“Did you have fun?” asked Lisette, guiding the car back into the flow of late-night Friday traffic in downtown Multioak.
“Oh yeah,” said Zander, inflecting it in a way that irritated Lisette. It was the kind of inflection he only used when Yasmine was around.
“Yes,” said Yasmine. “Yes…we did.” She and Zander both burst out laughing as if she had just implied something that had gone over Lisette’s head.
“Did we have fun?” said Zander, collecting himself. “Ummm, how ‘bout….yes?” He and Yasmine lost it again, laughing and laughing.
Lisette wanted to drive off of a bridge, cliff, or a ramp that would launch the car into a body of water.
“I guess you could call the night we just had fun,” said Zander. “You know, if you really wanted to.”
Lisette did everything in her power not to look in the rearview mirror out of fear that she might catch a glimpse of the expression on her son’s face that had certainly appeared in the aftermath of his comment. She would give them no more encouragement. None. Neither of them. She would ignore them. She would think about something else.
But Lisette couldn’t ignore them. After Zander and Yasmine finished with their inane riffing on Lisette’s innocent inquiry, they moved on to other topics, but this was not a relief because their conversation on the other topics was also incredibly grating. Zander started talking about what his band would be like if he had a band, except he kept saying “when I have a band” even though he played no instruments and neither did any of his friends. Also, he kept saying he’d be the “frontman,” which, yes, a lot of people use that term, but he was saying it so much, frontman this and frontman that, and then he said, “Well, the thing about a manager is they take 30% of the door” and Lisette was screaming don’t take the bait at Yasmine in her mind, but of course Yasmine was delighted to ask, “30% of the door? What does that mean?” and of course Zander’s explanation was long and wrong and dumb and when he finally stopped explaining it, Yasmine said, “Oh, yeah, I think I get it” as if Zander had said anything that made any sense on any level, which he definitely had not, and Lisette by this time was literally biting her tongue, although not very hard because it was more of a symbolic gesture to herself than an actual attempt to physically prevent her tongue from telling Zander and Yasmine what obnoxious idiots they were being.
By the time Lisette pulled the car into the driveway at Yasmine’s house, her internal monologue had been reduced to a continuous stream of the words “shut” and “up” in that order.
“Good night,” said Yasmine as she got out of the car. “Bye, Zander, see you Monday. Thanks for the ride, Mrs. Ovine!”
“You’re welcome, Yasmine,” said Lisette, her voice heavy with a relief that a perceptive person who was also not privy to her thoughts would have found odd.
Zander moved to the front seat and the drive home was totally fine. Lisette and her son chatted like normal human beings and no one who overheard their conversation would have found it maddening in any way, Lisette was sure of that.
“I honestly can’t take it anymore,” said Lisette. “You’re going to have to drive them on their dates from now on, Endre. I can’t.”
Endre was hanging a new shower- curtain liner in the master bathroom. Lisette could see him in the bathroom mirror from where she sat on their bed.
“Are you serious?” asked Endre, looking at Lisette in the mirror, the shower-curtain liner half-hung, half in his hands.
“Just don’t speed or run any red lights,” said Lisette. “You won’t get pulled over.”
“What if a bad driver hits me?” asked Endre. “It’s not like the cops aren’t gonna care that I’m driving on a suspended license just because the accident isn’t my fault. I’ll get in huge trouble. And imagine what Yasmine’s mom would think of us.”
“Well, maybe I’ll just tell Zander I’m not gonna take them on dates anymore. We could tell him we don’t approve of Yasmine and want them to break up. They probably won’t break up but it’d be easy for me to refuse to drive them on principle that way.”
“That’s so cruel,” said Endre. “I really don’t get why their conversations bother you so much. They’re just kids. All kids are stupid. I bet some of our conversations were just as dumb as theirs and we started dating in our mid-twenties.”
“That’s why I hate it so much,” said Lisette. “It’s so embarrassing. I remember having conversations like that, I remember specific conversations, specific words I used, and it’s too much, I get so embarrassed.”
“You just have to tune it out,” said Endre. The shower-curtain liner was now two-thirds hung. “Think about something else.”
