Sometimes, if she was lucky, Annabelle could slip out around a quarter to seven for a smoke. Thursdays were a sure thing because Thursday was Terry’s day off and nobody else at the store gave a fuck. Today was Thursday.
As she drifted past the ends of the glaring aisles and slunk into the break room, she imagined the things she would say if anyone bothered to challenge this pathetic little respite, this lone moment of self-soothing in the midst of her unending night shifts. The corners of her mouth lifted a little at the prospect of new insults flung from the dark side of her mind and into the gaping mouths of her unsuspecting colleagues. Then Annabelle blushed back into her own reality. Polite apologies with a silent gag for the chaser. That was her true speed.
She grabbed a pack from her jacket pocket, then pushed skittishly back out through the break room door, edged away from the pharmacy desk, cut down through the ‘personal care’ aisle (the one least likely to be getting a restock this morning) and, without even a polite nod towards Suzette, the lone cashier, she flashed out through the sliding glass door. The early morning air was bright gray and mild, just as she wanted it at the turn of the season. She pulled out her phone to check the time –– 6:35, no missed calls, one text from her oldest boy, Leo.
“mom, im playing soccer with Chris after school and might eat at his place. ok? how is work?”
Once again, as had always been the case throughout the fourteen years since he was born, Leo was capable of transporting her to a parallel place and time in which she could almost be happy.
“Sure hon. Have a good day and be home by 8. Oh and please remind your brother that your dad will pick him up today. Luv u!”
How is work? As a forty-three year old woman working nights as a stockist and supply manager at Rite Aid, Annabelle considered this a question best left unanswered. She had taken the job as a last resort after months of scraping by. The scraping by had been inspired by her divorce. The divorce had been inspired by her depression. The depression had been inspired by alcohol. And the alcohol had been infused with the shock of widespread layoffs in the local public school system, which effectively ended her budding career as an art teacher. She had taken this shit job only after convincing herself it would buoy them for a season or so, an impermanent catamaran launched only to keep them above water until she found a new teaching gig. That was nine years ago.
Even the teaching had been a fallback. Painting was her first love. She hadn’t stuck with it long enough to find her angle, or so she always said when asked, but she had the talent. She drew precocious portraits of all her friends from the age of nine. She traced photographs, then sketched them with the photograph nearby, then sketched them from memory, then embellished them to meet her deepest whims. She grew through the ranks of colored pencils and pens to watercolors, then acrylics and oil paints. By the time she landed in her first year at SUNY Purchase, her heart was set on what she imagined to be her own odd kind of landscape painting. She couldn’t quite describe the scenes she was looking for but she knew them when she found them. She was looking for the longing and beauty of classical landscapes in the midst of the only city she knew. She liked the sadness and absurdity at play on certain corners, in certain seasons, at certain times of day. She would wait for hours with her point-and-shoot to get a clean reference frame with no passersby contaminating the stage. She wanted her scenes to be completely empty and pregnant with possibility. She wanted her very own urban similitude of a quiet little patch of shade under an old oak tree, beside a babbling brook. She saw these scenes in her mind’s eye. She dreamt of them, both sleeping and waking dreams, and then she painted them. And when they were right, not every time but once in awhile, they were like nothing she had seen before.
After college, she rented a studio apartment in Bed-Stuy and began what she thought would be her life’s work. In short, she painted. She wandered the city most mornings with her camera, then painted all afternoon, all evening, and well into the night. Week after week, month after month, she painted. When her money ran out, and it always did, she would find a part-time job for a few months –– temping for a production agency in SoHo or waitressing at a wine bar in Fort Greene, whatever she could find with the lowest possible commitment and the greatest possible space for her mind to float freely.
Annabelle met Tony two weeks before 9/11 and they were married a year later. If she had been honest with you then, she might have told you that she was afraid of the world to come. As a wedding present, Tony secretly arranged to have all of her favorite paintings displayed as a backdrop for their wedding dinner. There were nine paintings on the walls while the families had their choice of NY strip steak, chicken marbella, or baked tilapia. She had made nine successful paintings in six years. If she had been honest with you then, she might have told you that she was afraid of what she realized to be true that night during the champagne toasts and cake: she knew then, instantly, that this moment marked the peak of her creative life.
She went back to school to become an art teacher a few months after Leo was born. “It’s a smart move,” said Tony, and she agreed. The little studio she kept in their apartment became Leo’s room and the nine paintings went into a storage facility in Midwood near her mother’s house. She liked her new work as a middle-school art teacher, more or less, but she loved Leo much more than the work. So with each passing day, she gave a little bit more to Leo and a little bit less to herself. Then her second son, Charlie, was born, and she loved him very much too. So as the water ran across the rock of Annabelle’s life, the memory of her first love dried up. Those odd landscapes went unnoticed and, without the means to refill her own well, she had a little bit less for her teaching work and a little bit less for Tony. A little bit less. A little bit less.
