The Graceville Motel stands thirty feet from the town’s main road. Its lime-green siding has faded. Swirls of dirt frame the white doors. I can see marks where someone attempted to wash them; whoever it was never bothered with the edges of the doors. It’s like they scrubbed down the middle and said, “Close enough.”
I wait inside my Civic. “The Living Years” by Mike and the Mechanics crinkles through the stereo. I adjust my hearing aid’s volume. The song sounds distant. Graceville sits four hundred feet below sea level. Changes in elevation always a ect what little hearing I have. Even in my right ear, where I have no hearing, fluid lurches when I drive up or down a hill, which gives me hope that my hearing in that ear might awaken again one day.
But I’m also losing my hearing in my left ear. Someday it’ll disappear completely. It may be soon.
I shut off the car and step out. The air tastes metallic. I walk toward the far end of the motel. The word office hangs over the only clean white door.
I open it and step inside. The counter, shelves, and tables are swathed with dozens of stuffed squirrels. Some of them wear hats; a few of them wear capes and sequinned vests. At a table in the back, a small man with a broad face plants a blue cowboy hat on a squirrel with its mouth wide open. Knives, glue, thread, and black glass beads are spread across the table.
The man smiles at me. “Ah! Bamba schmecken?”
I adjust my hearing aid again. Every sound, every voice is distorted, two-dimensional, unreal.“I beg your pardon?”
“Yebamba ye check in?”
He snaps up from the table and ambles over to the counter, carrying the squirrel like an infant. “Yemamey?”
“Sorry. Adam Pottle.”
He draws his lips back and hisses. Through my hearing aid it is grating white noise, and I wince.
“Sairrybout yergranpaw.” He scans a list under the counter. He points to the register tucked between two squirrels wearing sombreros. “Sinemeer.”
I pick up the pen. A frayed white string ties it to the register. “You deaf ehr somning?”
He speaks slowly, his lips and tongue stretching and smooshing like taffy. “You’re in room thirteen.”
He spits in my eye with the “thirt.” I wipe it away. “Can I be in room ten?”
“Awl berked. Awlyerfammy. Ah think theer ahlunch.”
He hands me a key with a faded plastic tag, 13 written on it in blue pen. “Ahm eeakeev.”
He points to a sign on the wall: yakiv yamesenka–taxidermist.
“Yewann a squirrew?”
I return to my car. A passing semi makes a sound like a dinosaur in a fifties movie. I cringe, dialing down my hearing aid’s volume.
I open my car and pull out my bag and my suit. Grandpa died a week ago. I haven’t seen him in years. Auntie Millie told me a softball hit him in the head after a Graceville Slugger crushed a home run. The funeral’s in an hour.
I’m not sure what to say. I’m not close with any of Dad’s family. It’s like I’m attending a stranger’s funeral. I don’t know anyone’s voice. I might turn my hearing aid off and nod as they talk about Grandpa and cuss Dad for not being there. After Auntie Millie texted me that Grandpa died I called Dad and asked him how he felt. Dad said he’d made his peace with it. I wonder if he’d been waiting for Grandpa’s death, if he’d imagined it, fantasized about it. I know little about Dad’s childhood. He never talks about the past. If he’s missing the funeral, something must’ve happened.
Anything’s possible. And I’m unprepared.
I stick the key into the grimy door and push it open. The TV is on, playing a music video for a slow, synth-driven pop song. I drop my bag and suit onto the bed. The TV shows a close-up of a young girl riding a Ferris wheel at night. The carnival’s bright lights blaze through the darkness behind her. The girl, who must be ten or eleven, stares at the camera. Her glittering blue eyes are smeared with blue eye shadow. Her red lips open wide, undulating like a jelly fish: “Aaaaammmmm nawwwwwwwwwt heeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre…”
I glance around for the remote and, in the far corner by the lamp, a black dog sits upright, as though just waking up. The dog, a rottweiler with the thick bulk of a weightlifter, is covered in dirt.
The rottweiler jumps onto the bed, his dusty paws stamping on my suit cover.
“No no no! Get down! Down!”
I nudge the rottweiler off the bed and pluck up my suit cover and dust it off . I hang it on the clothes rack by the bathroom; the metal rack drops, crashes to the floor. I pick up the suit and drape it over a chair. The rottweiler stares at me, panting. I kneel down, holding out my hand. He trots over to me and drives his head into my chest, nearly knocking me over. I laugh and scratch his back and behind his ears. Dirt crumbles to the floor as I pet him.
