My Requisite Yelling
by Kerry Cullen
After work on Wednesday, as I often do on Wednesdays, I walked over to the building and did my requisite yelling. As the years have rolled by, less people have been showing up to do the yelling, but I believe it is my civic duty. Anyway, we are still numbered. Yes, in the beginning it was marches, megaphones, signs and flags, stopping traffic. Now it is more of a small, reasonable group, mostly my own generation, the ones who were young when the building became a symbol. Five people, ten. On a good night, fifteen to twenty, not counting the police officers. They are there to make sure we don’t get too close to the building. By now, they trust us not to push our limits. They joke with us. Sometimes they bring donuts, and we have the decency not to tease them for reinforcing stereotypes.
As for the fellow yellers; we have come to recognize each other. Sometimes I see them buying coffee or walking by me on the street, and we smile warmly at each other, or engage in light small talk. Of course the proceedings weigh heavily on everybody’s minds, so we tend not to talk about that. We compare grocery lists. We discuss our children, steering very clear of the natural questions about their fates, how long they will live after we are deceased. All of the projected reports agree: not very.
Which isn’t to say that we are all as dedicated as we could be. The same people do not meet every night, not by a long shot; we sort of take shifts. Many nights even I walk right by the building, on my way home to make dinner for my son, to hear about his day. I give the group outside a high five or a thumbs up, for solidarity. I yell with them maybe twice a month. I think if the group were to dwindle, I would attend more yellings. The knowledge that people are there every night doing the yelling heartens me, and allows me to sleep on the nights when I haven’t yelled at the building myself.
It isn’t as if yelling is the only thing I do. I write letters. I make phone calls. I volunteer my time. I post long messages on my feeds. I amplify the voices of the less privileged. I try to disseminate the truth. (I recognize something as the truth when I read it and it reflects what I have seen in the world around me, and what I have learned to be true with proven facts and figures. The definition felt shoddy when I first came up with it, and I fear it only feels more so as time goes on.)
I try to explain all of this to my teenage son. Even basic realities sound ridiculous when said out loud like this, even more ridiculous when insisted upon, but I keep at it. He thinks I’m being silly and old-fashioned by reiterating certain principles, but still, as far as I know, he has never bitten into another animal’s flesh. This knowledge helps me sleep; though he has inherited boatloads of shame from me and from the world at large, this is one that he will never carry.
Tonight, we have a pretty good group–I count eighteen, aside from me, and a few of the young people even carry hand-lettered signs. A news story was released this morning about certain rights being taken even harsher and more forcefully than they had already been taken, and it seems to have roused some sentiment. I have heard of other groups in other cities, also assembling. The thought warms my heart that maybe we are not losing hope, maybe we can build again. We yell together for a good three hours before we go home, wishing each other well as we travel our separate ways.
When I get home, my son is playing a video game on his phone and will not speak to me. He has to beat the next level. I recognize the game–a simple series of jumps. from one moving platform to another, to another. Because of the speed and placement of the platforms, usually if the avatar falls, he is caught by platform just below, or maybe the platform below that. But sometimes, due to nasty tricks of fate and timing, he can stumble and plummet between the platforms, all the way down into the raging pit of fire that lies at the bottom of the game. I try not to disturb my son when there is a chance that he may fall into a raging pit of fire. I go upstairs, instead, and try to sleep.
The next morning, my son has awakened before me, and he is making pancakes, like he does sometimes. I love pancakes. I kiss him on the cheek and he says, gross, and wipes it off. Such is the way with teenage boys. I’m not offended, though I remember the day he first pulled his hand away from mine as if its date was carved into my sternum. When I remember days like those, I repeat to myself, “I am doing the best that I can.”
And I am. My son’s father is absent. Most fathers are absent these days, in one way or another. My son will likely grow up to be a father and absent himself as well, which is a fact that cuts me to the quick, but I’ve gotten used to it. When I have thoughts that open a pit of horror in my stomach, I count the good things in my life. 1) Today, my son made us pancakes. 2) When I dropped my fork on the ground, he called me a klutz, laughing, and the expression made his whole face pour with light.
The media is abuzz about the coming tropical storm. We didn’t used to get storms this big, not in this city, but on my more irrational days, I think the universe is furious with us. On my more rational days, I remember that we are the ones who behave as if we are furious with the universe. Or just bored of it, or absent from it already, though it is not projected to become entirely unlivable for at least 30 more years. The storm is predicted to hit tomorrow, so I figure I’d better get some good yelling in today, even though I usually don’t yell two days in a row; my throat gets hoarse and my body aches with exhaustion and self-care has been especially important over these trying times. I leave work at five on the dot and walk straight to the building.
