Listen Very Carefully

Here’s a lovely excerpt from the short story “Oh, Joseph, I’m so tired” by Richard Yates:

That small room of ours, with its double function of sleep and learning, stands more clearly in my memory than any other part of our home. Someone should probably have told my mother that a girl and boy of our ages ought to have separate rooms, but that never occurred to me until much later. Our cots were set foot-to-foot against the wall, leaving just enough space to pass alongside them to the school table, and we had some good conversations as we lay waiting for sleep at night. The one I remember best was the time Edith told me about the sound of the city.

“I don’t mean just the loud noises,” she said, “like the siren going by just now, or those car doors slamming, or all the laughing and shouting down the street; that’s just close-up stuff. I’m talking about something else. Because you see there are millions and millions of people in New York—more people than you can possibly imagine, ever—and most of them are doing something that makes a sound. Maybe talking, or playing the radio, maybe closing doors, maybe putting their forks down on their plates if they’re having dinner, or dropping their shoes if they’re going to bed—and because there are so many of them, all those little sounds add up and come together in a kind of hum. But it’s so faint—so very, very faint—that you can’t hear it unless you listen very carefully for a long time.”

“Can you hear it,” I asked her.

“Sometimes. I listen every night, but I can only hear it sometimes. Other times I fall asleep. Let’s be quiet now, and just listen. See if you can hear it, Billy.”

And I tried hard, closing my eyes as if that would help, opening my mouth to minimize the sound of my breathing, but in the end I had to tell her I’d failed. “How about you?” I asked.

“Oh, I heard it,” she said. “Just for a few seconds, but I heard it. You’ll hear it too, if you keep trying. And it’s worth waiting for. When you hear it, you’re hearing the whole city of New York.”

I read Yates’s story a few minutes ago in The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, which contains some lovely stories—check out the ones by John Cheever and Raymond Carver. But this one is my favourite.

For more on Yates, try these links:

Rebirth of a dark genius by Nick Fraser.
The Lost World of Richard Yates by Stewart O’Nan.
Out of the ashes by James Wood.

And here’s a fine interview of Yates in Ploughshares.

(Fraser link via Antiblurbs.)