On his red collar I find a gold tag. One side reads SALVADOR; the other has an inscription: if found please call. I flip the tag over and back again. No phone number.
Someone knocks at my door. The rottweiler barks. Even to my ears, it’s sharp, deep, like dragging a heavy chair across a concrete floor.
“It’s okay, boy,” I say, patting his head and adjusting my hearing aid.
I open the door. Auntie Millie, Auntie Billie, and Auntie Iphigenia, all with coiffed blonde hair and black dresses, stretch out their arms and pull me into a hug. I bend awkwardly. It’s like being hugged by Cerberus.
“Oh!” Auntie Millie recoils. “Huzzdog izzat?” Salvador sits at the end of the bed, watching us.
“I don’t know. He was here when I arrived. Maybe he’s the owner’s.”
“Yuhkeev dozenav uhdog,” Auntie Billie says.
“I kannut stahn biddugs.” Auntie Millie cups my cheek.
“Hmm? Oh I’m okay. I think.”
“Yoowa good man fuhbeaneere,” Auntie Iphigenia says.
“Buhd yehr dad. Aht little coward.” “I e.”
“Ih needs tbee suhd.” Auntie Iphigenia’s face scrunches up. She stiffles a sob. “Ahm sairry, Ahdem. Ah ope yeh nevveh follow your dad’s foodstehs.”
“Yeh wanna ride widduhs?” Auntie Millie says.
“Ride?” My voice cracks. I clear my throat. I’m losing my voice too. “No, I can drive. I gotta change.”
“We’w waid fehr yeh. We’w aww drive togetteh.”
“Gimme ten minutes.”
“Suh gootuhseeyeh,” Auntie Iphigenia says between sobs. “What was that?”
“Gootuhseeyeh,” Auntie Billie says.
“You too.” I close the door to undress and step into my suit.
Salvador watches. The girl in the music video keeps riding the Ferris wheel. The room fills with her yodels. I dial down my hearing aid volume.
I cup my hands under the bathroom faucet to bring him water. He drinks from my hands, his tongue tickling my palms.
He licks my face. I chuckle. Although I grew up with dogs, I haven’t had one in years. I miss this.
I pull on my jacket. It squeezes my armpits. I’ve gained weight since I last wore it. I can’t remember when that was. I seldom attend events requiring suits. Grandpa’s funeral is the first funeral I’ve attended for a family member. There’ll be no captioning, no sign language, and no script at the service. Whoever speaks could be saying anything, leaving me to imagine Grandpa’s life, how he impacted people, everything open to interpretation.
I nuzzle the carpet with my toes. The room feels like a tent—the walls thin, porous. I pull on my dress shoes, sitting on the bed. The air bears down on my head. Cars scrape past out outside. The girl’s voice grates on my ear. I try the buttons on the TV, but they click emptily. I check under the bed for the remote. I reach under, grasping a long black leash. I pull it out. It’s dirty too.
Salvador pads up to me, his entire rear end wagging. “I’m sorry, boy. I can’t take you right now.”
Salvador nudges the leash and whines. He paws at me.
His whines are full, gleaming almost, like a squeegeed window. “We need to find who you belong to.” I hook the leash to Salvador’s collar. Salvador jerks me to the door. “Just a short one. I’ll take you to pee.”
I open the door and he launches out into the summer air, hauling me with him. Even though I’m over two hundred pounds, I barely hold him back enough to shut the door.
Two doors down, Aunties Millie, Billie, and Iphigenia lift themselves into Billie’s Ford, tucking their dresses beneath them.
Auntie Millie waves and shouts. Her words sound like distant quacks.
“I’m just taking him out a minute!” I say. “I’m right behind you!”
Salvador leads me into the trees behind the motel. A dialing sound arises in my hearing aid, a signal to change the battery.
“Hold up, boy. This is—hey!”
Salvador traipses down a short hill along a path worn in the grass.
“You need a special spot to piss or what?” He pulls me into a small clearing. I smell warm earth.
Sunlight drops through the trees in white tatters, pattering on a stream that makes a sound like pouring milk.
I stretch my jaw; fluid lurches in both my ears, plugging them. I pinch my nose and blow. My left pops; my vision wobbles for a moment. Salvador sits by my feet, staring at something across the stream. I groan and touch his head to regain my bearings.