A bus heaved by and startled Annabelle back. She checked her phone again –– 6:44, no missed calls, no texts. Her twelve-hour shift was almost over. In two hours, she’d be asleep. She took one last long drag, then turned to stub out her cigarette at the root of an old oak tree, beside a babbling brook.
Some say there's a treasure, or a treasure-like thing, hidden in the city.
Nobody knows who put it there or why it even exists, but everyone seems to agree that the treasure is real. Many have tried to find it. Or everyone is trying to find it whether they know it or not. A very few people are strong enough to resist the pull of the treasure altogether. As the story goes, the treasure will bestow great powers upon its keeper. The specifics of the powers are unknown to the general populace but, judging by the acts of those who have claimed to know the treasure firsthand, the outcomes are potent indeed. They include, for example, the ability to believe fully in yourself to the extent that you cannot even comprehend the possibility of failure. The ability to arrange cities into grids or move great quantities of people via subterranean passageways. The ability to conceive of large corporate entities and subsequently generate more monetary bits than there are atoms in the sea. The ability to manipulate and coerce and inspire your fellow man, woman, child. The ability to laugh at your own jokes and trust wholly in the validity of your day to day output. The ability to invent something and then replicate it for consumption on a magnificent scale. The ability to order anything on the menu and choose, without undue interference from external sources, how you will pass your time.
Yes, the treasure is powerful.
The manner in which one obtains access to the treasure is a matter of great dispute. Some who seek it will work to the bone until their dying day, while others seem to be born with the treasure in hand. Some embark to find it via intricately woven patterns of self-discipline, while others claim to have discovered a roundabout path involving passive meditation. Musicians and dancers often laugh at the mere mention of the treasure as if the whole enterprise is an elaborate ruse. Politicians keep their key in hand by convincing many that the treasure is already disbursed. Teachers prefer to defer the topic until the next term. Meanwhile, writers and scientists furrow their brow.
This has been the way of things, more or less, for a long while. The treasure has been an irrefutable part of our lives throughout the past decades and despite the overwhelming uncertainties regarding its true merits, the treasure's aura alone is enough to stir our anxieties in perpetuity.
One boy is different. Yesterday he stumbled upon a recipe for the antidote to the treasure. Well, not a recipe actually but a map –– so long as a map can consist solely of a set of directions with no visual aid.
Here is the map to the antidote for the treasure:
Choose a sunny afternoon when you are free to do whatever you want. Go to a part of the city that has always inspired you but that you rarely visit. Watch the people there until you have a feel for how they move and why. Find a corner and go around it. Follow the wall, the one dappled by sunlight. Walk past the first pillar, staying close to the wall so that you can enjoy its warmth. You will then come to a pair of pillars, side by side, with an unmarked door between them. The door bears no handle. Simply knock when you are ready.
The following is a small guidebook discovered by the author on a beach near La Jolla, which may or may not be written by a woman who may or may not be named Marnie Henderson.
HOW TO SIT BY THE SEA AND DEAL WITH YOUR PAIN
by Marnie Henderson
There’s a way to sit by the sea and deal with your pain. In fact, there are many reasonably effective ways to sit and many places in the known world in which to do it and, just to be clear as crystal here, there are also many, many things to deal with in this life aside from pain. But pain is one of the most persnickety things to deal with in my experience, so if it’s pain you’ve got and if it’s the sea you’re near, well then this guide is for you. I've organized the guide into four parts to aid with future reference in times of need.
PART 1 – INTRODUCTIONS
Let’s get the introductions over with, shall we? My name is Marnie and on the whole I’ve had a pretty good life. Don’t think for a moment that a good life disqualifies me from talking about pain and how to deal with it, though. Any good life is filled with pain, as I’m surely not the first to say, and the question is simply one of how to move through it. I was poorly equipped to move through pain until recently, but I’m a fast learner. I’m on the other side now, still swimming in the deep end but with an arm up over the edge of the pool. And damn does that warm concrete feel good against my arm! You know what I mean, right? Of course you do. I don’t really think there’s much point in explaining the cause of my pain. After all, this isn’t a guide to the causes of pain. This is all about the sitting and the dealing. And besides, pain doesn’t just attach itself to one person and say “Alrighty then, we’re hurting someone, time to put my feet up and chill!” Hell no. Pain keeps moving and pushes itself against anyone in its path. Free as a winding gust of wind, freer even. Pain isn’t owned. We all share it. We all get blown about. So go ahead and imagine what caused my pain –– maybe pull something from your own life, or the life of someone you know, or even the life of someone you saw in a movie once. More importantly, try to identify the precise kinds of pain that have blown you about. You might not be able to do this accurately until you get on the other side of the pain, and that’s alright. Just get a reasonably valid cause of pain at the front of your mind and keep it there. Got it? Ok, now we both have pain. Here we go.