“I can’t,” said Lisette, backhanding a pillow off of the bed. “It’s impossible. Everything they say just cuts right through whatever’s in my head. Even if I put music on, they just talk over it. Their voices are the exact wrong pitch. No matter what I do, they’re so audible. I even tried talking to my sister on the phone and I basically heard nothing she said and I heard every stupid thing Zander and Yasmine said. Maybe I should try headphones.”
“No,” said Endre. “That’s dangerous. You have to be able to hear sirens and stuff.”
“Says the man with multiple DUIs,” said Lisette.
“What’s wrong?” asked Lisette.
“I hung this wrong,” said Endre. “It’s one hole off. I have to take it down and start over.”
Lisette was almost asleep when Endre said, “Lisette, are you asleep?”
“Almost,” said Lisette, feeling obligated to tell the truth.
“Look at this,” said Endre. “I found something that might help you.”
“Help me what?” asked Lisette. “I was almost asleep.”
“It’ll help you tune out Zander and Yasmine’s conversations,” said Endre. “Here, look at it.”
Lisette sighed and sat up in bed. All the lights were off in the bedroom but Endre was sitting up with his back against the bed’s headboard and his laptop atop his lap. He angled the computer toward Lisette as she blinked at the harsh light of the monitor.
“It’s this guy,” said Endre, pointing to a picture of a curled-hair man on the screen. “He has a method. You could try it. You just watch his video for free and if you try it and it works, you can donate money, but that part is totally optional. It might be worth a try.”
“And this is for what?” asked Lisette.
“Tuning out Zander and Yasmine,” said Endre. “Tuning out anything you don’t want to hear.”
“How long is the video?” asked Lisette.
“It’s only a couple of minutes,” said Endre. “But he says you have to watch it under headphones. But look, I have some earbuds right here.” He produced a pair of black earbuds from within his bedside stand.
“Will you let me sleep if I watch it now?” asked Lisette.
“Yes,” said Endre.
“Did you watch the video?” asked Lisette, slipping the earbuds into her ears.
“No,” said Endre, his voice muffled by the earbuds. “Do you want me to get better at not listening?” He grinned and Lisette could see his tongue gleaming by computer-light in the gap where his missing canine tooth had been.
The video began with the curled-hair man talking in the relaxed, confident tone of a person who has his lines so thoroughly memorized that he finds it hard to believe that everyone else doesn’t already know exactly what he’s going to say. He wore a shirt with black and silver diagonal stripes. Lisette wondered how much thought had gone into the shirt. The wearing of the shirt, that is, not the design or manufacture or distribution or sale. The man sat in a chair behind a desk. Behind him was an old, empty bookshelf. Lisette had never seen a bookshelf used as a background that wasn’t well-stocked with books, especially widely-praised books.
“I don’t have very much to tell you,” said the curled-hair man on the video. “Just a short explanation of what’s about to happen. You see, the most important thing you need to know is that in order to effectively tune something out, you must tune something else in. Brains are tuners. They tune to this, tune to that, but if they stop tuning, they die. Even when you sleep, your brain is tuning into something. The role of this video is to give you something to which your brain can tune in whenever you want to tune something else out. More specifically, something into which your brain can tune that is guaranteed to tune out everything else around you for as long as you choose, no matter what it is that you’re trying to tune out. No matter what. Some people wonder if this is safe. They wonder if they won’t be able to hear their child crying or a police siren or someone calling their name. It is safe. We’re not offering you a means of going deaf, we’re offering you a means for tuning out. Now, in a few seconds, you’re going to hear something and see something. What you hear and see will then take hold in your mind and it will always be there for you to tune into when you want to tune out something else. It’s really that simple. 3, 2, 1.”
Something about what the curled-hair man had said and the nonchalant rapidity of his countdown alarmed Lisette and she moved the cursor around looking for a way to pause the video, but she couldn’t figure it out quickly enough and the video changed to an image of a color that was almost black, but which was not definitively lighter or darker than black. The color was accompanied by the sound of nothing, which isn’t to say there was no sound, but rather that the sound on the video was what the concept of nothing would sound like if the concept of nothing had a sound, and maybe it does and maybe that was the sound on the video. This part only lasted for a few seconds and then the curled-hair man came back onscreen and said, “There you go! Next time you need to tune something out, just tune into your memory of what you just saw and heard and your problem will be solved! And remember, when you confirm that this method works for you, please come back to our website and donate however much money you think our method is worth to you.” And then the video was over.
