Book excerpt...
from Chapter VI, "IN THE CASTLE"

It wasn't easy for me at first to persuade Nan, who hardly ever drank, to join me for a nightcap before retiring. After so many nights of tossing, arguing, pacing the floor and moving in and out of the living room where the noise was sometimes less oppressive, I figured Nan was ready for anything that would help her sleep. Here was a habit I had left behind when I gave up solitary living. I had no trouble picking it up again. Neither did Nan once I started us on this routine.

The booze left her logy and disoriented the next morning; it fouled up her regimen and made her lazy and forgetful. But it did take the sting out of settling down at night. According to Nan, it was more effective than Valium, and it passed out of her system faster. Combined with the purr of our portable fan and some easy listening music on our clock radio, it provided us temporary asylum during the latter days of the conflict. Not to mention the fact that drinking gave us something to do together.

Maybe that Neanderthal below us baited his women with jungle boogie. Maybe he slept more soundly (
if he slept) or functioned better with it on. But he was driving us apart. The constant assault on Nan's ears and sinuses, the intrusion into our privacy, had robbed my wife of nearly all I knew her to be, had robbed me of everything I loved about our life together. Until the trouble with Missoula began, Nan and I were still sweethearts, a teenage daughter and twenty years of tribulation notwithstanding. Now we were tense, bickering celibates, torn asunder by this moronic emptiness people called "music". In just weeks, simple tenderness had become a foreign land whose customs no longer enticed us. There was no discussing a matter calmly anymore, no sharing, no communion. Our feelings were almost always bruised or in a state of turmoil. Now that our last sweet refuge had been violated, lying down to sleep at night had degenerated into a game of pretend—like setting up house, like dreaming about our future—which we played to fool ourselves and each other.

The first night I brought the tray of drinks into our bedroom, I spilled some tonic water onto the bedspread. Nan yelped so loudly that I jerked the tray back and nearly lost everything. Had this incident happened back in May, we would have laughed ourselves to sleep and forgotten about the drinks. Not tonight. Never had so minor a mishap provoked such wailing and wringing of hands. It wasn't until the gin started taking effect that Nan quieted down and stopped fretting over the spill, stopped talking to me altogether. There was no toasting, no eye contact, none of the soft, clever sweetsie-ness that used to begin and end our days together. We just drank.

Back in college, when Nan and I were first courting, when it seemed that there weren't enough hours in the day for us to enjoy each other, we guzzled coffee by the pitcher and stayed up half the night reading to each other, listening to Chopin, laughing, dreaming, philosophizing. The air crackled with excitement whenever we were together. Tonight, we sat on opposite sides of the room, I in a chair and Nan on the edge of the bed, sipping our cocktails, sulking and waiting for one spell to subdue another. The gin didn't generate desire; it merely dulled our responses to the sound below us, and to each other. At first, I was tensing my neck in time with the beat, actually counting the number of DOOOM-DOOOM-DOOOM-DOOOMs. Midway through my second drink, the tensing ceased and I lost count. By the third, I gave up wondering what Nan was thinking about. By the fourth, I could no longer remember what it was about her, about us, that was so special. I noticed that Nan, still nursing her first drink, had begun to slouch. She no longer screwed up her face when she swallowed. At one point, she rested her hand on the wet bedspread and did not draw it back.

When Missoula turned up his stereo, neither of us said anything. We simply turned up our radio, turned up the portable fan, poured ourselves another drink and flopped around until we were too groggy and stupid to care about anything.

On those nights when the volume under our bed outdid the numbing effects of gin, there was still the hammer. I had not abandoned it, merely kept it in reserve. Hammering was a universal language to which apartment dwellers were especially attuned. Used sparingly, it spoke more eloquently than any letter I could have written. A few controlled shots on the floor every now and again normally had a sobering, unnerving effect on a rowdy tenant. I say,
normally. The sharp rapping brought a transgressor to atention. Like a gavel, it set things in order; it portended judgment; it reminded him that there was someone above him to reckon with. The hammer had served me well in the past, in less extreme situations. I never had to rap very hard or very often, if at all. Most people got the message right away.

The first time I hammered on Missoula's ceiling was different. For it was I who received a message. I unleashed something that night which frightened me even more than it did Nan and Kelly. Almost as frightening was the realization that whatever I unleashed did not seem to frighten Missoula, at least not for long. Moreover, having introduced the hammer into the warfare, I could no longer retreat to my former position of respectability and restraint. The chick, once out of the shell, would never return. Holding my peace now was tantamount to granting the enemy more territory than he had already grabbed from us. No, I saw now that I had initiated something---something that I felt compelled by an inner force to continue, whether Missoula heeded me or not. And each unsuccessful attempt to silence him seemed to bring me closer and closer to a dark threshold which I dared not cross.

2004 by Ted Gargiulo Jr.


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