an innate instinct wedged deep within him, deeper than his own voice, that was calling out, warning him that he was in some kind of trouble—but whatever the case, at the last second, and without putting any thought into it, he ducked. Presumably, it had been Dr. Faustus’s intention to strike him on the back of the head with the gun, and thereby knock him out, thus giving him some time to decide what to do with him; but because Simon had ducked, he had instead made contact with his neck, still delivering a blow strong enough to knock Simon onto the counter, right on top of the duffel bag, but not enough to render him unconscious. It was at that point that Simon defended himself—again, purely out of instinct, though perhaps the decision to use Dr. Faustus’ sword was more deliberate. In any case, he swung round with such force that by the time he knew what he was doing, the sword was already squarely lodged within the ventriloquist’s neck—indeed, the blade had pierced all the way through until Simon’s hand had met with flesh. In disbelief, Simon released the sword and looked on as Dr. Faustus dropped to his knees, and then slowly collapsed onto the floor. Soon after, as blood began to pool, the ventriloquist’s eyes glazed over and become glassy, much like those of his dummies.

It didn’t take long after that for Simon to move out of the shock of having killed a man into the panic of what to do next. For if he thought that explaining to the police that he had found the thief who had stolen his voice would be too difficult, how was he ever going to explain that he had stabbed that very thief in the throat? There was simply no reason for him to be there, in that building, let alone in Dr. Faustus’ dressing room, except for the purpose of revenge; and so, as far as he could see it, he had no choice but to cover his tracks. Springing into action, he stripped the dominatrix of her corset and used the fabric to wipe his fingerprints from off of every surface that he had touched, and to go the extra mile, he also removed the “voice spheres” from all the dummies, thereby erasing any possible connection that he might have to the ventriloquist. Was this latter step an overreach, given that he had never filed a statement with the police about the robbery on the bus, nor had ever let anyone know that he suspected someone of having stolen his voice? Perhaps, but under the circumstances, he wasn’t taking any chances—though there was one last thing he did that went well beyond what was needed to conceal his involvement in the ventriloquist’s death. Just as he was getting ready to leave, he took one more look at Dr. Faustus and was reminded of his voice, his friendly, upbeat voice, a voice which had easily cajoled an entire busload of strangers to hand over their belongings without a fuss, and also a voice which had convinced him—him being Simon—that he would be able to walk out of the dressing room entirely unscathed. It was that sort of voice that he had always wanted for himself, a voice that no one doubted, no one controverted, and certainly no one ever made fun of. And so, after rolling up his sleeve, Simon shoved his hand deep into Dr. Faustus’ mouth, and after a moment, removed from the ventriloquist’s throat the final sphere not already in his possession. He looked at it, and smiled. Not unsurprisingly, the sphere was silver.

*   *   *

Because of what he had done, what we may as well call a crime, Simon did not go to his favorite restaurant the following day and proclaim his love for Claire, as he had suggested to Dr. Faustus, and nor did he go the next day after that, or the day after that. In fact, he laid low for several weeks, going nowhere except to work, where he continued to pretend that he could not speak, so as to prevent Ana, or anyone else for that matter, from linking the return of his voice to the shocking death of a local ventriloquist, a story which had captured the entire city’s attention. (Incidentally, part of the reason for general public’s interest in the story, beyond the sensational and what some felt to be ironic way in which Dr. Faustus had been killed, was that the police, within a few days, thought that they had captured the perpetrator, a pot-smoking custodian who admitted, not only to have been doing drugs that evening, but also to the fact that he was the only other person, so far as he knew, to have been in the building at the time of the homicide; but the case against this man ultimately fell apart when the police received an anonymous phone call from someone with a rather aggressive German accent claiming to have been the killer, and who was able to reveal details of the crime scene which had not been made available to the public, such as the naked state in which the dominatrix dummy had been found, thus forcing the police to release the custodian and concede that they were out of leads, and that “this heinous murderer,” as the chief of police put it, was still at large.) Indeed, he held out on speaking until his mother paid him a surprise visit, and then it was only because of her incessant put downs and constant nagging that he finally opened his trap and uttered (and we quote), “Shut up! Shut up! Shut the hell up!” Of course, once he did speak, he saw no reason to stop. Enough time had passed since the crime had taken place, and the story had fallen out of the news, and so once he had his mother on a plane and back off to the small, prairie town from which she had come, he raced down to the restaurant where Claire was working, and when she asked him what he was hungry for, he said, “You.”

“What’s that?”