Lisette took the earbuds out and handed them back to Endre.
“Well?” said Endre. “Do you think it will work?”
“No,” said Lisette. “I don’t even know what it was. I don’t get it.”
“The video didn’t tell you how to do it?”
“Well, it did,” said Lisette. “But I don’t really understand.”
“Let’s give it a try,” said Endre. “Here, I’ll look up something boring on my laptop, start reading about it out loud, and you do what they told you to do on the video. We’ll see if it works.”
“OK,” said Lisette. “I’ll do what they said. But it’s not…I mean…”
“All right,” said Endre. “Here’s an article about advanced baseball statistics. I’m gonna start reading it…now!”
Lisette followed the instructions as the curled-hair man had laid them out, not because she thought the technique would work but because she wanted to prove that it would not. As Endre read the boring article, she thought back to the few seconds of near-black screen and the nothing-noise, she remembered that sight and that sound, and as soon as she did, Endre’s voice slipped and slid to the back of her mind. She was aware that he was reading, she could hear his voice, but she wasn’t listening, she wasn’t comprehending his words. Instead, Lisette was fully tuned in to the color and the sound from the video and they dominated her attention. It was effortless! But she didn’t think about how effortless it was. She didn’t even think something like Wow! It’s working! because that would have meant tuning into the source of those kinds of thoughts and she wasn’t tuned in to anything except the vivid memory of that one color and that one sound. The ones from the video.
“Did it work?”
Lisette smiled. “It did, actually. It worked really well.”
Endre closed his laptop and set it on the nightstand. “Are you going to donate a little money to the website?” Without the light of the laptop monitor, the room was dark. The shadows in the room were black, but not like the color on the video. Maybe that was evidence that the color on the video was not actually black?
“I might donate a little,” said Lisette. “But I need to make sure it works on Zander and Yasmine first. That’s the real test.” She rested her head on her pillow. She was tired. Lucky lady that she was, she soon received her heart’s desire and fell all the way asleep.
The next day was Saturday. Even though Lisette had distinctly heard Yasmine say, “See you Monday!” to Zander when she’d gotten out of the car the previous night, Zander asked Lisette if she would drive him and Yasmine to a matinee at the theater.
Under normal circumstances, Lisette would have refused. Zander had sprung the request on her at the last minute so it would have been easy to turn him down without seeming like a mean mom. But Lisette was eager to try the tuning-out method on Zander and Yasmine and driving them to the movies would be a perfect opportunity to find out if the method could work in the most hostile possible conditions. Lisette could tell Zander was surprised when she said “yes.”
It was a dark, early-Fall day, like a rainy day without the rain where one looks at the sidewalk expecting it to appear wet and is surprised to find that it’s dry. As soon as Yasmine got into the car, the pleasant chat Lisette had been having with Zander evaporated, replaced by Zander and Yasmine’s typically dreadful exchange of thoughts, observations, and a lot of filler.
“What movie do you want to see?” asked Yasmine.
“Something with good editing,” said Zander. “I love good editing. And cinematography, obviously.”
Lisette, hands tightening on the steering wheel, inhaled, exhaled, and tuned her mind in to her memory of the semi-black color and the nothing-sound from the video. And behold, her problem was solved. Again, she heard the voices she desired to tune out, but they couldn’t reach her, they couldn’t touch her, the actual words spoken by her son and his girlfriend could not find her. The sound of nothing concealed her, held her to its bosom and protected her. She drove safely, seeing all she needed to see and seeing the color simultaneously; the road and traffic and traffic signals in front of her eyes and the color behind them.
“Bye, Mrs. Ovine!”
“Bye, guys!” said Lisette. “I’ll be back in a couple hours!” She offered the teenagers a genuine smile and a genuine wave. And then she turned on the radio and hummed along to songs she didn’t know the whole way home.
