VOW OF SILENCE by Peter Nolan Smith

Almost everyone in the world has a phone. Cellular service can connect New York with Antarctica or Greenland. I can call my son Fenway’s mom and Mam will pick up in Thailand. Every minute millions of cellular calls and SMS messages crisscross the globe searching billions of destinations. We are so close, yet so far away from each other.

Several years ago in the last decade AP and I moved a set of headboards from the 3rd Floor to the penthouse landing. They were heavy and luckily neither of us hurt our backs.

“Thanks,” my landlord/friend/architect said, walking down to the 2nd floor.

“No worries.” I ascended the stairs to my apartment.

Those three syllables ended my verbal communications for Saturday. I walked over to my apartment on Myrtle Avenue and put on CITY OF THE NIGHT.

Three beers sang a lullaby. I was in bed by 9. I pulled John Rechy’s CITY OF THE NIGHT from my night table. Within two-hundred words sleep wrapped my body in bliss.

The next morning morning I rose slowly from my slumber. Rain splashed against my window. I checked my watch.

7:30am. Sunday morning. Another drop into dreams. Thirty minutes later church belles rang in Brooklyn. I pulled the cover over my shoulder and read more of John Rechy’s novel about gay hustlers. Ten minutes later the book fell on my chest and I napped for another half-hour.

I awoke to a heavy rain bucketing from ominous clouds crawling across a charcoal gray sky. I pitied churchgoers and checked my cellphone.

No one had called me.

Not my wife in Thailand.

Not my family in Boston.

Not my friends around the world or a Chinese scam caller.

I got out of bed and looked out the window. Not a soul was visible in the alleys behind the brownstone. The dark sky was devoid of airplanes. I could be the Last Man on Earth, but I am not Mada, Adam’s dead end. Hungry I cooked myself breakfast. Two slices of toast and milky tea with one sugar. I sat by the window and eyeed the windows across the backyard alley. There was no sign of life from the neighbors.

Five million people lived in this borough, but none were visible today and I wondered if zombies had risen from the dead and eaten the entire population of Brooklyn, but there are no zombies, because I would have heard the screams of their zictims.

In truth families were having brunch at the restaurants in Fort Greene. Kids were on playdates with their friends. Lovers laid late in bed. None of them were thinking about me and I ran a hot bath and put on some Graham Parsons.

After a good twenty-minute soak I chose to resign my day to a monastic vow of silence, because if I didn’t leave my top-floor apartment, I could spend the entire day without speaking.

This was a tradition dating back to my old apartment on East 10th Street.

During the 80s I regularly isolated myself from the rest of the world. Sunday mornings were spent in bed with a book. A late breakfast was followed by a long afternoon bath with my evenings devoted to finishing the book and drinking a bottle of wine or two.

Once or twice during these Sundays I checked the phone for a dial tone. I was somewhat disappointed to discover that buzz, because it meant that no one thought to call me on a Sunday and I returned the favor, as if we had a pact.

This vow of silence lasted, until I started dating Ms. Carolina. The former beauty queen liked talking and I couldn’t blame her. She lived in a redneck community below the Mason-Dixon Line. Every Sunday Ms. Carolina was obliged to attend extraordinary long church services and her Baptist congregation was very advanced for North Carolina. They believed that blacks possessed a soul. One Saturday called late at night.

“Sometimes I need to speak to someone sane.” Despite a birth in the Adirondacks her accent was pure Tarheel.

“I’m not really sane.” I warned her about my Sunday tradition.

“You don’t speak to anyone on Sunday. Why the silence?”

“Seneca said, “As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man.”

“Which means?”

“That I don’t like speaking on Sundays.”

“Don’t worry. I respect your beliefs.” The blonde southerner was a true gentlewoman. “But what about if you just pick up the phone and listen to me? That’s not really breaking your vow of silence.”

“Let me reflect on this.” One Trappist sect was very strict on silence, but my rest of my life style was a complete rejection of the Cistercian dictates and I told Ms. Carolina, “As long as the phone calls don’t last longer than twenty minutes, I’ll pick up the phone and listen.”

“Thank you.” Her gratitude was sincere and I said, “You know I love you in my own way.”

“I can’t ask for anything more.”

The next day my phone rang at 11:15. I was soaking in my bathtub in the kitchen. My apartment was very East Village. I picked up the phone, knowing that it was Ms. Carolina.

