blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
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Dumb Noise

We’re not the kind of people that go places on weekends like this. Other than watching some NASCAR and thinking once or twice about those that went before us and trying not to think about when we might go after them, weekends like this don’t look or behave too much unlike any other three days in a row. And none of us boat or fish or have grandchildren that are close enough to drive to. Only the kids that rent the falling-down Jameson house are gone. Who knows where they blasted off to. Everyone else, we’re here and the sprinklers are going, the mowers are roaring, and every house has the stars and bars out swaying in the weak breeze. We might wave to each other when we go out to pick up the paper—bending at the knee to save the back—or we might not. If you took all our ages and added them up, you’d have a number big enough to crush a truck with.

It’s early Saturday morning when it starts up, one of them car alarms that everybody’s got but no one pays attention to. Mary and I are at the breakfast nook, drinking coffee. She’s puzzling over a crossword, and I’m reading in the newspaper about how some mother in Tennessee drowned her twin babies in the bathtub and said God told her to do it. I’m shaking my head, about to say something like, “God’s getting tired of being an excuse,” when it starts up. Woo-woo-woo-woo—like that. Goes for about ten minutes, and when I look out the window I can see ol’ Harry standing in his yard all stout and bowed like a bulldog, trying to figure out where all that dad-gum noise is coming from. Then it quits. Mary sighs, says, “Thank Goodness.” Ol’ Harry, he goes back to winding up his hose and that takes him until the alarm starts again.

I put the paper down and go outside, where it’s hotter than a fresh road to Hell. Ain’t supposed to be like this this time of year, not even June yet and—well, nobody’s arthritis needs this much heat. I wave over to Harry, but I don’t think he sees me. Too busy listening. Up the street, Candace and Virgie are on the sidewalk, both their heads turning round and round like two withered old owls. They see me and wave and I raise my hands and shrug my shoulders and they do the same back. Then it stops again.

“Where it coming from?” Harry says.

Candace and Virgie are walking down the street, on their way.

“No idea,” I say, crossing the street, “Can’t tell if it’s coming from this direction or that.” I point once left and once right.

“Let’s hope that’s all of it,” Candace says. She’s wearing shorts and her legs look like cured meat. “Those things are just awful. So loud.”

“My grandson,” Virgie says, smiling, “says those car alarms don’t do a thing. Where he lives, they go off all the time.” Virgie’s got on these sunglasses that cover almost her whole face. Makes it look like part of her is missing, like she sees through a black hole. Her grandson, Mark, lives in New York City, and she thinks nothing tops it even if he is a queer.

“Don’t know how he stands it,” Harry says. “I need quiet. If my hearing went today I’d be the happiest geezer in the whole dad-gum state.” He jabs a thumb toward his house and winks, like then he wouldn’t have to listen to her, her being Rhonda, a nice lady but stern when things don’t go her way, which is often by how stern she is. I start to laugh but Candace and Virgie aren’t amused. “Oh Harry, you don’t mean that,” Candace says, and flaps her hand like a bee’s getting too close.

Harry looks down at his hose, his lawn, and shifts a bit from side to side. “I guess that’s it,” he says.

“I guess so,” I say.

Harry gets back to work—Rhonda doesn’t take kindly to ol’ Harry giving too much talk time to the other ladies. Virgie and Candace move on, going on a walk. Why? I haven’t the slightest. By the time I get back across the street, there’re big sweat spots on my shirt and my skin feels like it’ll slide right off my bones. To go on a walk, voluntarily, seems like a symptom of something, some wit-scrabbling onset. I go inside, and the AC makes me shiver.

Ain’t but two minutes before the car alarm starts again. “Somebody’s gonna have to call the police,” I say. Even in here, with the windows shut tight and the air going full, the alarm is loud, piercing.

“Harry’ll do it.” Mary says. She’s still at her crossword, chewing on her pencil. “That man can’t stand noise. Anyway, I’m sure it will stop soon.”


She’s right, it does. Next three hours: not a peep out of it. And I’m just turning on the tube, thinking I’ll catch the start of the race, maybe drift off about lap thirty, then wake for the finish. But up it starts again, and even with the volume on 28 and me doing all I can to ignore it, to get lost in the race and root for someone, anyone, I can still hear it, plain as day. It goes solid for forty minutes.

