Talking with Funny Voices
by Patrick W. Gallagher
For familiar reasons that require no elaboration, Rick and Betty had to spend all of their time indoors and were not able to see friends and family. So, to break up the monotony and loneliness, they created new personalities by speaking in exaggerated accents and pantomiming fantastical gestures.
It started with dinner. There was nowhere outside the apartment for them to go, so making dinner was the big activity of the day. They had jobs they could do from home—Rick was an accountant and Betty was a lawyer. They both considered themselves fortunate to have incomes that were even somewhat reliable and that they could do their work without risking infection. But keeping their eyes open while staring at their computers all day, without the stimulation of other human voices, the occasional trip to the office kitchen, or even their commute, was a new job in its own right. It felt dehydrating, like their computers were cooking all the moisture out of their bodies.
So when dinner time arrived, things would feel normal for the first time in the day. Neither of them had ever before spent all day, every day festering in their sweaty pajamas, without walking anywhere, for such long periods of time. Yet for the ten years that they had lived together, they had made a little party out of getting ready for dinner almost every night. Plus they always had wine, beer, cocktails, or more often than not some combination of the three. They tried to make it feel festive, like every day they had together was cause for celebration.
One day, Rick stood at the kitchen counter chopping an onion. The fumes made him cry worse than usual. Betty sidled up to him and asked, “What’s going on here?”
Rick sniffed and said, “I’m Protest Paul.” He spoke with a vaguely Southern Californian, “hey man”-type affectation. “I got pepper-sprayed at a protest today and I’m in a lot of pain.”
Betty recoiled. “Rick, I can’t believe you would make fun of protesters,” she said. “For getting pepper-sprayed?”
“I’m not Rick, I’m Paul,” Rick said. “And I’m not making fun of anyone, man. Let me tell you what happened to me the first time I got arrested, man.”
Betty was in no mood for a speech but she decided to listen to what “Protest Paul” had to say anyway. She was bored. As far as her interest in TV was concerned, that cupboard was empty. The one-hour drama had once seemed like the pinnacle of human artistic achievement, but the more she re-watched even the most acclaimed antihero sagas of the preceding decade, the more overwrought and formulaic they seemed. Like testosterone-addled soap operas. And there were no more funny comedies. Betty thought comedy became less funny the more expensive it looked, and all of the new sitcoms had fancy sets, costumes, even CGI. Everything new, in any genre, had this gloss over it that felt like an anesthetic. Just well-dressed zombies standing around reciting gibberish. Reality TV especially.
Also, Betty was annoyed with Rick himself. Why was he doing this dumb bit, speaking in a lame Cheech and Chong voice and calling himself by a silly name? The last thing she wanted to do right now was talk to Rick. So she stood back and steeled herself up to listen to the words of this stranger, Protest Paul.
Betty and Protest Paul ended up talking for hours, much to their mutual surprise. Protest Paul’s genuine passion for social justice captivated Betty. He said that ever since he was a little kid, when the Rodney King beating got caught on tape, he always felt a pull on his stomach, like an actual rope buried in the flesh of his midsection being physically tugged by a force outside of himself, whenever he witnessed an abuse of power. And it didn’t have to be a naked display of animal violence, like the Rodney King attack itself—power dressed up in all the formal niceties, with tailored suits and Ivy League degrees to adorn otherwise dead-eyed thugs, appalled him even more. Protest Paul described how lonely he felt that weekend in March 2003 when Bush launched the Iraq War to a mix of plaudits and indifference. He told Betty how guilty he felt for his total inability to stop it.
Betty had known Rick for well over a decade. They discussed politics often, but they never really left the conceptual framework of the news cycle. When the news said talk about how Trump was withholding aid from Ukraine, they talked about it over dinner; in earlier years, when the news had said to talk about Obamacare or marriage equality, they accepted their marching orders and discussed those topics too. But in all the time she’d known him, she never once imagined that he conceived of the political world from any perspective but that of an enthusiastic but passive individual spectator.
The next day, Rick and Betty woke up, drank coffee, and went to their computers to work from home just like they normally did. Rick acted no differently than usual, as though Protest Paul really were a totally different person who Rick himself did not even know. But Betty felt motivated to think about their situation in a whole new way.
Spending all of their time at home, eyes and wrists shackled to their laptops, felt oppressive and boring. But, Betty realized, it was also just a sharpening of the direction in which their lives had already been headed since before they were even old enough to vote. They were individuals. They had each other and they had their families, but any form of social grouping any larger than that existed at an impossible level of abstraction, outside of space and time. Even the sense that they were Americans, people culturally and legally affiliated with a very big and influential country, seemed to lack meaning.
That night, Betty went into her closet and dug out a rainbow clown wig that she had purchased and not used for a Halloween party two years earlier. She snuck up behind Rick while he was standing at the stove, glazing shallots in their cast iron skillet, and tapped him on the shoulder.
He started and turned around. When he saw the wig, he started again.
“Guess who I am!” she said. Betty spoke in a very high, childlike voice, not unlike Elmo from Sesame Street.
“You’ll have to give me some clues,” Rick said.
“I’m where you spend all of your time . . . and all of your space!” Betty said.
“OK,” Billy said. “Are you . . . this apartment?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed.
Rick found Apartment’s cartoonish voice distracting. But hearing her point of view on the world was a beguiling surprise. Apartment explained how she watched him and Betty every day and how happy it made her that they were home so much more than they used to be. But after a while, Apartment noticed that Betty had started to look sad. More than sad—“clinically depressed,” Apartment believed was the term? And Apartment could not for the life of her understand why, until she remembered how many more voices Betty must have been used to hearing, outside, in the wider world full of people who she never got to see anymore.
