Amazing—there is no sound during conception. No chimes. No fizzing. No horns along the uterine turnpike honking as one swift cell drives headlong into another. Life begins in total silence, a microscopic He or She forming instantaneously, quick as a stereotype, even in its spiritlike simplicity. It dances in limbo. It hugs the shore, developing quietly. It is, first and foremost, its own secret, the date and time of its first trembling completely unknown, an indeterminable factor. What a phantom beginning. What a glorious moment to become Occupant X and nothing more. A ghost pulse, a comma amid the silence.
Rusty opened the front door and stood for a moment in his wet loafers, eyeing the dark foyer. He sensed something in the air had changed. He paused, glove on the knob, and peered down the familiar hall, following the lines of the yellowed walls to where the evening light had gathered in the kitchen doorway. Where was the hum of the fridge? The routine clank of the furnace? The house felt too quiet. It seemed almost unnatural, stillness itself muted, as if all the furniture lay under snowfall.
“Judy?” he called, pushing back the sleeve of his gray overcoat to check his watch. “Hello?”
He cocked his head toward the basement, thinking he heard voices, then touched his ear to make sure his new hearing aid was on. From the kitchen came the sound of the northern oriole. The singing bird clock above the sink struck six, sending off its percolating forest call. It was followed by the sound of the furnace, the fridge joining. And so Rusty did what he always did after a long day at work. Too tired to plod down the hall to his closet, he hung his pants on the hook by the front door, dropped his suit coat and gold tie on the chair. Loafers squeaking, he padded into the kitchen, where he opened the fridge and stood wearing nothing but his shirt and underwear before a heavenly host of condiments and soda. There he raised his arms and let the cool air dry his sweat stains.
Had he flipped on the stove light, had his eyes swept across the braided rug before the sink, he might have noticed a pair of snowy boot prints slowly melting, the last of a trail that wound through the house, leaving wet marks on top of the wine-colored carpet. Had he given thought to the canister where his wife kept coffee-flavored candies next to the blender, he might have noticed the lid was slightly askew, a wrapper left in its shadow—something his wife, a tidy and thorough woman, would never do. It might have raised his suspicions then that he was not alone in the house, that something was about to happen.
In the basement, in a room below the kitchen, two beings huddled together on top of a ruffled bedspread for warmth, Rusty’s adult daughter, Gretchen, and her boyfriend, Ray. They cocked their ears, held their breath. “Beer,” whispered Gretchen, lying next to Ray on her old bed, their hands clasped through orange mittens, the last glimmer of daylight shining through the blue curtains. “Now he’ll take it to his chair and flip on PBS.”
Upstairs, Rusty shuffled across the living room, set the six-pack on the coffee table, and flipped open the red cooler he kept next to his recliner. Inside, the snow from yesterday was slushy yet still firm enough to hold the cans upright. He popped the tab on one and planted the rest firmly in the slush, burying their tops with a ginger sweep of his hand as if they were flower bulbs he’d planted in real earth. He liked his MGD just shy of frozen, and he relished the moment of lifting an ice-covered can out of the cooler, just like in the commercials.
When Judy came through the door, depositing her faux beaver coat on the banister, she could hear the distinct voice of David Attenborough coming from the living room, followed by the squawk of migrating birds. She kicked off her rubber boots, tiptoed toward the kitchen in her stockings, and knelt down to open the cupboard under the sink, only to step in a puddle of something cold and wet. She frowned, pursing her red lips fiercely together. “Rusty!” she called. “Did you track snow into the kitchen?”
No answer. She closed her eyes, gave a quick sigh, and pulled out a pair of mauve heels she kept in their original box under the sink by the cat food. She liked the sound of lifting the shoes out of rustling tissue paper as if they were brand new, and since she had been reassigned to teach gym class instead of home economics at Fort Cloud Middle School, she missed the power and pride she had once felt while storming down the hall in a good pair of heels.
