NINETY-THREE, 2.0

Mary couldn’t concentrate. The words were flowing too fast. They came in through her window, under the door.

She slammed the window shut, locked it, and stepped back. But she could still hear the words. All the screaming, the shouting. It was frightening. She hadn’t felt this unsafe since she was a little girl and her school principal’s speech about actual hard labor in classrooms nearly knocked her out, and only the nurse’s reassurance carried her home.

When she peered through the glass, Mary thought she could see the protest group. But they had already moved behind the next building. Good. Finally, there would be some silence.

She pulled the tea bag from her mug, and sprinkled in sugar. She stirred, six times around, slow and methodical.  The zen of the spoon “clinking” against the sides of the mug drew the calm back inside of her.

Then the whispers came, sliding under the door. The slow trickle of voices became a wave that washed through her apartment. Mary grabbed a blanket and shoved it under the door, snuffing out the words. She backed away, ignoring the lingering whispers and words that floated around her, echoing and bouncing off the walls until they dissolved into nothing. She looked at the corner, near the ceiling, and could practically see the emboldened words “hate fueled” lingering, taunting her to yell something back. But the words soon faded, and Mary took a deep breath, driving back her anxiety. Soft whispers were easier to deny than shouts and arguments, and faded quicker.

She grabbed her tea and sat at the desk. Her typewriter had long run out of ink, but sat on the corner of her desk to remind her that writing was necessary, every day. Words that could be read were just as meaningful, as long as somebody read them. She pulled out three notepads and started writing her letters.

Sixty pen pals. Who would she start with today? Wait, today is Sunday, so there wouldn’t be post to take her letters. That’s okay, she thought. She’d hold the stack and mail them out tomorrow. After the crowds left.

She decided to write the first letter to her father. He’d be interested to hear more about the protests, and the fighting. His farm was miles from large crowds, from the urban sprawl and blank, concrete buildings and thruways and tired metallic cranes building things higher and higher. The postman only visited his house once a week.

Mary couldn’t remember how many years it’d been since she last saw her father. They fought a lot when she was younger, and she recalled that their last meeting had ended in a shouting match. She had run from the house as he swore at her. She dashed through the fields, and his voice carried the distance. The air was so clear, no breeze to blow his words away.

They had fought about his health, and the possibility of bringing a nurse to watch him. He didn’t like the idea, saying that a nurse would only drive him mad, that his own health and treatment should be left up to him and “not a bureaucratic little girl” who thought she knew best. Mary took offense to being called a bureaucrat. But she still felt that she knew best.

She mentioned none of this in her letter. Instead, she focused on the words outside. Her father would get a kick out of the yelling and the long paragraphs that made little sense, the incomplete phrases and sentences that wafted through windows and into corridors, pretending to bring wisdom but only polluting the apartments.

When she finished the letter to her father, Mary sealed it in an envelope and tucked it in the box next to the door. Usually, it was best to tell him everything was fine and that he should call if he wanted more soup or other personal supplies. But today, she felt, she would do something different for her pen pals.

Fifty Nine letters later, Mary leaned back and stretched her hands. She had written about the protests in all sixty letters. Some of her readers would likely tear them up or throw them away, not wanting to read her words and allow the thoughts and phrases of the protests, which she had quoted, to linger in their homes. A waste of her aching wrists.

But she felt relieved, sipping the rest of her tea. She washed out the mug and organized the letters in the box. Before she could think about the rest of her day, the voices came again. Loud, booming, echoing string of shouts and cries, tears dripping off the ALL-CAPS calls for peace.

Tears. There were going to be lots more tears.

The gas came, then, rising from the streets. Mary grabbed her camera, her sunglasses, and her ear plugs, and opened her window. The deafening roar of the protesters below pulled at her ears, and she strained to concentrate, to focus her frame and take pictures. She took pictures despite not having anyone who would want them or look at them. She just had to document the moment, from her seventh floor apartment. She leaned out of her window and almost forgot about the missing fire escape.

Below, at ground level, protestors were crowding, pushing each other and falling over the busted metal railings and stairs that Mary had cut down weeks ago. They looked up at her, screaming, some of them crying and reaching out for help, leaping, hoping to grab a window-sill or a protruding brick. One of them, undoubtedly, would be able to scale the building and climb towards her. But Mary had never seen one make it all the way up to her floor. Like always, they all fell away, and got arrested, and the Uniforms glared up at her and raised their fists in solidarity. Mary never returned the gesture. She liked to be alone, and not tied to either crowd.

Both sides, after months and months of protests, were sickening, empty, aimless. Mary had determined right at the start of it all that she would not participate. Her letters would do the job, she thought, that those protestors are avoiding. She believed her letters would convince the world that what had happened — the attacks, the voting, the slander, the distasteful results — were all a mistake. Her words would convince the world that everything was going to be okay. As long as they could all just communicate together, with each other, openly and without consequence.

Feeling proud of herself, and her letters, Mary took a shower and put on fresh clothes. Despite it only being Sunday, she wanted to make sure her letters would make it to their destinations.

Downstairs, Mary pulled up her bandana over her mouth and put on her extra-thick sunglasses. Her earplugs drowned out most of the noise, but she had to wave her hand in front of her face every few minutes to push aside the sobs and the declarations. Great orators were what pushed Mary, as a little girl, to take speech class and run for class president. She had always been inspired by the power of the written word, but when she started to visualize them, and could picture the words running around and painting the city, that was when Mary realized that words could do so much more than wait to be read. Like a sign, or a billboard along the thruway, or sky-writing at the beach, words could be seen and held and felt.

But, to her knowledge, Mary knew of no one else who could see the world this way, and the realization that she might be the only one to see things like this, drove her -nearly- mad. That was why she sent the letters, and her list of pen pals grew each month.

Next week, she would write sixty-three or sixty-four, who knows? At some point, a blanket of words would keep someone else as safe as she wanted to feel. And that was worth every pen, every paper, and every stamp she could find.

Mary dropped her letters into the post box and closed her eyes, returning home in silence.

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