A man with no voice discovers the true power of obsession.
Heavy, blue-grey clouds hung overhead the speeding train, occasionally dropping thick, wet snowflakes that looked like shooting stars from the vantage point of the window seat. Joseph sighed, shuffling his hands against a pack of cigarettes in his left coat pocket. Useless addiction, really, but the fact that he thought it useless did nothing to curb his want for nicotine in his blood. Several hours had already passed since he boarded the train in Rotterdam and he felt that they had to be nearing Hanover by now. Judging from the color of the clouds which were already threatening an inconvenient winter storm, he was going to be in for challenge trying to navigate the foreign streets to his destination.
Covertly, he glanced at the young couple across the bench from him, jealously living through their caresses and sweet words whispered to one another. In disgust at himself, not for the first time today, Joseph forced his eyes closed and ran a slightly damp palm over his face, as if to wipe off any trace of his embarrassment. It was an arduous task for him to even make friendships because he had no voice. Being mute did have its advantages, however. People had a tendency to trust him with their secrets much faster than others, although, he thought, it didn’t make much sense because he could write down anything anyone told him and be just as much of a gossip as he wanted. Lucky for them, he didn’t much like conversing with anyone, let alone gossiping. The word gossip floated around in his thoughts for a while like a dram of poison in the bloodstream.
Trying to distract himself for the umpteenth time within the last four hours, he leaned his head against the cool glass of the window beside him. Anxiously, he started drumming his fingers against the cigarette box, earning a glare from the old man across from him. Glaring harder back, he drummed his fingers louder then stopped abruptly. Just because he couldn’t smoke right now didn’t mean he should take out his frustration on the old man. Wanting to distract himself from his childish behavior, Joseph went to pull his mobile phone from his pocket- maybe to send a text message to his overly attached mother back in London. In a moment of recognition, his hands flew over his pockets, pulling them out; all of them empty except for a train ticket, his worn leather wallet, a military issue World War II lighter and a pack of expensive French cigarettes. Sighing in annoyance at his lack of immediate communication, and demeaning himself for leaving his mobile phone wherever he had left it, he leaned forward in his seat and rested his head on his palms. It would not do to be lost in Hanover without a way to contact the hostel he was visiting, or his convenient way of communicating with people who didn’t know he was mute: text message. He supposed he would have to do without until he was able to get a replacement phone. As problematic was it was, at least pen and paper were usually abundant and people were mostly willing to accommodate for his impairment.
The train slowly pulled to a stop as the other people around Joseph gathered their things and stood to leave. The old man across from him bustled about, gathering his German newspaper and red plaid scarf from the floor before they could be trampled by the exiting passengers. Hurrying to be at the front of the line of people getting off the train, Joseph stood and made his way to the cart with the marked exit door. Inside of the train station was a flood of bright colors, costumer information centers, sweets shops and gift stores. He scanned his eyes around the room searching for the nearest exit so he could leave to smoke. There was no need to stand about gazing at the well-made German architecture while there were French cigarettes waiting in his jacket pocket. Pushing through the crowd to the door, he stepped outside into a wonderland of snow and ice. Already pulling a cigarette out of the case, he flipped his lighter on almost immediately after the doors opened. Several people grunted in disapproval, but as the first drag hit his lungs, he could be damned if he cared. As much as the snow was an inconvenience, the scent of snow and the insulated feeling it gave the world was worth it to put up with, but only for a couple of hours. After those couple of hours, his appreciation for the snow waned until he would scowl at it like a petulant child every time he was forced to go outside. The cosmic rule for snow, he thought, is that it should only last for approximately three hours, and then it should disappear. Standing in the snow storm and the already dim light of the evening, Joseph could see that it would not be easy to navigate where he was going in Hanover especially with the unfamiliar language.