PART 2 – PREPARATIONS
The first thing you have to do is get dressed. Take a shower if you can stand it, but don’t hate yourself if you can’t manage a shower. Just splash some water on your face and get dressed. Oh, and brush your teeth. Even if you don’t really care that much about your teeth at this particular time in your life, you really should brush because gum disease causes dementia. Someday you’re going to feel happier again, really, but it might take years or even decades and we need your mind to stay intact long enough to experience the passing of the pain with a reasonable degree of clarity. As for what to wear, try to choose something that either makes you feel secure or gives you a fighting chance at dignity. Once dressed, consider eating something you like. You might eat something that warms you if it’s chilly or something that refreshes you if it’s hot. Otherwise, if less concerned with the practical effects, perhaps you could eat something that reveals and reconciles an impenetrable pocket of joy which, until the first bite, had been thrown asunder by your recent troubles. For example, the smell of bacon takes me back to childhood mornings at my grandparents’ farm. I don't even need a first bite to enter this memory. Pain has no business there and usually steps aside when I enter, thus revealing and reconciling the aforementioned impenetrable pocket of joy. Speaking of pockets, consider pocketing away a few morsels of this thing you like . You can either eat the morsels later or feed the birds. The choice will be yours. Certain beverages, even just their preparation, might have the same effect. Consider making not just one cup of coffee but enough to fill a thermos for your journey.
Now, before you go, pack a small bag with three items. The first item should be something that will help you tell the time, the second item should be something that helps you pass the time, and the third item should be something that helps you forget that time exists. Oh, and you can include the morsels et cetera in the same bag if it helps you to consolidate things in a way that pleases you.
The last preparation is to decide whether or not you actually need the bag. Sometimes the bag of items is a necessary insurance policy against the possibility of feeling alone while you are sitting by the sea. And sometimes you’ll feel brave enough to spend a little quality time with your own mind, unencumbered. Don’t push it. Today I left my bag at home for the first time in years.
PART 3 – LOCATIONS
This has been the toughest part of the guide to write by far. The main point is that you should go to a place near the sea. I think I’m having trouble finding the right advice on micro-locations because everyone needs to be near the sea in a way that pleases them. I, for one, hate sand. Hate it. I hate the feeling of sand getting everywhere, on me and around me and all up in my stuff. Most people seem to like sand and most people seem to use exclamation points far too often. And these are just two of the common character traits in the world conspiring to ensure that I, at every stage of life, can always count my friends on one hand.
So my point is that if you’re a likable person, in my book, then you might need to find a place near the sea but without sand. Oh, and don’t be insulted if you like sand. I’m the one that’s being unreasonable here and I’m sure that you’re perfectly likable to most people. This is a safe space for sand people and non-sand people.
Here’s the point: get to the sea and find a place to sit. You should be close enough to smell it and hear it, yet far enough to know that this is a spectacular thing, the sea, and that it lives somewhat apart from your everyday existence. If possible, get a little bit above the sea. That way you can deal with your pain for as long as needed without fear of being swallowed up when the tide rolls in.
Make sense? Ok, this part is finished. Pfew!
PART 4 – YOUR PAIN
Now, this last part of the guide might be a bit of a disappointment but try to stick with me. I might as well be real with you here. I mean, I feel like we have a good rapport so far and I owe it to you straight.
There is very little chance, next to none, that your pain will have changed one iota at this point in the process. Your pain is the same. You are the same person with the same pain. The smell of the sea cannot change or diminish your pain. A picturesque sunset cannot change or diminish your pain. A group of children playing in the waves cannot change or diminish your pain. A beautiful human walking along the beach cannot change or diminish your pain. If anything, your pain will bite harder here because the sea has a way of lulling away all the daily detritus that can temporarily eclipse your pain.
What matters is that you are sitting by the sea and dealing with your pain. And not only that, you prepared for this. You prepared very well! You showered and brushed your teeth. You got dressed. You ate something. You packed a bag and made a decision as to whether or not you actually needed the bag. You thought of a place near the see that pleases you and then went there. You did all of these things despite your pain. Scratch that. You did all of these things with your pain.
You and your pain can do each of these things, together, and so much more!
Now They Hear Nothing is a photofiction serial created by Nathan Heleine, a writer & artist from Normal, Illinois who currently calls Brooklyn home. New issues will be published weekly, give or take. The characters represented here are fictional.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org with notes of encouragement or derision, commission offers, collaborative opportunities and so on.