Forbes and Fifth

A Liminal Soundscape


As a child, everything shouted. The new, overpriced microwave oven screamed when it finished burning his food. Ms. Clarendon’s chalk shrieked as she dragged it gracelessly across the school whiteboards. Even his father squawked and bellowed and howled when his mother forgot to thaw the chicken for dinner that night or left wet clothes in the washing machine for a week.

Somewhere along the line, Michael stopped contributing to the noise. It wasn’t a conscious decision, more of a reaction than anything. But as his mother became more forgetful, Michael became more quiet.

In the years between playground wonder and reticent angst, monologues changed to sentences, sentences to words, words to nods or shakes or shrugs, until some days were silent. Not by choice, but rather by some invisible, unbreachable barrier erected by his mind. It wasn’t that he couldn’t talk, it was just that, sometimes, words were so hard.



President Reagan yesterday maintained his uncompromising stance on arms control with a ferocious denunciation of the Soviet Union. He told an evangelical conference in Orlando, Florida that the Russians had “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire” and he lashed out at “those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority.”

“Simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly,” the President declared. The issue was not simply the arms race but the struggle between right and wrong.


Michael’s eyes scanned the newspaper, searching for the next paragraph, only to find it was “continued on B4.” Whoever designed the numbering of newspaper pages deserved a demotion. He considered rifling over to B4, but Mr. Miller had freaked last time Michael tossed loose pages onto his lawn, so he snapped the rubber band back around the fresh print and pedaled up the street.

The struggle between right and wrong. As if anything could be that simple. Right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. It was all just oversimplification with a side of religious pandering. Just more meaningless words adding to the abundance of unnecessary noise. Those speechwriters probably considered themselves magicians, concocting nonsense with delicate words, always so wary not to break some invisible balance with the wrong cacophony of sounds. If you asked Michael, words were overrated anyway.

By the time he’d reached the last house on his paper route—a large, looming structure painted in grayscale framed only by dying grass—Michael’s thoughts were roaring. Stealing sharp breaths from the early-March air, he tuned his ears to the swish of the wind—sleek, calm, effortless. In between incessant bird chirps, called-out neighborly greetings, and his own chaotic internal monologue, Michael found solace in the whistling quiet. Just the pump of his heart, the whisper of the wind, his tires tracking pavement. If he just kept going, didn’t turn right up here, didn’t double-back past the dying-grass-grayscale and grumpy Mr. Miller, he could have his quiet for as long as he wanted it.

The struggle between right and wrong. Maybe some things were that simple.


School passed drearily. Ms. Silva’s chalk squeaked and her voice droned and Michael listened, and listened, and didn’t speak. He learned early on that no one notices you if you don’t make yourself noticeable. Silence breeds invisibility.

Sometime around six, when Michael had almost solved his trigonometry problem sets, his father rolled in, shattering the soundlessness, all clacking shoes and deep huffs. Less shouty now, mellowed by years of loss and whisky. It was a sort of poetic justice, how he couldn’t forget that she couldn’t remember. The microwave dinged its message and Frank Reynolds’ voice boomed out from the television set, probably regurgitating this morning’s paper under the guise of something “new.”


Days bled together—mornings of stolen quiet and catchy headlines, afternoons of raised hands and scribbled notes, evenings of reheated meals and swallowed conversations. 

His father tried, one sunny Saturday, to talk to Michael. A metaphorical olive branch, if you will, yet more like a broken twig.

“How’s school?” his gruff voice echoed in the too-large room.

“Fine.” Basically the truth.

“Your teacher good?”

A nod.

“What are you learning?”

A pause. Michael could explain sines and cosines and tangents. He could ramble on about the symbolism in The Catcher in the Rye. He could recite the major battles in the War of 1812. He did listen in school, quite a bit. But he couldn’t find the words. He couldn’t speak.


His father’s eyes squinted, just slightly, like they used to when he arrived home to a soapy floor and a forgotten mop in the corner.

