It was a murmured buzzing, a beeping, a maniacal monotone creature chirping. It was in his head. It was impossible to get out. He roiled the sheets till sleep was gone. He emptied the drawers. He unplugged the TV. He shook the alarm clock until it rattled. He muffled the clothes hangers. He stood in the trashed bedroom, and still it was there, undulating endlessly in his ears, too far removed to locate. He followed it downstairs. Hannah would be back in a few days but for now he felt the house’s empty half bearing in on him.
In the kitchen he unplugged every appliance he could get to. He put his head against the warm fridge, which he could not unplug, and its hum almost drowned out the murmur coming from nowhere. But then the motor clicked off and the murmured drone, arrhythmic and unceasing, did not. He went outside, stood on the dewy new lawn. Streetlamps hadn’t been installed yet and the neighborhood was dark. The milky halo of the moon washed out the stars, air still, silent mountains silhouetted over the roofs across the street. The interstate rumbled a couple of miles off, the chirping hum suffused in it. Maybe it was new cell phone towers. Military tests. An overworked office server. UFOs. No one else came outside to wonder with him. It wasn’t in the street, nor his head, nor the sky. He couldn’t say where it was. He listened. He couldn’t say.
Three-thirty in the morning. He’d go for a drive. Some people spent their nights awake as a matter of course. He’d join them. He had little choice. When he accepted this inevitability, the flitting monotone was less vexing. He got dressed and got in his car and followed the winding street to the highway. Over the motor, he wasn’t sure if it was the chirp-buzz or its echo in his skull, like the bright stain of lightning on the inside of your eyelids. Over the hill was a gas station, one car precariously parked out front, old and long and rusted. He parked beside it and went inside, blinking in the fluorescence.
A woman at the counter was gesturing at the clerk, fat and bearded and back-stepping. The woman’s long hair was a scraggly red, her face heavily made up. At one point she probably attracted second and third glances, at least at her breasts, so enormous her arms gestured at acute angles around them, cheap rings glinting and petite legs tottering in tight-pressed jeans. Deep-rasping voice blasting through the chirping murmur, she said,
“Listen, I’ll be back in half an hour. Just up there and back. I swear.”
“I can’t,” said the clerk.
“Two bucks’ worth. That’s it. That’s all I need.”
“I’m sorry,” said the clerk. “My manager will be here in the morning.”
“Morning? What the hell good is your manager going to do me in the morning?”
The clerk shook his head mournfully.
“A lady needing some help? You can’t do nothing?” said the woman.
“I could get fired,” said the clerk.
“Yeah, and meanwhile that son of a bitch is out there in my pickup with every damn penny I ever made.” She whirled round to him. “Getting your kicks off this?”
“Me?” he said.
“Ain’t no one behind you, is there?”
“All I have to do is get over the hill. Two bucks of gasoline. Can’t wait till no morning.” Her flat eyes were steely and her chest heaved enormously. Somewhere out beyond was the unremitting murmur.
He said, “Why don’t I drive you there?”
“You sure you want to do that?” said the clerk.
“You stay out of this,” said the woman.
“I’m just saying,” said the clerk.
“Shut it,” said the woman.
“I’ll take you there,” he said.
The clerk mumbled something. The woman glared at him sideways.
“Wouldn’t that get Roach’s goat, just,” she said. “I can’t pay you nothing.”
“I didn’t say anything about money.”
“Alrighty then,” said the woman, grabbing an enormous purple denim purse off the floor. “Let’s go.”
Outside, he said, “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” she said, pausing at the car door handle.
“Alright,” he said, getting into the car.
The murmuring chirp vibrated through the windowpane after the door slam, just beyond where he could hear, like a half-known melody on a radio turned down too low. The familiar scent of the car, of Hannah and the vagaries of the changing seasons and the dust of a long drought, was doused under the big-haired perfume of the bad-skinned woman, her glare yellow and her jaw in constant motion. She was the type he saw at the MegaStore, cart filled with snack cakes and potato chips and pre-fried mozzarella sticks. How long could the murmuring buzzing chirping go on?
“Mind if I smoke?” asked the woman, thin cigarette clutched between two knobby fingers.
“Go ahead,” he said, and did not think of Hannah, who refused to enter the same room as a smoker. Under the pulse of the passing streetlamps, the smoke curled in on itself over the dashboard before the woman rolled the window down and it was whisked away.
“My name’s Loralee,” said Loralee, white pillars stabbing from her nostrils.
“Loralee,” he said.
“You got a name?”
“Thom,” he said.
“Well, Thom, my husband’s name is Jeffroach. You’ll be seeing that son of a bitch in a minute.” The muted rolling surf of the murmur-chirp stole into the cracks the woman’s wet-tarred voice, never gone, never all the way there.
“Alright,” said Thom.
He drove on.
“You know the old truck stop?” asked Loralee.
“No,” said Thom.
“Go straight. It’s not far.”
The road unfurled in the darkness, tracing out a way to the glow of some town ahead.
“You don’t mind if I ask what this is about?” asked Thom. The vibrations in his throat mingled through the murmur-chirp, tingling his ears.
“Sort of,” said Loralee.
“Sorry. Never mind.”
“Oh, you got as much right as anyone to hear. Half the neighbors get it every other night. Been like that ‘tween me and Jeffroach for years. But recently it’s got real bad. I’m to where I can’t take it no more. He’s been a oddball ever since he started working at the Landaman. Like that’s some great accomplishment. You know the Landaman?”