She recounted the visiting preacher’s ranting sermon. I thought I could talk, but this woman was a champ and she complained, “This Bible0-Thumper believes that all homosexuals are damned to Hell. I told him after the service that I knew that he went to some Richmond bars where men were dancing with men and gave him a check for $25. It’s going to fix the roof.”

Forty minutes later she said, “Good luck with your vow of silence.”

Luck had nothing to do with that Sunday’s silence.

I had merely listened to a woman on a phone.

Words had never left my lips and I forgot the conversation watching BONANZA on TV.

Two weeks passed and Ms. Carolina drove north to visit me in the East Village.

Saturday night we dined at a good restaurant in Soho. I drank more than I should, but I was a sucker for a good Saturday night drunk.

Sunday morning I woke up before Ms. Carolina. Light filtered through the shades. My eyeballs scrapped my sandpaper sockets. My guest lay on her side facing me. She liked to watch me sleep before she fell asleep. I picked up a book, Peter Freuchen’s BOOK OF THE ESKIMOS, and read to escape the nails pounded into my skull.

A little before 11 Ms. Carolina opened her eyes and said, “Sometimes I think you’re dead when you’re reading. You barely breathe.”

The blonde heiress accepted my shrug as an answer. We had one week a month together. She deserved more, but I could only give what I had to give.

“You know the Trappist monks never really practiced a ‘vow of silence’.”

This was news to me. My mother loved the quietude of their monastery outside of Boston.

“St. Benedict, their founder, had three tenets; stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. Benedict preferred the monks to exist in silence, because speech was disruptive to contemplation.” Ms. Carolina was as good as a nun and only wicked with the lights out.

Like my Irish mother I have the gift of gab, although dampened by my Yankee father’s preference for silence. The Maine native had held his piece for years under the blitzkrieg of my mother’s monologues, but today Ms. Carolina wanted to hear my voice and I surrendered to her need.

“I’ve been to the Trappists monasteries in Belgium. They made good beer. Actually not good, excellent. Did I ever tell you why I began my vow of silence?”

“No.” Ms. Carolina was a repository of my vocal history. She had heard many of my stories on our road trips through Guatemala, Peru, and the Far West. Listening was one of her better traits.

“Back in 1979 the phone in my 10th Street apartment was shut off.”

“Let me guess. Non-payment.”

“Yes. I had racked up a $700 bill tracking down the whereabouts of my blonde girlfriend from Buffalo. My broken heart remained broken all that time. My service was cut for months. I never could get together the money to pay the bill. There wasn’t much of a reason for me to go out on Sunday and I stashed the phone under the sofa. One Sunday I was watching a BONANZA re-run and a telephone rang. I thought to myself, “That’s funny, I didn’t think they had phones on the Ponderosa.”

“And they didn’t.” Ms. Carolina laughed at the image. She was my best audience.

“No, it was the phone. I reached under the sofa and brushed off six-months of dust, but didn’t pick up the receiver. The phone rang for a minute and then stopped. I picked up the phone. There was a dial tone. I tried a number. My parents. I hadn’t spoke to them in ages. It worked and not only that I could call anywhere in the world.”


“Even stranger was that the phone would ring every Sunday at the same time.”

“During BONANZA?”

“Correct.” I liked the chemistry between Little Joe and Hoss.

“Did you ever pick it up to find out who was calling?”

“No. The phone stayed in service for two month, then went dead again. After that I never spoke on Sundays. At least until I met you.”

“All that remains is a vow of silence.”

“I try my best.” I nodded and led Ms. Carolina by the hand into my bedroom. There was no need for words in the darkness, as our bodies spoke without words.

That Sunday was over twenty-five years ago. Ms. Carolina has been dead for over ten of them. If she called today from the Beyond, I would answer. It would make her feel good in the Afterlife. This rainy Sunday rain splashed against the windows on Myrtle Avenue. I grabbed a beer from the refrigerator.

The suds poured into my mug with a pleasant glut glug glug.

I raised my glass to Ms. Carolina.

She had been a good friend and tomorrow was Monday.

A day to call my wife Mam and speak with my son on the phone. Fenway will tell me to come home soon.

“I will.”

Until then my vow of silence rules this Sunday, but before the Day of Rest is over I will watch some Bonanza. Hoss has to be speaking somewhere in the Here-Before on an eternity cellphone and I promise I will answer the phone from anyone in the after-life.

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