“Care to elaborate?”

A shrug.

Then his father was exploding, yelling into the emptiness. It wasn’t like it used to be though; it was more throaty and desperate and helpless. More of a loud begging than anything.

“You have to talk, Michael! How can you get a job, how can you—can you function in the world if you won’t say more than two words?”

If Michael didn’t know better, he might have even called it a plea.


            The next morning saw him once again tossing fresh-pressed pages onto front porches and grass-covered stoops, radioing the wind, and maybe pedaling a bit harder than usual. Nothing much came of last night, just some one-sided promises of further conversations and a reinvigorated longing for the one person who used to tolerate his quiet bouts.

            As the familiar grayscale passed on his left, he felt the urge again. He could just pedal forward, go anywhere he wanted, just him and his Holdsworth and no one telling him to speak.

The struggle between right and wrong.

Michael pedaled forward.



The first night, it rained, heavily. Michael crawled under a park bench and pulled his jacket sleeves over his hands. The water sank into his hair, his clothes, his mind. The constant patter on pavement grated on his brain as an all-consuming cold shuddered through his limbs. Apparently, seeping mud and a raging headache were the price of freedom.


On the second morning, his bike chain broke. Michael had only counted on two things: one, that $4.50 could buy him a few convenience store hot dogs and two, that he’d have his bike. It seemed mud and tires didn’t bode well.

It was sunny and nearly 60 degrees, last night’s storm all but forgotten. As much as Michael wanted to forge on, fueled by burning calves and that omnipresent sense of invincibility that implants itself into all teenagers, the dried mud caked on his jacket and the chill he still couldn’t shake sent him shuffling to a payphone. He figured he could spare a quarter.

Ring. Ring. Breathe in. Breathe out.

“This is Bell,” came the answer.

The sounds caught in Michael’s throat, all garbled together, like a hairball he couldn’t hack up.

“Hello?” the voice inquired.

He wanted to shout back, wanted to join in the noise, scream that he was lost and his bike was broken and he was cold and he needed his father to track him down and come pick him up.


He almost did it, could feel the syllables on his tongue, but then—

Beeeep. Dial tone.

“Dad?” It was barely a whisper.


Michael sank down onto the sidewalk, knees curling up to his chin. Something was aching deep inside him, dull and slow and steady. The kind of ache he used to feel when he’d grab discarded mops or gather damp clothes or order takeout on a Tuesday in hopes of stopping the hollering. He still had $4.25; he could call again. But if he had struggled before, he knew now would be twice as hard. The ache had a tight grip on his vocal cords, snugly lodging itself in his throat and rapidly traveling up to the corners of his eyes. That invincibility wasn’t so strong anymore, and that night, Michael indulged in some tears.


By day three, Michael would’ve killed for one of those microwaveable meals. Gas station hot dogs didn’t taste good when they were fresh, let alone after sitting in their trays for eight hours. He was still somewhere in the suburbs, surrounded by cleanly-mowed lawns and tended gardens, square white houses with nuclear families and little brown dogs. Fathers who never muttered belated apologies into their whisky and mothers who never wrote sticky notes to remind them to put on shoes before leaving the house and children who never stopped talking. 

Michael huffed out through his nose. He didn’t want that anyway. They were probably all bored out of their minds with their Saturday Evening Post lives. 

Afternoon turned to evening, dawn to dusk, the last dregs of light clinging on by Mother Nature’s sheer will. Michael was no closer to any recognizable landmark after a whole day of wandering. He felt like Hansel’s younger brother who forgot to bring the breadcrumbs. 

His musings were suddenly cut short by the abrupt, high-pitched startle of laughter. Michael looked around wildly, trying to pinpoint the source, before his eyes landed on another white house at the far end of the street. “Melody Lane,” the sign proclaimed. How fitting.