“You. I’m hungry for you. I’ve had a crush on you ever since I laid eyes on you, and even more so after the first time I heard you speak. I love you, Claire, and I will continue to tell you so, and so much more, until you agree to go out with me.”

“O-okay,” she replied, a word which barely registered in his ears, for he was still caught up in his own words, indulging in the fact that he had finally professed his love to her.

But she did, she did agree to go out with him, and that evening they had dinner together, in a restaurant much more stylish than the one at which Claire herself worked, and during their meal, Simon called over the in-house violinist and asked him to play a song, which the violinist did, though with a rather peculiar look at him before beginning. Afterwards, Simon pulled out a twenty, and asked if the violinist might play another, to which the violinist respond, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” But when Simon did so, the violinist turned incredibly pale, and then he excused himself and ran off, muttering something about the clams. It was an unusual interaction, and one in which Simon and Claire spoke of for several minutes after, though it was nothing that spoiled their evening. Indeed, everything went so well—at one point, they even spoke of starting some kind of double act, as Claire had always wanted to be a singer, and Simon was thinking of returning to the stage to act—that when the night was over and they had walked back to Simon’s building, before he could call a cab for her, Claire said to him, “Aren’t you going to ask me up?”

Simon smiled, unable to believe his luck. “Are you sure? It’s only our first date?”

“But we’ve known each other for months.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“And what’s truer,” she said, tapping a finger on his lips, “is that you weren’t the only one smitten at first sight. I’ll be honest with you, Simon, when you ran out of the restaurant that day and never came back, I was a little hurt. But now that you have come back, and with a sexy new voice….”

“Well then,” Simon interrupted, for she had already said everything he needed to hear, “shall we?”

“Whatever you say, Simon.”

It was just then, just as they were making their way up the steps, that a police car pulled up. Two officers stepped out, and after having Simon identify himself, asked if he wouldn’t mind answering a few questions in connection with a recent robbery. Naturally, Simon assumed that it was about the incident on the bus, that somehow, perhaps with the help of the driver or one of the regular passengers, the police had been able to identify him as the only one who had not given a statement, and seeing as he had played such an integral role in the incident, they had decided to track him down. In other words, Simon had no real reason to feel alarmed, and nor had Claire, whom he had informed about the incident during their dinner, such that, when he offered her his key, she gladly accepted and said that she would wait up for him—quite literally music to Simon’s ears.

But when he got down to the station, it quickly became clear to him that things were not quite as he had thought; for as it turned out, the police wanted to discuss with him an entirely different robbery. Apparently, the violinist, the one who had run off unexpectedly, had recognized Simon’s voice—his new voice—as that belonging to the man who had mugged him and his wife at gunpoint a few months back, and had also assaulted the wife by shoving his hand down her throat and somehow rendering her mute. The detective questioning him, a man just as confident in his job as an upholder of the law as Dr. Faustus was as a breaker of it, joked that the violinist wasn’t so much concerned about his wife’s condition, as she had always been a bit of a nag; but there was still the issue of the stolen goods. In fact, this mugging had been linked to a series others, and right now, the detective stated, the police were in the process of tracking down the other victims, and would soon know if they, too, heard a resemblance in his voice.

“So if you’ve got anything you’d like to say for yourself,” the detective went on, “now would be the time to say it.”

Of course, Simon had plenty to say for himself; he might, for example, have pointed out that several of the robberies of which he was being accused happened before he had even moved to the city, which his mother, assuming that she was not still upset about his yelling at her, would confirm. But how was he to explain his voice, both the fact that it resembled that of a wanted thief, and moreover, that it was a voice that he had only recently acquired? Obviously he could lie, but if he were caught, that would only make him look all the more guilty. On the other hand, if he told the truth, that would necessarily force him to confess what he had done at the theater, and though he felt justified in his actions, he was familiar enough with the law to know that his decision to double back to the theater in order to confront Dr. Faustus, and to sneak in through a back entrance, to say nothing of the fact that he had left the scene, carefully wiping down his fingerprints beforehand, might, when all the cards were laid on the table, look very much like premeditation. Indeed, after giving it some careful thought, and weighing all of his options, he decided that, in the end, his best option was to exercise his right to remain silent.

Wolfgang Wright is the author of the comic novel Me and Gepe and various short works scattered across the ether. He doesn’t tolerate gluten so well, quite enjoys watching British panel shows, and devotes a little time each day to contemplating the Tao (though not too much, for that would miss the whole point). He lives in North Dakota.

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