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The Sound Of A Meaningful Life : Nancy Ferguson

I listen for the ringing of the phone inside the apartment. I float around the house and back porch all day unsettled and loose. I am waiting for a callback from Jenna. She comes over sometimes, we sit on the porch and I run my hand up and down her tanned leg because it makes me happy. I am waiting for a signal but I don't receive one. She pulls her leg away. When I was a child raising my baby brother, he liked my fishnet stockings, the style for girls at the time, and sometimes rubbed his hand along my leg. Now I hear about girls not much older than I was then, having babies of their own, becoming mothers.

I am concerned with sounds. Where I work, for which I am grossly underpaid, I meticulously interpret the sounds of the universe. Or rather, I monitor and keep in working order the machines that analyze the sounds the universe puts out. The machines will validate our lives by telling us we are not alone. I hope that one day a sound with meaning will come through.

The phone rings. Jenna sounds so short I'm surprised she called. "What was so important that you called three times?" she asks. "Nothing," I say, I 'm embarrassed now, because I 've been found out. It's a weakness that my body has a will of its own and won't be denied a human touch. Because of this I find myself sleeping with unsuitable women. They don't stay long. They input the data and it does not compute for them. My insecurities and lack of ambition. I don't drive.

A train sounds off. I still live by the tracks. I think of my brother again. He's going through his second divorce. I don't know what to say to him. My brother is done floating through life, is intent on progressively making more money. He shaves his head and works out excessively. He lives in the suburbs where it's quiet and he can rest better, loud noises disturb him. His house is in a new brick development on a full lot with little green bushes in the front shaped to look like loaves of wonder bread. Dago shrubs, we call them in the city. When my brother was little I held him up to the window at night to look for shooting stars. Anything to take us outside of ourselves. I taught him how to make spitballs and use a slingshot. I could see that already he was too sensitive and needed a disguise, to hide his raw self.

Jenna hangs up. She doesn't want to cater to my moods. I think of calling her back and decide not to. I'm alone in the twilight. I listen for radio noises streaming in from the universe. A lot of it is noise that doesn't mean anything. Radio, television, military stuff, satellites, cell phones, pagers, some of it's been leaking out into the universe for over fifty years. Our noise pollution is fifty light-years out there ahead of us. To find anyone who might be out there, we must listen to the quiet part of the radio spectrum.

The next day I consider calling Jenna for a dinner date. Jenna questions the delicacy of my table manners. I don't tell her it is because I eat alone too often. Or think too much of the hopeful smoothness of her tan legs against mine. I always make the bid for sympathy and say it's because I was an uncouth yard rat. We lived by the Penn Central freightyard. My father drove machines for a living and my mother tried to keep us off the tracks. Until the time when she retreated to an interior world where she couldn't be reached, no matter what was said. I learned the sound a train makes is the sound of a machine searching for another to connect to.

I call my brother instead. When he was little, my brother began having temper tantrums at the dinner table. You almost had to admire their ferocity. He would whirl round and round, throwing himself into walls and turning over the table, a miniature unstoppable tornado, a whirling dervish. Stars are formed that way. Huge clouds of gas collapse, spinning faster like an ice skater pulling in his arms, like a whirling boy, and at the center a star forms. My brother collapsing into himself, as if he were trying to make something hard and shiny inside himself.

My brother runs up my back stairs. Right away I see his hand is seriously bandaged up. It's stitched up because he has punched through a glass window. He punches walls and throws his stereo equipment, televisions and phones. He scowls. He is upset his wife left him.

"I get frustrated because we don't talk about anything important," he says.

I think about this. For instance, I can tell Jenna and I will never talk again, will never call each other back. Jenna asked me once, "What if you find out we are alone in the universe? What if you just never find anyone?"

"The dish on our radio telescope is over twenty acres big," I say. "That's twenty-six football fields of available aperture. The antennas move on an arm that moves on a circular track, to scan more of the sky."

But I've considered the possibility. There is only a finite amount of sky that can be seen from any one place, even the giant radio telescope at Arecibo.

My brother and I barbecue together in the twilight on the back porch. Streamlined swifts divebomb mosquitoes in the gangways between the maze of back porches. They don't make a sound. For maybe three seconds there is not a sound to be heard anywhere. Haze from the Smokey Joe hangs in the air, mingling with the tang of cut grass. Violet deepens to purple. Soon the sky will open.

He is a whirl of motion, handing me drinks, flipping the food over, then back again, tossing the spatula. His motions are words that flicker against the sky.

"Remember," he says out loud, "how we used to love this time of day?" I don't answer him for a moment. I am wondering what the sound of a meaningful life is, and if it can be said.


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