The Sound of Glass Breaking

This is a mainstream story I wrote while my wife and I were living in Salt Lake City, Utah. We were only in Salt Lake for a year while Kathy did her doctoral internship at the University of Utah Counseling Center and worked on her dissertation. I got a job at the university training people how to use their telephones and voicemail (“Press pound. That’s right, pound.”) At night I tried to get some writing done.

I thought external deadlines would spur me to productivity, so I took advantage of my staff discount and enrolled in a fiction writing course with François Camoin. The first assignment eventually turned into “Free, and Clear.”  The second was this story. (The third and final story was a mess best lost to history called “Golf Digest Fiction Supplement #8: Love on the Links”—an aburdist thing about golf-cart-jousting octogenarians who fight and fall in love.)

That year we lived in a dark and dreary basement apartment. The landlord called it “garden level.” I called it “soul-killing.” But we were broke and the price was right. Salt Lake was a great place to live, even if you weren’t Mormon, but in that apartment I felt like we were underground and under siege. Almost everything else in the story is made up, but my God, that apartment…

The Sound of Glass Breaking

by Daryl Gregory

Three a.m. and footsteps creak overhead: the cop is home. Gordon comes awake—eyes still closed, body still paralyzed by sleep—but listening. Marti, a warm mass beside him, sleeps through everything. Gordon’s never told her how the cop wakes him every night.

There’s nothing for a long time. Finally the cop speaks: his voice is low and vibrates through the floor, but the words have been absorbed by the wood and plaster. The woman says nothing that he can hear. The bed squeaks in a rhythm. The headboard knocks against the wall—steady, steady—and Gordon rubs a hand past his stomach; he is already hard. Then the woman’s voice, as clear as if she were next to him:

“Shit.” The word sounds delicate. Marti turns on her side and one arm falls across his chest. Later Gordon listens to the man clump to the bathroom and turn on the shower, listens to the water drum against the tub.

“We’re throwing the damn cat out.” Marti holds the ironing cord, insulation split open, red and yellow and green wires exposed. Some have been chewed through to the copper. Gordon keeps his head down, flips a page of the phonebook and runs his finger down the column: Grocers, Grouting Compounds, Guard Dogs. Guards—Door & Window. “The cat is going to die,” she says.

He can’t listen to her when she gets like this. He picks up the phone and dials. Rufus bats at the cord, snags it with one paw, and bites. Marti screams—really screams, nothing falsely dramatic. Rufus jumps sideways and explodes down the hallway.

There are tears in her eyes. “I’ll fix the iron,” he says. She shakes her head, slowly. Gordon realizes that he and the cat are equally in danger. “I know a guy.”

“There isn’t—” she says. “This isn’t because—” Marti turns toward the window.

Gordon waits. There is nothing safe to say here. A click from the receiver in his lap and a voice sounds distantly. He doesn’t want to lift the handset. He doesn’t want to make a sudden move.

They live in a half-basement apartment, where the windows are waist high from inside, flush with the pavement on the outside. In the summer they keep the windows open and the blinds closed, and at night the sounds are so close it’s as if there are no walls at all; a car door, a conversation in the parking lot, the screeching of cats fighting. The sound of boots on the ceiling. Anything can wake him. Sometimes his eyes snap open and he thinks, They’re coming. He doesn’t know who, or why he’s so certain: these are dream facts. Sometimes he reaches for Marti in the dark and traces the curve from ribs to stomach. Sometimes he presses his cheek against her belly and listens. A month ago there was a bundle of cells and nerves about two inches long in her womb; he had listened like this and not even known it was there.

He watches for them when they leave their apartment: the cop, a little overweight but looking good in his black and gray uniform; the woman much younger, fresh-faced but curiously neutral in her expressions. Gordon has never seen them talk to each other. They do not hold hands. It is difficult to imagine them as the source of the night sounds; it’s difficult for Gordon to visualize anyone except himself and Marti making love.

