Current Occupation: University Grants Officer
Former Occupation: Teacher and Editor
Contact Information: A native of New York City, Beth has enjoyed working as an ESL teacher, university lecturer, editor, and grant writer. She recently published a short story in Bodega Literary Magazine, and has won two awards for fiction from the Bronx Council on the Arts.
On the subway into work, Shirley tried to prepare herself in case there were more budget cuts. If the worst happened, she’d have to cancel her sister’s surprise 50th birthday dinner at ‘Pete’s Italian’ right away. Thinking of Pete’s, Shirley realized with astonishment that she’d forgotten to take chicken out of the freezer to defrost for tonight. The butcher would be closed by the time she got back home. Maybe soup would be the best hot alternative for Walter’s dinner? I’ll liven up a can of minestrone with some diced carrots, she decided as her train came to a halt at 34th Street. The doors shot open.
“Getting off!” Petite, determined Shirley repeated to an older man so engrossed in his newspaper that he didn’t move. A woman with blue hair saw her distress and cried, “Let the lady off!”
Without looking up from his paper, the man stepped aside. When Shirley got off the train, she turned back to the blue-haired woman to thank her since the doors were still open. She gathered all her strength into her voice so that she’d be heard above the noise of the station. But instead of yelling ‘thank you,’ a different word came out of her mouth: “Soup!”
Shocked, Shirley stared at the passengers in the train. A large man pulling a suitcase got off the train and pushed past Shirley as the bewildered passengers stared back at her.
The subway doors slammed shut and the train moved out of the station. Only then was she able to leave the scene of the incident. She walked up the crowded station steps to Seventh Avenue, where a hard, cold rain was falling. In the fresh air under her umbrella, Shirley felt hot with shame. She had never caused a scene in all her 51 years.
I wanted to thank the blue-haired woman, she told herself as she dodged others’ umbrellas on the Avenue. She was not the kind of person who shouted nonsense at strangers. The further she walked from the station, the less she felt that she, a practical office manager for a non-profit agency, had to do with the ‘soup’ incident.
It was a relief to reach her office. In the snug, well-organized room with its wall of framed commendations above shelves of forms, and a scratched wooden desk in the corner, Shirley knew how to size up problems and resolve them.
She put her wet things where they belonged, sat down at her desk, turned on her computer, and listened. The corridors beyond her door, once filled with talk and laughter, were silent. Two days ago, after new budget cuts were announced, staff stopped socializing. Now no one wanted to be caught chatting.
“It’ll get lonely here,” she thought while picking up her to-do list for the day.
“Shirl-ee!” A Texan’s voice startled her.
‘Yes?’ Shirley thought she said, turning around.
The Senior Vice President was standing next to the shelves in a silent laugh that exposed his yellow teeth. “Before I go to the downtown office, I need to hear ‘bout the agitation over there.”
Strange, Shirley thought. I didn’t hear myself answer him.
She put down her list and opened her mouth to explain the situation in the downtown office. But she couldn’t speak. She tried again, but made no sound.
“Ya’ll lost your voice!” he shouted. “Don’t you worry. I’ll tell everybody. Git along, li’l doggies, git along!” the Vice President sang as he left her office, his shoes squeaking.
What’s happened? Shirley thought. She tried to say ‘Yes.’ Her lips formed a smile; her lower jaw moved down and up, but she couldn’t speak.
Her phone rang. The small screen on the device showed the receptionist’s number. She watched in horror as a green light trembled in the button for her line. A few minutes after the ringing stopped, she read an email from the Vice President broadcasting her condition to the entire staff. ‘In solidarity with Shirley losing her voice,’ he wrote, ‘use email instead of phone calls today.’
This can’t be, Shirley thought. I don’t lose things. She grabbed her pocketbook onto her lap. There was her money in her wallet, there was her lipstick rattling against the mascara in her cosmetics bag. All was well in her bag.
Whether or not she had her voice, the to-do list demanded attention and she got to work. Sitting on the edge of her chair, Shirley wrote, “We had to get the cheaper ones,” in response to the head of Human Resources’ email about special pens. She wrote to vendors, explaining that the agency would pay their invoices very soon, answered staff members’ distress about the new reduced vacation time and referred department heads to the revised employee handbook. To the one staff person who stopped at her office to check up on her, Shirley scribbled a note: “Thanks! Very busy!”
The head of Human Resources emailed again about the pens. ‘No one uses pens anymore!’ she answered. ‘We’re on computers all day long.’
