There are two of them: one just above the back wall of the shower, another tucked into a kitchen corner where one side of the pantry meets the drywall above the dishwasher. Two vents for air circulation and climate control, the means of preventing this thirty-story structure from suffocating on its own human bluster and panted waste.
Two vents carrying air, and the building’s self-talk, the din of its inhabitants.
In the late, late hours between blind stillness and the first hints of dawn, the sound flowing through the vents settles into an almost metallic hum, a near-silent breath passing through ducts and pipes. Waking from a dream, out of the quiet, there gradually emerges that barely-there whisper, the admonition: even behind your own closed doors, you are anything but alone. Hundreds of living hearts beat and breathe around you, above and below, sigh themselves into the steel channels to be caught up in the wafted energy of this brick-and-concrete body, this building that subsists on its residents’ exhalations.
Sometimes, there are voices. Multiple voices, muffled, none distinct from the others. An opaque sonic magma, identifiably human, though without further refinement. Is this not our condition as sapiens, unable ever to express ourselves as we yearn to, every offering in the way of exchange defective? Evidence of the way all feelings or positions turn to fluid lumps of unmeaning even as we speak them. Something like words spill from our mouths in a streamed cadence whose flow refuses to resolve into unique articulations or sensible syllables.
On occasion, a tone or color, a sharpness, is detectable: the intensity of anger; short, laughter-like notes of a party punctuated by the distant clink of a glass or a tumbling ice cube. On occasion, age or gender hints itself through the fog—a tinge of uptalk, nasal intonations rising to the ends of phrases—without revealing the outlines of a particular word or expression. Proof of something, proof of nothing. Bugs and taps under these circumstances could offer no conviction to a clarity-craving jury; could offer only the intangible, infuriating truth that something was present. That there was breath, and there was voice. Only being.
The dog, though—the non-human, the creature without words—the little dog whose perpetual yapping is made tinny on its transmission through these metal arteries—that bane of repose always succeeds in being heard. It is a struggle not to feel animus toward this animal, whose owners should be the target of blame for caging it within walls officially obedient to noise ordinances and neighborly expectations of privacy undisturbed. Oh, yes: a store of anger has accrued thanks to these cretins. But the attempt to refrain from projecting vibes of ire toward their canine brat, toward the only creature around who proclaims his message loud and clear, without hesitation or thought or shame—that attempt always fails.
Perhaps this is resentment, envy of the uninhibited.
Or then again, perhaps it is sheer, justifiable annoyance.
Then, too, there have been the shrieks of a small child. Wild, brief: the stuff of cinematic terror. Something high and shrill with all its racing heart, joined by one more piercing bark in the background—and the neutral airflow once again, the norm resumed. Return to the space of no questions. Of the regular.
There have been reports of smoke snaking out of some vents. Cigarette smoke, the giveaway of forbidden activity, breach of contract. We are encouraged, in a typed memo slipped slyly under our doors, to hunt out the criminal among us responsible for disturbing the collective health and comfort. If we are weary of such notices, it entreats, we must take the investigation, the initiative, into our own hands. We must inform!
But we all know nothing will be done. No eviction will take place, no personal chastisement. The dog, after all, still gets away with its sonic assault. Only the child has been silenced.
Katy Scrogin is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and translator who will one day find a genre that suits her. In addition to her most recent work at Sobotka, The Book Smuggler’s Den, The Bookends Review, and Bearings Online, she can be found at katyscrogin.wordpress.com.