He let the sound guide him to a mother and her young daughter, black-haired and caramel-skinned and full of glee. There was a swing set, and the little girl was flying. Her mother was telling her something that must’ve been absolutely hilarious judging by the girl’s reaction, but Michael couldn’t understand it. The sounds weren’t like the ones that got stuck in his throat; they just rolled right off of the woman’s tongue like waves flowing down a waterfall. Something about it sounded so easy, so simple, so candid. It was as if the woman had come from inside his television set, all natural glamour and infectious confidence. It felt welcoming.

Perhaps without his mind’s permission, Michael’s feet stepped closer and closer to the pair. The mother saw him first, grabbing the swing to still it. Michael was familiar with fear as a first resort. He was covered in mud and dirt and grime, thick hair spiking up all over the place, certainly looking like an untrustworthy mess.

            So he waved. It wasn’t like he could explain himself in words.

Something softened in the mother’s gaze, and she hesitantly returned his shy smile. Michael just stood there, waiting for anything to happen. She slowly raised her hand and gestured to him to come closer. His brow relaxed.

“You are okay?” she asked, once he was close enough to hear.

She had an accent, one different than his. He nodded on impulse, but realized he was anything but.

“Lost.” Somehow, it was easier to make the sounds this time.

“Found!” the little girl chirped.

An involuntary laugh bubbled out of Michael’s chest and into the air, a wide smile cracking the dry skin of his parched lips. Then the mother and daughter were laughing too, like bells ringing out a new hour. 

“Found,” he repeated, still smiling.


            After ushering him inside and giving him a blanket, they insisted he stay for dinner. Well, the woman put a bowl of something steaming and aromatic in front of him and simply instructed “Eat!” but he’d recognize a motherly order no matter how few words were used.

            He took a mouthful of the soup. It was slightly tangy and sour, complemented by a powerful sweetness. Chunks of white fish and vegetables swam in the broth, and a vibrant green herb decorated the surface. It might’ve been the best thing Michael had ever tasted.

The mother looked at him expectantly, her eyes wide and waiting.

            “Good,” he supplied. “Very good.” A million times better than a mushy hot dog.

            The mother placed a bowl in front of her daughter and Michael realized he hadn’t introduced himself. This family had let him in, warmed him up, fed him, and he still didn’t know their names.

            “I’m Michael,” he offered.

            The girl looked up at him, nose scrunched up.

            “My name. I’m Michael,” he tried again.

            The girl giggled. Kids were odd.

            “I am Hai Ly.” The mother spoke slowly, as if she were concentrating on choosing the right words. “She is Do Thi.” She paused. “Our names.” Her shy smile returned.

            “Nice to meet you.” What else do you say to someone you’ve known for less than an hour?

            Hai Ly served herself some soup, and the meal passed with quick gazes and a comfortable quiet. Michael thought back to square houses and nuclear families and oversimplification and he suddenly and urgently wanted to tell Hai Ly how reassuring her smile was and how smoothly her strange words flowed and how delicious her soup tasted. He settled for the next best thing.

            “Thank you.”

            She smiled knowingly. “You are welcome.”

            And he truly felt he was.


While Hai Ly cleared the dishes, Do Thi’s curiosity finally took over.

            “Where are you from?” she demanded, high-pitched and serious.


            She looked dissatisfied.

            “Haskett Street,” Michael tried again. “Far. Maybe.” I hope not.

            Her nose scrunched again, and Michael began to think of how else to describe that he wasn’t from here but he didn’t know how to say where he was from since he didn’t know where here was. What a mouthful. Luckily, Do Thi changed topics.

            “Did you like the food?” she asked.

            “Yes. A lot.”

            She smiled. “Catfish.”


            “Catfish soup,” she confirmed. “My favorite.”

            Michael scrambled to think of anything to say next. Perhaps I’ve never had it before, but I’d like to have it again, or, in Michael-speak Me too, now. But before he could respond, Hai Ly was talking and the strange waterfall sounds were back. Her voice was strong and commanding, and Do Thi hopped off her chair and ran out of the room once she was finished. Hai Ly looked to Michael and explained.