Stepping back into the train station after getting his fill of tobacco, he found one of the brightly lit gift shops he had seen on his way from the train to outside and entered begrudgingly. The employees in shops were always so eager to see if he wanted help to find anything and frequently thought he was rude when he didn’t respond to them. It was one of those small things in life that made him feel simultaneously guilty for being unable to fulfill a societal expectation and angry at himself for being physically unable to respond. Yes, it was much better to just avoid shops all together, but sometimes, like now, it was unavoidable. Thankfully, however, his fears were not meant as he strolled through aisles of gaudy tourist broachers to a small section of pens and notebooks. It looked as if a notebook with an image of the flag of Germany in its tricolor glory pasted on the front would have to do for his communication needs tonight.
The second need on his list, a pre-paid mobile phone, would have to be found somewhere other than the train station. Paying as quickly as possible, to avoid conversation (or the attempt of it) with the shop girl, he came out of the store and found his way back to the snow lined streets of Hanover. Pulling up the collar to his trench coat to protect his ears from the blistering wind, Joseph set out to find a café or shop where he could peacefully enjoy a cup of tea and perhaps ask the waiter or waitress, via his new notebook, where the best place to buy a mobile would be. Hopefully they would be able to read English, or be able to direct him to someone who did. Each crunch of his footsteps on the sidewalk reminded him that his canvas covered shoes were not meant to be worn in snow; another bit of short sightedness that had befallen him on this spontaneous trip to Germany. After walking several blocks, he found a café with neon lights in a jumbled mix of German, French and English words. Sighing, he accepted that it may be the best option around for the next kilometer or two, and went inside. An insipid jingle of bells made his presence aware to the entire café. He wondered briefly why it seemed that some people feel such a drastic need to draw attention to themselves that they would enjoy the jingle of bells as their personal and rightful greeting.
“Hallo!” called a stout German man with a mustache that looked like a boar bristle brush. He smiled widely, showing off tiny teeth with too much gums. Joseph sighed to himself and pulled out his notebook, writing down quickly that he was English and could not speak. The man walked over curiously while he was writing; his footsteps falling slightly too heavily, even for a man of his stature. Joseph handed over the notebook and the man read, smiling again.
“Of course! English! I have spent two months in America. I am sure my English will be very good to you,” his face flushed red with pride. Joseph nodded, relieved. Even if the man wasn’t someone who he would have chosen to spend his evening with, at least he understood his language. Deciding that simple words were the best way to go, he wrote, tea? The German assured him that they had tea, what type he wanted (Earl Grey, of course), milk or sugar (no to both), and busied himself with making it. Meanwhile, Joseph sat at a table close to the window and surveyed the inside of the café. It was overall cozy, decorated with various items from different countries and smooth mahogany fixtures. Toward the back of the shop was a girl setting up a small stage. He grinned as he imagined the old man singing karaoke in the café, but stopped immediately when he realized that he may seem somewhat insane for smiling at nothing. Several other patrons sat around, sipping the chosen drinks. The old man rounded a corner with two steaming cups of tea.
“Here you are, gentleman,” the old man sat a tea down in front of him, then promptly sat himself in the chair across from him. Joseph sighed internally. However, he supposed while he was here, he could try to find information about where to find a phone. Just as he was about to open his notebook, the man started talking. “My name is Fritz,” he extended his hand across the table with just a bit too much thrust and the table rattled threatening to spill tea. Gingerly, Joseph extended his hand back, gesturing to the notebook as if to clarify that it was his turn to ‘speak’. “Ah, ja, be my guest, write as you please.”
My name is Joseph. I have come into town on holiday, but I left my mobile phone at home. Would you be so kind as to point me to a shop where I could find a pre-paid phone? He showed what he wrote to Fritz, who slowly nodded as he read.
“Well, it is a Sunday evening, which means most places will be closed. And with the state of the weather, I would be surprised if they stayed open even if they were not. But maybe you can use my granddaughter’s phone? She is here, about to sing. We can ask her after?” His voice lifted at the end, asking for confirmation that his idea was acceptable. Seeing no other course of action, Joseph nodded, albeit grudgingly. Just as he was about to start writing again, a cat jumped onto the table, knocking over Fritz’s tea and staining many pages of the notebook in the process. Joseph jumped back, his hands up, responding reflexively to the sudden movement.