If I was on the phone with him, I’m not sure I could have been so strong, Shirley thought,
and absently put her fingers to her throat. She wasn’t sick. There were no swellings, bumps, or lumps.
Did lose my voice for a reason? Probably not, she answered herself. She remembered that yesterday evening, when she was a block from her apartment building, a black cat ran out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. She could have avoided it, but a cold wind was blowing and she wanted to go straight home. The cat crossed in front of her before sliding under a fence. She hadn’t taken precautions, and now look what happened, Shirley thought.
That conclusion made her uneasy. She knew she was a little superstitious, but to blame losing her voice on a cat might be going too far.
We’ve had cats forever, she reasoned. People haven’t been losing their voices because of them. Could that cat have been different? She didn’t want to think about it, and tried instead to say ‘Yes.’ Her lips formed a smile; her lower jaw moved down and up, but she didn’t speak.
I’m still working, Shirley comforted herself. If I lost a finger instead of my voice, I’d still work. If I lost an ear but had my voice? I’d talk on the phone with the good ear. I would always find a way to do my work.
She heard the soft chime of an elevator arriving at her floor. Someone asked the receptionist a question.
The rain struck loudly against her window.
* * *
“She knows everything about our agency—finances, people, policies. She’ll explain all the new policies to you!” the Executive Director boomed as he approached Shirley’s office.
He shouldn’t bring anyone to me today, Shirley worried.
“Impre-thiv!” lisped a male voice to Executive Director.
The agency’s burly Executive Director, in a red bowtie and suspenders, strode across her office to her desk and in an agitated undertone said, “State’s here on a surprise visit. Wants to know how we’re handling the crisis.”
He introduced her to a plump, beaming State Inspector with a stain on his shirt. The two big men in her office took up all the space in her room, and there was no place for her to stand up.
From her swivel chair, Shirley pointed to her throat and gestured that she couldn’t speak.
“She can’t tell uth anything today,” concluded the State Inspector. “Very bad weather.”
I hadn’t thought of that, Shirley mused. It could have been the weather.
“You can’t lose your voice,” pleaded the Executive Director. “I need you to explain the policies.”
Shirley bent her head apologetically.
The Executive Director reached for the phone on Shirley’s desk and dialed his secretary. “Thrown a curve ball here in Shirley’s office,” he said. “No, I didn’t know. Bring her a cup of tea, will you? The microwave!”
As the flustered Executive Director talked about the budget cuts, Shirley felt obliged to smile although she was becoming more frustrated with the convoluted way he was describing them, until the Inspector finally interrupted him:
“The point — to avoid layoffs?”
“These policies create a different context,” said the Executive Director.
What does that mean? She looked up at the Executive Director “You’ll be ok,” said the Executive Director. “Here it is!”
Shirley sipped the tea as both men bent towards her. The tea was too hot, and she quickly put the cup down.
“Now,” cried the Executive Director. “Explain!”
“It won’t work that fatht,” the Inspector suggested.
Shirley felt no change in her throat; she knew that her voice hadn’t come back.
“Try!” said the Executive Director. Shirley shook her head, no, she couldn’t. She had never refused the Executive Director, and she was sorry, but she could not open and close her mouth with two men staring down at her.
As the Executive Director followed the State Inspector out of her office, he told Shirley to bring him the memo about the budget cuts after lunch. In the doorway, he turned back to catch her eye and pretended to type on an imaginary keyboard. She understood. No memo existed, and he was depending on her to write it. He gave her a regretful smile before leaving.
That’ll give me a chance to explain things properly, she thought. She felt optimistic for the first time that day.
The rain had stopped. Gray clouds were moving quickly above the brick buildings of West 37th Street.
It was one o’clock. I’ll get lunch, Shirley told herself, and think about how to solve my problem.
* * *
At the airy coffee shop on Seventh Avenue, Shirley took her usual table for one by the window, behind the register. Stopping at her table, the waiter said, “The same?”
She nodded, Yes.
The coffee shop hummed with voices and the pleasant clatter of plates and utensils. The bell on the counter rang. “Coming, dear!” joked a waiter.
It’s a pleasure, Shirley thought, to hear people enjoying themselves.
While she was finishing her grilled cheese sandwich, the sun came out from behind the clouds. It shone on the coffee shop’s two brass chandeliers and illuminated the wall above the counter. Diners at a table near Shirley stopped eating to applaud the sudden light.
It is wonderful, Shirley thought, to see the sunshine again. A new idea came to her. If something is lost, it could still exist. If a lost thing exists, it can be found. If she could remember the last place where she had her voice, then she should be able to go back and get it.