            “It is time to do schoolwork.”


            Now Michael’s own curiosity took over.

            “Your words. Language.” That was a question in Michael-speak, but Hai Ly seemed to understand.

            “We come from Vietnam. I learn English. Do Thi learns also.”

            There was that comforting smile again and Michael’s urge to speak his gratitude returned.

            “You speak well. Both.” He paused, took a deep breath. “Both of you. Better than me.”

            Now it was Hai Ly’s turn to ask a question.

            “You come from where?”

            “Here. America.”  I just can’t talk. His cheeks were flames.

            Hai Ly reached out a hand to rest on his forearm. 

            “Words are hard. I know.” She looked over to where Do Thi was running into the room with a lavender backpack almost as big as her clutched in her fists. “We know.”

            The ache twisted itself around again deep in his core, slowly inching up to grasp at his chest.

            “You are lost?”

            Oh, right.

            “Yes.” He cleared his throat, begging the ache to dissipate and his voice to even out again. “Haskett Street. Blaredon Township.”

            Hai Ly’s brows met, her mouth flattening to a straight line, the picture of confusion. Any attempt at banishing the ache escaped. He must’ve been farther from home than he’d originally thought.

            “You use the phone,” Hai Ly insisted, grabbing the beige telephone from its holder on the wall and extending it out to him. Michael remembered twisting himself in the cord when he was younger, his mother chatting away with the other neighborhood women. The ache was bubbling, foaming, rising higher and higher until it clouded his mouth and spilled out the edges, overwhelming and agonizing and freeing all at once. A deep inhale reminded him of lingering catfish soup. If he went back now, nothing would change. The noise would consume him.

Lost and found.


            Hai Ly opened her mouth, but was cut off by Do Thi’s whimper of frustration.

“Del-ee-kee-oh-us,” she sounded out. Michael glanced over, spying the printed letters Do Thi was struggling to pronounce.

Delicious. Michael couldn’t hide a smile.

Do Thi looked up at her mother, nose scrunched and eyes squinting.

“What is del-ee-kee-oh-us?” she demanded.

Hai Ly moved to Do Thi’s side, peering over her shoulder at her vocabulary worksheet. Do Thi repeated the question in the sounds her mother was using earlier. Vietnamese. Yet Hai Ly had no answer. She replied something in Vietnamese, and Do Thi drove her pencil into the paper so hard that the tip broke off.

“Suzie’s mother knows,” she accused. “She speaks all of English.”

Fire licked Hai Ly’s cheeks.

“Delicious,” Michael whispered. Do Thi seemed to notice him for the first time since arriving back in the kitchen. He swiped a new pencil from her backpack and scribbled something on her paper.

“Kee is shhh?” she asked, looking at the note.

He grabbed the pencil again. Ci = sh, sometimes, he amended. Hai Ly and Do Thi’s brows crinkled in sync.

“English is weird,” he justified, shrugging.

“Del-ee-shoh-us?” Do Thi tried.

Ous = us, Michael scrawled.

“Del-ee-shus.” Michael nodded his confirmation. “Del-ee-shus?”

“Delicious. Yummy,” he explained. “Like the soup.”

“Delicious,” Hai Ly murmured. Her eyes met Michael’s, her head nodding slightly.

“Now this one!”


After an exhausting 12 vocab words, some multiplication tables—good thing numbers are universal—and endless grumbling that Michael didn’t need to speak Vietnamese to understand was Do Thi’s reluctance to go to bed with such an intriguing guest in their home, Michael and Hai Ly were sat at the kitchen table with the steam from mugs tickling their chins.

“No one speaks…all of English,” Michael cut in suddenly. Hai Ly’s eyes were wide and shimmering.

“We learn, together,” she explained. “She knows more than I know. I do not help her sometimes.”