“You should go outside. Try to figure out where it’s coming from.” Mary’s on the davenport in the living room, working her needles, some sweater or scarf or terrible warm thing running out next to her like a pelt she’s growing.

“Must be damn near a hundred out there,” I tell her. “No way. It’ll go off eventually.”


“You been hearing that?” Harry’s at my door now, along with Paul Rove and Bernie Webster. Bernie wears big sunglasses but not huge like Virgie’s. Just big. Paul’s got a golf club in his veiny little hand, a wedge. He shakes it, and says, “Whosever car it is . . . ”

I step out on the porch with them. The alarm’s going off again. Can heat somehow turn the volume up on something? Because I swear to Jesus it’s louder than it was this morning. I sweat right away. “You think it’s coming from those kids’ house?”

Paul steps forward. Like a soldier volunteering for something dangerous. “Yes I do,” he says. “They’re the only ones not home, far as I can figure.”

“But there’s not even any cars parked over there,” I say. “They’re all gone for the weekend.”

“What about the garage?” Bernie says. “Might be a car in there, something one of them never drives.”

“Something with a car alarm?”


“Well,” Ol’ Harry says, “we need to get over there and figure this out pronto. Rhonda’s all wound up about this and if it keeps on she’ll be on a rampage by nightfall. Come on, let’s round up a posse.”


“Maybe we should call the police,” Lester says. When we knocked on his door ten minutes ago, it was like Ed McMahon was there with one of them big cardboard checks. Don’t remember the last time I saw someone so excited to see a bunch of sweaty old men. But now it seems his zeal for the mission is fading. He’s drawn and white, and the pomade’s losing its grip on some of his hair.

“Maybe that’s the end of it,” Tom McCall says. “We’ve been standing in front of this garage door for half an hour. And it’s hotter than hell’s jalapeño out here. I’m done.” And Tom, who didn’t seem to care much in the first place, storms off—which, with a cane, barely kicks up a breeze.

The rest of us stare at each other, a loose circle of confusion. In addition to Harry, Paul, Bernie, Lester, and myself, there’s Doc Watson, Arnie Klein, Ferd Miller, and Jerry Rigotti. Nine of us standing in the driveway of a rental, listening for something that ain’t there.

“Just hold on, now,” Ol’ Harry says, “Give it some time. It’ll start up again real soon.”

Twenty minutes later—after hearing Doc’s opinion on global warming (“propaganda and general nonsense”), Ferd’s latest golf score (“3 over par”), and Jerry’s take on his new orthopedic inserts (“like walking on feathers”)—we break up, each of us shuffling back toward home and dinner and our nightly rounds of this and that.

“Good to see some of those guys,” I tell Mary. “Been a long time since I said so much as boo to Arnie or Doc. Good guys.”

“That’s a shame,” Mary says. She’s in the kitchen stirring at a pan of Tuna Helper. “Why don’t you boys play cards or go golfing together?”

“Ah,” I say, “we’re all too old. You know what it would take for eight or nine guys our age to get together, do something?”

“We ladies do it. Sewing club. Mystery book group. Church. And we’re old too, you know.”

“But you women need it more than we do.”

“What’s that, John?”

“Companionship, friends, things to do. Us farts are happy with nothing.”

“Oh that can’t be true.”

But it is, is what I’m thinking when the alarm starts again.


Not fifteen minutes go by, and there’s a knock on the door. Almost dark now and at least ten men are on our porch. Even Tom’s back, clutching his cane tight with big white knuckles. I wonder if I look like they do: all serious, flat lines for mouths, drooping unblinking hound’s eyes.

“This has got to end, John,” Harry says. “Rhonda says she wants the back fence refinished tomorrow. If this doesn’t end, I’ll be grubbing out blackberry bushes or weather-stripping the windows come Monday.”

“Why don’t we call the police?”

Arnie Klein steps forward a skosh. “Ain’t necessary. We’re grown men, and I think we can take care of this ourselves.”

There’s a murmur of agreement. “Okay,” I say, “let me get my slippers.”

