An Air Pocket of Total Silence

Excerpt from “The Year of Silence,” by Kevin Brockmeier. Anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2008. Listen to this story read by Anthony Rapp from the Aug. 22, 2010 episode of Selected Shorts titled Let’s Not Talk.

Shortly after two
in the afternoon, on Monday, the sixth of April, a few seconds of silence overtook the city. The rattle of the jackhammers, the boom of the transformers, and the whir of the ventilation fans all came to a halt. Suddenly there were no car alarms cutting through the air, no trains scraping over their rails, no steam pipes exhaling their fumes, no peddlers shouting into the streets. Even the wind seemed to hesitate.

We waited for the incident to pass, and when it did, we went about our business. None of us foresaw the repercussions.

That the city’s
whole immense carousel of sound should stop at one and the same moment was unusual, of course, but not exactly inexplicable. We had witnessed the same phenomenon on a lesser scale at various cocktail parties and interoffice minglers over the years, when the pauses in the conversations overlapped to produce an air pocket of total silence, making us all feel as if we’d been caught eavesdropping on one another. True, no one could remember such a thing happening to the entire city before, but it was not so hard to believe that it would.

A handful of people
were changed by the episode, their lives redirected in large ways or small ones. The editor of a gossip magazine, for instance, came out of the silence determined to substitute the next issue’s lead article about a movie star for one about a fashion model, while her assistant realized that the time had come for her to resign her job and apply for her teaching license. A lifelong vegetarian who was dining in the restaurant outside the art museum decided to order a porterhouse steak, cooked medium rare. A would-be suicide had just finished filling his water glass from the faucet in his bathroom when everything around him seemed to stop moving and the silence passed through him like a wave, bringing with it a sense of peace and clarity he had forgotten he was capable of feeling. He put the pill bottle back in his medicine cabinet.

Such people were the exceptions, though. Most of us went on with our lives as though nothing of any importance had happened until the next incident occurred, some four days later.

This time the silence
lasted nearly six seconds. Ten million sounds broke off and recommenced like an old engine marking out a pause and catching spark again. Those of us who had forgotten the first episode now remembered it. Were the two occasions connected, we wondered, and if so, how? What was it, this force that could quell all the tumult and noise of the city—and not just the clicking of the subway turnstiles and the snap of the grocery-store awnings, but even the sound of the street traffic, that oceanic rumble that for more than a century had seemed as interminable to us as the motion of the sun across the sky? Where had it come from? And why didn’t it feel more unnatural?

These questions nettled at us. We could see them shining out of one another’s eyes. But a few days passed before we began to give voice to them. The silence was unusual, and we were not entirely sure how to talk about it—not because it was too grave and not because it was too trivial, but because it seemed grave one moment and trivial the next, and so no one was quite able to decide whether it mattered enormously or not at all.