It began as just an exercise but became her way of living. And it was a problem now to the few people in her life who loved her, who wanted to hear her voice talk about anything. They were disquieted by all this non-talking, this new belief of hers that spoken words took away from a lived life. They bristled at the grunts and occasional “hmms” that filled the space where multi syllabic words, complex sentences and even paragraphs used to be.
It started for Angie when she said, “I have a great idea,” and explained it in detail to a friend. She had been so excited when the idea came to her in the little rock garden she had erected on her half of a rented two family home that she wanted to share it. She called up Marta, one of five legitimate friends she had (not including the mailman and the driver who brought their bait and supplies down from up North because Angie didn’t count people who had to speak to her out of civility.) Marta answered of course because like Angie, when Marta wasn’t at work she was at home and if she was at home, but not writing, she was just waiting for something to happen.
“Marta, I think I’ve got a good one this time,” and Angie explained in detail what that meant. She had seen the dome of Sam the mailman’s cap go by her window, so she ran out to give him a misdirected letter and catch a few seconds of conversation. That’s when she noticed pieces of her trash strewn across her front lawn. When she went to pick them up, they weren’t pieces of trash at all, but old poems she had written as a child in the orphanage that some how got mixed together with the recycling and that got her to thinking and later in the rock garden like air on a dull flame, something ignited.
She knew just when she would write it – right after her shift at the Buy Hook or Buy Book tackle and bookstore she worked at. She knew she would make a cup of green tea, turn on the ceiling fan in the three-season porch (really only good for two up there in Maine) and she would begin. But when she got there and arranged all the pieces as planned, nothing came. It was as if someone had zapped her with a stun gun and left her temporarily lifeless there at her keyboard.
That’s how it became an exercise.
“Retain the power for the piece,” she told herself when she was tempted by Bailey, the leader of Write Right to talk about what she was working on. Angie had showed up for their weekly meeting empty-handed. The routine was for all five members to bring something, anything each Thursday night to the little space between the fish tackle and the stacks of mostly used books where they convened. Angie always had something to contribute which made sense because it had been her idea to start the group. Usually, she wrote about orphans. They were always adopted by a rich man, or woman or family. Only one group member made the mistake early on of comparing one of her stories to Annie. Angie stunned everyone by turning five shades of red and kicking a pail of live bait ready for shipping clear across the room. Mention of the curly, red-headed orphan was never repeated.
Bailey had a soft spot for the girl. Angie was just the right age to be her own child and always listened patiently with intense eyes whenever Bailey told the story of how she had always wanted to own a bookstore and saw the good in it when her husband died, left this place to her and made a way for her dream to come true. This part of Maine could not support her with books alone so the tackle remained out of respect to her departed Ed and on account of bills that came round every month. At that point in the story, Angie usually rubbed Bailey’s flannel covered back in a circular motion, hoping to massage away the mounting tears. Bailey wanted to help Angie’s dream come true too so when she told her about these other writers needing a place to meet, she said, “Why not here?” And it was only a matter of time before Bailey joined the group too and assumed her matriarchal place as leader. She had no where in particular to be once she turned the Open sign over to Closed on mesh screen door of her store so why not be near the closest thing to family she could find.
“I can’t believe you Angie with nothing to show in a week? Hope it’s not writer’s block.”
“No, it’s just that I need to keep the energy in the writing. Somehow, if I say it, before I write it, the energy slips out of it, and I just can’t get it back.” Bailey looked back at her stunned, waiting for more, for Angie to say something else, something that would make sense. But Angie stopped there afraid that she had already said too much. And indeed she had. Because when she went home that night, her house stale from being shut up since she left it early that morning, her copy of The Literal World was there. She flew by the commentary, the analysis, the personal essay to get to the good stuff, the fiction. And there, intricately detailed with stunning prose by an up and comer as the Literal World editors described this writer was this very idea of not speaking of works in progress because the life would leave them somehow. In the middle of fiction, the truth. From then on, Angie knew that spoken words were powerful, but fleeting and could not be recaptured once they were released. Even talking about why she chose not to talk about what she was writing was iffy business.
This turned her sour to talking altogether and made her suspicious of people who talked too much, especially the writers in her group. If the words she spoke today were being written and more eloquently mind you by someone else last week, then she was behind, an idea that Angie always accepted but would not acquiesce to. She had been playing catch up since forever with people who could afford to go to college, who could afford to read at length and even visit the places described in the books that they read. That was not Angie’s life. She couldn’t remember being read to. As far as developing early reading habits on her own, well, there weren’t many people to help her sound out the words in the tattered copy of “Gulliver’s Travels,” the only book she remembered seeing in the orphanage that raised her. There was school of course, but she seemed to pass through it like a ghost until she turned 18 and both it and the orphanage spit her out like heavily masticated bubble gum.
Angie had Bailey and their books and tackle by day and Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolffe and Welty by night. She was gaining on the other people just beginning their lives, she could feel it, but she was 35. She would have to peddle fast. This new business of not talking she decided could only quicken her pace. Why say what you could write? Her exercise in silence deepened. So Angie compromised on conversation, did not entirely turn from communication and relied on emails. When Emily from Write Right left her a lengthy message on her answering machine asking for a favor, to feel out this new woman joining their little literary circle, Angie knew she would not call her back, but would email her instead. When she did, all the bottled up conversations in her head burst onto the lit up screen beneath the flashing cursor and what came out was very witty, so witty, that Emily decided to co-opt it, and built a short story around it and read it to Right Write at the next meeting.
The exercise hardened into a belief. Write Right removed Angie from the group.
“It’s selfish to come here with little notes and red marks on our work. We want to hear what you think!” Emily said.