“Oh! Die Katze! Auch der Leiber!” He attempted to shoo the tabby cat away, only to have it jump onto Joseph’s lap and press its body against his wool coat. Never being much of a fan of cats, he pushed it off of him and raised his eyes to Fritz, giving him a look that clearly said, what person in their right mind would keep a cat in a café?
“He is harmless…most of the time,” Fritz weakly explained while mopping tea off the table with a set of thick napkins. “His name is die Katze. Which, I’m sure you have guessed, means ‘the cat’ in German. However, it also means ‘the hangover’, so we have all sides of his nature covered.” Giggling at what he thought was a clever joke; Fritz leaned down to the ground to pet the horrid thing. Joseph responded with a tight lipped smile and hoped the cat would leave him alone for the rest of the night. Unlikely if Fritz didn’t get the hint that Joseph wanted to be left alone. Looking at the front of his jacket, he saw the patch of shed hair that had attached itself to him. So much for the cat leaving him alone; it looked like he was going to take a piece of it back home with him.
Just as Fritz was about to start speaking again, his granddaughter walked to the microphone on the stage and began to sing. Fritz explained, loudly, that her name was Miranda. She was young, she was beautiful. Her long, auburn hair hung down her back, reflecting the light. Miranda, Miranda, Miranda, her name played over and over in Joseph’s head as her heard her sing. His mouth moved to try to form her name, to understand how it would taste, but he knew he never could. So ardently he wished that he could join her, sing with her, and show her that he was worthy. But no, too young, too beautiful for him. Fritz kicked him under the table, shooting him a glare; his look reflecting the same thought Joseph had. She was indeed, too young, and too beautiful for him. Once again that day, he felt disgusted with himself. He looked away from her, unable to stand the jealousy and want for her that her vision brought to him. Too soon, however, the show ended and stopped Miranda’s beautiful singing.
Shooting anther warning glare at Joseph, Fritz called Miranda over to them. He looked at Joseph as she was walking over, “Her mother was English, I’m sure you will have a better time with her. Behave yourself.” Fritz stood as soon as Miranda was close enough to talk. Saying some words to her in German, he strolled over to his other customers, asking them in varied languages about their drinks and discussing Miranda’s musical prowess. Gracefully, at least through the lens of Joseph’s eyes, Miranda took the seat Fritz had been in earlier.
“Hey. My granddad said you needed to use my phone?” enthralled by her, Joseph nodded, eyes fixed to her mouth where the words exited. Oh, how he wished he could have a voice, a voice like her’s, melodic and sweet. Rolling her eyes at his lack of interest in conversation, she took a phone from her pocket and slid it across the table at him. “Go ahead. It won’t charge much more since I use it often to call my mum in England.”
Finally coming to his senses, Joseph opened the still wet with tea notebook and wrote, Thank you, Miranda. She beamed back with teeth like ivory piano keys, meant for articulating music.
“Oh you’re welcome. It’s not often that I get to sit around and chat with people in here. Seems like my granddad always has me doing something. Well, I guess helping you is doing something, but you know what I mean,” again she smiled. The picture of it burnt itself in his brain. Too young, too beautiful for me, he thought, repeating it to himself. She chatted incessantly while he was trying to text his mother. While her voice rang out through the room, it was everything he could take to even think of his mother’s phone number. At last, with great difficulty, he was able to send a text message to her that confirmed his safety in Hanover.
Extending his hand to give the phone back to Miranda, her fingers brushed his, causing a jolt of electricity through his skin. She, however, seemed absolutely unaffected and continued chattering. “Great! You know, now I have your mum’s number. I could call it any time I wanted and find out all kind of weird things about you, I bet,” she giggled. He grimaced, thinking she probably was right.