“You speak well. Both of you,” he added, genuinely. “I can understand you.” Hai Ly’s smile was soft and wistful.

“Suzie, she is a friend. But she hurts Do Thi sometimes. She speaks as Do Thi. She…she…” her eyes went down to her hands, then side to side, bouncing off the flowered wallpaper, searching for a phrase. “She speaks wrong.”

“She mocks her.”

“More children mock also. Do Thi is strong, but…,” her eyes were searching again. “The pencils, they break sometimes.”

Michael’s eyes flicked to the graphite tip still resting on the other end of the table.

“She gets upset,” he stated, more to himself than Hai Ly. His thoughts shot back to the newspaper’s bold text from days ago, his soaring bicycle ride in the suffocation of provincial perfectionism feeling like a scene from some foreign dreamworld. The struggle between right and wrong. Right and wrong.

“There’s no right way to speak.” He wasn’t sure if Hai Ly believed him, but maybe he was saying this for more than just her sake. “Words are overrated,” he continued. “I can…I can understand you.” The sounds were getting garbled, all twisted around his too-large tongue. “You can communicate. Even if you don’t speak…right.” His fingers curled up into air quotes at the last word. He sighed deeply, dolor and exhaustion demanding it. “Just look at me,” he shrugged.

Hai Ly was moving, gliding across the tiled floor, gripping Do Thi’s backpack, fishing for something inside, pulling out a shiny lavender folder.

“You are kind,” she said, rifling through the papers inside. “But…” she paused, extracting a sheet and placing it in front of Michael before replacing the folder. Michael saw the angry red X’s covering the lines, the repeated No in permanent pen, all culminating in the 2/10 next to Do Thi’s scribbled name atop the sheet. “The teacher thinks not as you,” Hai Ly finished.

It was a reading comprehension worksheet, with some fable about a lion and a mouse printed on the other side. Scanning over the passage, Michael saw that Do Thi’s answers weren’t wrong, her grammar was. Verb conjugations were muddled and articles were missing, but it was clear that she had understood both the story and the questions asked of it. 

“The teacher moves Do Thi to a class…for more reading.”

A remedial class. Of course. 

“She speaks and writes not as the rest of the students.”

“Doesn’t mean she’s not smart.” Michael’s voice hadn’t been as harsh or clear in quite some time. Hai Ly’s eyes found Michael’s, big and glassy and forlorn. The wave of ache hit Michael so strongly that he hitched forward, arms reaching out to brace himself against the table. He wanted to scream from his chest that it wasn’t fair that Do Thi was getting bad grades and getting bullied and getting upset over some words, some syllables, some sounds, because she could speak two languages fairly decently, and he could barely speak one. But his tongue was bound in ribbons, in flashbacks of lost, wanting expressions on his own mother’s face all those years ago, and all he could do was reflect Hai Ly’s sadness in his own gaze.


Michael awoke, startled, at 3 AM on the air mattress Hai Ly had blown up for him. His mind buzzed from the dings and scratches and squawks of his unwanted dreams. Hand over heart, he willed himself to settle. He glanced at his watch, digital numbers glowing amber in the dark. 3:08.

He stumbled off the mess of blankets entwined in his legs, eyes adjusting rapidly to the surrounding blackness. It felt wrong to leave, but it felt worse to stay. He couldn’t impose on Hai Ly like this.

His hands creeped along walls, chairs, open air, feeling his way to the door. His palm hit something and a loud crinkle assaulted his alert ears. The glow of his watch illuminated Do Thi’s reading worksheet, discarded on the kitchen table, the accompanying pencil some inches away. On mere impulse, Michael’s fingers wrapped around the utensil, hoping his messy letters would be intelligible in the light of day. 2/10 10/10. Suzie’s an airhead.


