Dawn Babel

The refrigerator compressor cycled on.

Walter lifted his head from the pillow to see the clock. Five. A wispy hint of daybreak brushed the window. He wanted another hour’s sleep. At least.

Not likely. A Japanese visitor last month had observed that in modern society one is never out of earshot of man-made sound. A Buddhist monk who probably spent his days in Zen meditation in some mountaintop temple surrounded by dark, silent pine forests, he’d been a guest at the home of a philosophy-professor neighbor.

The comment festered in Walter’s mind. Noises began intruding.

The refrigerator, for instance, had a whirring fan to move air over coils. Everyone heard that. But there was also that compressor chilling those coils, a bass-clef rumble that Walter heard but Mildred didn’t.

Nor did she hear the bedroom clock. He’d had it since college; it was as usual grinding grittily.

The thermostat in the hall clicked, followed by the rumble of the furnace, accompanied by the tenor whine of the motor spraying the oil into the fuel chamber. The heat registers began to sigh.

Mildred had left the bathroom sink fluorescent tube on; its tired transformer hummed softly.

By now the daylight had grown. The neighbor’s overhead garage door opened with a rumble, followed by the whine of a starter motor and then the cough of his tired pickup truck backing out to the street.

If Walter got up now, he would use a buzzy electric toothbrush, then heat coffee in a microwave that sounded like a model airplane revving toward takeoff. As if reading his mind, a jet labored overhead, apparently taking off with a full passenger load and fuel enough for a cross-country flight.

He might soothe his auditory channels with a nearby classical-music station that did a minimum of talking, but one of his neighbor’s not-yet-determined electric appliances had begun injecting occasional static into his radio.

His computer had a fan he had not noticed until the Zen guy came along. The record turntable grumbled enough to intrude on the pianissimo selections of a string quartet. The grinding of the ancient cassette player easily overcame anything but a Sousa march. The answering machine had complained throatily until the electronics salesman explained something about “cracked shellac on the windings,” and sold Walter a replacement part. He also bought a new, digital timer to replace the rasping electric-clock switch for the fluorescent grow-lights in the window planter.

He had tried earplugs, but they made it worse, amplifying the noises inside his own head: grinding teeth, snuffling or snorting. It took concentration to stifle his bodily functions, which hardly helped sleep.

Damn all Buddhist monks. Disturbers of the peace. Silence may be golden, but ignorance had been bliss.

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