Salvador barks. I hear the dialing sound again, followed by a fierce gurgling noise, like a dragon digesting a grenade. I can’t tell if it’s coming from in front of us or elsewhere. I can never pinpoint sounds. It could be Salvador himself for all I know. Salvador growls and crouches. The hairs on his back sharpen into quills. Fifty feet ahead, the bushes shake. I kneel down and put my arm around him. He widens his stance. The trees sway. The gurgling crescendos into something clearer, a chorus of multiple voices retching into the air a horrible noise somewhere between a roar and a laugh. It’s so loud my right eardrum snaps inward.
“What the fuck?”
A tall slimy black object slithers out from behind the trees, an oily hulk gliding over the earth and into
the clearing. Dozens of mouths—sharp-toothed, oval, heaving with what can only be bottomless grief, or joy—scream at me, at the air, at each other.
I gasp and clamp my hands over my ears. Salvador barks at the thing. Like quivering cells, the mouths begin to join each other, growing larger, growing louder, singing, screaming, cackling. I can’t tell if it’s mourning or celebrating.
I jerk Salvador’s leash.
With a goopy sucking noise, the mouths join to form one enormous mouth, its black teeth grinning at me. I haul on Salvador’s leash. He stands but doesn’t move.
The black mouth squats until it’s almost a puddle, then leaps across the stream and stretches open in mid-air, swallowing both Salvador and me. I cover Salvador and keep my head down. The thick wet darkness roars with what sounds like hundreds of voices. I shut my eyes and hold Salvador close and try to listen, to grip onto one of the voices, but there are too many speaking too quickly: “Huuhhhllllll! Blehbingher! Cerpaqwelzatoid!”
The voices dissolve, it’s night, the clearing is gone. Up ahead, spread across a gravel lot, stand rides, game booths, a Ferris wheel. Music plays: waves of yellow and blue and green and red sway on the air in tune with the music, like carnie Northern Lights.
Salvador starts trotting toward the carnival. I follow, patting my jacket, which is caked in dirt.
We walk through the entrance, past the game booths. There are no people, yet the rides clack and twirl and whip through the air. I adjust my hearing aid. The battery’s gone dead, but that matters little. Every sound here makes a mark on the air, scratches and curves and smears that grow in size as they do in volume.
At the elephant ears vendor up ahead, two squirrels hop onto the counter. Both wear purple capes. Squiggly brown notes zig from their mouths.
“Salvador, what the hell is this?”
Salvador barks at the squirrels. The air around his mouth seems to blink with each bark. The squirrels chitter at each other, the brown notes clashing in the air like fighting birds. They turn and skip off the counter and run away down the gravel aisle. Salvador chases them, yanking me with him, the air folding around his head as he barks.
We pass the Ferris wheel. The wheel’s lights blink on and off with the music. The ride is empty.
The squirrels clamber up a game booth counter framed by orange lights. Salvador stops running and sits. Behind the booth lies a closed silver casket. The squirrels take their place among dozens of other squirrels encircling the casket in what seems to be a ceremonial arrangement. Squiggly lines zip from their tiny mouths, forming a bristling crown in the air.
I step into the booth, leaving Salvador behind. The squirrels part to let me pass. Their brown squiggles fall and fade. They go still, almost solemn.
I open the casket.
Salvador and I walk back to the motel. A squirrel bounds past us on the grassy trail. No brown squiggly lines zag from its mouth.
“Sound can be light.” My voice cracks. “Light can be sound. Anything can be anything. Even death.”
Aunties Millie and Iphigenia lean against my door, waiting for me. Iphigenia shouts at me. Even from the corner of my eye, I see her wide-open mouth. Salvador and I try to step past her. Her head bobs, attempting to match my sight line; Millie pulls her back, fails. I hear something like “your father.” I open the door and Salvador and I step into the room and I shut the door. Iphigenia batters the door. I take out my hearing aid and sit in the chair at the far end of the room, lifting my feet so the vibrations can’t reach me.
Dad will die someday. As the oldest child, I’ll have to give the eulogy. I don’t know what I’ll say or if I’ll still have my voice or if I’ll even attend his funeral.
I lie on the bed, still in my dirty suit. I don’t hear Auntie Iphigenia anymore. Salvador rests against my knees and I fall asleep scratching his ear.
I wake up. It’s still night. Salvador is gone. There’s a divot in the bed where he lay. I run my hand over it. It’s warm and dusty.