We’ve had our share of issues with the kids in the Jameson house. When Dick died two autumns ago, Eileen didn’t take but six weeks to get herself set up in Destin, and rather than sell a paid-for house, she lets it out to college kids. Three or four of them, and none stay much longer than six months. I have no idea how Eileen keeps it straight, the rent. But maybe Dick’s life insurance was enough so that she don’t have to worry about who pays or when. Problem is, we end up with the parties, the squealing tires, the quarreling, and just all the noise that seems to go with being young these days. Right now, there’re three guys and one girl living over there, which in my day was as unholy an arrangement as you could imagine. Not only that, one of them—the girl, I think, but everything seems communal over there—she owns a late model Jeep Cherokee with a bum muffler that belches smoke and rattles and blats. Damn thing is the bane of the block. Now I know times change, but some things are hard to get used to. Like not having milk delivered or doctors that come to your house or the guarantee of a little peace and quiet. Those were good things. You got to have milk. When you’re sick you don’t feel much like going anywhere. And blessed silence: could we maybe just be quiet for a spell?

“You sure it’s coming from here?” Jerry Rigotti says. We’re all standing in front of the Jameson garage.

“What?” Harry says.

Jerry asks louder.

“Well, hell,” Harry says, “sounds like it, like we’re right on top of it. Like if we were any closer it’d be in my ass.”

The alarm stops right at ol’ Harry’s “my” and his “ass” is all of sudden the loudest thing on the block. We all laugh, and even by the pale light of the streetlamp, we can tell Harry’s face is redder than a sunburnt tomato.

Doc Watson and Tom McCall join us in the driveway. Doc’s brushing off his Hawaiian shirt like he got into a cobweb. “When you’re round back,” Doc says, pointing towards the rear of the garage, “sounds like it’s coming from further off. Maybe a house or two down.”

“No way,” says Harry. “It’s in this garage, I tell you. If it ain’t a car alarm, then it’s something else. Maybe something illegal.”

“You’re right, Harry,” says Bernie. “Got to be right here.”

“Well how we going to get in there?” Tom says. “Garage is adjoined. No windows either.”

“We can’t go to bed with this thing bleating like a calf caught in a hailstorm,” Ferd says.

“Anyone check the front door?” Harry says.

“Locked.” says Tom. “backdoor too.”

At least three of us mutter something like a cuss.

“You know,” Lester pipes up, “this whole thing’s got me thinking that we should organize an ad hoc group of community watchmen, like a Guardian Angels for the retired set. We’d have a protocol for situations like this.” Lester is a retired organizer for one of the big unions, UAW I think it is, which most of us forgive him for because Lester keeps his lawn so nice and LaRue, his wife, is always baking things. That woman is a damn good cook. Lester thinks of himself as an idea guy, and maybe he is, because we’re all nodding.

“Not a bad thought, Lester,” Harry says. “A neighborhood needs every neighbor.”

“Except for these damn kids, right?” I say, and we all laugh because it’s good to have lived long enough to curse youth and shake our spotted fists at all its dumb noise.


Next morning we meet in front of Ol’ Harry’s at five. I counted at least twice that the alarm went off last night, but I turned the fan on high and was able to sleep.

Harry, on the other hand, is on his fourth cup of coffee. “Damn thing woke me at three and I’ve been wearing a trench in the carpet waiting for you guys. Now let’s get over there.”

Lester is the only one who doesn’t show. “The idea man,” Tom says, shaking his head.

“Maybe it wasn’t in his contract,” Arnie says.

“Or is he on strike?” Doc says, and feigns like he’s got a picket. “Hell no, I won’t show, car alarms have rights, you know!”

We all laugh, except for Harry, who can’t keep still.

“Give me an L,” Doc says.

L!” we say.

“Give me an A.”


“Give me a Z.”


“Give me a Y.”

But before we can give him his Y and tell him what it spells, a voice pipes up. “Sorry I’m late.” Lester, out of the early morning murk, sneaks up on us. He’s out of breath and already glistening with sweat. “LaRue fell getting out of bed, but she’s alright. Just a scare. So what’s going on?”

Doc’s turn to redden. “Nothing,” he mumbles, “Just . . . Harry, you ready?”

