Iowa Writes

JIM JOYCE
Have You Not Been Listening?


I heard about the death of Etta James from a woman passing my window.
      It's a first-story apartment I winterized myself one night -- drew down the shades, sealed the glass with newspaper taped to the frame. Only in the morning did I notice how dark my apartment was. But I could hear almost everything afterward. In my visually lessened state, my imagination for window passers sharpened. I had an intuition.
      A recent sound is my cellphone ringing faintly from all corners of the house. I'd dropped it down the coverless air vent, the one by my toilet. Maybe I was cleaning my bathroom. People drop things. The phone clunked to the basement, and when I shoved my arm down to the shoulder grabbing for it I cut my knuckle on a screw. Before my hand stopped bleeding the phone started ringing and I thought, Surely, my lonely days have begun.

I heard about the death of Etta James from a woman passing my window.
      It's a first-story apartment I winterized myself one night -- drew down the shades, sealed the glass with newspaper taped to the frame. Only in the morning did I notice how dark my apartment was. But I could hear almost everything afterward. In my visually lessened state, my imagination for window passers sharpened. I had an intuition.
      A recent sound is my cellphone ringing faintly from all corners of the house. I'd dropped it down the coverless air vent, the one by my toilet. Maybe I was cleaning my bathroom. People drop things. The phone clunked to the basement, and when I shoved my arm down to the shoulder grabbing for it I cut my knuckle on a screw. Before my hand stopped bleeding the phone started ringing and I thought, Surely, my lonely days have begun.
      What matters is the woman who just passed my window. "It's so sad James is dead," she said into her cellphone. "Can you believe it? Dead, you know?"
      And I thought, James . . . that name is my name, too. And I felt like I'd just seen an unflattering photo of myself.
      "Etta James, I've always loved her songs. . ." The woman speaks, but her voice moves away from my window and then it's just a clicking of heels and oceanic traffic sounds again.
      Etta James, I thought, What was it you sang?
      I was thinking about her when I crossed my street to the 7 Eleven, preparing for a slow night, running a finger along the brick.
      My friend Brett stood in line at the counter. He lives down on Cortland. He waited in front of a motorcycle gang with Al Capone tattoos creeping up their throats like newspaper horoscopes.
      "Brett!" I said, clapping, "Can I borrow your phone to call my superintendent?"
      I told Brett about the vent.
      "Don't bother," he said. "I'm just gonna run some errands." Brett was buying beer and a banana. The men in line stared at us. "I'm assuming you don't have a screwdriver."
      "Aren't there like ten different kinds of those?" I said.
      "I'll come by later."
      The motorcycle guys budged us but I didn't say anything, and I left when the 7 Eleven played jazzy sad songs instead of Muzak.
      At the apartment I clicked on my faux retro radio. It emits an electric candle glow from its station knobs and I listened to its hum while I studied the basement, passing the laundry unit and noticing furnaces and vents everywhere. Which was mine? I wondered.
      On the radio a man spoke about Etta James. Over his voice played her song, "At Last". I sat in my red chair to listen. "Etta James, a career in review," said the radioman, happy he'd caught her life in a parenthesis.
      When Brett arrived, he handed me a beer.
      "You find a screwdriver?"
      "Nope."
      "That's OK, got a knife?"
      We stood in my kitchen drinking adult sodas. Brett's free hand clanked through silverware, he pocketed a butter knife and I brought my radio to the bathroom, guiding its voice into the vent, toward the furnace.
      We reduced ourselves to the basement. Brett saw the numerous mechanisms.
      "Mine's the singing vent," I said.
      Brett, a professional wrecker and fixer, unscrewed the adjustable collar from its tubing.
      While Brett worked the collar I noticed a woman folding laundry across the basement. She looked up from her folding. Who actually folds laundry? I wondered, and then I found myself making words, explaining the silliness of the evening, my phone, my radio. I was talking to her with a beer in each hand and my friend cursing, knifing the vent, thudding it with a flashlight. The woman slowly shaded a hand to her face so I could not even see her eyes, just to ignore me explaining myself and the news of the evening. Have you not been listening? I wanted to say, as at once screws fell to the floor, the air duct lunged open -- dust flew, a watch clattered, my cell phone appeared, and Etta James sang to all three of us through the vent.

more

About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


JIM JOYCE

Jim Joyce is a high school teacher in Chicago and was recently accepted into Bennington College's low-residency MFA Writing Program.  He has taken several classes at the University of Iowa's Summer Writing Festival.  Once a year, he self-publishes the zine Let It Sink.

This page was first displayed
on August 12, 2014

Find us on Facebook