“A Muffled Drum” by Eleanor Haglund

She was waiting, like the drop at the end of the faucet. She couldn’t bring herself to look at it, to acknowledge what was right in front of her. More and more often, she found herself staring at something without recognizing it, without acknowledging it. It made it difficult to keep up the front of outward functioning. She found herself longing for the enveloping comfort of her bedroom. She tried not to think too hard about that. If she did think about it, she would have to give it a name, and naming things made them real. The internal scaffolding that had kept her upright, kept her life in order, had suffered an earthquake and collapsed. 

Rules were what kept everything moving. Some were obvious: don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t kill. Others were softer, rules everyone had to follow to be accepted by the inner circles of society: don’t pick your nose in public, let people older and frailer have the open seats on the subway, and please, don’t overburden people with a real life analysis when they ask how you are. The last one was the most important. There was only one rule about grieving: don’t talk about it. Everyone had been so understanding of it at first, for a week, for the patient ones, maybe two. But then the condolences had dropped off, leaving her lonelier than she had been before. In filling the void for that short period of time, they had stretched the hole, tearing at the edges of the space. She wanted them back. She wished they had never tried to help her in the first place. 

She found herself on the subway, a rickety cart headed for downtown. She had discovered that if you were careful about it, you could ride the subway all day for five dollars and never see the same people. She would stare at the people around her and wonder what they were thinking. For the most part, they would hide their eyes behind their phones, never venturing to glance up and see her watching them. She liked rush hour the most because people would be forced to sit on either side of her, making her the center of a type of human sandwich. Sometimes there would be performers: singers or drummers of all ages and walks of life. 

Her father hadn’t been the most communicative person, but they had always connected over music. As a young girl, when she expressed her love of pop music, he had wasted no time in introducing her to the music his friends had worked on in college, encouraging her to open her mind to music that had impact, that did more than shut down the mind as a means of making people happy. These performers were the only ones who would make eye contact with her. They knew she was listening and they performed their songs just for her, never reaching out for money as they did to the other commuters. Perhaps they did recognize her. Perhaps they were just happy that they had an attentive audience. She would have been content with either. 

One day, when she was riding the subway uptown, she had made herself temporarily deaf. She had pressed her face against the window, letting the shrieks of the tracks and the echoes of the walls press on her ear drums. When she couldn’t hear the noise very well, she moved to the other side of the train and did the same, switching sides until she couldn’t hear the electronic voice announcing the last stop. The days that followed had been silent. She had wondered if she should visit a doctor but had settled on waiting it out, knowing that doctors didn’t do anything for things they didn’t understand. She knew. Her father had been a doctor. 

He wasn’t a surgery kind of doctor or a doctor who prescribed medicine. He was the kind that read x-rays and interpreted pictures. When she broke her ankle by falling off her bike, her father had demanded he see the x-rays, more for his own self-edification than out of worry for her mangled appendage. And she knew that. She knew that the doctors would give in after a few hours of being badgered. They would hand over the files out of frustration, knowing that he would see the exact same thing they had seen, but knowing that he wouldn’t be satisfied until he confirmed it himself. 

It was one of the reasons her mother had left him. 

“The most hands off control freak in the world,” she had said, rolling her eyes. 

She had needed a lot of pushing to leave him. And when they separated, it almost made things worse. He wanted to be part of every family vacation, every life decision, every tantrum her sister had thrown. Before, he had avoided these the way people avoid cockroaches and homeless people on the sidewalk. Now, he wanted input. More than that, he wanted his decisions to be listened to, to be the end all of discussions. They tried not to tell him about anything he wouldn’t agree with, forming covert little hand signs to warn each other when they might be reaching a dangerous topic. 

When he had his first heart attack, the doctors had advised him to lay off the red meat and stop drinking so much wine with dinner. He ignored them, the way you ignore the sermon of a doomsday preacher, by closing his mind to their threats. She had learned about his heart attack months later, when they refused to release him unless another family member was able to monitor him for three days. 

He had attempted to send her away the moment they arrived at her apartment, dismissing her offers of food and drink, offers to help him into bed. 

“I just want to shower,” he said. 

“The doctors said I needed to be here in case you pass out in the shower,” she said. 

“Well you can’t come into the bathroom,” he said. He always loved rules that worked in his favor. 

“No,” she said. “I’ll be right here. And you’ll keep the door open.”

He glared at her, realizing that short of picking her up and placing her outside her apartment, a physical activity he had not been cleared to do, he was going to have to deal with it. It was her apartment, after all. She had glared back, a front in which she tried to channel her sister, the only person that stood up to him on a regular basis. And he deflated. “Please turn around,” he said, an unusual request because of the use of the word “please.” 