Gordon and Marti come home from shopping and the cat runs past their legs, into the parking lot. Gordon sets the bags inside the door and turns to get him.

“Just leave him out,” Marti says.

“He’s an indoor cat. He’s declawed.” They’ve had this conversation before.

“If he wants out let him out.” Marti moves past. Gordon stands for awhile, looking into the parking lot.

He props the door open with a five- pound sack of sugar and carries the groceries into the kitchen. “What if he gets hit by a car?”

“We can only hope,” she says, and loops an arm around his neck. She kisses his ear and it’s as loud as a champagne cork.

At work post-its are glued to his computer screen, the surface of his desk, the sides of his coffee mug. There are prioritized lists in his Franklin planner, Action Plans tacked to his cubicle wall, and a silver-framed list of Long Range Goals on fake parchment on the top shelf. The words and paper confuse the issue, blind him; it is impossible to read one word without reading all of them, and soon everything is confetti, visibility down to zero. He responds only to the ring of the phone, and each time he answers it’s with a sense of dread: what have I forgotten now? His Team Leader drops him an E-Mail to tell him he’s falling behind, that he should get focused, but the words blur on the screen and Gordon has to shut his eyes.

Gordon sits upright in bed, heart hammering, and he doesn’t know why. He looks around the dark room. Marti mumbles from her pillow, “What is it?”

Outside, a car door opens. A man swears and then yells something that is all consonants: he’s drunk, Gordon realizes.

He slips out of bed and parts the blinds: the windows are cranked open and there is only the screen between them. Yards away the cop is stepping out of his car, his civilian car, the bumper folded against an iron support column of the carport. The left headlight is shattered. The cop looks at the mess, shakes his head, and turns around. The top buttons of his uniform are undone. Through the screen Gordon can smell oil and hot metal.

“What is it?” Marti says, and the light comes on in the bedroom.

The cop halts in mid stride, and he and Gordon make eye contact. For a moment neither man moves, and then Gordon releases the blinds and whips around: “Jesus, Marti!” It’s half yell, half whisper. Marti flips the light off, but the cop is already stepping forward, Gordon can hear him.

“Hey!” the man shouts. His voice is too close, just inches beyond the screen. “Hey!”

Gordon waits for a foot to tear through the thin mesh and blinds. Finally Marti yells, “We’re calling the police!” Gordon thinks, she doesn’t realize who it is.

The cop sighs. “Shit.” Gordon waits until the shuffling steps fade, then cranks the windows dosed. In bed he spoons against Marti, his arm covering her warm stomach, and listens for the clump of boots on the ceiling.

Rufus knows the sound of his car and as soon as Gordon steps out he hears the cat complaining from the window. He opens the apartment door and Rufus jumps forward, but Gordon is ready and scoops him up. “Hey, boy, how’s it going?”

Rufus bites his hand—not hard— and tries to squirm out of his grasp. Gordon carries him to the grass at the edge of the parking lot. The cop’s parking space is empty. The shards of glass have been swept up. He looks around for other cats or dogs. Rufus can take care of himself. Cats have natural instincts. He sets him down and the cat sniffs the area, then investigates the hedges that line the lot, moving in and out of the undergrowth. Gordon feels a twisting sensation every time Rufus goes out of sight He feels this way when he watches a friend board a plane. Or the night of the miscarriage, when he woke to find Marti’s side of the bed empty.

Gordon goes upstairs to the mailboxes and hears a sound, liquid and human, from the stairs above. A man in a blue bathrobe is sitting on the steps, the heels of his palms pressed against his eyes, a littering of open envelopes and papers at his feet. It’s the cop. His shoulders are shaking. Gordon realizes he’s crying.

The cop starts to move his hands away and Gordon quickly turns to his mailbox, fumbling with the keys. He opens the lock, takes out a mail order catalog and three white envelopes. He tries to appear intensely interested in the cover of the catalog.

“Hey,” the cop says.