Apparently, the local 24-hour convenience store employed high schoolers to work the 4 AM Friday-morning shift. Well, one high schooler. His azure shirt gleamed under the fluorescent bulbs, contrasting sharply with the sprinkles of light outside from the yawning sun. The store was humming slightly, as if a ceiling fan was whirring just out of sight. The water in the bottle sloshed as Michael placed it on the counter.

            “How you doing?” the teenage cashier asked.

            Michael nodded, a slight smile gracing his lips. Here in the crisp whites of plastered walls and the fog of a night spent waking[CRS2] , the barrier had reformed, and words were once again inaccessible. The cashier tilted his head, eyes squinting and scaling up and down Michael’s figure.

            “Do I know you?” A pause. “You go to Adams High?”

            John Adams High. Hadn’t the soccer team played them a few weeks ago? Or maybe it was years. Time was funny like that when you went off-schedule. It held you at an arm’s length, mingling reality and memory and dreamscapes until it all slid into a mess of hindsight and regrets.

Clips of colorful posters and autumn pep rallies flashed through Michael’s mind. Obnoxious school spirit that somehow skipped right over him. He deftly shook his head, marking his negation. Apparently, the cashier was not appeased.

            “Are…you…from…around…here?” His words were slow and loud, starkly condescending in the stagnant atmosphere.

            When things had gotten bad, had gotten the worst those years ago, he used to grasp his mother’s hand, run his thumb pads over her smooth, lacquered fingernails and say words, one at a time, in dulcet tones. The same words, over and over, for maybe if he just kept saying them, they’d stick. Only important words. No fillers, no long, winding sentences or complicated sentiments; just terms that were calming and true and could contain a whole world of meaning in their single utterance. 

            And suddenly there was a flame, far down in his core, hot and unwieldy and searing, burning all the throat-wrenching ache like a wildfire eating dying grass. He had talked to his mother like this. He had made her fragile.

            “I’m not…dumb!” he bit out in two breaths. The fire snaked up his esophagus, almost blue with its power. Smoke filled his cheeks and nostrils, changing his face from deep red to ashy gray.

Was this how Do Thi walked around the world? Was this how Hai Ly was greeted? Was this how his mother had felt when everyone had tucked her away like curdled milk in the back of the fridge? Had she forgotten her righteous anger before she’d had a chance to express it?

There were coins clinking on laminate, a barrage of grinding syllables hitting his ears like missiles, a reverberating ding from somewhere above, and then scuffles of rubber soles against concrete, grass, pavement. The fire didn’t go out until the water was pouring over Michael, right hand raised high in the air, tipping the plastic bottle.


By 6 PM that night, Michael had secured dinner reservations at Sacred Heart Shelter. Late March was gusty and, while another lukewarm hot dog on a park bench was feasible, an enclosed room with a loaded plate of steamy mashed potatoes was much more agreeable. People kept their eyes down, focused on themselves and their meals, and, although it was noisy, it wasn’t uncomfortable.

Evening rays of a lazy sun going to sleep found Michael stretched out on a holey bunk bed—there’s a religion pun in there somewhere—picking at threads of his scratchy jeans. One of the shelter’s volunteer workers hovered at the edge of the mattress, his bright red name tag labeling him “CRAIG.”

In a sea of quiet men, Michael’s youth betrayed his inconspicuousness. Not talking didn’t get you noticed here, but the lack of facial hair did.

“You’re welcome to stay the night. The bed’s available,” Craig told him gently. Michael waited for the but. “But are you sure I can’t drive you somewhere? Maybe to a parent who’s worried about you?”

Craig couldn’t have been more than 25, more “older brother” status than a serious worker, but Michael supposed that just helped him in gaining the trust of runaway kids. 


“Why would they be worried?” Craig’s eyebrows furrowed, the only indication of well-concealed concern.

“Why volunteer?” Michael tried again. Craig’s eyebrows retreated.

“Well,” he began, followed by a deep sigh, the kind that preludes some important proclamation. “I just think of everything I can’t do.”