She turned around, stunned at how he had caved without a fight. She heard the sounds of 

his shirt falling to the floor and then his pants. The water gushed into the tub, and he spent the next twenty minutes sitting there, soaking off the hospital grime. She had steamed spinach and kale, roasted carrots and turnips and cabbage. She had drizzled a honey mustard reduction over them, knowing that the sum of the vegetables in front of her were probably more vegetables than he had eaten in his entire life. He grumbled as he worked his way through his plate, but he had eaten it, bite by bite. That night, they played scrabble, putting together letters to form words, words to get points, surreptitiously forming sentences they couldn’t say to each other. 

“Don’t tell your mother,” he said as he left a few days later and she realized why he had called her. There were rules about who could see him in moments of weakness, rules about who knew and who didn’t. She was the only one with that privilege. 

“What about your other daughter?” she asked, knowing the answer. 

“What about her?” he said. 

Let me share this with someone, she screamed internally. She was the one that always knew what to say, who knew that bad news came to everyone given enough time. Her sister was a geneticist at a lab where they tested for birth defects. She wondered if perhaps they had missed a birth defect in her, something that would explain the differences between them. 

The following weekend her father had a stroke. A clot had lodged itself in his brain and he had fallen against the window on the bus, confused and unable to articulate what was happening to the people sandwiched around him. No one noticed anything unusual until the bus route reached its destination. After all, everyone had focused their attention elsewhere for the ride. The nurse later told her that the bus driver had called to him, directed him to get off the bus. When he didn’t follow the instructions, the bus driver went back to jostle him, believing him to be asleep. He dialed 911, informed his supervisor. The ambulances had come and they had rushed him to the hospital. 

Within a few hours, his heart gave out and the hospital staff had ceased their efforts to revive him. The nurse assigned to him had retrieved his wallet, found the name for the John Doe. She had called the number she found there, which still happened to be the home number, the home in which her mother still lived. Her mother called her, called her sister, had delivered the news as though expecting an explosion of emotions. She had called only a few hours prior to tell them that their childhood cat, Nina, had developed a tumor in her stomach. 

“Nina is in pain,” her mother said. “We have to put her down.” 

She wondered if her father had been in pain, or whether he hadn’t felt the pain, had not been conscious of it at the time. They had a funeral for him. They invited the family and every one of them had swooped in bringing casseroles and hugs and delivering practiced lines of consolation. He’s in a better place. At least it was quick. I know he didn’t suffer. There’s a place for him in heaven. He will be missed. Remember when he… No, she didn’t remember. She didn’t want to. But it was a rule. These things had to be said. They all had to be there, appropriately somber, not too teary but not too cold, to celebrate and to commemorate a life, a life that she wanted to forget and everyone else wanted to memorialize. She was thankful when the ceremony was over and no one looked at her with eyes that said “I’m sorry” while hiding how glad they were not to be in her situation. She promised her mother that she would come home the following weekend. 

“I have a lot of laundry to do, too,” she said, knowing full well she’d just done her laundry. She liked to ride the subways during rush hour. She liked hearing  the spirituals that echoed as the performers moved from car to car. She liked hearing the made up stories of why people were down on their luck. She liked wondering what they would do with the odd sums of money they requested. She liked the smell of the people packed into each other, the acrid scent of sweat that rolled her way. She liked that the people around her were soft and warm. Before she got off the subway, when they arrived at the last stop, she would give the homeless sleepers a quick nudge, just to check. 

She jostled one man awake. “Sir…you okay?” 

“You got a name?” he said as he drew himself away from the orange plastic seats he had spread himself across. 

“Doesn’t everyone?” she said. 

She left him there and climbed the stairs, fighting the heat radiating downwards. Through the vestibules, up another flight of stairs, to the right and down a few blocks, turning at the second Max’s Coffee and unlocking the door to the third apartment building on the right. She sat on a folding chair in her kitchen, the only space in the apartment that wasn’t her bedroom. She stared, without understanding, at the drip on the edge of the faucet. She held a glass underneath the nozzle and opened the gates. The drip was enveloped, sent spinning into her glass, which she filled to the very top rim. When she closed the tap, the drip formed again. She ran the tap again.

She wiped off the faucet. It was stubborn, had decided that it was going to stay right where it was. She left the water running that night, and the next night and the next. After all, there was no one there to stop her.

 

Eleanor Haglund is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University’s creative writing program. She wrote her first novel, entitled Glass Wounds, in 2016, and her second, Serpent Bearer, in 2019. She received an Adamson Award for her screenplay Pippa. She has previously had work published in Diverse Voices Quarterly. Currently, she studies at Columbia University. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter (@EleanorHaglund).

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