“People are strange,” Apartment said in her high-pitched Muppet voice. “You need to be around each other to feel like you’re on the same team. Like you’re there for each other—you know, like you’ve got each other’s backs. That’s not the way apartments are.”
Rick furrowed his brow. “How are apartments different?” he asked.
“All apartments exist in a mystical state of unity,” Apartment replied. “That’s why when one of us increases in value, all the rest of us do, too, at the same time. We don’t need to speak, or really communicate in any way, to make ourselves feel connected to one another.”
“Wow,” Rick said. He nodded. Acrid smoke began to drift up from the shallots burning on the stove behind him, but it didn’t bother him, so transfixed by Apartment was he. “Wow,” he repeated.
Apartment blinked; for just a single momen, she was Betty again, just as amazed and incredulous at Apartment’s psychic revelation as Rick was. But then she blinked again and Apartment returned. Calm, clear-eyed, and totally sure of herself despite her cartoonish voice.
“If apartments have no need of speech, how did you learn to speak?” Rick asked.
Apartment shook her head. “I have no earthly idea,” she said.
Rick opened his mouth before he knew what he wanted to say. Then, right on cue, the whistle of the smoke alarm activated. So loud that Apartment could not have heard him say a word even if he had wanted her to.
* * *
The next morning, Betty and Rick’s feelings upon opening their eyes for their first time were no different than usual. Their hearts sank a little bit when they realized that it was time to head to their computers and begin working from home. Then their hearts lifted again, but by less than the amount by which they had initially sunk, when they remembered that they would also be able to take relaxing hot showers and drink energizing cups of coffee.
But then there was a third phase of thought—an entirely new one that neither of them had ever experienced before. The new, third phase of thought put them both into a rapturous state of mental excitement, each one independently of the other.
They stared at the ceiling with wide-open eyes. Apartment, they both thought simultaneously. It is such an incredible source of joy, friendship, and solidarity to know that you, the very walls of this space, are here with us in conscious friendship and that all of the other apartments are here, too, by the transitive property, as a result of the psychic connection that participants in the real estate market all share.
That night, Betty stood at the kitchen counter dicing garlic. It was the most time-consuming and tedious part of preparing dinner and she could not believe that she had gotten stuck doing it. Rick tapped her on the shoulder, she started and whirled around. She saw him wearing a cape and top hat that she remembered him buying for a graduation party that they didn’t end up going to, plus black lipstick and rouge on his cheeks.
“I am Melkor,” he said in a deep voice. “It was I who granted Apartment the gift of speech.”
“OK,” Betty said.
“I have the power to grant all inanimate objects the ability to speak,” Melkor continued.
Betty smiled and leaned back on her heels. “Cool,” she said.
“Would you like to speak to your couch?” Melkor asked.
Betty thought about it. She cupped her chin between her thumb and forefinger. Finally, she shook her head.
Melkor looked around their living room. “How about your television set?” he asked.
“Nah,” Betty said.
He moved to Betty’s right and opened one of the cupboards on the wall behind her. “What about some of these wine glasses and fine china? Wedding gifts from family members and close friends?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I can work with that.”
Later that evening, after Betty and Melkor finished preparing the meal, they made place settings at their dinner table for two of the wine goblets that Betty’s Aunt Sheilagh had gotten for them off of their wedding registry. Betty provided voices for both goblets—one that had a high pitch and sounded pretty similar to Apartment, and another that sounded like Betty herself but with an exaggerated French accent. Both goblets recounted how magical their wedding had felt, what an incredible gathering of people, how glorious it was when everyone stood up and applauded at the end of the ceremony.
For the next few weeks, Betty and Rick’s apartment became a furious cacophony of voices. Every time they ordered something new from Amazon—any kind of tool, toiletry items like new toothbrushes, even books—Melkor would grant it the ability to speak. When all of the voices that either Rick or Betty could provide started to sound the same, they studied old episodes of Hasbro and Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows on YouTube in an effort to learn new ones. On occasion, Apartment stopped by and would give them updates from the wordless realm of real estate solidarity.
Rick and Betty felt a lot less alone until at last they invented characters who could see the truth of what had happened: in their quest to simulate human connection through the use of consumer goods, they had only redoubled the same alienation an social atomization that had already driven them so close to madness. Rick and Betty feared a situation where they would return to sharing physical spaces with other people but would not be able to recognize their common humanity, seeing only rotted piles of mobile flesh carrying clothes from one place to another.
The characters who pointed this out to Rick and Betty were a sun-bleached copy of Discipline & Punish that neither of them had opened in a decade and an empty bottle of pricey champagne that they could never bring themselves to throw away, just because it was so fancy and drinking it had felt so special. Rick and Betty gave the book and the bottle the voices of arrogant, yet stammering and inarticulate graduate students who said “like” every other word. And as soon as the two characters unspooled their bleak prophecy, Rick and Betty looked at each other. As silently as two apartments, they conveyed to one another instantaneously that they would haul both the book and the empty bottle out to the street. They had enjoyed building a world together and ripping it all down now was too sad to contemplate.
Patrick W. Gallagher‘s stories and essays have appeared in Gawker Review of Books, n+1, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The New York Times, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and elsewhere. Patrick also hosts and curates The Farm Reading Series, NYC’s destination for the newest and best satirical and/or critical writing in any genre, and holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from New York University and a JD from Brooklyn Law School.
Photo: Enis Yavuz/Unsplash
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