“Born ready,” Harry says, “But I want to die finished. Now let’s go.”


Arnie Klein and Jerry Rigotti find a back window with a broken screen, but that’s it. By flashlight, it seems every other is closed and latched.

“Break it,” Harry says. In the weird light, he looks more like a catfish than a bulldog, all white and underbitten.

“That’s not a good idea,” Lester says. And a few of the other guys don’t seem too comfortable with this, just to silence a car alarm. But just then the thing sounds again, and before Lester can yell anything about the rule of law or calling the police or how maybe we should just think about this, Harry picks up a rock and puts it through the window. The crash is all but drowned out by the noise. “There,” Harry says. “One of the kids’ll think they did it when they were drunk. And God knows there’s plenty of drinking going on here—we’ve all seen their recycling bin.”

Why all of us go inside I’ll never know, but we do. One old fart after another, clambering through a window until the ten of us are standing in a small bedroom, the girl’s, by the flower-print comforter and the clothes and shoes strewn over the floor. We all look around for a few seconds. “Hey boys,” Arnie says, “look at this.” He’s holding a brassiere—not much more than a strip of black lace—like one might hold a garter snake by the tail.

“Put that down,” I hiss. “What do you think this is? Bad enough that we’re in here at all. We don’t have to act like perverts, too.”

“John’s right,” Bernie says. “Now Arnie, put down the bra. Or hand it over to me.”

And even I can’t help but laugh.

Smiling, Harry says, “Come on.”

I’d been in this house a few times before, for dinners with Dick and Eileen. Eileen collects everything. I mean, she collects collections. Precious Moments figurines. Playing cards. Matchbooks. Pens. Antique curling irons. Anything to do with clowns. And this stuff was all over the house. Don’t know how Dick put up with it on all the shelves, the TV, the end tables, the kitchen counters. But now it’s all gone and the house looks so different, like if I didn’t know I was in Dick and Eileen’s home, I’d tell you it wasn’t theirs. Only the TV’s in the same place. Above it is a flickering neon Budweiser sign that someone forgot to unplug before they left. There’s a ratty couch and an inflatable yellow chair and a pair of video game controllers on the floor. On the dining table are a couple of open textbooks, and beneath it a bunch of scattered, red-marked papers, like someone brushed them off in a fit.

“Does it smell funny to you in here?” Paul Rove says, loud enough to hear over the alarm.

We all sniff, ten old noses doing their best. “Maybe,” I say. “But my sniffer ain’t so good. Mary though, my God, she can—”

“Yeah, Paul’s right,” Ferd says. “Does smell strange in here. Like fumes. Which way’s the garage?”

“This way,” I say, pointing to the kitchen. “There’s a door.”

Harry takes the lead, but pauses for a second.

“What’s the matter?” Tom says.

Harry frowns, nods his head. “Nothing,” he says and opens the door.


The good news is we find the alarm. The silver, late-model Jeep we all loathe is blaring and flashing like it’s having some kind of seizure. Should be just a matter of disconnecting the battery, reconnecting it, and going home. But we all seem to see the hose at the same time, green and pinched between the driver-side window and the doorjamb like a snake caught under the business end of a shovel. Then the tailpipe and the other end of the hose.

“Oh, Jesus,” Harry says.

“No,” someone else says.

I don’t remember who actually opens the door. Thinking it was Tom. Might’ve been Lester. Who cares, right? But when he does, I thank God for my bad sniffer. Jerry and Harry and Ferd all just about crumple, put their hands over their faces and turn away. Me and Arnie and Doc and a couple other guys step forward, and there she is, laying back in a fully reclined bucket seat made of gray leather. Bad things are already starting in on her, and she looks nothing like the cute little thing we’ve all looked up from our edging and pruning and overseeding to take a gander at.

“Can we call the police now?” Lester says.

“Yeah,” Harry says, “Let’s leave her alone.”


I’ve heard it said that a coincidence can start a story, but it can’t end it. Well, lives aren’t stories, now are they?