While eating her grilled cheese sandwich, Shirley remembered the early morning. As they were getting dressed at home, she told Walter, her husband, “Rain is the new snow.” He chuckled. She had her voice then. She said ‘Getting off’ on the train. She had her voice then, until—she had to admit it—she yelled a ridiculous word to the woman with the blue hair.
I said my last word in the subway station, Shirley thought. If she never got her voice back, the last word she would have said in her life would be, Soup! To have the last word of a life of efficient management at home and at work—be Soup!
That could not stand. It might seem silly to look for a lost voice, Shirley thought, but that’s the practical thing to do. While waiting to pay for her lunch, Shirley examined the wrapped chocolates in a bowl next to the cash register. She liked chocolate very much, although to keep her figure, she seldom ate it. If her lost voice liked chocolate too, she could use it for bait. Shirley bought two chocolates before leaving the coffee shop.
Five minutes later, when she was downstairs in the 34th street station, Shirley walked to the wall between the clerk’s booth and the turnstiles, turned the chocolate towards the floor and counted to twenty to give her voice time to get up. Nothing happened.
Shirley wished that the singer on the opposite platform, accompanying himself on the accordion, would stop. She needed to hear her voice when it returned, since it might be weak from lying in the station all morning.
Nothing jumped for the chocolates.
I’ll have to go onto the platform, Shirley thought. She felt extravagant paying a fare without intending to take the train. Every few steps, she stopped to hold the chocolates loosely towards the floor and wait for her voice to claim them.
A train came in. People on the platform boarded the train and the doors shut. The conductor leaned out of his booth to give her a questioning look. Because she couldn’t speak, Shirley shook her head no, she didn’t want the train and threw the chocolates into a trash bin.
* * *
That afternoon, between listening to voice messages from outside callers, Shirley recalled that the subway station had been surprisingly clean. If she had lost her voice when she yelled ‘Soup,’ it could have fallen on the platform and gotten swept up by the crew that cleaned the stations. Maybe they threw her voice with discarded newspapers, tissues, and coffee cups, into in a big bag and hauled it on the garbage train with the other bags. If I was right about leaving my voice on the platform, I went back too late, she thought. She stroked her throat and felt very sorry for her voice.
The radiator hissed—the sun shone on her back. Shirley wrote the memo for the Exective Director, edited, and proofread it. She was proud of her work. No one else could have written this, she thought after emailing it to him.
I’ve shown that I can do my job without my voice. Walter will adjust to a silent wife if necessary. And if my voice wasn’t on the garbage train? She asked herself. She sat back in her chair, her small feet dangling above the threadbare carpet. It might have fallen onto on the suitcase of that man who pushed me when he got off the train. That arrogant man looked like the type who goes to meetings in Albany. She pictured her voice as a small thing sitting up on the luggage rack of the train. When that man reached Albany, he’d take his suitcase down, Shirley thought, but my voice would know better. It would stay on the train moving north, past gray cities, past malls, past hills and farms and windmills. It might tumble off at a small station by the woods, and roll away onto the snow. There’d be sunlight gleaming on the snow and a hush of pines and other kinds of trees, she thought. A cool breeze would sweep through the forest. She’d never been in a forest in winter, but she’d seen photos in magazines. She could almost felt the brisk, pine air—she was tempted to breathe deeply in her close office—but, better not, Shirley told herself.
It was five o’clock.
Shirley put on her coat and joined the workers on Seventh Avenue going to the subway. The streets felt subdued. Even the sounds of traffic were muffled. In the cold darkening street, the cry of the man who sold the evening paper rang out to the city.
“Get your evening Post here! Post he-uhh!”
His phrase had a defiant, passionate tone. “He-uhh!” rang against the shabby buildings. Shirley felt the rhythm of his phrase; she knew how many seconds passed before he said it again.
“Get your evening Post here! Post he-ahh!”
As she approached, he peeled off one of the papers in his stack for her. “Miss?” She shook her head. She never bought that paper and kept going.
His voice called out again, and she stopped next to a doorway to listen.
“He-ahh!” The lone voice seemed to expand the space where Broadway and Sixth Avenues crossed, as it rose above rattle of the subways, the people, the lights and the stores, and above the swirl of taxis and buses. Then it was gone. Shirley waited, but the newspaper seller was finished. I have to get going too, she thought. I’ll have to go over to the supermarket to buy soup and carrots when I get off the subway. Hot soup—yes, that should be good for me, she told herself. She joined the people hurrying to the subway station for the evening’s ride home.