It was after Lisette had picked Zander and Yasmine up from the movie theater and was driving Yasmine home that she noticed something else inside her memory of the color and the sound that she had once again tuned in to keep herself calm during the drive. Something else inside the method. The color didn’t seem to change and neither did the sound, but it seemed to Lisette that there was now another thing with them, a third thing that she could not identify nor describe, not even in vague terms. She had not sought to tune this third thing in but it was there anyway. But as she tried to train her focus on this third thing, the color and the sound tuned back out and Lisette was again subjected to the irritation of Zander and Yasmine’s conversation.
“She’s totally just projecting,” said Yasmine. “She’s the one who’s got issues.”
“Yes, exactly,” said Zander. “She’s totally projecting. Exactly.”
In a panic, Lisette brought the color and the sound back to the forefront of her mind and was again able to tune out the teenage chatter in the back seat. But again, a third thing tuned in with the color and the sound, the same thing as before. Lisette didn’t let it distract her this time. Tuning out Yasmine and Zander’s amateur psychology was much more important than determining what the third thing was. She could try to figure it out later. Or just leave it alone. Maybe it wasn’t important. It probably wasn’t.
“I’m not sure I get it,” said Endre. He was in the bathroom hanging an even newer shower-curtain liner. He’d slipped in the shower that morning and grabbed at the new liner as he fell, destroying it.
Lisette was back on the bed, watching Endre in the mirror. “OK,” she said. “There’s the color. It’s almost like black. And then there’s the sound. It’s sort of just nothing. But not silence. And then there’s a new, third thing.”
“Well, what is it?” asked Endre. “In general, I mean. Is it another sight? Another sound?”
“I don’t know,” said Lisette. “That’s what I’m telling you. That’s the whole point of what I’m telling you.”
“Maybe it’s something else,” said Endre. “Like, an emotion? Or a sensation? Like satisfaction or peace or something? Maybe it’s just your own awareness of how happy you are that the method works?”
Lisette scoffed but she didn’t actually think Endre’s suggestion was scoff-worthy. It was an interesting thought. But it didn’t seem right and there was no way to explain why to Endre.
“Maybe it’s a smell?” said Endre. “They say that smell is the sense that’s most tied to memory.”
“Who says that?” asked Lisette.
Endre took his eyes from his work and looked at Lisette in the mirror. He laughed. “Experts, I guess. Probably paid by the, um, aroma lobby.”
“It’s not a smell,” said Lisette, granting her husband a slight smile.
“Well, try to see it again now,” said Endre. “There doesn’t have to be something annoying going on for you to tune out your surroundings, right?”
“I guess not,” said Lisette. “But who says there’s nothing annoying going on in my surroundings right now?”
“You think this is annoying?” asked Endre, pointing at his own chest with the index fingers of both hands. Then he took a deep breath. Lisette could tell he was about to sing. She tuned him out before he uttered a single note. The color and the sound sprang to mind so easily, like a station programmed to button number one on a car radio. Lisette looked past her feet at the end of the bed as Endre belted his song from the bathroom, but it was the color and the sound of the method that commanded her attention. The color and the sound and, tuned in right along with them, the third thing. What was it? Lisette tuned in more specifically on the color and the sound, but as she did, the third thing surged inside of the other two things making them bulge and warp. Lisette worried that noticing this would cause her to fail to keep tuning out Endre’s singing and then she worried that worrying would lead to that result too, but neither instance of worry disrupted her reception. The color stayed similar to black, the sound still sounded like nothing, and the third thing grew and flexed and stretched, acting like it belonged there, acting like it owned the place. And then, with a pop that was neither audible nor visible and which Lisette did not feel, the third thing revealed itself. The third thing was the curled-hair man and he had a message, which was, “Since our method is working for you so well, please consider donating an amount that you would consider fair through our website.”
Lisette’s scream hacked off Endre’s song in mid-bridge. In fact, the scream startled him so much that he spasmed while gripping the shower-curtain liner which caused the shower-rod rings to rip through four of the liner’s holes, ruining it.
“I’m not sure I get it,” said Endre. He was lying on the bed next to Lisette. All of the lights in the room were on, even the nightlight by the door leading out to the hallway.