“Cocktail,” Gretchen whispered to Ray as the two stared at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. Thousands of them that Gretchen and her two brothers had put there—and planets, too—Jupiter and Saturn and tiny Pluto, a personal favorite, her ATM password. Ray, silent in his bulky snowmobile suit—so silent he might have been sleeping or meditating—squeezed her hand. The little ring he’d placed on her finger at breakfast that morning pinched her skin, and she squealed, then quickly clapped a hand over her mouth. The ring was made from a nail that Ray himself had hammered into a circle.
Upstairs, Judy—reaching for the butterscotch schnapps she kept behind the Crock-Pot—cocked her ears. “Rusty?” she called. Then louder, “Rusty, did you say something?”
Rusty, who hated hearing his named yelled, especially after a long day on the lot, picked up the remote and increased the volume of the television by two notches. Rusty sold cars. All day he practiced being friendly, driving little old ladies around in Caprices, only to have them say, “That was such a nice ride, Mr. Glide. Let me think about it.” There was one for whom he’d bought numerous cups of coffee as she labored over the financing, pushing manicured nails into her powdery temples. Could she afford it? she kept asking. Of course she could, Rusty thought, and he would have told her flat out that anyone who bought her dead husband a stone vault could certainly afford to drive an ’82 white Cadillac Coupe De Ville. But she was a member of their church and a friend of Judy’s besides, and he couldn’t risk showing his temper.
Judy peered over the shutters that separated the living room from the kitchen and clucked her tongue. He was already on his third beer, watching a flock of geese fly in formation across the screen. It was bad enough that she had to listen to seventh graders shriek for six straight hours of dodgeball—did she have to come home to geese honking at near concert volume? If not geese, then whales. Last night, hyenas. Couldn’t she, for once, just come home to some quiet, stretch out on the couch, and watch the sun set beyond the yard?
She crossed the linoleum, heels clicking, and flipped on the little black-and-white TV she kept next to the coffeemaker. Laughter flooded the room as Lucille Ball ran around, fanning her burning apron strings. A few seconds later, as Judy was giving her schnapps and water a stir with her little finger, the birds came louder from the living room.
But why bother migrating? boomed David Attenborough. It costs most birds half their total population in casualties.
Judy uncrossed her legs, fluffed the hair by her ear with a vague sense of drama, and turned the little TV to full volume so that Lucy and Ricky buzzed and crackled.
Above the sink, the mourning dove struck seven, its somber cry muffled by a distorted laugh track. “Cuckoo, cuckoo,” warbled Judy as she raised her heavily penciled eyes and took a swig.
Below, Gretchen—the quietest and most sensitive of the Glide children—furrowed her brow, while Ray, who had a performance art degree from the University of Massachusetts, said simply, “Wow,” as the universe above them trembled and shook, sending a few crusty stars raining down on their hooded shadows.
“Let’s make love,” Ray said, swinging a leg over her bundled torso. He tossed his mittens onto the floor and sat up on one elbow to kiss the side of her cheek. He could tell that she was biting her lip, and, sensing her resistance, he unzipped his brown snowsuit down to his shins. Underneath, he had on a leotard and tube socks.
“I don’t know. This seems so weird,” Gretchen said. She took her scarf off just as Handel’s Messiah emanated from the upstairs. Handel was followed by the vacuum cleaner and, soon after, a stomping, which sounded vaguely like someone trying to tap-dance in high-heeled shoes. The basement was dank and cold, with a faint mushroomy smell that suggested hairline cracks in the cement, damp carpet pads. Gretchen wondered, as Ray unbuttoned her shirt, how she and her brothers had survived the winter nights down here, though that had been part of their rebellion as, one by one, they vacated their warm, happy rooms on the first floor for the privacy and grit of the basement, with its thin, paneled walls and cold cement floors, its cobwebby corners and crickets that lived under the stairs.
Her oldest brother, Henry, had been the first to leave his bedroom, at age fourteen. He began with his record player and Ramones posters. He wanted to create a listening lounge, he told their mother, starting with two lawn chairs and a turntable propped on a wicker hamper. Soon the hamper was full of cracker crumbs and empty soda cans, and before long, a sleeping bag was found behind the dryer, along with some stuffed animals and a pillow.
“Fine,” Rusty said. “You want to live like a rat, sleep next to the sump pump, I don’t care, but don’t leave any more Ho Ho wrappers on the ironing board.”