Loralee exhaled mightily and smoke curled around the rearview mirror which reflected the unevenly glimmering interstate.
“The big tract home site. Where we’re going. Roach is all the time bragging about how he can jimmy open any one of them new homes, how he knows every square inch of ‘em, how he’s best friends with the boss. He’s probably in one right now, looking for the wrestling on TV. I’d leave him be except for he didn’t leave a damn thing in my purse.”
“Is it alright, showing up like this?” said Thom.
“That son of a bitch is lucky I’m showing up at all. Turn left at the stop sign. Won’t take long. I’d recognize that truck of mine half a mile off.”
Thom did, trying to notice if any angle of the turn stressed the murmur-chirp. None did that he could tell. The droning monotone rose up from the floorboards and radiated down from overhead, in the car and outside it. Would Hannah trust in the existence of a reasonable explanation if she knew he was in a car with a strange woman?
Thom turned into the street, new and unmarked, black-sparkling in the headlights. The murmuring chirp wobbled in and out of each pool of streetlamp orangeglow. He drove slowly. There was no sign of Jeffroach or his truck among the tract homes, squat in small lots.
“Well goddammit,” said Loralee, lighting up a fresh one.
Thom followed the street to where the homes ended. He wondered if before tonight the world had been silent, or if it was only that he’d never noticed its hum. Was his awareness so wide-holed such things passed unnoticed? What else did he miss?
“Try up that ridge,” said Loralee. “One time he told me he likes the view.”
The street gave out halfway up the ridge, hard-packed embankment looming over a murky grey depression, which appeared to contain a dead forest. He drove past a massive earthmover to the top. A pickup was parked there, driver’s side door swung open, a man leaning against it. Thom stopped his car and got out with Loralee.
“Jeffroach,” said Loralee. “What in the name of Christ’s left tit are you doing out here?”
Jeffroach looked over and said, “Woman, I’m like to shut you the hell up. Do yourself a favor and don’t make me.”
Thom stood there, feeling the heat off the hood, listening to the chirp-buzz circle in and out of the talk, saturating its intonations, formless as a hazy curve of great plains viewed from a plane.
“Oh you’re the one’s going to get made,” said Loralee, resting folded arms on her enormous chest.
“That so? Look at you, woman. Running round the county, begging rides off strangers. You’re just as much a tramp as the day I met you.”
“You rotten low-life,” said Loralee. She got back in Thom’s car.
“Yeah, well,” said Jeffroach, then turned to him. “I ought to thank you for tolerating her, middle of the night and all. Now, who the hell are you?”
“I was passing through. Offered her a ride,” said Thom.
“I’d like to believe you. You know, maybe I will. In a awful good mood today. Today being the day I finally left ole horseface.”
“Her car is back at the gas station.”
“My car, you mean. Don’t go explaining yourself to me. I don’t care. Hell, you can take her on back with you, is how much I care.”
Thom listened to the murmur-chirp dribbling through Jeffroach’s baritone, face framed by shoulder-length hair and a mustache drooping over his lip, cheeks three-day bearded, arms lanky, chest stubby, hairy fingers wrapped around a beer, smeary fingerprints on his glasses over his limpid-flicking eyeballs.
“Yep,” said Jeffroach. “From now on, be plenty of time for me to get to what I like.”
“Guess she’s going to stay in there,” said Thom.
“Fixing up old trucks. That’s mostly what I like. Take this puppy here. Wasn’t much more than a bucket of rusted-up bolts when I found her. But I got her going. Been a struggle, let me tell you, with ole horseface all the time throwing bottles at me.”
“Don’t you know it. She ain’t about to give over a bottle she ain’t finished with. She’d say it was throwing bad liquor after a worse man. You ought to hear her sometime.”
“That sure is something.”
“Some place, this Colorado,” said Jeffroach. “Me, I’ve had enough. Come morning, I’m headed back to where things make sense. I could of kept myself to a few less beers, I’d go now. Things didn’t used to be like this. Don’t know how they got this way. But it don’t matter now. They can mail me my last paycheck.”
“So,” said Thom. “You and your wife…”
“She ain’t my wife,” said Jeffroach. “Ain’t neither of us been near a church since I wore short pants. Good thing, too. Damn vulture lawyers would swoop straight in and suck down everything I got.”
“I suppose you two have a lot to talk about,” Thom said. “You go ahead and take your time.”
He moved down the sloping soft dirt slope.
“Where you going?” said Jeffroach.
Thom stepped heavily down the embankment, sinking up to his ankles at the bottom. In the soupy moonlight he was confronted by a sea of weeds taller than him, coated in gray dust.
“Hey,” called Jeffroach from above. “You don’t want to go in there. Them weeds ain’t been cut since last year.”
Thom stepped forward. A year’s hoary dust fell in on him as he pushed through weedstalks thicker than his fingers into an embrace of dead tendrils. The dust stung his eyes, gummed over his lips, filtered into the gaps of his teeth, down his backside and in his shoes. In all the world there was only dust and snapping weeds and the pitch and fall of the hum. Then he broke into a clearing coated in a milky white and black patchwork. He shook himself off. Spit. Remembered he’d left the keys in the car. Felt thirst crawl scratchy up his throat.
Back on the embankment came shouting, a slamming door, a revving engine. Then quiet. No weeds rustling, nothing from the embankment nor anywhere extraneous to him and that droning, coming from nothing, going nowhere, seeming it would be there always.