“He was there,” said Lisette.
“You saw him?” asked Endre.
“You heard him?”
“You felt him? Smelled him? Tasted him? I’m at a loss here, Lisette.”
“That’s not how it was,” said Lisette.
“All right, but when you tune in and use the method, you’re just remembering,” said Endre. “Right? So maybe you just remembered him asking you to donate? Doesn’t that make sense?”
Lisette agreed that this sounded like it made sense. She wanted that to be the explanation. She didn’t remember exactly how the curled-hair man had phrased his humble donation request in the video but aren’t most memories just the brain’s rough approximation of what really happened? Maybe she subconsciously felt guilty for using the tune-out method without donating and the man’s appearance while she was using the method was just her own conscience speaking to her.
“I think you should try it again,” said Endre. “See what happens. I think we need more evidence before we come to any conclusions.”
Lisette didn’t say anything. She was strongly considering just never tuning out anything ever again.
“I mean, it would be silly to abandon this thing that’s worked so well for you just because you got startled by one of your own stray thoughts,” said Endre. “Right?”
“Yeah,” said Lisette. “Yes, you’re right.”
“Do you need me to sing again?” asked Endre.
“No,” said Lisette with a half-smile. “That dopey sympathetic look on your face is annoying enough.”
Lisette did not hear whatever Endre said in response because she had tuned him out.
The first thing Lisette noticed upon tuning in was the presence of the third thing: the curled-hair man, already there and waiting for her with a message, the same messaged as before. “Since our method is working for you so well, please consider donating an amount that you would consider fair through our website.” Lisette was annoyed at the continued intrusion but she was relieved that the message had not changed or adapted. That made the arrival of the third thing seem less like a haunting and more like a pop-up ad on a website. Which made sense. She’d gotten the method from a website, after all. They must have figured out how to embed a pesky reminder to donate within their method. It also reminded her of how the antivirus software on her computer was constantly urging her to upgrade or renew or something. Having the curled-hair man tuned in along with the color and the sound was a downgrade from not having him there, but it was still a big, big upgrade from having to listen to Zander and Yasmine. Then the third thing – the curled-hair man – delivered the message again. “Since our method is working for you so well, please consider donating an amount that you would consider fair through our website.” That was enough for tonight. It might have been better than listening to Zander and Yasmine, but it wasn’t better than the quiet nighttime sounds of her bedroom.
“Was it still there?” asked Endre.
“Yes,” said Lisette, fluffing her un-fluffable pillow. “But it’s not a big deal. I think it’s just an ad. It just startled me last time. And if it bothers me too much, I can always donate and see if that makes it go away.”
“All right then,” said Endre, turning off the lamp. “Remember to pull the shower curtain inside the tub when you shower in the morning. There’s no liner.”
It wasn’t until the following Friday night that Zander requested another date-night ride from Lisette. He wanted Lisette to take him to pick up Yasmine, drive them both to some other kid’s party, and then pick them up as late as possible. He lobbied for 2 a.m. but Lisette wouldn’t budge past 1.
It was the first really cold night of the year. The air had a verifiable bite to it. Lisette wore earmuffs even though she’d be keeping the heat in the car blasting at her preferred temperature regardless of backseat complaining.
As soon as she picked up Yasmine, the conversation hurtled off of a steep cliff.
“Whoa, you look retro,” said Zander.
“No, I don’t,” said Yasmine. “Do I?”
“Yes,” said Zander. “Super retro. You’re sort of like hippie-ish new wave grunge, like, psychedelic punk-”
Lisette didn’t know when Zander’s list of styles about which he knew absolutely nothing would end and she didn’t intend to find out. She tuned him and Yasmine out and tuned in her memory of the video. The color, the sound, and the third thing leaped out from wherever they stayed in her mind when she didn’t need them. Not that she needed the third thing — everything had been fine without it — but it was kind of part of the family now, like a tolerated cousin. The curled-hair man promptly delivered its message to Lisette. “Since our method is working for you so well, please consider donating an amount that you would consider fair through our website.” Maybe Lisette would donate tonight. After she dropped the kids off at the party, she would go home and donate. Then, when it was time for her to go out again to pick the kids up from the party, maybe the third thing would be gone and the method would be back to normal.