Michael was speechless. Which he would’ve found hilarious under normal circumstances, what with the whole not-being-able-to-speak thing usually taking care of that for him, but Craig’s odd words were stunting his thoughts too far for self-deprecating humor to register.

“I mean, there’s just so much that’s broken in the world —so much brokenness,” Craig rephrased. “There’s a whole lot of things I can’t do. So I figured, maybe I should just try to do what I can.” His right shoulder popped up and down in a half shrug while the corners of his mouth tugged down. “And I can help people here.”

It made sense. More sense than most things had been making lately. Was that why Hai Ly had taken him in, too? Was everyone just trying to do what they could? Michael thought about what he could do. Not much. Yet cynicism somehow felt foreign in the wake of Craig’s earnestness. I can deliver papers. Not necessarily a bad start. I can ride my bike. Not everyone could do that, you know. I can survive on my own for four days. I can…I can… He thought of words to Hai Ly. I can be understood. I can communicate. Subconsciously, his cheeks inched up to his temples, lips parting and breaking into a grin. I can’t speak but I can communicate. I can get by in the world. The image of Hai Ly’s grateful eyes lingered in his own. And I can help others get by, too. And, in a rush of reignited ache, Michael realized that he was ready to go home.

“I can take you in the morning,” Craig promised him. A glance at the window told Michael the sun had finally set during their conversation. “Where do you live?”

A word should’ve popped into his head. Something that started with a breath from the back of his throat, led into a hissing middle, and finally ended with a sharp click of tongue against the back of his teeth. Instead, his mind was a blank canvas. He dug and clawed at the edges of his memory, eyes bouncing wildly to every periphery of the room. His fingers felt light, his palms burning. He couldn’t find it. It wasn’t coming up. He couldn’t remember.

His thoughts abruptly launched forward, a terrible prophecy filling the canvas. Discarded mops and soggy clothes and someone else petting his hand, whispering desperate words. Reliving everything with a front row seat. He clutched at his chest, thumb pads searching for a rapidly beating heart.

Logically, he should’ve been panicking. He’d had these attacks before, at the funeral, in some of the weeks after, but, inexplicably, as his fingers reached their target, he found his pulse was steady and calm. The colors of the canvas blended into mist, falling gently as dew onto his fissured thoughts. He was floating.

I can be understood. I can communicate. I can survive on … I can survive on … I can survive …

His memory gave out again, but he latched onto the part he could recall.

I can survive.

Even if he forgot everything—that Reagan was president, that the year was 1983, that his paper route ended at the grayscale house with yellow grass, that ci = sh, sometimes, and ous = us, that his mother used to wear her nails with a glossy French manicure—even if he forgot all the faces, all the people, all the words, he could survive. In all the noise, he could survive.

Because Hai Ly persisted in a world designed to persecute her for speaking two languages instead of one. Because Do Thi endured in a world without a mother who could answer questions about arbitrary English grammar rules. Because Craig kept going in a world where there was so much he couldn’t do. Because his mother had survived in a world that stealthily disappeared from under her watch.

The struggle between right and wrong.

Michael barked a harsh laugh and Craig flinched.

No such thing. The world couldn’t be reduced to binaries. Everyone was living somewhere in between. And maybe they weren’t all thriving, but they were surviving. And he could, too. Even when his life would become memories trickling through a funnel, even when he would forget everything, as surely as his mother had, Michael didn't think he’d ever forget how to survive.

            When he spoke, his voice was clear, steady, and strong. “Haskett Street.”



            In March of 1983, Michael Bell set out to find some silence. Five days later, he returned home on the wings of the wind and the whisperings of thoughts. He returned to the microwave dings and the chalkboard squeaks and the pop of the whisky bottle cork, and he listened. He closed his eyes and willed his brain to make sense of the sounds, to remember them. For everything communicates, no matter how it is perceived, no matter how much others may belittle or bully or ban it.

And, in all the noise, Michael found his harmony.


Volume 19, Fall 2021