Gordon looks up with a smile that says, oh, didn’t see you there. The cop’s eyes are bright, but his manner is familiar, as if they are longtime neighbors who meet every day by the fence to compare gardens. “Hello,” Gordon says.

There is a moment in which Gordon senses that something else could be said, but the cop looks away and Gordon is afraid he’s going to cry again. In his bathrobe, out of uniform, the cop appears older, almost frail. Gordon holds up the catalog in a vaguely explanatory gesture: “Yeah. Well.” He escapes down the stairs.

“I’m going out to look for him.”

“It’s only been a couple of hours,” Marti says. “He’ll be back. He’s a cat and it’s nighttime. Cats are supposed to do this.”

Gordon pulls on his running shoes with quick, jerking motions. “He’s got no protection, Marti. He can’t climb trees. He can’t fight back. All he knows is carpet and food at nine-thirty.”

Outside the night is cool. He circles the apartment complex inspecting hedges, cars, the dumpster. He calls the cat’s name, but quietly, feeling a little foolish.

In the street, he half expects to see Rufus’ corpse beneath each lamppost. He walks down the sidewalk, calling him with tocking noises. At the end of the block he turns right. The street is darker here, which somehow makes finding Rufus more probable. “Ruu-fus” he calls. “Tock-tock-tock.”

At the next corner a long shape lies in the grass near the sidewalk; a voice says, “Spare change for a veteran?” Gordon picks up his pace without answering, unwilling now to call out or make noises. In the silence he feels blind, and he realizes that the sounds had been a kind of sonar; without them the streets are darker.

He turns the last corner of the square. Marti waits for him in front of the complex, her arms wrapped around herself. She walks toward him, shaking her head.

“You shouldn’t make yourself cold,” he says.

She hugs him. “Aw, hon.” She takes his arm. Her skin is warm. “Come back in.” He walks with her to the door, hoping that Rufus is watching from the bushes, ready to pounce and chase them inside.

Years from now, Gordon realizes, he will want to remember events in the proper order, in their correct proportion. On the night of the miscarriage, he first heard the sound of his name. He rolled over, discovered she was gone, and heard his name again. There was an edge in her voice. He came out of the bed clumsily, eyes trying to find details in the dark. The bathroom door was ajar and a wedge of light illuminated the hallway. Marti sat on the toilet, one arm across her stomach. Her left arm. There was a bloody towel at her feet. She had looked at him, her face white. Lying in bed, Gordon replays the scene until he memorizes the exact tone of her voice, the precise hue of the light as it struck the hallway wall.

It’s a Saturday and the office building is empty and strange. Gordon keys into his room and gets out the manual sweeper, the paper towels, the industrial cleaner. He gathers up the post-its and stray notes and presses them into a pile that he zips into the Franklin Planner. He sprays every flat surface with the cleaner, letting the foam build up, and then wipes it down. He rolls the little sweeper around, stooping to nab staples and paperclips worked into the carpet. In an hour he has a new office. He takes down the framed list of Long Range Goals and tosses it into the garbage can. His goals have changed. He’s got new responsibilities. He opens the Franklin Planner to Monday and records everything from the post-its, every task, promise, and appointment. He can hear himself advising the Team Leader: it’s important to take care of the small things, Rob. It’s important to not let things slip through your fingers.

He lies beside her on the bed, holding her hand until her grip goes slack. He pulls the covers over her shoulders. The breeze from the window has turned cold and it’s two hours before dawn.

Above, the floor creaks with heavy footsteps. Gordon waits. After a time the television whispers through the ceiling. Nothing else.

His eyes adjust to the dimness. Each article of furniture has become strange, like repeating a word fifty times until it loses all sense. He gets up and moves to the window, pushes aside the blinds, and looks out across the parking lot into the hedges beyond. “Ruu-fus,” he sings quietly. “Here, boy.” He can see each car, each bush in painful detail.


One thought on “The Sound of Glass Breaking

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