He opened his notebook again, suggesting that she get some tea for herself. She agreed, chatting something about how her vocal cords could use some warmth, and stood to get it. When she rose to leave, the cat immediately took her seat. From across the table, the horrid thing stared him down, its yellow eyes following his every movement as if plotting an attack. Unnerved, he tried to push it from the chair with his foot, but it only moved to the left and batted at him. He glared at it, and the cat glared back. However long this interaction took place, he wasn’t aware, but it took the whole time Miranda made tea for herself. As soon as she came back with the cup, the cat leaped from the chair to the ground, twining itself about Miranda’s legs as she sat.
“Die Katze, everyone has you wrong, you’re just a sweet kitty,” Miranda cooed at it, and it purred loudly back at her. If only she had seen the look it gave him before she came back, maybe sweet kitty wouldn’t be the term she used. In an attempt to endear himself to her, Joseph leaned down to pet the cat, only for it to bite him. “Katze! Stop! That is no way to treat a guest!” she scolded the cat. Pleased that someone, especially Miranda, had stood up for him, even if against just a cat, Joseph filled with a pleased feeling. Miranda grabbed the bitten hand and examined it, pressing on the sore spots and watching if he winced. He didn’t want the touch to end, so pleasing, so soft. A chuff of air escaped his lips and she quickly let go of his hand. “Right,” her face flushed. “You should be fine.” A small smile graced her lips, clearly less genuine than the others.
He smiled back, a bit too maniacally. Miranda looked at him oddly and backed up into her chair. She stood to leave, “You know, I really have to get going. Best of luck on your trip!” He felt the loss of her presence acutely, and identified that his mind was quickly becoming obsessed with her. Joseph watched her walk to the kitchen area, saying something quietly to Fritz. His mind created the conversation they must have been having. She was telling Fritz how weird Joseph was, a real creep. His mind supplied more and more information for what they were talking about, horrible things about him, how they must have been calling him the poor dumb man. But, no, that couldn’t be happening. Miranda wouldn’t use her melodic, sweet voice to talk down on someone, let alone him- she had protected him from the cat after all…
Fritz walked over to his table, “It would probably be best for you to leave now. Go find the place you will be staying for the night.” Miranda must have told him those things. Why else would he want Joseph to leave? Joseph looked out the window; the snow was still coming down hard. It was entirely inhospitable to walk in, and he definitely wouldn’t be able to find the hostel he had been planning to stay at.
He took out his notebook to respond, his body language clearly displaying his weariness to venture outside, Yes, thank you for the tea. May I thank Miranda for the use of her phone? It was a simple enough request, a litmus test for how she was feeling. Besides, he absolutely had to get another look at her before he left and commit her face to memory.
“I don’t think that is necessary. I will tell her for you. You can pay at the counter with me now,” Fritz’s clunky nature dissipated into something stronger, like a human fortress. Joseph stood to leave. There would be other ways to get one last look at Miranda. The men convened at the cash register and Joseph paid for his tea, pulling crisp euro bills out of the worn leather wallet, his eyes darting around the entire time, searching for her. Fritz walked around him to the door, pulling it open and letting drifts of snow begin to accumulate on the floor. Joseph exited the café, his head still partially turned toward where Miranda had walked to the back room.
Standing outside in the cold and snow, he stood looking in the window of the café. He lost track of how long he stood there, but as long as Fritz didn’t notice, he was safe. Finally, maybe after several hours, Miranda appeared from the back room, smiling with her piano key teeth, singing small snippets of song, which he could hear when he pressed his ear tightly against the glass, teasing him with her beauty and unattainable being. First, his ears become numb, then his canvas covered feet, then his hands. Pressing them against the glass, perhaps trying to find warmth, he felt closer to her. He was still standing outside when the other patrons left, giving him odd glances, but leaving him to his obsession.
The lights inside the café shut off first, then the neon signs outside. Miranda’s body outline could be seen leaving to go upstairs, above the shop where she and Fritz must live. Joseph’s body slumped against the window, completely alone and half covered with snow on the German street. His mouth, again attempting to taste her name, let out a single word.