The teenagers droned on and the nothing-sound was there along with the color and the third thing delivered its message at regular intervals and Lisette followed the instructions of her GPS as it led her through Multioak to this other kid’s party. And then, only a short distance from the destination, the color and the sound began to tremble, and this time the third thing trembled too, the curled-hair man’s message was actually interrupted mid-delivery. Something was happening, the method was changing again. Lisette was surprised but not alarmed this time. It would probably be another ad, maybe a more fervent request for a donation. She was definitely going to donate when she got home, at least a little bit. If she didn’t, this method was going get overrun by pop-ups.
But then something Lisette was not prepared for did happen. The color, which had never quite been black, became black. And the sound, which had always been the sound of nothing, became a fuzzy drone. And the third thing, which had always been the curled-hair man in a non-sensory way, became an image of the curled-hair man with his message written on a piece of parchment he held in his hand. The expression on his face was not comforting. What’s happening? thought Lisette and the curled-hair man extended his parchment to her. Lisette read the message and found that it had changed. The message now read “I don’t know!!!” with three exclamation points.
“Bye, Mrs. Ovine,” said Yasmine, hopping out of the car.
“Bye, mom!” said Zander. “See you at 2!”
Lisette, sweating through her clothes, collected herself just enough to say, “Not 2! 1! And you know it!”
“Do you think 20 dollars is enough?” asked Lisette, her laptop open on the coffee table in front of her.
“Enough?” said Endre. “I think it’s too much.” He was using his knife to cut the newest shower-curtain liner out of its plastic packaging. The inevitable happened: his knife slipped and slashed a big hole in the newest shower-curtain liner. He walked right over the garbage and threw the ruined shower-curtain liner inside, punctuating this action with a sorrowful sigh.
Lisette donated 30 dollars. Would the transaction need to go through before the method would go back to normal? Surely whatever was going on wasn’t that connected to the mundane particulars of the transaction. Lisette decided she would briefly tune out the boring doctor show playing on the TV in front of her just to check and see if donating had helped.
Lisette tuned out the boring doctor show and tuned in her memory of the video. She gasped in a mental way. The color was black, but faded and patchy. The fuzzy drone had become a churning, mechanical cough. The curled-hair man lay on the ground with his parchment lying next to him. The parchment was face-up but if the blotches of ink it showed had been intended as a message, Lisette couldn’t make it out.
Then Lisette noticed the other things. A smell, for one, like a whole patch of potatoes turning bad underground. And a sensation like itchy humidity that she could also taste. It was stale. There were other things inside the method too: two people trying to open an industrial-sized tin can by striking it with wrenches, a dog of poor breeding savaging a length of brown garden hose, an astrological body providing harsh and intermittent light, a woman in a short fur coat using sandpaper to further diminish the color inside the method. Hey, Lisette thought at the woman. What happened? What are you doing? I donated!
The woman turned to Lisette and brushed some flakes of the color off her sandpaper. “Nature isn’t very fond of a near-vacuum.”
Nature? thought Lisette. This mess isn’t Nature! You are not Nature!
The woman laughed and Lisette saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and felt it. “OK,” said the woman. “Maybe you don’t think of everything that’s natural as ‘Nature.’ That’s all right.”
Where did all this come from? thought Lisette. This is the third thing’s fault, isn’t it? Everything was fine until it showed up. It let the rest of this stuff into the method somehow.
The woman made a condescending gesture with her sandpaper. “Sister,” she said. “We are the third thing.” Lisette understood the woman’s use of “we” and the wave of her arm to encompass everything Lisette had tuned in, everything now inside of the method, including smells. “And,” said the woman, “there wouldn’t even be a method without us.”
When Zander and Yasmine got into the back seat of the car, Lisette could tell they were relieved to see her. They did not look like two kids who had another hour of party in them.
“Hey,” said Lisette as she backed the car out of the driveway. “What was the worst outfit you saw at the party tonight?”
“Are you talking to me?” asked Zander.
“Both of you,” said Lisette. “But you can have different answers. Or you can come to a consensus. Wherever the discussion takes us is fine.”