It is already beginning to rain, and there are only a few people there: a family, with young children. I know their faces well, and I know the faces of the police officers who watch us. There is one new woman who I’ve never seen before. She is pretty, with dark hair that curls under her chin and blue eye makeup that is already beginning to run. I sidle next to her and smile at everything she says. I want to offer my hand, or more. I get the sense that she, like me, may be tempted to engage in certain forbidden proclivities that I became attuned to after my son’s father left us–but the police officer who shared a bag of chips with me on a cold night here three years ago is eyeing me, and I remember my place. I stand and yell with her for four hours, even after the family goes home to get some sleep. We do not speak to each other, though the smile she gives me when we finally part ways is electric and wistful.
When I go home, I feel lonesome. With all the windows shut, the house smells close and rancid. My son is playing his game again, and I can’t help but plop in the chair across from him and weep openly. My son keeps playing for a little while, then looks up.
“Don’t mind me,” I say bitterly. “Play your game.”
He shrugs. “It’s fine; I just died.”
I nod. I look to the window, rain streaming down the glass. I remember during one of the first nights of yelling, how photographers followed us as we marched through the streets, and every time a camera flash went off, the raindrops were illuminated midair. I remember how strong my body was back then. I remember the police looking at each other, worried that all these strong bodies might overtake them. I remember how they needed barricades to keep us in, how we stopped traffic, how we made ourselves heard.
“Some days I feel very hopeless,” I tell him, trying to be tender. He is still young, after all, and I don’t want to scare him.
“Hopelessness is the human condition,” he says. “Best to redirect your energy.”
“I think that’s another way of saying ‘give up.’”
I sit up, lean forward. “How are you helping the world?” I ask. I used to ask him this when he was young, but when he hit adolescence, I wanted to give him space and make sure that he was acting autonomously. It chills me to realize that he hasn’t been acting at all, as far as I can tell.
He laughs. “Oh, I’m not,” he says. “I’m not really that kind of person, you know?”
“What kind of person are you?” I ask, when I mean, what kind of person have you become?
“I don’t know yet,” he says, thoughtful.
I try to stay composed. Tears gather in my eyes, brim without falling. He stands, walks over, and embraces me awkwardly, and I smell meat on his breath.
The thunderstorm tonight is predicted to wreak even more havoc than the news outlets had previously guessed. Everyone on screen is using their serious voices. Many people leave work early in order to buy bottled water and duct tape their windows. I consider going home to wait for my son, but I don’t have the disposition for waiting like he does. Instead, I leave work early and go to the building. I have often worried that one of these nights, when the weather is awful and the whole world feels hopeless, I will reach it and there will be nobody else there.
I reach the building and nobody else is there, not even the police. Wind whips savagely around the street corners, and the rain pelts my face. I pull my scarf tight under my chin. Traffic is at a standstill—everyone had the same idea about rushing to get home, and now nobody can move. I yell for maybe half an hour. There are no pedestrians on the streets; even the police have taken the night off. It occurs to me that if I want to escalate the effects of my protest to property damage, now would be the time to do it.
I walk closer than they have ever allowed us, so that I am standing right up against the building. Its face is dark, glossy marble, and under the thin streetlight I can faintly see my own rain-distorted reflection. I reach out and press my hand against its bulk. In my many years of yelling at the building, I have never been permitted to touch it. Not that I’ve especially wanted to, but I’m surprised to find that it doesn’t feel like evil incarnate. Granted: I don’t know the texture of evil incarnate.
As I press my palm against it, I close my eyes and picture my son at home, waiting for me while the sky goes dark and green with fury. My disappointment in him flows through me in complicated currents. I want to remain open-minded, especially regarding my own flesh and blood. I wonder if he is more astute than I am, having been raised in this world. To him, the present reality is not a pit he tripped and plummeted into. It is a platform, and maybe he is trying to ascend, or maybe he just wants to hold his place.
I turn away from the building, lean against it, and slide down its side to sit on the ground. It feels cold and solid against my spine. An overhanging eave provides shelter from the rain. I stay there while the storm rages on, while the sound of thunder rises all around us.
Kerry Cullen‘s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, One Teen Story, and more. She is an editorial assistant at Henry Holt, she earned her MFA at Columbia University, and she is currently writing a novel about sex, god, and Christian rock.