But she wrote what she thought. Wasn’t it the same? Like any conviction when challenged, it was inconvenient. She was truly alone now. Just her and her written words, but she held fast, sure that it would pay off in the end, wherever that may be.
A few months into this new religion and Angie was at work as usual.
“Baby, can you get some doughballs from the back?” Bailey asked her. Angie nodded and disappeared beyond the bookshelves into a back room where they kept the live bait. When she returned a man she had never seen dressed for fly-fishing was shifting his weight back and forth from one thin leg to the next. Angie concluded that he must be an out of towner new to fishing mistaken about the kind of fishing you could do around here.
“Those are the ones. I hope they work.” He smiled down on her and her face warmed. “What do you think? Am I missing anything?” He held up his little wire basket busting with artificial flies, mesh net, bug repellent, sun block and lines for both fly casters and bait casters. Angie didn’t mean to, but she laughed. Why hadn’t Bailey told him he didn’t need live bait for fly fishing? He had enough stuff to be at sea for a month, but not the right combinations to catch much of anything. In her head, she said to him, “ever heard of over-doing it? Maybe you want to try reading up on this first next time.” But she let the thoughts pass, hoped she could retrieve them someday if she needed to. She worried though that her mind was like a sieve letting any good thing that she didn’t write down pass right through. That’s how she saw everyone these days – walking pieces of swiss cheese, mouths in a constant state of motion, heads transporting words from one hole to the next not stopping until they found the one hole that would liberate them to the air.
“So how much do I owe you?” Angie wouldn’t even say that much. Bailey was used to this by now and intervened.
“That’ll be $58.95.” The stranger gave Bailey three 20s then turned to Angie.
“What are you a mute?” Bailey sucked in the air around her and puffed out her chest about to pounce on the stranger, but he spoke again before she had the chance.
“What a dumb question. If you’re a mute then you can’t answer me. Anyway I can tell you’re not a mute. What is it sore throat?”
Angie shook her head.
“Big concert tonight, gotta rest your voice?”
Again, Angie shook her head. Bailey rolled her eyes.
“Just not talking today?”
Angie pointed to him with one thin finger and pointed to her own nose with the other.
“You’d never make it in my family. Words are a form of survival with us. You had to shout to be heard there were so many of us.” Angie had to look away now from his curled up lashes and tilted head suspended waiting on her to say something. Her not talking did not deter him. It seemed to nudge him on to fill the space left blank by her missing part of the conversation. “That’s why I like to get out of the city as much as I can. I’m still running from my childhood. No place is too quiet for me, too remote. I like the quiet. Fishing will be right up my alley. If the bait won’t catch those little suckers I figure I’ll just talk them to death. That’ll draw them out.” Angie laughed and he continued in this breathless monologue while three more customers entered the store, selected their necessities and paid Bailey. Even though she said nothing, Angie seemed to participate in the conversation. When he swayed, she swayed. When he stretched his eyebrows to the sky as a vignette from his 10-hour car trip here from Yonkers came to a climax, her eyebrows lifted too and then released to a rush of teeth and gums filling her face. She wondered how much information could be disseminated through a laugh, if it would detract from her writing somehow.
The place was empty now but for the three of them and Bailey hurried off. “Keep an eye up front, will ya? I have to check on our line supply.” The line supply was good, Angie knew because they had checked it that morning together, ticking off the amount with so many slashes on a Buy Hook or Buy Book notepad. Angie wanted to believe that Bailey was trying to give them an opportunity for whatever might come after making an acquaintance, but she could tell by the way Bailey rolled her eyes at his stories that the stranger repelled her.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, look at the time. Those fish will be working on their next incarnation if I don’t get going. I’m Peter by the way.” He took off his cap and unearthed a bouquet of springy red curls then gave Angie his hand. She hesitated then took it. He didn’t use them for more than computer entries and punching numbers on a cell phone she could tell, because they were smooth and his nails were clean. He seemed to be waiting for her to say something, her name probably. Angie looked at the door to the storeroom, hoping Bailey would walk through it and rescue her again. But Bailey didn’t come. Peter looked there too and leaned in closer to Angie.
“Is she your mom? Afraid she won’t approve? It’s just your name. How much damage could that do?”
Angie considered that. Just her name. Just one word, two syllables, probably made up by the lady at the orphanage. How much damage could a fake name do? Words – her best friends, now her fiercest enemies. She decided to write her name down on the Buy Hook or Buy Book pad of stationery Bailey kept by the cash register. She wrote her email address too.
“No phone? Oh, right. How could you answer it? Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure not talking with you. I hope we can do it again sometime and before I leave tomorrow night, I will absolutely give you a…click? Is that right? A ring for the phone a click for the email.”
Angie let out a breathy, “yeah,” before she realized her mouth was working without her permission and Peter’s eyes lit up like a kid who just spied Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.
When they both finally recovered from the shock of her voice in the dusty room, Peter broke the renewed silence.
“Now that didn’t seem to hurt. Did it?”
Angie shook her head.
“It’s all just a matter of proportion. You’ve gotta start small. We’ll work up to two words. Maybe by tomorrow?”
Angie watched Peter’s back broaden to manage all the bags he was carrying as he walked away from her, opened the screen door with his rubber-booted foot and headed toward the gravel parking lot.
She waved at him even though he couldn’t see and watched his capped head get smaller through the screened door. It made her think of Sam the mailman, her brilliant idea and that curly headed orphan, Annie. She smiled and repeated Peter’s final word to her.
Dionne Ford was an award winning journalist before focusing her attention on literary writing. She has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and grants from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and is at work on her first novel, "Pick Me." She lives in Montclair with her husband and two daughters. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.