Softer by Alan Caldwell

Jim Maun’s voice became softer, slowly, incrementally, imperceptibly at first as if he were turning away as he spoke. One wet afternoon in late March, Jim returned home from his office, and as he recounted his day to his wife, Sara, while she stirred the soup, she asked, “why are you whispering?”

“I didn’t know I was,” Jim replied.

“Well, you are,” she said.

 The next day, or maybe the next, a coworker asked him the same question. Only then did Jim begin to listen to his own voice. On his lunch break, he cloistered himself in the office restroom and talked to himself. He heard himself whispering. He tried to whisper and it sounded exactly the same. He tried to talk louder and it sounded exactly the same. He cleared his throat, blew his nose and massaged his trachea. His voice sounded the same, exactly the same. He tried to shout, then to scream and still he sounded as if he were whispering. For the first time in his life, he began to panic, a vague sense of vertigo, a concomitant chilling of the skin, a momentary loss of self and then he reasoned the panic away.  Some minor ailment, an infection or a swelling of the voice box he thought.  He decided to ask for the remainder of the afternoon off to visit the nearby walk-in clinic. He knew his manager would understand.

Jim presented his information and card to the nice lady at the window and then waited for almost an hour, thumbing through an antiquated People magazine.

In the examination room, he told the doctor, a fresh-faced young lady, girlish almost, of his recent affliction. She nodded in an empathetic fashion.

“It’s likely some minor ailment, an infection or an inflammation of the larynx,” she said, “nothing to worry about.”

She examined him closely, looked down his throat, felt his thyroid and all of the relevant lymphatic nodes, superior, anterior, etc. When she was finished, she sighed and looked puzzled, “I’m sorry mister Maun, but I can’t see anything. Maybe it’s an interior inflammation that I can’t see. I’m prescribing a round of antibiotics and a round of anti-inflammatory steroids. Whatever it is, that should clear it up.”

Jim felt encouraged and thanked the girlish physician with sincerity.

Jim stopped by the pharmacy on the way home to gather his medications. Immediately upon returning home, Jim told Sara, who was stirring a new soup, about his visit. He took his pills, watched a bit of tv and went to bed.

When he woke up the next morning, he urinated, brushed his teeth, gargled with warm salt water and began talking to his reflection in the mirror. “I believe it sounds a bit better,” he said to himself.

At breakfast, he asked Sara if she could hear the difference. “Maybe a little, but I’m not sure,” she said.

Jim was a little irked that she didn’t hear the same improvement as his reflection did. He took his pills and went to work.

He took the pills every morning and every night. He talked to himself in every mirror he passed and finally accepted and admitted that his voice was softer and smaller still. Again, he began to panic and again, he appealed to the girlish doctor and then to other doctors, specialists, for other tests and other pills and shots and therapies of all kinds and still his voice grew softer. This centrifuge of test and treatment continued for many months. At night, Jim and Sara prayed together, she amplifying his now almost-inaudible words for God’s ears. On Sunday mornings, she amplified the now almost-inaudible words for the congregation’s ears and the congregation spoke those words to God, and Jim’s voice grew smaller and softer still.

At work, Jim wrote or typed and emailed his correspondences and communications, even with the colleagues who shared his cubicle walls. At lunch, he passed the round table where the other workers broke the bread and shared the stories of clientele and management.  He nodded and made his way back to his desk where he ate alone. If he were honest and his silence had made him moreso, Jim never really liked speaking to most people and now he rationed his softened words with only Sara.

Jim spoke his last audible word almost a year to the day after Sara first identified his whisper while she stirred the soup. He then mouthed the words and she learned to hear the words by their shapes on his lips and tongue. She understood him well and heard the words he no longer spoke or even mouthed with greater clarity than those audible syllables of their past.

 A few days before his first silent Christmas, Jim checked the mail and found a green envelope with his name and address written in perfect cursive. Jim opened the envelope and removed the single sheet of paper inside. The letter, again written in flawless cursive, read: “we were told of your silence. We are silent too. If you would like to meet with us, we gather in the reading room of the city library every Sunday at 11 am. They open the doors just for us. Sara is also welcome. Most of our members bring their spouses as well.”

The letter was signed, simply, “a friend.”

Jim showed the letter to Sara. She smiled but didn’t say anything, and he knew that she knew about the group and had likely contacted them about him. He thanked her with his smile.

Christmas passed on Saturday. On Sunday morning, Jim and Sara dressed in their best church attire and drove to the library. Jim was nervous, but Sara pulled his hand to her leg and wove her fingers over his. Jim parked their car near the library’s front access.

As they approached the entrance, Jim placed his hand on the small of Sara’s back. He opened the door and guided her inside. In the foyer, a young well-dressed man waited. He was accompanied by the girlish doctor who had first treated his silence. The girlish doctor and the young well-dressed man silently held hands like only lovers can. She and Sara both smiled and Jim knew that they had arranged this meeting. The young couple guided them to the reading room. Twenty or thirty members in their church attire arose and smiled at Jim and Sara. None of the members spoke and yet Jim understood them well and he heard the words they no longer spoke with greater clarity than all those audible syllables of the past.

Alan Caldwell lives in Carroll County, Georgia, but is working on moving to his rural property in the mountains of Northeast Alabama. He has been married to his lovely wife, Brandi, for 33 years. He has one son, Caleb, who is a firefighter, a daughter-in-law, Chelsee, who is an emergency room nurse, and a grandson, Asher.  Alan has been teaching for 27 years and spends much of his free time outdoors or reading.  Alan has been collecting stories, mostly about his family, for over 40 years, but has just begun writing them.