What happened is that she started with a nearly empty tank. Whether she meant to, thinking that maybe the gas would dry up before it was too late, or if that’s just how it played out, nobody knows. But the gas did dry up, it was too late, and then the battery started to go. Made the whole electrical system act screwy. Lester, our UAW idea man, guesses the computer went haywire. “Cars these days,” he tells us, “they pretty much think for themselves—or not.” And, he insists, it shouldn’t have killed her. California emissions laws and catalytic converters have taken all but a fraction of the carbon monoxide out of exhaust. But because her system was so wrecked and rusted from front to back, the CO went straight out the pipe and through the hose. Into her lungs, her blood. But none of that provides much, know what I mean? It’s hard now to even look at the Jameson house, what with Dick gone and what happened to the girl. Jordan. None of us even knew her name until we read it in the paper.

A week, ten days later, Ol’ Harry and I end up in our yards at the same time, around ten in the a.m. What little cool the morning might’ve come with has already burned off, and I’m standing over one of my flowerbeds, looking at the weeds twisting out of the mulch, sweating at just the thought of yanking them. Harry’s already hard at work, on hands and knees, digging little holes, pushing poppies into each one. Ever since Rhonda found out about what we did—how we came to find the girl—the poor man’s been out here every day, mowing, pruning, planting, fertilizing. His skin has turned the color of a paper bag, and I swear to God he doesn’t stand as straight as he once did.

I’m in no hurry to start, probably looking for an excuse not to. Finally, Harry looks up. “John,” he says, creaking into something akin to upright. “Hey, how are you? How are you, John?”

I wave, nod. “I’m too damn hot,” I say. “That’s what I am.”

“Yup,” he says, and wipes a runnel of sweat off his dirty forehead. He’s wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a cruise ship on it, and the way the cotton’s all soaked and stuck to his skin, it look likes the boat might go down any minute. “You know, I would like to believe Doc,” he says, “that all this heat is just the result of ‘temporary climatic shifts,’ but Jesus, I don’t know. He’s got a pool.”

“You see the game?” I say.

“I did,” Harry says. “Shame.”

Neither of us says anything then, and Harry looks down at the three flats of poppies he’s got to get through. I put the toe of my boot on a churned-up place in the lawn and press it flat.

“Harry?” I say.

“Yeah, John.”

“I was thinking about Lester’s idea, the neighborhood watch group.”

“Guardian Geezers.”

I chuckle. “That’s right. Seems like the way things are now, that it might be good. Give us guys a chance to get together and take care of some things. Community.”

Harry nods, raises a finger, and opens his mouth. But just then a Jeep—not like Jordan’s, this one’s got the roll bars and those knobby tires—this Jeep comes roaring down the block. And in it are three young girls, all in shorts and bikini tops, their long and tended hair fluttering behind them like capes. There’s a lake outside of town, a fouled reservoir, and that’s where they’re heading, I’m sure, to drink beer, toss the Frisbee, and taunt morality and cancer with their untied bikini straps. I’m not so old that I don’t know what a good-looking girl looks like. And these girls, when they see Harry and me, the driver slows down, like we’re strange children who might dart into the street to chase down a runaway bottle of heart medication. All three of them glance first at Harry then at me, and I know how we must look, bald and stooped and sweaty—almost unimaginable to such young minds. I watch the driver because I have to pick one and she’s the closest. Her lips are the color of bubble gum and they’re pressed into a flat smile, the kind designed to keep laughter in. Reckon she hasn’t had enough practice, because the laughter wins, and it comes out of all three like a savage wind. Then the engine roars, and they speed off. Harry and I watch after them. They go by the Jameson house. They disappear around the corner.

Ol’ Harry turns back to me, grins, shakes his head. “Lordy, Lordy,” he says. “Occasionally it is good to be the butt of a joke, even if you don’t know what the joke is.” He places a hand on his chest and absently kneads the loose, sopping flesh there. “Now, what were you saying?”

I try to think, gather myself, but I’m at a loss. “Maybe we’ll talk about it some other time,” I say. “Maybe.”

Harry releases his breast and indicates the flowers on the ground. “Yeah. I got all these. Rhonda, she . . . ”

“And I got all these weeds,” I say. And with that, Harry and I go to our knees and work the earth ‘til we’re done.  end

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